Look on my works, ye mighty

The modern statue of Jan van Leiden in Münster, sitting amidst the ruined artifacts of his kingdom.

Over the next six months the Anabaptist leaders were alternately subjected to rounds of theological questioning and torture. As Franz von Waldeck picked through the ashes of Münster, it was not enough to defeat Jan van Leiden, they had to actually get him to repent his beliefs. The task fell to a team of inquisitors under the leadership of a Lutheran named Antonius Corvinus. Corvinus found Jan to be a remarkably chatty fellow for a walking dead man. He certainly didn’t come across as a madman. In fact he offered a remarkable mix of practical and religious justifications for his actions. The only point he wasn’t willing to defend was his kingdom, he blamed the lame goldsmith Dusentchur for the awkward coronation. If they spared his life Jan even offered to travel to the remaining militant cells he knew about and to preach a message of contrition.

Franz von Waldeck had no interest in letting Jan van Leiden travel anywhere. He was more interested in discerning how this could have happened in Münster. To von Waldeck and the other region’s leaders, Jan’s kingly aspirations weren’t the key element to this story. The real mystery that worried everyone was how someone like Bernard Knipperdolling could fall under the sway of the van Leidens of the world. Before the siege Knipperdolling had been a successful man. Certainly nothing indicated the level of extreme violence and murder he was personally capable of. If someone like Knipperdolling could be found enthusiastically supporting the regime, it could happen to anyone. It’s a question that is still asked today in Germany after the fall of the Third Reich. If Knipperdolling had any answers though he was keeping them to himself. Even under months of torture and deprivation he remained silent.

As the months passed outside, von Waldeck went through the motions of rebuilding his city. Faced with mounting debts, he attempted to cheat his soldiers out of their final two months of pay and only narrowly avoided a second sack of the city by his disgruntled men. As for the city’s inhabitants, anyone who had fled was allowed to return to their homes. Any Anabaptist woman who repented was also allowed to go free. Some did, others did not and were executed. No one is entirely sure what happened to the mysterious Divara, Gresbeck concludes his account by saying he can “write no more” of her fate. Kerssenbruck in his own smug way states that she was decapitated, but Jan’s Queen was apparently still alive in early 1536. Jan, at least, at one point asked after her health and was told she still lived.[1]

Finally on January 22nd, Jan van Leiden, Bernard Knipperdolling, and Bernard Krechting were all led to a makeshift scaffold in front of the city hall. They were shackled to a single pole at perpendicular angles from one another. In front of the gathered crowd that included Antonius Corvinus, Henry Gresbeck, and the young Hermann von Kerssenbrück, the veritable laundry list of charges were read off for the condemned:

sinning against God and ruler, reviving the Anabaptist errors which had been condemned by the councils of the Holy Fathers and the civil laws, polluting all the Sacraments, tearing down and plundering churches and shrines, profaning things sacred, stirring up sedition, casting down the lawful ruler, substituting himself by his personal authority and making himself king, besmirching himself with the crime of treason, and driving into grievous exile burghers whom he had stripped of their property and forced from the city, all of which crimes, it was said, were so manifest and so well-known to all the men of the Holy Roman Empire, whether of the highest or lowest status, that they needed no demonstration.[2][3]

The execution of Jan van Leiden. Accounts seem to differ on how the stage actually appeared. Photo credit: Lambertus Hortensius.

Jan certainly agreed that he had offended the ruler, but not God. Almost eerily calm, Jan acknowledged the remaining charges and was sentenced to die. The manner of Jan’s execution was considered the worst and most painful in a legal system filled with inventive punishments. A set of four tongs were heated up until they glowed cherry red, then used to pinch and strip the skin and muscle from Jan’s body. For a solid hour two torturers worked over Jan, reviving him each time he passed out from the pain. Finally a knife was jammed into his heart. Jan van Leiden never cried out. Listening and probably smelling the terrible fate in store for him, Bernard Knipperdolling tried to kill himself using the spikes on his collar. After he was restrained again, Knipperdolling then received the same punishment as the Tailor King. Bernard Krechting brought up the rear. By the time they dispersed, the watching crowd had stood through three hours of torture. While Corvinus found the experience deeply unsettling, he noted that many others in the crowd “said it was a most pleasant thing to watch”. [4]

After their deaths, Franz von Waldeck had the remains of all three men placed into three metal gibbets. These were then placed on the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, the only one Jan’s insurrection hadn’t pulled down. They are still there today, though the bones are long gone. The only modern change has been the addition of three light bulbs, to commemorate the souls of the departed.

Even after five hundred years, Jan van Leiden casts a long shadow from his cage. In their communal goods, one can glimpse the future rise of totalitarian communism. In the grisly public beheadings, iconoclasm, and potential for regional anarchy, the Anabaptists of Münster conjure the still very present demons of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In the fracture and downfall of the old city’s tenuously balanced factions the ghosts of the Balkan Wars are reflected. And in their dances, divine madness, and cult devotion to a messiah, we can even see the glimmer of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Yet for many Germans, Jan van Leiden’s ability to coerce an entire society evokes no one so much as Adolf Hitler.

If asked to explain themselves, perhaps the Anabaptists would agree with Henry Gresbeck’s thoughts on their motivations, “everything they did, it just had to be good: it was, after all, God’s will”.[5]


The cages of Münster. Photo Credit: Lamberti Ceorgi

Henry Gresbeck returned to find his mother’s house had been confiscated, though years later he would receive compensation for it. He would spend years penning his memoirs and trying to acquit himself and his city of responsibility for the horrors they had born witness to. Lone Anabaptist survivor Henry Krechting and other splinter groups of Anabaptists would continue to fight in the countryside for years afterwards. In the end surprisingly, Krechting survived and settled down. One of his sons wrote a history of the Kingdom of Münster that is still preserved in the Bremen Archives. Prince Bishop Franz von Waldeck found himself up to his eyeballs in debt, and in a politically compromised position by his efforts. His personal reputation was also badly tarnished by his bloodthirsty response to the Anabaptists. At one point he had even been rebuked by a professional executioner. Now once again in charge of the city, von Waldeck tried to rebuild as best he could. Still essentially a moderate Lutheran, he later tried to join the defensive Schmalkaldic League against Charles. However to his surprise he found out that his city was now too conservatively Catholic for his own tastes. The pendulum had swung right, leaving von Waldeck behind once again. He would die in 1553, of disappointment and frustration more than anything else.

Hermann von Kerssenbrück became a teacher in Münster, and later the rector of the cathedral. He was never able to forget the Anabaptists though, and thirty years later published his narrative history. His focus on a dark past would leave him embroiled in a dispute with the newly Catholic city council, who had no wish to remember how easily their city had devolved into a carnival of madness and violence. For centuries Kerssenbrück’s volume would languish in the city’s archives, before a scholar finally translated it from the original Latin into German in the 18th century.

As for the Anabaptists writ large, they had to face the schism Münster had opened up in their movement. Another splinter faction called the Batenbergers was still actively fighting back against their persecution, even as other leaders among the movement railed against the violence of their methods and desperately urged peace among the Brethren. At a secret conference in 1536 in Bocholt, the surviving Münsterirtes, Batenbergers, and a veritable who’s who of the Anabaptist leadership met and argued through their differences. In the end, the better heart of the movement won out, and violence was rebuked as official policy. Or at least the lack of efficacy produced by Münster’s violent uprising offered little evidence of another path the Anabaptists could pursue. While the Batenbergs and Münsterites of the world continued to pursue their own way, they would never again cause the kind of regional scale mayhem that Jan van Leiden had inspired. Yet neither peace nor war would save the Anabaptists from their ongoing persecution. Many of the Bocholt leaders, including yet another Jan Mathias from Holland, were later tried and executed for their faith.

As for Münster, a century later in 1648 it would serve as the negotiating ground for the exhausted leaders of a continent wide war or religion and politics that had used Germany as its battleground. But that, of course, is a story for another day.

[1] Like many influential women throughout history, she has been sadly underreported by her male contemporaries. As we’ll chat about for our last and final time, Divarra has claimed her own place in the dramatic retellings of the story.

[2] Kerssenbrück 715

[3] Also jaywalking, probably.

[4] Arthur 178

[5] Reck-Malleczewen, V. von der Lippe G. A history of the Münster Anabaptists: Inner Emigration and the Third Reich. A critical Edition of Bockelson: A Tale of Mass Insanity.


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