The End is (Actually) Nigh

In May, Henry Gresbeck finally decided to try his own chances at fleeing. In letters written back to his liege lord, he painted a picture of himself as a reluctant Anabaptist from the start, having come to Münster “for the sake of my poor mother, and for the sake of my possessions that I had”.[1] Now with a second wife to care for in addition to his mother, Gresbeck was balancing a wire act by abusing his position as a city guard to smuggle his own rations to his starving family. It must have made for a nerve wracking existence, and Gresbeck finally notes in his letter that he “must either die of hunger or rush out and get myself killed”.[2][3]

Fortunately for him, his partner on night watch had the same thoughts. Under five feet tall and with an equally short temper, Hansel Eck[4] had fled to Münster after a drunken brawl turned ugly in October. Or so he said. In actuality, Hans was a spy for the Prince Bishop, and had used the story as a way to insinuate himself in Münster.[5] Gresbeck and Hans had been studying the city watches long enough, and they believed that they had enough information to keep themselves from a swift and ugly death when they reached the Prince Bishop’s lines. For a start, discipline had long since broken down, and the surviving garrison was now down to just eight hundred fighting men. Moreover they knew the city weak points. If Franz von Waldeck tried again, and stayed sober[6], his men could take the city. On May 23rd, the two men fled as part of a larger group of eight.

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Japanese abatis in World War II demonstrates the endless practicality of spiky plants as a deterrent. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The night must have been terrifying for the men. Others had tried this trip before, and paid for it from one side or the other. Reaching the trenches ringing the city, the two groups split up. Hans crawled through the lines, and returned to an officer he knew and was on good terms with. But unsure of the route, Gresbeck clambered towards one of the block houses and got stuck in the bottom of one of the trenches. Struggling through the half frozen mud as Gresbeck reached the tower he found the guards had been watching his progress from above, as this was likely the best show in town for the evening. Trapped in the siege line, which was also lined with thorn bushes for some early barbed wire, Gresbeck spent what a very long dark night of the soul and body. In his own third person telling:

“The burgher sat in the trench until it was daylight. He was alive and dead. He didn’t know how he could manage to keep his life. If he’d run back to the city, he knew full well that the king would have had him hung or struck his head off. If he went to the landsknechts, they too would have killed him. He didn’t know which way he would get out. When the burgher was sitting like this in the trench and thought one way and another, he eventually said, “Well, then, it’s got to be. Now God has to help me and be merciful and compassionate to me.”[7]

Popping up above the trench Gresbeck pleaded with the Landsknecht who had watched him for the entire night. After a tense moment, they decided to spare him. The cabinet maker was luckier than he knew. Brought before the watch captain he was told, “You may well thank God that you’re here, that they took you prisoner. All those who defected from the city before you, they killed them all.”[8]

While Gresbeck was eager to share his plans to attack the city, Franz von Waldeck and his commanders were more cautious than they had been. For a start, von Waldeck himself was no longer in full command of the siege. His allies had become far too invested, and likely felt that von Waldeck had demonstrated the kind of military thinking one could expect from Moe Howard. The new military commander Graf von Overstein and von Waldeck had also been burned before by traitors. When Hans turned up spinning a similar story, both men were interrogated separately. When their stories lined up, von Waldeck offered to spare Gresbeck’s life, on the condition that he help the Prince Bishop’s troops enter the city. With really no other options and his family still in Münster, Gresbeck reluctantly agreed.[9][10]

jan-van-leiden-expels-elisabeth-wandscherer-caspar-goerke
Elizabeth Wantscherer and Jan van Leiden. Painting by Caspar Goerke

While von Waldeck and his officers drew up their plans for a charmed third assault, Jan van Leiden leaves us with one final moment that proves there is no such thing as peak crazy in Münster. Of his sixteen wives, Divara was the queen, but Elizabeth Wantscherer might have been the Tailor King’s favorite. She was a beautiful nineteen, and had a fiery spirit. After her first husband died, she had refused to remarry. Brought before Jan for her refusal in late fall 1534, the King agreed that she shouldn’t marry her new suitor. Instead, Jan announced that she would marry him. For six months Elizabeth seemed to be content with the situation, but she couldn’t avert her eyes to the starvation around her. Hoping to join the flocks of refugees throwing themselves on von Waldeck’s slim mercy, she asked for the chance to leave Münster. Rather than let her leave, Jan had her beheaded in the market place at the end of May. In the moment that followed the other wives, “sang the hymn Gloria in excelsis. Then the king led some fairly lewd round dances in the marketplace with his retainers”. To think of it, two years prior Münster had been a somewhat normal democratic city ruled by its tradesmen. Now a self-declared theocratic king led his fifteen wives in a dance around the mutilated body of another, all while the city’s starving population watched.

Finally in late June, the Prince Bishop sent a final offer of surrender to King Jan van Leiden. It would be unconditional, but it would spare the city a sack. On June 22nd, refusing to allow the emissaries to speak to anyone other than the leadership, Jan rebuffed them for a final time. When the bishop’s men fired the message over the city walls on blunted arrows, Jan made possession of these a death sentence. There was now no stopping the attack.

On June 24th, Henry Gresbeck and Hans returned to Münster, together with four hundred crack troops under the command of Wilkin Steding. Gresbeck and Hans led the men across first one moat, then the second, using rope bridges to cross quietly. The sentries had been lulled by months of inactivity, and the first guard post was taken completely by surprise. From there, over a ruined and barricaded portion of the first wall, then through a postern gate in the second. So far, no alarms had been raised, and the passage into the city was secured. Leaving Gresbeck behind[11], Steding and his men pressed on into the city. It was an odd choice, given that they could have simply opened the gates for the waiting Prince Bishop’s forces. Steding was possibly out to secure the Anabaptist’s arsenals. Now deep into the city and near the cathedral, the Anabaptists finally raised the alarm. Sometime after midnight Steding and his men found themselves trapped in a frantic running battle with the Anabaptists. Even starving and diminished, they all seemed to fight with a frantic energy. Chamber pots and roof tiles were hurled on the soldiers from the houses, and each twisting street turned into another ambush. Around three in the morning, a strong voice suddenly called out from the Anabaptist lines: “dear soldiers, lay down your weapons and march off to the gate- no harm will come to you!”[12] Stepping forward, Jan van Leiden had called a ceasefire. The two sides argued and quibbled over the details of Steding’s withdrawal, until dawn and the sound of trumpets drew the Anabaptist’s attention back to the walls.

Steding had been buying time for one of his men to scale the inner walls. Unfurling the Prince Bishop’s banner and screaming out the very original password “Waldeck”, the man exhorted the besieging army to charge. As the soldiers burst from their camps with ladders and equipment already in place, and moreover perfectly sober this time due to von Waldeck’s orders, the Anabaptists were caught in the middle. Too far from the walls and out of position to respond, the city’s resistance collapsed within minutes. It was like a spell had been lifted. Here and there the Anabaptists held on. Tile Bussenmeister, cyclopean giant and lead marksman, personally held a bridge over the Aa river until brought down by a hundred wounds. One group continued to snipe from a tower until they were all brought down, one of them falling onto the pavement from such a height that he burst in a shower of gore. Henry Krechting led two hundred men from behind a hastily fortified market square.[13] They resisted so stubbornly that Steding finally offered to let them go if they stood down. Surprisingly the defenders accepted, only to be betrayed and hacked down as they returned to their families. Racing for the gates, Henry Krechting somehow made good his escape from the city. He would be the only senior Anabaptist to survive the fall of Münster.

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Artist Stefan Poag’s rendering of the Prince Bishop, and his works. Photo used with permission by Stefan Poag. Go check out the rest of his stuff.

As for the fate of our lead Anabaptists, much of the details are still in dispute. Bernard Rothmann dove into the fray, but no body was ever found. While most historians believe he died in the fighting, for years afterwards wanted posters were hung around the region with his likeness on them. Accounts differ on King Jan van Leiden and Bernard Knipperdolling. One or both of them either fought bravely and was captured, or one or both of them hid themselves until they were found and taken into custody.

Over the next eight days the city was subjected to a brutal sack. The soldiers had plenty of cause for revenge on the Anabaptists, and small scale fighting continued as men were ferreted out of their hiding places. Finally, Franz von Waldeck arrived from his headquarters in Wolbeck and brought some organization to the process. His earlier maintained distance from the sack may have been to wash his already bloodstained hands of the mass rape and murder that would inevitably follow the city’s fall. By the time von Waldeck arrived, Jan van Leiden, Bernard Knipperdolling, and Henry’s brother Bernard Krechting had all been found.

In the ashes of their city, the Prince Bishop and the Tailor King sized each other up. Franz von Waldeck asked the Anabaptist leader,

“Bist du ein Konig?” (Are you a king?)[14]

Cheekily Jan replied:

“Und bist du ein Bischof?” (And are you a bishop?)

Defiant to the end, Jan and the others were led away in chains.

[1] Said letter also translated by the essential Christopher Mackay. It’s at least a strong possibility that Gresbeck knew the letter would be intercepted by the Prince Bishop’s garrison, and was another way for him to signal his interest in defecting.

[2] Gresbeck 312

[3] It’s also worth noting that Gresbeck uses the letter to engage in more than a little groveling and bottom covering, and says “I’ve never had any guilt in this, as your Worships surely know”. Again, since his friends couldn’t know what Gresbeck had gotten up to in Münster, this is either a man trying to get ahead of his own story, or one fully aware that the letter would be seized by people who might have known what he had done in Münster to stay alive.

[4] A nickname meaning “Little Hans in the Corner”. His actual name was Johann Nagel.

[5] Another Mackay record, from one of the officers at the siege. Inside False Prophets and Preachers. Seriously, just go buy the book if this is of interest.

[6] Hardly a given.

[7] Gresbeck 288

[8] Gresbeck 289

[9] In Gresbeck’s own recollections he never refers to himself in the first person, perhaps to distance himself from his own role. He goes instead by the third person term “citizen”, and appears in an officer’s account as the “cabinet-maker”. Given that this portion of the report was in the Munster archives for centuries, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that someone finally pieced together Gresbeck’s role in the climax and compiled his recollections. Kerssenbruck refers only to Hans, as von Waldeck likely wanted to take credit for the work of his spy.

[10] Gresbeck and Hans both also became proxies for a weird little spat between von Waldeck and his creditors. Overstein and the military men favored Gresbeck, who they had saved, while von Waldeck favored Hans, who he felt was his spy. Hans’ reputation for “tricks” which sound a lot like “random murders” had made him few friends among his old colleagues.

[11] After all, Gresbeck was still suspect. Half frozen from swimming through the moats, one of the officers took pity on him and tossed a cloak over him after he returned. In an odd moment, this act of sympathy nearly got him killed when fresh troops came up to reinforce the city and failed to recognize the waterlogged Gresbeck.

[12] Kerssenbruck 697

[13] One abandoned Anabaptist scheme had involved armor plated wagons for a breakout, and the wagons now became the base for a final stand in the market. While these proto tanks were a good four hundred years ahead of their time, they were much less useful now that the horses were eaten.

[14] “du”, is the informal word in German. It’s used when referring to social inferiors, or people one is already on close and familiar terms with. So: “sie” is how one would address a boss, “du” is how one addresses a jerk who has destroyed one’s prized possessions for a year long religious bender.

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