Paul D. Wilke
About The Time a Murderous, Polygamous, Doomsday Sex Cult Took Over Münster
Something bizarre happened in Münster between 1534-1535. A radical sect of Anabaptists took over the city and created a proto-communist, polygamous, theocratic, doomsday sex cult governed through fear and violence. They were first led by a former blacksmith turned fiery prophet, Jan Matthias, and then by a former tailor and failed entrepreneur, John of Leiden. They not only rejected traditional Catholic sacraments like infant baptism and the Eucharist but also believed the apocalypse was about to begin.
These were intolerable heresies for Catholics and Lutherans alike. In 1529, an edict by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V made it open season on Anabaptists everywhere. They were to be hunted down and exterminated wherever they were found. Hundreds burned at the stake or were beheaded between 1529 and 1534 before the harried Anabaptists fled behind the relative safety of Münster's walls. Over the next 16-months, as Prince-Bishop Franz van Waldeck besieged the city, this story would take many strange twists and turns. I'm going to look at five of them.
What happened when the Great Prophet Matthias rode out of Münster like Don Quixote to challenge an entire army?
What happened when a young Dutch girl tried to become a second Judith by assassinating Bishop Walbeck?
What happened when John of Leiden, a 25-year-old with a raging libido, became "King" in a city where women outnumber men 3:1? What do you think his major social reform would be?
As the siege on Münster continued into its second year, how did it all come unraveled?
And finally, when it did all fall apart, what was the grisly fate of John and his closest henchmen?
The Prophet Jan Matthias Makes a Questionable Decision
In February of 1534, the prophet Jan Matthias, his lieutenant John of Leiden, and hundreds of his Dutch-speaking followers arrived at Münster, where they took over the Anabaptist movement. Matthias then proceeded to set up a communist theocracy. Money was abolished, and private property too. Everyone's possessions were handed over to the city government to be equitably doled out to the populace. Food was likewise distributed equally; everyone got the same, no more, no less. Class distinctions disappeared; everyone was equal. As an added bonus, Matthias banned and burned all books except the Bible to protect his followers from spiritual corruption.
Meanwhile, outside the city walls, Bishop Waldeck's army was gathering around the city. This didn't matter to Matthias, at least not outwardly. God had told him that the End Times were set to kick off that Easter, just two months later. Then, Christ would swoop down with his avenging angels and smite his enemies.
So is that what happened? Well, not exactly.
Right before Easter, Matthias claimed that God had given him specific instructions on how to proceed. Those instructions seemed insane to his followers, but who were they to question God's word spoken through his chosen prophet?
And what was this insane plan?
Well, on Easter, the Prophet was to ride out of the city in full battle dress with about 20 of his companions to confront the Bishop's army of 3,000 battle-hardened mercenaries. An army of angels would then descend from the heavens and help Matthias annihilate the Bishop's army. The apocalypse would be launched!
And so it played out, but not as the Prophet expected.
Everyone, including John of Leiden, watched from the city walls with eager anticipation at what happened next. They were about to witness something amazing. Out rode the burly, overweight, fifty-something Matthias from the main gate armed with his battle-ax, and immediately charged the enemy.
It was over in seconds.
Matthias and his small band were massacred. The Anabaptists watched in horror as the Bishop's soldiers killed and then cut their prophet's corpse into dozens of pieces. It wasn't even really a battle, but a mass execution. To put an exclamation mark on the day's events, the Bishop had Matthias's severed head placed on a pike in front of the city walls and his genitals nailed to the main gate.
One eye witness wrote:
"They were so angry with him [Matthias] that they did not merely kill him like other people, but beat and cut him into small pieces, so that his brothers, when the uproar was over, had to carry him away in a basket."
Needless to say, neither angels nor Christ with a sword was spotted on this day. Rumors swirled that Matthias would rise from the dead like Christ and resume his mission after three days. Three days passed, yet Matthias's severed head still sat perched on the tip of a pike.
So ended the life of the Prophet Matthias, minus one head and balls nailed to the wall.
John Takes Over and Makes Some Interesting Changes
So Matthias died ingloriously and his prophecy was exposed as a sham. But was it all a lie?
What would his followers do now?
You see, a cult led by a charismatic leader is always at risk of disintegrating once that leader is removed from the equation. Cut off the head and the body dies, or so goes the theory. That could have been the case here. However, an even more charismatic leader now stepped forward and took over. This was John of Leiden, who Martin Luther would derisively call "the Tailor King" to mock his humble origins.
As subsequent events would show, John the Tailor was cut from a different cloth than Matthias. He was educated, well-traveled, and biblically literate. John also realized that he had to discredit his old friend and mentor, Matthias, to consolidate his own power. That actually wasn't all that hard to do, given how events had just played out.
Plus, it wasn't as if the Anabaptists in Münster could just leave and call it quits. They were still besieged by a hostile army that wanted to torture and kill them all. There was no turning back now. The frightened people wanted to be reassured and led, and John of Leiden stepped in to fill the void left by Matthias's death. He soon anointed himself King John and appointed a council of Twelve Elders to help him rule.
One of his first major reforms was to institutionalize polygamy. Of the 9,000 or so inhabitants of Münster, only around 1,600 were men, the rest being women and children. John decreed that each man could take as many wives as he wanted, as long as he 'lived with the wives in a godly way.' He argued that there were biblical precedents. King David had eight wives; Abraham and Jacob had two each. Why not his Anabaptists?
Next, he argued that all those women without husbands would be tempted into sexual depravity. Sex outside of marriage was still a mortal sin at this time. Allowing men to marry more than one woman would keep Münster's women from sinning by having sex out of wedlock. John's spiritual advisor, the prophet Bernard Rothmann, argued that "If, therefore, a man is so richly blessed that he is able to fructify more than one woman, he is free, and even advised to have more than one woman in matrimony.' Weirdly, John and Rothmann were arguing for polygamy to protect men and women from sin. The randy Rothmann practiced what he preached, eventually taking nine wives, all in the name of protecting women from vice.
John did too, and that was probably the point of the law in the first place. He already had a wife and two kids back in Holland, though that didn't stop him from trying to fructify the prettiest ladies of Münster. You see, John was a bit of a cad. When he first arrived at Münster, he stayed with a prominent local businessman named Bernard Knipperdolling, who would later become his number two and chief executioner.
John seduced and then married Knipperdolling's daughter, Klara, though she was only fourteen at the time. She was so badly injured by John during her wedding night rape that she needed surgery to repair the damage. Nevertheless, John soon grew tired of Klara and began sleeping with Knipperdolling's maid. Then, after Matthias found himself minus one head, God personally told John and only John that he should take Matthias's widow, the beautiful Divara, as his wife and then implement polygamy in Münster. John obeyed God, and Divara became wife number three.
He was just getting started. Over the next few months, he would continue adding new wives until he had sixteen.
Not surprisingly, many of the men loved the new policy. In a city where women outnumbered men by 3:1, there was a mad rush to claim any single women of child-bearing age as wives. According to the new law, women had to marry and submit to sex on demand with their husbands.
Also, not surprisingly, many women were not so happy about being turned into sexual vassals. Wives of long-standing found themselves sharing the marriage bed with one or more sister wives, and they hated it. Social chaos ensued as lecherous old men competed with each other to collect as many wives as possible. In contrast, many women hid, complained, or resisted in other ways. According to historian Paul Ham, "Many men delighted in the prospect of enjoying a harem of wives; others despaired at what they had lost or were about to lose: a stable, loving marriage."
So many women had refused to go along with this new policy of institutionalized rape that John and his Twelve Elders were forced to take sterner measures. Women who refused to submit to marital sex on demand and obey the laws endorsing polygamy would be sent to prison. The Rosendale Coventry was converted into a woman's jail for these recalcitrant women.
This may have backfired, however. The prospect of getting locked up in a women's prison was frankly more appealing to many women than forced sex with some dirty old man. Prophet Rothmann may have sensed this was the case, "Rosendale won't work any longer. We realize that you can't be forced by it. Hence, now you must be punished by the sword." From here on out, women who refused to marry or would not submit to sex on demand were to be executed.
And that is exactly what happened on several occasions.
For example, one day, a woman was brought before King John's throne. She was accused of denying her husband sex three times, a capital offense. The woman in question, Elizabeth Holschem, argued that she had been assigned a husband against her will, despite John's earlier insistence that women should not be forced into these plural marriages. The reality was that they were. John sentenced her to death for her sins to set an example. His chief executioner and father-in-law, Bernard Knipperdolling, then decapitated Elizabeth in a single stroke.
The next day Katherine Kockerbeckin was executed similarly for the crime that she had supposedly taken two husbands. Knipperdolling also later decapitated his mistress in the town square for suspected treason. And so it continued. Women were forced to accept the new marital regime or risk capital punishment. It was a terrible choice to make.
By the spring of 1535, King John had a harem of sixteen wives. Many of his henchmen had multiple wives as well, though John's were some of the prettiest and fairest maidens in the realm. Each was expected to be obedient and respond to his every desire, no matter how depraved. In return, they lived and ate like royalty. This was important because the selfless communism of the movement's early days had given way under the harsh realities of a long siege. John and his entourage continued to eat very well. Meanwhile, everyone else was starving.
Still, there was trouble in paradise. One of John's wives, Elizabeth Wandscheer, had had enough and wanted out. She looked around and saw starvation and misery while the King and his court gorged themselves at nightly banquets. She felt shame living like this while the people suffered. It wasn't right.
So Elizabeth did the unthinkable, returning the jewels and gifts the King had given her and asking permission to leave Münster. The King responded like the tyrant he had become, dragging her to the town square and condemning her to death, a sentence he carried out himself by chopping her head off. Then, in a macabre display, the King and his wives danced around Elizabeth's headless corpse as they all sang, "Glory be to God the highest!"
The Girl Who Would Be Judith: The Sad Tale of Hille Feyken
As we saw above with mad prophet Matthias and his ill-fated plan, letting blind faith run a little too far ahead of reality can get you killed. This is another such tale. As Bishop Waldeck's siege pressed on, the inhabitants of Münster found themselves safe but trapped. The Bishop's first assault on the city had been repulsed with heavy casualties, but the siege continued with no end in sight. What could the defenders do to break the stalemate?
Incredibly, a young Dutch girl of fifteen stepped up with a plan that took as its inspiration the events in the Book of Judith. In that story, the Israelites were under assault by the mighty Assyrian Empire, led by Nebuchanezzar's most powerful general, Holofernes. Totally outnumbered and with defeat imminent, a young Jewish maiden named Judith prayed to God to give her the courage to embark on a last-ditch plan to save her people. Her bold plan was to assassinate Holofernes.
Judith left the city gates of Bethulia and headed to the Assyrian lines, where she was captured and taken to Holofernes's tent. Judith used her beauty to charm the great general and even offered him intel to defeat the Israelites. That was all fine and good, but Holofernes desperately wanted to sleep with her, and with that in mind, he begged her to come to his tent to eat and drink wine with him. Judith accepted the invitation, telling him, "Whatever is pleasing to him I will promptly do. This will be a joy for me until the day of my death." (Judith 12:14) Holofernes no doubt thought he was about to make a conquest of another kind.
But this was all according to Judith's master plan to seduce Holofernes and make him vulnerable, which is exactly what happened. His servants and guards left the two alone to drink and make love in peace. Unfortunately for Holofernes, he drank so much he passed out. Judith now looked down at the sleeping man and prayed to God for the strength to do what came next.
"Strengthen me this day, Lord, God of Israel!" Judith 13:7
She took up Holofernes' heavy sword, grabbed him by the hair, and cut off his head. One is left wondering how efficiently that cutting went - a small girl, a heavy sword, and a thick neck - but I digress. She put the head in a sack and then snuck back to Bethulia to show it to the city leaders. "Here is the head of Holofernes...the Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman!" The head was then nailed to the city gate so that the Assyrians would see it in the morning. When they did, they fled, and the Israelites pursued and annihilated them.
Judith had saved the day, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Now flash forward two thousand years to Münster. A devout and attractive fifteen-year-old Dutch girl named Hille Feyken saw the parallels between Judith's tale and the current situation. She came up with a plan to save the city that was very closely modeled on Judith's.
Amazingly, John and the Elders gave the green light for this plan. Why not, they reasoned, it probably wouldn't work, but if it did, it would be a major coup. And even if it didn't, the Anabaptists would get a morale-boosting martyr and have one less mouth to feed, all for the low cost of one young girl who couldn't fight anyway.
So Hille dressed herself up in fine clothes and jewelry and made her way to the besieging army's trenches. She carried a gift for Bishop Waldeck, a beautiful shirt of fine linen soaked in poison. The plan was to meet Bishop Waldeck posing as a disgruntled Anabaptist and offer him intel on the city's defenses.
When she gained his trust, she would give him the poisoned shirt, which he would at some point put on and die instantly. Then, God willing, if things went according to plan, the dead Bishop's army would melt away, and the siege would be over.
Hille would be a hero, just like Judith, and they would all live happily ever after.
But this is another story where blind faith collides with brute reality, and brute reality emerges the victor. Hille made it to the Bishop's lines, where she was interrogated by the high bailiff. He actually bought her story and agreed to take her to meet with the Bishop in two days.
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, another refugee from Münster showed up at about the same time, a man named Herman Ramert. To save himself from the inevitable torture and death that awaited any captured Anabaptist with nothing to bargain with, he offered the Bishop some intel of his own: he knew about Hille's plan to assassinate the Bishop and revealed everything.
Hille was immediately arrested and tortured on the wheel. There she revealed her plan to become a second Judith and save her people from the Bishop. To her credit, torture did not break her. She remained a true believer to the end. As she was led to the scaffolding for her execution, she assured the executioner that he had no power to hurt her. "We shall see about that," he answered and chopped her head off.
Brute Reality: 2
Blind Faith: 0
The Awful Last Days of Münster
The siege wore on, and provisions were dwindling fast. As disillusion set in among the people, John concocted ever more elaborate schemes to raise their morale. In January of 1535, he predicted that on Easter of that year, the Lord would return. They just needed to hold fast for another three months, and then they would be delivered from their suffering.
But everyone remembered that Matthias had predicted the same thing the year before, and look how well that went. John remembered too, and so added the caveat that if he was wrong, and the Lord didn't arrive as predicted, he would surrender himself to be executed as a 'false prophet and criminal.'
Well, of course, Easter came, and the Lord showed no signs of coming. John dubiously claimed that he had not meant the Lord would actually come on Easter, no, only that the Last Days would begin then. He proclaimed an added bonus, "You are now free from sin!" And, "Our present suffering is but His testing of our steadfastness." They just needed to be patient.
But patience is not a virtue when you are dying of starvation. The reality of scarcity began to dictate people's behavior. John took control of the city's entire stock of meat and grain to make sure his inner circle was well fed. Everyone else had to fend for themselves.
We have numerous reports of desperate people put to death for stealing from the central stores. One woman was condemned for taking more than her quota of horseflesh. A hungry ten-year-old boy was hanged (twice...the rope broke the first time) for stealing apples. By April, thousands were starving and looking for a way out.
John saw an opportunity. He agreed that anyone who wanted to leave could. This would reduce the strain on his supplies and rid himself of the least committed. Unfortunately, Bishop Waldeck was not in a forgiving mood.
In the early months of the siege, John had twice repelled the Bishop's assaults with heavy losses. The Bishop seethed but decided that his best option was to starve them out. Months later, that policy was now finally paying off. By June, four hundred men and the same number of women had left Münster, only to find themselves in a new hell. The men taken by the Bishop's forces were almost immediately executed. Their bodies were put on full display for the people of Münster to see. Meanwhile, the women and children were imprisoned.
Still, something had to give, and it soon did. One of Münster's dissatisfied refugees and a former guard familiar with the city's defenses was granted amnesty in return for help exploiting a weak spot in the walls. With his help, 300 soldiers were able to sneak through an unguarded door and get into the city; the rest of the army soon followed and overwhelmed the hunger-weakened defenders. After some sharp fighting, the city fell on 25 June 1535. Every male in the city was put to the sword. Of the few hundred others who survived the sacking, 213 recanted and were spared. The rest were killed. John's favorite wife and Matthias's widow, Queen Divara, refused to recant and was beheaded on 7 July.
John Dies a Gruesome Death
John was taken alive along with two of his lieutenants, Bernard Knipperdolling and Bernard Krechting. By this point, John had become a sort of folk hero in the region. After all, an impoverished tailor from Leiden, a nobody really, was able to take over a city and hold off the armies of the Holy Roman Empire for 16 months. Though many found his beliefs abhorrent, there was grudging respect toward a guy who had managed to take on the establishment and give it a few black eyes.
Still, John knew what his fate would be after the interrogations were completed. However, before he was put to death, the theologians wanted to make him see the errors of his ways and fully repent. Something was unsettling about his beliefs and how attractive they seemed to so many people. They needed to discredit them.
The chief interrogator was a humane Lutheran theologian called Antonius Corvinus. He brought John up out of his cold, dark cell and into a well-appointed room with a fireplace and comfortable chairs. Rather than torturing the answers out of him, Corvinus wanted to get John talking freely and openly. This turned out to be a good approach. John talked.
Corvinus also wanted to reconvert the heretic back into the orthodoxy and used his friendly interrogations to probe for weaknesses and inconsistencies in John's theology. He was surprised by how few there were. John may have been a violent and deluded heretic, but he was an intelligent one, and he could competently quote scripture to back up his beliefs. Where in the Bible did it say that infant baptism was mandatory? It doesn't, at least not explicitly. And didn't Christ get baptized as an adult? So why is it heresy? John gave as good as he got. Other than polygamy, John's religious beliefs will not strike most modern Christians as anything but common sense. In some ways, he was way ahead of his time. But this was not a debate he could win, and this was not his time.
In the end, John would not budge or renounce his beliefs. He didn't change his mind that the Eucharist was no more than a symbolic representation of Christ's body and blood. He held on to his belief that only an adult could rationally decide to be baptized. Nor would he admit that he had abused the institution of marriage by introducing polygamy. Corvinus and John eventually reached an impasse, and there was no reason to continue the discussions.
On 22 January 1536, John of Leiden, Bernard Knipperdolling, and Bernard Krechting were taken to the marketplace in Münster to be executed. The method to be used was meant to inflict maximum agony, making it a death fit for the worst heretics. For one hour, the executioners would use white-hot tongs to flay the skin off of their victims. After that hour had passed, the executioner would mercifully stab the victim in the heart to end their life.
John was up first. Soon the smell of his burning flesh filled the air. John stoically bore the pain in silence, impressing even Corvinus. "Not once a sound, as a witness to the pain, did he utter." And so it went for one hour; John's skin was flayed from his body, strip by strip. Only towards the end did John cry out for mercy from God. With malicious glee, the Catholic priests and monks in attendance applauded the mortal destruction of their hated enemy. "Glory be to God the highest!" Corvinus wrote of these monks and priests, "There were many here who could not imagine anything better than this sight."
Knipperdolling was next. He went screaming and begging for forgiveness. Finally, there was poor Krechting, who before his turn came, suffered an additional two hours of psychological torture watching his former friends die in agony. When his turn finally did come, he too went screaming and begging for forgiveness.
After this gruesome spectacle, the three mutilated corpses were put in cages and hung from the tower of St. Lambert's church as a reminder of what happens to heretics and also, no doubt, as a reminder of God's everlasting and loving justice. There they stayed for five decades, through sun, rain, and snow, with the corpses finally becoming skeletons. The original cages, now empty, still hang from the tower of St. Lambert today.
Over the next few years, the rest of the Anabaptists would be hunted down and killed. There would be no more Münsters to threaten the social order. By 1540, Anabaptists had almost ceased to exist on the continent. Many fled to England. From there, some went on to settle in America where Anabaptist beliefs inspired the Baptist Church's development, many of whose ideas are direct descendants of those held by John of Leiden and his sect.
The humble and gentle Menno Simons, another wandering preacher, rescued the most humane and peaceful parts of Anabaptism from Münster's ruins and founded what eventually became the Mennonites. He understood what John and Matthias did not, namely that Christianity is at its best when it is peaceful, kind, and gentle, following Christ's example from the Sermon on the Mount. Violence only begets more violence. However, given the relentless persecution the Anabaptists suffered, theirs was an understandable response. But when that happens, you end up with lots of heads chopped off and flayed bodies hanging in cages from church towers. Religious virtue ends up defined by the side with the biggest army, and nothing more. This was a lesson Europe would spend the next hundred years learning.
The age of religious wars was just beginning.
Arthur, Anthony. The Tailor-King: the Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Ham, Paul. New Jerusalem. William Heinemann, 2018.