The spire of the church of St Lambert in Münster has three unusual adornments: cages. They were first hung on 22 January 1536 to hold the mutilated bodies of Jan Bockelson, Bernard Krechting and Bernhard Knipperdolling, surviving leaders of the Anabaptist sect which had controlled the city for sixteen months.
Anabaptism had emerged in the first, turbulent years of the Reformation, a separatist, communitarian faith in opposition to both Lutheranism and Catholicism. Its early preachers were closely aligned with the peasant uprisings across the German states in 1525. History was providential and they were on the right side of it; what need a master when Christ’s millennium was at hand?
The Anabaptists of Münster were adherents of Melchior Hoffman, an itinerent fur trader, who preached that the second coming would arrive in Strasbourg in 1533. The Strasbourg authorities were cautious men; they locked Hoffman away and never released him – not even when his prophecy failed.
But there were always other prophecies – and Münster, in Anabaptist control, was ripe for them. In early 1534, the ungodly – unrepentant Catholics and Lutherans alike – were expelled from the holy city, their property confiscated. This was something of a compromise: powerful voices had called for their execution – all 2,000 of them.
By now Münster’s radicalism was alarming its bishop-prince Franz von Waldeck – somewhat more prince than bishop – who laid siege to the city. But the city was well defended and Waldeck couldn’t take it alone. Yet while the enemies of the Anabaptists were legion, they were also divided. Between the Hanse and the imperial cities and the princes, themselves riven along religious lines, there was little will to crush the revolution.
Unfortunately for Matthias, Christ failed him at Easter as he had failed Hoffman before. His response was to lead twelve men in an assault on the army camped outside the city’s walls. He lost.
Back inside the city, the power vacuum left by his death was filled by another man from the Low Countries, Jan Bockelson, a sometime tailor and actor from Leiden. Hoffman had prophesied that a pious king would lead a revolution from above. Bockelson set himself up as that king. Extensive new capital offences included blasphemy, slander and idle conversation. Property was to be held in common. Those who resisted such appropriations were beheaded pour encourager les autres.
Polygamy wasn’t merely legalised, it was enforced. (Not polyandry, of course. That would be sinful.) The more wives a man had, the more Christian he must be, one witness noted. Women who refused to marry were beheaded. Any sign of marital disobedience, howsoever quietly spoken under the breath, could get a women beheaded too. The New Jerusalem must be pure in thought and deed, else how could it be Jerusalem?
Bockelson himself confessed – or was it boasted – that he had personally beheaded 48 people. No-one was safe. Doors could not be locked at night they could not even be closed. The king’s men could roam where they pleased and take what pleasures they fancied.
The seige finally ended, betrayed from within, in June 1535. After their executions, the bodies of Bockelson and the rest were displayed outside St Lambert’s for 50 years. That too was pour encourager les autres.
Hoffman, in prison in Strasbourg, outlived them all.
This piece first appeared in the January 2021 Months Past column in History Today.