Smelling Wives?

Landgraf Philipp von Hessen, c.1534, a few years before he decided his wife didn’t please him

Landgraf Philipp von Hessen (Landgrave Philip of Hesse in English usage) was one of the most important political leaders of the German Reformation and a great supporter of Martin Luther. He was also Germany’s most famous bigamist. In 1524, at the age of 19, he married Christina von Sachsen (Saxony), who was 18. Sixteen years later, Philipp married his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Margarethe von der Saale (who was 17). The problem was that he never divorced his first wife, who would live for another nine years.

Philipp never sought a divorce; he did not want to live in sin with his mistress, so he had to marry her, yet he thought bigamy was preferable to divorce and less sinful. Martin Luther and his colleague Melanchthon did not dare to object. Luther even agreed with the landgrave’s argument and the noted theologian and professor of Greek Melanchthon attended the wedding. However, Philipp’s fellow princes disapproved publicly. Bigamy was punishable by death according to Imperial law, and it goes without saying that it went also against the ordinary moral code of the Church, whether reformed or otherwise.

Philipp had to explain what exactly drove him to take another wife. He had produced seven children with his first wife, of whom six were still alive, and even after his second and bigamous marriage, he would continue to have three more children with his old wife. In parallel, he would have nine children with his new wife. (The offspring from his second marriage, while legitimate, would arguably have no succession rights in Philipp’s lands, though, and Margarethe was never seen at court.)

Philipp von Hessen and his supposedly unattractive first wife, Christina. Posthumous portrait commissioned in 1585 by Philipp’s heirs, after contemporary originals.

To another reformer, Martin Bucer, Philipp explained why he had never liked his old wife: When he married her he was still under 17, he claimed, which was before he became a real man, and he had never desired or loved her (“wie ich sie genomen, da ich noch kein Natur hat, auch keine VII. jarr aldt war; nota, das ich nihe liebe oder brunstlichkeit zu irr gehabt”).

Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII. Henry divorced her on the grounds that he found her unattractive.

In another document, also from 1539 (the year he was planning his bigamous marriage) he wrote the same, namely that from the start he had never desired her; however, he now added that he also disliked her complexion, her moods, and her smell, as well as her periodic overindulgence in drink – (“das ich von anbeginn, do ich sie gnomen, nie lust oder begirte zu ir gehapt, wie sie auch von Complexion, fruntlichkeit und geruch, auch wi si sich unter Zeiten mit uberigem drincken hiltet”). Philipp then crossed out the part about her smell and her drinking, and instead added in the margin that she was suffering from the stone – “und sonderlich das sie den Stein hardt hatt”. (This might refer to kidney or bladder stones, even to intestinal or stomach ailments).

Now, as is well known, Henry VIII only months later, in early 1540, claimed that his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was smelling. He also told his chief minister Cromwell that he found Anne so unattractive that he could not fulfil his marital duties with her. Henry was in similar circumstances to Philipp, except that he desperately wanted a divorce. Did he know about the contents of Philipp’s excuses to take another wife? Philipp von Hessen was one of the leaders of the Schmalkaldic League, the military alliance of Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire, and Henry VIII had close diplomatic contacts with this group. Perhaps some details and some gossip about Philipp’s marriage affairs had reached him.

Rockwell, Willam Walker (1904): Die Doppelehe des Landgrafen Philipp von Hessen. N. G. Elwert’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at
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3 Responses to Smelling Wives?

  1. Yes! This is where he got the excuses he needed to break his marriage with Anna of Cleves. Good detective work Christine!

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister” by Heather R. Darsie | The Freelance History Writer Notes and Reviews

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