JÜLICH-CLEVES-BERG. The duchy of Jülich-Cleves was a shifting agglomeration of principalities on the Lower Rhine, a location that, despite its lack of large cities, gave it strategic significance as the gateway from the Low Countries to central and southern Germany. During the late Middle Ages the county of Jülich was raised to the dignity of a duchy in 1356 and expanded by adding the county of Ravensberg in 1346 and the county of Berg in 1348. Meanwhile the county of Cleves was taken over by the county of Mark in 1368 and was then raised to the dignity of a duchy in 1417. In 1511 a strategic marriage joined the duchies of Jülich-Berg-Ravensberg in a personal union with Cleves Mark, creating a territory almost the size of the landgraviate of Hesse or Württemberg.
In an effort to consolidate and expand these holdings, Duke William V ("the Rich," ruled 1539–1592) took advantage of the death of Charles of Egmont (1467–1538), the last duke of Gelderland, in 1538 and took over lordship of this important province as well, a move that could have had major political and religious implications, creating as it did a direct link between Cleves (on the Netherlandish frontier) and Jülich (between Aachen and Cologne). Duke William also seemed to welcome Lutheran ideas in his lands. In preparation for a possible contest over this expansion, William had pursued a calculated dynastic policy by marrying Jeanne d'Albret of Navarre, the thirteen-year-old niece of Francis I of France (ruled 1515–1547), while giving his sister Anne of Cleves (1515–1557) to Henry VIII of England (ruled 1509–1547) in 1540. An older sister, Sybilla, had married Elector John Frederick I of Saxony in 1526. However, Emperor Charles V (ruled 1519–1556) reacted energetically to counter such an expansion by exercising a claim that Gelderland belonged to his Burgundian inheritance. Diplomatically he secured the neutrality of France and England and crushed Duke William at Düren in 1543. William the Rich had to subject himself to the emperor, give up all claims to Gelderland, and give up his wife (the marriage with Jeanne d'Albret was annulled in 1545).
In 1546 William married Mary, a daughter of King Ferdinand I of Austria (ruled 1521–1564; emperor 1558–1564), and he learned to practice a more cautious religious policy over the next thirty years. It was long thought that his moderate rule along with the influence of his skeptical physician, Johann Weyer (Wier), protected the duchies from severe witchcraft trials. But research has shown that over a span of 240 years well over two hundred persons were executed as witches, including two as late as 1737–1738.
In 1592, with the death of the duke, the succession of Jülich-Cleves-Berg went to William's only surviving son, Johann Wilhelm I (ruled 1592–1609), who was already suffering from severe madness. Despite increasingly desperate measures, Johann Wilhelm's marriage to Jacobe of Baden remained childless, as did his subsequent marriage to Antoinette of Lorraine. It seemed obvious that there would be no direct male heir, and claimants began jockeying for position already in the 1590s. When Johann Wilhelm died in 1609, the two Possidentes (that is, the two claimants already in place at the ducal court in Düsseldorf) were Elector Johann Sigismund of Brandenburg (1572–1619) and Pfalzgraf Wolfgang Wilhelm of Pfalz-Neuburg, both of whom were Lutherans. Emperor Rudolf II (ruled 1576–1612) reacted to prevent an important portion of the empire from going Protestant, and in 1610 the War of the Jülich Succession broke out (with reinforcements on the Protestant side from England, the Netherlands, France, and the Protestant Union). With the assassination of Henry IV of France (ruled 1589–1610), the anti-Habsburg coalition collapsed, but the two Protestant claimants prevailed. Soon enough their collaboration broke down, however, especially after Johann Sigismund converted to Calvinism (1613) and Wolfgang Wilhelm converted to Catholicism (1614).
In the Treaty of Xanten (1614, reconfirmed in 1666) it was agreed that the duchy should be divided, with Cleves, Mark, and Ravensberg going to Brandenburg and Jülich and Berg going to Pfalz-Neuburg. This division was fateful in many ways, for while it extinguished an independent power on the Lower Rhine, it also guaranteed the involvement of two major dynasties in that region: the Hohenzollern of Brandenburg Prussia and the Wittelsbach of the Palatinate and Bavaria. Their rivalry punctuated the history of this region to the end of the eighteenth century. On the death of Elector Maximilian III (Joseph of Bavaria; 1727–1777; elector 1745–1777) in 1777, the presumptive heir Charles Theodore (Karl Theodor) of Pfalz-Sulzbach (1724–1799) even made plans with Emperor Joseph II (ruled 1765–1790) in 1777–1778 to exchange Bavaria for the Austrian Netherlands, which, along with Jülich and Berg, would have once again created a major power on the Lower Rhine and a greatly expanded and consolidated Habsburg territory in the southeast. But Frederick the Great of Prussia (Frederick II, ruled 1740–1786) successfully opposed these plans in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–1779, also ridiculed as the "Potato War" because of its military maneuvers without battles). The Prussian-sponsored League of Princes (1785) guaranteed that the Wittelsbach dynasty would remain in possession of Bavaria and would not expand on the Lower Rhine. The Hohenzollern possessions in Cleves and Mark provided a western outpost and later an industrial powerhouse that balanced their overwhelmingly agrarian interests in the German Northeast.
See also Bavaria ; Brandenburg ; Hohenzollern Dynasty ; Palatinate ; Prussia ; Wittelsbach Dynasty (Bavaria).
Anderson, Alison D. On the Verge of War: International Relations and the Jülich-Kleve Succession Crises (1609–1614). Boston, 1999.
Midelfort, H. C. Erik. Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany. Charlottesville, Va., 1994.
Stadtmuseum Düsseldorf, ed. Land im Mittelpunkt der Mächte: Die Herzogtümer Jülich, Kleve Berg. 2nd ed. Kleve, 1984.
H. C. Erik Midelfort