by Heather R. Darsie
Sibylle von der Mark, simply known as “Sybylla of Cleves” during her lifetime, was born on 17 July 1512. Sybylla eventually became older sister to Anna von von der Mark, more commonly known as Anne of Cleves or Henry VIII’s fourth wife, in 1515. Sybylla, the eldest of Maria von Julich-Berg’s children with Duke Johann III of Cleves, was elevated to the station of Electress Consort through her marriage to Johann Friedrich I, the Elector of Saxony, in 1527.
Sibylle of Cleves by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526
As Electress of Saxony, Sybylla enjoyed a fruitful marriage with Johann Friedrich and had four sons, three of whom survived to adulthood. Sybylla was known as a great beauty, as can be seen from her engagement portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder from 1526. Her long, golden-brown hair is loose and flowing about her shoulders. Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop would go on to produce many portraits of Sybylla and her family, including one finished in 1531, when Sybylla was 29. In the 1531 portrait of Sybylla, we see that she likely plucked back her hairline, as was fashionable in the period as a high forehead showed that a woman was of noble bearing and intelligent.
The court Sybylla enjoyed included a massive library, possibly the largest in Germany at the time. As a reformist, Sybylla energetically supported her husband’s political actions and was respected by her fellow reformers. Justus Menius, one such reformer, dedicated his writing, “Oeconomia Christiana” to Sybylla: “To the highborn Electress, Mistress Sybylla, duchess of Saxony, Oeconomia Christiana concerns the proper keeping of a Christian household.”
Sybylla’s husband held an important position as an elector in the Holy Roman Empire. The position of elector was originally created in the 13th century with the purpose of electing the King of the Romans, who in fact ruled over the Germans. Once crowned by the pope, he became the Holy Roman Emperor. Electors were summoned quickly after the emperor’s death and met no less than three months after the emperor died. During the interregnum, the Elector of Saxony would act as vicar in partnership with the Elector Palatine. The need for papal recognition ended after Charles V.
Johann-Friedrich lead the Schmalkaldic League, which acted as a defensive alliance of the Lutheran princes. The Schmalkaldic League had a powerful military which was part of Cromwell’s reasoning for proposing Anna as a bride to Henry VIII. The main purpose of the League was to protect the protestant states from an attack by the catholic Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Francis I of France was in support of the League from approximately 1535 to roughly 1544.
Henry VIII’s connection to the Schmalkaldic Leaugue was through his sister-in-law Sybylla and not just his brother-in-law, Duke Wilhelm von Kleve. It is out of Sybylla’s husband’s court that Martin Luther, who hid there in the 1520s, translated the New Testament of the Bible into German and laid the ground work for unifying the Germanic areas through language. Sybylla corresponded with Martin Luther and appears to have supported her husband’s radical actions to reform the church.
Charles V was preoccupied with other wars in his territories and did not turn his attention back to Germany until the mid to late 1540s, when the Schmalkaldic Wars broke out in the mid to late 1540s, Johann-Friedrich was captured by Charles V and held captive. In the meantime, Sybylla bravely defended Wittenberg to protect her sons and hold her husband’s territory. Johann-Friedrich finally capitulated and ended the siege, but remained a prisoner of Charles V until 1554.
Sybylla and Anna were known to exchange letters until Sybylla’s death in 1554, and known to have a strong bond, as well. Sybylla would have been able to share Anna’s woe of having an obese husband: at his largest, there were few horses in all of Saxony that could support the weight of Johann-Friedrich. Perhaps the sisters discussed how best to manage their husbands, exchanging letters and gifts in anticipation of Anna’s marriage to Henry VIII of England some thirteen years after Sybylla’s marriage.
Sybylla died in February 1554 shortly after being reunited with her husband, whom she dearly loved. Johann-Friedrich followed Sybylla a month later in March 1554, and the couple were buried together in the City Church of Weimar. Sybylla and Anna were two intelligent, bold women from Cleves who helped shape European politics.
Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!
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Sources and Suggested Reading
- Flathe, Heinrich Theodor. “Electress of Saxony.” Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol. 34. (Leipzig: Duncker and Humboldt, 1892).
- Veith, Gene. “Princess Sibylle.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2008/03/princess-sybille/ 19 March 2008, retrieved 9 January 2016.
- Cavalcaselle, Giovannie Battista and Crowe, Joseph Archer. Titian: His Life and Times: with Some Account of His Family, Chiefly from New and Unpublished Records, Volume 2. (Murray, J: 1877), Page 176.
- Menius, Justus. Oeconomia Christiana. (Wittenberg: 1529).
- Bauer, Joachim and Blaha, Dagmar. “The Deaths of John Frederick and His Wife Sibylle, in: Sächsische Heimatblätter 50, vol. 1. (2004).
- Beck, A. Johann Friedrich der Mittlere. (Weimar: 1858).
- von Bezold, F. Geschichte der deutschen Reformation. (Berlin: 1886).