Ernestine duchies

Last updated
Coat of arms of the Ernestines Coat of arms of Saxony.svg
Coat of arms of the Ernestines

The Ernestine duchies (German : Ernestinische Herzogtümer), also known as the Saxon duchies (Sächsische Herzogtümer, although the Albertine appanage duchies of Weissenfels, Merseburg and Zeitz were also "Saxon duchies" and adjacent to several Ernestine ones), were a changing number of small states that were largely located in the present-day German state of Thuringia and governed by dukes of the Ernestine line of the House of Wettin.



The Saxon duchy began fragmenting in the 15th century, as a result of the old German succession law that divided inheritances among all sons. In addition, every son of a Saxon duke inherited the title of duke. Brothers sometimes ruled the territory inherited from their father jointly, but sometimes they split it up. Some of the Ernestine duchies retained their separate existence until 1918. Similar events in the houses of Reuss and Schwarzburg led to all of Thuringia becoming a tangle of small states from the late 15th century until the early 20th century.

Before the Ernestine branch

Count Bernhard of Anhalt, youngest son of Albert "the Bear" (1106–1170), inherited parts of the old Saxon duchy, primarily around Lauenburg and Wittenberg, in 1180. He had two sons, Albert and Henry. Albert inherited the Duchy of Saxony. In 1260 Albert bequeathed the duchy to his sons John I and Albert II, who gradually divided Saxony into the duchies of Saxe-Lauenburg and Saxe-Wittenberg with definite effect of 1296. Saxe-Wittenberg was recognized as the electorate of Saxony in the Golden Bull of 1356. When the last duke of Saxe-Wittenberg died without heir in 1422, the Emperor Sigismund gave the duchy to Frederick IV of the house of Wettin, Margrave of Meissen and Landgrave of Thuringia, who thereby became Frederick I, Elector of Saxony. The name Saxony was then generally applied to all of the Wettin's domains, including those in Thuringia, because Saxony was a ducal title, the highest they possessed, and all house members used it, although many of them held lands only in Thuringia. Frederick I was succeeded by his son, Frederick II.

After the death of Frederick II in 1464, his oldest son, Ernest, became elector, and Ernest and Duke Albert, the younger son, shared governance of the Wettin lands. In 1485, by the Leipziger division, the brothers split the Wettin possessions, with Ernest receiving northern Meissen, southern Thuringia, and Wittenberg, and Albert receiving northern Thuringia and southern Meissen.

A study of the List of members of the House of Wettin will reveal many of the different strands of the ducal house and their possessions.

Detailed history of divisions in the Ernestine line


Electors of Saxony

In 1554, John Frederick I split the duchy among his three sons.

Duke of Saxe-Eisenach and Saxe-CoburgDuke of Saxe-WeimarDuke of Saxe-Gotha
Division of Erfurt
In 1572 the Ernestine duchies were rearranged and redivided between the two sons of John Frederick II and the son of John William.
Dukes of Saxe-Coburg-EisenachDukes of Saxe-Weimar

In 1596 the brothers agreed to split the lands between them.

After Frederick William's death, the land was split between his young sons and his brother.

Dukes of Saxe-CoburgDukes of Saxe-Eisenach

After the death of John Casimir without heirs, the inheritance fell to his younger brother.

Dukes of Saxe-AltenburgDukes of Saxe-Weimar
  • Co-rulers;
    • John Philip, 1603–1639, son of Frederick William I
    • Frederick, 1603–1625, son of Frederick William I
    • John William, 1603–1632, son of Frederick William I
    • Frederick William II, 1603–1669 (sole ruler from 1639), son of Frederick William I
  • Frederick William III, 1669–1672, son of Frederick William II
  • John II, 1602–1605, son of John William
Dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Eisenach

After the death of John Ernest without heirs, his principality was divided between Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Altenburg.


Elector Ernest died in 1486, and was succeeded by his son, Frederick the Wise. Leipzig, the economic center of Saxony, as well as the seat of the only university in Saxony, was located in Albertine Saxony. Wanting a university in his lands, for example, to educate civil servants and pastors, Frederick founded the University of Wittenberg in 1502. It was there that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. Frederick protected Luther, refusing to extradite him to Rome for trial. Frederick, like other German princes, allowed Lutheran reforms to be implemented in his domain.

Frederick III died in 1525; he was succeeded by his brother, John the Steadfast (1525–1532). John was a leader in the Schmalkaldic League of Protestant princes in the Holy Roman Empire. John died in 1532 and was succeeded by his son John Frederick I. For the first ten years of his reign, John Frederick shared the rule of Ernestine Saxony with his stepbrother, John Ernest, titularly Duke of Saxe-Coburg, who died childless. John Frederick increasingly hardened his support of the Lutheran Reformation, while the Emperor, Charles V, avoided direct confrontation with the Protestant princes, as he needed their support in his struggle with France.

Charles eventually came to terms with France, and turned his attention to the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1546 the Schmalkaldic League raised an army. Elector John Frederick led the league's troops south, but shortly thereafter John Frederick's cousin, Duke Maurice of Albertine Saxony (Meissen), invaded Ernestine Saxony. John Frederick hurried back to Saxony, expelled Maurice from the Ernestine lands, conquered Albertine Saxony and proceeded to invade Bohemia (held directly by Emperor Charles V's brother Ferdinand and that latter's wife Anna of Bohemia and Hungary). Charles' forces drove the Schmalkaldic League troops back and decisively defeated them in the Battle of Mühlberg (1547). John Frederick was wounded and taken prisoner. The Emperor condemned him to death as a rebel, but stayed the execution because he did not want to take the time to capture Wittenberg, defended by John Frederick's wife Sybille of Cleves. To save his life, John Frederick conceded in the Capitulation of Wittenberg to resign the Electorate and the government of his country in favor of Maurice of the Albertine Saxony, and his punishment was changed into imprisonment for life. When the newly minted Elector Maurice, having again changed sides, attacked the Emperor, Duke John Frederick was released from prison, and given back the Landgraviate of Thuringia. He established his capital in Weimar, and started a university at Jena (to replace the one in Wittenberg lost to Maurice) before his death in 1554.

The three sons of John Frederick I shared the territory, with John Frederick II becoming head (and briefly, 1554–1556, holding the electoral title) with his seats in Eisenach and Coburg, the middle brother John William staying in Weimar (Saxe-Weimar), and the youngest, John Frederick III (namesake of the eldest brother, which has caused much confusion in history writing) establishing residence in Gotha (Saxe-Gotha). When John Frederick III of Gotha died unmarried and heirless in 1565, John William of Weimar tried to claim succession to Saxe-Gotha, but the sons of the imprisoned John Frederick II entered their own claim.

The contenders reached agreement in 1572 in the Division of Erfurt by which John William added the districts of Altenburg, Gotha and Meiningen to Saxe-Weimar. When John William died a year later, his older son, Frederick William I received Altenburg, Gotha and Meiningen with the title of Duke of Saxe-Altenburg, and with his several sons founding the first Saxe-Altenburg line, while Saxe-Weimar went to the younger son John II. John Casimir (died heirless 1633), the older son of John Frederick II, and John Ernest (died heirless 1638), the younger son of John Frederick II, received together the territory of Saxe-Coburg-Eisenach, but were appointed a legal guardian because they were minors. In 1596 the brothers agreed to split the duchy into Saxe-Coburg and Saxe-Eisenach.

Johann II, Duke of Saxe-Weimar (or John II), died young leaving eight surviving sons (including Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, the youngest, the famed general) and a will ordering them to rule jointly. When the eldest of them, John Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Weimar died in action (1626) unmarried, two more of his brothers were already deceased without children, leaving five dukes of Saxe-Weimar, with Wilhelm the eldest. Two more died within fifteen years, including Bernhard in 1639, without heirs. In 1638, the senior Coburg-Eisenach line became extinct and its possessions were divided between the Altenburgs and the Weimars, this doubled the Saxe-Weimar possessions and made it again feasible to be divided. In c. 1640, the remaining brothers finally divided their patrimony, William remaining in Weimar, Albert (Albrecht) receiving seat as Duke of Eisenach and Ernest (by-named "the Pious") also got his share and became known as Duke of Gotha.

Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Gotha (1601–1675) had married Elisabeth Sophie, the only child of Johann Philipp, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Gotha (1597–1638), the eldest son of Frederick William I. When Elisabeth Sophie's cousin Frederick William III, Duke of Altenburg, died unmarried 1672, the entire first Altenburg line became extinct in male line, opening a succession strife. Ultimately, Ernest and Elisabeth Sophie's sons received the lion's share of Altenburg inheritance, on basis of Duke John Philip's testament (as it was ultimately recognized that the Salic law does not prevent an agnate to will all his possessions to those other agnates of the house he desires to make his heirs, leaving other agnates without; and if those favored agnates also happened to be the testator's son-in-law and maternal grandsons, that is in no way prohibited), but a portion (one-fourth of the original Altenburg moiety) passed to the Saxe-Weimar branch. These two lines: Weimar and Gotha(-Altenburg) form the basis of future Ernestine lines, and both have surviving male lineage up to today. After the division of the inheritance of the first Altenburg line, the senior, Weimar, line held somewhat less than half of the Ernestine lands, and the junior, Gotha-Altenburg, line held more than half. Gotha-Altenburg line subdivided more and Weimar line not so much, and ultimately all the said Weimar line's possessions were concentrated in primogenitural hands in 1741 and in 1815 were raised to grand ducal title of Weimar.

Duke Ernest of Gotha and Duchess Elisabeth Sophie's numerous sons divided the inheritance (five-eighths of all Ernestine lands) initially to seven parts: Gotha-Altenburg, Coburg, Meiningen, Römhild, Eisenberg, Hildburghausen and Saalfeld. Of them, Coburg, Römhild and Eisenberg did not survive past that one generation and were apportioned between the four persevering lines.

Mid-18th century map of the Ernestine duchies Ernestine Saxon duchies map, by F. Zollmann c 1750.png
Mid-18th century map of the Ernestine duchies

The Ernestine territories in Thuringia were thus divided and recombined many times as Dukes left more than one son to inherit, and as various lines of the Ducal Ernestines died out in male line. Eventually, primogeniture became the rule for inheritance in the Ernestine duchies, but not before the number of Ernestine duchies had risen to ten at one point. By 1826 the remaining Ernestine duchies were the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (approximately three-eighths of all the Ernestine lands), and the ("Elisabeth-Sophie-line") duchies of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, Saxe-Meiningen, Saxe-Hildburghausen and Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. In 1826, Ernest the Pious' senior line of Gotha-Altenburg became extinct. The daughter of its penultimate duke had been married with the Duke of Coburg and Saalfeld, and the couple had two sons – the younger of whom was to become Albert, Prince Consort of the United Kingdom. The patrimony of Gotha-Altenburg was divided between the other three lines stemming from Ernest the Pious and Elisabeth Sophie, causing changes in nomenclature: onwards, they were Saxe-Meiningen-Hildburghausen, Saxe-Altenburg (the former Hildburghausen line) and Saxe-Coburg and Gotha – the youngest line (originally Saalfeld line) receiving the "maternal" seat of Gotha which had been the seat of Ernest the Pious, progenitor of all these seven lines. All of the Ernestine duchies ended with the abolition of the monarchy and princely states in Germany shortly after the end of World War I.

Five of the Ernestine duchies were members of the Upper Saxon Circle of the Holy Roman Empire:

Membership in the Circle gave the ruler of a state a vote in the Reichstag. In the 1792 Session of the Reichstag, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar was also the Duke of Saxe-Eisenach, and had two votes (as well as three-eights of all the Ernestine lands); the Duke of Saxe-Altenburg was also the Duke of Saxe-Gotha (as senior heir of both Duke John Philip and Duke Ernest the Pious), and had two votes; and the Duke of Saxe-Coburg had one vote.

The other Ernestine duchies were never members of the Imperial Circle, and did not have the right to vote in the reichstag as the five duchies that the other duchies did (for example, the principalities of Meiningen and Hildburghausen were such; that was one reason why Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen exchanged his patrimony to that of Altenburg). However they were all autonomous and ultimately, with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire on 6 August 1806, that issue became irrelevant.

The Ernestine Duchies in Thuringia after 1825 Ernestine-map.png
The Ernestine Duchies in Thuringia after 1825

Ernestine dukes today

Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Saxe-Meiningen, and Saxe-Altenburg were the remaining duchies at the formation of the Weimar Republic. In 1991, the Altenburg line died out, leaving only three:

See also

Related Research Articles

Saxe-Coburg and Gotha Collective name for the duchies of Saxe-Coburg and Saxe-Gotha in Germany

Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was an Ernestine, Thuringian duchy ruled by a branch of the House of Wettin, consisting of territories in the present-day states of Thuringia and Bavaria in Germany. It lasted from 1826 to 1918. In November 1918, Charles Edward, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was forced to abdicate. In 1920, the northern part of the duchy was merged with six other Thuringian free states to form the state of Thuringia: Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Saxe-Altenburg and Saxe-Meiningen, Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt and Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, as well as the People's State of Reuss. The southern part of the duchy, as southernmost of the Thuringian states, was the only one which, after a referendum, became part of Bavaria.

House of Wettin German noble and royal family

The House of Wettin is a dynasty of German counts, dukes, prince-electors and kings that once ruled territories in the present-day German states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. The dynasty is one of the oldest in Europe, and its origins can be traced back to the town of Wettin, Saxony-Anhalt. The Wettins gradually rose to power within the Holy Roman Empire. Members of the family became the rulers of several medieval states, starting with the Saxon Eastern March in 1030. Other states they gained were Meissen in 1089, Thuringia in 1263, and Saxony in 1423. These areas cover large parts of Central Germany as a cultural area of Germany.

Saxe-Altenburg German duchy

Saxe-Altenburg was one of the Saxon duchies held by the Ernestine branch of the House of Wettin in present-day Thuringia. It was one of the smallest of the German states with an area of 1323 square kilometers and a population of 207,000 (1905) of whom about one fifth resided in the capital, Altenburg. The territory of the duchy consisted of two non-contiguous territories separated by land belonging to the Principality of Reuss. Its economy was based on agriculture, forestry, and small industry. The state had a constitutional monarchical form of government with a parliament composed of thirty members chosen by male taxpayers over 25 years of age.

Saxe-Meiningen Saxon duchy held by the Ernestine line of the Wettin dynasty in Thuringia, Germany

Saxe-Meiningen was one of the Saxon duchies held by the Ernestine line of the Wettin dynasty, located in the southwest of the present-day German state of Thuringia.


Saxe-Coburg was a duchy held by the Ernestine branch of the Wettin dynasty in today's Bavaria, Germany.


Saxe-Gotha was one of the Saxon duchies held by the Ernestine branch of the Wettin dynasty in the former Landgraviate of Thuringia. The ducal residence was erected at Gotha.

Saalfeld Place in Thuringia, Germany

Saalfeld is a town in Germany, capital of the Saalfeld-Rudolstadt district of Thuringia. It is best known internationally as the ancestral seat of the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha branch of the Saxon House of Wettin, which was renamed the House of Windsor during their British reign in 1917.


Saxe-Hildburghausen was an Ernestine duchy in the southern side of the present State of Thuringia in Germany. It existed from 1680 to 1826 but its name and borders are currently used by the District of Hildburghausen.


Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was one of the Saxon Duchies held by the Ernestine line of the Wettin Dynasty. Established in 1699, the Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield line lasted until the reshuffle of the Ernestine territories that occurred following the extinction of the Saxe-Gotha line in 1825, in which the Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld line received Gotha, but lost Saalfeld to Saxe-Meiningen.

Saxe-Weimar Former duchy in Thuringia, Germany

Saxe-Weimar was one of the Saxon duchies held by the Ernestine branch of the Wettin dynasty in present-day Thuringia. The chief town and capital was Weimar. The Weimar branch was the most genealogically senior extant branch of the House of Wettin.


Saxe-Eisenach was an Ernestine duchy ruled by the Saxon House of Wettin. The state intermittently existed at three different times in the Thuringian region of the Holy Roman Empire. The chief town and capital of all three duchies was Eisenach.

Electorate of Saxony

The Electorate of Saxony was a state of the Holy Roman Empire established when Emperor Charles IV raised the Ascanian duchy of Saxe-Wittenberg to the status of an Electorate by the Golden Bull of 1356. Upon the extinction of the House of Ascania, it was feoffed to the Margraves of Meissen from the Wettin dynasty in 1423, who moved the ducal residence up the river Elbe to Dresden. After the Empire's dissolution in 1806, the Wettin Electors raised Saxony to a territorially reduced kingdom.


Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg was a duchy ruled by the Ernestine branch of the House of Wettin in today's Thuringia, Germany. The extinction of the line in 1825 led to a major re-organisation of the Thuringian states.

Treaty of Leipzig

The Treaty of Leipzig or Partition of Leipzig was signed on 11 November 1485 between Elector Ernest of Saxony and his younger brother Albert III, the sons of Elector Frederick II of Saxony from the House of Wettin. The agreement perpetuated the division of the Wettin lands into a Saxon and a Thuringian part, which in the long run obstructed the further development of a Central German hegemonic power in favour of Brandenburg-Prussia.

Princess Elisabeth Sophie of Saxe-Altenburg Duchess of Saxe-Gotha and Altenburg

Elisabeth Sophie of Saxe-Altenburg, was a princess of Saxe-Altenburg and, by marriage, duchess of Saxe-Gotha.

John Frederick II, Duke of Saxony Duke of Saxony

John Frederick II of Saxony, was Duke of Saxony (1554–1566).

Coat of arms of Saxony Coat of arms of the German state of Saxony

The coat of arms of the present-day German free state of Saxony shows a tenfold horizontally-partitioned field of black (sable) and gold/yellow (or) stripes, charged with a green (vert) crancelin running from the viewer's top-left to bottom-right. Although the crancelin is sometimes shown bent (embowed) like a crown, this is due to artistic license. The coat of arms is also displayed on the state flag of Saxony.


Saxe-Römhild was an Ernestine duchy in the southern foothills of the Thuringian Forest. It existed for only 30 years, from 1680 to 1710.

Johann Adolf of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg Prince of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg

Johann Adolf of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, was a German prince of the House of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg and a Saxon lieutenant general.


This article includes material translated from the German language Wikipedia article " Ernestinische Herzogtümer " and the Spanish language Wikipedia article " Ducados Ernestinos ".