The Tailor-King

The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Muenster

Anthony Arthur

Thomas Dunne Books

And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand; and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven.
—Revelation 11:13

HERMAN KERSSENBRÜCK WAS destined for life as a theologian and a schoolmaster but he was also blessed with an eye for lively detail and a keen dramatic sense. The story that he would experience and, unlike many others, live to tell about, began long before the night of February 8, 1534, but it was then that it reached its first critical point. From those frantic early-morning hours in the cobblestoned streets of his temporary home in northern Germany until the conclusion of the drama nearly two years later, a handful of men would lead thousands of devoted followers not to God, as they promised to do, but to their destruction.
It was unclear to the young Latin scholar, only thirteen on this fateful night, whether he was witnessing a comedy or a tragedy, but he had a secure sense even then of the stage and of the characters who would dominate it. The place was the north German city called Münster in Westphalia. Secure from attack behind its double walls and double moat, its ten gates were guarded by small stone bastions or “roundels”; wealthy from commerce and farming, proud of its independence as a powerful city-state on the far fringes of the Holy Roman Empire, it had perhaps grown arrogant in its presumption that God thought it especially worthy of his concern. The time was that of the early Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, still deeply rooted in the Middle Ages but bursting with energetic demands for change, for justice, for freedom of choice in all matters both secular and religious. The characters on the crowded world stage included John Calvin in Geneva, Henry VIII in England, and the young Emperor Charles V in Germany—and, transcending borders of language and national identity, towering above all of them in terms of his ultimate importance, the apostate German priest, Martin Luther.
The small city of Münster had its own important men. Foremost among them was the merchant-prince Bernard Knipperdolling; fifty years old, tall and burly, with a thick beard, square-cut in the fashion of the day, always soberly dressed in heavy gray robes, Knipperdolling was a cloth merchant who had warehouses and offices in several cities besides Münster, including Lübeck and Amsterdam. He had two grown daughters and, after the death of his first wife, had recently married a wealthy widow. He was a prominent member of the city council, a man who spoke seldom but always with weight and point to his remarks. The most visible symbol of his success was the magnificent three-story gabled house that stood on the Market Square, at an angle to the stately St. Lambert’s Church and a block away from the renowned City Hall.
Now, as the young Herman (who was not only a devout Catholic but, like most adolescent boys, a confirmed cynic) tells it, this dignified and respectable man appeared in the doorway of his grand house, arm in arm with a much younger, slighter man, a newcomer from Leyden called Jan Bockelson, a “bastard Dutch tailor and bawdy-house keeper.” Both men were screaming and pointing to the sky, shouting, “Repent! Repent! For the hour of the Lord is now upon us!” They were not alone in their frenzy: the Market Square, lit by torchlight reflected against the low clouds, was like a Witches’ Sabbath to Herman and two schoolmates as they crouched fearfully in a doorway to watch. It was a carnival of madness, a gathering of demons, who in the light of day wore the familiar faces of carpenters, blacksmiths, and merchants, of schoolchildren and nuns, even of the august members of the city council. Among these moved a dark-robed, stocky figure, the third of Kerssenbrück’s lead players, the hot-tempered and brilliant young Anabaptist preacher Bernard Rothmann. A few years earlier Rothmann had been an earnest intellectual who had studied with the great Melanchthon, Luther’s disciple. Now he thrust his short, broad-chested figure through the crowd, his eyes rolling, demanding that “all repent!”
The mob surged around the preacher, terrified and exhilarated. Many, like Knipperdolling, were hysterical, with a slather of foam issuing from their mouths. The shrill voice of an impassioned young woman standing on the steps of St. Lambert’s Church cut through the clamor; the daughter of the tailor Jurgen tom Berg was calling for repentance so effectively that her father, inspired by her passion, raised his arms to the flame-reddened heavens and cried, “I see the majesty of God and Jesus, who bears the flag of victory in His hands. Beware, you Godless ones! Repent! God will reap His harvest and let the chaff burn in the all-consuming fires. Cease from sinning! Repent!” He leaped into the air as though he might fly, then threw himself on his face in the dirt and dung in the shape of a cross.
Everywhere Herman Kerssenbrück looked he saw similar small dramas of ecstatic possession. The blind Scottish beggar who had somehow ended up in Münster, dressed in a motley assortment of colored rags, his great gaunt frame made even taller by high-heeled boots, ran about in circles crying that he could see, he could see again. A crowd gathered around him as he turned the corner into King Street, shouting that the heavens were about to fall on their heads, at which moment he tripped and fell into a pile of dung, and the crowd deserted him in search of more reliable visionaries. The miller Jodokus Culenberg galloped around the square on a borrowed white stallion, calling for all to repent. An old woman who had lost her voice in the excitement raced through the crowd, shaking a bell. Although fires of such heat usually burn themselves out quickly, the midnight tumult seemed to go on and on. When, young Herman must have wondered, would it end? And how, later generations would ask, had it all begun?

The immediate cause of this night’s revelries lay in what had not happened at midnight, as foretold by Pastor Bernard Rothmann. That was the hour, he had announced two days earlier, for the Catholic Convent next to the river Aa to crumble before the might of the Lord, taking with it the bodies and souls of the scores of nuns it so invidiously sheltered. This improbable event was announced by Rothmann after he marched into the Overwater Church, as it was called, at the head of a mob of guildsmen and farmers and forced the Abbess, Ida von Merveldt, to assemble her trembling charges. This convent, Rothmann told the women, was an offense in the eyes of God. “It is your holy duty,” he admonished them, “not to withhold your bodies for Christ but to go forth and multiply. You must have men, you must marry, you must bear children.”
In fact, this would not have been an unpleasant injunction for some of Rothmann’s listeners—young women were often dispatched by their families to convents for other than religious reasons, and some of them might even have set their caps for the handsome preacher had he not recently married a wealthy young widow. Others, like the Abbess, were devout Catholics and horrified by Rothmann’s presumptuous attack. Devout or inclined to stray, each of the nuns heard Rothmann explain how he had come by the information that she was in danger of losing her life. This “salutary announcement has been made to me,” the pastor said, “by one of the prophets now present in this city, and the Heavenly Father has also favored me with a direct and special revelation to the same effect.”

Twenty years earlier Bernard Rothmann’s attempt to frighten the nuns would have been met with laughter or blank stares of incomprehension. That he could succeed now derived in part from his compelling personality and his undoubted moral intensity, but even more from the example set earlier by a man whom Rothmann resembled in some ways, Martin Luther.
The critical event of the sixteenth century occurred near its beginning, in 1517; it was then, as every schoolboy and -girl has learned ever since, that the young Catholic priest Martin Luther challenged the Church of Rome to reform itself. Private protests having proved futile, Luther took the irreversible step of publicly announcing an invitation to discuss his objections and demands, nailing them, as tradition has it, to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. This and later acts of protest and defiance led the Pope to order Luther to Rome for “examination.” Justly fearing that he would not live to leave Rome, where far more powerful men than he, including popes and princes, were routinely murdered, Luther refused to budge from Germany or to recant. In 1520 he was excommunicated, and central Germany became the throbbing heart of the most profoundly divisive and destructive, yet at the same time creative and energizing movement in Western history—the Protestant Reformation.
Albrecht Dürer, Luther’s contemporary then living in Nuremberg, perfectly captured the destructive aspects of their time in his famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which depicts the scourges of famine, fire, pestilence, and war riding over the land. Within a few years of Luther’s defiance of the Pope, Rome itself was sacked and destroyed, in 1527. At almost the same time, in 1525, starving farmers in Germany had formed themselves into a vast army, attacking landowners, the Church, and the Emperor’s armies until they were slaughtered; more than a hundred thousand farmers and their urban allies in the trade guilds died in what came to be called the Peasants’ War. Thus within two turbulent years the two great pillars of the western world, those of the Church and of the state, were severely shaken; the so-called Holy Roman Empire was in danger of imminent collapse.
In the midst of this chaos arose a new group that caused great alarm among both religious and civil authorities. They were called the Anabaptists, and they provided Catholics and Protestants with a rare common cause: their extermination. The original concept of Anabaptism, as first formulated by a Swiss reformer, Conrad Grebel, in 1523, sounds reasonable enough to modern sensibilities, shaped by a heritage of democracy and a belief in a degree of free will. The true faith, Grebel said, is not a matter of being born into a belief because of what your parents profess, or of having it imposed upon you because you happen to live in a certain place. It is a voluntary community of believers who have freely entered it as responsible, thinking adults through the symbolic act of baptism. Thus, infant baptism is meaningless; the only true baptism has to come later, when the act can be understood as a conversion and as a true commitment to God.
Grebel and later believers never referred to “re-baptism,” because they did not believe a first baptism had ever actually occurred. They usually called themselves “the brethren” or, as in Münster, “the company of Christ.” Nevertheless, they became notorious throughout Europe as the “Wiedertäufer” or “Ana-baptists” (the prefix coming from the Greek for “again”) because their Catholic enemies could then condemn them to death for violating a key church law against second baptisms of any kind.
By 1529 Charles V had become so concerned that the dangerous doctrines of Anabaptism were “getting the upper hand” that he ordered the wholesale extermination of “every anabaptist and rebaptized man and woman of the age of reason. [They] shall be condemned and brought from natural life into death by fire, sword, and the like, according to the person, without proceeding by the inquisition of the spiritual judges; and let the same [punishment be inflicted on the] pseudo-preachers, instigators, vagabonds, and tumultuous inciters of the said vice of anabaptism.”
From Switzerland in the south, throughout central Europe and Germany, and as far north and west as England, where Henry VIII burned a dozen Anabaptists at the stake, thousands of men and women were subjected to the most terrible persecution. Many of the more moderate leaders who abjured violence were martyred, leaving a gap in the leadership that was often filled by men of little education but much passion. In some parts of northern Germany and Holland a few princes offered the Anabaptists a degree of protection, but even there they were severely restricted. Many Anabaptists accordingly began to meet in small, secret cells, known only to themselves—thus adding another reason for the authorities to fear them and to hunt them down.
Luther himself detested the Anabaptists. A radical only in the religious sense, he depended on the goodwill of princes to keep him from the fires that punished heretics, and he declared that a good Christian must obey the secular laws of the state. Church and state should be separate, but people owed obligations to both. The Anabaptists denied any such obligation. As the self-proclaimed Elect of God, they acknowledged allegiance to no authority but their own: not to the city, not to the state, and certainly not to any established Church, be it Roman or Lutheran.
Even Ulrich Zwingli, the radical Swiss reformer whose follower Conrad Grebel had once been and whom Luther thought too extreme, denounced the Anabaptists. He said infant baptism was a traditional ritual of immense value to the adults and older children who participated in it. He said the denial of public obligation to city and state was not only impractical but arrogant—the Anabaptists claimed that the whole world except for themselves was damned; that they were, as Norman Cohn later put it, “small islands in a sea of iniquity.” Yet because they sinned as much as anyone else, Zwingli said, the Anabaptists were not only impossibly self-righteous but hypocrites as well. Their emotional indulgence in religious ecstasy led them to ranting demonstrations of babbling idiocy. Finally, their belief that all property and goods should be held in common—their primitive communism—led when put into practice to all kinds of economic dislocation and abuse.
In short, their opponents of whatever persuasion agreed, the Anabaptists threatened the unity of the family, the stability of the state, the structure of all religious institutions, and the divine injunctions of God. But what made the Anabaptists particularly dangerous was their unshakable conviction that the world was about to end soon in the bloody Second Coming of Christ, as foretold in the Book of Revelation. All the signs indicated that this miraculous event, the most significant since the birth of Christ, was going to happen very soon, not just as an allegory, as in Dürer’s representation, but as a literal series of events.
Ideas of all sorts, both useful and crackbrained, require gifted advocates for them to come alive, and Münster was to suffer the presence of more than one of these. But before these men had come the eloquent Melchior Hoffman, a gentle soul who must bear the blame for much of what was to happen in Münster, though he never set foot in the city. Born in southern Germany in 1495, the son of a furrier, Hoffman was first a Catholic, then a Lutheran, then a follower of Zwingli, and finally the “Anabaptist Apostle of the North.” He wandered for years through northern Europe, from Frisia to Scandinavia, trading furs and preaching that Christ would soon return to begin his thousand-year reign on earth.
Hoffman thought of himself as the new Elijah, the storied prophet of Gilead who heard in a cave the “still, small voice” of God and went forth to save his people. Only those who had been properly baptized would be saved, so Hoffman devoted his energies in the tumultuous decade of the 1520s to making converts to Anabaptism. He found his richest soil in Holland, where he brought a semiliterate baker called Jan Matthias, who would later figure prominently in the story of the Anabaptists in Münster, into his fold.
Barefoot and humble, like the holy fathers of the early primitive Church, Hoffman himself renounced the initiation of violence but was sure it would soon arrive in the form of terrible oppression. The designated year was 1534, the place Strasbourg. At that time, Hoffman proposed to gather with the rest of the 140,000 messengers of world regeneration described in revelation 14:1. He and they would suffer a bloody siege of the chosen city, but would then recover their strength and destroy the ungodly. With the victory of the Chosen Ones, the Second Coming would be at hand.
The city fathers of Strasbourg, impressed with Hoffman’s piety though worried about the unrest his message inspired, treated him gently when he returned there in 1533 to await the end, along with hundreds of his followers. The true believers were chased out of town and some of their leaders executed. Hoffman was spared, his integrity shining through his probable madness, but he was clearly too dangerous to leave at large; he was locked in a cage within a tower, his hoarse voice drifting to the street below where the people could hear him chanting psalms and crying, “Woe, ye godless scribes of Strasbourg!” There he remained until his death a decade later. In the meantime, his followers changed the designated site of the Second Coming from Strasbourg to Münster, over two hundred miles to the north, near the Dutch border, and the year from 1534 to 1535.

Like Strasbourg, most of the cities where the Anabaptists gathered were governed by prudent and, if need be, ruthless men who either evicted or executed their antagonists when they became troublesome. However, many of these same cities were essentially sympathetic to the goals of religious freedom and economic justice for which the Anabaptists seemed willing to die. The more radical Lutherans, who were becoming increasingly strong during the decade after Luther’s defiance in Wittenberg, viewed the Anabaptists as eccentric allies rather than dangerous heretics. Individualistic and scattered in small groups throughout northern Europe, the Anabaptists were generally committed to non-violence, and they had been stripped of their leadership by bloody governmental and religious persecution. They were dangerous not so much for their numbers as for the power of their message, with its vision of a pure restoration of the original Church and its vision of Jesus Christ welcoming them to a certain future in Heaven. Among these long-suffering true believers, however, were some men who believed in the redeeming power of revenge, retribution, and violence. Where they appeared, Anabaptism began to justify the fears of those who saw it as a disruptive, indeed a satanic, force.
Such would be the case in Münster, for a variety of reasons. Shortly after the Reformation started, Münster had become in many ways both a model of the conditions against which Luther protested and an example of how opposing Catholics and Protestants could live together peacefully—but the tensions remained severe. The name of the city came from the Latin word for “monastery,” and it had been a bishopric for half the lifetime of the Church itself, beginning in A.D. 805. Now, though, the humble traditions of the early monks were belied by the sumptuous splendor of the Church. This small city of slightly more than nine thousand people supported not only the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral, but also ten churches, five of them grander than those found in much larger cities, plus seven convents, four charitable foundations, and four monasteries. Lovers of religious art and architecture crossing the plains as they approached Münster were thrilled by the sight of dozens of spires ascending toward the heavens; but the citizens whose taxes paid for much of it could not be blamed for regarding the Church architecture as a testimony to ecclesiastical indifference to their welfare.
Following long-established tradition, the Church paid no property taxes to the city. It contributed no men to the periodic military levies enacted by the Prince-Bishop. The monasteries and convents farmed their own plots and thus bought little from the local farmers; on the contrary, they sold their surplus on the open market or gave it away, failing to support, if not actively undermining, the tax-paying farmers of the region. They engaged in active competition with the businessmen and artisans of the city: the nuns were busy at their looms, weaving tapestries and fabrics, and the brothers made furniture and tools in their shops. In sum, as all Protestants and not a few Catholics agreed, the Church contributed little to, and took much from, the local economy.
Until Luther, all this was as it had been for centuries, and the peasants and tradesmen and artisans on whose weary backs the Church rested had voiced few audible complaints. Mostly illiterate in Latin, they depended as Roman Catholics on their priests to explain what the Latin Bible meant to them, and they learned that complaints against the Church would earn them eternal damnation. But when Luther translated the Latin Bible into everyday German, the first version of the New Testament appearing in 1522, he released millions from dependence on the priests for their instruction. Within a few years of Luther’s translation, hundreds of his followers had spread through central Europe with what they called the original word of God, as opposed to what Rome claimed it was.
The inevitable result of millions of people being encouraged to think for themselves was resistance to arbitrary authority, slow and hesitant at first, then insistent, and finally violent. Luther himself, the very father of the Reformation, not only advised against violent revolt against either Church or state, he counseled rulers to hang and burn without mercy renegades like Thomas Müntzer, who had incited the peasants to violence in 1525. The Peasants’ War, however, did prompt the authorities in many places to grant more self-rule, as happened in Münster. There the then—Prince-Bishop, Frederick von Wiede, felt compelled to grant the city, in 1525, a considerable degree of the independence from Church authority that it had lost in recent decades. The city was now to be ruled by a council of twenty-four men, two of whom acted as co-mayors. The men, Catholics as well as Lutherans, were members of the crafts guilds (smiths, tailors, furriers), merchants, and property holders. Housed in the splendid City Hall whose ornate facade rose a hundred feet above the Market Square, the council achieved for a few years a tenuous equanimity.

Like Martin Luther, Bernard Rothmann had not intended to rebel against the Church, which had some reason to expect gratitude from him. The son of a blacksmith, Rothmann had been raised in poverty and could easily have died poor, ignorant, and unknown. His gifts were too obvious, however, to remain unnoticed; his uncle, a vicar in Münster, had recognized the boy’s potential and rescued him, first sending him to school, then securing for him a position as chaplain of the church of St. Mauritz, just outside the city gate. By 1525 the energy, intelligence, and personal charm of the blacksmith’s son had won him a sinecure for life.
But the events of the decade when he came to his maturity, particularly the Peasants’ War, stirred the young priest’s social conscience. He began to challenge the Church for its failure to support the farmers, and finally to accuse it of conspiring with the civil authorities to murder its own followers. He feared that Luther was right, that the Church was irretrievably corrupt. By 1530 Rothmann had earned such a reputation as a radical Catholic dissident that his uncle handed him a bag of gold coins and sent him to Cologne, about forty miles south of Münster, for further religious study and devotional exercises. Rothmann signed a promissory note for the money and vanished for months, never even appearing in Cologne. He returned in 1531 not as a Catholic priest but as a declared Lutheran and soon led a mob through his former church, St. Mauritz, in a rampage of idol-smashing. The altar was toppled, the silver communion chalice was crushed, and paintings of the Virgin were torn from the walls and burned in the church courtyard.
Rothmann left Münster again in some haste after this episode to visit Luther and the famous theologian Philip Melanchthon in Wittenberg. Whatever his faults, Rothmann was hardly the fool the later chroniclers of the Kingdom of Münster would make him out to be, for he impressed these two brilliant men profoundly, much though Luther disapproved of his actions then and later. Melanchthon, for his part, had even greater doubts about the young convert, fearing that he was mentally unstable; he remarked to Luther that Rothmann had great potential, but it was a toss-up whether he would turn out to be “extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad.”
Herman Kerssenbrück had no difficulty determining which course Rothmann had chosen by the time he returned to Münster early in 1532, this time to stay: all the “poisonous beliefs that had been festering in him” finally broke out in a series of frenzied denunciations of the Catholic Church. Although still nominally a Lutheran, it seems clear in retrospect that Rothmann had crossed the thin line dividing radical Lutherans from the Anabaptists. He did not make a public pronouncement to this effect, since to do so would mean immediate imprisonment, if not death, but his sermons began to include disparaging references to infant baptism and to the holding of private property, two Anabaptist bugbears. He found his message increasingly well received by growing crowds of eager supporters in the city streets, including not only Lutherans but a number of Catholics. Ignoring the protestations of the Catholic hierarchy and of the mostly Lutheran city council, which he had begun to frighten as well, Rothmann finally acceded for a few weeks to an order from Bishop von Wiede to desist from public preaching, but then reconsidered. In a letter to von Wiede, he challenged the Bishop not to let his “godless oppressors escape the deserved punishment of heaven. Because my conscience is clear, I have no doubt that I can rely on God’s mercy. He will protect me and rescue me from danger, when my enemies fall upon me like the lion. I know that at this moment I am surrounded by a pack of dogs and a horde of evildoers.” He signed this remarkable appeal, “From the humble servant of the merciful Bishop, his soldier in Christ, BR.”
The Bishop responded by ordering the bailiff of the Cathedral, Dirk von Merveldt, to pressure the council to expel Rothmann from the city. Rothmann refused to leave, asserting that God had protected him with His heavenly wings and the council’s commands were hollow: God only was to be obeyed, not the mere men who tried to deprive the people of the word of God that he was bringing them. Some of the key council members broke away to support the radical preacher, chief among them the merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.
Knipperdolling, like Rothmann, had by 1532 become a convert to the doctrine of radical resistance proposed by the Dutch Anabaptist Jan Matthias and his followers. Again, this conversion was kept from his fellow council members, who still considered him a Lutheran. Meeting in Knipperdolling’s house in February 1532, a group of prominent citizens signed a pact that in its brave idealism seems to foreshadow the American Founding Fathers’ words two centuries later: they swore to devote their personal fortunes, their reputations, and even their lives to the cause of freedom from oppression that Rothmann now symbolized to them.
Their subsequent actions were, however, less high-minded. Led by Knipperdolling, the men now marched with Rothmann and with scores of shouting followers to St. Lambert’s Church, forced their way in, and destroyed the stone coffins holding the ashes of long-dead bishops and priests. The crowd became a mob that raged through the city for a full day, sparing from attack only the Cathedral itself, not out of a lingering sense of piety but because it was too securely barred and defended. Huge fires consumed wax votive candles, priestly vestments, paintings, and tapestries. A massive book-burning took place in the market square: Latin Bibles, devotional texts, as well as secular works from personal libraries—the philosophical works of Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, the poetry of Horace and Chaucer, and the engravings of Heinrich Aldegrever and the paintings of Ludger tom Ring, both well-known local artists—all fed the swirling flames. Rothmann even consigned his own sermons to the bonfire: “The truth of Holy Scripture shall triumph!” he proclaimed, and it alone was exempt from destruction.
The conflict between the radical Protestants and the ruling Catholic authorities had now moved beyond words into action, the gauntlet insultingly tossed at the feet of Prince-Bishop Frederick von Wiede. The city waited anxiously for his response.

Many of the dozens of late-medieval “prince-bishops” scattered throughout the German-speaking areas of central Europe were really feudal lords, not ecclesiastical figures. They acquired their possessions by means of marriage, political connections, armed conquest, and sometimes by simply purchasing them from the current owners. Powerful by virtue of the money, arms, and soldiers that they could command from lesser lords, the prince-bishops had nearly unrestrained power to do as they wished with even the most prominent of their subjects. One reason for Bernard Knipperdolling’s devotion to Rothmann was that a few years earlier von Wiede had kidnapped him while he was en route to Lübeck on a business trip. The respected merchant was thrown into jail and kept there for six months, until his brothers ransomed him. When he was released, according to some accounts, he walked with a crooked gait and in obvious pain: his toes, it was said, had been crushed in iron boots. He had been forced to agree not to engage in religious agitation. Instead, he went literally underground, churning out pamphlets based on Rothmann’s sermons on a printing press in his basement. Thus the Bishop turned the merchant from an opponent whose stated cause—the independence of his city—was respectable, into a revolutionary who would finally destroy it.
There was little room for compromise or negotiation between opponents who both detested and disdained each other as godless: to the Catholics, Knipperdolling and Rothmann seemed to be crazed fanatics, resistant to reason or to compromise. The merchant and the renegade priest, for their part, charged that the Church and its minions were exploiters, thieves, and tyrants. Armed conflict seemed inevitable in 1532. Both sides, surprisingly, took heart when the ailing and frustrated Bishop von Wiede chose to retire early that year rather than pursue the fight with Rothmann and was succeeded by the nobleman Franz von Waldeck. The Catholics were encouraged because they saw in von Waldeck a “brave and righteous knight,” endowed with new authority from Emperor Charles V to quell this troubling source of unrest in his realm. The Lutherans for their part regarded von Waldeck as anything but “righteous”: he was not even an ordained priest but a typical lusty baron who lived for the hunt, for drink, and for women—in addition to his wife he had an official mistress who had borne him a son. He owed his power to family connections with Philip of Hesse, himself a Lutheran, and insofar as he had any religious leanings, he was inclined to sympathize more with the Lutherans than with the Church of Rome. The radicals in Münster thus saw von Waldeck as a greedy, lascivious political hack, utterly lacking in conviction and most unlikely to kill the golden goose, the city that was the commercial heart of his domain.
A painting of Franz von Waldeck by a later artist reveals a different man from either the “righteous knight” or the corrupt wastrel. In it we see a broad-chested man in bishop’s regalia. His hands are enormous, with fingers the thickness of fat sausages. The left hand loosely supports the symbol of the Church, the shepherd’s crook. His right hand clasps firmly the hilt of a heavy sword, the symbol of the state. The sword is at the ready, opposed to and dominant over the passive shepherd’s crook. Heavily lidded eyes gaze from under bushy eyebrows past the sword; the nose is thick and prominent, the lips full and sensuous. The curled side-whiskers and down-turning mustache accentuate the deeply threatening aspect of his presence. Franz von Waldeck’s potential for ruthless force is obvious through a centuries-old painting; how much more so it must have been to his contemporaries who saw him in the flesh.
But the rebels seemed for now to have taken von Waldeck’s measure: Münster was formidably defended and would cost a fortune to subdue. The new Bishop was forced by his own prudence and by his advisers to tell the city council that he would delay an action against Rothmann until he had received guidance from Emperor Charles V; as he and they both knew, Münster was by no means unique in its religious disputation, and a decree was due soon from the Emperor concerning methods of resolving these matters peacefully, if that was possible.
This unexpected passivity in the face of aggression encouraged the rebels to further demands. Knipperdolling openly challenged the new Bishop by appointing an armed guard to protect Rothmann, himself, and their allies. Even more significantly, he forced the council to impose a code of sixteen articles that virtually denied Roman Catholics the right to practice their faith in Münster. Chief among these articles was a complete proscription of the Catholic Mass, of communion, of prayers for the dead, of the use of Latin in any form, of the worship of Mary, of “smearing oil” on the dying to ease the departure of the soul to Heaven, and of various other Catholic habits of “disgusting idolatry.”
Rothmann justified these attacks on Catholic doctrine and practice at every opportunity. As was often the case with the Anabaptists, then and later, many of his explanations have seemed soundly reasoned to later theologians. The Holy Communion supper, he said, should be kept only as a reminder of Jesus and a way of expanding their fellowship, not as a religious sacrament—the belief that the wafer and the wine were literally the body and blood of Christ was wrong, for these were symbolic, not literal. In addition, human delight in food and sex were God-given and divine, and not to be denied by foolish fasting or priestly chastity, which were seldom observed in any event. Rothmann’s own religious services were enlivened by song and by dance, and communion celebrations became veritable feasts—practices fit for the voluptuaries of Baal and Satan, according to Kerssenbrück, rather than acceptable ways of celebrating fellowship.
Rothmann’s arguments were familiar and to a degree persuasive even to some Catholics, who agreed that discipline was needed to restrain abuses of faith such as the worship of Mary as a divine being. But Holy Communion and the Latin Mass were integral to Catholic faith. To denounce them was bad enough; to forbid them was to declare religious war. The new Bishop would have no choice but to respond with force if Rothmann, the instigator of the trouble, was not now expelled from Münster. But not only was Rothmann allowed to remain and to preach, he was given the grandest church in town for his own, St. Lambert’s, and an apartment over a neighboring shop.
By this time Charles V, far to the south in his court in Regensburg, was hearing troublesome reports of the events in Münster and decided to intervene, even before he announced his more wide-sweeping measures for the empire. Some measure of the importance of Münster to the young emperor (born in 1500, he was only thirty-two) is suggested by the magnitude of the other problems he had to deal with: war with the Turks, constant contention with the French King Francis I, and resistance and defiance by princelings in every corner of the realm had combined with the incessant religious strife unleashed by Luther to endanger his own survival. The unrest in the small city on the edge of his empire had turned Münster into a bothersome symptom of the larger problems facing Charles. Impatient with von Waldeck’s inaction, and suspecting him of harboring secret sympathies with the Lutherans, the Emperor warned him that the radicals were deluding the ignorant people, leading them into error and away from the true word of God: “If they do not desist there will soon be violence and bloodshed; therefore we earnestly desire that you, the Bishop, remove the Lutherans and expel them from the city. The rebellious citizens should receive the appropriate punishment and be forced to acknowledge and obey their superiors, so that they and the remaining inhabitants should be able to live quietly and peacefully.”
Von Waldeck forwarded the Emperor’s message to the city council with the strong warning that his “pious wishes and friendly requests should be heeded so that you do not draw down on yourselves his anger and scorn.” At the same time, correctly anticipating that the Lutherans would ignore the Emperor, the Bishop summoned all the wealthy landowners and nobles to his palace in Billerbeck to ask for their support in bringing the city to heel.
The city did indeed ignore the Bishop; the result, beginning in late October 1532, was a blockade. This was a relatively easy and inexpensive measure designed to bring the city to its senses without actual attack. Münster was situated in the middle of a wide, flat plain like the hub of a wheel; the Bishop now blocked its spokes with soldiers to hinder merchants and traders from entering or leaving the city, including the local farmers who had no other market for their products or source of hardware and other supplies. Even before the formal announcement of the blockade, soldiers arrested a dozen men driving a large herd of oxen to market in Cologne. The Bishop locked the men in a dungeon and sold the cattle for enough cash to maintain a company of soldiers for a month. As reports of this outrage spread through the city, hundreds of angry citizens gathered in the Market Square to shout insults and curses at the Bishop, who was fortunately not on the scene to hear angry voices proclaiming that he was a tyrant and an oppressor, he was unworthy of his honorable name, he was a short-sighted fat-gutted fool.
The members of the city council, having earlier allowed the Catholics to be deprived of their religious freedom, now grew fearful that their own survival was at risk, along with the freedom of the city. They agreed to appeal their case to a higher political authority, Landgraf (Count) Philip of Hesse, Westphalia’s neighbor to the southeast. Philip was himself a Lutheran sympathizer, a man of great personal integrity and opposed to violence from any quarter. To present its political and legal argument to Philip, the council also agreed to hire as an adviser another respected outsider, Dr. Friedrich von Wyck, an attorney from nearby Bremen. On the ecclesiastical side, it appealed for help in the battle with von Waldeck to a higher religious authority, the Roman Catholic Archbishop in Cologne; he could offer no more help than to warn the council not to “rush into destruction.” Neighborly appeals to nearby towns for help were mostly fruitless, although one small city, Warendorp, was outspoken in its support and the others were at least neutral. Seeing itself without allies and defenseless if mediation by Philip and von Wyck failed, the council reluctantly decided to hire three hundred mercenary soldiers to protect the city.
In the meantime, on the day after Christmas 1532, about nine hundred armed men conducted a midnight raid on the Bishop’s stronghold in Telgte, yet another palace, this one only a dozen miles distant. They hoped to capture von Waldeck himself, but the Bishop was away for the holiday at his residence in Billerbeck, and they had to settle for taking eighteen men as prisoners. Among these were high church officials as well as humiliated military officers whose negligence had allowed the attack to succeed. There were no injuries and the prisoners were adequately housed in Münster. The audacious raid itself lifted the spirits of the rebels, and the hostages gave the city a much improved bargaining position with the Bishop, who still held their own men, the cattle merchants, captive.
Drawing back now from open warfare, the two sides during the next five weeks worked out a settlement that was signed in mid-February 1533. Knipperdolling was, after all, a merchant, and he could understand the deadly economics of a blockade. For his part, the Bishop agreed to release the men he had imprisoned for trying to sell their cattle, and to pay a fine to their leader, Herman Tilbeck, for compensation. He also agreed to the city’s municipal independence, saying the Church would not interfere with its business. Finally, the six smaller churches taken over by the Lutherans would remain Lutheran; however, the larger churches, such as St. Lambert’s and the Overwater Church, as well as the Cathedral and the cloister church, would remain Catholic. The city had to promise that Catholic parishioners would not be subject to harassment; all citizens would be subject only to the civil authority of the magistrates. There would be no more heretical preaching by Rothmann or his associates. There were to be no reprisals against the supporters of the Bishop who had fled and would now return, and all property and goods taken from them would be restored. High and low clergy alike would be allowed to pass through the city streets unhindered. Finally, von Waldeck would receive the traditional oath of submission from the city three months hence, in May 1533.
The city’s autonomy was preserved, as was the Bishop’s dignity, by the truce that Philip of Hesse had sponsored. But Knipperdolling and his allies blamed the council moderates for giving ground and immediately stirred up noisy protests against these men. The radicals were supported by hundreds of zealous newcomers; for months now, despite the blockade, Rothmann’s sermons and other leaflets printed by Knipperdolling had been circulating through Holland, Frisia, and northern Germany. In them Rothmann explained, among other topics, that much human misery stemmed from the idea of “private property.” The very idea of owning anything, of thinking in terms of “this is mine and this is yours” was evil. “God had made all things common, as today we can still enjoy air, fire, rain, and the sun in common, and whatever else some thieving, tyrannical man cannot grasp for himself.” Rothmann temptingly portrayed Münster as a rich city that was now prepared to share its wealth with all who came to it as members of the Company of Christ. He invited and urged those who could contribute to its holy mission to join him, bringing with them only the weapons they would need to defend the new Kingdom of Zion, as he called it, against the ungodly. Throughout 1533, hundreds and finally thousands of the wretched, the dispossessed, and the desperate read Rothmann’s word and made their way to Münster. As they came in, nervous Catholic citizens and others who had the means to leave the city began to do so.
By March 1533, there were enough of these newcomers in town to help the radicals force a new election; some of the foreigners, like the preacher Henry Roll, were even more intemperate in their demands than Rothmann, and none was reluctant to meddle in the politics of his host city. The consequence was a special election in March which resulted in a new council. All sixteen of the twenty-four members who had agreed to the pact with the Bishop were replaced by hard-liners. Now there were no Catholics and no moderate Lutherans on the council, only declared opponents of the Bishop. These were divided into two factions. The first, slightly larger and more conservative, consisted of Lutherans who thought negotiation was still preferable to conflict, and was led by the respected but elderly clothmaker Jaspar Jodefeld. The second, consisting of Anabaptist sympathizers who thought war was inevitable, was led by the equally respected patrician Herman Tilbeck, who had been among the imprisoned cattle dealers. These two men were the new co-mayors. Serving with them were twelve artisans, mostly guildmasters, and ten businessmen, including Bernard Knipperdolling.
The new council, strongly influenced by Knipperdolling and Rothmann, set out to right some old wrongs and to correct some problems of behavior among the citizens. The supervision of the schools was taken away from the priests and given to the Lutherans, under a schoolmaster from the town of Borkum, Henry Graes. The poor were given clothing, food, and shelter and put to work on civic projects, including strengthening the city walls. The Catholic monasteries and convents were forced to open their dining tables to the newcomers. Private behavior was closely scrutinized; reports of marital discord and even children’s misbehavior were speedily investigated and resolved. A new sense of moral order and discipline infused the city.
Some citizens, however, were uneasy at the draconian punishments, such as public whippings, jail, even threats of death, imposed on those “stiffnecked and wayward” types who persisted in whoring, drunkenness, lying, and blasphemy. The driving force behind the earlier agitation of the Lutherans against Bishop von Wiede had been the desire for freedom—for democracy rather than autocracy in government and for religious independence from the Roman Catholic Church. Now those who had achieved that freedom, the moderate Lutherans working with the Catholics, had been driven from office. Their successors, who had claimed an even greater devotion to freedom, were either Anabaptist sympathizers or radical Lutherans, and they were beginning to act like tyrants themselves.
A key turning point occurred late in 1533, when large-scale public baptisms began, conducted by dozens of newly arrived preachers, including the young tailor’s apprentice from Leyden called Jan Bockelson. Within one week alone, a total of fourteen hundred people became declared Anabaptists, and by no means were all of them the dispossessed or the ignorant rabble, as the Bishop asserted. Many of the new converts were women, some of them merchants’ wives who immediately donated all of their jewels and fine clothes to the cause. Many more were farm girls who worked for these wealthy ladies as maids and housekeepers. And not a few were nuns from the Overwater Church Convent, where the Abbess Ida von Merveldt wrote despairingly to the Bishop that her charges were becoming obstreperous, singing German psalms in church instead of Latin chants, not wearing their habits, ignoring her commands and her tears alike.
Older men and children above the age of twelve were also baptized during this period. As 1533 drew to a close, it was estimated that as many as one third of the population of Münster consisted of people who were sure that the apocalypse and the Second Coming were at hand. Many of the converts were men whom Jan Bockelson and other leaders immediately organized into armed quasi-military units that operated independent of the city’s own defensive force of mercenary soldiers.
Jaspar Jodefeld, the co-mayor and leader of the Lutheran faction of the council, saw the city slipping into chaos. The Bishop would feel justified in destroying all of them unless Rothmann and his noisiest assistant, Henry Roll, were stopped. On November 4, 1533, Jodefeld told the council that he intended to send an armed guard to evict the two preachers from Münster, in what would be the first armed encounter between the erstwhile allies. As a council member, Knipperdolling knew of the plan and led the preachers to safety in St. Lambert’s Church, along with hundreds of their armed followers. Jodefeld and the other mayor, Herman Tilbeck, who sided in this instance with the less extreme faction of the council, established their own redoubt in the City Hall, a stone’s throw down the street. The two sides exchanged fiery messages until Dr. von Wyck, the Bremen lawyer, persuaded them both that they were guaranteeing a victory for the Bishop by their behavior. A resulting agreement stipulated that the Anabaptists, including Rothmann and Roll, would be allowed to stay, on condition that they refrain from public disturbance. The principle that all were free to choose their own faith was reasserted.
As part of the settlement between the factions, a Lutheran minister from the court of Philip of Hesse, Dietrich Fabricius, arrived to preach in St. Lambert’s Church. There, in the citadel of the Anabaptists, Fabricius charged that Rothmann was violating the rules of the recent agreement by continued public agitation. On January 4, 1534, a crowd of Anabaptist women rebuked Fabricius for his foreign tongue—Latin—and chased him out of St. Lambert’s, saying the church was properly Rothmann’s, not his. When the mayors admonished the women to go home and look after their children and husbands, Kerssenbrück reports, they withdrew, cursing. They returned to the City Hall the next day with half a dozen apostate nuns from the Overwater Church Convent, who had “shamefully” removed their habits. The women loudly demanded the return of Rothmann to St. Lambert’s; the mayors refused, and were berated by the women, “the nuns the loudest and most profane.” Fabricius was a villainous imposter who deserved to be hanged, the women screamed. When reprimanded by the city fathers, they picked up clods of sheep, pig, and cow dung that lay about the street and hurled them at the hapless men until they retreated behind the locked doors of the City Hall.
Rothmann himself denied inciting anyone to violence or to rebellion. But if war was to come, the cornerstone for their faith had been securely laid and the walls of the city greatly strengthened. No matter how powerful the Papists might appear, they could never destroy the new Company of Christ. Remember the words of Saint Paul, Rothmann exhorted: “Night is passing, a new dawn is coming.”
Bishop Franz was by now almost beside himself with fury. On January 20, 1534, he complained in a letter to Philip about the “disgusting heresies of this damned sect of Anabaptists and their misguided leader Bernard Rothmann, who along with his helpers is trying to pull everything down.” They were particularly dangerous, he complained, because they spent so much time with the poor, telling them that when they adopted their proper Christian way of living there would be “no poverty—on the contrary, all property, as in the time of the Apostles, would be commonly shared by all neighbors.” He went on to complain about the rejection of infant baptism and about their denial of all authority, including the Pope’s. He warned that “if the growing number of Anabaptists get the upper hand in Munster” there would be a bloody confrontation ahead. Shortly afterward, von Waldeck wrote directly to the city council, saying, “We, Franz, Bishop of Münster by the Grace of God, do hereby declare that the damned, forbidden, and treacherous teachings of the Anabaptists are being spread by heretics,” whom the council must expel or suffer the consequences. He summoned Jaspar Jodefeld and Dr. von Wyck to discuss the matter with him in Telgte on February 2.
When Jodefeld announced the coming meeting to the council, Knipperdolling insisted that two other men be included in the party. One was the shoemaker Herman Redeker, the other a formidable thug, a gigantic man called Tile Bussenmeister and nicknamed the Cyclops because he had only one eye—a signal advantage, as some joked, in sighting a rifle. Knipperdolling must have known that the presence of Redeker would have been enough by itself to sabotage any attempt at a meeting, for the shoemaker was charged by the Bishop with having looted a Catholic church in an earlier disturbance; Bussenmeister’s villainous presence was an even greater affront. When the odd delegation arrived at Telgte, the Bishop was outraged at its constitution and sent a messenger to turn it from his gate. He was particularly insulted that Dr. von Wyck, an attorney, should have joined company with thieves and rogues. The attorney should know, the Bishop told him through his messenger, that he was placing his life in great danger.
Back in Münster, the Anabaptists reacted gleefully to the assurance, at last, of an attack by the Bishop that would confirm their apocalyptic expectations. Seething with religious fervor, they began to call for the expulsion of all who were not prepared to fight in their holy war. The nonbelievers, especially the Catholics, would have to leave the city or convert to Anabaptism. Some of the more extreme rebels even called for the execution of the godless ones, as they called their opponents.

It was in this context, then, that Bernard Rothmann went to the convent at Overwater Church on the evening of February 6, 1534, and terrified the nuns with his prediction of coming disaster. He was very convincing: most of the nuns fled the convent, taking their belongings with them to the houses of Rothmann’s supporters, leaving only the Abbess Ida von Merveldt and a few others behind. The wayward nuns joined the huge crowd that gathered during the hour before midnight to watch the cloister’s promised destruction. When the twelfth hour had been tolled by the great bell at St. Lambert’s without the collapse of the cloister, Pastor Bernard Rothmann was unabashed. Surely they must all know, he shouted to the waiting faithful, that a prophet is not false simply because his prophecy fails to take place at a given time. “Jonah foretold that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days. But the inhabitants repented, and the city remained standing. The anger of the Heavenly Father had been allayed.” So it was now with the convert; it did not fall because the nuns had seen the errors of their ways, causing God to be merciful. This was an occasion of great joy, as great almost as that of the final moments that were still certain to come, sometime. They should all shout their gratitude to the heavens, Rothmann declared, proceeding to lead them all on their mad merry dance through the streets of Münster.
THE TAILOR-KING. Copyright © 1999 by Anthony Arthur. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.