Aug 26, 2013
I first came across this one way back when I was finishing my undergraduate program, and it's probably what first gave me the idea to write on fun, strange, & interesting historical people, things, & events that you likely won’t learn in Social Studies.
Europe was a crazy place in the Mid-1500s. The Protestant Revolution had kicked things up a notch, and now every charismatic Tom, Dick, & Harry who thought he knew better and wanted his own group of followers started their own little sects. One of these sects was an oft-persecuted offshoot of the Anabaptists.
On the night of 8 February 1534, Bernard Rothmann (a Protestant theologian from Stadtlohn), Jan Matthais (a geriatric baker from Amsterdam) and Jan van Leyden (a tailor's apprentice and amateur actor), orchestrated a religious riot throughout the torch lit streets of Münster in Germany, proclaiming the arrival of the Second Coming. The next day, believing that the Bishop, Franz von Waldeck, had gathered a large force of troops to exterminate them, the Anabaptists took over the city. Over the next month they consolidated their gains by killing or banishing all Catholics and Lutherans who would not convert.
Bishop initial forces arrived at the end of February, and continued to trickle in from all over the Low Countries and Central Europe throughout March. Meanwhile, on the inside, the Anabaptist had started ripping down the church towers and the homes of exiled Catholic and Lutherans to brace the walls.
It wasn't all Late Medieval warfare business as usual, though. Matthais made two major decrees. The first was that every book that wasn't the Bible should be burned. The other was that there would be no private property. Clothing, food, furniture . . . all was put in central depots for redistribution. Oh, and he relieved them of their gold, silver, and any other items of value.
On 3 April, Good Friday, there was a large wedding celebration for two of the recent Anabaptist immigrants to the city. Towards the end of the party, Matthais fell face down onto the table. After a few minutes he lifted his head, got up, kissed everyone, and then left. On Easter morning, he rode out with a dozen men to do battle with the Bishop's men.
As you can probably imagine, that didn't go so well. 500 knights charged the old man and his riders, and within a couple minutes Matthais was dead. His severed head was displayed before the Anabaptists watching on the walls, and his unmentionables nailed to the city gate.
Quickly seizing the moment, Jan van Leyden called everyone into the church and denounced Matthais as a senile old coot, and that the Holy Spirit commanded Jan to marry Matthias's widow. Although he didn't come out and say it, it was obvious he was taking over Matthias's role as leader of the Insurrection. Later that week, he commanded that a group of Twelve Elders administer the city, just as it was in Ancient Jerusalem.
The Bishop's first attack was planned for 26 May, but it wound up taking place on 25 May. It was a total failure. A half-dozen or so soldiers started drinking early in the afternoon and passed out. When they woke up, the sun was just on the horizon. They thought that they had slept through the night and that the moment of attack had come. They ran through the camp shouting, 'CHARGE!' The commanders couldn't stop their soldiers. The straw mats for crossing the mostly-drained moat hadn't been placed yet, and the soldiers got stuck in the mud, making them easy targets for the defenders.
The siege lasted about another 13 months before a night attack on 22 June 1535 succeeded in retaking the city. The next few days were a near orgy of blood and death. The leaders of the Rebellion were captured and executed in a variety of imaginative and gruesome ways.
Jan van Leyden was kept locked up for another six months and was rigorously questioned. On 22 January 1536, Jan and two of his closest henchmen were executed. Jan was repeatedly grabbed with red hot tongs on either side of his body while secured to a post with a spiked iron collar to prevent movement. After an hour, he was finally ended by a dagger to the heart. His corpse was placed in an iron cage and hung on the church steeple until it rotted and fell apart. To this day, the cage is still hanging from the steeple as a reminder of the Rebellion.
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