As wife of the Dutch national hero, William of Orange, Anna of Saxony's immoderate behaviour and bouts of temper were an embarrassment. She neglected their children, publicly ridiculed her husband and squandered their money. Pregnant from a lover, she was locked up and finally plunged into total insanity.

Anna of Saxony (1544-77) was 9, when her father, Maurice of Saxony (1521-53), died from battle wounds, and at 11 Anna lost her mother, Agnes of Hesse (1527-55). Anna grew up as an only surviving child, much indulged, with a strong sense of her own importance. She was a difficult adolescent, ugly, lame and hunchbacked, but widely regarded as the wealthiest catch of all the German Princesses of her day.
Princess Anna of Saxony William of Orange (1533-84), a handsome, fashionable and charming widower, came to Dresden in 1560 to woe her, and young Anna fell madly in love with him. She remarked: "Er ist ein schwarzer Verräter, aber ich habe keine Ader in meinem Leibe, die ihn nicht herzlich lieb hätte." She wrote a series of passionate love letters to William, who left the task of writing replies to his brother Louis. Despite opposition from Anna's Protestant relatives, they were married in August 1561.

The marriage was troubled from the beginning. Anna was passionate, haughty and distinctly odd. During her first pregnancy, she had uncontrollable moods and outburst. While William was in Germany, a girl was born who died soon afterwards. The next two years another daughter and a son were born. Anna was uncaring to both her own children and her two stepchildren, so in 1564 William decided to take his eldest children from her care. By then, it was common knowledge that their marriage was a complete failure. Anna was immoderate in everything. She had violent fits of temper, smashing everything to bits. At parties she boozed and flirted with the guests. Fits of gaiety alternated with drunken bouts of melancholy gloom. She began to express thoughts of suicide and despair, secluding herself for days in a darkened room illuminated only by candles, receiving no visitors, and refusing food.

In 1566 Anna's little son died. Anna complained she was bored in Breda and travelled to Spa, where she publicly ridiculed William and openly mocked his sexual abilities. Thus she became subject to gossip and disapproval of the whole society, although a modern feminist might see in her behaviour a passionate struggle against the patriarchal conventions.

William I the silent of Oranje William of Orange (1533-1584) was a German Count of Nassau, who had inherited the French principality of Orange and a number of estates in The Netherlands. He had been educated at the Catholic court of Emperor Charles V in Brussels. Charles V had leaned on the arm of William of Orange in the ceremony of handing over his power to his son, Philip II of Spain. Philip had immediately appointed Spanish stadholders instead of Dutch ones. His reforms and religious persecutions resulted in social unrest. When William was sent to France to assist in arranging the terms of a treaty, the French King thought William was a confident of Philip and talked to him about Philip's plans to exterminate Dutch Protestantism. William, who supported freedom of religion, kept quiet and listened carefully, thus earning his nickname "the silent". In 1567, when Philip sent the notorious Duke of Alba and his army to the Low Countries, William of Orange and his family left the country with all their belongings and moved into his brother Johann's castle at Dillenburg in Germany. In 1568 William's eldest son, Philip William, was abducted to Spain never to see his father again. The Counts of Egmont and Hornes were treacherously beheaded by Alba. It started the Eighty Years War between Spain and the Low Countries. William the Silent and his brothers set about recruiting troops, selling William's jewels and plate to raise the necessary money. In the first years of the war William lost most of the battles and his brothers Adolphus and Louis were killed.

Emilia the Elder as a child While William was busy conducting this costly guerrilla war in the Low Countries, his relatives in Germany were forced to live frugally. Anna detested life in Dillenburg. She publicly cursed and fulminated at her husband. Her arrogance, obstinacy and rudeness irritated William's relatives, who called her "die Person". In 1567 Anna's famous son Maurits was born. When she found herself pregnant once more, she moved to Cologne, where she lived in increasingly grotesque extravagance and soon squandered all her money. While intoxicated, she mistreated her staff. In 1569, she gave birth to Emilia (to the right). William the Silent repeatedly asked her to rejoin him as his wife, but she publicly tore his letters apart. A personal meeting in Mannheim did not result in reconciliation either. By then, Anna was already involved in an affair with Johannes Rubens, a Flemish refugee. Financial difficulties and a pregnancy begotten by Rubens forced Anna to move to a country house in Siegen. In 1571 Rubens was arrested. Anna first denied any wrongdoing, despite her unmistakable pregnancy. When she broke down, Anna asked William to execute them both, which was the usual thing to do in these circumstances. However, Rubens was not executed but exiled and in 1577 his wife gave birth to the famous painter Peter Paul Rubens. Anna of Saxony gave birth to Rubens' daughter, Christina. William of Orange refused to recognise her as his child and declared his marriage to Anna annulled.

By then Anna of Saxony was showing signs of mental derangement and in 1572 she was moved to the German castle of Beilstein. Knives were to be taken away from her after meals. Preachers delivered sermons to her twice a week in her room. Her last years were filled with violent outbursts, hallucinations, and filthy talk. She claimed to have killed her own children. She was held in custody until 1575, when she was sent home to Dresden. There she was confined in two rooms whose windows were bricked up. She now talked nonsense while trembling and foaming at the mouth. A captain reported that Anna had attacked him with knives and was "raging and foolish as if she were possessed". She died in 1577.
In 1573, William the Silent converted to the Protestant faith. He remarried twice and was eventually killed by a Catholic fanatic in 1584. Under the excellent leadership of Anna's son, Maurits of Orange (1567-1625), the Spaniards were driven out of the Dutch United Provinces by 1600. Their sovereignty was recognised officially in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. William's relatives raised Anna's illegitimate daughter and arranged her marriage to a German Count.

Anna's mental state could have been hereditary. Her father's cousin, Frederick of Saxony (1504-1539), was mentally disturbed too, and had been regarded as an impossible successor. Elisabeth of Denmark (1485-1555), a second cousin of Anna's father, was allegedly mad from 1535 to 1539, while her daughter of the same name suffered from "hysteria". Anna's great-grandfather, William II of Hesse (1469-1509), and his elder brother both showed signs of mental disorder and, in addition, William II was excessively melancholic. Anna's daughter Emilia of Orange-Nassau (1569-1629) was in later life arrested as a madwoman, went through bouts of screaming at her attendants and attempted suicide. Anna, too, had sudden and inappropriate attitude changes, recurring fits of temper and suicidal tendencies. She expressed a persistent feeling of boredom. Her impulsive behaviour often discredited both herself and her husband. These symptoms indicate that Anna could have had a borderline personality - until she crossed the border and plunged into total insanity.

Copyright © 1996, 2000, 2012 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.

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Bibliography

For more information see
    my Genealogy of the royal family of The Netherlands,
    a biography of William I the Silent of Orange,
    or the Princesses of Germany Blog.

Text & image editing by Joan Bos. For more info see the FAQ.