The Hanging Cages of St. Lambert's Church in Münster

Mar 12, 2020 0 comments

If you crane your neck and look up while standing in front of St Lambert's Church in Münster, Germany, you can make out three iron cages hanging from the church's steeple, just above the clock face. The cages are empty, but five hundred years ago they held the mutilated, rotten corpses of three revolutionaries who led one of the most brutal Protestant revolutions in history.

Münster rebellion

Photo: ptwo/Flickr

In the 16th century, Münster was ruled by the elected prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. Waldeck was a Catholic, but he tolerated any kind of faith as long as it had Christian origin. Waldeck’s ambiguous attitude towards Reformists attracted all kinds of people, as it enabled them to practice their religion without the threat of persecution. Against this backdrop, arrived a Dutchman named Johan Beukelszoon from the city of Leiden, as he had heard Münster was friendly to Anabaptists. Supporters of Anabaptism, which many consider to be an offshoot of Protestantism, believe that only adults who confess their faith in Christ can be baptized, and not infants. They also believed that all men are equal and all wealth should be equally distributed.

Upon arrival, John of Leiden—as he was popularly called—found many believers warming up to these new ideas. It did not take him long to rope in several local preachers and together they began conducting sermons denouncing Catholic doctrines and promoting Anabaptism. Through pamphlets distributed throughout northern Germany, Anabaptists called upon the poor of the region to join the citizens of Münster to share the wealth of the town and benefit spiritually from being the elect of Heaven. Before long John had mobilized a large group of delirious, religious zealots who turned the tolerant city into something very different.

Münster rebellion

John of Leiden baptizing a young woman.

Prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck and the city council was kicked out of office, and a new mayor was put in place. Non-believers were driven out of their homes and their properties seized. They were replaced by Anabaptists who flowed in from surrounding villages in large numbers. Cathedrals and monasteries became sites for orgies of iconoclasm as rebaptism became compulsory. Money was outlawed and owing of property was banned. Books were burned.

John of Leiden proclaimed himself the leader, and established a Royal Order complete with a Royal Court. He made for himself a kingly costume, while asking his followers to be naked in preparation for the Second Coming. Polygamy was made compulsory, and John himself took sixteen wives. Capital punishment for trivial offences became commonplace. Meanwhile, the citizens starved as food and supplies dwindled.

After more than a year of lawlessness, Franz von Waldeck succeeded in taking back the city from the hands of rebels. In January 1536, John of Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling (the new mayor) and one more prominent follower, Bernhard Krechting, were tortured and executed in the marketplace of Münster. Their bodies were put in cages about the size of coffins, and hung from the steeple of St. Lambert's Church, where they remained for fifty years. The cages still hang from the church’s steeple.

Münster rebellion

Photo: rogiro/Flickr

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