Elector John George IV of Saxony (1668-1694) fell madly in love with 13-year-old "Billchen", the daughter of his father's notorious mistress. After his accession, his passion for her became so strong that his marriage detoriated to a degree that he took to violence, attacking and raping his wife, who feared for her life...
John George IV was born on October 18, 1668 as the eldest son of John George III of Saxony (1647-1691) and
Anna Sophie of Denmark (1647-1717)1.
Anna Sophie was an educated woman, familiar with German, Danish, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian. John George III was short and stout, taciturn by nature and quarrelsome by temperament. His main pastimes were drinking, hunting, warfare and mistresses. He was known as the “Saxon Mars”.
When John George IV was 1½ year old, his brother Friedrich August was born. A tutor was acquired for the Princes in November 1672. Every lesson was to begin and end in prayer, because the Saxon Princely Family was devoutly Lutheran. The boys were closely watched day and night to ensure that they were never “spiritually endangered” by Papists or Calvinists. John George was taught to read, spell and speak clearly. Early 1676, the young Princes were given their personal household and their own chamberlain and pages. Although both Princes had inherited their mother’s intelligence, John George clearly was the scholar, while August just liked to enjoy himself. Once, the boys accompanied their father to the Leipzig Fair. To his father’s delight, August purchased a carbine. John George, however, selected mathematical instruments and tomes from the stalls.
When in 1680 the plague arrived in Dresden, Anna Sophie (to the right) and her 2 sons left for Lichtenberg. The old Elector, John George II, died from the dreaded disease, and John George III became the new Elector. In April 1681, John George IV and his brother climbed into the saddle for the first time. Eighteen months later they joined the hunt on horseback and became hooked on it. The Princes also learned to dance and fence. Their education included civil and military engineering, mathematics, languages and drawing. John George IV learned French, Latin and Italian and pursued his own interests in history, genealogy and politics.
In November 1685, 17-year-old John George embarked upon his “Grand Tour”. At the radiant court of Louis XIV “The Sun King”, he made a good impression, studying French, Italian, dancing and riding. In his free hours John George gambled and watched comedies. In June 1686, he arrived in Londen. In July, he sailed to The Netherlands. In Gottorp he met his Danish relations. In November, John George was back in Dresden. The next year, August left on his “Grand Tour”.
From the age of 16 onwards, John George IV had increasingly been involved in state affairs. He was the heir, although August was his father’s favourite. The 2 dissimilar brothers felt a mutual jealousy and antagonism towards each other and often quarrelled. John George often had bouts of rage, which may have resulted from inflamed kidneys and gallstones. Like his grandfather, he suffered from stomach pains, and sediment was found in his urine. Given these medical problems, John George didn’t have the constitution to consume huge quantities of alcoholic drinks. In 1690, August described his brother as “delicate and sickly, weak-natured and weak-limbed, sombre, melancholy, reflective, scholarly and extremely hot-tempered.”
Elector John George III (to the right) had fought against the Ottoman Turks in the famous Battle of Vienna in 1683. The following years, the Saxon troops continued the fight. Beside his military pursuits, the “Saxon Mars” had many affairs with women. One of his lovers was Ursula Margaretha von Haugwitz (±1651-1713), wife of Rudolf von Neitschütz. Ursula’s eldest daughter, Magdalena Sibylle, was known as “Billchen”. She was born on February 8, 1675, and grew up as a gay and beautiful girl. Prince August’s military counsellor, Christian August von Haxthausen (†1696), fell for her and claimed that he had “bedded” the child, when she was 12. Not long afterwards
The Elector could hardly have disapproved of his elder son having a mistress as such. In this case, however, he took steps to keep both of his sons away from young Sibylle. His behaviour may suggest a fear of incest; it is quite possible that Sibylle was the fruit of the affair between him and Ursula, but we do not know for sure2. Young John George was spied upon, but still managed to meet clandestinely with Billchen. When their secret meetings were discovered, Ursula and Sibylle were banished from court. During the 1689 campaign, John George met Sibylle again, when she and her mother visited her lawful father, who was a lieutenant-general. The Elector was furious; the visit cost Von Neitschütz his command. Early 1690, young John George was sent away on a tour through Italy.
In September 1691, while campaigning, John George III was “violently attacked by an apoplexy” and died. John George IV returned to Dresden and immediately installed 16-year-old Sibylle as his favourite. She was given the apartments one of his father’s mistresses3 had occupied. Sibylle's father was reinstated into the army and promoted. Her brother-in-law became an “adviser” to John George, while taking good care of the Neitschütz family. All petitioner’s documents, that Sibylle received from her mother, were signed by the new Elector. Thus, Ursula received a lot of money as mediator. The besotted John George even tolerated Sibylle's many infidelities.
Sibylle was not of “equal blood” to John George, who, for the purpose of producing an heir, could not marry a woman of lesser rank than a Princess. Anna Sophie wanted her son to marry a Danish cousin, but John George preferred an alliance with Brandenburg. Early 1692, he went to Berlin to negotiate a marriage with Eleonore Erdmuthe of Saxe-Eisenach (1662-1696, to the right), widow of Johann Friedrich of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1654-1686) and mother of 2 children4. While Sibylle was 6 years younger than John George, Eleonore was 6 years older than her proposed husband. Eleonore is described as “handsome, well-shaped, a Princess of great virtue and piety, of a mild nature and prudent”. At that time, John George is described as “of middle stature, round-shouldered, of a sullen look, of a saturnine temper and talks little”. He could be very obstinate
In the autumn of 1692, Sibylle was pregnant, and it was probably John George’s child. The Elector bought from the Emperor the hereditary title of Countess of Rochlitz for his mistress. Early 1693, the couple signed and sealed a morganatic marriage contract, which was predated to a date before John George’s marriage to Eleanore. He recognized both the bigamous marriage and its issue as legitimate, although the latter would have no rights of succession. In February, the Electress Eleonore miscarried again, shattering her hopes of cementing her position by producing an heir.
In the summer, John George (to the right) took part in the Rhine campaign against France. He was accompanied by his mistress, who was big with child. On June 25, Sibylle gave birth to a daughter, Wilhelmina Maria Friederika. In the authumn, Eleonore was indisposed and both she and the doctors assumed that she was pregnant. In December, it became clear that the Electress was not with child. Passionate John George nearly hit the doctors, who had made the wrong diagnose. Poor Eleonore was inconsolable.
Billchen announced a new pregnancy at the end of 1693. This time, she wanted to become the Electress. She may even have offered the Emperor to convert the Elector to Catholisism in return for the title of Princess. She continually worked upon John George’s distaste for his wife and made him desire to divorce Eleonore. The Electress stood alone, because her mother-in-law had retreated to castle Lichtenburg in Prettin.
Early February, Sibylle’s pregnancy turned out to be a phantom pregnancy, too. On the 24th, John George had an “outrageous and dangerous confrontation” with his wife, when she protested about John George’s gift of the valuable Pillnitz estate to Sibylle. The quarrel grew so fiery, that the incensed John George wounded several persons and would have stabbed Eleonore, had he not been disarmed by his strong brother. August (to the right) tore “three blades, one after another, from his brother’s hand”, while “cutting all his fingers”. It wasn’t the first time that August had pacified his tempestuous brother. Soon afterwards, John George pressed Eleonore to receive a formal visit of his mistress. Eleonore obeyed, but did it weeping. Later, John George forcefully bedded her twice.
After eating some pastry, Sibylle became sick; her body swelled and she claimed to have been poisoned by Eleonore. Hot-tempered John George immediately believed her, but the doctors didn’t agree and suggested that Sibylle’s lifestyle might have something to do with it. Eleonore was now constantly exposed to “hard usuage” and even feared for her life. On April 2, she departed with her children for her dowry-seat at Pretsch.
By then, Sibylle had been diagnosed with smallpox and lay sick for 9 days. Initially, the doctors had high hopes of a speedy recovery, and of her escaping without being much marked. Suddenly, she had “strong convulsions” and, on the morning of April 3, she was “taken speechless”. All the time, John George remained at the bedside of his beloved mistress. Five doctors were consulted. They used “Spanish flies and syringes”, but to no avail. Sybille died around 7 a.m. on April 4, 1694. She was only 19 years old.
John George was in shock. He visited Sibylle’s corpse frequently, after it was laid out, and “once was bending to kiss it”, before being pulled away5. He had never contracted smallpox and was thus not immune to the disease. Yet, he could not be kept from pressing her hand. He changed his apartments for others more remote and succumbed to melancholy. He recounted that around 3 a.m. on the day of her death, he was “seized with a violent trembling
Around April 16, “a black melancholy and distraction were visible in his looks and behaviour”, due to John George’s immoderate grief. He made several walks in the dreadful April weather and drank a lot of strong wine. He became ill. He was “seized with shiverings and pains in his back”. In the night of April 19, little spots appeared on his body. He had caught smallpox, too. His mother visited him on April 21, and Eleonore the next day. He seemed indifferent if he lived or died. On April 27, John George IV grew light-headed, mistook Eleonore for the physician and “continued raving mad”, until he expired at 5 p.m. that same evening at the age of 25.
John George IV was succeeded by his brother, August the Strong, who converted to Catholicism and became King of Poland. His ‘greatest achievement’ was the fathering of approximately 354 illegitimate children. Sibylle’s scheming mother was imprisoned and tortured. Upon her release, Ursula von Haugwitz retreated to a family residence, wearing gloves to cover the marks left by the torture. The Dowager Electress, Eleonore, died on September 9, 1696, at the age of 32. In 1705, her daughter of her first marriage, Caroline (1683-1737), became the famous consort of the British King George II (1683-1760) .
Copyright © 2007 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
1 Anna Sophie was a daughter of King Frederick III of Denmark (1609-1670).
2 Rudolf von Neitschütz was with his troops at the time of Sibylle's conception in 1674, but this only establishes that he was not her father.
3 Susanne von Zinzendorff.
4 Eleonore had a daughter, Caroline (1683-1737), and a son, Wilhelm Friedrich (1685-1723), who succeeded his elder half brother as Count of Brandenburg-Ansbach in 1703.
5 Several accounts assert that John George did plant one or more kisses upon Sibylle’s deseased lips.