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Two Cheers for Democracy!? – The Forward March of Women in Britain, 1903-1931.   1 comment

6 February 2018 marked the centenary of the passing of the ‘Representation of the People’ Act which extended the right to vote, the franchise, to working men over the age of 21 and to ‘propertied’ women over the age of thirty. Although a significant milestone on the long road to a full parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom, it was by no means the end of that road, and the elections which followed in 1918 and throughout the 1920s did not bring about either a major advancement in women’s rights nor the empowerment of working men and women in general. In fact, much of the reforming work done in social and working conditions by the two Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31 was undermined by the economic and political crisis of 1931, followed by a decade and a half of social upheaval resulting from the depression, mass migration and the Second World War. To understand the significance of the electoral reforms of 1918 and 1928, we need to see them in the context of the broad social changes which began before the First World War, were accelerated by it, and continued into the inter-war years. These changes affected both men and women, though perhaps, at least until the 1930s, were more generally positive in their effect on the lives of women.  We might then be able to give two cheers for democracy in Britain, but only two…


Source: The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History (2001)

In  January 1913, the more militant ‘Suffragists’, nicknamed ‘Suffragettes’,  began destroying property in all parts of Britain in an attempt to coerce the Liberal government into granting women the vote in parliamentary elections. They torched churches and cricket pavilions, set letter-boxes ablaze, slashed works of art and detonated bombs. Excluding property of ‘incalculable value’, the most conservative estimate suggests that properties worth well over half a million pounds were destroyed within eighteen months. The ‘arson campaign’ continued right up to the outbreak of World War One. A case in point was Felixstowe, the quiet seaside town in Suffolk, flared, very literally, into the national news one day in April 1914. During the previous night the resort’s most exclusive hotel, the Bath Hotel, had been totally gutted by fire. Arson was immediately suspected, particularly when leaflets were picked up which had been scattered around the building:

There can be no peace until women get the vote!

No vote means war!

A few days later two visitors to the town, Hilda Burkett (31) and Florence Tunks (26) were arrested and charged with the crime. During their various judicial hearings, according to the press, the two women ‘behaved in a hysterical manner which we have now come to expect from fanatics whose devotion to a cause leads them into acts of terrorism’. They shouted, laughed and ridiculed the court. “I am not going to keep quiet,” cried Miss Burkett, when ordered to be silent, “I have come here to enjoy myself”. Reportedly ‘truculent and abusive to the last’, they eventually left the assize court at Bury St. Edmund’s, ‘screaming and shouting’, to begin long periods of imprisonment and hard labour. The damage to the hotel was in excess of ten thousand pounds.

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The arson campaign was the culmination of a long-standing demand for female suffrage. As early as 1832, the year that The Great Reform Act extended the franchise to propertied middle-class men, Mary Smith had presented the first female suffrage petition to parliament. In 1867, the year that some working men got the vote, the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee was established, quickly followed by suffrage associations in London, Edinburgh and Bristol. By the 1870s, suffrage societies existed all over Great Britain, from Orkney and Shetland to Brighton. In 1872, these local societies united to form a Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which became the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897, presided over by Millicent Fawcett. This became the largest suffrage organisation in the United Kingdom.


The arson campaign, however, was organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903 with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, at its head. Although initially, they concerned themselves with lobbying for the vote for women, they soon became disillusioned by the slow progress being made. In contrast to the NUWSS, they proposed a violent approach. From 1909 onwards, the violence of their attacks grew progressively until, by July 1910, a year after he had been attacked by the suffragette Theresa Garnett wielding a whip, Home Secretary Winston Churchill declared in parliament that he would not support the enfranchisement of women.


As with the rioting south Wales miners, on whom he had unleashed the Metropolitan Police and had threatened to unleash the troops earlier that year, earning himself a place in the demonology of the Labour movement, Churchill had at first been, on principle, tepidly sympathetic to the cause of votes for women, not least because his wife Clementine was a warm supporter of it. But as Asquith, at first a principled opponent, squirmed and procrastinated to the point of yielding a ‘Conciliation Bill’ intended to enfranchise women property owners, but then got the legislation snarled up in procedural delays, the patience of the WSPU had, not unreasonably, run out. Cabinet ministers were stalked and harassed, before being physically attacked. Churchill, among other MPs and government ministers, felt that this use of violence should not be given in to by the Government and that it had proved that these women terrorists, at least, were not presently worthy of ‘being given’ the vote and thereby access to the democratic constitutional rights of His Majesty’s law-abiding subjects.


Of course, the majority of King Edward VII’s female subjects had also been law-abiding, and not just the middle-class members of Mrs Fawcett’s nonviolent ‘suffragist’ movement. Working-class and lower-middle-class women were perhaps the main beneficiaries of social and economic, if not political, change before 1914. The preference for smaller families, which became more marked in the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, and had begun to spread to certain sections of the working classes in ‘Edwardian’ Britain, was making the lives of many married women considerably easier; and the coming of the typewriter and the telephone were among the developments which added more employment opportunities for girls and young women. More scholarships, often to the new schools and technical colleges gave bright young people of both sexes a better start in life than their parents had had.


All of these changes, however, were coming about slowly. There may have been more women teachers and nurses, shop assistants and telephonists, typists and machine-operators; but there was still a vast army in domestic service. Added to this, the Liberal government’s reforms which took piecemeal shape after their 1906 landslide electoral victory could not come about quickly enough for working-class families. Under increasing pressure from Labour MPs, old age pensions began to be paid by the state only at the beginning of 1909, and health and unemployment benefit did not begin until the beginning of 1913 after the battles with the Conservative majority in the House of Lords were won. Even after this, poverty was still alarmingly extensive in 1914. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many working-class men and women did not always see an automatic relationship between gaining the franchise and the improving their immediate conditions of life and labour. They were more likely to turn to the trades unions to achieve these improvements through more direct, syndicalist methods in this period.

Although Mrs Pankhurst’s slogan was ‘Votes for Women’, she only wanted women to get the vote on the same terms as men. Many working men did not have the vote since they owned no property, so Mrs Pankhurst didn’t want working women to have the vote either. When her own daughter, Sylvia, called for votes for working women, her mother had her thrown out of the suffragette movement.

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As Home Secretary faced with industrial action by revolutionary trades unionists in south Wales and elsewhere, and, at the same time, with mass suffragette demonstrations in Parliament Square, Churchill gave directives to the police not to arrest the demonstrators but, on the other hand, not to allow them access to parliament. Intended to be cautious, the guidelines for ‘handling’ what he imagined would be disorganised ‘crowds’ of women protesters were, in fact, a recipe for disaster. Thousands of women and their male sympathisers, extremely well-marshalled in phalanxes, pushed hard against the massed ranks of the police. Helmets were naturally knocked off in the mêlée, and rude words were exchanged. Spectators also gathered and the police found themselves in unknown territory, not being used to being mocked by one crowd and physically pressed by another. On 18 November 1910, ‘Bloody Friday’, the pushing and shoving turned into six hours of fighting, with the police manhandling and beating up as many suffragettes as they could get their hands on, and discovering, in their turn, the power and pain of the raking scratch and the well-aimed kick. Instead of zero arrests, as Churchill had wanted, there were 280 by the end of the day.

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Naturally enough, too, this only added fuel to the fire as far as the WSPU was concerned. Inside Holloway prison, following the lead of Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, suffragette prisoners went on hunger strike and in response were brutally force-fed using metal clamps, rubber tubes and nauseous fluids that they usually vomited up again. Ice-cold water was hosed into some of their cells to a depth of six inches. Outside, the WSPU campaign was evidently targeting property, especially that associated with men’s stereotypical images of womanly behaviour. Stores such as Marshall & Snellgrove, Swears & Wells and Liberty had their big windows smashed in. The fancier streets of London – government offices in Whitehall, clubland in Pall Mall – became carpets of broken glass. Other sanctuaries of the British way of life were ‘shockingly’ violated. ‘Votes for Women’ was spelt out by acid-burns on the greens of golf-courses including one at Balmoral.


In the years 1912-14, WSPU members began making even more serious attacks on property. They had been deliberately encouraged to do so by Emmeline Pankhurst, speaking in the Albert Hall in October 1912:

Those of you who can break windows – break them! Those of you who can still further attack property so as to make the government realise that property is as greatly endangered by Women Suffrage as it was by the Chartists of old – do so! And my last words to the government: I incite this meeting to rebellion!

The arson campaign certainly brought the suffragettes, the militant wing of the movement, to public attention, but it also alienated many politicians who had been broadly in favour of reform and led the barring of suffragists, the moderate, propagandist wing, from large halls and other public platforms. In part, this escalation in violence was a response to the frustration at the slow rate of progress and the increasingly violent response of the police and prison officials. This was particularly noticeable after the hunger strikes of imprisoned suffragettes led to forced feeding and the passing of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, better known as the Cat and Mouse Act, in April 1913:


One of the most militant of the suffragettes, Emily Wilding Davison, was constantly coming up with new tactics to take the women’s guerrilla war into the heartland of ‘the respectable classes’. First, she was caught standing by the Parliament Square postbox holding a paraffin-soaked piece of linen, about to light it. After a spell in prison, she then organised an attack on Lloyd George’s new house at Walton-on-the-Hill in Surrey, which succeeded in destroying half of it, although she was not caught in the act. And, finally and most famously, Emily achieved what to some has been seen as her evident wish for martyrdom by throwing herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 31 May 1913.

Although the suffragettes did indeed gain their first martyr by her Derby Day death, most recent historians writing about the event  refer to the evidence of close witnesses and those who knew her best, who regarded it as an accidental attempt to pin the suffragette colours in the form of a banner or sash onto the bridle of the first horse as it sped past, and not as an act of suicide. It just so happened that the king’s horse was in the lead when she launched herself from the rails. She was trampled under the horse, as pictured below, dying later from her injuries.

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The photograph below shows another arrest at the same demonstration, with Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial behind the mounted policeman:


The geography of the arson campaign was remarkably wide, the exception being Ireland, which was scarcely affected outside Dublin and northeast Ulster. There, feminists faced a dilemma as to whether they should support the campaign for national independence first and foremost. Most decided that this was their top priority over the campaign for female suffrage. Wales had many active suffragists but saw little of the arson campaign. Nonetheless, the campaign spread like wildfire throughout England and Scotland (see the map at the top of this article), in part because it was largely carried out by a relatively small group of highly mobile women.


The police, in general, showed little sympathy for the women’s cause. Indeed, it was the intolerance of protest shown by the authorities, and the government’s refusal to listen to the suffragettes, that drove them to violence.


By July 1914, the Liberal Government was only just in power, propped up by Labour and the moderate Irish nationalists in Parliament. Its programme of social reform lay behind it and a vast agenda of social unrest awaited it every day. The wave of strikes which had begun in 1910, continued to sweep through the country, leaving a legacy of bitterness on all sides, with every prospect of a ‘final’ confrontation in the autumn. Instead, Britain suddenly found itself going to war on the continent, and the same men who had been involved in strikes and clashes with the police just a few days before were now marching away to Flanders. On the declaration of war at the beginning of August 1914, the WSPU became overtly patriotic. Its paper, The Suffragette, was renamed Britannia and pledged itself… For King, For Country, For Freedom. The “hysterical, wild women” became “indomitable war-workers” almost immediately.


In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915, 256,000, showed only a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 it was 520,000. By July 1917 the figure was 819,000. In industry as a whole, the total employment of women and girls over ten had increased by about 800,000 between 1914 and 1918.



The initial answer of the government to the shortage of labour was the Shells and Fuses Agreement whereby the unions would accept ‘dilution of labour’ for the duration of the war. In June 1915 the new coalition government dropped all pretence at negotiation on the question of existing practices in industry and introduced a Munitions of War Bill to force upon the unions the dilution of labour by unskilled men and women. While many trade union and labour leaders who supported the war acquiesced in the dilution of labour, others resisted this by demanding the rate for the job where new workers were introduced, a control of company profits and a guarantee that the men away at the front would have jobs to return to after the war.

011One of the effects of these protests and the continued agitation by women trade unionists was an amendment to the Munitions Act to give statutory force to ‘the rate for the job’ where women did the same skilled work as men. Tram, bus and railway companies were forced to pay the rate for the job when the women substituted for men and scores of unions took up the campaign on behalf of women at work. The unions emerged from the war with an increase of two and a half million members. Women and girls who had been unorganised domestic servants and working class housewives had been introduced to a range of jobs never before open to them and had thereby been brought into the organised trade union movement. The photographs below are of workers in a shell factory and oxide breaking at Beckton Gas Works.


The imposition of universal conscription in 1915 was an event of central importance in the social history of the war: it began the second and definitive growth in women’s employment and determined that the changes involved should go far beyond a limited expansion and of industrial labour, given additional piquancy by the entry for the first time into hard physical work of a few adventurous members of the upper classes. Just two weeks after the passing of the Act, the Government launched its first national drive to fill the places vacated or about to be vacated by men. The advent of so many female workers into the wartime labour force was already having a major impact on the general perception of the role of women in society. The editor of the Observer, J. L. Garvin, wrote in a leader on 13 August 1916:

Time was when I thought that men alone maintained the State. Now I know that men alone never could have maintained it, and that henceforth the modern State must be dependent on men and women alike for the progressive strength and vitality of its whole organisation.

For the Coalition government, E. S. Montague, Lloyd George’s successor as Minister of Munitions echoed the views of many others when he said, on 15 August 1916:

Women of every station… have proved themselves able to undertake work that before the war was regarded as solely the province of men… Where… is the man now who would deny to women the civil rights which she has earned by her hard work?


Above: Female guards employed on the London underground.

By February 1917, the total number of bus conductress had jumped up to around 2,500. Transport showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment, from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. After transport, the biggest proportional increases were in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finance, there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917, demonstrating the rise in importance of ‘the business girl’. In creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of men, the war brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of women civil servants.


Besides working as lamplighters and window cleaners, working-class women also did very heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. One of the simple remedies used when the women succumbed to the arduous conditions is remembered thus:

Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then drink a bottle of Guinness.

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Outside the factories and foundries, women replaced men in making household deliveries, including milk and coal (above).  Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, however, these had not been conspicuously successful. In July 1915 there were about 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than in July 1914. As in the case of domestic service, the war had liberated many women and girls from tied working relationships.

Active campaigning for votes for women had ceased with the war, but debates in 1917 about changing the law to re-enfranchise men who had served in the armed forces overseas for more than twelve months gave the NUWSS an opportunity to lobby again for female suffrage. On 29 March, Michael MacDonagh reported for The Times on the debate which took place in the House of Commons the previous day, which led to its voting by 341 to 62 in favour of Women’s suffrage to be included in a scheme of electoral reform which would come into operation at the end of the War:

The motion was moved by Asquith, who in a fine speech recanted the stout opposition which he gave to votes for women before the War. Women, he said, had worked out their own salvation in the War. The War could not have been carried on without them: and he felt it impossible that to withhold from them the right of making their voice heard on the problems of the country’s reconstruction when the War was over.

While the suffragettes ceased to exist after 1918, the suffragists continued to fight for universal female suffrage on the same basis as men. Millicent Fawcett agreed to negotiate the terms of a Reform Bill as it would affect women. Many men had supported the Suffragettes, but others still thought that their militant campaign showed that women were too unstable and unpredictable to be entrusted with the vote. Some soldiers at the Front saw it as a ploy by the Government to get married women to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, and one of them wrote home to his wife in no uncertain terms on the subject in May 1918:

Well, I am afraid there will be trouble if they try to take married women into the W.A.A.C. We men can stand a lot, but they are nearing the danger zone when they wish to force our wives into service. Goodness, the damned infernal impudence of wanting our wives! Why, if anyone came for you whilst I was at home, I’d slit his throat open. I’m not bragging, I’m saying what I mean. How little they understand us, they are running up against trouble with a vengeance, they will find they have signed their death warrant.

It has long been argued that it was the mass participation of women in the war effort – in industry (factories and munitions works), in transport (on the buses, tramways and railways), in the Civil Service, and in the Forces – which produced this result so deeply desired by the pre-war suffragist and suffragette movements. The Bill was not greeted with universal enthusiasm, however, nor were the means by which it was achieved always admired. The arson campaign had alienated many politicians, as it had women who had disapproved of the suffragettes’ rejection of conventional femininity or resented the upper-middle-class domination of the suffragette movement. Certainly, in 1918, Asquith continued to declare that women had proved themselves worthy of the vote by the way they had “aided in the most effective way the in the prosecution of the war”. Nevertheless, its terms were limited in their effects on female suffrage, as the historian Simon Schama has recently reminded us:

Would post-war Britain, then, as Lloyd George had promised, be a ‘country fit for heroes’? It would at any rate be a democracy of twenty-seven million, even if the vote at last given to women in 1918 began at the age of thirty whilst twenty-one-year-old men were deemed adult enough to exercise it; there would be no flapper franchise.  

Both the ‘flappers’ and the working-class heroines would have to wait for another decade until social attitudes to the role of women in society had changed more radically.  But broader changes in society, some hastened by the war, were decisive.

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The historian of ‘total war’, Arthur Marwick, has argued that to say that the war brought votes for women is to make a very crude generalisation, yet one which contains essential truth. The question of women’s rights needs to be seen in the context of social relationships and political change. He has pointed out that in 1914, the political advancement of women was still blocked by two great fortresses of prejudice: the vigorous hostility of men, and the often fearful reluctance… of many women. The war, he has argued, brought a new confidence to women, dissipated apathy, silenced the female anti-suffragists… Added to this, the replacement of militant… activity by frantic patriotic endeavour played its part as well. Above all, the concentrated shared experience showed up the absurdities of the many prejudices about what women were capable of.


Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses.

On 19 June 1917, the House of Commons accepted the female-suffrage clause in the Representation of the People Bill by 385 votes to 55. In the House of Lords, it was passed by a vote of 134 to 71. It became an Act of Parliament on 6 February 1918, giving the vote to women over 30 who were local government electors or married to them or who were university graduates. In other words, they had to meet a property qualification as well as being restricted by age compared with male adults. The basic and most important terms, as they affected both men and women were:

1. (I) A man shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a constituency (other than a university constituency) if he is of full age and not subject to any legal incapacity, and –

(a) has the requisite residence qualification; or

(b) has the requisite premises qualification… 

4. (1) A Woman shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector (other than a university constituency), if he or she –

(a) has attained the age of thirty years; and

(b) is not subject to any legal incapacity;

(c) is entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation in that constituency of land or premises (not being a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not less than five pounds or of a dwelling-house, or is the wife of a husband entitled to be so registered.

 (2) A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a university constituency if she has attained the age of thirty years and… would be entitled to do so if she were a man…

(3) A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a local government elector

(a) where she would be entitled to vote if she were a man; and

(b) where she is the wife of a man who is entitled to be so registered…

Thus, although women’s war work helped to change the minds of many men towards female suffrage, the women who did most of the work on the ‘Home Front’, working-class women, were not among those who gained the vote at its conclusion.

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Margaret Bondfield in 1919.

Leading Labour figure and ‘adult suffragist’ Margaret Bondfield (pictured above) described the Act as “mean and inadequate … creating fresh anomalies”. Bondfield was born in humble circumstances and received a limited formal education. After serving an apprenticeship to an embroideress, she worked as a shop assistant in Brighton and London. She was shocked by the working conditions of shop staff, particularly within the “living-in” system, and became an active member of the shopworkers’ union, working untiringly to improve the conditions of shop assistants. She began to move in socialist circles, and in 1898 was appointed the assistant secretary of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks (NAUSAWC). She was later prominent in several women’s socialist movements: she helped to found the Women’s Labour League (WLL) in 1906 and was chair of the Adult Suffrage Society (ASS). Her standpoint on women’s suffrage—she favoured extending the vote to all adults regardless of gender or property, rather than the limited “on the same terms as men” agenda pursued by the militant suffragists—divided her from the militant leadership.

Nevertheless, in the general election of 1918, 8.5 million women joined 12.9 million men in voting. The 1918 general election was also the first in which women could stand as MPs, and seventeen out of the 1,623 candidates were women. Only four were Labour candidates, even though the party supported female suffrage. The suspicion of many suffrage leaders of party politics was evident in the fact that of the seventeen candidates, eight were independents. Only one, Constance Markievicz, won a seat, as the Sinn Féin candidate for a Dublin constituency. As an Irish nationalist, however, she refused to sit in the House of Commons and joined the parliament in Dublin. It wasn’t until December 1919 that the first woman, Nancy Astor, took a seat in the Commons, after a by-election, replacing her husband, who had entered the House of Lords. She was neither a suffragist nor a political activist but did devote herself to the rights of women and children.

In November 1923 Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government fell. In the following month’s general election, more women were elected to Parliament in the General Election of 1923, including Margaret Bondfield (below) who had been elected President of the Trades Union Congress in May of the same year.


Bondfield was elected in Northampton with a majority of 4,306 over her Conservative opponent. She was one of the first three women—Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson were the others—to be elected as Labour MPs. In an outburst of local celebration her supporters, whom she described as “nearly crazy with joy”, paraded her around the town in a charabanc. In January 1924, she became Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Labour in the first Labour (minority) Government, at the same time turning down a chance to become the first woman Cabinet Minister. However, she lost her Northampton seat at the 1924 Election, being returned to Parliament in the Wallsend by-election of 1926.

It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women won the vote on the same terms as men. Even then, Winston Churchill, writing for The Sunday Pictorial in 1931, claimed that when a private member’s bill proposing this had come before Parliament in 1927:

The Conservative Party, especially its strongest elements, were much opposed to such a step. It would never have been carried through Mr Baldwin’s Cabinet if the ordinary processes of reasonable discussion and conclave had been followed. But here was a private member’s Bill, debated on a Friday. No-one took it very seriously. It fell to ‘Jix’ (Sir William Joynson Hicks, Home Secretary) to wind up the debate. Interrupted by Lady Astor, he quite unexpectedly, and without the slightest consultation with his colleagues, said that the Conservative Party would enfranchise men and women on the same terms ‘at the next election’. Two years later this formidable gesture had to be redeemed. Never was so great a change in our electorate achieved so incontinently.

Lord Birkenhead, writing on 13 April 1927 had expressed a similar opinion of the proposition:

The Cabinet went mad yesterday, and decided to give votes to women at the age of twenty-one. Every speaker was against the proposal on its merits. It was universally conceded that there was no demand for change in the country. We were nevertheless to be precluded from voting according to our convictions by a pledge which our light-hearted colleague, had given to a Private Member’s Bill on a Friday, with the Prime Minister sitting beside him. It was not even argued that any Cabinet decision had authorised a change so dangerous and so revolutionary. But against the strong protest of Winston, myself and others, it was decided that we were such honourable men that we could not possibly fall short of a pledge which was delivered without even the pretence of consulting the Cabinet.

The following summer, the private member’s Bill had been replaced by a government-sponsored Equal Franchise Bill. The Bill proposed to repeal and amend the 1919 Representation of the People Act by providing that the parliamentary franchise shall be the same for men and women. Therefore, subsections (1) and (2) of Section Four (see above) were to be repealed and replaced with the following clauses:

(1) A person shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a constituency… if he or she is of full age and not subject to any legal incapacity; and

(a) has the requisite residential qualification; or

(b) has the requisite business qualification; or

(c) is the husband or wife of a person entitled to be so registered in respect of a business premises qualification…

A new clause was then to be added,

for the purpose of providing that the local government franchise shall be the same for men and women:

4. (1) Every person registered as a Parliamentary elector for any constituency shall, while so registered (and in the case of a woman notwithstanding sex or marriage) be entitled to vote at an election of a member to serve in Parliament for that constituency… 


Regardless of the Conservative male opposition faced in the Commons, the Bill was passed on 2 July 1928, becoming the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. The vote on the ‘equal vote’ came shortly after the death of Emmeline Pankhurst, at the age of sixty-eight in June (pictured above).  Ellen Wilkinson, by then one of a number of women Labour MPs elected under the franchise of 1918 was one of the feminine voices now raised in its favour alongside that of Nancy Astor. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this quieter ‘revolution’ in women’s rights became associated in the popular picture press with other changes in women’s lifestyles in the decade, including new fashions associated with the ‘jazz era’ and the ‘dance craze’:


The ‘flapper Vote’ helped the Labour Party to form its first majority government the following year, and Margaret Bondfield became the only female minister in MacDonald’s Cabinet, returning to the Ministry of Labour.



Margaret Bondfield (top left)

Margaret Bondfield’s term of cabinet office in 1929–31 serves as a fitting post-script to the fight for women’s suffrage, marked as it was by the economic crises that beset the second Labour government and also demonstrating the challenges facing women in power. The Baldwin Government’s response to the problem of the onset of long-term mass unemployment in the ‘distressed areas’ had been to establish the Industrial Transference Board in January 1928, under the Ministry of Labour. Neville Chamberlain had been insistent that nothing should be done to detract from the policy of transferring unemployed men, boys and girls, out of these areas to the more prosperous new industry towns of the Midlands and South-East Of England and Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, Bondfield’s predecessor as Minister of Labour,  had echoed this view. Winston Churchill, however, had attempted to bring relief of a different kind to the depressed areas. He had been responsible for major sections of the Local Government Act of 1929 which reformed the Poor Law and brought about de-rating and a system of block grants. He had seen this as a means of relieving industry in these areas and combating depression. In a speech on the Bill in the House of Commons, he had argued that it was…

… much better to bring industry back to the necessitous areas than to disperse their population, as if you were removing people from a plague-stricken or malarious region.

This view had not been supported by Chamberlain, however, who saw in the Bill a means for the more careful management of local authorities, rather than a means of equalising the effect of low rateable values of these areas. Despite Churchill’s more radical stance on the issue, there is no evidence in the cabinet and ministerial papers of the Labour Government of 1929-31, to suggest that Bondfield, as its Minister of Labour, wanted to abandon the transference policy as the main means of dealing with the problem of unemployment, though they did not consider that its continuance should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes which could, temporarily, absorb some of the unemployed. However, the widespread nature of unemployment in these years, together with the lack of imagination and ineptitude of J. M. Thomas as Minister for Employment, the bureaucratic resistance of the Civil Service and the innate conservatism of Philip Snowden at the Treasury, and the impact of the general economic crises which beleaguered this administration, precluded either the possibility of a radical response to the problem of unemployment or the effective operation of the transference scheme.

As the cost of unemployment benefits mounted, Bondfield’s attempts to control the fund’s deficit provoked further hostility from her former colleagues at the TUC and political attacks from the opposition parties. In February 1931 she proposed a scheme to cut benefit and restrict entitlement, but this was rejected by the cabinet as too harsh. Bondfield was prepared to cut general unemployment benefit, provided the neediest recipients—those on so-called “transitional benefit”—were protected.  Her willingness to contemplate cuts in unemployment benefits, including its abolition for married women, alienated her from much of the Labour movement, and the Labour government soon fell as a result.

When the National Government was formed in August 1931, although claiming to admire the PM for his courageous stance, Margaret Bondfield refused to follow him back into government and almost inevitably lost her seat again at the next election.  It was to be another fourteen long years before more women returned to government, Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Castle, joining Attlee’s post-war Labour Cabinet. Wilkinson, who as MP for Jarrow, led the famous Jarrow March of the unemployed men from the Tyneside shipyard town, became Minister of Education.

Margaret Bondfield continued to work for the rights of women workers until she died in 1953; despite her years of service to party and union, and her successes in breaking through gender boundaries, she has not been greatly honoured by the Labour movement. According to Barbara Castle, Bondfield’s actions in office had brought her close to a betrayal of the movement. Whatever element of truth there may be in that judgement, it was certainly the case that with the downfall of the Labour Government and the bitter feud that followed, the forward march of reforming working-class women into government was effectively halted until after 1945.


These Tremendous Years, 1919-1938 (unknown author/ publisher), 1939/40.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem:  Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Theo Baker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960.  London: Hutchinson Educational.

Simon Schama (2003), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Joanna Bourke, et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.



Britain Sixty Years Ago (VII): Between Two Worlds, 1958-63   Leave a comment

Notting Hill, 1958 and After: Pity the Poor Immigrant…?


Just as in the time of the Blair-Brown administrations of a decade ago, sixty years ago it was not regarded as respectable to express concerns about immigration to Britain, much less to voice anti-immigrant feeling. At both ends of the fifty year period of general prosperity, the elite turned its eyes and ears away from the door-slamming and shunning, and escaped into well-meant, windy generalities about the brotherhood of man and fellow-citizens of the Crown, or more latterly vacuous epithets about celebrating a mythological multi-cultural Cool Britannia, a land at ease with itself.  Most of the hostility was at the level of street culture, mostly covert and casual but occasionally overtly aggressive and violent, organised or orchestrated by white gangs of ‘nigger-hunting’ Teddy boys and small groups of right-wing extremists. The main motivation seems to have been young male testosterone-led territory-marking.



From Austerity to Affluence: Britain, 1945-64.

This all came to a head in 1958 with the Notting Hill riots, more an event which symbolised change than one of real, bloody slaughter. In reality, no-one was killed in the rampaging and, by the standards of later rioting, there was little physical damage to either people or property. The trouble actually started in the poor St Ann’s district of Nottingham and only spread to London’s Notting Hill a day later. On 18 August, the Times reported on the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people and how some Conservative MPs saw it as a red light warning of further troubles to come. They intended to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembled in October. Thirty of them had already signed a motion (never debated) during the previous session, which had expressed their disquiet over…

… the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance.

Even before the outbreak of the riots at Notting Hill, Norman Pannell, Tory MP for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool and leader of this group, had tabled a similarly worded resolution on the agenda of their autumn Party Conference. Pannell had commented to the Times the previous day:

The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

Yet what happened at Notting Hill was a large and deeply unpleasant outbreak of anti-immigrant violence which ran for a total of six days, across two late summer weekends. It was no coincidence that Notting Hill was the area where the rioting happened as distinct from, say, Brixton, which also had a very large and visible black population by the mid-fifties. Notting Hill had the most open, well-known street culture for black people, with Soho on one side and the new BBC headquarters on the other. This sub-culture was also well-advertised and celebrated by hacks, broadcasters and novelists. Known for its gambling dens and drinking-clubs, it also had a resentful and impoverished white population and, more importantly, in the words of two historians of British immigration put it:

It had multi-occupied houses with families of different races on each floor. It had a large population of internal migrants, gypsies and Irish, many of them transient single men, packed into a honeycomb of rooms with communal kitchens, toilets and no bathrooms.

Into this honeycomb poured a crowd first of tens, and then of hundreds of white men, armed first with sticks, knives, iron railings and bicycle chains, and soon with petrol-bombs too. They were overwhelmingly young,  mostly from nearby areas of London, and looking for trouble. They began by picking on small groups of blacks caught out on the streets, beating them and chasing them. They then moved to black-occupied houses and began smashing windows. The crowds swelled out until they were estimated at more than seven hundred strong, whipped up by the occasional neo-fascist agitator, but much more directed by local whites. Racist songs and chants of ‘niggers out’, the smashing of windows – although some local whites protected and fought for their black neighbours – this was mob violence of a kind that Brits thought they had long left behind. They shrunk away again, however, at the sight of black men making a stand, and fighting back with petrol bombs. There were a hundred and forty arrests, mainly of white youths, and though far-right parties continued to organise in the area, there was no discernible electoral impact, or indeed any more serious trouble. The huge press coverage ensured, however, that Britain went through its first orgy of national naval-gazing about its liberalism and its immigration policy, while overseas racist régimes such as those of South Africa and Rhodesia mocked their hang-wringing British cousins.

After the riots, many black people did ‘go home’. Returns to the Caribbean soared to more than four thousand. There, West Indian governments expressed outrage at the riots and made it clear that there would be no action by them to restrict migration in order to appease lawless white thugs. The Commonwealth retained a loose association between Crown, obligation and common citizenship which felt real to politicians of both parties. Pressure to close the open border for Commonwealth citizens hardly increased in the Tory Party after the Notting Hill riots, though extra-parliamentary campaigns, such as the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, did spring up. Of course, given that the violence was directed against immigrants by whites, it would have been grossly unfair had the first reaction been to send people home. Labour was wholly against restricting immigration, arguing that it would be disastrous to our status within the Commonwealth. 

The Notting Hill Carnival, begun the following year, was an alternative response, celebrating black culture openly. For many black migrants, the riots marked the beginning of assertion and self-organisation. They were looked back on as a ‘racial Dunkirk’, the darkest moment after which the real fightback began. Even in the ‘darkest’ days of 1958, there was a lighter side to the popular street culture which those ‘journalists’ who dared or bothered to walk the same streets, discovered for themselves. An Irish informant told T R Fyvel, author of The Insecure Offenders (1961) that the excessive interest of Teddy Boys in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else:

If you look into the motive you will find it was largely jealousy… of the girls for being the centre of attention. They just couldn’t stand not having it all to themselves. If you had listened to these Teds as I did when they stood about in dance-halls, all you would hear about was clothes and style. One would say: “I paid seventeen guineas for this suit at so-and-so’s”, the other, “I paid this new Jew tailor nineteen guineas for mine.” They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they all weren’t effeminate, though I know some of them were, the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed by the way they themselves were dressed. The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.


Within the young British West Indian community, clothes and hair did not need to be of a certain cut or style at this time; it was the “patois” which had a special role as a token of identity. But it was not a simple role for newly arrived immigrants, as one Jamaican schoolgirl living in London explained the complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican Creole in Jamaica, but that made it almost obligatory in London:

It’s rather weird ‘cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican Creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well … You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, “You sound really nice, quite different.” Other people say, “You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ‘cos you’re not like us.”

Despite this mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it, “after a year, I lost my British accent, and was accepted.” But this was not, strictly speaking, Jamaican English. For many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was of a stylised form that was not, as they heard it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had arrived from all over the Caribbean. Another British West Indian schoolgirl, who was born in Britain, was teased for her patois when she visited the Caribbean for the first time:

 I haven’t lived in Jamaica, right? But what I found  when I went out there was that when I tried to speak Jamaican (Creole) they laughed at me. They said I’m trying to copy them and I don’t sound right and that. They want me to speak as I speak now.

The experience convinced her that “in London, the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ‘Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into Patois as well.” By the early 1980s, investigators found that there were white children in predominantly black schools who used the British West Indian patois in order to be acceptable to the majority of their friends:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast. 

On the other hand, the same schoolboy knew that the creole was something for a special set of circumstances:

But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

The unconscious racism of such comments points to the predicament faced by British black people. Not fully accepted, for all the rhetoric, by the established white community, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British, even by the 1980s. This was the poignant outcome of what British black writer Caryl Phillips called, The Final Passage. Phillips came to Britain in the late 1950s himself, and was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion. 

His novel, The Final Passage, is narrated in Standard English, but the speech of the characters is obviously a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going raise your mind. For a West Indian boy like you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself … it’s a college for the West Indian.

The lesson of this college for the West Indian is, as Phillips put it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well.

The new ‘youth’ styles of late-fifties Britain, expressing themselves partly, as almost everything else in the period did, in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-chances by becoming a Teddy Boy or Mod. It can’t be said that adult members of the official culture displayed much sympathy into either of the ‘dreams’, of freedom or recognition, that Ray Gosling gave voice to in the following extracts, first of all from the BBC Programme, It’s My Life, and secondly from his article Dream Boy, which appeared in the New Left Review of May/June 1960:

I remember coming out of the Elephant & Castle, the big theatre at the corner, the Trocadero, and it was after seeing the Bill Haley film, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and we all went down the Old Kent Road, and at the end… all the fire engines were there, and they got their hoses all ready, and it was a… terrible big thing. You felt you were it. Not only because you were young, but you felt the rest of your lives would be, well, ordered by you and not ordered by other people. We felt we could do anything we bloody well wanted, … anything at all, nothing could stop you. You were the guv’ner – you were the king. The world was free – the world was open.

The dreamland is always, like the win on the pools, just around the corner. The man with the big cigar from up West who discovers The Boy, and buys him up, never arrives … The haze that surrounds the life of The Boy is a fog of fear, and not the mist about to rise on a dazzling dawn of success. He lives in Birmingham, not Hollywood, a dead Empire in a sunset world, yet still hopes that somehow, an Eden will pull off the trick, Super Mac will open those golden gates, and here along the M1 the orange trees of California will begin to blossom … And so this boy with everyone and everything against him, plays out his own private drama to the fuggy street, with his god on a chain round his neck, his girl clinging to his arm. Against all of them: in search of the heaven he sees on the glossy page, the screen, and the hoarding.


When the BBC Radio Any Questions panel was asked to comment on the events surrounding the showing of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits; Lord Boothby, the newspaper proprietor and Conservative politician, expressed the view that he’d rather they all wet off to Cairo and started teddy-boying around there, while Jeremy Thorpe, the future Liberal Party leader, said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau.

Meanwhile, back in ‘darkest’ Notting Hill, not long after the riots, the intrepid reporter, T R Fyvel, was being enlightened by a youth leader about the increased use of ‘the gramophone’. Re-invented as ‘the record-player’, they were far cheaper than ever before, and cheap vinyl records were mass-produced for the first time, adding to the international popularity of performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley and the Comets, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Although cheap, they were beyond the pockets of most individual teenagers or their families, for whom the TV was still a greater priority, so youth clubs like that run by Fyvel’s informant became a means of ‘putting a roof over the street’ under which young people could share the listening experience:  

Record-players are the thing these days among the boys. You just don’t find a house without one; they’re just about taking the place of the telly, expensive ones, too. Television seems to mean little to the youngsters these days – the only thing they bother to watch is boxing and football – but it’s remarkable how well they know the records. Even little girls at the club will ask if we’ve got the latest hit, “Babyface” or something. Tunes are the one subject where you can be sure of getting them to talk.   


However, for some young Britons, epitomised by Jimmy Porter, the character in Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, it was pretty dreary living in the American age, unless you’re an American, of course. The cold, statistical reality was that the number of British youths in the age-group seventeen to twenty-one convicted for violence against the person had risen to 2,051 in 1958, from 745 in 1954. By 1958 this new development was also apparent to the legal authorities. For example, in London and the Home Counties one magistrate after the other made comment on the fact that the criminal minority among young people had become noticeably much larger and more criminal. This increase in crime statistics was most alarming in the smaller towns and rural areas in the Home Counties. Noting that crime in Berkshire had risen by a third in the course of two years, the Chief Constable of that still largely rural county said, on 9th April 1958, that the average age of those responsible for burglary and other breaking-in offences was under twenty. In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, Lord Birkett remarked:

There are thirty-six prisoners and of these there are no less than twenty-two who are twenty-one and under: among these, one is nineteen, two are eighteen, seven are seventeen, and five are only sixteen. Everyone reviews such a state of affairs with a profound taste of dissatisfaction, in these days when so much is done for the care and protection of the young.

It’s difficult to isolate specific causes of these social trends, but one general cause may have been that there were no good ’causes’ left for most young working-class people to fight for. John Osborne, the controversial playwright, expressed this sense of aimlessness through one of his characters, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger:

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave courses left. If the big bang comes, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave-New-nothing- very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.


Another cause of the increase in street-level violence and crime was the social alienation fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats, about which I have written in another post in this series. But, as the title of Osborne’s play reminds us, the fifties did see the rise of the Angry Young Men, and women, and led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  When the first ragged ranks of ‘CND’ swung into view on the first day of their march from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, one Londoner, observing, commented to a radio reporter:

This must be a bunch of bloody psychotics, trying to extrovert their own psychic difficulties, you know, to neither end nor purpose. It’s like a bunch of tiny dogs yapping at the back door to the big house – it will accomplish sweet nothing.


René Cutforth, the distinguished radio commentator and journalist, however, thought that the marchers might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter had called ‘the big bang’ lengthened across the whole face of ‘affluent Britain’ throughout this whole thirty-year period from the late fifties onward, and nothing the bunch of bloody psychotics, including myself, did could raise it an inch. Yet the ‘extra-parliamentary politics’ which so changed the face of political life in the western world in the succeeding decades, and which so powerfully crystallised the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of ‘prosperous Britain’, had its beginnings here: it was fired in this highly respectable and law-abiding crucible. 


The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the fifties prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. Only after Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory did pressure really begin to build up for some kind of restriction on immigration to Britain. Opinion polls began to show increasing hostility to the open-door policy. Perhaps just as important, both the Ministry of Labour and the Home Office wanted a change to help deal with the new threat of unemployment. This was a case of the political class being pushed reluctantly into something which offended the notion of their place in the world, the father-figures of a global Commonwealth. One study of immigration points out that what was truly remarkable was the passive acceptance by politicians and bureaucrats of Britain’s transformation into a multicultural society:

Immigration was restricted a full four years after all measures of the public mood indicated clear hostility to a black presence in Britain, and even then it was only done with hesitation. 

However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship. When, in 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act finally passed into law, it was notably liberal, at least by later standards, assuming the arrival of up to forty thousand legal immigrants a year with the complete right of entry for their dependents.


Even so, it had only gone through after a ferocious parliamentary battle, with the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell making an emotional appeal and passionate attacks on a measure which was still privately opposed by some of the Tory ministers opposite him. One particularly contentious issue was that the Republic of Ireland was allowed a completely open border with Britain, which exists to this day. This may have seemed only practical politics given the huge number of Irish people living and working in Britain, but it offended in two ways. By discriminating in favour of a country which had been neutral in the war with Hitler and declared itself a republic, but against Commonwealth countries which had stood with Britain, it infuriated many British patriots. Secondly, by giving Irish people a better deal than Indians or West Indians it seemed frankly racialist.

Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect. The new law created a quota system which gave preference to skilled workers and those with firm promises of employment. In order to beat it, a huge new influx of people migrated to Britain in 1961, the biggest group from the Caribbean, but also almost fifty thousand from India and Pakistan and twenty thousand Hong Kong Chinese. Fearful of losing the right of free entry, in the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years. One historian of immigration puts the paradox well: in the three-year period from 1960 to 1963, despite the intense hostility to immigration, …

… more migrants had arrived in Britain than had disembarked in the whole of the twentieth century up to that point. The country would never be the same again.

Back to the Future: A New Relationship with Europe?

After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes towards future British membership of the European Economic Community hardened. General de Gaulle, who had felt humiliated by Churchill during the war, returned as President of France, too late to stop the new European system, which he had opposed on the basis of his ‘nation-statism’, from taking shape. He, therefore, determined that it should be dominated by France and made to serve French national interests. Macmillan, always a keen European, became worried. Various British plots intended to limit the six founders and hamper their project had failed. London had tried to rival the new Common Market with a group of the ‘excluded’ countries; Britain, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, calling it the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

‘The Seven’ as they called themselves, were nevertheless smaller in population than ‘the Six’ and were also more geographically scattered and far less united. Roy Jenkins, future Home Secretary and ardent pro-European, described EFTA as a foolish attempt to organise a weak periphery against a strong core. By 1959 Macmillan was worrying that,

… for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects …

… which might cut Britain out of Europe’s main markets and decisions. In his diaries, he wrote of his alarm at the prospect of a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’ – now under French, but bound to come under German control. There was much self-deception about the possible deal that could be struck, which would need to combine the sovereignty of the British Parliament and the interests of farmers throughout the Commonwealth with the protectionist system of the EEC. Macmillan was willing to sacrifice sovereignty if a deal could be reached. He might have seemed as safely steeped in tradition as country houses, but he had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell or Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and the Labour Party had seriously underrated Macmillan from the outset of his premiership. In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote of him:

His calm confidence, courtesy and sharpness in debate, his quick-wittedness under pressure, and, above all, his superb professionalism, unnerved and disconcerted his opponents until he secured a quite astonishing psychological superiority in the Commons. Gaitskell never quite succeeded in getting Macmillan’s measure, and his ponderous tactics gave the Prime Minister a series of opportunities which he did not miss…

He imparted confidence to his colleagues and the Party in Parliament, and their confidence spread to the constituencies. It was a remarkable example of how a political revival must start from the top. 

… Macmillan’s refusal to have an ‘inner Cabinet’ of a few intimate friends was a source of strength and not of weakness. Imperturbable, hard-working, approachable, and courageous; he exercised a personal domination over his colleagues not seen in British politics since Churchill’s wartime administration. If it is alleged that Macmillan was singularly lucky after 1958, no man deserved it more. He led the country out of the bitter-black aftermath of Suez, gave them the unflurried leadership for which they craved, and proved himself a worthy successor to Churchill.

In the early sixties, the battle over Britain’s sovereignty, which was to dominate its internal politics for the next sixty years, was postponed because British entry was ruthlessly and publicly blocked. President De Gaulle was due to come to Britain for talks and told the Prime Minister that, rather than visit Downing Street, he would prefer to come to his private home, Birch Grove in Sussex. The two men had worked closely together during the war in North Africa and De Gaulle was grateful to Macmillan personally for his support when, as leader of the Free French, Roosevelt and Churchill had wanted to kick him out of the French government-in-exile which was being formed in advance of liberation. However, De Gaulle had also left North Africa more than ever convinced of the danger to France of a coming Anglo-American alliance which would soon try to dominate the world.

Following a series of domestic disputes at Birch Grove, the two men exchanged blunt views. Macmillan argued that European civilization was threatened from all sides and that if Britain was not allowed to join the Common Market, he would have to review everything, including keeping British troops in Germany. If De Gaulle wanted an “empire of Charlemagne” it would be on its own. The French President replied that he didn’t want Britain to bring in its “great escort” of Commonwealth countries – the Canadians and Australians were no longer Europeans; Indian and African countries had no place in the European system, and he feared Europe being “drowned in the Atlantic”. In short, he simply did not believe that Britain would ditch its old empire; and if it did, he thought it would be a Trojan horse for the Americans.

These seem like formidable objections, points of principle that should have been as a clear warning. Yet the detailed and exhaustive talks about British entry dragged on despite them. Edward Heath made sixty-three visits to Brussels, Paris and other capitals, covering fifty thousand miles as he haggled and argued. By then Macmillan was a fast-fading figure. A natural intriguer who had risen to power on the bloodied back of Eden, he was obsessed by possible political coups against him, and increasingly worried about the state of the economy. He was failing in Europe and looked old when seen alongside the young President Kennedy. Even a master illusionist like Macmillan had to face political reality.

The illusion with the most profound consequences was the economic one. In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, J K Galbraith intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and would concentrate its energies on the challenges of distribution and redistribution. The class struggle was obsolete, so also were the ideologies which sought to justify it. Politics would no longer involve large general choices but disagreement over more limited and piecemeal issues. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its economic problems. The optimism of the early 1950s was perfectly understandable, but this miracle was built on temporary and fortuitous circumstances.

From 1955, Britain was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced upon the attention of politicians problems they wished to avoid. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became over-strained, R. A. Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury and only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. By then, the policy had eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, one of the major factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.  If, by the time he made his famous election speech in 1959, Macmillan’s illusion of continuing affluence was already unsupported by the economic evidence, by the time he gave his interview to the Daily Mail in 1961, the claim that… We’ve got it good: Let’s keep it good was well past its ‘sell-by date’. As Sked and Cook (1979) pointed out in their reflections on the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’, the Tories had, in fact, done very little in their fiscal policies from 1951-64, to pay attention to Britain’s sluggish economic growth or the problems created by the country’s superficial prosperity:

  … the Government sat back and did nothing in the belief that there was nothing to do, and for most of the time their energy was devoted  to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy … 

Moreover, Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term, and too much money was spent on defence…

With the economic crises of the early 1960s … it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to an end. The scandals of the Macmillan era merely served to reinforce the impression that a watershed had been reached in the country’s history and foreign affairs seemed to reach another lesson…  

In 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain has lost an empire: she has not yet found a role. The failure to rethink her world role was as evident in diplomacy as in economics. Macmillan foresaw and expedited the final liquidation of Empire, but he had few ideas about what to put in its place. The special relationship with the United States was to remain the cornerstone of British policy. But without the Empire, the relationship was bound to become one of master and servant. These illusions blinded Macmillan to the far-reaching changes occurring in Europe.

After a further unpopular budget in the spring of 1962, Macmillan drafted an alternative policy based on more planning and decided to sack his Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd. The news was leaked to the papers, and over a brutal and panicky twenty-four hours in July, Macmillan expanded the circle of his sackings more widely, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Macmillan called in and dismissed a third of his cabinet ministers from their jobs without notice. Macmillan’s own official biographer described it as an act of carnage unprecedented in British political history. However, compared with more recent cabinet ‘re-shuffles’ which happen with far greater frequency, many of those sacked then deserved to lose their jobs.

In November, Macmillan returned to his arguments with De Gaulle. This time, he went to France, to the grand chateau of Rambouillet, south of Paris, a venue used by French Presidents for summits as well as for holidays. After a round of pheasant-shooting, de Gaulle expressed his objections to British EEC membership even more aggressively. If Britain wanted to choose Europe, it would have to cut its special ties with the United States. At one point, Macmillan broke down in tears of frustration at the General’s intransigence, leading de Gaulle to comment later to his cabinet:

This poor man , to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, “Ne pleurez pas, milord”.

Cruel or not, it was a significant moment for Macmillan, for the Tories and for Britain. When, a few months later, in early 1963, De Gaulle’s “Non” was abruptly announced in a Paris press conference, it caused huge offence in Britain. A visit to Paris by Princess Margaret was cancelled. At the England-France rugby international at Twickenham a few days later, England won six-five. The captain of the English team had assured Ted Heath, the failed negotiator, that he had had a word with the team before the game, telling them…

… this was an all-important game. Everyone knew what I meant and produced the necessary …

Macmillan himself bitterly recorded in his diary that the French always betray you in the end. 



Theo Baker (ed., 1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds., 1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Educational.

Asa Briggs, Joanna Bourke et. al. (eds., 2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1986), The Story of English. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Six   Leave a comment

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Part Six – Zwingli, Luther and the Anabaptists, 1525-35:

The Lutheran Reformation had been accompanied by certain phenomena which, though they appalled Luther and his associates, were so natural as to appear in retrospect. As against the authority of the Church of Rome, the Reformers appealed to the text of the Bible. But once men were able to read the Bible for themselves, in their own language, they began to interpret it for themselves; their own interpretations did not always accord with those of the Reformers. Wherever Luther’s influence extended the priest lost much of his traditional prestige as a mediator between the layman and God. Once the layman could stand face to face with God and rely for guidance on his individual conscience, it was inevitable that some laymen should claim divine promptings which ran as much counter to the new as to the old orthodoxy.

For many centuries, the Church of Rome, whatever its failings, had been fulfilling a very important normative function in European society. Luther’s onslaught, precisely because it was so effective, seriously disturbed that function. As a result, it produced, along with a sense of liberation, a sense of disorientation which was just as widespread. Moreover, the Lutheran Reformation could not itself master all the anxieties which it had released in the population. Partly because of the content of his doctrine of salvation, partly because of his alliance with the established secular powers, Luther failed to hold the allegiance of great multitudes of the common people. Amongst the perturbed, disoriented masses there grew up, in opposition to both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism, the movement to which its opponents gave the name of Anabaptism – in many ways a successor to the medieval sects, but a far larger movement which spread over most of west and central Europe.


By 1525, Zurich was the seat of a new variety of the Reformation which was to be set over against that of Wittenberg and characterised as the Reformed. The leader was Huldreich Zwingli who had received a Humanist training as a Catholic priest, and on the appearance of Erasmus’ New Testament he committed the epistles to memory in Greek and affirmed in consequence that Luther had been able to teach him nothing about the understanding of Paul. But what Zwingli selected for emphasis in Paul was the text: The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life, which he coupled with a Johannine verse; The flesh profiteth nothing. By ‘flesh’ Zwingli meant the body in the Platonic sense, whereas Luther took it to mean, in the Hebraic sense, the ‘evil heart’. Zwingli, therefore, made a characteristic deduction from his disparagement of the body that art and music were inappropriate as the ‘handmaids of religion’ though he himself was an accomplished musician.


His next logical step was to deny the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharistic, reducing the sacrament to a symbolic commemoration of the crucifixion, just as the Passover meal had been a memorial to the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus’ words, this is my body… this is the new testament in my blood… could just as easily be translated as this signifies… Luther sensed at once the affinity between these views and those of Carlstadt whom he had effectively banished from Wittenberg for his support of iconoclasm. Luther also recognised a similarity with the views of Müntzer in Zwingli, in particular his willingness to turn to politics and even to countenance the use of the sword in the name of the faith. Zwingli was a Swiss patriot, and in translating the twenty-third psalm he rendered the second verse as… He maketh me to lie down in an Alpine meadow. But there he could find no still waters, but only fast-flowing streams. The evangelical issue threatened to disrupt his beloved confederation, for the Catholics turned to the traditional enemy, the House of Habsburg. Ferdinand of Austria was instrumental in the calling of the assembly of Baden to discuss Zwingli’s theory of the sacrament.

This was the Swiss reformer’s Diet of Worms and he became convinced that the gospel could only be saved in Switzerland and the Confederation if the Catholic League with Austria were countered by an evangelical league with the German Lutherans, ready if need be to use the sword. The very notion of a military alliance for the defence of the gospel reminded Luther of Thomas Müntzer. Not only that, but the ‘home’ sphere of Luther’s activity was constantly being encroached upon. The Catholics, both clerical and lay, were determined to launch their counter-reformation. The Swiss, the south German Protestant cities and the Anabaptists had all developed divergent forms of the reformed faith. Even Wittenberg had experienced its radical moments and might not be free from fresh infiltrations from the sectaries. But Luther was more determined than ever to carve out enough space in between for his territorial church, working with the ‘godly princes’. He made a clear-cut division between the concerns and responsibilities of the church and state.

The radicals, sometimes called ‘enthusiasts’, wanted to carry out a complete spiritual transformation of the church, and expected Christians to live by the standards and teachings of Scripture. Their reform programme was, however, more far-reaching than most people were prepared to accept, especially in the rural areas where the activism of Müntzer and the peasants had led to such indescribable misery following the massacres, mass executions,  destruction of farms, agricultural implements and livestock. However, Anabaptism was not a homogeneous movement and was never centrally organised. There existed some forty independent sects of Anabaptists, each grouped around a leader who claimed to be a divinely inspired prophet or apostle, following in the apostolic succession. These sects, often clandestine, constantly threatened with extermination, scattered throughout the German-speaking lands, developed along the separate lines which the various leaders set. Nevertheless, certain tendencies were common to the movement as a whole.

In some parts of the Anabaptist movement which spread far and wide during the years following the Peasants’ War, Müntzer’s memory was venerated, even though he had never called himself an Anabaptist. Other parts of rejected his legacy. Again, this was because they did not, at first, emerge as a single, coherent organisation, but as a loose grouping of movements. All of these rejected infant baptism and practised the baptism of adults upon confession of faith. They themselves never accepted the label ‘Anabaptist’ (meaning ‘rebaptizer’), a term of reproach coined by their opponents, since they objected to the implication that the ceremonial sprinkling which they had received as infants had in fact been a valid baptism. They denied that their baptism of believing adults was arrogant and superfluous. They also soon discovered that the term gave the authorities a legal pretext for persecuting and executing them, based on Roman laws harking back to the fifth century.

For the ‘Anabaptists’ themselves, however, baptism was not the fundamental issue involved in their sectarianism. More basic was their growing conviction about the role the civil government should play in the reformation of the church. Late in 1523 intense debate broke out in Zürich.  At that time it became clear that the city council was unwilling to bring about the religious changes that the theologians believed were called for by Scripture. Zwingli believed that the reformers should wait and attempt to persuade the authorities by preaching. The ‘Anabaptists’ believed that the community of Christians, the corpus Christianum, should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and initiate Scripture-based reforms regardless of the views of the council. Despite continuing efforts to discuss the matters in dispute between the reformists and the radicals – the mass, baptism and tithes – the gap between the two parties widened. Finally, on 21 January 1525, came a complete rupture. On that day the city council forbade the radicals to assemble or disseminate their views. That evening, in the neighbouring village of Zollikon, praying that God would grant them to do his divine will and that he would show them mercy, the radicals met, baptized each other, and so became the first free church of modern times.

Their point of departure from the ‘mainstream’ reformers was another aspect of Erasmus’ programme and a point which was also important to Zwingli himself. This was the restoration of primitive Christianity, which they took to mean the adoption of the Sermon on the Mount as a literal code for all Christians, who should renounce oaths, the use of the sword whether in war or civil government, private possessions, bodily adornment, revelling and drunkenness. Pacifism, religious communitarianism, simplicity and temperance marked their communities. The church should consist only of the twice-born, committed to the covenant of discipline. Here again was the concept of ‘the Elect’, discernible by the two tests of spiritual experience and moral achievement. The Church should not rest on the baptism administered in infancy, but on regeneration, symbolised by baptism during or after ‘the years of discretion’. Every member should be a priest, a minister, and a missionary prepared to embark on evangelistic tours. Such a Church, though seeking to convert the world and not to exclude anyone from hearing the gospel message, could never embrace the unconverted community, however. Since the State comprised all the inhabitants, the Church would need to separate itself from its control and free itself from all magisterial constraint.

Zwingli was aghast to see the medieval unity of Church and State shattered and in panic invoked the arm of the state. In 1525 the Anabaptists in Zürich were subjected to the death penalty. Luther was not yet ready for such savage expedients, but he too was appalled by what to him appeared to be a reversion to the monastic attempt to win salvation by a higher righteousness. The leaving of families for missionary expeditions was in his eyes a sheer desertion of domestic responsibilities, and the repudiation of the sword prompted him to a new vindication of the divine calling alike of the magistrate and the soldier. But he was very much conflicted over the whole matter of the executions. In 1527, he wrote:

 It is not right, and I am deeply troubled that the poor people are so pitifully put to death, burned, and cruelly slain. Let everyone believe what he likes. If he is wrong, he will have punishment enough in hell fire. Unless there is sedition, one should oppose them with Scripture and God’s Word. With fire you won’t get anywhere. 


This did not mean, however, that Luther considered one faith as good as another. Most emphatically he believed that the wrong faith would entail hell-fire; although the true faith could not be created by coercion, it could be relieved of impediments. The magistrate should certainly not suffer the faith to be blasphemed. Unlike the ‘mainstream’ reformers, the Anabaptists were not committed to the notion that ‘Christendom’ was Christian. From the beginning, they saw themselves as missionaries to people of lukewarm piety, only partly obedient to the gospel. The Anabaptists systematically divided Europe into sectors for evangelistic outreach and sent missionaries out into them in twos and threes. Many people were bewildered by their message; others pulled back when the cost of Anabaptist discipleship became clear. But others heard them gladly.


In general, the Anabaptists attached relatively little importance either to theological speculations or formal religious observances. In place of such practices as daily church-going, they set a meticulous, literal observance of the precepts that they thought they found in the New Testament. In place of theology, they cultivated the Bible, which they were apt to interpret in the light of the direct inspirations which they believed they received from God. Their values were primarily ethical; for them, religion was above all a matter of active brotherly love. Their communities were modelled on what they supposed to have been the practice of the early Church and were intended to realise the ethical ideal propounded by Christ.

The diverse backgrounds of their leaders and the absence of any ecclesiastical authority to control them were enough to ensure diversity of belief and practice. They did, however, attempt to agree upon a common basis. In 1527 at Schleitheim, on today’s Swiss-German border near Schaffhausen, the Anabaptists called the first ‘synod’ of the Protestant Reformation. The leading figure at this meeting was the former Benedictine prior, Michael Sattler, who, four months later, was burned at the stake in nearby Rottenberg-am-Neckar. The ‘Brotherly Union’ adopted at Schleitheim was to be a highly significant document. During the next decade, most Anabaptists in all parts of Europe came to agree with the beliefs which it laid down.

It was in their social Attitudes that the Anabaptist were most distinct. These sectarians tended to be uneasy about private property and to accept community of goods as an ideal. If in most of the groups little attempt was made to introduce common ownership, Anabaptists certainly did take seriously the obligations of charitable dealing and generous mutual aid. On the other hand Anabaptist communities, facing continual persecution, often showed a marked exclusiveness. Within each group, there was great solidarity, but the attitude towards society at large tended to be one of rejection.

In particular, Anabaptists regarded the state with suspicion, as an institution which, though no doubt necessary for the unrighteous, was unnecessary for true Christians. Though they were willing to comply with many of the state’s demands, they refused to let it invade the realm of faith and conscience; in general, they preferred to minimise their dealings with it. Most Anabaptists refused to hold an official position in the state, or to invoke the authority of the state against a fellow Anabaptist, or to take up arms on behalf of the state. The attitude towards private persons who were not Anabaptists was equally aloof; Anabaptists commonly avoided all social intercourse outside their own community. Many regarded themselves as the only Elect and their communities as being alone under the immediate guidance of God; small islands of righteousness in an ocean of iniquity. But the history of the movement was punctuated by schisms over this obsession with exclusive election, which some were more obsessed with than others.

The movement spread from Switzerland into Germany. Mysticism, late-medieval asceticism and the disillusionment which followed the Peasants’ War of 1525 had prepared the way for them. Most Anabaptists were peaceful folk who in practice were quite willing, except in matters of conscience and belief, to respect the authority of the state. Certainly, the majority had no thought of social revolution. But the rank-and-file were recruited almost entirely from the ranks of peasants and artisans; after the Peasants’ War, the authorities were nervous of these classes. Even the most peaceful Anabaptists were therefore ferociously persecuted and many thousands of them were killed.

By 1527, the German Reformers and their princely allies had determined to use all necessary means to root out Anabaptism. They were joined in this determination by the Catholic authorities. To Protestants and Catholics alike, the Anabaptists seemed not only to be dangerous heretics; they also seemed to threaten the religious and social stability of Christian Europe. Their growth constituted a very real problem to the territorial church since, despite the decree of death visited upon them at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 with the concurrence of the Evangelicals, the fearlessness and saintliness of the martyrs had enlisted converts to the point of threatening to depopulate the established churches. Philip of Hesse observed more improvement of life among the sectaries than among the Lutherans, and a Lutheran pastor who wrote against the Anabaptists testified that they went in among the poor, appeared very lowly, prayed much, read from the Gospel, talked especially about the outward life and good works, about helping the neighbour, giving and lending, holding goods in common, exercising authority over none, and living with all as brothers and sisters. Such were the people executed by Elector John in Saxony. In the carnage of the next quarter-century, thousands of Anabaptists were put to death; thousands more saved their skins by recanting.


But the blood of the martyrs proved again to be the seed of the church. This persecution, in the end, created the very danger it was intended to forestall. It was not only that the Anabaptists were confirmed in their hostility to the state and the established order, but that they also interpreted their sufferings in apocalyptic terms, as the last great onslaught of Satan and Antichrist against the Saints, as those ‘messianic woes’ which were to usher in the Millennium. Many Anabaptists became obsessed with imaginings of a day of reckoning when they themselves would arise to overthrow the mighty and, under a Christ who had returned at last, establish a Millennium on earth. The situation within Anabaptism now resembled that which had existed within the heretical movements of previous centuries, like the Waldesians. The bulk of the Anabaptists continued in their tradition of peaceful and austere dissent. But alongside it there was growing up in Anabaptism of another kind, in which the equally ancient tradition of militant millenarianism was finding a new expression.

The first propagandist of this new Anabaptism was an itinerant bookbinder called Hans Hut, a former follower and disciple of Müntzer and like him a native of Thuringia. He claimed to be a prophet sent by God to announce that at Whitsuntide, 1528, Christ would return to earth and place the two-edged sword of justice in the hands of the rebaptised Saints. They would then hold judgement on the priests and pastors for their false teaching and, above all, on the great princes of the earth for their persecutions; kings and nobles would be cast into chains. Finally, Christ was to establish a Millennium which, it seems, was to be characterised by free love and community of goods. Hut was captured in 1527 and imprisoned at Augsburg, where he died or was killed in prison; but not before he had made some converts in the towns of southern Germany. In the professions of faith of Hut’s followers can be recognised the doctrines of John Ball and the radical Táborites, repeated almost verbatim:

Christ will give the sword and revenge to them, the Anabaptists, to punish all sins, stamp out all governments, communise all property and slay those who do not permit themselves to be rebaptised… The government does not treat poor people properly and burdens them too heavily. When God gives them revenge they want to punish and wipe out the evil…

Hut himself expected all this to happen only when ‘Christ came on the clouds’, but his disciples were not so patient: at Esslingen on the Neckar in 1528, Anabaptists seem to have planned to set up the Kingdom of God by force of arms. Among these militant millenarians, the ideal of communal ownership clearly possessed a revolutionary significance; it was no doubt with some justification that the town authorities at Nürnberg warned those at Ulm that the Anabaptists were aiming at overthrowing the established order and abolishing private property. It is true that in south Germany revolutionary Anabaptism remained a small and ineffective force and that it was crushed out of existence by 1530. But by this time, Anabaptist-like groups also sprang up spontaneously in various parts of Europe. By the late 1520s, Anabaptism was to be found as far afield as Holland and Moravia, the Tyrol and Mecklenburg.

The early missionary who took the message along the Alps was Jörg Cajacob (‘Blaurock’), who had been the first adult to be baptized in Zürich in 1525. When the Tyrolean Catholic authorities began to persecute them intensely, many of the Anabaptists found refuge on the lands of some exceptionally tolerant princes in Moravia. There they founded a very long-standing form of an economic community called the Bruderhof. In part, they aimed to follow the pattern of the early apostolic community, but they sought community for practical reasons as well, as a means of group survival under persecution. Their communities attempted to show that brotherhood comes before self in the kingdom of God. Consolidated under the leadership of Jakob Hutter (died 1536), these groups came to be known as ‘Hutterites’.


In 1530 Luther advanced the view that the two offences of sedition and blasphemy should be penalised even with death. The emphasis was thus shifted from holding incorrect beliefs, or heresy in itself, to its public manifestation by word and deed. This was, however, no great gain for liberty, because Luther construed mere abstention from public office and military service as sedition and a rejection of an article from the Apostles’ Creed as blasphemy. In a memorandum of 1531, composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther, a rejection of the ministerial office was described as insufferable blasphemy and the disintegration of the Church as sedition against the ecclesiastical order. In order to understand Luther’s position, we need to bear in mind that Anabaptism was not in every instance socially innocuous. The year in which he signed a memorandum counselling death even for the peaceful Anabaptists was also the year in which a group of them ceased to be peaceful. Goaded by ten years of persecution, in 1534 bands of fanatics in the extreme north-west of Germany claimed to have received a revelation from the Lord that they should no more be sheep for the slaughter but rather as the angel with the sickle to reap the harvest.

The results of this so-called ‘revelation’ gripped the attention of the whole of Europe. North-west Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century consisted mainly of a number of petty ecclesiastical states, each with a prince-bishop as its sovereign. Usually, such a state was torn by fierce social conflicts. The government of the state was in the hands of the prince-bishop and of the chapter of the diocese, which elected him and to a large extent controlled his policy. The members of the chapter were recruited solely from the local aristocracy – a coat of arms with at least four quarterings was commonly an indispensable qualification – and they often chose one of their own number as bishop. This group of aristocratic clerics was not subject any control by a higher authority; in the regional diet they were powerfully represented and could always rely on the support of the knighthood. They, therefore, tended to govern solely in the interests of their own class and of the clergy in the diocese. In an ecclesiastical state, the clergy were not only very numerous but also highly privileged.

In the bishopric of Münster, there were some thirty ecclesiastical centres, including four monasteries, seven convents, ten churches, a cathedral and, of course, the chapter itself. Members of the chapter enjoyed rich prebends and canonries. The monks were permitted to carry on secular trades and handicrafts. Above all, the clergy as a whole were almost entirely exempt from taxation. But the power of the clerical-aristocratic stratum in an ecclesiastical state seldom extended very effectively to the capital city. In these states as elsewhere, the development of commerce and a money economy had given an even greater importance to the towns. The state governments were in constant need of money and by the usual method of bargaining over taxes the towns had gradually won concessions and privileges for themselves. This was particularly true in the bishopric of Münster, the largest and most important of the ecclesiastical states. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, the town had enjoyed a large measure of self-government and the power of the bishop, who seldom resided there, had been much restricted.

In Münster in the 1530s, the bishop was simply a secular lord who had not even been ordained. Moreover, the taxes imposed by the prince-bishop were commonly heavy and the whole burden fell on the laity, who benefited least from the administration. In addition, as citizens of an ecclesiastical state, they had to pay vast sums to the Roman Curia each time a new bishop was elected; Münster did so three times between 1498 and 1522. It is not surprising, therefore, that the immunity of the clergy from taxation was bitterly resented and that tradesmen and artisans also objected to the competition they faced from monks engaged in commerce and industry. The monks had no families to maintain, no military service to perform or provide, and no guild regulations to observe.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the resistance to the power of the bishop and clergy came, not from the town council, which had become a staid and relatively conservative body, but from the guilds. This was certainly the case in Münster. As the town, in the course of the fifteenth century, became an important commercial centre and a member of the Hanseatic League, the guilds obtained great political power. Organised in one great guild, which in the sixteenth-century contained no less than sixteen separate guilds, they could at a suitable opportunity rouse and lead the whole population against the clergy. One such opportunity was offered by the Peasants’ War. It is a striking fact that when the revolutionary excitement which spread from the south of Germany reached the north-west, it was neither the peasantry nor the towns in the secular states which rose in revolt, but solely the capitals of the states: Osnabrück,  Utrecht, Paderborn and Münster. In Münster, the guilds led an attack on a monastery which had entered into commercial competition with them and they also demanded a general restriction on the privileges of the clergy; the chapter was forced to make very considerable concessions.

On that occasion, the triumph of the guilds was short-lived, at Münster and in all its sister towns. As soon as the princes had dealt with peasants in the south, the chapters in the northern bishoprics were able to regain whatever powers they had conceded. They crushed every attempt at reform and did all they could to humiliate the rebellious towns. By 1530 the old system of government was re-established in all the ecclesiastical states. Nevertheless, the townsmen now resented the ascendancy of the clergy and nobles even more than they had done before; they had felt their own strength and now simply waited for another occasion on which to deploy it more successfully. In 1529 an outbreak of Black Death devastated Westphalia and at the same time, the crops failed. Finally, in 1530 an extraordinary tax was levied to finance resistance to the Turkish invasion of the eastern territories of the Empire. As a result of these factors, the distress in north-west Germany was exceptional, and it was therefore only to be expected that in one or other of the ecclesiastical states there would be outbreaks of serious disorder.  When in 1530 the Bishop of Münster tried to sell his bishopric to the Bishop of Paderborn and Osnabrück, these disorders did indeed break out.

In 1531 an eloquent young chaplain called Bernt Rothmann, a blacksmith’s son whose remarkable gifts had won him a university education, began to attract vast congregations in Münster. Very soon he became a Lutheran and put himself at the head of a movement, dating back to 1525, which aimed to bring the town into the Lutheran fold. He found support in the guilds and a patrician ally in a rich cloth-merchant named Bernt Knipperdollinck. The movement was further facilitated by the resignation of one bishop followed by the death of his successor. In 1532 the guilds, supported by the populace, became once more masters of the town, able to force the Council to install Lutheran preachers in all churches. The new bishop was unable to make the town abandon its faith and early in 1533, he recognised Münster as officially Lutheran. It did not remain so for long, however, as in the neighbouring Duchy of Julich-Cleves Anabaptist preachers had for some years enjoyed freedom of propaganda such as existed hardly anywhere else. But in 1532 they were expelled and a number of them sought refuge in Münster.

In the course of 1533, more Anabaptists arrived from the Netherlands, followers of Melchior Hoffman, a celebrated visionary who had wandered through Europe as an itinerant preacher of the Second Coming and the  Millennium. He had joined the Anabaptist movement in 1529 and within a year a new wing of the movement, profoundly influenced by his ideas, had developed in the northern provinces of the Netherlands. According to Hoffman, the Millennium was to begin, after a period of ‘messianic woes’ and many signs and wonders, in the year 1533. In that year, the millenarian fantasy which Hoffman’s supporters brought with them into Münster rapidly turned into a mass obsession, dominating the whole life of the poorer classes in the town.  Meanwhile, Rothmann had abandoned Lutheranism and became an Anabaptist himself, breathing new life into the movement’s preaching. By October 1533 he was holding up the supposed communitarianism of the primitive Church as the ideal for a truly Christian community. In sermons and tracts, he declared that the true believers ought to model their lives minutely on the lives of the first Christians and that this involved holding all things in common.


Albrecht Dürer’s powerful woodcut, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death is on a bony horse, Want flourishes scales, Sickness waves his sword and War draws his bow. The people are trodden underfoot.

Expecting the Millennium, the Anabaptists, many of them from Holland, took over Münster and there inaugurated the reign of the saints, of which Thomas Müntzer had dreamed. The more prosperous burghers of the town were much perturbed. If most of them had rejoiced at the defeat of the Bishop and Chapter and the victory of the Lutheran cause, a powerful Anabaptist movement supported by a mass of unemployed and desperate foreigners held obvious and grave dangers for all of them alike. In the face of this threat, Lutherans and Roman Catholics closed ranks and came together to suppress this reign of the new Daniels and Elijahs. Towards the end of the year the Council several times tried to silence or expel Rothmann but, secure in the devotion of his followers, he was always able to defy it. The other Anabaptist preachers were indeed expelled and replaced by Lutherans, but before long they returned and the Lutherans were hounded from the churches. Week by week excitement in the town increased until, in the first days of 1534, the men arrived who were to direct it towards a specific aim.

Melchior Hoffman, who believed that the Millennium would dawn in Strasbourg, had been arrested in that town and imprisoned inside a cage in a tower; and there he spent the rest of his days. The prophetic mantle descended on a Dutch Anabaptist, the baker Jan Matthys of Haarlem. This change of leadership changed the whole tone of the movement. Hoffmann was a man of peace who had taught his followers to await the coming of the Millennium in quiet confidence, avoiding all violence. Matthys, however, was a revolutionary leader who taught that the righteous must themselves take up the sword and actively prepare the way for the Millennium by wielding it against the unrighteous. It had, he proclaimed, been revealed to him that he and his followers were called to cleanse the earth of the ungodly. In the first days of 1534, two of his Dutch apostles reached Münster, where their arrival at once produced a contagion of enthusiasm. Rothmann and the other Anabaptist preachers were rebaptised, followed by many nuns and well-to-do laywomen and then by a large part of the population. It is said that within a week the number of baptisms reached 1,400.

The first apostles moved on, but they were then replaced by two more, who were taken at first to be Enoch and Elijah, the prophets who according to traditional eschatology were to return to earth as the two ‘witnesses’ against Antichrist and whose appearance was to herald the Second Coming. One of the newcomers was Jan Bockelson, better known as John of Leyden, a young man of twenty-five who had been baptised by Matthys only a couple of months before. It was he who was to give to Anabaptism in Münster a fierce militancy such as it possessed nowhere else and who was to stimulate an outbreak or revolutionary millenarianism which startled the whole of Europe.


During February 1534, the power of the Anabaptists in Münster increased rapidly. Bockelson at once established good relations with the leader of the guilds and patron of the Anabaptists, the cloth-merchant Knipperdollinck. On 8 February these two men ran wildly through the streets, summoning all the people to repent of their sins. It was in this millenarian atmosphere that they made their first armed rising, occupying the town hall and the market-place. They were still only a minority and could have been defeated if the Lutheran majority had been willing to use the armed force at its disposal. But the Anabaptists had allies on the Council, and the outcome of the rising was official recognition of the principle of liberty of conscience. The number of Anabaptist immigrants grew even beyond that of Lutheran emigrants, so that in the annual election for the Town Council on 23 February an overwhelmingly Anabaptist body was elected. In the following days monasteries and churches were looted and in a nocturnal orgy of iconoclasm the sculptures, paintings and books of the cathedral were destroyed. Meanwhile, Jan Matthys himself had arrived, and together with Bockelson he quickly dominated the town. On 27 February armed bands rushed through the streets driving multitudes of the ‘godless’ from the town in the bitter cold, without spare clothes and possessions. Those who remained were rebaptised in the market-place in a ceremony which lasted for three days. After that, it became a capital offence to be unbaptised and by 3 March there were no ‘misbelievers’ left in the town.

When the bishop massed his troops to besiege the city, the Anabaptists defended themselves by arms. As the siege progressed, even more, extreme leaders gained control. These Münsterite leaders, besides claiming prophetic authority to receive new revelations, also claimed that the Old Testament ethics still applied, and so felt justified in reintroducing polygamy. They even crowned a ‘King David’ of ‘the New Jerusalem’ in Bockelson. Terror, long a familiar feature of life in the New Jerusalem, was intensified during Bockelson’s reign. Within a few days of his proclamation, it was announced that in future all those who persisted in sinning against the truth must be brought before the king and sentenced to death. A couple of days later, executions began. The first victims were women: one was beheaded for denying her husband his marital rights, and another for bigamy, since the practice of polygamy was a male prerogative, and a third for insulting a preacher and mocking his doctrine. As the Bishop intensified his efforts to reduce the town through a blockade which began in January 1535, Bockelson declared that any man plotting to leave the town, or who was found to have helped someone else to leave was to be at once beheaded, as was anyone who was overheard criticising the ‘king’ or his policy.


The Anabaptists of Münster under siege. The combined forces of the Catholics and Lutherans were intent on destroying the Anabaptists’ threat to the established order. The defenders were butchered after the final assault; their leaders cruelly tortured to death.

Rather than surrender the town, Bockelson would doubtless have let the entire population starve to death; but in the event, the siege was brought abruptly to a close. Two men escaped by night from the town and indicated to the besiegers certain weak spots in the defences. On the night of 24 June 1535, they launched a surprise attack and penetrated into the town. After some hours of desperate fighting the last two or three hundred surviving Anabaptists accepted an offer of safe-conduct, laid down their arms and dispersed to their homes. , only to be killed one by one and almost to the last man, in a massacre lasting several days. All the leaders of Anabaptism in the town perished. Rothmann is believed to have died fighting, and Bockleson, at the Bishop’s command was for some time led about on a chain and exhibited like a performing bear. In January 1536 he was brought back to Münster, where he, Knipperdollinck and another leading Anabaptist were publicly tortured to death with red-hot irons. After the execution the three bodies were suspended from a church-tower in the town centre, in cages which are still seen there today.

For centuries, churches and governments have exploited the excesses of these months prior to the fall of the city in June 1535 to make ‘Anabaptism’ an all-embracing byword for fanaticism and anarchy. Certainly, at the time, the whole episode did incalculable harm to the reputation of the Anabaptists, who before and after it were peaceable folk. This one episode of rebellion engendered the fear that sheep’s clothing concealed wolves who might better be dealt with before they threw off the disguise. In Luther’s case, it should be further remembered that the leading Anabaptist in Thuringia was Melchior Rink, who had been with Thomas Müntzer at the Battle of Frankenhausen in 1525. Yet when all these attenuating circumstances are taken into account, it is still difficult to ignore the fact that Melanchthon’s memorandum justified the eradication of the peaceful, not because they were clandestine revolutionaries, but on the grounds that even a peaceful renunciation of the state still constituted sedition.


Besides this view of the role of the State, both Luther and Melanchthon were convinced that the truth of God could be known and that being known it lays supreme obligations on mankind to preserve it. To them, the Anabaptists were corrupters of souls. Luther’s leniency toward them is more deserving of comment than is his ultimate severity. He was consistent to the end in insisting that faith could not be forced; that in private a man might believe what he would; that only open revolt or public attacks on ordained preachers should be penalised; and that only sedition and blasphemy, rather than heresy, should be subject to constraint.

It is also striking that many of the major principles of the Anabaptists of Münster – the linking of church and state; the validity of Old Testament social patterns; the right of Christians to take up arms – were more typical of the ‘official’ churches of the time than they were of the Anabaptists in general. In its original, pacific form, Anabaptism has survived to the present day in communities such as the Mennonites, the Hutterite Brethren and, of course, the Baptists themselves. But militant, millenarian Anabaptism rapidly declined as a movement and though there was an attempt to revive it in Westphalia thirty years later, the band of terrorists which gathered around a cobbler-‘messiah’ called Jan Willemsen were eventually captured and executed.

Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Five   Leave a comment

Part Five – The Peasants’ War of 1525: A Puritan Revolution?

The causes of the German Peasants’ War have been a subject of controversy among historians for a considerable time. They generally agree that the background of the rising of 1525 resembled that of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rather than the Puritan revolts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which men and women of lower orders in society were also involved. Neither did the Peasants’ War in Germany resemble previous local revolts among the Jacquerie of France which were usually of a purely local nature, related to abuses of feudal rights by particular lords. For one thing, the German peasant class was not uniformly impoverished; the initiative for the redress of grievances came not from the downtrodden, but rather from the more prosperous and enterprising, possessed themselves of both lands and a respectable competence in farming them. In fact, the well-being of the German peasantry throughout the territories was better than it had ever been, and those who took the initiative in the insurrection, far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class. They were people whose position was improving both socially and economically and who, for that very reason, were impatient for the obstacles which stood in the way of their further advance to be removed.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in their efforts to remove these obstacles for themselves, the peasants showed that they were not at all eschatologically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realizable possibilities. The most that a peasant community ever sought under the leadership of its own peasant aristocracy was local self-government. The first stage of the movement, from March 1525 to the beginning of May, consisted simply of a series of local struggles in which a great number of communities really did extract from their immediate lords, ecclesiastical or lay, concessions giving them greater autonomy. This was achieved, not through bloodshed but by an intensification of the tough, hard-headed bargaining which the peasantry had been conducting for generations.

Underlying the rising there was, however, a deeper conflict. With the progressive collapse of the royal power, the German state had disintegrated into a welter of discordant and often warring feudal authorities. But by 1525 this condition of near anarchy was approaching its end, for the great territorial princes were busily creating their absolutist principalities. The peasantry saw its traditional way of life disrupted and its inherited rights threatened by the development of new types of states. It resented the additional taxes, the substitution of Roman Law for ‘custom’, the interference of centralised administration in local affairs, and it fought back. The law was being unified by displacing the local codes in favour of Roman Law whereby the peasant again suffered since that Law knew only private property and therefore imperilled the commons – the woods, streams and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition. The Roman Law also only had three categories of peasant – free men, freedmen and slaves. It had no category which quite fitted the medieval serf.

The princes, for their part, realized clearly enough that the peasantry stood in their way of their plans for state-building and that the peasant insurrection offered them a chance to assert and consolidate their authority. It was they, or rather a particular group of them, who saw to it that the rising ended catastrophically, in a series of battles or massacres, in which perhaps as many as a hundred thousand peasants were killed. It was also those princely dynasties which gained most from the reduction alike of the peasantry, the lower nobility and the ecclesiastical foundations to a condition of hopeless dependence which was to last for centuries.

Another change, associated with the revival of commerce in cities after the crusades, was the substitution of exchange in coin for exchange in kind. The increased demand in precious metals enhanced their value; the peasants, who had at first benefited from the payment of a fixed sum of money rather than a percentage in kind, found themselves hurt by deflation. Those who could not meet the imposts sank from freeholders to renters, and from renters to serfs. The solution which at first presented itself to the peasants was simply to resist the changes as they operated in their society and return to ‘the good old ways’. They did not, to begin with, demand the abolition of serfdom but only the prevention of any further extension of peonage. They demanded a return to the free use of the woods, waters and meadows; the reduction of imposts and the reinstatement of ancient Germanic law and local custom. The methods used in the attainment of these ends were at first conservative. On the occasion of a special grievance, the peasants would assemble in thousands in quite spontaneous fashion and would present their petitions to the rulers with a request for arbitration. Not infrequently the petition was received in a patriarchal manner and the burdens were in some measure eased, yet never to the extent of forestalling a future recurrence.

Somewhat inevitably, therefore, the peasants’ demands began to go beyond economic amelioration to political programmes designed to ensure an influence commensurate with and even exceeding their economic importance. The demands also changed as the movement worked north to the region around the big bend of the Rhine where peasants were also townsmen, since artisans were farmers. In this area, urban aspirations were added to agrarian concerns. Further down the Rhine, the struggle became almost wholly urban, and the characteristic programme called for a more democratic complexion in the town councils, a less restrictive membership in the guilds, the subjection of the clergy to civil burdens and uncurtailed rights for citizens to engage in brewing.

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Many of these demands had coalesced in a movement in Alsace which had taken place just prior to the Reformation. This movement had used the symbol which became characteristic of the Peasants’ War of 1525. This was the Bundschuh, deriving its name from the traditional leather shoe of the peasant. The word had a double meaning because Bund was also the word for an ‘association’ or ‘covenant’. Müntzer had already used for his ‘covenant of the elect’ and before that, the peasants had adopted the term for a ‘compact’ of revolution. The aims of this Bundschuh had centred not so much on economics as on politics. Its adherents believed that ‘the axe should be laid to the root of the tree’ and all government abolished save that of the pope and the emperor. These were the two traditional ‘swords of Christendom’, the joint rulers of a universal society. To them, the little men had always turned for protection against overlords, bishops, metropolitans, knights and princes. The Bundschuh proposed to complete the process by wiping out all the intermediate grades and leaving only the two great lords, Caesar and the Apostle.


Prior to the Peasants’ War of 1525, therefore, this movement was often anticlerical, but not anti-Catholic. Bishops and Abbots were resented as great landowners and exploiters, but “Down with the bishop” did not mean “Down with the Church.” The banners of the Bundschuh often carried, besides the shoe, some religious symbol, such as a picture of the Virgin, a crucifix, or a papal tiara. The woodcut shown below shows the crucifix resting on a black shoe. On the right, a group of peasants are tilling the soil, and Abraham is sacrificing Isaac, a sign of the potential cost of being a member of the Bund. A movement so religiously minded could not but be affected by the Reformation. Luther’s Freedom of the Christian Man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ did not mean for him egalitarianism, but it did for Carlstadt. Luther had certainly blasted usury and in 1524 had come out with another tract on the subject, in which he also attacked the subterfuge of annuities, a device whereby capital was loaned in perpetuity for an annual return. His attitude on monasticism likewise admirably suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants, with good reason, felt strongly drawn to Luther. 


The part played by Thomas Müntzer in the Peasants’ War as a whole has often been exaggerated. The main theatres of the struggle were the areas where the development of the new states had gone the furthest. These all lay in southern and western Germany, which had already seen many peasant risings in the years before 1525; there, Müntzer seems to have had no influence at all. In Thuringia however, the situation was a peculiar one, for there had been no previous peasant revolts and there was little sign of an impending revolt even in 1525. The insurrection came very late and took a curiously anarchic form. Whereas in the south and west the peasants had conducted themselves in an orderly and disciplined fashion, in Thuringia they formed small, unorganised bands which scoured the countryside, looting and burning monasteries and convents. It may well be that these outbreaks were encouraged, if not caused, by the agitation which Müntzer had been conducting.

The hardcore of Müntzer’s following still consisted of the League of the Elect. Some of his congregation from Allstedt joined him at Mühlhausen and no doubt helped him in building up a new organisation. Above all, he continued to rely on the workers from the copper-mines at Mansfeld, who had joined the League in their hundreds. These workers, often recruited from abroad, often migrants, often exposed to unemployment and every kind of insecurity, were notoriously prone to revolutionary excitement, just as were the weavers, and they were correspondingly dreaded by the authorities. That he was able to command such a following naturally gave Müntzer a great reputation as a revolutionary leader; so that, if in Mühlhausen itself he never rivalled Pfeiffer in influence, in the context of the peasant insurrection he loomed far larger. Although, as their written demands clearly show, the Thuringian peasants did not share Müntzer’s millenarian fantasies, they certainly looked up to him as the one famous, learned and pious man who had unreservedly thrown in his lot with theirs. They certainly had no other leader.

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When the ‘great upheaval’ came in 1525, the polemical papalist cartoonists lost no time in portraying Luther as the leader of the Bundschuh, and the Catholic princes never ceased to hold him responsible for the uprising. Some historians have also tried to prove that Luther was actually the author of the movement which he so vehemently repudiated. Such an explanation fails to take account of more than a century of agrarian unrest which preceded the Reformation.

One contributory factor as to why the revolts were so widespread in 1525, which had nothing to do with Luther or his Reformation, was astrology, which had remained an important feature of medieval life alongside the Church. Medicine, in particular, was largely determined by the theory of the four humours, relating the bodily fluids to the movements of the planets and stars. Since ancient times, heavenly signs were taken to be harbingers and forebodings of great events.

Astrological speculation may well explain why so many uprisings were in the constellation of the occurred in 1524-25, as it was in 1524 that all planets were in the constellation of the Fish. This had been foreseen twenty years earlier and a great disturbance had been predicted for that year. As the time approached, the foreboding was so intense that in 1523 no fewer than fifty-one tracts were published on the subject. Woodcuts like the one below displayed the fish in the heavens and upheavals upon earth. The peasants with their banners and flails watch on one side, while on the other the emperor, the pope and the ecclesiastics all gather. Some peasant leaders held back from taking action before 1524 in the hope that the emperor would call an imperial diet to redress their grievances in 1524. The Diet of Nürnberg had taken place in March 1523 and had deferred action on reform until a second diet could be called to issue an Edict on 18 April 1524. This did nothing to deal with peasant grievances, however, and another diet was not due until the summer of 1526. In the meantime, the ‘great fish’ unloosed the waters upon the peasants, princes, prelates and papacy.


All this was foreign superstition to Luther, if not entirely to Melanchthon, but at the same time, he could not claim a complete dissociation with the outbreak of the Peasants’ War. The attempts to enforce the imperial edicts through the arrest of Lutheran pastors were often the immediate cause of assemblies of peasant bands to demand their release. Luther was regarded as a friend by these peasants, and when some of them were asked to name persons whom they would accept as their arbiters, the first name on the list was Martin Luther. No formal court was ever established to try the peasants for rebellion, and no legal judgement was ever given. But Luther himself did pronounce a verdict on their demands as couched in the most popular of their manifestoes, The Twelve Articles, first distributed in March 1525. These opened with conciliatory phrases reminiscent of those used by Luther himself in his Address to the German Nobility and On the Freedom of the Christian Man of 1520:

To the Christian reader, peace and the grace of God through Christ… The gospel is not a cause of rebellion and disturbance… If it be the will of God to hear the peasants, who will resist his Majesty? Did he not hear the children of Israel and deliver them out of the hand of Pharaoh? 

The first articles have to do with the Church. The congregation should have the right to appoint and remove the minister, who is to preach the Holy Gospel without human addition, a phrase which sounds as if Luther could have written it. Ministers were to be supported on a modest stipend by congregations out of the so-called great tithe on produce. The surplus should go to relieve the poor and to obviate emergency taxation in war. The so-called little tithe on cattle should be abolished, for the Lord God created cattle for the free use of man. The main articles embodied the old agrarian programme of common fields, forests and waters. The farmer should be free to hunt, to fish, and to protect his lands against game. Under supervision, he might take wood for fuel and building. Death dues, which impoverish the widow and orphan by requisitioning the best cloak or the best cow, were to be abolished. Rents should be revised in accord with the productivity of the land. New laws should not displace the old, and the community meadows should not pass into private hands.

The only article which exceeded the old demands was the one calling for the total abolition of serfdom. Land should be held on lease with stipulated conditions. If any labour in excess of the agreement was exacted by the lord, he should pay for it on a wage basis. The Twelve Articles conceded that any demand not consonant with the Word of God should be null. The whole programme was a conservative one, in line with the traditional feudal economy. Notably, there was no attack on legitimate government. The evangelical tone of the articles pleased Luther, but in addressing the peasants he disparaged most of their demands. As to the right of the congregation to choose its own pastor, it would depend on whether they would pay his stipend. The abolition of tithes would be highway robbery and the abrogation of serfdom would be turning Christian liberty into a thing of the flesh.


Having thus criticised their programme, Luther then turned to the means envisaged for its realisation. Under no circumstances, Luther declared, must the common man seize the sword on his own behalf. If each man were to take justice into his own hands, there would be neither authority, government, nor order nor land, but only murder and bloodshed. But all this was not intended to justify the unspeakable wrongs perpetrated by the rulers. To the princes, Luther addressed an appeal in which he justified many more of the peasant demands than he had done when speaking to them. He told them that the will of the congregation should be respected in the choice of a minister, just as he had told the peasants that they should not rebel against the opinion of the prince. The demands of the peasants for redress of their grievances were fair and just and the princes had no-one but themselves to blame for these disorders. They had done nothing but disport themselves in grandeur while robbing and flaying their subjects. The true solution was by the traditional means of arbitration.

But neither side was disposed to take that course and Luther’s prediction was all too abundantly fulfilled, that nothing would ensue but murder and bloodshed. Luther had long since declared that he would not support the private citizen taking up arms, however just the cause, since such means inevitably entailed wrong to the innocent. He could not envisage an orderly revolution, much less a nonviolent one. Indeed, it is difficult for historians to envisage how there could have been one in the early sixteenth century, or even in the following century, given the amount of bloodshed in wars and rebellions throughout Europe. The Peasants’ War lacked the cohesion of the Puritan Revolution because there was no clear-cut programme and no coherent leadership. Some groups wanted a peasant dictatorship, some a classless society, some a return to feudalism, some the abolition of all rulers except the pope and the emperor.

The separate bands were not coordinated; their chiefs were sometimes peasants, sometimes sectaries, like Müntzer, and sometimes even knights. There was not even unity in religion since there were ‘Papalists’ and ‘Lutherans’ on both sides, though the distinction was not yet a clear one. In Alsace, where the programme called for the elimination of the pope, the struggle took on the complexion of a religious war. The Duke and his brother, the Cardinal, hunted the peasants as unbelieving, divisive, undisciplined Lutherans, ravaging like Huns and Vandals. There can be no question that the hordes were undisciplined, interested mainly in pillaging castles and cloisters, raiding game, and depleting fish ponds. The drawing below of the plundering of a cloister is typical of the Peasants’ War. Observe the group in the upper left with a net in the fish pond. Some are carrying off provisions. The bloodshed does not appear to be considerable, though one man has lost a hand. At various points peasants are guzzling and vomiting, justifying the stricture that the struggle was not so much a peasants’ war as a ‘wine fest’.

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A further glimpse of the peasants’ behaviour is revealed in a letter from an abbess who says that her cloister was raided until not an egg nor a pat of butter was left. Through their windows, the nuns could see the populace being abused and the smoke rising from burning castles. When the war ended, seventy cloisters had been demolished in Thuringia, in Franconia 270 castles and 52 cloisters. When the Palatinate succumbed to the peasants, the disorder was so great that their own leaders had to invite the former authorities to return to assist in the restoration of order. But the authorities preferred to wait until the peasants had first been beaten.

There was no one individual, not even the emperor, who could have carried through an alternative, constructive plan for bringing the peasants into the new economic and political order of the sixteenth century. The only other man who was sufficiently well-known and trusted throughout Germany was Martin Luther, but he refused, not out of cowardice but because he believed that it was the role of the magistrate to keep the peace. The magistrate must also, if necessary, wield the sword. It was certainly not for him to forsake his ministry for the sword and, by leading the peasants, to establish a new theocracy of the saints to replace the papal one he had not yet fully demolished. That would be a betrayal of his territorial Reformation.


Yet Luther would never have condemned the peasants quite so savagely had it not been that there was someone else who aspired to the role he himself rejected. In Saxony there would have been no Peasants’ War  without Thomas Müntzer. After all his wanderings across Germany to Bohemia and the Swiss borders, he had now, at last, found in the peasants the Bund of the Elect who would slaughter the ungodly and erect the kingdom of the saints. The point was not the redress of economic grievance, which in Saxony was not as acute as elsewhere, since serfdom had long since been abolished there. Müntzer was interested in economic amelioration only for the sake of religion, and he did have the insight to see what no one else in his generation observed, that faith itself does not thrive on physical exhaustion. He renewed his attack on Luther on this point, in familiar terms:

Luther says that the poor people have enough in their faith. Doesn’t he see that usury and taxes impede the reception of the faith? He claims that the Word of God is sufficient. Doesn’t he realise that men whose every moment is consumed in the making of a living have no time to learn to read the Word of God? The princes bleed the people with usury and count as their own the fish in the stream, the bird of the air, and the grass of the field, and Dr Liar says  “Amen!” What courage has he, Dr Pussyfoot, the new pope of Wittenberg, Dr Easychair, the basking sycophant? He says there should be no rebellion because the sword has been committed by God to the ruler, but the power of the sword belongs to the whole community. In the good old days the people stood by when the judgement was rendered  lest the ruler pervert justice, and the rulers have perverted justice. They shall be cast down from their seats. The fowls of the heavens are gathering to devour their carcasses.

It was in this sort of temper that Thomas Müntzer came to Mülhausen and began fomenting a local peasants’ war. In April 1525, Müntzer set up, in the church he had been called to in Mühlhausen, a long, white silk banner bearing a rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant and the motto, The Word of the Lord Abideth Forever. Under this, he began to preach:

Now is the time, if you be only three wholly committed unto God , you need not fear one hundred thousand. On! On! On! Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry! Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! On! On!

He announced that he would shortly be marching out under this standard at the head of two thousand ‘strangers’ (real or imaginary members of his league). At the end of the month, he and Pfeiffer did take part in a marauding expedition in the course of which a number of monasteries and convents were destroyed; but this was not yet, by any means, the apocalyptic struggle of which he dreamed. In a letter which he sent to his followers at Allstedt can be recognised the same tone that was once used by John Ball in the English Peasants’ Revolt of a century and a half previously:

I tell you, if you will not suffer for God’s sake, then you must be the Devil’s martyrs. So take care! Don’t be so disheartened, supine, don’t fawn upon the perverse visionaries, the godless scoundrels! Start and fight the Lord’s fight! It’s high time. Keep all your brethren to it, so that they don’t mock the divine testimony, otherwise they must all be destroyed. All Germany, France and Italy are on the alert. The master wants to have sport, so the scoundrels must go through it. The peasants in Klettgau and Hegau and in the Black Forest have risen, three thousand strong, and the crowd is getting bigger all the time. My only fear is that the foolish fellows will let themselves be taken in by some treacherous agreement, simply because they haven’t yet seen the harm of it…

Stir up the people in villages and towns, and most of all the miners and other good fellows who will be good at the job. We must sleep no more! … Get this letter to the miners! … 

At them, at them, while the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword get cold! Don’t let it go lame! Hammer cling, clang, on Nimrod’s anvil! Throw their tower to the ground! So long as you are alive you will never shake off the fear of men. One can’t speak to you about God so long as they are reigning over you. At them, at them, while you still have daylight! God goes ahead of you, so follow, follow!

This letter shows in what fantasies Müntzer was living, for Nimrod was supposed to have built the Tower of Babel, which in turn was identified with Babylon; and he was popularly regarded not only as the first builder of cities but as the originator of private property and class distinctions, as the destroyer of the primal, egalitarian State of Nature.And to his summons to cast down Nimrod and his tower Müntzer adds a whole series of references to apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible: the prophecy of the messianic kingdom (Ezekiel xxxiv), Christ’s prophecy of his Second Coming (Matthew xxiv), the prophecy of ‘the Day of Wrath’ (Revelation vi), and, of course, ‘Daniel’s dream’. All this shows how completely, even at this late stage in Müntzer’s mission, the assumptions on which he worked and the terms in which he thought were still prescribed by the eschatological tradition. He was assuming the role of the messianic saviour.


At the same time as Müntzer and Storch, the latter recently expelled from Zwickau were preparing their followers for the Millennium, Luther was composing his ferocious pamphlet, Against the thievish, murderous gangs of the peasants. This work did much to arouse the princes of central Germany, who had so far shown far less resolution than those in the south and west. Frederick the Wise was weary, unwilling to act against the peasants, and on the point of death when he wrote to his brother John:

Perhaps the peasants have been given just occasion for their uprising through the impeding of the Word of God. In many ways the poor folk have been wronged by the rulers, and now God is visiting his wrath upon us. If it be his will, the common man will come to rule; and if it be not his will, the end will soon be otherwise. Let us then pray to God to forgive our sins, and commit the case to him. He will work it out according to his good pleasure and glory.

Brother John, for his part, yielded to the peasants in his territory the right of the government to collect tithes. He wrote back to Frederick, declaring,… as princes we are ruined. The old Elector died on 4 May and brother John succeeded him. Luther had tried to dyke the deluge by going down into the midst of the peasants to remonstrate with them, but he was met with derision and violence. It was then that he decided to write his tract in which he claimed that all hell had been let loose and all the devils had gone into the peasants, and the archdevil was in Thomas Müntzer, who does nothing else but stir up robbery, murder and bloodshed. A Christian ruler like Frederick the Wise should, indeed, search his heart and humbly pray for help against the Devil, since our warfare is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual wickedness. The prince should, indeed, exceed his duty in offering terms to the mad peasants, as John had done. If they declined, he must quickly grasp the sword. He had no use for Frederick’s plan to sit still and leave the outcome to the Lord, preferring the more pro-active approach of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who claimed if I hadn’t been quick on my toes, the whole movement in my district would have been out of hand in four days. In his tract, Luther wasted no words in setting out how the princes should deal with those peasants who rejected their terms:

If the peasant is in open rebellion , then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land full of murders and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down like a great disaster. 

Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab , secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you.

Some of the princes were only too ready to smite, stab and slay; and Thomas Müntzer was only too ready to provoke them. Duke George, the new Elector John and other princes called for help from the Landgrave Philip, a young man scarcely twenty years of age, but already with a considerable reputation as a military commander, who had just put down the uprising in his own territories. He marched at once to Thuringia and headed for Mühlhausen, which the princes agreed as being the centre of the whole Thuringian insurrection. Müntzer and the peasants, eight thousand strong, had formed themselves into an army at nearby Frankenhausen. They sent word to the princes that they sought nothing but the righteousness of God and desired to avoid bloodshed. The princes replied that if they delivered up Thomas Müntzer, the rest of them would be spared. But they had already turned to Müntzer as their saviour, who seems to have chosen Frankhausen as a rallying point because it was close to the castle of his old arch-enemy, Ernest of Mansfeld. They now called him to take his place among them, and Müntzer was quick to answer their call. He set out from Mühlhausen with some three hundred of his most fanatical followers. The number was significant because it was with the exact same number that Gideon overthrew the Midianites. He arrived at the peasants’ camp on 11th May. On his arrival he spoke out: Fear not, Gideon with a handful discomfited the Midianites and David slew Goliath.

He then ordered the peasants from the surrounding villages to join the army, threatening that they would otherwise be brought in by force. He also sent an urgent appeal to the town of Erfurt for reinforcements and threatening letters to the enemy. Clearly, he was not going to give himself up. He wrote to Count Ernest of Mansfeld in particularly vitriolic terms:

Say, you wretched, shabby bag of worms, who made you a prince over the people whom God has purchased with his precious blood?… By God’s almighty power you are delivered up to destruction. If you do not humble yourself before the lowly, you will be saddled with everlasting infamy in the eyes of all Christendom and will become the devil’s martyr.

But neither of his missives had much effect. Erfurt either could not or would not respond, and the princes took advantage of the delay to surround the peasant army. By the 15th May, Philip of Hesse’s troops had been joined by those of all the other regional princes and had occupied a strong position on a nearby hill overlooking the peasant army. Although somewhat outnumbered, the princes also had ample artillery, whereas the peasants had very little. They also had about two thousand cavalry, whereas the peasants had none. A battle fought under such circumstances could have only one possible result, but the princes again offered terms, requiring the handing over of Müntzer and his immediate following. The offer was made in good faith, as the princes had already avoided unnecessary bloodshed elsewhere, following Luther’s advice. The offer would probably have been accepted, had it not been for Müntzer’s intervention.

The propheta made a passionate speech in which he declared that God had spoken to him directly and promised him victory; that he himself would catch the enemy’s cannonballs in the sleeves of his cloak; that in the end God would transform heaven and earth rather than allow his people to perish. Just at that moment, a rainbow appeared in the sky, the very symbol on Müntzer’s banner, as if to prove that God would keep his covenant. Müntzer’s fanatical followers were convinced that some tremendous miracle was about to transpire and were somehow able to convince the confused, amorphous and relatively leaderless mass of peasantry of this.

Having received no reply to their terms, the princes grew impatient and the order was given to the artillery to fire the cannon in an opening salvo. The peasants had made no preparations to use their cannon, nor to escape the field. Seemingly in a mass trance and still singing, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, they seemed to be expecting the Second Coming at that very moment. The effect of the salvo was devastating, with the peasants breaking ranks and fleeing in panic while the princes’ cavalry ran them down and slaughtered them. Losing just half a dozen men, the army of the princes dispersed the peasants and captured Frankenhausen, killing some five thousand peasants in the process. Only six hundred were taken prisoner, so perhaps another two thousand somehow escaped. A few days later, Mühlhausen surrendered without a struggle and was made to pay heavily for its part in the general insurrection, also losing its status as a free imperial city. Müntzer himself escaped from the battle-field but was soon found hiding in a cellar in Frankenhausen. He was handed over to Ernest of Mansfeld, tortured, made to sign a confession, after which he was beheaded in the princes’ camp, along with Pfeiffer, on 27 May. Storch died as a fugitive later in the same year. The princes continued to ‘clean up’ the countryside.


Other bands of peasants were also savagely put down. The forces of the Swabian League were led by a general who, when outnumbered, would have recourse to diplomacy, duplicity, strategy and, when necessary, combat. He managed to isolate the bands and destroy them one at a time. The peasants were tricked and finally outnumbered themselves. It was claimed that over a hundred thousand were massacred altogether. Although they were not exterminated as a class, the hopes of the peasants for a share in the political life of Germany were at an end, at least for the following three centuries.

Luther’s savage pamphlet was late in leaving the press and appeared just at the time when the peasants were being butchered. But the tract was noticed by them, and the set of phrases, smite… stab… slay… were never forgotten by them. He tried to counter the effect by another pamphlet in which, though he held to his original conviction over the consequences of rebellion, he criticised the princes for their failure to show mercy to captives and their venting of vengeance on the countryside, in which the bishops also took part. Despite Luther’s stance, hundreds of ‘Lutheran’ ministers throughout Germany took part in the war on the peasants’ side. The rulers of Catholic lands thereafter used this participation as a reason to exclude evangelical preachers from their lands. Luther himself became less tolerant of radical preachers, lest some of them might turn out to be little Müntzers in disguise.  Nevertheless, his support for the princes in the peasants’ war led to others becoming Lutheran and to the repeal of the edicts against him at the Diet of Speyer in 1526.

Though there were elements of a puritan movement on the side of the peasants, a clear divide had opened up among Lutherans whose goal was to establish a territorial church, and the few who were prepared to sign up to a more radical congregationalism more biased towards the poor. The battle lines in both church and society, in both material and spiritual life, had been clearly drawn. The Peasants’ War had been a war in the sense of a series of battles and stand-offs in which the peasants in some areas won some concessions from the princes. Apart from the Twelve Articles, some of which were connected with church reform, there was no agreed manifesto which could be referred to as a revolutionary platform or programme. That was something that some later historians, looking for a legacy, gave to the uprisings. Millenarian movements grew up in parallel and took advantage of the general mood of unrest, rather than directing or leading it in any coordinated way.

(to be continued…)



Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Four   Leave a comment


Part Four – Wittenbergers and Allstedters, 1521-25:

While Martin Luther was hidden away from his enemies in the Wartburg Castle in the second half of 1521, the reformation at Wittenberg moved with disconcerting velocity, and he was kept abreast of these events in so far as tardy communications and the conditions of his concealment permitted. His opinion was continually sought, and his advice directed the developments, even though he was not in a position to take the initiative. Leadership fell to Philip Melanchthon, Professor of Greek; to Carlstadt, Professor and Archdeacon at the Castle Church; and to Gabriel Zwilling, a monk of Luther’s own order, the Augustinians. Under their leadership, the reformation for the first time assumed a form distinctly recognisable to the common man.


Nothing which Luther had done to date had made any difference to the lives of ordinary folk, except for the initial attack on indulgences, but even that had not as yet proved especially effective. Luther was not able to say while at the Wartburg that indulgences had been discontinued in his own parish of Wittenberg. But during his absence in 1521 and 1522 one innovation had rapidly followed another. Priests and monks married; monks and nuns even married each other. The tonsured allowed their hair to grow. The wine in the mass was given to the laity, and they were suffered to take the elements into their own hands. Priests celebrated the sacrament without vestments, in plain clothes. Portions of the liturgy were recited in German and masses for the dead were discontinued. Vigils ceased, vespers were altered, images were smashed. Meat was eaten on fast days and endowments were withdrawn by patrons. The enrollment in the university declined because students were no longer supported by ecclesiastical stipends. The common people began to realise that their daily religious life was changing and that the Reformation meant something to them.

When three priests married in 1521 and were arrested by Albert of Mainz, Luther sent him a protest. Albert consulted the University of Wittenberg and Carlstadt answered with a work on celibacy, in which he went so far as to assert not only that a priest might marry but that he must, and should also be the father of a family. For obligatory celibacy, he would substitute obligatory matrimony and paternity. Under the fiery preaching of Gabriel Zwilling, the Augustinian monks began to leave the cloister. On 30 November, fifteen withdrew. The prior reported to the Elector:

It is being preached that no monk can be saved in a cowl, that cloisters are in the grip of the Devil, that monks should be expelled and cloisters demolished. Whether such teaching is grounded in the gospel I greatly doubt.

The Augustinians at Wittenberg held a meeting in January 1522 at which they decided, instead of disciplining the ‘apostate’ monks, that thereafter any member of the order should be free to stay or to leave as he might please. Next came the reform of the liturgy, which touched the common man more intimately because it altered his daily devotions. Here, Luther had already laid the groundwork for the most significant changes. His principle was that the mass was not a sacrifice but a thanksgiving to God and a communion of believers.

With a beard sufficient to deceive his own mother, the exile from the Wartburg appeared on the streets of Wittenberg on the fourth of December, 1521. He was immensely pleased with all that his colleagues had lately introduced by way of reform, but also irate because his recent tracts, which he had sent to Spalatin in manuscript, had not yet been published. These were On Monastic Vows, On the Abolition of Private Masses, and A Blast against the Archbishop of Mainz. At this moment, Luther was distinctly in favour of speeding up the reformation. But not by violence.

… Antichrist, as Daniel said, is to be broken without the hand of man. Violence will only make him stronger. Preach, pray, but do not fight. Not that all constraint is ruled out, but it must be exercised by the constituted authorities.


The problem was, however, that the constituted authority was inhibitive of the reformation. Elector Frederick issued an order on 19 December in which he stated that while discussion might continue, there could be no changes to the mass until unanimity was reached. But Carlstadt chose to defy the Elector by inviting the populace to receive communion in both kinds at the New Year’s mass. When the Elector interposed, Carlstadt then offered the same communion for Christmas, issuing the public invitation only on the previous night. The populace was stirred up and Christmas Eve was celebrated by rioting. On Christmas Day, Carlstadt celebrated mass, passing from Latin to German in the liturgy. For the first time in their lives, the assembled people heard the words in their own tongue, This is the cup of my blood of the new and eternal testament, spirit and secret of the faith, shed for you to the remission of sins. 


Under Carlstadt’s leading, the town council of Wittenberg issued the first city ordinance of the reformation. Mass was to be conducted as he had done it. Luther’s ideas on social reform were implemented. Begging was forbidden. Those genuinely poor should be maintained from a common fund. Prostitutes were to be banned. Then came quite a new point: images should be removed from the churches. During the preceding weeks, Zwilling had led an iconoclastic riot, overturning altars and smashing images and pictures of the saints. The author of this idea was Carlstadt himself, who took his stand squarely on the Scriptures of the old testament, especially the commandment not to make graven images, which reinforced his own experience of being distracted from spiritual worship by such images, especially those of Christ on the cross, which reminded the worshipper of the physical pain of his Saviour, rather than of the spiritual tribulations suffered. Coupled with the attack on art in worship went a redressing of the importance of music. Carlstadt called on his congregation to “relegate organs, trumpets and flutes to the theatre.”

While Wittenberg was convulsed by iconoclasm, three laymen arrived from Zwickau, claiming to be prophets and to have had intimate conversations with the Lord. Like Müntzer, they claimed that they had no need of the Bible, but relied on the Spirit. If the Bible were important, God would have dropped it directly from heaven, they said. They repudiated infant baptism and proclaimed the speedy erection of the kingdom of the godly through the slaughter of the ungodly, whether at the hands of the Turks or the godly themselves. Melanchthon was amazed by their audacity, reporting to the Elector:

I can scarcely tell you how deeply I am moved. But who shall judge them, other than Martin, I do not know. Since the gospel is at stake, arrangements should be made for them to meet with him. They wish it. I would not have written to if the matter were not so important. We must beware lest we resist the Spirit of God, and also lest we be possessed by the devil.

In his letters from the Wartburg, Luther rejected the idea of a disputation with ‘the prophets’ on religious grounds, because they talked to glibly:

Those who are expert in spiritual things have gone through the valley of the shadow. When these men talk of sweetness and of being transported to the third heaven, do not believe them. Divine Majesty does not speak directly to men. God is a consuming fire, and the dreams and visions of the saints are terrible… Prove the spirits; and if you are not able to do so, then take the advice of Gamaliel, and wait.

I am sure that we can restrain these firebrands without the sword. I hope the Prince will not imbrue his hands in their blood. I see no reason why on their account I should come home.

Frederick the Wise was harassed by one eruption after another. Next came an establishment reaction to the events at Wittenberg, news of which had reached Duke George over the border, in the area of Saxony controlled by the rival house to that of Prince Frederick. The Bishop of Meissen requested of Frederick permission to conduct a visitation throughout his domains, and Frederick consented, although making no promises to discipline offenders. Then, on 13 February Frederick issued instructions of his own to the university and to the chapter at the Castle Church:

We have  gone too fast. The common man has been incited  to frivolity, and no-one has been edified. We should have consideration for the weak. Images should be left until further notice. The question of begging should be canvassed. No essential portion of the mass should be omitted. Moot points should be discussed. Carlstadt should not preach any more.

Carlstadt submitted and agreed not to preach and Zwilling left Wittenberg. But the town council resolved to defy the elector by inviting Luther to come home. He had reached the turning point in his career. Less than a year before he had been the leader of the opposition, now he was called home to become the head of the government, albeit in a restricted area. Nevertheless, the change was vast between the role of railing against the execrable bull of Antichrist and that of providing a new pattern for Church, State and Society, a new constitution for the Church, a new liturgy, and a new Scripture in the vernacular.

Luther would never shirk a mundane task such as exhorting the elector to repair the city wall to keep the peasants’ pigs from rooting in the villagers’ gardens, but he was never supremely concerned about pigs, gardens, walls, cities, princes nor any of the blessings and nuisances of this mortal life. The ultimate problem was always man’s relationship with God. For this reason, political and social forms were to him a matter of comparative indifference. Whatever would foster the understanding, dissemination, and practice of God’s Word should be encouraged, and whatever impeded must be opposed. This is why it is futile to inquire as to whether Luther was a Democrat, aristocrat, autocrat, or anything else. Religion was for him the chief end of man, and all else peripheral.


The question of why faith is so hard and reason so inadequate was for Luther a problem far deeper than logic. Luther often railed at reason, and he has been portrayed in consequence as a complete irrationalist in religion. But this is to mistake his meaning. He employed reason in the sense of logic to its uttermost limits. At Worms and often elsewhere he asked to be instructed by Scripture and reason. In the sense reason meant logical deduction from known premises; and when Luther railed against the harlot reason, he meant something else. Common sense is perhaps a better translation. He had in mind the way in which man ordinarily behaves, feels, and thinks. It is not what God says that is a foreign tongue, but what God does that is utterly incomprehensible.

Luther’s contemporary critics arise to inquire why, if a man, in the end, has no standing with God he should make the effort to be good. Luther’s answer is that morality must be grounded somewhere else than in self-help and the quest for a reward. The paradox is that God must destroy in us all illusions of righteousness before he can make us righteous. First, we must relinquish all claims to goodness. Then there is some hope for us. We are sinners and at the same time righteous, which is to say that however bad we are, there is a power at work in us which can and will make something out of us.

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In economics, Luther was opposed to the mechanisms of capitalism and wrongly assumed that the rise in prices was due to the rapacity of the capitalists. At the same time, he himself contributed unwittingly to the developments which he deplored. The abolition of monasticism and the expropriation of ecclesiastical lands and goods, the branding of poverty as a sin or at least a lack of beneficial providence, and the exaltation of work as the imitation of God helped to stimulate the spirit of economic enterprise.

In politics, Luther came to construct a theory of government which relied heavily, as in his theology, on Paul and Augustine. He was perfectly clear that coercion could never be eliminated from the political system because society as a whole can never be made fully Christian:

The world and the masses are and always will be unchristian, although they are baptised and nominally Christian. Hence a man who would venture to govern an entire community or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who would place in one fold wolves, lions, eagles and sheep. The sheep would keep the peace, but they would not last long. The world cannot be ruled with a rosary.

A Christian can serve as a magistrate, but a magistrate need not be a Christian for God to make use of him as his instrument. And in any case, Christianity is not necessary for sound political administration because politics belongs to the sphere of nature. Reason in its own sphere is enough to tell a man how to build houses and govern states. It was even reported, he noted, that there is no better government on earth than under the Turks, who have neither civil nor canon law, but only the Koran. The natural man can be trusted to recognise and administer justice provided he operates within the framework of the law and government and does not seek to vindicate himself.


The most important distinction for Luther’s political thought, therefore, was between the lower and higher capacities of man, corresponding to nature and reason on the one hand and to grace and revelation on the other. The natural man, when not involved for himself, has enough integrity and insight to administer the state in accordance with justice, equity, and even magnanimity. These are civil virtues. But the Church inculcates humility, patience, long-suffering, and charity – the Christian virtues – attainable only by those endowed with grace, and consequently not to be expected from the masses. That is why society cannot be ruled by the gospel, and why theocracy is out of the question. Then again there are different levels involved. The God of the state is the God of the Magnificat, who exalts the lowly and abases the proud. The God of the Church is the God of Gethsemane, who suffered at the hands of men without retaliation or reviling and refused the use of the sword on his behalf.

By the beginning of 1525 the mass was at an end in Wittenberg. We cannot say that it had been suppressed by force, but there was certainly an element of coercion. Nevertheless, its demise was not inordinately hurried, since it had continued for two and a half years after Luther’s return from the Wartburg. Such changes had aroused in the papists intense antagonism, and they now had a new ‘champion’ in Pope Hadrian, who addressed Frederick the Wise with a veritable manifesto for the Counter-Reformation. But Luther’s fate, and that of his Reformation, no longer rested with the pope, the emperor, or the Elector Frederick alone, but with the German Diet meeting at Nürnberg in the spring of 1524. As at Worms, the Diet was divided. The Catholic party was rallied by the papal legate, who freely conceded past abuses but blamed them all on the deceased Leo X and called for obedience to his noble successor. In the absence of the emperor, its leadership among the laity fell to his brother Ferdinand of Austria who in his week of attendance tried to enforce the Edict of Worms on his own authority, a move quickly repulsed by the diet.

The Erasmians, the Humanists who had constituted the middle party at Worms, might have reacted in a more conciliatory manner than the main Catholic protagonists had not the pressures been so intense as to leave no room for neutrality. Reluctantly, the ‘mediators’ were driven into one camp or the other and went in both directions. The deepest offence felt by Luther lay in the stance taken by their leader, Erasmus of Rotterdam himself. He still felt that Luther had done much good and that he was no heretic. He had openly declared this in a colloquy earlier in the year. But he deplored the disintegration of Christendom which had shattered his dream of European concord following the outbreak of war between France and the empire three years earlier, at the end of the Diet of Worms. In the end, under pressure from his old friend, Pope Hadrian, he expressed the point on which he differed from Luther, the doctrine of man. He had already brought out a tract on this, entitled On the Freedom of the WillLuther thanked him for centring the discussion on this point:

You alone have gone to the heart of the problem instead of debating the papacy, indulgences, purgatory, and similar trifles. You alone have gone to the core, and I thank you for it.

Luther’s fundamental break with the Catholic Church was over the nature and destiny of man, and much more over destiny than nature. That was why he and Erasmus did not come to outright conflict. Erasmus was primarily interested in morals, whereas Luther’s question was whether doing right, even if it is possible, can affect man’s fate. Erasmus succeeded in diverting Luther from the course by asking whether the ethical precepts of the Gospels have any point if they cannot be fulfilled. Luther countered that man is like a donkey ridden now by God and now by the Devil, a statement which certainly seems to imply that man has no freedom whatever to decide for good or ill. Natural reason, however much it is offended, must admit the consequences of the omniscience and omnipotence of God, he argued. Erasmus perceived that the conflict lay between the power and goodness of God. He would rather limit the power than forfeit the goodness.


Those who had broken with Rome were not themselves united. Partly through defections from Lutheranism and partly through the independent rise of variant forms of evangelicalism the pattern of diversity was displayed. Luther had already begun to perceive that he was closer to Rome than to the radicals: I take the middle road, he wrote, finding himself now in the position formerly occupied by the Erasmians at Worms. When they were driven to the wall, the Lutherans emerged as the middle group between the papists and the sectaries. In many respects, they were the heirs to Erasmus, who saw the great abuse of Catholicism, not as did Luther in the exaltation of man but in the externalisation of religion. The inner life of man had already been set in opposition to the literature of the Scriptures by the Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer.

The experience of the spirit was made the necessary qualification for Church membership. Infant baptism was consequently rejected, if not indeed all baptism, on the ground that outward water “profiteth nothing”. The Church of the spirit is of necessity a sect which may seek to preserve its integrity by segregation from society or may attempt to dominate the world through the reign of the saints. Here is the concept of all the Protestant theocracies. Within the religious community, leadership falls to the Spirit-filled, be they clerical or lay, and the outcome may well be the abolition of a professional ministry.

Another Erasmian idea was the restitution of primitive Christianity, a restoration of the religion of the spirit. The whole pattern of these ideas was alien to Luther, who found it impossible to separate the spirit from the flesh because man is a whole. For him, art, music and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are appropriate expressions of religion. The attempt to build a church on a selective basis did intrigue him, and his fury against the sectaries was in large measure intensified by the conflict within himself. But the notion of a Protestant theocracy was to him as abhorrent as the papal monarchy. The real question for the Lutherans in Wittenberg was whether the physical forms of worship were an aid or an impediment to faith. In the end, Carlstadt’s Biblicism restrained him from rejecting the Lord’s Supper entirely, as a means of grace. He retained the rite because of Christ’s own commandment: This do in remembrance of me.

Similarly, he rejected infant baptism as having no scriptural basis. The Zwickau prophets had done this before him, and the Anabaptists were to make this the cardinal tenet of their sect. The essential point was the necessity of an adult experience of religious conviction. Luther had also proclaimed the priesthood of all believers and though Carlstadt would not go as far as rejecting the need for a professional ministry altogether, but he wished as a minister not to be set apart from his fellows by their use of Herr Doktor or Herr Pfarrer, but to be addressed simply as good neighbour or Brother Andreas. He gave up any distinctive garb and wore only a play grey coat, declining the financial support of his congregation and undertaking instead to earn his living at the plough. While he cared nothing for the whole hierarchy of academic degrees, he cared mightily for a trained ministry and perceived that if Carlstadt’s plan prevailed the outcome would be not that the peasant would know as much as the preacher, but the preacher would know no more than the peasant. He made fun of Carlstadt for reeling off Hebrew quotations in a peasant’s smock.


Thomas Müntzer gave a much more turn than Carlstadt to the separation of spirit and flesh by rejecting not only infant baptism, but all baptism, and by applying this dualism to the spirit versus the letter of Scripture. Those who rely on the letter, he said, are the scribes against whom Christ railed. Scripture as a mere book is but paper and ink. “Bible, Babel, bubble!” he cried. As a written record, it did not reassure him because he observed that it is convincing only to the convinced. He pointed out that the Turks were well-acquainted with the Bible, but remained completely alienated from the Christian religion. In 1523 Müntzer had succeeded in having himself elected as the minister in the Saxon town of Allstedt. The only overt act, however, was the burning of a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in March 1524. This prompted Luther to address the princes of Saxony:

These Allstedters revile the Bible and rave about the spirit, but where do they show the fruits of the spirit, love, joy, peace, and patience? Do not interfere with them so long as they confine themselves to the office of the Word. Let the spirits fight it out, but when the sword is drawn you must step in, be it they or we who take it. You must banish the offender from the land. Our office is simply preaching and suffering. Christ and the apostles did not smash images and churches, but won hearts with God’s Word. The Old Testament slaughter of the ungodly is not to be imitated. If these Allstedters want to wipe out the ungodly, they will have to bathe in blood. But you are ordained of God to keep the peace, and you must not sleep.

The young prince John Frederick, nephew and heir apparent to Frederick the Wise, was already being associated with his uncle and his father in the administration of Saxony. He wrote to a subordinate in August 1524, linking together Carlstadt and Müntzer:

I am having a terrible time with the Satan of Allstedt. Kindliness and letters do not suffice. The sword which is ordained of God to punish the evil must be used with energy. Carlstadt also is stirring up something, and the Devil wants to be Lord.

For Carlstadt, the association was both unjust and unfortunate. He had already written to Müntzer that he would have nothing with his covenant, nor with bloodshed. But the iconoclastic riots in Orlamünde and Allstedt appeared to be of one stripe. Carlstadt was summoned to Jena for an interview with Luther and convinced him of the injustice of the charge of rebellion. When, however, Luther visited Orlamünde and witnessed the revolutionary temper of the congregation, he came to question the sincerity of the disclaimer and acquiesced in the banishment of Carlstadt, who was compelled to quit Saxony, leaving behind his pregnant wife and daughter, to join him later. In departing, he used the same words Luther had used after Worms, that he was leaving “unheard and unconvinced,” and that he had been expelled by his former colleague who was twice a papist and a cousin of the Antichrist.


In July 1524, Müntzer was summoned to preach at Weimar in the presence of Frederick the Wise and his brother Duke John, who had abandoned the Catholic faith to become a follower of Luther. Müntzer had the temerity to seek to enlist them among his followers. He took as his text Daniel’s interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar and began by saying that the Church was an undefiled virgin until corrupted by the scribes who murder the Spirit and assert that God no longer reveals himself as of old. He further declared:

But God does disclose himself in the inner word in the abyss of the soul. The man who has not received the living witness of God knows really nothing about God, though he may have swallowed a hundred thousand Bibles. God comes in dreams to his beloved as he did to the patriarchs, prophets and apostles. He comes especially in affliction. That is why Brother Easychair rejects him. God pours out his Spirit upon all flesh, and now the Spirit reveals to the elect a mighty and irresistible reformation for us. This is the fulfillment of the prediction of Daniel about the fifth monarchy. You princes of Saxony, you need a new Daniel to disclose unto you this revelation and to show your rule. Think not that the power of God will be realized if your swords rust in the scabbard. Christ said that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and Deuteronomy says “You are a holy people. Spare not the idolators, break down their altars, smash their images and burn them in the fire.” The sword is given to you to wipe out the ungodly. If you decline, it will be taken from you. Those who resist should be slaughtered without mercy as Elijah smote the priests of Baal. Priests and monks who mock the gospel should be killed. The godless have no right to live. May you like Nebuchadnezzar appoint a Daniel to inform you of the leadings of the spirit. 

Müntzer admitted that the princes could not carry out these tasks effectively unless they were informed of God’s purposes. That they could not attain for themselves since they were still too far from God. Therefore, he concluded, they must have at their court a priest who has fitted himself to interpret their dreams and visions, just as Daniel did at the court of Nebuchadnezzar. The Biblical allusions which accompany this recommendation show clearly enough that he saw himself as the inspired prophet who was to replace Luther in the favour of the princes, as Daniel replaced the illuminated scribes. In this way, he reckoned to acquire such influence over the rulers of the land that he would be able to direct them in making the necessary preparations for the Millennium.

On returning to Allstedt, however, he did not wait for the Saxon princes’ reaction to his preaching, but escaped by night over the town walls and fled from Saxony. The régime of Carlstadt would have been authoritarian and that of Müntzer’s saints intolerant of the godless. Yet it could not be denied that both agitators had been expelled by the sword of the magistrate, who was now in danger of creating martyrs out of the radicals. This became more likely because of the rise of rival forms of evangelicalism, namely Zwinglianism and Anabaptism. Adding to this maelstrom was the confluence of religious ferment with the vast social unrest of the Peasants’ War in which Müntzer played a leading role. Despite this, he does not seem to have shown as much interest in improving the material lot of the peasants among whom he lived, or in the nature of future society as in the mass extermination which was supposed to usher it in.

Yet Müntzer might still have imagined his Millennium as egalitarian, even as communistic. He knew the young Humanist, Ulrich Hugwald, who had written a work prophesying that mankind would return to Christ, to Nature, to Paradise, which he defined as a state without war or want or luxury and in which every person would share all things with their brethren. Moreover, on the grounds that a peasant’s life was nearest to that which God had appointed for Adam and Eve, Hugwald ended by turning himself into a peasant. So did the Humanist, Karlstadt, a close associate and even a disciple of Müntzer.  According to Histori Thomá Muntzers, written while Muntzer’s story was very fresh in people’s minds, Müntzer taught that there should be neither kings nor lords and also, on the strength of a misunderstanding in Acts iv, that all things should be held in common.

In a pamphlet which he now produced, The explicit unmaking of the false belief of the faithless world, Müntzer made it plain that the princes were now unfit to play any part at all in bringing about the Millennium,…

for they have spent their lives in bestial eating and drinking, from their youth onwards they have been brought up most delicately, in all their life they have never had a bad day and they neither wish nor intend to accept one.

 Indeed it is the princes and the lords and all the rich and powerful who, by stubbornly maintaining the existing social order, prevent not only themselves but also others from attaining the true faith:

The powerful,self-willed unbelievers must be put down from their seats because hinder the holy, genuine Christian faith in themselves and in the whole world, when it is trying to emerge in all its true, original force… the great do everything in their power to keep the common people from perceiving the truth.


Bound together by common interest in financial profit, they so harass the poor with their usury and taxes that the poor have no time left in which to study and follow the Law of God. Yet, Müntzer argued, all this is no reason for despair; on the contrary, the very excesses of the tyranny which now oppresses the world are a sure sign that the great consummation is indeed at hand. It is precisely because God is sending his light his light into the world that…

… certain (lords) are only now really beginning to hamper and harass, to shear and shave, to threaten all Christendom and shamefully and most cruelly torture and kill their own folk and strangers too.

It was now the Poor who were the potential Elect, charged with the mission of inaugurating the egalitarian Millennium. They would emerge as the one true Church, but even they were not yet fit to enter their appointed glory. First, they too must be broken of their worldly desires, so that they could with sighs and prayers recognise their abject condition and at the same time their need for a new, God-sent leader. Just as he had previously offered his services to the princes as a new Daniel, so he now proposed himself as this leader of the people.

He then issued a more virulent pamphlet, this time against Luther, whom he had come to regard as his arch-enemy. Just as much as Müntzer, Luther performed all his deeds in the conviction that the Last Days were at hand. But in his view, the sole enemy was the Papacy, in which he saw the Antichrist, the false prophet; it was by the dissemination of the true Gospel that the Papacy would be overcome. The Kingdom which replaced it would not be of this world. An armed revolt would, therefore, be irrelevant and pernicious, because it would shatter the social order which allowed the world to be disseminated, and would discredit the Reformation which, to Luther, was the most important event in the world. On the other hand, Müntzer for his part saw in Luther an eschatological figure, the Beast of the Apocalypse or the Whore of Babylon. In attacking Luther in The most amply called-for defence Müntzer formulates most coherently his doctrine of social revolution. He maintains that in the hands of ‘the great’ the Law of God becomes simply a device for protecting property, which they themselves have appropriated. In a bitter attack upon Luther he exclaims:

The wretched flatterer is silent… about the origin of all theft… Look, the seed-grounds of usury and theft and robbery are our lords and princes, they take all creatures as their property: the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the ground, have all got to be theirs… They publish God’s commandments amongst the poor and say “God has commanded, thou shalt not steal.” … They oppress all people, and shear and shave the poor ploughman and everything that lives, yet if (the ploughman) commits the slightest offence, he must hang.

Luther’s greatest crime is that he justifies these injustices:

You wily fox… by your lies you have made sad the heart of the righteous man, whom God has not saddened, and thereby you have strengthened the power of the ungodly scoundrels, so that they shall continue in their old ways. Therefore things will go with you as with a fox when it is caught. The people will become free and God alone means to be Lord over them.

Ironically enough, the princes whom Müntzer had chiefly in mind, the Elector Frederick and Duke John, were alone among the German princes in being extremely tolerant, having been profoundly disoriented by the vast upheaval in their territories which the Wittenbergers had inaugurated. In dealing with the revolutionaries of Allstedt both brothers showed equal uncertainty. It was more as a gesture of defiance that Müntzer, a week after his hearing at Weimar, broke his parole and climbed over the wall to make his way to the free imperial city of Mülhausen. The large Thuringian town had been in a state of turbulence for over a year and was half-full of paupers, who in times of crisis always showed themselves ready for radical social experiments. Here he found a small but enthusiastic following. Yet when a revolt broke out it was quickly suppressed and Müntzer, once more expelled, resumed his wanderings towards Nürnberg. There he published two revolutionary tracts, which were confiscated by the Town Council and he was forced to leave again. He was then recalled to Mülhausen, where a former monk, Heinrich Pfeiffer, led the poorer burghers in a successful revolution against the Town Council in March 1525. But the event which enabled Müntzer to show himself as a revolutionary in action was the outbreak of the Peasants’ War.

Nothing did so much as the Peasants’ War to make Luther recoil against a too drastic departure from the pattern of the Middle Ages. The Peasants’ War did not arise out of any immediate connection with the religious issues of the sixteenth century because agrarian unrest had been brewing for fully a century. Uprisings had occurred all over Europe, including one in Hungary in 1514 which was put down in a particularly savage manner (see the woodcut below). In southern Germany, the peasants suffered from changes which ultimately should have ministered to their security and prosperity. Feudal anarchy was being superseded through the consolidation of power in nation-states in Early Modern Europe. Spain, England and France were good examples of this, but in Germany, this had happened only on a territorial basis; and in each political unit, the princes were endeavouring to integrate the administration with the help of a bureaucracy of salaried court officials. The expenses were met by increased levies on the land. In time-honoured tradition, the peasants, of course, had to ‘foot’ the bill.

(to be continued…)


Appendix: The Punishment of Peasant Rebels in Hungary, 1514…



















Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One – ‘The Holy Youth’ of Niklashausen, the Bundschuh and the growth of German Nationalism to 1517:

Below: Europe in 1466: The Age of the New Monarchies


During the second half of the fifteenth century, Central and Eastern Europe experienced a time of particular turmoil, with the ever-present threat of Ottoman forces diverting much-needed resources to the defence of Christendom.  Setbacks experienced by the advancing Ottomans, such as their failure to overcome Albania, defended resolutely by George Castriota (Skandenberg) from 1443 to 1468, meant that it was more difficult for them to tolerate the independence of Byzantine territory to their rear. In 1453, Mehmet II finally captured Constantinople, causing great consternation in the West. His army laid siege to Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in 1456, but the siege was raised by the brilliant Hungarian commander (and regent), János Hunyádi (below). By 1460, the remaining Byzantine strongholds in the Morea had fallen with the capture of Trebizond on the Black Sea in 1461, the last remnant of Byzantium was finally extinguished. In 1457, the Bohemians elected the Hussite George Podebrady as their king. Pope Paul II preached a crusade against him, which led to an unsuccessful Hungarian invasion in 1468.


The prestige of the Holy Roman Emperor sank particularly low, The dignity and authority of the imperial office continued to dwindle as Germany continued to disintegrate into a jumble of principalities. Frederick III had, at first, largely because of his name, been the focus of the wildest millennial expectations; but in the course of a reign which lasted from 1452 to 1493, he proved a singularly ineffective monarch. His deposition was prevented only by the lack of any suitable rival and latterly his very existence was almost forgotten by his subjects. The vacuum at the centre of the state produced a chronic and widespread anxiety, which found its expression in the folklore of the future Frederick but which could also vent itself in sudden waves of eschatological enthusiasm. Amongst its commonest manifestations were mass pilgrimages, reminiscent of the popular crusades and the flagellant processions of earlier times, and no less liable to escape from ecclesiastical control.

The situation was particularly explosive in the territories of the Prince-Bishop of Würzberg. During the early part of the fifteenth century, the bishops had been wildly extravagant and were unable to pay their debts except by levying even heavier taxes. By 1474 the taxes had become so burdensome that one of the Bishop’s officials, comparing the local peasantry to a team of horses drawing a heavy wagon, remarked that if a single egg were added to that wagon, the horses would no longer be able to pull it. To a laity which had learnt from generations of heterodox preachers that the clergy ought to live in total poverty, this heavy burden of taxation was bound to appear particularly monstrous. In the city and diocese of Würzberg, it was no longer acceptable for the bishop, whatever his personal qualities, to be regarded by the laity and especially by the poor as an exploiter.

In 1476, the small of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley, not far from Würzberg, was the backdrop for a movement which could almost be seen as a new People’s Crusade. Much that had occurred during the earlier crusades in France, the Low Countries and the Rhine valley was now repeated in southern Germany, but this time messianic Kingdom was no Heavenly Jerusalem but the State of Nature, as it had been pictured by John Ball in England and the Táborites in Bohemia. The Messiah was a young man called Hans Böhm, a name which suggests that he was either of Bohemian descent or else that in the popular mind he was associated with Hussite teachings. He was a shepherd and, in his spare time, a popular entertainer, drumming and piping in hostelries and in the market-place. Hence the nickname, by which he is still known, of the Drummer (or Piper) of Niklashausen. He had heard the tale of an Italian Franciscan, Giovanni di Capistrano, from a generation earlier, who had through Germany preaching repentance, urging his audience to put away their fine clothes and to burn all dice and playing cards. Shortly afterwards, in the middle of Lent, the shepherd burnt his drum before the parish church of Niklashausen and began to preach to the people.

Exactly like the shepherd lad who is said to have launched the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320, Böhm declared that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him surrounded by a heavenly radiance and had given him a message of prodigious importance. In the parish church of Niklashausen there stood a statue of the Virgin to which miraculous powers were attributed, long attracting pilgrims. Now, he claimed, this spot had become the salvation of the world. God had intended to punish mankind, but the Virgin had interceded and God had agreed to withhold punishment if people came to Niklashausen in their multitudes, otherwise, the punishment would, after all, descend upon the world. From the village alone, the Virgin would bestow her blessings upon all lands, since divine grace was to be found in the Tauber valley alone. Whoever made the pilgrimage would be absolved of all their sins and whoever died there would not suffer purgatory, but go straight to heaven.

This former shepherd was a simple man, but now he was suddenly able to command astonishing eloquence. On Sundays and feast days crowds streamed to hear him. At first, he merely preached repentance: women were to throw away their gold and jewellery, men were to wear less colourful costumes. Before long, however, the shepherd was claiming miraculous powers for himself. That God had not sent a frost to kill off all corn and vines was due to his prayers alone, he proclaimed. He also swore that he could lead any soul out of hell with his own hand.

Although Böhm had begun to preach with the consent of the parish priest, it was to be expected that he would eventually turn against the clergy. He voiced the traditional accusations of ‘Avarice’ and ‘Luxury’. It would be easier, he asserted, to make a Christian out of a Jew than out of a priest. God had been outraged by the behaviour of the clergy; now he would tolerate it no longer. The day of reckoning was at hand when the clergy would be happy to cover up their tonsures to escape from their pursuers, for to kill a cleric would then be seen as a most meritorious act. God had withdrawn his strength from them, and there would soon be no priests or monks left on earth. If they burnt him as a heretic, he threatened, a fearful punishment awaited them. He also called upon the people to stop paying taxes and tithes. Priests should be made to give up their many benefices and live from meal to meal on what their parishioners chose to give them. The celebrated Abbot of Sponheim commented:

What would the laymen like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master’s yoke.

The Primate of Germany, the Archbishop of Mainz, also saw in the propheta of Niklashausen a force which might inflict irreparable damage on the Church. In the end, Böhm also revealed himself as a social revolutionary, proclaiming the imminence of the egalitarian Millennium based on Natural Law.  In the coming Kingdom, the use of wood, water and pasturage, the right to fish and hunt would be freely enjoyed by all, as they had been in ‘olden times’. Tributes of all kinds would be abolished forever. No rent or services would be owed to any lord, no taxes or duties to any prince. Distinctions of rank and status would cease to exist and nobody would have authority over anybody else. All would live together as brothers, everyone enjoying the same liberties and doing the same amount of work as everyone else, from the poorest peasant to local lords and princes to the Emperor:

Princes, ecclesiastical and secular alike, and counts and knights should only possess as much as common folk, then everyone would have enough. The time will have to come when princes and lords will work for their daily bread… The Emperor is a scoundrel and the Pope is useless. It is the Emperor who gives the princes and counts and knights the right to levy taxes on the common people. Alas, poor devils that you are!

The demand for the overthrow of all rulers, great and small, probably appealed particularly to the urban poor; we know that townsfolk came to Niklashausen from all over southern and central Germany. On the other hand in demanding that all basic resources and activities should be free for all men, Böhm’s teaching was appealing to the peasants. The German peasants believed that these rights had, in fact, been theirs in ‘olden time’, until usurped by the nobility; this was one of the wrongs that they were always expecting the future ‘Emperor Frederick’ to undo. But above all it was the prestige of the preacher himself, a miraculous being sent by God, which drew tens of thousands to the Tauber Valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader, a saviour who could bestow on them the fulness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.

News of the wonderful happenings at Niklashausen passed rapidly from village to village in the neighbourhood and was carried further afield by messengers who went out in all directions. Soon vast hordes of the common folk of all ages and both sexes, including whole families, were streaming towards Niklashausen. Not only the surrounding country but all parts of southern and central Germany were in commotion, from the Alps to the Rhineland and on to Thuringia. Artisans deserted their workshops and peasants their fields, shepherds and shepherdesses abandoned their flocks and hastened to hear and adore him who was now known as ‘the Holy Youth’. What the plebs pauperum had believed of Jerusalem these people believed of Nikashausen. There Paradise had literally descended upon the earth and infinite riches were lying ready to be gathered by the faithful, who would share them out amongst themselves in brotherly love. The hordes advanced in long columns, bearing banners and singing songs of their own composition. One became particularly popular:

To God in Heaven we complain

Kyrie eleison

That the priests cannot be slain

Kyrie eleison.  

As the pilgrims arrived at Niklashausen they placed offerings before the statue of the Virgin, but an even more intense devotion was given to the propheta himself. They dropped to their knees before him, crying, O Man of God, sent from Heaven, take pity on us! It was reported that by laying-on of hands, he had cured people who had been blind or dumb from birth, that he had raised the dead and that he had made a spring gush from a rock. Chroniclers talk of as many as seventy thousand gathered together on a single day, and though this figure is absurd, the assemblies must have been very sizeable. A vast camp grew up around the little village; tents were set up in which tradesmen, artisans and cooks catered for the travellers’ needs. From time to time, Böhm would mount a tub, or appear at an upper window, to preach his revolutionary doctrine to the crowds (see the woodcut below).

The pilgrimages began towards the end of March 1474 and by June the authorities, both ecclesiastical and secular, had decided that Böhm’s propaganda was a serious menace to the social order which must be dealt with. The Town Council of Nuremberg forbade their citizens from going on pilgrimage to Niklashausen and Würzberg soon followed suit. Perturbed at the number of strangers who were pouring through the town, the Council closed as many of its gates as possible, bade its citizens to arm themselves and did what it could to put a stop to wild talk. In the end, the Prince-Bishop set about breaking the power of the propheta. He summoned a Diet at which it was decided that Böhm should be arrested.

According to his enemies, Böhm now tried to organise a revolt, telling his audience in a sermon on 7 July to come armed, without women or children, on the next Sunday. On the night before, a squad of horsemen sent by the Bishop descended on Niklashausen, seizing Böhm and carrying him off to Würzburg. The next day thousands of the assembled pilgrims marched, with only a few weapons but many giant candles taken from the shrine, to the castle at Würzburg where Böhm was imprisoned, arriving at dawn beneath the castle walls. The Bishop and the Town Council sent an emissary to reason with the pilgrims, but he was driven off with stones. A second emissary was more successful in persuading those pilgrims who were subjects of the Bishop to return to their homes. The rest stood firm, insisting on the release of the Holy Youth. A few cannon-shots were fired over their heads, but when no-one was hurt, the pilgrims were convinced that the Virgin was protecting them. As a result, they then tried to storm the town. This time the shots were directed at them and were followed by a cavalry-charge in which some forty of them were killed, the rest fleeing in panic.

Support for Böhm was so strong that even after this overwhelming victory the Bishop and Town Council could not feel secure. The burghers of Würzburg were warned to expect a second and more formidable attack. It was also feared that there were many within the city who might join forces with the pilgrims. The Bishop sent out a request to the neighbouring lords to hold themselves ready to come to his assistance if needed. Before any fresh disturbances could occur, however, Böhm had been tried by an ecclesiastical court and found guilty of heresy and sorcery. Two of his peasant disciples were beheaded and the Holy Youth himself was burnt at the stake, the common people hoping in vain for a miracle from Heaven which would save him. His ashes were thrown into the river so they could not become relics.

Everything possible was done to eradicate all trace of Böhm and his works. The offerings left at the church of Niklashausen were confiscated and shared between the Archbishop of Mainz, the Bishop of Würzburg and the count in whose territory the church stood. In all the affected areas of Germany, bishops, princes and town councils joined in forbidding any further pilgrimages to the village shrine. Nevertheless, pilgrims continued to arrive even after they were threatened with excommunication and the church had been closed and placed under an interdict. In the end, at the beginning of 1477, the church was demolished by order of the Archbishop.

Undoubtedly, the Holy Youth of Niklashausen had been exploited by men far shrewder than he was. Certain local lords made use of the popular excitement to weaken their overlord, the Bishop of Würzburg, with whom they had been in conflict for some years. These men headed the nocturnal march on the city; one of them had later, by way of penance, to hand over much of his land to the cathedral chapter. Like many previous propheta, Böhm was a simple shepherd-boy; we are told that from earliest youth he had appeared as half-witted, that until he began to preach he had never been able to form a coherent sentence, and that he was even unable to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. He was able to throw vast areas of Germany into commotion due to the backing he received. The parish priest of Niklashausen was quick to realise that a few miracles could attract huge offerings to his hitherto obscure shrine; he later admitted inventing miracles and attributing them to Böhm. The major part, however, was played by a hermit who had for some time been living in a nearby cave and who had acquired a great reputation for holiness. He seems to exercised a total domination over Böhm, both intimidating him and inspiring him. When Böhm addressed the crowds from a window the hermit stood behind him and prompted him, as he is shown to be doing in the woodcut from Schedel’s Chronicle below:

  002 (2)

Even if this part of the popular narrative is fanciful propaganda, it probably indicates the true relationship between the two men. The hermit fled when the Holy Youth was arrested, but was caught soon afterwards. The ecclesiastical records name him as Beghard, a native of Bohemia and a Hussite. Although the evidence cannot be called conclusive, it seems reasonably certain that it was the hermit who turned a religious pilgrimage into a revolutionary movement. In the quiet and picturesque Tauber Valley, he must have seen the future centre of a millennial kingdom in which the primal egalitarian order was to be restored.

Egalitarian millenarianism had now effectively penetrated Germany. The forgotten manuscript, the Reformation of Sigismund, after existing for some forty years, appeared for the first time as a printed book within a couple of years of Böhm’s burning and was reprinted in 1480, 1484, 1490 and 1494. The original manuscript was written just after the collapse of Táborite power in Bohemia and was an example of the attraction of the movement’s ideals. Despite its relatively moderate programme, which I have written about in earlier posts on this site, it too summoned the poor to take up the sword and enforce their rights under the leadership of the priest-king Frederick. In a far more violent form, the same theme reappears in the Book of a Hundred Chapters which was produced by an anonymous publicist who lived in Upper Alsace or the Breisgau and who is generally known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. This elderly fanatic was thoroughly familiar with the enormous mass of medieval apocalyptic literature and drew freely upon it in order to write his treatise, in German in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the last and most comprehensive expression of the popular eschatology of the Middle Ages.

What that strange prophet foretells at enormous length is, after all, precisely what had been so simply articulated by John Ball, the Lollards and the Táborites. After one bloody struggle against the hosts of Antichrist perfect justice would be re-established on earth and all men would be equals and brothers, perhaps even holding all things in common. These fantasies were not confined to books; also in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine there appeared conspiratorial movements which were dedicated to translating them into reality. These were the movements which were known collectively as the Bundschuh, a term meaning a peasant’s clog and having the same significance as the term sansculotte during the French Revolution.

In one respect this ‘revolutionary’ was truly original – nobody before him had combined devotion to the principal of communal or public ownership with megalomaniac nationalism. This man was convinced that in the remote past the Germans had in reality ‘lived together like brothers on earth’, holding all things in common. The destruction of that happy order had been the work first of the Romans and then of the Church of Rome, through the imposition of a Canon Law which had introduced the idea of private property and thereby undermined the value of fraternity, opening the way to envy and hate.

Behind this curious interpretation of early Church history, lay a whole different and distorted philosophy of history. The Old Testament was dismissed as valueless; for from the time of the Creation onwards it was not the Jews but the Germans who were the Chosen People. Adam and all his descendants down to Japhet, including all the Patriarchs, were German-speaking Germans; other languages, including Hebrew, came into existence only at the Tower of Babel. It was Japhet and his kin who first came to Europe, bringing their language with them. They had chosen to settle in Alsace, the heart of Europe, and the capital of the Empire which they founded was at Trier. This ancient German Empire was so vast, covering the whole of Europe, that Alexander the Great could be claimed as a German national hero. It had been the most perfect of empires, a true earthly paradise, for it was governed according to a legal code, known as the Statutes of Trier, in which the principles of fraternity, equality and communal ownership were enshrined. It was in these Statutes, and not in the ‘Decalogue’ invented by Moses, that God had expressed his commandments to mankind. The Revolutionary appended a copy of these to his work.

The time was at hand, he claimed, when the power of evil epitomised by the Latin peoples and their Church was to be broken forever. When the great leader from the Black Forest seized power as Emperor Frederick he would not only cleanse Germany from the Latin corruption and bring back the ‘Golden Age’ based on the Statutes of Trier but would also restore Germany to the position of supremacy which God intended for her. ‘Daniel’s Dream’, that old apocalypse which had brought such inspiration to the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, was subjected by the ‘Revolutionary’ to yet another reinterpretation. The four successive Empires – Assyria, Babylon, Syria and Greece – now turned into France, England, Spain and Italy. Enraged by the overwhelming pride of these nations the Emperor would conquer them all and establish the German Empire as the fifth and greatest Empire, which shall not pass away. Next, returning from his western campaigns, the Emperor would utterly defeat the Turks. Pressing east at the head of a vast army drawn from many peoples he would carry out the task traditionally assigned to the Last Emperor. The Holy Land would be conquered for Christendom and the society of Mohammedans would be utterly overthrown. The infidel will be baptised and those that will not accept baptism are no Christians nor people of the Holy Scriptures, so they are to be killed, then they will be baptised in their blood. After all this the Emperor will reign supreme over the whole world, receiving homage and tribute from thirty-two kings.

According to ‘the Revolutionary’, the teachings of the historical Christ were directed only to the Jews, not the Germans, for whom the proper religion was still that which had prevailed in ‘the Golden Age’ of Trier and which Emperor Frederick would reinstate. When that happened the spiritual centre of the world would not be Rome but Mainz, where a patriarch would preside in place of the vanquished pope. But it would be the Emperor – ‘the Revolutionary’ himself, triumphant and glorified, who would stand at the centre of the future religion as the ‘supreme priest’, recognised as ‘an earthly God’.  The future Empire was thus to be no less than a quasi-religious community or theocracy, united in adoration and dread of a messiah who would be the embodiment of the German spirit. This was what ‘the Revolutionary’ had in mind when he cried, jubilantly, that the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and will do so again, and with more power than ever.

In this fantasy, the crude nationalism of a half-educated intellectual erupted into the tradition of popular eschatology. The result was uncannily similar to the quasi-religious folk fantasies which were the core of the National-Socialist ‘ideology’ of interwar Germany five centuries later. We only have to turn back to the tracts produced by Rosenberg and Darré, among others, to be struck by the resemblance. There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once revealed and was the source of all good down the centuries until it was undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior non-German people and the Church of Rome. This ‘true German’ culture would now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble but ‘truly German’ stock, under a God-sent saviour who is it once an emperor and a messiah. The whole history of the Third Reich is foreshadowed, the offensives in the West and the East, the Terror wielded as an instrument of policy and for its own sake, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-German peoples and the biggest massacres in human history. All that is missing is the final consummation of the world-empire, the welt-Reich, which, in Adolf Hitler’s words, was to last a thousand years, like the earthly kingdom of the returning Messiah in the earlier Judao-Christian prophecies.

The Book of a Hundred Chapters was not printed at the time, nor has it ever been, in contrast to the Reformation of Sigismund, and there is nothing to suggest that the anonymous ‘Revolutionary’ played any significant part in the social movements of his day. The importance of the text lies in its recognisable influences in the apocalyptic literature of the Middle Ages. In particular, there can be little doubt that the prophecy of a future Frederick, a ‘Sleeping Emperor’ who would be the messiah of the poor, continued to fascinate and excite the common people of Germany, peasants and artisans alike, until well into the sixteenth century. In one emperor after another, from Sigismund to Charles V, the people contrived to see a reincarnation of Frederick II. When these monarchs failed to play the eschatological role expected of them, the collective imagination of the people continued to dwell on a mythological parallel emperor ‘of lowly descent’, who would rise up from among the poor, to oust the actual monarch and reign in his stead. The ‘Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine’, writing in 1510 had predicted the apocalyptic year for 1515. When a Bundschuh rising broke out in the same area in 1513 its declared aim was to help righteousness and get rid of blasphemers and finally to recover the Holy Sepulchre.

The leader of the Bundschuh was a peasant called Joss Fritz and many of the rank-and-file were also peasants. This was not the first rising he had organised. Like the outbreak at Niklashausen, the rising which occurred in the diocese of Speyer in 1502 was provoked in a general sense by the failure of the latest attempt to restore the disintegrating structure of the Empire, and by the excessive taxes levied by an insolvent Prince-Bishop, but its object was nothing less than a social revolution of the most thorough-going kind.  Not only the peasantry but also the urban poor, disbanded mercenaries, beggars and the like are known to have played a large part in the movement, giving it its peculiar character. For there were many other peasant risings in southern Germany at that time, and they all aimed merely at limited reforms of the feudal system. Only the Bundschuh aimed at achieving the Millennium. All authority was to be overthrown, all dues and taxes abolished, all ecclesiastical property distributed amongst the people, all woods, waters and pastures were to become communal property.

The flag of the movement showed Christ crucified with on one side a praying peasant, on the other the peasant clog, above it the slogan: Nothing but God’s Justice! It was planned to capture the town of Bruschal, where the Bishop’s palace was located; from there the movement was to spread throughout Germany, bringing freedom to the peasants and town-dwellers who supported it, but death to everyone else. Although this plot was betrayed and the movement crushed, Joss Fritz survived to organise similar risings in 1513 and 1517, in which there were similar mixes of fantasies: on the one hand exterminating all the rich and powerful and establishing an egalitarian order and on the other, a determination to get rid of blasphemers, of being led by the Emperor and of recovering the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, the image of the Bundschuh came to possess such prodigious significance that it was a popular belief that the original capture of Jerusalem had been achieved by peasants fighting under that banner.


Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and certainly by the end of the fifteenth century, national boundaries were hardened and the concept of “statehood” was emergent, becoming politically more important than that of the “nation”, in its original meaning of a people of common descent. This development is most marked in the development of England, Scotland, France and Spain. The growth of national consciousness was not, however, dependent on the authority of a unitary state. The strong consciousness of Germanness and German nationhood evolved in a very different political context from that of the western European states.


Above: Central-Eastern Europe in the Later Middle Ages (circa 1493).

Meanwhile, in a different part of Germany – Thuringia, a territory fertile in millenarian myths and movements –  a radical reformer, Thomas Müntzer, was embarking on a stormy career which was to end by turning him too into a prophet of the egalitarian Millennium.

(to be continued…)

Revolutionary Violence, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1349-1452: Part Two   Leave a comment

Part Two: Bohemian Fantasies…


Central-Eastern Europe in the Fifteenth Century

By the end of the fourteenth century, the Ottomans had continued to push well into the Balkans. In 1396 a Hungarian-French crusade sent to relieve the Byzantines had been destroyed at the Battle of Nicopolis: the Empire was only saved by the intervention of the Mongol leader Timur, who destroyed the Ottoman army near Ankara and imprisoned Sultan Bayezid. The Ottoman hold on Thrace was weakened and the Byzantines even recovered some territory, most notably Salonica, which they held until 1423, when, with Imperial troops unable to secure its defence, it was handed over to the Venetians.

The demand for reform in Bohemia initiated by Jan Milic and Matthew of Janov was carried on by other preachers and was further stimulated by the teaching and example of Wyclif, whose works had become known there from 1382 onwards, as a result of the marriage of Anne of Bohemia to Richard II of England. At the turn of the century, it was taken up by Jan Hus, himself an admirer of Wyclif, who voiced it so effectively that the significance of the movement ceased to be purely local and became as wide as Latin Christendom.

Jan Hus (1374-1415) achieved fame as a martyr for the cause of church reform and Czech nationalism. He was ordained a priest in 1401, and spent much of his career teaching at the Charles University in Prague, and preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel, close to the university. Like his reforming predecessors, Hus was a popular preacher whose favourite theme was the corruption and worldliness of the clergy. But an unusual combination of gifts made him at once the Rector of the University, the spiritual leader of the common people and an influential figure at the court. This gave his protests great weight. He also carried these protests further than any of his predecessors, for when (unofficial) Pope John XIII sent emissaries to Prague to preach a ‘crusade’ against his spiritual enemy, the King of Naples,  and to grant indulgences to those who contributed money to the cause, Hus revolted against the papal commands. Like Wyclif before him, he proclaimed that when papal decrees ran counter to the law of Christ as expressed in the Scriptures, the faithful ought not to obey them, and he launched against the sale of indulgences a campaign which roused nation-wide excitement.

In his writing and public preaching, Hus emphasised personal piety and purity of life. He was heavily indebted to the works of Wyclif. He stressed the role of Scripture as an authority in the church and consequently lifted preaching to an important status in church services. In the process, he became a national hero. In his chief work, On the Church, he defined the church as the body of Christ, with Christ as its only head. Although he defended the traditional authority of the clergy, he taught that only God can forgive sin.

Hus believed that neither popes nor cardinals could establish doctrine which was contrary to Scripture, nor should any Christian obey an order from them which was plainly wrong. He condemned the corruptness of the clergy and criticised his people for worshipping images, belief in false miracles and undertaking ‘superstitious pilgrimages’. He criticised the church for withholding the cup of wine from the people during communion and condemned the sale of indulgences. Never an extremist or a rebel, Hus offended simply by refusing blind obedience to his ecclesiastical superiors, but that was enough to cost him his life. Hus was at the centre of lengthy struggles in Prague, and was his case was referred to Rome. Excommunicated in 1412, he was summoned in 1414 to appear before the Ecumenical Council, sitting in Constance in 1415, in order to defend his beliefs. His intention was to persuade the Council by the argument that the Church was truly in need of fundamental reform.

The Council had attracted wide interest, and by 1415 scholars, church dignitaries and various officials had arrived. Even the Greek Orthodox sent representatives. Over the next three years, some forty-five main sessions were held, with scores of lesser committee meetings. Eventually, after a trial in 1415, John XXIII was forced to give up his claim to the papacy. In the same year, Gregory XII resigned, leaving just one pope, the Spanish Benedict XIII. He too was tried and deposed in 1417. No council had achieved so much in healing breaches within the church since the very early general councils. The way was clear to elect one pope who would once again represent all Western Christians. This was done in 1417, and the new pope was Martin V. Besides the Hus case and a few other issues, the Council initiated reforms, but it also prohibited the giving of both bread and wine to all Christians during the Eucharist, a major Hussite demand, and condemned John Wyclif, posthumously, for heresy. His body was disinterred from the holy ground in Lutterworth and burnt in 1427.

It was decreed that further councils should be held and that certain changes should be made in the College of Cardinals, in the bureaucracy of the papacy and in controlling abuses of tithes and indulgences. The real issue, however, was papal power, and here Martin V showed he was a pope of the ‘old school’, seeking to uphold the absolute authority of the pontiff over all councils and colleges. He was only really interested in administrative reform, not in the reform of religious doctrine and ritual.

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Even before the deposition of Richard II, Sigismund was personally acquainted with the House of Lancaster. In 1392, he had met Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, on the way back from his Lithuanian expedition, when Sigismund was only King of Hungary. In the Battle of Nicopolis of 1396, mentioned above, Henry supported Sigismund with ten thousand soldiers. Henry returned to Hungary as King of England in 1412, as a guest at Sigismund’s celebration of his peace with Poland. Then in 1415, as Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund visited Henry V in England to promote the peace between him and the King of France following the Battle of Agincourt. The German sources contain details of his memorable journey and his stay in Canterbury and London, of his splendid entourage and princely reception at court. He sojourned there for four months, spending part of his time studying the government and constitution (including a visit to the English Parliament), with which he was very impressed.

Meanwhile, the Lollards continued preaching even after Henry IV proclaimed his severe law, de heritico comburendo in 1401. Without the student link between Oxford and Prague, Wyclifism would never have reached Bohemia or, indeed, Hungary. At least one of the Oxford Lollards, Peter Payne, visited Prague, before seeking refuge from the wrath of Sigismund in Moldavia, where he taught Moldavian Hungarians who began the first translation of the Gospels into Hungarian in 1466. The translation of the books of the New Testament has an attached calendar, the first of its kind in Hungary. This calendar contains the names of English saints not to be found in any later Hungarian calendar. According to Sándor Fest (1938), these names point to Payne having been responsible for the translation. According to a report sent to Constantinople in 1451, the Oxford and Prague University Professor had played a major role in the development of Hussite-Wyclifism in central-Eastern Europe:

… in the conception of the true faith and religion he has brought many people to our fold, in Moldovlacia, of course, from among the foreigners there; also from among the Saxons and Hungarians, and very many in Bohemia and England.

Fest claims that the ideas propagated by Wyclif brought about an unparalleled intellectual revolution in Hungary as well as in England.


When set against this background, the complicity of Sigismund in the death of Hus is a matter of controversy, even more so since he had granted Hus a safe-conduct to Constance and protested against his subsequent imprisonment. Hus was tried and then condemned to be burned at the stake without any real opportunity to explain his views. The reformer was burnt as a heretic during the Emperor’s absence from the Council. The core of Hus’ ‘heresy’ was his claim that the Papacy was not a divine but a human institution, that Christ, not the pope, was the true head of the Church, and that an unworthy pope should be deposed. Ironically enough, the same Council which condemned Hus had indeed just deposed Pope John XXIII on the grounds of simony, murder, sodomy and fornication.

Contemporary records indicate that, at the Council, Sigismund received the English delegates with demonstrative kindness, but was far less gracious to the French. After the Council he continued to be interested in everything happening in England, an interest which had not only a sentimental but a political foundation, for at one time he was working with the House of Lancaster towards the common end of finding a permanent solution to the Lollard-Hussite ‘problem’. Could it have been political expediency, arising out of the change from Yorkist to Lancastrian monarchs in England, which pushed Sigismund into taking a tougher line with Hus and his followers? The reign of Sigismund was also favourable for Anglo-Hungarian commercial relations. The Hungarian sources contain repeated references to English merchants arriving in Buda, or of merchants shipping silver and hides from Hungary to England.

Source: Wikipaedia

Hus’ heroic death nevertheless aroused the national feelings of the Czech people and turned the unrest in Bohemia into a national reformation. For the first time, and a full century before Luther, a nation challenged the authority of the Church as represented by pope and council. During the years 1415-18, the Czechs established their own Hussite church throughout Bohemia, with the support of the barons and King Wenceslas. In effect, the existing Church hierarchy was largely replaced by a national church which was no longer controlled from Rome but was under the patronage of the secular powers of Bohemia. At the same time, at the urging of a former follower of Hus, Jakoubek of Stríbro, it was decided that henceforth laymen, as well as the clergy, should receive Holy Communion in both kinds, bread and wine.

These were far-reaching changes, but they did not, in themselves, amount to a formal break with the Church of Rome. On the contrary, they were conceived as reforms to which it was hoped to win over the Church as a whole. If the Roman Church, still meeting in Constance, had concurred in this reform, the Czech nobility, the Masters of the University and many of the common people would have been satisfied. But the Council of Constance rejected the Hussite proposal on the Eucharist. In 1419 King Wenceslas, under pressure from Emperor Sigismund (his brother) and Pope Martin V, reversed his policy and abandoned the Hussite cause. Hussite ‘propaganda’ was restricted, and even utraquism, the doctrine of communion in both kinds was regarded with disfavour by the secular authorities. In the part of Prague known as the New City, the common people, inspired by the former monk and ardent Hussite, Jan Zelivsky, became increasingly restive. When, in July 1419, Wenceslas removed all Hussite councillors from the government of the New City, the populace rose up, stormed the town hall and threw the new councillors from the windows. Seven of them were killed in what became known as the First Defenestration of Prague.

This unsuccessful attempt to suppress the Hussite movement greatly strengthened the radical tendencies within it. From the start, it had included people whose aims went far beyond those of the nobility or of the Masters of the University. The great majority of these belonged to the lower social strata, including cloth-workers, tailors, brewers and smiths, together with artisans of many trades. The part played by these people was so striking that Catholic polemicists could even pretend that the whole Hussite movement had, from the very beginning, been financed by the artisan guilds. It would have been truer to say that the general upheaval in Bohemia encouraged social unrest amongst the artisans. This was particularly the case in Prague. The success of the insurrection enormously increased the power of the guilds and the artisans, who expelled large numbers of Catholics, appropriating their houses and property and many of their offices and privileges. The monasteries were also dissolved and much of their wealth passed to the City of Prague, which also benefited the artisans. This made the New City a centre of radical influence.


Although it was the guilds that organised and directed the radical reformation in Prague, the rank-and-file were largely drawn not from the skilled artisans but from the lowest strata of the population – the heterogeneous mass of journeymen, unskilled workers, indentured servants, beggars, prostitutes and criminals. By 1419-20 the great majority of the population of Prague, which was between thirty and forty thousand, were on starvation wages. The radical wing of the Hussite movement was largely recruited from this harassed proletariat. This ‘wing’ began to split off from the more conservative one and to develop along lines of its own. Faced with the new, persecutory policy of King Wenceslas, a number of radical priests began to organise congregations outside the parish system, on various hilltops in southern Bohemia. There they gave communion in both kinds and preached against the abuses of the Church of Rome. These congregations soon turned into permanent settlements where life was lived in conscious imitation of the original Christian communities portrayed in the New Testament.

These communities formed an embryonic society which was wholly outside the feudal order and which attempted to regulate its affairs on the basis of brotherly love instead of force. The most important of these settlements was on a hill near to the River Luznica. The spot was renamed ‘Mount Tábor’ after the dome-shaped mountain in Palestine, 1,800 feet above sea level, where Christ was thought to have been transfigured, and where he met and ‘camped’ with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9: 2-13; Matt. 17; Luke 9: 29; 2 Pet. 1: 16). The name became attached to the radical Hussites themselves and they became known to their contemporaries as ‘Táborites’. They were particularly anti-German, since most of the prosperous merchants in the Czech towns were German and staunch Catholics. Also, whereas most of the moderate Utraquists clung in most respects to traditional Catholic doctrine, the Táborites affirmed the right of every individual, layman or priest, to interpret the scriptures according to their own conscience. Many of them rejected the dogma of purgatory, dismissed prayers and masses for the dead as vain superstitions, saw nothing to venerate in the relics or images of saints and treated many of the rites and rituals of the Church with contempt. They also refused to take oaths, which brought them into conflict with the civil authorities. They insisted that nothing which could not be found in Holy Scripture should be treated as an article of faith.

The Táborites aimed at a national reformation which, unlike the original Hussite one, would involve a complete break with Rome. In October and November 1419, Táborites from all over Bohemia congregated in Prague, where their leaders tried to win over the Hussite magistrates and university masters to their more radical ‘programme’. They were unsuccessful, and soon the Hussites as a whole were confronted with a more ruthless opposition. King Wenceslas had died in August, from shock at the killing of the councillors, and the great Hussite nobles joined their Catholic colleagues to secure the succession for Wenceslas’ brother, the Emperor Sigismund, as well as to deal with the radicals in their own movement. The Prague magistrates threw their weight on the conservative side.  They agreed to preserve the Utraquist communion, but also to suppress the Táborites. From November 1419, for several months thereafter, the radicals were isolated from their national movement and exposed to savage persecution aimed at their extermination. As a result,  apocalyptic and millenarian fantasies took on a new dynamism among them.

A number of former priests, led by Martin Huska, also known as Loquis because of his extraordinary eloquence, began to preach openly the coming of a great consummation, announcing that the time had arrived when all evil must be abolished in preparation for the Millennium. They prophesied that, between 10 and 14 February 1420, every town and village would be destroyed by fire, like Sodom, and that throughout Christendom, the wrath of God would overtake everyone who did not flee to the mountains, the five towns in Bohemia that had become Táborite strongholds. Multitudes of the poor folk sold their belongings and, moving to these towns with their families, threw their money at the feet of the preachers. These people saw themselves as entering the final struggle against Antichrist and his hosts, as a letter and song distributed at the time reveals:

There are five of these cities, which will not enter into agreements with the Antichrist or surrender to him.

Faithful ones, rejoice in God! Give him honour and praise, that he has pleased to preserve us and graciously liberate us from the evil Antichrist and his cunning army…

No longer content to await the destruction of the godless by a miracle, the preachers called upon the faithful to carry out the necessary purification of the earth themselves. One of them, a graduate of Prague University called John Capek, wrote a tract which is said to have been fuller of blood than a pond is of water in which he demonstrated, by quoting the Old Testament, that it was the inescapable duty of the Elect to kill in the name of the Lord. This work was used as a polemical armoury by other preachers to urge their congregations on to massacre. They declared that no pity must be shown towards sinners, for all sinners were enemies of Christ:

Accursed be the man who withholds his sword from shedding the blood of the enemies of Christ. Every believer must wash his hands in that blood… Every priest may lawfully pursue, wound and kill sinners.

The sins which were to be punished by death included, as previously in such massacres, ‘avarice’ and ‘luxury’, but also any and every form of opposition to the men of the Divine Law. These Táborites, therefore, considered all their opponents to be sinners who must be exterminated. By no means all the evidence for this bloodthirstiness being enacted comes from hostile sources. One of the more pacific Táborites lamented the change that had come over so many of his colleagues. Satan, he observed, had seduced them into regarding themselves as angels who must purify Christ’s world of all scandals and who were destined to sit in judgement over the world, on the strength of which they committed many killings and impoverished many people. A Latin tract written by one of the millenarians themselves confirms all this: The just… will now rejoice, seeing vengeance and washing their hands in the blood of sinners.

The most extreme members of the movement went still further in maintaining that anyone who did not help them in liberating the truth and destroying sinners was himself a member of the hosts of Satan and Antichrist and therefore fit only for annihilation. For the hour of vengeance had come, when the imitation of Christ meant no longer an imitation of his mercy but only of his rage, cruelty and vengefulness.  As avenging angels of God and warriors of Christ, the Elect must kill all, without exception, who did not belong to their community.

The millenarian excitement was encouraged by developments in the political situation. In March 1420, the truce between the moderate Hussites and Emperor Sigismund was terminated and a Catholic army, international in composition but predominantly German and Magyar, invaded Bohemia. The Czechs had never accepted Sigismund as their king after the death of his brother, Wenceslas. The country embarked on a de facto Interregnum which was to last until 1436. It also embarked on a War of Independence in which, under a military commander of real genius, Jan Zizka, it fought off the invaders in a series of battles. Zizka was a Táborite, and it was they who bore the brunt of the struggle. At least in the early stages, they never doubted that they were living through the consummation of time, the extermination of all evils beyond which lay the Millennium.

They were convinced that while they were cleansing the earth of all sinners, Christ would descend in glory and great power. Then would come the ‘messianic banquet’, which would be held in the holy mountains, after which Christ would take the place of the unworthy Emperor Sigismund and reign among his saints in the transformed millennial realm. Both the Church and the State would disappear, there would be no law nor coercion, and the egalitarian State of Nature would be recreated.

Prague, now the stronghold of the supporters of the evil Emperor Sigismund, became an object os special detestation to the Táborites. They now called it ‘Babylon’, the birthplace of Antichrist and demonic counterpart of Jerusalem, and regarded it as the embodiment of the sins of ‘Luxury’ and ‘Avarice’, the downfall of which had been foretold in the Book of Revelation as the harbinger of the Second Coming. That might be indefinitely delayed, the traditional social order might remain unchanged, every real chance of an egalitarian revolution might disappear, but still the fantasies lingered on. As late as 1434 a speaker at a Táborite assembly declared that however unfavourable the circumstances might be at present, the moment would soon come when the Elect must arise and exterminate their enemies – the lords in the first place and then any of their own people who were of doubtful loyalty or usefulness. That done, with Bohemia fully in their control, they must proceed at whatever cost in bloodshed to conquer first the neighbouring and then all other territories: For that is what the Romans did, and in that way they came to dominate the whole world.

Early in 1420, communal chests had been set up at certain centres under the control of the Táborite priests, and thousands of peasants and artisans throughout Bohemia and Moravia sold all their belongings and paid the proceeds into these chests. Many of these people joined the Táborite armies to lead, as propertyless nomadic warriors of Christ, a life much like that of the pauperes of the People’s Crusades of previous centuries. Many others settled in the five towns which became Taborite strongholds and formed what were intended to be completely egalitarian communities, held together by brotherly love alone and holding all things in common. The first of these was formed, at the beginning of 1420, at Písek in southern Bohemia, and the second came into being in February 1420, shortly after the Second Coming failed to materialise as predicted. A force of Táborites then captured the town of Ústi on the River Luznika, in the neighbourhood of the hill which, the year before, had been re-named Mount Tábor. The fortress they built on a promontory in the river was also named Tábor. Jan Zizka then abandoned his headquarters at Plzen and moved to Tábor with his army of followers. Tábor and Písek then became the main strongholds of the movement, with Tabor becoming the more millenarian of the two. It began inaugurating the ‘Golden Age’ by outlawing all private property.

Josef Mathauser - Jan Žižka s knězem Václavem Korandou roku 1420 hledí s Vítkova na Prahu.jpg

Above: Jan Žižka with a Hussite priest looking over Prague after the Battle of Vítkov Hill

When the funds in the communal chests became exhausted, however, the radicals declared that they were entitled to take whatever belonged to the enemies of God, at first from the clergy, nobility and rich merchants, but soon from anyone who was not a Táborite. Thenceforth, many of Zizka’s campaigns became pillages, and the more moderate Táborites complained at their synod that many communities never think of earning their own living by the work of their hands but are only willing to live on other people’s property and to undertake unjust campaigns for the sole purpose of robbing. In the spring of 1420, the Táborites enthusiastically proclaimed the abolition of all feudal bonds, dues and services, but by October they were driven by their own economic plight to set about collecting their own dues from the peasants in the territories which they controlled. When they were forced to increase these, the peasants found they were worse off than they had been under their former lords. Again, a synod of the moderate Taborites made the following striking complaint:

Almost all the communities harass the common people of the neighbourhood in quite inhuman fashion, oppress them like tyrants and pagans and extort rent from pitilessly even from the truest believers, and that although some of these people are of the same faith as themselves, are exposed to the same dangers of war along with them and are cruelly ill-treated and robbed by the enemy.

As the fortunes of war swung one way or another, these ‘common people’ found themselves caught between the two marauding armies, at times having to pay dues to the Táborites, and at other times to their old feudal lords. They were also being constantly penalised by both sides for collaborating with the enemy, as the ‘allies of tyrants’ on the one hand, or ‘the friends of heretics’ on the other. When under the control of the Taborites they were treated as landless serfs, being compelled by every means and especially by fire to carry out their orders. Though the Táborites had challenged the feudal order more effectively than any group before them, by the end of the war the Bohemian peasantry was weaker than it had been before and the nobility was stronger and better able to reimpose serfdom.

Above: Escape of King Sigismund from Kutná Hora

Nevertheless, from March 1420 onwards the Táborites were involved in the national Hussite war against the invading German and Hungarian armies, helping the ‘mainstream’ Utraquist Hussites of Prague to defend the City for several months. Zizka himself was neither a millenarian nor an egalitarian and, coming from the ranks of the lower nobility, he saw to it that his commanding officers were all men who came from the same background. When the Táborite priests returned to Tábor in the autumn, they were more concerned to elect a ‘bishop’ to administer the community chest than with ‘the Golden Age’ and the Millennium. Small groups of social revolutionaries continued to carry out their bloody and often bizarre practices in the countryside throughout the following year, keeping Zizka’s army distracted from their true cause, but by 1422 social revolution had become a secondary priority for the Taborite movement as a whole.

A counter-revolution put an end to the artisans’ ascendancy in Prague and thereafter effective power lay increasingly with the patricians and the wider nobility. But beyond the frontiers of the Czech lands, the teaching and example of the Bohemian revolutionaries continued to work upon the imaginations of the discontented poor, and everywhere the rich and privileged, clerics and laymen alike, were obsessed by the fear that the spread of Taborite or Hussite influence would result in a revolution which would overthrow the whole social order.

It was in Germany that the Táborites had most chance to exert influence, for in 1430 their armies penetrated as far as Leipzig, Bamberg and Nuremberg. When at Mainz, Bremen, Constance, Weimar and Stettin the guilds rose up against the patricians, the disorders were blamed on the Táborites. in 1431 the patricians of Ulm called upon the towns allied with them to join together in a new crusade against Hussite Bohemia. They pointed out that there were revolutionary elements in Germany which had much in common with the Táborites. It would be all to easy for the rebellion of the poor to spread from Bohemia into Germany. If it did, it would be the patricians in the towns who would have the most to lose. The General Council of Basle, meeting the same year, also expressed its concern about the possibility of the common people of Germany entering into an alliance with the Táborites and seizing Church property. These fears may have been exaggerated and premature, but the chronicles of the next hundred years were to show that they were not without foundation.

Above. The Battle of Lipany

In 1434 the Taborite army was defeated and almost annihilated in the Battle of Lipany, not by an army of German and Hungarian Catholics, but one of Bohemian Utraquist Hussites. From then onwards the strength of the Táborite movement rapidly declined. The town of Tábor itself was eventually taken by George of Poděbrady in 1452, who became King of Bohemia. Utraquist religious worship was established there. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the town continued to include most of the strongest opponents of Rome in Bohemia. The Bohemian Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), whose intellectual originator was Petr Chelčický, but whose actual founders were Brother Gregory, a nephew of Archbishop Rokycany, and Michael, curate of Žamberk, to a certain extent continued the Táborite traditions into the next generations.

Johan amos comenius 1592-1671.jpg

Above: John Amos Comenius

(Czech: Jan Amos Komenský; 28 March 1592 – 15 November 1670)

The Hussites agreed to submit to the authority of the King of Bohemia and the Catholic Church and were allowed to practice their somewhat variant Utraquist rite. J. A. Komenský (Comenius), a member of the Moravian Brethren, claimed for the members of his church that they were the genuine inheritors of the doctrines of Hus. After the beginning of the German Reformation, many Utraquists adapted to a large extent to the doctrines of Martin Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. The Hussite reformers were closely associated with the resistance of the Czechs to German Protestant domination in the sixteenth century, but from the end of that century, the inheritors of the Hussite tradition in Bohemia were included in the more general name of “Protestants” borne by the adherents of the Reformation. The Utraquist creed, frequently varying in its details, continued to be that of the established church of Bohemia until all non-Catholic religious services were prohibited shortly after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. The Moravian Brethren went on to have a major influence on the development of Wesleyan Methodism in England and Wales in the eighteenth century.

Sigismund was finally crowned Emperor in Rome on 31 May 1433, and after obtaining his demands from the Pope returned to Bohemia, where he was recognized as king in 1436, though his power was little more than nominal. Shortly after he was crowned, Pope Eugenius began attempts to create a new anti-Ottoman alliance, but Sigismund died the following year, hated by the Czech people as a whole, if not by the Germans and Hungarians he had also ruled after.

002 (3)

In the Reformation of Sigismund, written by an anonymous contemporary in 1439 (see above), the Emperor is made to make a posthumous pronouncement about how God  bade him prepare the way for a priest-king who was to be none other than Frederick of Latnaw, the possible author of the book, who, as Emperor Frederick, would reveal himself as a monarch of unparalleled might and majesty. Any moment now Frederick’s standard and that of the Empire would be set up, with the Cross between them; and then every prince and lord and every city would have to declare for Frederick, on pain of forfeiting property and freedom. ‘Sigismund’ goes on to describe how he sought for this Frederick of Latnaw until he found him at the Council of Basle (1431), in a priest whose poverty was equal to that of Christ. He had given him a robe and entrusted him with the government of all Christendom. For this Frederick, he claims, will reign over a dominion which will reach from sea to sea and none will be able to withstand him. He will tread all trouble and wrong-doing underfoot, will destroy the wicked and consume them by fire. By ‘the wicked’ are meant those corrupted by money, simoniac priests and avaricious merchants. Under his rule, the common people will rejoice to find justice established and all their desires of soul and body satisfied.


Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium. St Alban’s: Granada

Irene Richards and J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap

András Bereznay et. al. (1998), The Times Atlas of European History. London: Times Books (Harper Collins).

Sándor Fest (2000), Skóciai Szent Margittól A Walesi Bárdokig (Anglo-Hungarian Historical and Literary Contacts). Budapest: Universitas Könyvkiadó.

John H. Y. Briggs, Robert D. Linder, David F. Wright (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.


Posted January 17, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Apocalypse, Assimilation, Austria-Hungary, Balkan Crises, British history, Bulgaria, Christian Faith, Church, Conquest, Empire, Europe, Galilee, Germany, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Matthew, Henry V, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Jews, Messiah, Migration, Monarchy, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Old Testament, Ottoman Empire, Palestine, Papacy, Reformation, Serbia, Simon Peter, theology, Turkey, Wales, Warfare

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