Guest Post: Anna Duchess of Cleves by Heather R. Darsie

Today it is a pleasure to welcome historian Heather R. Darsie to History… the Interesting Bits with an article about Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Heather’s new book, Anna Duchess of Cleves; the king’s Beloved Sister is out now.

The First Hint of Trouble: An Early Spat Between the Johann II of Cleves and Elector Frederick of Saxony

By Heather R. Darsie

Throughout the late 15th and early 16th century, various disputes over territory sprung up across the German-speaking portions of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1517, a new facet of rebellion against the Empire was introduced in Saxony when Martin Luther’s 95 Theses became known. Maximilian I was still the Holy Roman Emperor in 1517. He could not know what the changing attitudes toward the Catholic church would do to the fabric of the Empire. Maximilian passed away on 12 January 1519, making his grandson Charles the next Holy Roman Emperor. Charles’ first coronation, in Germany, took place in 1520.

Twenty-year-old Charles V was crowned in October 1520 as the King of the Romans-Germans at a grand ceremony in Aachen. By being crowned King of the Romans-Germans, Charles V was the Holy Roman Emperor Elect. Pope Leo X gave Charles V permission to style himself as the Holy Roman Emperor until Charles’ 1530 coronation at Bologna by Pope Clement VII.

In 1520 when Charles V’s massive train of at least two thousand horse. The various electors, including Elector Fredrick of Saxony, made up part of Charles V’s company. Though the details are unclear, it is recorded in an account of Charles V’s coronation printed circa 1520 that the Elector of Saxony and “Duke of Gülch” – an archaic spelling of “Jülich” – squabbled for a long time over who took which precedence during the procession to Aachen Cathedral.

Frederick of Saxony believed that Johann III of Cleves should have been included with the Saxon contingent rather than Johann being independent of Saxony. Saxony was ruled by an Elector, with only eleven electors in all of the Germanic areas. By comparison, Johann III was only a duke, and there were hundreds of duchies in all of the Germanic areas. In the end, Anna’s father Johann III entered the city before Elector Frederick of Saxony. Elector Frederick likely took exception to this snub.

Elector Frederick, famous for having sheltered Martin Luther from Charles V, passed away. Because Frederick was childless, his younger brother John became Elector of Saxony in 1525. Frederick was Catholic throughout his life. There is some debate over whether Frederick converted to Lutheranism on his deathbed. In February 1527, Elector John’s son Johann Friedrich married Johann III’s eldest daughter, Sybylla of Cleves.  The debate over Lutheran reforms was in full swing, and Charles V tried his best to quell the rising tides of religious change.

The marital alliance between Anna of Cleves’ elder sister Sybylla and Johann Friedrich did not have the immediate benefits for which Elector John hoped. Elector John was a Lutheran even before he became the Elector of Saxony. Sybylla and Johann Friedrich welcomed their first son, also named Johann Friedrich, in January 1529. The next year, the first Diet of Augsburg took place. It was at this Diet that Emperor Charles V tried to soothe tensions over Protestantism, and also when he introduced his comprehensive criminal code. The Augsburg Confession was produced because of this Diet, too. After the Diet of Augsburg, the issue of religion and thus, allegiance to the Emperor became more divided.

Anna’s and Sybylla’s parents were Catholic, their mother Maria particularly so. Jülich-Cleves-Berg was understood to be predominantly Catholic under the reign of Johann III, but tolerant of Lutheranism. By the late 1520s, two political and religious ideas dominated Germany: pro-Imperial and pro-Catholic, or anti-Imperial and pro-Lutheran. This put Jülich-Cleves-Berg and Saxony on different ends of the political spectrum.

Sybylla herself converted to Lutheranism, as did Anna’s and Sybylla’s little sister Amalia. At the begin of his reign in 1539 as Duke Wilhelm V, Johann Friedrich sent Philipus Melanchthon to learn whether Wilhelm was pro-Lutheran or pro-Catholic. Johann Friedrich became Elector of Saxony in 1532 after the death of his father, and needed to know which way Wilhelm leaned.

If you’re curious to know more about religion in Cleves during Anna of Cleves’ lifetime, check out my new biography, “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister.’

Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Römischer Künigklicher Maiestat Krönung zü Ach Geschehen. Author unknown. Circa Held by the Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.
  2. Rosenthal, Earl E. “The Invention of the Columnar Device of Emperor Charles V at the Court of Burgundy in Flanders in 1516.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes36 (1973): 198-230.
  3. Darsie, Heather. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister.’ Stroud: Amberley (2019).

Anna Duchess of Cleves; the king’s Beloved Sister

Anna was the ‘last woman standing’ of Henry VIII’s wives – and the only one buried in Westminster Abbey. How did she manage it?

Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’ looks at Anna from a new perspective, as a woman from the Holy Roman Empire and not as a woman living almost by accident in England. Starting with what Anna’s life as a child and young woman was like, the author describes the climate of the Cleves court, and the achievements of Anna’s siblings. It looks at the political issues on the Continent that transformed Anna’s native land of Cleves – notably the court of Anna’s brother-in-law, and its influence on Lutheranism – and Anna’s blighted marriage. Finally, Heather Darsie explores ways in which Anna influenced her step-daughters Elizabeth and Mary, and the evidence of their good relationships with her.

Was the Duchess Anna in fact a political refugee, supported by Henry VIII? Was she a role model for Elizabeth I? Why was the marriage doomed from the outset? By returning to the primary sources and visiting archives and museums all over Europe (the author is fluent in German, and proficient in French and Spanish) a very different figure emerges to the ‘Flanders Mare’.

Anna Duchess of Cleves; the king’s Beloved Sister is available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon in the UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

About the author:

Heather Darsie works as an attorney in the US. Along with her Juris Doctorate she has a BA in German, which was of great value in her research in the archives of Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands for this book. She is currently studying for her Master’s in Early Modern History through Northern Illinois University. She runs the website MaidensAndManuscripts.com and regularly contributes to QueenAnneBoleyn.com and TudorsDynasty.com. She has been researching this work for several years.

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My books

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Heather R. Darsie