Elector Johann Friedrich: Anna of Cleves’ Powerful Brother-in-Law

by Heather R. Darsie

Please note that this article first appeared at On the Tudor Trail.

Johann Friedrich Wettin, Elector of Saxony, was born 30 June 1503 to Elector John of Saxony and his first wife Sophia of Mecklenburg. Sadly, Sophia passed away on 12 July 1503, shortly after Johann Friedrich’s birth.  Johann Friedrich was born in Torgau, Saxony. His father married again, bringing Johann Friedrich two sisters and one surviving brother.


Saxon Elector Johann Friedrich I, c. 1550, by Titian. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Friedrich married Sybylla of Cleves in June 1527; she was nine years his junior. The wedding was a grand festival, celebrated by the famed Torgau Tourney. The festival took place over several days in the City of Torgau and was put on by Johann Friedrich’s father, Elector John of Saxony. Over 31,000 people attended the festivities over nine days. On Sunday, 2 June 1527, a church service was held in the market square of Torgau. Next, Johann Friedrich’s new bride Sybylla was adored by those gathered. After that, the days-long tourney began. It was attended by over a dozen high-ranking members of German nobility such as princes and dukes, around twenty counts, and dignitaries from the University of Wittenberg who included the famous reformers Philipus Melanchthon and Martin Luther. On top of that, there were scores of lesser nobles and knights present. All the horse and carriage traffic put a strain on Torgau.

Johann Friedrich and Sybylla welcomed their first son, Johann Friedrich II, known as the Middle, on 8 January 1529. Their second son, Johann Wilhelm, was born 11 March 1530. A third son, Johann Ernst, was born in 1535 but died shortly thereafter. Johann Friedrich and Sybylla’s youngest son, Johann Friedrich III, known as the Younger, was born 16 January 1538. Johann Friedrich and Sybylla enjoyed a loving relationship.

Johann Friedrich became Elector and Duke of Saxony in 1532. He shared the title of Duke with his younger half-brother until 1542, when Johann Friedrich separated lands for his younger brother to rule alone. Johann Friedrich was a staunch supporter of Martin Luther and the German Reformation. He and Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, established the Schmalkaldic League in 1531. The Schmalkaldic League, sometimes referred to by English speakers as the Protestant League, was a defensive agreement of pro-Reformation, anti-Imperial territories in the German-speaking portion of the Holy Roman Empire. After Johann Friedrich’s father-in-law, Johann III of Cleves, died in February 1539, Johann Friedrich cautiously began involving his brother-in-law Wilhelm V of Cleves. However, Wilhelm was more interested in securing a marital alliance for his unmarried sisters, and pursued an Anglo-Cleves alliance through marriage of his elder sister Anna of Cleves to Henry VIII of England.

Johann Friedrich was not heavily in favor of the marriage between Anna of Cleves and Henry VIII, but entertained it until the passing of the Six Articles by English Parliament in June 1539. After that, the young relationship between Johann Friedrich and Henry VIII cooled. Several Imperial Diets took place throughout the 1540s in an attempt to quell the rising tide of Protestantism in Germany.

In 1546, the Schmalkaldic War broke out in the southwest of Germany before making its way to Saxony. Johann Friedrich did his best to defend his territories against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but was ultimately captured along with one of his sons after the battle of Mühlberg in April 1547. Charles V then headed to Wittenberg, besieging the city and the castle where Johann Friedrich’s beloved wife Sybylla and other two sons were fortified. Wittenberg fell, and Johann Friedrich capitulated in May 1547.


1547 Battle of Mühlberg, painted c. 1630. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As part of the Capitulation of Wittenberg, Johann Friedrich handed his electorate over to Maurice of Saxony in exchange for Johann Friedrich’s death sentence being commuted to imprisonment for an indeterminate period. Johann Friedrich was held captive by Charles V until 1552. During his time in captivity, Johann Friedrich and Sybylla exchanged numerous letters.

Johann Friedrich was released and returned to Sybylla. Johann Friedrich died in 3 March 1554, shortly after Sybylla’s death on 21 February 1554. Johann Friedrich and his wife are buried in St. Peter and Paul, Weimar.


Want to know more about Anna of Cleves? Love learning about the Queens of England? 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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Please check out my new podcast, Tudor Speeches.

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