The Merchant and the Prince-Bishop

Knipperdolling Aldegrever
Bernard 2: Bernard Knipperdolling. Voted most likely to terrify an established government out of everyone in Münster. Photo Credit: Aldegrever

It didn’t take long for von Wiede to become aware of his new problem in Münster. Conscious of the odd situation Münster’s council enjoyed, von Wiede first sent a curt order demanding that Rothmann cease preaching. The gadfly Rothmann did so for a few weeks, before launching back into it with as much verve as before. When von Wiede finally ordered the town’s legal authority to arrest Rothmann, the council rebuffed him in a narrow vote.

Rothmann had been able to make some key friends among the council’s leadership, most prominently the head of the cloth merchants, Bernard Knipperdolling.[1] By the standards of someone with no hereditary title, Knipperdolling was as successful as men came. He had married for love, then upon the death of his first wife he had remarried for money. Bernard ran a successful business and had several grown daughters who were likely to further his connections and finances within Münster. The wrinkle that might explain Knipperdolling’s subsequent radicalism lay in his own dark history with the Catholic Church. Several years prior to the siege, Bernard Knipperdolling had been waylaid by the Bishop’s men, likely on the grounds of his Lutheran views. When his brothers ransomed him they found the merchant walking with a limp. The bishop’s men had tortured him by forcing his feet into iron shoes a size too small. The resulting pressure had cracked the bones in his toes and feet. It would be enough to make anyone hold a grudge.

With Knipperdolling’s support Rothmann began to grow ever bolder. In another burst of iconoclastic mob violence, Bernard Rothmann and his flock smashed the tombs and icons of St. Lambert’s Church. Books, tapestries, votive candles and everything else that was Catholic and burnable was tossed into a fire in front of the church. Unlike last time, Rothmann didn’t have to immediately sprint for the city gates. He reveled in the attack and dared the authorities to respond.

In the face of such an obvious provocation, Bishop von Wiede huffed, puffed, and “thought it better for himself to give up the bishopric than to get involved in calming these dangerous uproars and suppressing those responsible”.[2] Writing decades after the fact, Kerssenbrück’s resentment practically burns on the page. Von Wiede fobbed the bishopric and the resulting political mess off on newcomer Franz von Waldeck.

Franz von Waldeck, demonstrating a hybrid sort of Church and State. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Bishop Franz von Waldeck was an odd choice for the job. For a Catholic he had immense sympathy for the Reformation, and seemingly little interest in acting the way a proper Bishop was expected to behave. He was not even an ordained priest, and the nepotistic reason for his appointment was his relative Phillip of Hesse, a Lutheran.[3] He sported an official mistress on the side who had already born him at least one illegitimate son. He liked to drink, hunt, and do all of the things that most German nobles are expected to do. And he was now expected to defuse a rapidly escalating religious war in the prize city of his domains. While the Anabaptists certainly saw someone who couldn’t be bothered to get off his holy posterior to deal with them, his subsequent actions suggest that Franz was actually a dangerous man and a rare religious moderate. In his official portraits, Franz wears the Catholic hat and carries the crook of a holy man in his left hand, but his gaze is drawn towards the sword in his right; and no attempt is made to conceal the plate armor he wears.

For now though, the Anabaptists had correctly gauged Franz’s response. In spite of the provocation, the new Bishop didn’t respond overtly to the problem. In addition to the awkward politics of Münster, there were serious practical issues with besieging the city. Münster had two sets of walls, both of them with their own moat supplied by the river Aa.[4] Moreover, the city was actually built around the river, ensuring that the inhabitants could have a supply of fresh water and some fish if they were careful. The town’s inhabitants boasted numerous blacksmiths and plenty of cannons and firearms. If Franz von Waldeck had to go in there and drag Bernard Rothmann out by his ear, it was not going to be a cheap undertaking.

Not that Rothmann was giving him many other options. In late 1532 another narrow vote by the council banned Latin mass in the city. Given that this was tantamount to banning Catholicism outright, the attack was too outrageous to ignore. Glancing up from his latest dust up, even the Emperor Charles V took the time to give von Waldeck a jab in the side. The Prince Bishop opted for a loose blockade of the city. Münster rests in a relatively flat area, and by October the Bishop had posted troops at every major road out of the city. It was a decent plan, designed to sever the arteries of trade that kept the city’s economy pumping and put a squeeze directly on the city’s merchant council. Councilor Herman Tilbeck was actually arrested while leading his cattle to market, and his herd sold off to pay for the blockade. Reaction in the city was mixed. While the city councilors were horrified and started searching for a mediated settlement, a group of the more militant Anabaptists actually staged a raid on one of the Bishop’s mansions in Telgte on Christmas 1532. While they missed von Waldeck, they took enough hostages to strengthen their own negotiating hand.

Philipp.von.Hessen Hans krell
Phillip of Hesse. In something of a foreshadow, Phillip would also run afoul of Luther for considering bigamy on the grounds that the Patriarchs of Jerusalem had done so. In typical Luther fashion, the cleric said Hesse lived “in a constant state of adultery and fornication”. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In the end, both sides opted to dial things back and agreed to a saner solution. The result was the return of everyone’s hostages, an acknowledgement of the relationship of the city had with von Waldeck, and some horse trading that divvied up some of the churches in Münster between Lutheran and Catholic factions. Rothmann was also ordered once again ordered to shut up, but the tenacious preacher had already taken his message literally underground. Operating a printing press in Knipperdolling’s basement, Rothmann had begun to send out pamphlets around this time detailing his beliefs and offering Münster as a tempting place of sanctuary to the Anabaptists of Europe. To the downtrodden and persecuted, the offer of a place sympathetic to their beliefs, and more importantly ringed by high walls, was quite appealing. They came in their hundreds, then their thousands, bringing the weapons Rothmann said they would need to defend the New Jerusalem.[5]

Among the newcomers was a young man named Jan Bockelson, from the city of Leiden. Our second Jan was just 24 when he arrived in Münster. The bastard son of a Dutch mayor in The Hague, he had been a tailor, a tavern owner, pimp, cobbler, and even dabbled in the basest profession: actor. He had failed at all of these, but was by all accounts both handsome and very charismatic. At some point prior to his arrival, he had met and been rebaptized by Jan Matthias, and now functioned as the eyes and ears of the apocalyptic prophet.

[1] Podcaster Dan Carlin refers to them as the two Bernards. No word on whether their anti-canon followers ever dabbled with pluralizing them as the “St. Bernards”.

[2] Kerssenbrück, H. 2007. Narrative of the Anabaptist Madness: The Overthrow of Münster, the Famous Metropolis of Westphalia. Translated beautifully by Mackay, C. S. Pg. 245

[3] Phillip himself sets a bit of the precedent for how the Münster revolution would ultimately play out. While himself on the radical Protestant edge, when the Peasant’s War began he took part in the aggressive and vicious purge that followed.

[4] Genuinely the river’s name. Sometimes called Münsterschiche Aa. Presumably a tributary of river Bb.

[5] Gresbeck especially chalks up the more radical decisions made in the coming months to the newcomers. But for every Austrian Corporal, there are a million Germans backing their bid for power.


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