On a Wing and a Pamphlet

For Bishop Franz von Waldeck stamping out the Anabaptists wasn’t just a political crisis, it was now a grievously personal one. His natural son Christoph[1] had been captured by the Anabaptists in the first bungled attack on the city, and had more or less gone native. Likely the aggrieved von Waldeck was aware that Christoph had not only married, but was well on the way to giving the Prince Bishop an Anabaptist grandchild. Either to prevent attending the world’s most awkward baby shower or for the bigger political reasons, von Waldeck had resolved on the most straightforward course to forcing surrender. At great personal expense, seven massive blockhouses were built around the existing siege lines. From there the besiegers began to create a wall of their own linking the towers. If the city couldn’t be taken by storm in August 1534, Franz von Waldeck decided to wait and see if he could starve out the inhabitants.

Through deserters from the Prince Bishop and his own eyes, King Jan was well aware of the vice closing around Münster. By 12 October, the city was beginning to feel the pinch of eight months cut off from the outside. Naturally this meant it was the perfect time to throw a defiant three course banquet for the entire city. Psychologically at least it was a brilliant stroke for morale, and after everyone had gorged themselves on beer and roast meat, King Jan and Queen Divara led the communion of bread and wine. Then once again Jan announced his plans via the medium of lame goldsmith prophet.

Dusentchur revealed that Münster was to be saved by a group of preachers. They were to go out, groups of them in all four directions, and raise an insurrection that would break the siege. As with many oddly specific prophecies Dusentchur even had the names of everyone who would be going. Bernard Rothmann had even printed a new pamphlet entitled “Restitution” for the new missionaries to carry along with them.[2] The pamphlet detailed the Anabaptist’s place in the biblical history of mankind and includes not one fall from grace but a series of falls and restorations. In a parallel Marx would have found interesting, there was a suggestion that the Anabaptists themselves represented the revolutionary finale that would ultimately sweep away the old order and bring about the apocalyptic final kingdom of God. Pamphlets in hand, the twenty seven elect missionaries bid their one hundred and twenty four wives farewell and left the city before the Prince Bishop could finish his wall.[3]

Landsknecht Wiedertäufer Joseph Sattler
Woodcut captures the proverbial headless elephant in the room. Photo Credit: Joseph Sattler

While such moves wouldn’t be unusual for any insurrection, because this is Jan van Leiden’s Münster there was an oddly murderous postscript. At a second dinner that same evening, Jan wined and dined the guards who had been on duty during the original feast. Halfway through, he had a captive soldier taken during a skirmish dragged out in front of him. He fed the soldier, asking him some questions about his faith, why he had been here attacking the city. Then when the soldier had eaten his fill and jeered at this “wedding of harlots”, Jan cut off his head.[4] Blood sacrifice still warm and gushing, Jan then announced to the crowd that the siege would be lifted by Easter 1535, or the Münsterites could do the same to him. Leaving the body where it had fallen, Jan went back to his meal. He then “danced the three step and ring dances with the actress whores [his wives] far into the night”.[5] The headless corpse remained by the dinner tables for the remainder of the evening.

For a time, the city was abuzz with rumours. Dusentchur and his fellow missionaries had raised an army in the Netherlands and were on their way. England had recognized Anabaptism and was sending a fleet to break the spine of the Emperor. The Danish king himself had converted. Finally, on October 23rd the guards outside one of the outer gates heard a moan. Investigating they soon found the bound form of Henry Graes lying in a thorn bush, the only surviving apostle.

Graes had been a school teacher, and he confirmed that all of the other men sent out from Münster were either now dead or would be shortly. While Franz von Waldeck lacked the men to give himself a third concussion on the Münster walls, he had plenty to patrol the surrounding countryside. While the apostles made it to their intended targets, they were then picked up the instant they opened their mouths or flashed a coin bearing King Jan’s new catchy slogan. Von Waldeck had even trussed up one of their leaders and sent him with a single coin of the Münster kingdom to the Archbishop of Cologne. A down payment of sorts for all the support the Archbishop had loaned von Waldeck. Dusentchur himself had been captured, tortured, and then hauled to the block. Like Hille Feicken the goldsmith was defiant to the end, telling the executioner that he did not believe God would let him die. The headsman replied that he had expected trouble, and “swung his sword with such force that it would have separated three heads from their necks”.[6]

Cranmer_burning_John foxe
Woodcut of near contemporary Protestant Thomas Cranmer’s own oddly blase attitude to a fiery demise both sets the scene, the propaganda coverage, and the results of the latest Anabaptist attempt to crowdsource the Revolution. Photo Credit: John Day

Only in the town of Warendorf south of Münster had the Anabaptists met with any success. The city’s council had already been sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Brethren, and they began to make plans to relieve Münster. At least, until the Prince Bishop sent them the equivalent of a cease and desist. Initially defiant, the wind had gone clean out of Warendorf’s Anabaptist sails when von Waldeck wheeled a bunch of his cannons in front of the city. The choice was clear, surrender or die. Warendorf opted to surrender, and von Waldeck’s men kindly burned only the men they could prove were implicated in the Münsterite conspiracy. Also one man who “said that it was preferable for the bishop to have a rope twisted out of hairs pulled through his buttocks than for him to maraud around like this in the diocese as he pleased.”[7]

Graes himself claimed that an Angel had saved him, but this was a lie. Henry Graes had actually saved himself with a quick thinking grovel in front of the Prince Bishop. Realizing that he could always do with another spy on the inside of Münster, Franz von Waldeck agreed to spare Graes. Warning the teacher that not only his life but his family’s were at stake, the Prince Bishop hatched a scheme to drop the Graes off by the walls in a way that would avoid suspicion. Given that he nearly died of exposure, the actual pain in Graes’ voice might have given some credibility to his story.

While not everyone believed Henry Graes’ story of an Angel literally flapping into his cell and throwing him bodily out of it, no one could say it was unbelievable. After all, Jan van Leiden had been telling progressively larger whoppers to comfort his people and exert control over them ever since Matthias had died. Münster consumed these lies instead of food, and they weren’t finding it anywhere near as filling.

[1] C. Mackey draws out this reference from another source, and pegs Christoph as one of the young men attending Jan van Leiden in his royal court. As opposed to von Waldeck’s other son named Christoph, born 1543. By all accounts von Waldeck was a doting father, and he had eight children in a long relationship with Anna Polmann, a woman from Einbeck. Their exact legal status has never really been nailed down, though he seems to have made it his business to provide secure marriages and property for all of his children. An interesting wrinkle for a man bent on starving thousands at this point in time.

[2] Rothmann had arrived by his Anabaptist beliefs honestly, and he had the theological chops to defend his conversion. Theology students still study this and his subsequent work “Revenge”.

[3] Kerssenbrück tallied their spousal numbers from their tortured confessions, because of course he did. Translator Mackey is a bit skeptical of it.

[4] This is Kerssenbrück’s flashier version. Gresbeck states that the man was simply dragged out bound and publicly beheaded.

[5] Kerssenbrück 612

[6] Arthur 125. Incidentally, podcaster Dan Carlin mistakenly conflates the two beheadings of Feicken and Dusentchur. To be honest, there are a lot of beheadings and it’s easy to get them mixed up. But the author always believes that two heads are better than one.

[7] Kerssenbruck 646


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