Münster rebellion

gigatos | May 25, 2022


The Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster was the increasingly radicalizing rule of Reformation-oriented sections of the city around the preacher Bernd Rothmann in the 1530s in Münster (Westphalia) toward an apocalyptic chiliastic regime that resorted to open violence under the impact of military encirclement and starvation by Catholic and allied Protestant forces. It ended in June 1535 with the recapture of the city by the Protestant-minded Prince-Bishop Francis of Waldeck.

Within the Anabaptism existing in the German-speaking and Dutch regions, the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster took on a special role.

Anabaptism developed in the 1520s, starting from former companions of Huldrych Zwingli (Zurich), as a radical branch of the Reformation in various simultaneous strands of development in Switzerland, Austria, southern and central Germany, and somewhat later also in the Lower German region. Here it was Melchior Hofmann who brought Anabaptist teachings from the spiritualist-finalist milieu of Strasbourg to the more northern regions. Hofmann first appeared as an Anabaptist preacher in Emden in 1530, and later in Amsterdam. Through him, Anabaptist doctrines and denominations spread throughout the Lower German region (Melchiorites). The Amsterdam congregation was later taken over by Jan Mathys.

With his idea of a theocratic intermediate kingdom before the return of Christ after a military conflict between the emperor and the Protestant cities, Hofmann exerted a strong influence on the theology of the Münster movement. He is considered an indirect theological forerunner of the Münster Anabaptist empire. The apocalyptic-chiliastic message of his writings fell on fertile ground here to some extent. The socio-economic situation of the simple population of the Münsterland, as well as the “harshest persecutions” they had to endure from all sides, additionally opened the believers to eschatological views.

Reformation movement in Münster

The fact that the city of Münster, of all places, became the scene of the Anabaptist rebellion was related, among other things, to the inner-city disputes between the hereditary families, craftsmen and Roman Catholic clergy who ruled this city exclusively, which reached their first climax in the uprising of 1525. The ruling town councillors, e.g. the respected but Catholic-minded mayor Everwin II von Droste zu Handorf and his nephew Johann VII Droste zu Hülshoff, who were also aldermen of the Überwasser district, tried to mediate but failed, resigned from office in 1530 and left the town.

From 1531, the craftsmen”s guilds joined forces with the still young evangelical movement, which was represented in Münster primarily by Bernd Rothmann. Rothmann was banned from preaching several times by the Münster cathedral chapter and eventually expelled from the country. Rothmann”s following, which had by then become extensive and included wealthy citizens, prevented this, however. Rothmann also turned a deaf ear to admonitions from Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. By the summer of 1532, a 70-member committee of the city”s guild assembly enforced Protestant preachers at all city churches. This committee, which had a right of co-determination over the elected city council in Münster, determined Münster”s politics until 1533, when the city council also became Protestant.

The Münster Reformation movement did not join the Confessio Augustana formulated by Lutheran imperial estates in 1530, which is why it received little support from territories that had already become Lutheran. The movement was able to assert itself, however, because the office of bishop of Münster and Osnabrück, and thus of sovereign, was filled three times in quick succession. Franz von Waldeck, who was himself inclined toward the Reformation, did not assert himself permanently until the early summer of 1532, and only from that time on was he able to take action against Münster. Dietrich von Merveldt († 1564), Drost zu Wolbeck, made a futile attempt to restore order in the city with a peasant posse. First, Waldeck imposed a trade ban on the city and had livestock confiscated from Münster citizens. In return, on December 25, 1532, Münsterans attacked bishop”s advisors, including former mayor Everwin II von Droste zu Handorf and his relatives, who were in Telgte discussing further measures against the city, and brought them to Münster as hostages. In this situation, a compromise was reached under the mediation of Philip of Hesse: The prince-bishop accepted the Protestant preachers in the city, but the churches and monasteries had to remain with the Catholic rite. The hereditary men regained influence.

Controversy in the citizenry; radicalization of Bernd Rothmann

During this time, the city council was reshuffled. Individual Catholic members had already resigned in 1532, and at the elections in March 1533 the body became completely Protestant. As one of its first decisions, the council commissioned Bernd Rothmann to draw up a new order of worship. Rothmann had meanwhile radicalized himself and joined the Anabaptist movement. The Protestant movement in the city split over Rothmann”s demand for adult baptism. The council opposed this demand, closed all churches and tried to establish a Lutheran preaching body. For this he did not have a majority among the population, which still supported Bernd Rothmann”s position. An attempt to recatholicize the minority of the population, which remained Catholic, in the fall of 1533 was unsuccessful.

influx of Protestants and Dutch Anabaptists

By this time, Protestants from the near and far surroundings were already arriving in the city, including many Anabaptists from the Netherlands. In the summer of 1533, the 23-year-old Jan van Leiden, the later “king” of Münster, was in the city for the first time for two months. He initially returned to the Netherlands and was baptized again as an adult by Jan Mathys, the most important “prophet” of the Dutch Anabaptist movement. Mathys also gained increasing influence over Anabaptist sympathizers in Münster. In January 1534, he sent Jan van Leiden to the city as his envoy.

At the same time, adult baptisms began in the city. Since Anabaptists rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, Christians who had already been baptized were rebaptized during these adult baptisms. Such “rebaptisms” contradicted the Creed (“We confess the one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”) and thus the law of the Holy Roman Empire, which gave Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck the opportunity to take renewed action against the city. However, his request to the city council to extradite the Anabaptists was rejected by the council. However, the body also refused to officially support the Anabaptists. Thus, the city council had lost both legitimacy from the sovereign and support from the inhabitants.

Building the Anabaptist Kingdom; Jan Mathys

In February 1534, Jan Mathys appeared in the city and took the lead in the Anabaptist movement. On February 23, 1534, the Anabaptists prevailed in the regular council election, thus dominating Münster. A few weeks earlier, most of the remaining Catholics and many non-Anabaptist Protestants had already left the city. The remaining adherents of these two faiths were either rebaptized or expelled from Münster after the election. Buildings belonging to the expellees were occupied or vandalized.

In the following weeks, a radical reconstruction of the structures in the city began. In an iconoclasm in the churches, the Anabaptists destroyed everything that commemorated the saints and the clergy, destroying many art treasures in the process. They confiscated property in the city, introduced, among other things, a community of goods modeled on the community of goods of the Jerusalem early church, and had the city archives burned like archives of hereditary men. This radicalism led to renewed controversy. Above all, the prophets” increasing expectation of the end times met with rejection. For Easter 1534, Jan Mathys proclaimed the appearance of Jesus Christ in the city. During these developments, Franz von Waldeck had closed a siege ring around the city. When the appearance of Christ failed to materialize, Jan Mathys and some faithful marched outside the city on Easter Day, where he was killed.

Further radicalization; Jan van Leiden

From this point on, Jan van Leiden was the head of the Münster Anabaptists. Under him, the movement became more radicalized. Although he abolished torture, which was common at the time, before carrying out a death sentence, he not infrequently carried out the death sentences personally, including that on his own wife, who had criticized his luxury. In the city, due to the considerable surplus of women – there were almost three times as many women as men among the Münster Anabaptists – polygyny was introduced in the summer of 1534, despite the fact that the Anabaptists had initially advocated strict morality. Jan van Leiden himself took 16 wives during the course of the Anabaptist empire. In September, the city repelled an attempted assault by the besiegers, after which Jan van Leiden was proclaimed “King John I.” These fundamental changes in the city were controversial among the population, even in the face of outside threats, but oppositional views were suppressed by van Leiden and his supporters. Also in September, “missionaries” were sent to neighboring cities. However, these were either intercepted by episcopal troops or apprehended in their target towns. Those who were able to preach had little success. Only in Warendorf did the Anabaptists take control of the town for a week, but they were quickly defeated by episcopal soldiers. In October 1534, a request for help from the Dutch Anabaptist movement, which was also under pressure there, also failed.

Siege and reconquest of Münster

The militancy of the Münster Anabaptists followed, among other things, from the militarily hopeless situation within the city walls. Although they had placed cannons on the church towers and made successful raids, the prince-bishop”s troops nevertheless surrounded the city walls with the help of seven fortified camps and their crews. The besiegers consisted of both knights and lansquenets and were under the command of the experienced Wirich V of Daun-Falkenstein. The mounted troops had the task of sealing off the traffic routes to Münster. The siege of the city by united armies of Old Believers and Protestant princes soon led to famine. The suffering was so great that even the white lime paint of the churches is said to have been scraped off, dissolved in water and distributed as milk.

Two defectors led episcopal soldiers into the city through the Cross Gate on the night of June 24-25, 1535, which, after fighting, allowed more troops to enter Münster the following day. A bloodbath ended the Anabaptist empire. About 650 defenders were killed, and the women were driven out of the city. Main preacher Bernd Rothmann and “Reichskanzler” Heinrich Krechting managed to escape. In the following weeks, the remaining Anabaptists of both sexes, with the exception of Jan van Leiden, Bernd Krechting and Bernd Knipperdolling, were executed.

Condemnation and execution of the leaders

The three remaining Anabaptist leaders, including the “Anabaptist king” Jan van Leiden, whom the bishop”s drost at Wolbeck, Dirk von Merveldt, had himself captured, were first shown around the monastery for six months and questioned about their offenses with and without torture. On January 6, 1536, in accordance with the Anabaptist mandate of the Imperial Diet of 1529 and the penal law introduced in 1532, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, they were sentenced to death in Wolbeck and tortured to death at the foot of the Lamberti Church on the Prinzipalmarkt on January 22. Jan van Leiden, Bernd Krechting and Bernd Knipperdolling had their tongues torn out with red-hot tongs, their bodies were torn apart and after four hours they were stabbed to death. Their corpses were hung up in iron baskets, actually intended for prisoner transport, on the tower of the Lamberti Church for display, “that they might serve as a warning and terror to all restless spirits, lest they attempt or dare to do something similar in the future.” The Anabaptist baskets still hang on the church today. After the old steeple became dilapidated, the baskets were taken down on December 3, 1881; after the new steeple was completed, they were re-installed on the south side on September 22, 1898. The torture instruments are in the Münster City Museum.

Sources and contemporary representations

Representations of the history of reception



  1. Täuferreich von Münster
  2. Münster rebellion
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