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The name of a German tribe, and also a district in Germany extending along the Lahn, Eder, Fulda, Werra, and the Lower Main and Rhine. The district comprises today the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt and the Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau (capital, Kassel). The territory of the Hessians — the descendants of the Chatti, who, with the Cherusci, were masters of Germany before the Roman domination — was divided during the period of the Frankish empire into several Gaue (i.e. districts — Saxon Hessengau, Frankish Hessengau, Buchonia, Oberlahngau, etc.), ruled over by counts.

About 350 Christianity was preached in a portion of this territory by St. Lubentius of Trier, who built a church at Dietkirchen near Limburg. In the sixth century St. Goar preached the Gospel along the Rhine, while in the following century St. Kilian (d. 689) preached in the districts along the Main and the Rhön. The chief missionary of the Hessians was St. Boniface. He baptized two counts at Amöneburg about 722, founded a Benedictine abbey there, felled the celebrated sacred oak of Thor at Geismar, and founded at Büraberg near Fritzlar the first Hessian bishopric in 741, consolidated with Mainz in 774, and also the monastery of St. Peter at Fritzlar. Commissioned by the saint, his disciple Sturmi founded the monastery of Fulda and St. Lullus the Abbey of Hersfeld. From these centres of Christian culture many religious communities and cloisters were founded on the conclusion of the Saxon wars, and Christianity subsequently made rapid progress among the people. The greater portion of the land was throughout the Middle Ages under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Archbishops of Mainz; the smaller portion under the exempt Abbots of Fulda and Hersfeld, or under the Bishops of Trier (10 churches in Lahngau) and Paderborn (4).

Under the weak successors of Charles the Great, the old constitution of the Gaue gradually changed, and the counts (Grafen) from responsible officials became independent lords. As the bishops and monasteries also acquired much landed property, Hesse was parcelled up into numerous territories. Among the Hessian nobility, the most prominent in the tenth and eleventh centuries were the Counts of Ziegenhain, of Felsberg, of Schaumburg, of Diez, but above all the Gisos, Counts of Gudensberg. The daughter of the fourth and last Giso married in 1122 Count Louis I of Thuringia, who in 1130 was raised to the rank of landgrave by Emperor Lothair. As the Hessian nobility recognized him as their overlord, Hesse was thus united with Thuringia. Louis at the same time received the protectorate of the most important religious foundations of the land, and for a period of more than a century the union of Hesse and Thuringia continued unbroken. With Henry Raspe, the brother-in-law of St. Elizabeth of Thuringia, the male line of the Thuringian landgraves became extinct in 1247, whereupon the Hessians chose Henry of Brabant, Elizabeth's grandson, as their landgrave. Hesse was separated from Thuringia, and, after a long struggle with other claimants of the title, Henry established his authority as Landgrave of Hesse. For a large portion of his territories he owed fealty to the Archbishop of Mainz; for his allodial estate and the imperial fiefs which he possessed, he received in 1292 from King Adolph of Nassau the hereditary rank of prince of the empire. He chose Kassel as his residence, and from him is descended the present princely house of Hesse, which can thus trace its line back to St. Elizabeth.

By the acquisition of previously independent territories (Giessen, Treffurt, Schmalkalden, Katzenellenbogen, Diez, etc,) Henry's successors increased the domain of the landgraviate to such an extent that it became one of the most powerful German principalities. Hermann I (1377-1413) played an important rôle in ecclesiastical affairs. Intended originally for Holy Orders and surnamed "the learned" on account of his love of the sciences, he espoused during the Great Schism the cause of Gregory XII in opposition to Mainz. The slumbering quarrel with Mainz broke out under Hermann's son, Louis I the Peaceful (1413-58), and Archbishop Conrad of Mainz suffered a decisive defeat at Fulda in 1427. The schism and the wrangles between the landgraves and the archbishops greatly contributed to disturb ecclesiastical order, and in many of the numerous monasteries the ancient discipline had fallen into decay. On the whole, however, the Hessian Church was in an excellent condition at the outbreak of the Reformation in Germany.

After repeated divisions, all the Hessian lands were reunited by William II. Philip the Magnanimous (1509-67), William's son and successor, at first adopted a hostile attitude towards the doctrines of Luther, which soon found adherents in the Franciscan Jacob Limburg of Marburg and the Augustinian provincial Tilemann Schnabel of Alsfeld. He banished or imprisoned the heretical preachers, and came to be regarded by them as the most dangerous opponent of "the Gospel". In 1525, however, he was won over to Protestantism by Joachim Camerarius and Melanchthon, who wrote for him the "Epitome renovatæ ecclesiasticæ doctrinæ". The recess of the Diet of Speyer in 1526 enabled him to set up a territorial Church. At a synod of the higher dignitaries of the regular and secular clergy at Homberg in October, 1526, the reform regulations devised by the ex-Franciscan, Lambert of Avignon, were adopted. The Franciscan guardian, Nikolaus Ferber of Marburg, alone raised his voice against their adoption, but his protest was disregarded. At the Convention of Hitzkirch, in 1528, the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, found himself compelled to waive temporarily his claims to ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Hesse. Thus the Reformatory ordinances (Reformationsordnung) — which were of an extreme type, rejecting the Mass, feasts of the saints, pilgrimages, pictures, relics, etc. — spread rapidly over the country. Foundations and monasteries were suppressed, their property confiscated, public worship forbidden to Catholics. To establish the new teaching on a firmer basis the first Protestant university was founded at Marburg in 1527, while the Rituals of 1537, 1539, and 1566, in the composition of which Bucer's influence is unmistakable, fixed the constitution of the Hessian Church on an episcopal synodal basis.

Philip's imprisonment by Charles V scarcely exercised a perceptible influence on the progress of the Reformation, and in 1551 Sebastian von Heusenstamm, Archbishop of Mainz, was compelled to resign finally all claims to jurisdiction in Hesse. In this manner was the Church founded by St. Boniface almost entirely annihilated. The Reformation was also introduced into the territories which were subsequently (e.g. in 1648) acquired by Hesse; only in the domain of the Abbey of Fulda and in a few enclaves belonging to the Archbishopric of Mainz (Fritzlar, Amöneburg, Neustadt) did the Catholic Faith survive. Philip the Magnanimous divided Hesse at his death among his four legitimate sons, but, as two of these died without heirs in 1583 and 1604 respectively, his family was split into two chief lines — that of Hesse-Darmstadt, represented by George I, and that of Hesse-Kassel, represented by William IV. From these two lines sprang in the course of time some collateral lines, but no member of the family at present occupies a throne. In contrast to his father, the first Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, George I (1567-96) espoused the cause of the Hapsburgs. He increased his family possessions considerably, and in this his example was followed by his eldest son Louis V (1596-1626), who for his attachment to the emperor was called "the Faithful". He founded the University of Giessen in 1607. George II (1628-61) acquired a portion of Upper Hesse in 1648; his brother Frederick returned to the Catholic Faith, became Cardinal and Prince-Bishop of Breslau, and died in 1682. Although three sons of Louis VI (1661-78) also returned to Catholicism, there was no mitigation in the stern Lutheranism of the land.

Only in the territory belonging to the collateral branch, Hesse-Rheinfels-Rotenburg, which became Catholic in 1652 and extinct in 1834, was the Catholic Church tolerated. Landgraves Ernest Louis (1678-1739) and Louis VIII (1739-68) sought an understanding with Austria. Louis IX (1768-90) afforded free religious facilities to the Reformed Churches; in 1786 he granted to the Catholics Darmstadt as a "privilege" permission to hold Divine service. General freedom was first received by the Catholics under Louis X (1790-1830), who created the present Grand Duchy of Hesse. In the war against revolutionary France, the possessions of Hesse-Darmstadt on the right bank of the Rhine were ceded to the French by the Peace of Lunéville, a few districts in Baden and Nassau being also lost. In compensation Louis received the Duchy of Westphalia, which had previously belonged to the Archdiocese of Cologne, and some districts in the Archdiocese of Mainz and the Bishopric of Worms, and later (1809) three Hessian domains of the German Order, the Fulda domain of Herbstein, and the estates of the Order of Malta in Hesse. In 1806 Louis received the title of Grand Duke (Louis I); at the Congress of Vienna he received in compensation for the Duchy of Westphalia, which fell to Prussia, the old ecclesiastical and palatinate lands on the left bank of the Rhine together with the towns Mainz and Worms. With the accession of such Catholic territories, the existing anomalous ecclesiastical conditions could no longer be maintained. Hesse therefore took part in the negotiations of several German states, which resulted in the erection of the ecclesiastical province of the Upper Rhine by the papal Bulls "Provida solersque" (1821) and "Ad Dominici gregis custodiam" (1827). In furtherance of the arrangements, the Grand Duchy of Hesse founded the new Bishopric of Mainz, which was made subject to the Archbishopric of Freiburg. Although the organic decrees of 1803 had created a kind of national Church, they were only partially carried out, and the position of the Catholic Church was here more favourable than in the other states of the ecclesiastical province of the Upper Rhine (e.g. in Baden). Under Louis III (1848-77), who began to rule during the lifetime of his father Louis II (1830-48), conditions were at first favourable to the Catholics. In 1854 Bishop Ketteler concluded with the Minister von Dalwigk the Convention of Mainz, which ensured for the Church a greater measure of freedom and independence, but on the other hand made great concessions to the State. In consequence of the opposition of the Estates, the convention had to be withdrawn in 1866. After the foundation of the German Empire, the Kulturkampf extended also to Hesse under the Liberal ministries of Hofmann and von Starck, that is from 1871 to 1884. The five ecclesiastical laws of 23 April, 1875, are in their Kulturkampf spirit an exact reproduction of the Prussian "May Laws". After the death of Bishop Ketteler in 1877, the episcopal See of Mainz remained vacant until 1886. It was only under Grand Duke Louis IV (1877-92) and during the Finger ministry, that the church laws were revised, and those of 1875 modified. Under Ernest Louis, who succeeded in 1892, further changes facilitated the admission of religious orders. (Concerning the ecclesiastical statistics of the Grand Duchy of Hesse, whose boundaries coincide with those of the Bishopric of Mainz, see MAINZ.)

In Hesse-Kassel William IV (1567-92) was succeeded by Moritz "the Learned" (1592-1627), during whose reign the Thirty Years' War broke out. His son, William V (1627-37), allied himself with Gustavus Adolphus and was forced to retire into exile. Under William VI (1637-63) the foundation of Hersfeld and a portion of Upper Hesse were acquired by Hesse-Kassel. The succeeding rulers were William VII (1663-70) and then Charles (1670-1730), whose son became King of Sweden as Frederick I in 1720, and later, during his government of Hesse (1730-51), was represented by his brother William (landgrave, 1751-60). William's son, Frederick II, reverted to the Catholic Church in 1749, but, when his conversion became known, his father, in concert with the Estates, with Prussia, and Hanover, demanded that Frederick as landgrave should neither appoint a Catholic to a public position nor permit public Catholic worship. To these demands Frederick, to preserve his right of succession, was compelled to agree. During his reign (1760-85) the abuse of selling soldiers to England reached its culmination. In North America between 15,000 and 20,000 Hessians fought for England against the colonies struggling for freedom. His son, William IX (1785-1821), in accordance with the Peace of Lunéville, received rich compensation (mostly in ecclesiastical territory) for Rheinfels, ceded to the French, and was granted in 1803 the title of elector. From 1806 to 1813, Hesse-Kassel belonged to the Kingdom of Westphalia, founded by Napoleon. After the Restoration the greater part of the estates of the Abbey of Fulda was assigned to Hesse-Kassel. The Revolution of 1830 compelled William II (1821-47) to give the land a constitution which ensured to every citizen complete liberty of conscience and freedom to practise his religion. The status of Catholics was regulated by the erection of the ecclesiastical province of the Upper Rhine, when Electoral Hesse was placed under the Bishopric of Fulda. The profligacy of William II, the tyrannical rule of his son Frederick William I (1847-66), and the suppression of all political freedom caused an estrangement between princes and people. In the conflict between Prussia and Austria in 1866, when the elector, after a period of neutrality, voted against Prussia at the German Diet and ordered the mobilization of his troops, his territories were occupied by the Prussian army, and united with Prussia on 20 September, 1866, since which date they have shared the destiny of Prussia. It now forms with other territories acquired by Prussia in 1866 (the Duchy of Nassau, the Landgraviate of Hesse-Homburg, Frankfort-on-the-Main, etc.) the Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau. The Catholics of the government district of Kassel and those of Bockenheim, one of the wards of the city of Frankfort, belong to the Diocese of Fulda; the remainder belong to the Diocese of Limburg. The ecclesiastical statistics will be found under these articles.


WENCK, Hessische Landesgesch. (4 vols., 1783-1803); ROMMEL, Gesch. von Hessen (10 vol., Gotha and Kassel, 1820-58); STEINER, Gesch. des Grossherzogtums Hessen (5 vols., Darmstadt, 1833-4); REHM, Grundriss der Gesch. der hessischen Kirche (Marburg, 1835); FALCKENHEINER, Gesch. hessischer Städte u. Stifter (2 vols., Kassel, 1841-42); Urkunden zur hessischen Landes-, Volks-, u. Familiengesch. published by BAUR and continued by others in Archiv für hessische Gesch. . . . (15 vols., Darmstadt, 1846-80); HASSENKAMP, Hessische Kirchengesch. im Zeitalter der Reformation (2 vols., 2nd ed., Frankfort, 1864); BRÜCK, Die oberrheinische Kirchenprovinz (Mainz, 1868); WAGNER, Die vormaligen geistlichen Stifte im Grossherzogtum Hessen (2 vols., Darmstadt, 1873-8); HEPPE, Kirchengesch. beider Hessen (2 vols., Marburg, 1876-8); Die Bau- u. Kunstdenkmäler des Grossherzogtums Hessen (6 vols., Darmstadt, 1885-98); SOLDAN, Gesch. des Grossherzogtums Hessen (Giessen, 1896); BRÜCK, Gesch. der kathol. Kirche im 19. Jahrhundert, II-IV (Mainz, 1889-1905); RADY AND RAICH, Gesch. der kathol. Kirche in Hessen vom hl. Bonifatius bis zu deren Aufhebung durch Philipp den Grossmütigen, 722-1526 (Mainz, 1904); REIDEL, Die kathol. Kirche im Grossherzogtum Hessen (Paderborn, 1904); HESSLER, Hessische Landes- u. Volkskunde (3 vols., Marburg, 1904-07); Archiv für hessische Gesch. u. Altertumskunde (42 vols., Darmstadt, 1835-1908); GROTEFEND, Regesten der Landgrafen von Hessen (Marburg, 1909--).

About this page

APA citation. Lins, J. (1910). Hesse. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Lins, Joseph. "Hesse." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerald Rossi.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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