His Kingdom Come

While the Anabaptist community struggled to explain their newly polygamous lifestyle to their friends outside Münster, Franz von Waldeck had redoubled his efforts to bring the siege to an end. He had spent the months following the aborted assault bombarding his neighbors with letter and emissaries for assistance. No one was exactly happy with von Waldeck, already some of his deserting troops had turned to banditry in the region, and the Prince Bishop had been forced to send out cavalry patrols to hunt down his own troops. But in the end everyone considered the Anabaptist city enough of a threat that they were willing to put up with the Prince Bishop’s shortcomings. Men and materiel poured into the siege lines throughout July, and von Waldeck’s captains came up with a new plan of attack. Trenches zig zagged towards the city, and with the help of some of the refugee Münsterites the besiegers worked to fill in and drain portions of the city moat more fully. Lines of attack were drawn up, and discipline strictly enforced. On August 25th, von Waldeck gave Jan van Leiden and the city leadership one final chance to surrender. It was rebuffed.

Battle_of_Pavia bernard van orley
A beautiful painting of the Battle of Pavia provides a great illustration of Landsknecht attire, and the sorts of makeshift barricades in the background that became a staple of warfare. Photo Credit: Bernard van Orley

Again for three days the Devil and his brother cannons fired on the city, and then on August 28th the order to attack was given. While the Landsknecht were mostly sober this time, they were no match for the shopkeepers and tradesmen they found manning the walls. Whatever else their faults, Jan van Leiden and the Krechting brothers had a gift for organization and a total lack of fear. Jan lead from the front, racing about on a horse to wherever the fighting was worst. The Anabaptist men fired their guns and hacked at the hands of soldiers as they reached the tops of their ladders. The women plugged any gaps the cannons opened in their walls and poured quicklime and other agonizing substances on the mercenaries as they clambered up their ladders. Soldiers wreathed in fire would leap into sections of the moat still filled with water, only to drown as their armor pulled them under. After successive attacks failed and the mercenaries hesitated, a hidden unit of Anabaptist gunners appeared on their flank and loosed a final volley. The soldiers fled in a rout, and by the end of the day the Anabaptists had won a resounding victory.

The Prince Bishop couldn’t blame this loss on drunk Dutchmen. Von Waldeck had planned, organized, and methodically pushed this assault. All he had to show for it was hundreds of dead soldiers, and forty two dead officers. In contrast only sixteen Anabaptists had died. Likely muttering every curse he knew, von Waldeck went back to the drawing board.

Jan van Leiden now had a rare choice in front of him. Either he could hope to wear the bishop out further over time, or he could risk attacking the siege lines directly. By this point, von Waldeck’s forces had dropped to less than three thousand. Though this was twice what van Leiden had in terms of fighting men, it was as close as the two sides would ever be. Both Kerssenbrück and Gresbeck comment on the curious lack of follow through, wondering whether the defenders were just too exhausted from the fighting themselves. Perhaps Jan had no intention of leaving the city he now planned as the seat of a new Anabaptist Kingdom.

The classic image of Jan, holding his self styled staff and globe of authority. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Jan van Leiden’s various revelations always have the telltale signs of scripting and staging, and his crowning ceremony as King of Münster was no exception. Sometime in early September in the aftermath of their successful repulse of the Prince Bishop’s forces, Jan and his inner circle were approached in the market square by a lame goldsmith named Johann Dusentchur. Johan came from one of the nearby villages of Warendorf, and he announced to the crowd that he had a vision from God. The new prophet proclaimed that, “the Father has revealed to me from heaven, and enjoined me to make known to you, that John Bockelson of Leiden, a man of God and a saintly prophet, will be king across the entire earth.”[1]

Naturally Dusentchur already had a crown ready for the new King of the World, and the coronation happened then and there. He gave Jan a sword to signify his temporal authority, and a rod topped with a golden orb bearing two crossed swords and a crown. Dusentchur then poured oil over Jan’s head and presto, Jan was now King of Münster because as Kerssenbrück puts it, “Satan realized that his kingdom could not be expanded so well under the rule of many as under the tyrannical lordship of one man”.[2]

Jan received the new honours with a speech loaded with enough false modesty to win an Oscar. He insisted he wasn’t worthy of the Father’s honour, and pledged to do only what was pleasing in His sight as ruler of the new Zion. However, even for a crowd by now jaded to divine revelations shouted at them all hours of the day, Dusentchur’s pronouncement was a hard sell. Jan sensed that the crowd was turning and he opted for some tough love:

“Fie, are you muttering against the ordinance of the Heavenly Father? Even if you acted as a single man in resisting me, all the same despite your opposition I will be lord not only of this city but of the entire world, if such is the will of the Father, and my kingdom that has been established here will last without coming to an end!”[3]

It is quite a powerful statement for a man who could not even break the siege of his own three mile kingdom. Still, whether it was the power of his speech or the sense of menace behind it the crowd was mollified. Jan’s new global kingdom meant another round of laws, restricting the number of clothing sets the commoners could own. By contrast, Jan and his newly appointed royal court were given fancier attire with Jan’s new sigil etched on the back. Coinage was minted, with the phrase “God’s power is my strength” etched upon it. The new financial system was an especially strange affectation, given that paid commerce had supposedly been abolished. Jan explained away the hypocrisy of this newly displayed wealth by insisting he was dead to the world, but that God required this display. This is of course, the same God who the Anabaptists had once believed hated money and private property.

knipperdolling dances in front of jan alamy images
Bernard Knipperdolling jigging his heart out for the king in a 19th Century engraving. Photo Credit: Alamy, republished as fair use under German copyright law (70+ years after author death)

While an objection to this ever more bizarre situation was inevitable, the source was a surprise. By late September King Jan had built a small throne and public court in one of the market squares, and the attending Anabaptists were disrupted yet again by a shouting outburst of “repent! Repent!” This time it was Bernard Knipperdolling racing through the streets waving his arms and frothing at the mouth. As the crowd gathered to watch, he rolled around in the muck of the streets, jumped about, and spat in the eyes of the blind, claiming he had the power to restore their sight. Knipperdolling had done this song and dance before, but there was something more tactical about his performance this time. As everyone watched Knipperdolling raced in front of Jan, who sat silently on his throne. The cloth merchant began to dance obscenely, shouting “this is how I would dance with harlots, but now the Father’s wish is that I should do so before my king!”[4]

King Jan was stunned. While the sight of man in his advancing fifties leaping onto the crowd’s heads and thrusting in front of Jan was enough to weird out the crowd, he could see the power play behind it. Knipperdolling had looked at the precedent of the Jans Matthias and Bockelson, and decided that the key to power in Münster now depended on a public show of divine madness. In a weak voice, King Jan announced that business was done for the day, and ordered the crowd to disperse away from the still grinding Knipperdolling.

Yet by the following day Jan was ready for the encore performance. When Knipperdolling returned to the square, he immediately launched into a more aggressive show, and he demanded that “by rights I should be king too!” Rather than rise to the bait Jan turned and walked away, back towards his makeshift palace in one of the confiscated Catholic homes. Bernard Knipperdolling was then seized and thrown into the town jail for three days to give him some time to cool down. While the merchant returned to senses, he never really seemed to get over the grudge he now bore King Jan. He would remain associated but apart from the king’s inner circle for the rest of the siege.

[1] Kerssenbruck 584

[2] Kerssenbruck 583

[3] Kerssenbruck 585

[4] Kerssenbruck 614


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s