When it comes to those who stood against the Pope, Henry VIII and Tyndale come to mind immediately, right? But what about Martin Luther? Luther was a very influential figure in the Protestant Reformation.
This article isn’t about religion, it’s to teach you about another interesting woman who lived during the Tudor era that is rarely spoken about. A woman who ranks up there with Katherine Parr and Anne Askew as far as women who did the most for the Protestant Reformation, Katharina von Bora. Katharina’s role in the reformation was to help define Protestant family life and set the tone for clergy marriages.
Katharina von Bora
Born on the 29th of January 1499 in Lippendorf, Germany near Leipzig¹, Katharina was the daughter of impoverished Saxon nobles. Her mother died when she was only five years old (in 1504)² and it was then that she was sent to the Benedictine cloister in Brehna. Five years later she would be moved to the Marienthron cloister at Nimbschen.
In 1509, Katharina’s father arranged for her to be sent to the Marienthron cloister at Nimbschen, where her aunt was the abbess. Part of the Cistercian order, these nuns lived sparse lives without any luxury and performed manual labor, especially in the field. Katharina lived there as a postulant (candidate for the order) until 1515 when, at the age of 16, she took her vows and became a novice. Katharina took her vows seriously in the coming years, living a life of poverty and manual labor. – Faces of the Reformation
While Katharina was at Marienthron some of Luther’s writing about church reform came into the possession of herself and a few other nuns. The women were greatly impacted by Luther’s words, especially when he wrote: ‘grace came from faith alone, not through prayer or works‘. The work of Martin Luther influenced Katharina and a few other nuns to escape the life they had known. But they couldn’t just leave – they needed help.
The ladies requested help from Luther himself. In the Spring of 1523, Luther arranged the help of a friend who delivered supplies to the convent. The escape happened on Easter Sunday. Upon leaving, his herring barrels which should have been empty were filled with nuns! Another source states that they escaped in a covered wagon with herring barrels, but not in the barrels.
From the convent they made their way to Wittenberg and joined the Reformation. Luther contacted the ladies’ families to see if they would take them back, a few did but most did not. It was against canon law to shelter an escaped nun. Luther eventually found homes and husbands for some of the ladies – Katharina stayed for some time with a painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder. During this time she had two potential marriages lined up for her, but neither happened and she eventually married Martin Luther on 13 June 1525, in a small ceremony. Luther did not tell his friends about the wedding and many were upset. A priest and former nun…married. Just imagine the scandal!
If you watch the below video he goes deeper into the story, but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how much of it is fact based – it might be an exaggeration.
Children of Martin and Katharina
Katharina gave birth to their first child fifty-one weeks after their wedding day. On the 7th of June 1526, the couple welcomed a son named Johannes who was named after Martin Luther’s father. Evidently, the birth of Johannes fifty-one weeks after their marriage essentially ended all rumors that Luther had married Katharina only because she was pregnant.
Then roughly a year and a half later, on 10 December 1527, Katharina gave birth to their second child, a daughter, named Elisabeth. She unfortunately passed away when she was merely ten months old.
On the 4th of May 1529, the couple welcomed their third child, another daughter and named her Magdalena. Magdalena was named for Katharina’s aunt who had also left the convent and lived with the Luther family.
The Luther family was not spared by the high mortality rate of children in the sixteenth century, although their two cases appear to be very different. In Luther’s letters there is hardly anything to be learned about the death of Elisabeth, who was only ten months old. The communication with his friends is rather formal and incidental. Very different is his behavior on the death of Magdalena in 1542. Even here there are no recorded reactions of her mother, leaving aside the fact that Magdalena passed away in the arms of her father, evidently since her mother was not able to master her desperation. – Quoted from Katharina von Bora, The Woman at Luther’s Side by Martin Treu (Lutheran Quarterly)
On the 9th of November 1531, Katharina gave birth to her fourth child, a son named Martin Luther, Jr. Named after his father, Martin died from alcoholism in 1565 he was only thirty-four year old.
And on 29 July 1533, the couple welcomed their fifth child, another son named Paul. Paul would later go on to become a Doctor.
On the 17th of December 1534, Katharina gave birth to their sixth child, another daughter named Margarethe. The youngest of their children was named after Luther’s mother.
In the early months of 1540, Katharina suffered a miscarriage which nearly took her life. She would have been about forty-one years old at the time…even an older age by today’s standards to have a child. The miscarriage took Katharina several months to recover from.
The life of Katharina von Bora is utterly fascinating to me, the fact that she was a nun who fled to become part of the Protestant Reformation and then went to marry Martin Luther – truly a brave woman who followed her religious beliefs. Her life from the beginning was not her own – her father had decided to place her in a nunnery because he didn’t have the money to raise her…living there would have been a way to ensure she had a good life and also was a way for her father to dedicate one of his children to God.
For recreation the Luthers enjoyed a bowling lane of sorts in their garden, board games such as chess, and music. They had a pet dog. They grew much of their own food in a small garden at the Black Cloister and then later as a farm outside Wittenberg.
Luther and Katherine were diligent parents, disciplining their children, but doing so in love. Their home was noted for its liveliness and its happiness. – Quoted from PBS.org (The Characters – Luther’s Wife)
After Martin Luther died in 1546, Katharina’s life greatly changed. Here is a quote from a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law, Christina von Bora upon the death of her husband:
I see that you have a heartfelt sympathy for me and my poor children. For who should not properly be sad and worried on account of such a dear man as was my beloved husband. .. . I can neither eat nor drink. And in addition to that, I cannot sleep. And if I had a principality or an empire I wouldn’t feel so bad about losing it as I feel now that our dear Lord God has taken this beloved and dear man from me and not only from me, but from the whole world. When I think about it, I can’t refrain from grief and crying either to read or to write, as God well knows.³
Martin Luther died in 1546 and at the time a wife would never be able to be the sole heir of her husband – women were not allowed such privileges. However, Luther clearly felt different when in 1541, he was quoted as saying: “My books are here, which I leave behind to my children; may they see that they are not smarter than their father. You, Käthe, I appoint the sole heir. You have borne the children and extended your breast to them. You will not manage their affairs to their detriment. I am an enemy of the guardians; they seldom do it well.”
Katharina died on the 20th of December 1552.
If you are interested in more reading on Katharina von Bora I’d highly recommend: The Woman at Luther’s Side by Martin Treu (Lutheran Quarterly)
Sources for this article:
Katharina von Bora, Luther’s Wife
Katharina von Bora
Mevrouw Luther, Katharina von Bora
¹ Katharina’s date of birth: ”Find A Grave Index,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVVC-BKZ3 : 11 July 2016), Katharina von Bora Luther, 1552; Burial, Torgau, Nordsächsischer Landkreis, Saxony (Sachsen), Germany, Marienkirche; citing record ID 14350632, Find a Grave, http://www.findagrave.com.
³ Published in Martin Luthers Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken, Martin Leberecht de Wette and Johann Karl Seidemann, eds., vol. 6 (Berlin: Reimer, 1856), 650, together with a letter of Florian von Bora’s and one of his mother’s, Christina, to Heinrich Hildebrand von Einsiedel at Gnandstein, both from April 7, 1546. Katharina’s letter came to Wittenberg in 1911. but now is considered a casualty of war.