Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg, Regent of Hesse-Kassel

Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg, Landgravine and Regent of Hesse-Kassel (born 29 January 1602)

In his 1801 Women of the Reformed Church, James Good referred to Amalie Elisabeth of Hesse-Kassel as "the Deborah of the Reformed Church of Germany." Some two hundred years later, in her biography of Amalie Elisabeth, historian Tryntje Helfferich dubbed her "the Iron princess," noting that, in her own time, she was a "towering figure," a woman of whom "every European leader was exquisitely aware" and to whom, in the words of a contemporary, "the empire owes a great deal of its liberty." Today, however, "few, even among scholars of the Thirty Years War, know much if anything about her."

Amelie-Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg
Count me among those who knew almost nothing about her, though I have come to know just a little. I first came across a reference to Amalie Elisabeth of Hesse-Kassel only recently, in Nadine Akkerman's biography of Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I of England, a woman who would became known as the ill-fated "winter queen."

There wasn't all that much about Amalie Elisabeth in Akkerman's book, but what caught my eye was her title: landgravine. For reasons unknown to me, I have always loved that title, and however deliriously stupid it might sound, I long ago decided that, if I ever had a royal title, I'd rather be a landgravine than a princess. 

Setting aside my oddities, I will note that Amalie Elisabeth was one of fourteen children born to Philip Ludwig II, count of Hanau-Münzenberg, and Countess Catharina Belgica of Nassau. (Catharina Belgica would serve as regent of Hanau-Münzenberg for her son, Philip Maurice, after the death of Philip Ludwig.)

Born a countess and well connected to the noble families that dominated the various territories that comprised the Holy Roman Empire, the young Amalie Elisabeth was carefully educated, an education that was greatly expanded when she was sent, at about the age of six, to the court of Heidelberg, where her aunt, Louise Juliana of Nasau, was married Frederick IV, Elector Palatine of the Rhine. (Amalie Elisabeth's mother was Louise Juliana's sister.) 

While the court itself was noted as a center of Calvinist theology and the new science, Louise Juliana had sent her sons to her sister in France, where they could be raised, free from the influence of their father, who spent his time drinking and preferred to leave governing to his ministers and advisers. 

But, after Frederick's early death in 1610 (he was only thirty-six), Louise Juliana participated in the regency for her son, Frederick V of the Palatinate (she also arranged for his marriage to Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, and raised her granddaughter, Elisabeth of Bohemia). The young Elisabeth Amalie's preparation for her later role in life was surely influenced by the time she spent with her aunt, whom she was able to see as an active participant in politics and government

When Philip Ludwig died in 1612, Amalie Elisabeth returned home after a four-year absence. The years immediately following her father's death saw increasing tensions within the empire that finally erupted in the bloody Thirty Years' War. The conflict would eventually move beyond the empire, drawing in France, Sweden, parts of northern Italy, and, given the involvement of Habsburg Spain and Portugal, extending to various colonies in "the new world." (Helfferich is particularly good with explaining the political and religious conflicts within the Holy Roman Empire and the various participants in the Thirty Years' War.)

It was during these difficult years--when Amalie Elisabeth's brother was still a minor--that her mother acted as a regent on his behalf in Hanau-Münzenberg. As she struggled against imperial forces that threatened to overwhelm the strongly Calvinist territory, her daughter's marriage would prove to be one way to gain a strong ally. 

By 1618, Amalie Elisabeth was betrothed to a Bohemian nobleman who, unfortunately, died before their marriage could take place. A second marriage was soon arranged, this one to William of Hesse-Kassel, whose father, the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, opposed Habsburg power within the empire. The two were married in 1619. (Despite her efforts, Catharina Belgica was forced to flee Hanau-Münzenberg when it was overwhelmed by imperial forces in 1621.*)

Amalie Elisabeth gave birth to fourteen children between 1620 and 1637, the year of William of Hesse-Kassel's death. (Only six of these children would survive.) As for her husband--there was so much dissension in Hesse-Kassel that his father was forced to abdicate. In 1627, William succeeded his father as landgrave, making Amelie Elisabeth landgravine. 

But the pair inherited all the internal and external problems that had bedeviled William's father. By 1636, despite nearly a decade of fighting, William and his family were besieged in Hesse-Kassel by imperial forces and, like Amalie Elisabeth's mother a decade earlier, they were forced to flee (they took their eight-year-old son with them but had to leave their surviving daughters behind).

Soon after reaching the city of Leer, which was controlled by the Hessian army, William fell ill. On 1 October 1637, he died, leaving Amelie Elisabeth the regency and an army. During her husband's many absences while he was away at war, Amalie Elisabeth had managed Hesse-Kassel in her husband's place. Now she was compelled to act on her young son's behalf.

I love James Good's sense of her mission: the recently signed Peace of Prague had removed many of the opponents of the empire from the field of battle. But "man's extremity" would be "woman's opportunity." Thus Amalie Elisabeth became "a Reformed Joan of Arc" who would take up the Calvinist cause and oppose the Catholic Habsburgs.

But rather than leading her army on the field of battle, Amalie Elisabeth chose diplomacy. She used typically "female" strategies to her advantage--flattery and delay. Not that she did not use the army she had inherited--rather than commanding the army herself, she kept her husband's general (and paid him well, to secure his loyalty), and she reinforced her son's position by having the army swear oaths to him. She also successfully played her enemy (the Habsburg emperor) against her allies (the French and the Swedes), happily winding up with subsidies that allowed her a measure of independence from the Hessian estates, who were not particularly enthusiastic about being governed by a woman.

Amalie Elisabeth's activities during the long decades of the Thirty Years' War are covered well by both Good and Helfferich. During the negotiations to end that war, she was dogged--her demands may have seemed unreasonable to her male contemporaries, and she herself may have been the source of much frustration, but she was relentless. In the end, she did not get everything she wanted, but she did get what she wanted most--Calvinists were granted the same standing that Catholics and Lutherans had had under the terms of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. The treaties ending the great conflict, known collectively as the Peace of Westphalia, were signed in 1648.

Amalie Elisabeth, 1640,
as landgravine of Hesse-Kassel,
portrait by Gerard van Honthorst
Two years later, worn down by her years in politics and war, Amalie Elisabeth transferred power to her son, who assumed his father's title as William IV, landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. She was able to travel with her daughter Elisabeth to Heidelberg, where she had spent those childhood years with her aunt, to visit her daughter Charlotte, who had married Charles I Louis, elector Palatine. (He was the son of Elizabeth Stuart, the "winter queen," whose husband had regained his state as part of the Peace of Westphalia).

Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg and regent of Hesse-Kassel died on 8 August 1651, shortly after her return to Hesse-Kassel. She had an incredibly full life, but she was still only forty-nine years old. 

*To finish Catharina Belgica's story--while she was forced to flee to the Hague in 1621, her son, Philip Maurice, retained his claim to Hanau-Münzenberg. When the territory was liberated by Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden in 1631, Catharina Belgica undertook the negotiations that successfully returned Hanau-Münzenberg to her son. She died in the Hague on 12 April 1648.