Münster played an important role in Christian history. This is a story about Anabaptists and their opponents: a married bishop and an earl who turned bigamist.Three cages on the tower of the Lambert Church still remind us of the terrrible fate of the leaders of the Anabaptist takeover of this city in the early 1530’s. Unlike what most people think, the cages at the tower are not genuine. At least, two are certainly not, because the left and top cage came down during one of the allied bombardments and were destroyed beyond repair.
The cages on display in the townmuseum are replica’s. The episode does not only remind one of the religious excesses of the anabaptists at the time, and the shocking revolutionary speed with which Lutheranism and its normative personal experience and reason could turn into a situation where young and unlearned people who claimed divine inspiration were able to take over an important city like Münster, which was a princedom diocese in the Holy Roman Empire, at the time also extending into Northern Germany and Groningen in the present Netherlands.
The episode is also evidence of the extreme corruption and lack of morals in the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire of the fifteen hundreds. Münster was galantly defended and held out for 16 months. After long negotiations the defenders were promised safe conduct if they turned over the city. They did, but after an episode of betrayal, were murdered instead. Some of the leaders in an extremely cruel way. First they were displayed in cages for money as attraction for a time and subsequently executed by taking out body organs with hot irons bit by bit. What was left of their bodies was put in the three cages to rot away without Christian burial. The leaders underwent these tortures with great bravery and composure. Melanchton wrote that it was the devil who gave them this strength to mislead the faithful with apparent fruits of Christian grace. Nonetheless, their opponents were characterized by lies, betrayal, cruelty and judicial murder. Wasn’t Satan the father of all lies and a murder of man from the beginning of time?
This does not make anabaptism right or gives justification to arrogant forms of religion that are not hindered by knowledge of Scripture and Apostolic tradition, but it does show that it is possible to outwardly confess these, but be on your way to hell: with a ‘faith’ that does not work righteousness, but displays the deeds of the devil.
Münster was besieged by the Bishop of Münster together with count Philipp of Hesse. This was as hypocritical as they come. Just like Jan of Leiden, the anabaptist “king of Münster” and the new Zion, the count of Hesse was guilty of one of the main atrocities of the Anabaptist, polygamy, would become a bigamist himself. He was married to Christina, the daughter of Georg of Saxony and had ten children with her, between the years 1527 and 1547. In 1540 he also married Marguerite of Saale (1522–1566), and added another nine children to his posterity, between 1541 and 1558.
“Fanatics show more improvement than Lutherans”
In Philipp’s defence one should say that his he was aware of his own shortcomings and this prevented the sort of cruelty and dysingenuous behaviour as prevailed in the Roman Catholic party of the bishop. In his attitude toward the Anabaptists generosity and kindness prevailed when the final say was Philipp’s. He never consented to the death penalty for Anabaptist beliefs only. Sedition and revolt were other matters, of course. Characteristic for his nickname “the magniminous” are the words: “I see more improvement of conduct among those whom we call fanatics than among those who are Lutheran” (Letter Duchess Elizabeth of Saxony, 18 February 1530).
Nonetheless, the Anabaptists were certainly not always examples of moral rectitude. Many who ware spared by Philipp’s lenient law and exiled, returned despite their solemn promises that they would not. Despite the great pressures the Anabaptist revolts throughout Europe put on Philipp, even the laws after Münster argued for instruction and if necessary, banishment. Unrepentant Anabaptists had to sell all their possessions within two weeks and leave the country with wife and children. If they promised this in a credible manner, they could even be given all aid and support in the sale of their goods, “for we desire neither their lives nor their goods.” Although some stricter laws came on the books after the Münster episode, Philipp assured that death penalties for Anabaptists needed his personal approval and he never confirmed a death sentence. For this reason Anabaptists were never killed for their faith in Hesse during Philipp’s reign.
Even the bishop of Münster wasn’t your everyday vetus ordo clergyman. Although Münster was re-Catholicised, Franz von Waldeck furthered the teachings of Martin Luther. On top of this he was married or lived in a very similar de facto relationship with Anna Polmann, (1505–1557), the daughter of local linen weaver Barthold Polmann. They had four sons and four daughters. He continued as prince-bishop until his death in AD1553.
This shows that Church history is seldom black and white.
In 1648 Münster was the site where the Peace of Westfalen was concluded, ending the Thirty Year War in the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Year War between Spain and the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. About 97% of the ancient city was destroyed by allied raids on civilians during WW2, including the Bishop’s palace, which has recently been rebuilt on a different site after the rubble was cleared.