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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1536-1572: The Reformers and Pacifist-Anabaptists   Leave a comment


Luther’s Last Decade and His Legacy:

In the final decade of his life, Luther became even more bitter in his attitude towards the papists. He was denied another public hearing such as those at Worms and Speyer, and he managed to avoid the martyrdom which came to other reformers, whether at the stake or, in the case of Zwingli, in battle (at Kappel in 1531). He compensated by hurling vitriol at the papacy and the Roman Curia. Towards the end of his life, he issued an illustrated tract with outrageously vulgar cartoons. In all of this, he was utterly unrestrained. The Holy Roman Empire was a constitutional monarchy, and the emperor had sworn at his coronation that no German subject should be outlawed unheard and uncondemned. Although this clause had not yet invoked to protect a monk accused of heresy, yet when princes and electors came to be involved the case was altered. If Charles V were faithless to that oath, then he might be resisted even in arms by the lower magistrates. The formula thus suggested by the jurists to Luther was destined to have a very wide an extended vogue. The Lutherans employed it only until they gained legal recognition at Augsburg in 1555. Thereafter the Calvinists took up the slogan and equated the lower magistrates with the lesser nobility in France. Later historians were accustomed to regard Lutheranism as politically subservient and Calvinism as intransigent, but the origin of this doctrine was in the Lutheran soil.


Martin Luther was made for the ministry. During his last years, he continued to attend faithfully to all the obligations of the university and his parish. To the end he was preaching, lecturing, counselling and writing. At the end of his life, he was in such a panic of disgust because the young women at Wittenberg were wearing low necks that he left home declaring that he would not return. His physician brought him back, but then came a request from the counts of Mansfeld for a mediator in a dispute. Melanchthon was too sick to go, and though Luther was also very ill, he went, reconciled the counts and died on the way home.

His later years should not, however, be written off as the splutterings of a dying flame. If in his polemical tracts he was at times savage and course, in the works which really counted in the cannon of his life’s endeavour he grew constantly in maturity and artistic creativity. Improvements in the translation of the Bible continued to the very end. The sermons and biblical commentaries reached superb heights. Many of the passages quoted to illustrate Luther’s religious and ethical principles are also from this later period.

When historians and theologians come to assess his legacy, there are three areas which naturally suggest themselves. The first is his contribution to his own country. He called himself the German prophet, saying that against the papist assess he must assume so presumptuous a title and he addressed himself to his beloved Germans. The claim has been made frequently that no individual did so much to fashion the character of the German people. He shared their passion for music and their language was greatly influenced by his writings, not least by his translation of the Bible. His reformation also profoundly affected the ordinary German family home. Roland Bainton (1950) commented:

Economics went the way of capitalism and politics the way of absolutism, but the home took on that quality of affectionate and godly patriarchalism which Luther had set as the pattern of his own household.

Luther’s most profound impact was in their religion, of course. His sermons were read to the congregations, his liturgy was sung, his catechism was rehearsed by the father of the household, his Bible cheered the faint-hearted and consoled the dying. By contrast, no single Englishman had the range of Luther. The Bible translation was largely the work of Tyndale, the prayer-book was that of Cranmer, the Catechism of the Westminster Divines. The style of sermons followed Latimer’s example and the hymn book was owed much to George Herbert from the beginning. Luther, therefore, did the work of five Englishmen, and for the sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style, his use of German can only be compared with Shakespeare’s use of English.

In the second great area of influence, that of the Church, Luther’s influence extended far beyond his native land, as is shown below. In addition to his influence in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and England, Lutheranism took possession of virtually the whole of Scandinavia. His movement gave the impetus that sometimes launched and sometimes gently encouraged the establishment of other varieties of Protestantism. Catholicism also owes much to him. It is often said that had Luther not appeared, an Erasmian reform would have triumphed, or at any rate a reform after the Spanish model. All this is, of course, conjectural, but it is obvious that the Catholic Church received a tremendous shock from the Lutheran Reformation and a terrific urge to reform after its own pattern.

The third area is the one which mattered most to Luther, that of religion itself. In his religion, he was a Hebrew, Paul the Jew, not a Greek fancying gods and goddesses in a pantheon in which Christ was given a niche. The God of Luther, as of Moses, was the God who inhabits the storm clouds and rides on the wings of the wind. He is a God of majesty and power, inscrutable, terrifying, devastating, and consuming in his anger. Yet he is all merciful too, like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord… 

Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Pacifists:

The movement initiated by Luther soon spread throughout Germany. Luther provided its chief source of energy and vision until his death in 1546. Once Luther had passed from the scene, a period of bitter theological warfare occurred within Protestantism. There was controversy over such matters as the difference between ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’; what doctrine was essential or non-essential; faith and works; and the nature of the real presence at the Eucharist. This is the period when Lutheranism developed, something which Luther himself predicted and condemned. The Schmalkald Articles had been drawn up in 1537 as a statement of faith. The Protestant princes had formed the Schmalkald League as a kind of defensive alliance against the Emperor. The tragic Schmalkald War broke out in 1547 in which the Emperor defeated the Protestant forces and imprisoned their leaders. But the Protestant Maurice of Saxony fought back successfully and by the Treaty of Passau (1552), Protestantism was legally recognised. This settlement was confirmed by the Interim of 1555. It was during this period that some of the Lutheran theologians drove large numbers of their own people over to the Calvinists through their dogmatism.

The Battle of Kappel, in which Zwingli was killed, had brought the Reformation in Switzerland to an abrupt halt, but in 1536 John Calvin (1509-64) was unwillingly pressed into reviving the cause in French-speaking Switzerland. Calvin was an exiled Frenchman, born in at Noyon in Picardy, whose theological writings, especially the Institutes of the Christian Religion and numerous commentaries on the Bible, did much to shape the Reformed churches and their confessions of faith. In contrast to Luther, Calvin was a quiet, sensitive man. Always a conscientious student, at Orléans, Bourges and the University of Paris, he soon took up the methods of humanism, which he later used ‘to combat humanism’. In Paris, the young Calvin had encountered the teachings of Luther and in 1533, he had experienced a sudden conversion:

God subdued and brought my heart to docility. It was more hardened against such matters than was to be expected in such a young man.

After that, he wrote little about his inner life, content to trace God’s hand controlling him. He next broke with Roman Catholicism, leaving France to live as an exile in Basle. It was there that he began to formulate his theology, and in 1536 published the first edition of The Institutes. It was a brief, clear defence of Reformation beliefs. Guillaume Farel, the Reformer of Geneva, persuaded Calvin to help consolidate the Reformation there. He had inherited from his father an immovable will, which stood him in good stead in turbulent Geneva.  In 1537 all the townspeople were called upon to swear loyalty to a Protestant statement of belief. But the Genevans opposed Calvin strongly, and disputes in the town, together with a quarrel with the city of Berne, resulted in the expulsion of both Calvin and Farel.

Calvin went to Strasbourg, where he made contact with Martin Bucer, who influenced him greatly. Bucer (1491-1551) had been a Dominican friar but had left the order and married a former nun in 1522. He went to Strasbourg in 1523 and took over leadership of the reform, becoming one of the chief statesmen among the Reformers. He was present at most of the important conferences, or colloquies of the Reformers, and tried to mediate between Zwingli and Luther in an attempt to unite the German and Swiss Reformed churches. His discussions with Melanchthon led to peace in the debate over the sacraments at the Concord of Wittenberg. He also took part in the unsuccessful conferences with the Roman Catholics at Hagenau, Worms and Ratisbon.

In 1539, while in Strasbourg, Calvin published his commentary on the Book of Romans. Many other commentaries followed, in addition to a new, enlarged version of the Institutes. The French Reformer led the congregation of French Protestant refugees in Strasbourg, an experience which matured him for his task on returning to Geneva. He was invited back there in September 1541, and the town council accepted his revision of the of the city laws, but many more bitter disputes followed. Calvin tried to bring every citizen under the moral discipline of the church. Many naturally resented such restrictions, especially when imposed by a foreigner. He then set about attaining of establishing a mature church by preaching daily to the people. He also devoted much energy to settling differences within Protestantism. The Consensus Tigurinus, on the Lord’s Supper (1549), resulted in the German-speaking and French-speaking churches of Switzerland moving closer together. Michael Servetus, a notorious critic of Calvin, and of the doctrine of the Trinity, was arrested and burnt in Geneva.


John Calvin, caricatured by one of his students, during an idle moment in a lecture.

Calvin was, in a way, trying to build a more visible ‘City of God’ in Europe, with Geneva as its base and model. In his later years, Calvin’s authority in Geneva was less disputed. He founded the Geneva Academy, to which students of theology came from all parts of western and central Europe, particularly France. Calvin systemised the Reformed tradition in Protestantism, taking up and reapplying the ideas of the first generation of Reformers. He developed the Presbyterian form of church government, in which all ministers served at the same level, and the congregation was represented by lay elders. His work was characterised by intellectual discipline and practical application. His Institutes have been a classic statement of Reformation theology for centuries, as is evident from the following extracts:

Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the Institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.

We declare that by God’s providence, not only heaven and earth and inanimate creatures, but also the counsels and wills of men are governed so as to move precisely to that end destined by him.   

Lutheranism strongly influenced Calvin’s doctrine. Like Luther, Calvin was also a careful interpreter of the Bible. He intended that his theology should interpret Scripture faithfully, rather than developing his own ideas. For him, all knowledge of God and man is to be found only in the Word of God. Man can only know God if he chooses to make himself known. Pardon and salvation are possible only through the free working of the grace of God. Calvin claimed that even before the creation, God chose some of his creatures for salvation and others for destruction. He is often known best for this severe doctrine of election, particularly that some people are predestined to eternal damnation. But Calvin also set out the way of repentance, faith and sanctification for believers. In his doctrine, the church was supreme and should not be restricted in any way by the state. He gave greater importance than Luther to the external organisation of the church. He regarded only baptism and communion as sacraments. Baptism was the individual’s initiation into the new community of Christ. He rejected Zwingli’s view that the communion elements were purely symbolic, but also warned against a magical belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.

The Calvinists went further than the Lutherans in their opposition to traditions which had been handed down. They rejected a good deal of church music, art, architecture and many more superficial matters such as the use of the ring in marriage, and the signs of devotional practice. But all the Reformers rejected the authority of the pope, the merit of good works, indulgences, the mediation of the Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the sacraments which had not been instituted by Christ. They rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (the teaching that the bread and wine of the communion became the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrated them), the view of the mass as a sacrifice, purgatory and prayers for the dead, private confession of sin to a priest, celibacy of the clergy, and the use of Latin in the services.They also rejected all the paraphernalia that expressed these ideas, such as holy water, shrines, chantries, images, rosaries, paternoster stones and candles.

Meanwhile, in 1549 Bucer was forced to leave Strasbourg for Cambridge, and while in England, he advised Cranmer on The Book of Common Prayer. He had a great impact on the establishment of the Church of England, pointing it in the direction of Puritanism. Although he died in 1551, his body was exhumed and burned during the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary. Bucer wrote a large number of commentaries on the Bible and worked strenuously for reconciliation between various religious parties. In France, the pattern of reform was very different. Whereas in Germany and Switzerland there was solid support for the Reformation from the people, in France people, court and church provided less support. As a result, the first Protestants suffered death or exile. But once the Reformed faith had been established in French-speaking Switzerland and in Strasbourg, Calvinists formed a congregation in Paris in 1555. Four years later, over seventy churches were represented at a national synod in the capital.


Henry VIII may have destroyed the power of the papacy and ended monasticism in England, but he remained firmly Catholic in doctrine. England was no safe place for William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English, as Henry and the bishops were more concerned to prevent the spread of Lutheran ideas than to promote the study of Scripture. Tyndale narrowly escaped arrest in Cologne but managed to have the New Testament published in Worms in 1525. He was unable to complete the Old Testament because he was betrayed and arrested near Brussels in 1535. In October 1536 he was strangled and burnt at the stake. His last words were reported as, Lord, open the king of England’s eyes. In the meantime, Miles Coverdale completed the translation, which became the basis for later official translations.


The title page of the first Bible to be printed in English: Miles Coverdale’s translation (1535). Coverdale had helped Tyndale to revise his translation of the Pentateuch.

Though the king’s eyes were not immediately opened, a powerful religious movement towards reform among his people was going on at the same time. Despite the publication of the Great Bible in 1538, it was only under Edward VI (1547-53) that the Reformation was positively and effectively established in England. The leading figure was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, supported by the scholar, Nicholas Ridley and the preacher, Hugh Latimer. Cranmer (1489-1556) was largely responsible for the shaping the Protestant Church of England. Born in Nottinghamshire, he was educated at Cambridge until he was suddenly summoned to Canterbury as Archbishop in 1532, as a result of Henry VIII’s divorce crisis. There he remained until he was deposed by Mary and burnt as a heretic at Oxford in 1556. He was a godly man, Lutheran in his theology, well read in the Church Fathers, a gifted liturgist with an excellent command of English. He was sensitive, cautious and slow to decide in a period of turbulence and treachery. He preferred reformation by gentle persuasion rather than by force, and, unlike Luther, also sought reconciliation with Roman Catholicism. Like Luther, however, he believed firmly in the role of the ‘godly prince’ who had a God-given task to uphold a just society and give free scope to the gospel.


Archbishop Cranmer (pictured above) was responsible for the Great Bible (1538) and its prefaces; the Litany (1545) and the two Prayer Books (1549, 1552). The driving force of Cranmer’s life was to restore to the Catholic Church of the West the faith it had lost long ago. When the Church of Rome refused to reform, Cranmer took it upon himself to reform his own province of Canterbury. He then sought an ecumenical council with the Lutherans and Calvinists, but Melanchthon was too timid. His second great concern was to restore a living theology based on the experience of the person and work of Christ. Thirdly, he developed the doctrine of the Holy Spirit which lay behind his high view of scripture and tradition, and the meaning of union with Christ. He was brainwashed into recanting, but at his final trial in 1556 he put up a magnificent defence and died bravely at the stake, thrusting the hand that had signed the recantations into the fire first. The Martyrs’ Memorial at Oxford commemorates his death, together with those of Ridley and Latimer whose deaths he had witnessed from prison a year earlier.

Several European Reformers also contributed to the Anglican Reformation, notably Martin , exiled from Strasbourg. These men, Calvinists rather than Lutherans, Bucerbecame professors at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Under the Counter-Reforming Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58), with Cardinal Pole as Archbishop of Canterbury, about two hundred bishops, scholars, ministers and preachers were burnt at the stake. Many Protestant reformers fled to the continent and became even more Calvinist in their convictions, influencing the direction of the English Reformation when they returned at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign. The young Queen gradually replaced the Catholic church leaders with Protestants, restored the church Articles and Cranmer’s Prayer Book. She took the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Her Anglican church kept episcopal government and a liturgy which offended many of the strict Protestants, particularly those who were returning religious refugees who had been further radicalised in Calvinist Switzerland or France.


Scotland was first awakened to Lutheranism by Patrick Hamilton, a student of Luther, who had been burned for his faith in 1528. George Wishart and John Knox (1505-72) continued Hamilton’s work, but Knox was taken prisoner by the French in 1547 and forced to serve as a galley-slave. When freed, he studied under Calvin at Geneva and did not return to Scotland until 1559, when he fearlessly launched the Reformation. He attacked the papacy, the mass and Catholic idolatry. The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots opposed Knox, but was beaten in battle. Knox then consolidated the Scots reformation by drawing up a Confession of Faith (1560), a Book of Discipline (1561) and the Book of Common Order (1564). While the Scottish Reformation was achieved independently from England, it was a great tragedy that it was imposed on Ireland, albeit through an Act of Uniformity passed by the Irish Parliament in 1560 which set up Anglicanism as the national religion. In this way, Protestantism became inseparably linked with English rule of a country which remained predominantly Catholic.


Western Europe during the Wars of Religion, to 1572.


The Empire of Charles V in 1551 (inset: The Swiss Confederation)

In Hungary, students of Luther and Melanchthon at Wittenberg took the message of the Reformation back to their homeland in about 1524, though there were Lollard and Hussite connections, going back to 1466, which I’ve written about in previous posts. As in Bohemia, Calvinism took hold later, but the two churches grew up in parallel. The first Lutheran synod was in 1545, followed by the first Calvinist synod in 1557. In the second half of the sixteenth century, a definite interest in Protestant England was already noticeable in Hungary. In contemporary Hungarian literature, there is a long poem describing the martyr’s death of Thomas Cranmer (Sztáray, 1582).  A few years before this poem was written, in 1571, Matthew Skaritza, the first Hungarian Protestant theologian made his appearance in England, on a pilgrimage to ‘its renowned cities’ induced by the common religious interest.

Protestant ministers were recruited from godly and learned men. The Church of England and large parts of the Lutheran church, particularly in Sweden, tried to keep the outward structure and ministry of their national, territorial churches. Two brothers, Olav and Lars Petri, both disciples of Luther, inaugurated the Reformation in Sweden. The courageous King Gustavus Vasa, who delivered Sweden from the Danes in 1523, greatly favoured Protestantism. The whole country became Lutheran, with bishops of the old church incorporated into the new, and in 1527 the Reformation was established by Swedish law. This national, state church was attacked by both conservative Catholics and radical Protestants.

The Danish Church, too, went over completely to Protestantism. Some Danes, including Hans Tausen and Jörgen Sadolin, studied under Luther at Wittenberg. King Frederick I pressed strongly for church reform, particularly by appointing reforming bishops and preachers. As a result, there was an alarming defection of Catholics and in some churches no preaching at all, and a service only three times a year. After this, King Christian III stripped the bishops of their lands and property at the Diet of Copenhagen (1536) and transferred the church’s wealth to the state. Christian III then turned for help to Luther, who sent Bugenhagen, the only Wittenberger theologian who could speak the dialects of Denmark. Bugenhagen crowned the king and appointed seven superintendents. This severed the old line of bishops and established a new line of presbyters. At the synods which followed church ordinances were published, and the Reformation recognised in Danish law. The decayed University of Copenhagen was enlarged and revitalised. A new liturgy was drawn up, a Danish Bible was completed, and a modified version of the Augsburg Confession was eventually adopted.


Heddal Stave church, Norway.

This form of construction is characteristic of this part of Scandinavia

The Reformation spread from Denmark to Norway in 1536. The pattern was similar to that of Denmark. Most of the bishops fled and, as the older clergy died, they were replaced with Reformed ministers. A war between Denmark and Norway worsened social and political conditions. When the Danish Lutherans went to instruct the Norwegians, they found that many of the Norwegians spoke the incomprehensible old Norse, and communications broke down. In Iceland, an attempt to impose the Danish ecclesiastical system caused a revolt. This was eventually quelled and the Reformation was imposed, but with a New Testament published in 1540.

Calvinists held an exalted and biblical view of the church as the chosen people of God, separated from the state and wider society. They, therefore, broke away from the traditional church structures as well as the Roman ministry. The spread of Calvinism through key sections of the French nobility, and through the merchant classes in towns such as La Rochelle alarmed Catherine de Medici, the French Regent, resulting eventually in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Philip II faced a similarly strong Calvinist challenge in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. In 1565, an outbreak of anti-Catholic rioting could not be contained because all the available forces were deployed in the Mediterranean to defend southern Italy from the Turks and to lift the siege of Malta. The spread of Calvinism was a coral growth in ports and free cities, compared with the territorial growth of Lutheranism which was dependent on earthly principalities and powers.

In this, the free churches later followed them. These churches were mainly fresh expressions of Calvinism which started to grow at the beginning of the next century, but some did have links to, or were influenced by, the churches founded in the aftermath of the Radical Reformation. Only three groups of Anabaptists were able to survive beyond the mid-sixteenth century as ordered communities: the ‘brethren’ in Switzerland and southern Germany, the Hutterites in Moravia and the Mennonites in the Netherlands and northern Germany.


In the aftermath of the suppression of Münster, the dispirited Anabaptists of the Lower-Rhine area were given new heart by the ministry of Menno Simons (about 1496-1561). The former priest travelled widely, although always in great personal danger. He visited the scattered Anabaptist groups of northern Europe and inspired them with his night-time preaching. Menno was an unswerving, committed pacifist. As a result, his name in time came to stand for the movement’s repudiation of violence. Although Menno was not the founder of the movement, most of the descendants of the Anabaptists are still called ‘Mennonites’. The extent to which the early Baptists in England were influenced by the thinking of the Radical Reformation in Europe is still hotly disputed, but it is clear that there were links with the Dutch Mennonites in the very earliest days.

Reformers, Revolutionaries and Anti-Semites:

Luther had early believed that the Jews were a stiff-necked people who rejected Christ, but that contemporary Jews could not be blamed for the sins of their fathers and might readily be excused for their rejection of Christianity by reason of the corruption of the Medieval Papacy.  He wrote, sympathetically:

If I were a Jew, I would suffer the rack ten times before I would go over to the pope.

The papists have so demeaned themselves that a good Christian would rather be a Jew than one of them, and a Jew would rather be a sow than a Christian.

What good can we do the Jews when we constrain them, malign them, and hate them as dogs? When we deny them work and force them to usury, how can that help? We should use towards the Jews not the pope’s but Christ’s law of love. If some are stiff-necked, what does that matter? We are not all good Christians.

Luther was sanguine that his own reforms, by eliminating the abuses of the papacy, would accomplish the conversion of the Jews. But the coverts were few and unstable. When he endeavoured to proselytise some rabbis, they undertook in return to make a Jew out of him. The rumour that a Jew had been authorised by the papists to murder him was not received with complete incredulity. In his latter days, when he was more easily irritated, news came that in Moravia, Christians were being induced to become Judaic in beliefs and practice. That was what induced him to come out with his rather vulgar blast in which he recommended that all Jews be deported to Palestine. Failing that, he wrote, they should be forbidden to practice usury, should be compelled to earn their living on the land, their synagogues should be burned, and their books, including The Torah, should be taken away from them.

The content of this tract was certainly far more intolerant than his earlier comments, yet we need to be clear about what he was recommending and why. His position was entirely religious and not racially motivated. The supreme sin for him was the persistent rejection of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. The centuries of persecution suffered by the Jews were in themselves a mark of divine displeasure. The territorial principle should, therefore, be applied to the Jews. They should be compelled to leave and go to a land of their own. This was a programme of enforced Zionism. But, if this were not feasible, Luther would recommend that the Jews be compelled to live from the soil. He was, perhaps unwittingly, proposing a return to the situation which had existed in the early Middle Ages, when the Jews had worked in agriculture. Forced off the land, they had gone into commerce and, having been expelled from commerce, into money-lending. Luther wished to reverse this process and to accord the Jews a more secure, though just as segregated position than the one they had in his day, following centuries of persecutions and expulsions.

His advocacy of burning synagogues and the confiscation of holy books was, however, a revival of the worst features of the programme of a fanatical Jewish convert to Christianity, Pfefferkorn by name, who had sought to have all Hebrew books in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire destroyed. In this conflict of the early years of the Reformation, Luther had supported the Humanists, including Reuchlin, the great German Hebraist and Melanchthon’s great-uncle. Of course, during the Reformation throughout Europe, there was little mention of the Jews except in those German territories, like Luther’s Saxony, Frankfurt and Worms, where they were tolerated and had not been expelled as they had been from the whole of England, France and Spain. Ironically, Luther himself was very Hebraic in his thinking, appealing to the wrath of Jehovah against any who would impugn his picture of a vengeful, Old Testament God. On the other hand, both Luther and Erasmus were antagonistic towards the way in which the Church of their day had relapsed into the kind of Judaic legalism castigated by the Apostle Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, was not about abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent, but about loving one’s neighbour. This may help to explain Luther’s reaction to the Moravian ‘heresy’ in terms which, nevertheless, only be described as anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his time.

The story told in Cohn’s great book Pursuit of the Millennium, originally written six decades ago, is a story which began more than five centuries ago and ended four and a half centuries ago. However, it is a book and a story not without relevance to our own times. In another work, Warrant for Genocide: the myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in 1967, Cohn shows how closely the Nazi fantasy of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy of destruction is related to the fantasies that inspired millenarian revolutionaries from the Master of Hungary to Thomas Müntzer.  The narrative is one of how mass disorientation and insecurity have fostered the demonisation of the misbelievers, especially the Jews, in this as much as in previous centuries.

We can also reflect on the damage wrought in the twentieth century by left-wing revolutions and revolutionary movements, which are just as capable of demonising religious and ethnic groups, including Jews, through their love of conspiracy theories and narratives. What is most curious about the popular Müntzer ‘biopic’, for example, is the resurrection and apotheosis which it has undergone during the past hundred and fifty years. From Engels through to the post-Marxist historians of this century, whether Russian, German or English-speaking, Müntzer has been conflated into a giant symbol, a prodigious hero in the history of ‘class warfare’. This is a naive view and one which non-Marxist historians have been able to contradict easily by pointing to the essentially mystical nature of Müntzer’s preoccupations which usually blinded him to the material sufferings of the poor artisans and peasants. He was essentially a propheta obsessed by eschatological fantasies which he attempted to turn into reality by exploiting social discontent and dislocation through revolutionary violence against the misbelievers. Perhaps it was this obsessive tendency which led Marxist theorists to claim him as one of their own.

Just like the medieval artisans integrated in their guilds, industrial workers in technologically advanced societies have shown themselves very eager to improve their own conditions; their aim has been the eminently practical one of achieving a larger share of economic security, prosperity and social privilege through winning political power. Emotionally charged fantasies of a final, apocalyptic struggle leading to an egalitarian Millennium have been far less attractive to them. Those who are fascinated by such ideas are, on the one hand, the peoples of overpopulated and desperately poor societies, dislocated and disoriented, and, on the other hand, certain politically marginalised echelons in advanced societies, typically young or unemployed workers led by a small minority of intellectuals.

Working people in economically advanced parts of the world, especially in modern Europe, have been able to improve their lot out of all recognition, through the agency of trade unions, co-operatives and parliamentary parties. Nevertheless, during the century since 1917 there has been a constant repetition, on an ever-increasing scale, of the socio-psychological process which once connected the Táborite priests or Thomas Müntzer with the most disoriented and desperate among the poor, in fantasies of a final, exterminating struggle against ‘the great ones’; and of a perfect, egalitarian world from which self-seeking would be forever banished.  We are currently engaged in yet another cycle in this process, with a number of fresh ‘messiahs’ ready to assume the mantles of previous generations of charismatic revolutionaries, being elevated to the status of personality cults. Of course, the old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what would otherwise be obvious. For it is a simple truth that stripped of its original supernatural mythology, revolutionary millenarianism is still with us.


John H. Y. Briggs (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Sándor Fest (2000), Skóciai Szent Margittól, A Walesi Bárdokig: Magyar-Angol történeti és irodalmi kapcsalatok. 

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. St Albans: Granada Publishing.

Roland H. Bainton (1950), Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, USA: Abingdon Press.

András Bereznay (1994, 2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.





Posted February 4, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anabaptism, Anglican Reformation, anti-Semitism, Apocalypse, Austria-Hungary, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Church, Commemoration, Early Modern English, Egalitarianism, Empire, English Language, Europe, France, Germany, Henry VIII, History, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Jews, Linguistics, Lutheranism, Martin Luther, Medieval, Mediterranean, Messiah, Middle English, Migration, Millenarianism, Monarchy, Music, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Old Testament, Papacy, Reformation, Remembrance, Shakespeare, Switzerland, theology, Tudor England, Uncategorized, Warfare, Zionism

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

Below: Conflict in the sixteenth century, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer


Part Two – Martin Luther, Humanism and Nationalism:

The late fifteenth century saw a consolidation of many European states and a coalescence of Europe into the political contours which were to shape it for almost four hundred years, until the crisis of nationalism in the nineteenth century. In the southwest, the Spanish state emerged with the final conquest of Granada from the Muslim Moors in 1492 and the Union of the crowns of Aragon and Castille. The French kings continued the process of expanding the royal domain, until by 1483 only the Duchy of Brittany remained more or less independent, and even this was absorbed in the early sixteenth century. England had lost all its lands in France, except for Calais, and was racked by a bitter civil war from 1453 to 1487, from which it began to emerge under the Welsh Tudor dynasty from 1485 onwards as a maritime power, whose interests in terms of territorial expansion lay outside Europe.


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Above: King Matthias Hunting at Vajdahunyád. This most impressive Transylvanian castle was the residence of the Hunyádi dynasty and seat of their immense estates.

In the East, Hungary’s power and influence grew in the reign of Matthias Corvinus from 1458 until 1490. Corvinus was a renaissance ruler who promoted learning, but he also had to resist the Turkish advance. He maintained a largely defensive attitude, seeking to preserve his kingdom without trying to push back the Ottomans to any great extent. His main attention was directed westwards. With the standing army he had developed, he hoped to become the crown of Bohemia and become Holy Roman Emperor. Bohemia remained divided as a result of the Hussite Wars and in 1468 Corvinus obtained Papal support to conduct a crusade against its Hussite ruler, George Podebrady. This led to the partition of the Bohemian kingdom. Corvinus gained Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia as well as the title ‘King of Bohemia’, though not Bohemia itself. Corvinus was opposed by the Emperor Frederick III (1440-93) who had been elected ruler of Hungary in 1439 by a group of nobles. Nevertheless, Corvinus was successful, in gaining Lower Austria and Styria from Austria, and transferring his capital to Vienna. The Hungarian state developed considerably under Matthias Corvinus, although he continued to face opposition from nobles concerned about their privileges.


Portrait of Matthias Corvinus from the Philostratus Codex, c. 1487-1490


The beginnings of the primacy of the nation-state are conventionally traced to the early sixteenth century. A new type of king arose across, like Matthias Corvinus, called the Renaissance Prince. These monarchs attacked the powers of the nobles and tried to unite their countries. In England, this process was accelerated by the eventual victory of the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, but on the continent, it was much slower. The mercantile classes were generally hostile to the warlike feudal nobles, who interfered with and interrupted their trade, so they tended to support the king against the nobles. A new sense of unity arose, where local languages and dialects merged into national languages and, through the advent of the printing press, national literatures developed.

For a while, however, the most successful states appeared to be multi-national ones, such as the Ottoman Empire in the east, or the universal monarchy built up by Charles V, encompassing Spain, the Netherlands and the Austrian dominions of the Habsburgs. The small states of the Holy Roman Empire, the patchwork of cities and territories, also contained some of the most affluent parts of Europe. Charles of Habsburg inherited, by quirks of marriage and early deaths, the Burgundian Netherlands (1506), the united Spanish crowns (1516), and the lands of his grandfather Maximilian of Austria (1519), after which he succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor. The Imperial title, the secular equivalent of the Papacy, still carried immense prestige, giving its holder pre-eminence over lesser monarchs.

The Empire was a waning but still imposing legacy of the Middle Ages. Since the office of emperor was elective, any European prince was eligible, but the electors were predominantly German and therefore preferred a German. Yet they were realistic enough to recognise that no German had sufficient strength in his own right to sustain the office. They were, therefore, ready to accept the head of one of the great powers, and the choice lay between Francis of France and Charles of Spain. Francis I tried in vain to secure election, seeing the danger of his country being encircled by a ring of hostile territories. The Pope objected to either, however, because an accretion of power on one side or the other would destroy that balance of power on which papal security depended. When the Germans despaired of a German, the pope threw his support to Frederick the Wise, but Frederick himself, sensible of his inadequacies, defeated himself by voting for the Habsburg.

For centuries the seven Electors had chosen the Habsburg heir, but previously he had been German, or at least German-speaking; At the age of just twenty, Charles I of Spain became Emperor Charles V on 28 June 1519. Francis pursued his legacy of French claims to Milan and Naples, and sought to extend his eastern frontier towards the Rhine. He was an ambitious man, but also frivolous, whereas Charles was regarded as harder-working. The rivalry between the two men was to dominate European politics from 1519 to 1547. While Charles emerged as the more powerful of the two, he had many more problems to distract him. Winning the election was only the beginning of his trials, as Charles now faced an immense task of keeping his domains united.  The main source of his power and wealth continued to lie in the Netherlands, in the seventeen separate provinces that he had inherited from his father, Philip the Handsome, in 1506. The great commercial wealth of these provinces made their taxes particularly valuable, even if their independent-mindedness meant that Charles had to treat them with extreme caution. Besides the territories he had inherited, Charles added several more Dutch provinces, Milan, Mexico and Peru to his empire at home and overseas.


Europe in the time of Henry VIII, Charles I of Spain and Francis I of France

The Map above shows the extent of Charles’ scattered empire; it included many peoples, each proud of their own traditions, language, and separate government. Even in Spain, only the royal will bound together Castile with Granada and Aragon, which, in turn, was made up of the four distinct states of Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia and Navarre. There was a serious revolt in Aragon itself in 1520. Besides Spain, he had to assert his nominal authority over the independent princes, bishops, knights and city-states that formed the Holy Roman Empire.  If all this wasn’t enough to contend with, he was opposed by successive popes, who resented his power in Italy despite his championship of the Roman Church. Within the Church, from 1517, reformers like Martin Luther had begun to challenge the authority of both the ecclesiastical and secular leaders of the Empire, leading to further disunity both within and between the German states.


Above: The Central European Habsburg Empire of Charles V

The rise of Protestantism in Germany in the first half of the sixteenth century placed an additional strain on his European empire. Charles failed to suppress it by force, but held firm to Catholicism even though, in Germany at least, it might have been politically expedient to convert to Lutheranism. In 1517-19, Martin Luther had challenged the authority of the Pope in tolerating the abuses of the Church, and a considerable movement for reform had grown around his protest at Wittenberg. His work and that of subsequent reformers was greatly stimulated by the translation of the Bible into ‘high’ German, which Luther himself completed in 1534, and by its printing and widespread publication. This religious movement coincided with the rise of national feeling. Renaissance princes, eager to gain complete domination over their territories, were supported in a breach with the Pope by their subjects, who regarded Papal authority as foreign interference. The wealth and lands of the Church, combined by the heavy exactions it made on its adherents, had provoked great dissatisfaction among princes, merchants and peasants.


In 1517, the impulsive and headstrong Augustinian friar and Professor of Theology at Wittenberg had denounced the sale of indulgences by unprincipled agents of the Papal envoy, Tetzel, and had won enthusiastic support. The Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan to interview Luther at Augsburg (I have written about these early disputations over indulgences in more detail elsewhere on this site). When he got word that Cajetan had been empowered by the Pope to arrest him, Luther escaped the city gates by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride to Nürnberg in his cowl, without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived back in Wittenberg on 30 October, exactly a year after he had first posted his 95 Theses to the Castle church door. Cajetan then demanded that Frederick the Wise should either send  Luther bound to Rome or else banish him from his territories. Luther made matters even more difficult for his prince by publishing his own version of his interview with the Cardinal. There was no longer any attempt to explain the papal decree against him in any favourable sense. Instead, he declared that it was emphatically false, and contrasted the ambiguous decretal of a mortal pope with the clear testimonies of Holy Scripture:

The Apostolic Legate opposed me with the thunder of his majesty and told me to recant. I told him the pope abused Scripture. I will honour the sanctity of the pope, but I will adore the sanctity of Christ and the truth. I do not deny this new monarchy of the Roman Church which has arisen in our generation, but I deny that you cannot be a Christian without being subject to the decrees of the Roman pontiff… I resist those who in the name of the Roman Church wish to institute Babylon.

His accusation that the Roman pontiff and curia were instituting Babylon introduced an apocalyptic tone into the dispute. On 28 November, Luther lodged with a notary an appeal to the pope for a general council, declaring that such a council, legitimately called in the Holy Spirit, could better represent the Catholic Church than the pope, who, being a man, was able to err, sin and lie. Not even St Peter, he pointed out, was above this infirmity.  Luther had the appeal printed, requesting that all the copies should be withheld from publication unless and until he was actually banned. The printer, however, disregarded the embargo and gave them out immediately to the public. Pope Julius II had ruled that a direct appeal to a council, without papal consent, constituted in itself an act of heresy. Luther had placed himself in an exposed situation and had also embarrassed his prince. Frederick the Wise considered himself to be a most Catholic prince. He was addicted to the cult of relics, devoted to indulgences and quite sincere in his claim that he was not in a position to judge Luther’s teaching. That was why he had founded the University of Wittenberg and why he so often turned to it for advice on matters juristic and theological. Luther was one of the doctors of that university, commissioned to instruct his prince in matters of faith.

As far as Frederick was concerned, if the pope declared Luther a heretic, that would settle the matter, but the pontiff had not yet pontificated. Neither had the theological faculty at Wittenberg repudiated their colleague. Many scholars throughout Germany believed Luther to be right. Frederick differed from many other princes in that he never asked how to extend his territories nor even how to preserve his dignities. His only question was, what is my duty as a Christian prince? He wrote to the Emperor beseeching him either to drop the case or to grant a hearing before unimpeachable judges in Germany. He also sent to Cajetan the only document ever sent to the Roman curia on Luther’s behalf:

We are sure that you acted paternally towards Luther, but we understand that he was not shown sufficient cause to revoke. There are learned men in the universities who hold that his teaching has not been shown to be unjust, unchristian, or heretical. The few who think so are jealous of his attainments. If we understand his doctrine to be impious or untenable, we would not defend it. Our whole purpose is to fulfill the office of a Christian prince. Therefore we hope that Rome will pronounce on the question. As for sending him to Rome or banishing him, that we will do only after he has been convicted of heresy. … He should be shown in what respect he is a heretic and not condemned in advance. We will not lightly allow ourselves to be drawn into error nor to be made disobedient to the Holy See. 

Prince Frederick also appended a copy of a letter from the University of Wittenberg in Luther’s defence. Luther himself wrote to his mentor and confidant, George Spalatin, to express his joy at reading the prince’s letter to the Papal Legate. Cajetan knew that, although Luther was a vexation, he was not yet a heretic, since heresy involved a rejection of the established dogma of the Church, and the doctrine of indulgences had not yet received an official papal definition. On 9 November 1518, the bull Cum Postquam definitely clarified many of the disputed points. Indulgences were declared only to apply to penalty and not to guilt, which must first have been remitted through the sacrament of penance. In the case of the penalties of purgatory, the pope could do no more than present to God the treasury of the superfluous merits of Christ and the saints by way of petition. This decretal terminated some of the worst abuses Luther had complained about in his Ninety-Five Theses.

Had it appeared earlier, the controversy might conceivably have been terminated, but in the interim Luther had attacked not only papal power but also the infallibility of the Pope. He had also questioned the biblical basis for the sacrament of penance and had rejected part of canon law as being inconsistent with Scripture. For his part, the Pope had called him ‘a son of iniquity’ and the loyal Dominicans had already declared him to be ‘a notorious heretic’. The conciliatory policy commenced in December 1518 was prompted by political considerations which now became more marked due to the death of Emperor Maximilian and the need to elect a successor as Holy Roman Emperor. The election of Charles V at the end of June 1519 made no great difference to the situation with Luther, because for over a year Charles was too occupied in Spain to concern himself with Germany, where Frederick remained the pivotal figure. The pope still could not afford to alienate him unduly over Luther and so his conciliatory policy continued.

Tetzel was made the scapegoat for the controversy over indulgences. Cajetan’s new German assistant, Milititz summoned him to a hearing and charged that he was extravagant in travelling with two horses and a carriage, and that he had two illegitimate children. Tetzel retired to a convent where he died of chagrin. Luther wrote sympathetically to him; you didn’t start this racket: The child had another father. 



Meanwhile, the University of Wittenberg was becoming known as a Lutheran institution. Prominent among the faculty were Carlstadt and Melanchthon. Carlstadt, a senior colleague to Luther, was erudite but sometimes recklessly outspoken and more radical. Melanchthon was gentler, younger (at twenty-one) a prodigy of learning, already enjoying a pan-European reputation. These two reformers ‘in their own right’ soon became the leaders of the Reformation in Wittenberg. Against them, the papacy found a worthy academic in John Eck, a professor from the University of Ingolstadt, who had already published a refutation of Luther’s theses. He had been Luther’s friend, a humanist and a German. Eck also succeeded in persuading the University of Leipzig to sponsor him against Wittenberg, which added the internal political rivalry of ducal and electoral Saxony to the mix. Duke George, the patron of Leipzig, agreed that Eck should debate with Carlstadt at Leipzig. Carlstadt had already launched a determined defence of Luther and a virulent attack on Eck, but the latter was in no mood to accept ‘second best’. He openly baited Luther by challenging his assertions that the Roman Church in the days of Constantine had not been seen as superior to the other churches and that the popes had not always been seen as in apostolic succession to Peter, and that therefore the papacy was a relatively recent human institution, not a divine one.


Above: Philip Melanchthon’s study in his home in Wittenberg


Clearly, this debate was between Eck and Luther, but the bishop of the diocese interposed a prohibition. Duke George said that all he wanted to know was whether as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. He reminded the bishop that…

Disputations have been allowed from ancient times, even concerning the Holy Trinity. What good is a soldier if he is not allowed to fight, a sheep dog if he may not bark, and a theologian if he may not debate? Better spend money to support old women who can knit than theologians who cannot discuss.

Luther set himself to prepare for the debate. Since he had asserted that only in the decretals of the previous four hundred years could the claims of papal primacy be established, he must devote himself to a study of the decretals. As he worked, his conclusions grew even more radical. He wrote to a friend in January that…

Eck is fomenting new wars against me. He may yet drive me to a serious attack upon the Romanists. So far I have been merely trifling.

In March, Luther confided to Spalatin:

I am studying the papal decretals for my debate. I whisper this in your ear, “I do not know whether the pope is Antichrist or his apostle, so does he in his decretals corrupt and crucify Christ, that is, the truth.”

The reference to Antichrist was ominous. Luther was to find it easier to convince people that the pope was Antichrist than that ‘the just shall live by faith’. The suspicion which Luther did not yet dare to breathe in the open linked him with the medieval millenarian sectaries who had revived and transformed the theme of Antichrist, the figure invented by the Jews and developed in early Christian eschatology in times of captivity and persecution to derive comfort from their calamities on the grounds that the Advent or Second Coming of the Messiah would be retarded by the machinations of an Anti-Messiah, whose predominant evil would reach a peak before the Saviour would come. The gloomiest picture of the present thus became the most encouraging vision for the future. The Book of Revelation had added the details that before ‘the End of Time’ two witnesses would testify and suffer martyrdom. Then the Archangel Michael would appear, together with a figure with flaming eyes upon a white horse, to cast the beast into the abyss. How the theme was dealt with in Luther’s day is graphically illustrated in a woodcut from the Nürnberg Chronicle (below):


In previous posts on this site, I have examined how the theme became very popular in the late Middle Ages among Flagellants, Wyclifites and Hussites, especially the more radical Táborites in Bohemia, who increasingly identified the popes with the Antichrist soon to be overthrown.  Luther was, therefore, aligning himself with these sectaries, with one significant difference. Whereas they had identified particular popes with Antichrist, due to their apparently evil lives as well as other contemporary events, Luther held that every pope was Antichrist even if personally exemplary in their conduct, because Antichrist was for him a collective symbol of penultimate evil, the institution of the papacy and the Roman curia, a system which corrupts the the truth of Christ and the true Church. This explains how Luther could repeatedly address Leo X in terms of personal respect only a few days after blasting him as Antichrist. Nevertheless, to one who had been, and remained, so devoted to the Holy Father as the chief vicar of Christ, the thought that he, in person, might be Christ’s great opponent was difficult to reconcile. At the same time, it was also a comforting thought, for the doom of Antichrist was ensured by Scripture. If Luther should be martyred like the two witnesses, his executioner would soon be demolished by the hand of God. It was no longer merely a fight between men, but against the principalities and powers and the ruler over this darkness on earth.


Meanwhile, between 4-14 July Luther engaged in the Leipzig debate with Eck. The Wittenbergers arrived a few days after Eck; Luther, Carlstadt and Melanchthon with other doctors and two hundred students armed with battle-axes. Eck was provided with a bodyguard of seventy-six men by the town council, to protect him from the Wittenbergers and the Bohemians who were believed to be amongst them. The concourse was so great that Duke George placed the auditorium of the Castle at their disposal. After a week of theological debate between Eck and Carlstadt, Luther answered a rhetorical question from Duke George; what does it all matter whether the pope is by divine right or by human right? He remains the pope just the same. Luther used the intervention to insist that by denying the divine origin of the papacy he was not counselling a withdrawal of obedience from the Pontiff. For Eck, however, the claim of the Pope to unquestioning obedience rested on the belief that his office was divinely instituted. Eck then attacked Luther’s teaching in its similarities with that of Wyclif and Hus, both of whom had been condemned as heretics in the early fifteenth century:

“I see” said Eck “that you are following the damned and pestiferous errors of John Wyclif, who said ‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Church is above all others.’ And you are espousing the pestilent errors of John Hus, who claimed that Peter neither was nor is the head of the Holy Catholic Church.”

“I repulse the charge of Bohemianism,” roared Luther. “I have never approved of their schism. Even though they had divine right on their side, they ought not to have withdrawn from the Church, because the highest divine right is unity and charity.”

Eck was driving Luther onto dangerous territory, especially at Leipzig, because Bohemia was close by and, within living memory, the Hussites had invaded and ravaged the Saxon lands thereabouts. Luther used an interlude in proceedings to go to the university library and read the acts of the Council of Constance, at which Hus had been condemned to be burnt. To his amazement, he found among the reproved articles the following statements of Hus:

The one holy universal Church is the company of the predestined… The universal Holy Church is one, as the number of the elect is one. 

He recognised the theology of these statements as deriving directly from St Augustine. When the assembly reconvened, Luther declared:

 Among the articles of John Hus, I find many which are plainly Christian and evangelical, which the universal church cannot condemn… As for the article of Hus that ‘it is not necessary for salvation to believe the Roman Church is superior to all others’, I do not care whether this comes from Wyclif or Hus. I know that innumerable Greeks have been saved though they never heard this article. It is not in the power of the Roman pontiff or of the Inquisition to construct new articles of faith. No believing Christian can be coerced beyond holy writ. By divine law we are forbidden to believe anything which is not established by divine Scripture or manifest revelation. One of the canon lawyers has said that the opinion of a single private man has more weight than that of a Roman pontiff or an ecclesiastical council if grounded on a better authority or reason. I cannot believe that the Council of Constance would condemn these propositions of Hus… The Council did not say that all the articles of Hus were heretical. It said that ‘some were heretical, some erroneous, some blasphemous, some presumptuous, some sedtious and some offensive to pious respectively… 

Luther went on, now in German, to reiterate that a council cannot make divine right out of that which by nature is not divine right and make new articles of faith, and that a simple layman armed with Scripture is… above a pope or a council without it. Articles of faith must come from Scripture, for the sake of which we should reject pope and councils. Eck retorted, in a manner which conjured up memories of the Hussite hordes ravaging Saxon lands, that this is the Bohemian virus, in that the Reverend Father, against the holy Council of the Constance and the consensus of all Christians does not fear to call certain articles of Wyclif and Hus most Christian and evangelical. 

After the Leipzig debate, Eck came upon a new fagot for Luther’s pyre. “At any rate,” he crowed, “no one is hailing me as the Saxon Hus.” Two letters to Luther had been intercepted, from Hussites of Prague, in which they said, “What Hus was once in Bohemia you, Martin, are in Saxony. Stand firm.” When they did eventually reach Luther, they were accompanied by a copy of Hus’s work On the Church. “I agree now with more articles of Hus than I did at Leipzig,” Luther commented. In February of the following year, he had come to the conclusion that “we are all Hussites without knowing it.” For Eck and the Roman Pontiff and curia, however, ‘Hussite’ remained a byword for ‘heretic’, and Luther was indeed known amongst them as ‘the Saxon Hus’. Luther was still in mortal danger, and no doubt remembered how his predecessor had been given an imperial pass to Constance and never returned.

By February 1520, Luther had also become a national figure in Germany, as a result of the Leipzig debate. His endorsement of Hus was not likely to have brought him acclaim among Germans more widely, except that it cast him in the role of an insurgent heretic who had held his argument against one of the most renowned theologians of his time. But it may well have been the dissemination of his writings which proved more influential in making him not only a national but also an international figure. In addition to reaching Spain and England, the Swiss reformer Zwingli had also been distributing his printed sermons around Zurich and the Swiss cantons. Such acclaim rapidly made Luther the head of a movement which has come to be known as the Reformation. As it took on shape, it was bound to come into contact with those two great philosophical movements of his day, the Renaissance and nationalism.


The Renaissance was a many-sided phenomenon in which a central place was occupied by the ideal commonly labelled ‘Humanism’. Although a synthesis between the classical and the Christian had already been achieved by St Augustine, a menace to Christianity was still implicit in the movement because it was centred on mankind, because the search for truth in any quarter might lead to ‘relativism’ and because the philosophies of antiquity had no place for the distinctive tenets of Christianity: the Incarnation and the Cross. Yet, at several points, Humanism and the Reformation could form an alliance. Both demanded the right of free investigation. The Humanists included the Bible and the biblical languages in the curriculum of reviving antiquity, and Luther’s battle for the right understanding of Paul’s teaching on the Hebrews appeared to them, as to Luther himself, as a continuation of the campaign of the great German Hebraist, Reuchlin, over the freedom of scholarship (see the cartoon below).


The deepest affinity appeared at that point where the Renaissance man was not so sure of himself, when he began to wonder whether his valour might not be thwarted by the goddess Fortuna or whether his destiny had not already been determined by the stars. Here was Luther’s problem of God the capricious and God the adverse. Renaissance man, confronted by this enigma and having no deep religion of his own, was commonly disposed to find solace less in Luther’s stupefying irrationalities than in the venerable authority of the Church. Erasmus was closer to Luther than any other figure of the Renaissance because he was so Christian. His ideal, like that of Luther, was to revive the Christian consciousness of Europe through the dissemination of the sacred writings, and to that end, it was Erasmus who first made available the New Testament in its Greek original. The volume reached Wittenberg just as Luther was working on the ninth chapter of Romans, and thereafter it became his working tool. It was from this tool that he learned of the inaccuracy of the Vulgate rendering of ‘do penance’ rather than ‘be penitent’. Luther and Erasmus had much in common. Both insisted that the Church of their day had relapsed into the Judaistic legalism castigated by St Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, has been made to consist not in loving one’s neighbour, but in abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent.



Nevertheless, Erasmus was wary of giving his unreserved support to Luther. He was nostalgic for the old unities of Europe, the multi-cultural states and empires. His dream was that Christian Humanism might serve as a check upon the growth of nationalism. The threat of war and division implicit in the Reformation frightened him, and he had good cause for this, as German nationalism was the second great movement to attach itself to the Reformation, just as Bohemian nationalism had previously attached itself to the cause of the Hussites. Germany was retarded in the process of national unification as compared with Spain, France, England and even Bohemia. Germany had no centralised government and no obvious capital city. The Holy Roman Empire no more than approximated a German national state because it was at once too large, since any European prince was eligible for the highest office, and too small, because of the dominance of the Habsburg dynasty and, by 1519, their huge European and overseas empire.


Germany was segmented into small and overlapping jurisdictions of princes and bishops. The free cities became entangled in shifting alliances with the territories as well as, for trading purposes, with the Hanseatic League. The knights were a restive class seeking to arrest the waning of their power, and the peasants were likewise restive because they wanted to have a political role commensurate with their economic importance. No government and no class was able to weld Germany into one. Dismembered and retarded, she was derided by the Italians and treated by the papacy as a private cow. Resentment against Rome was more intense than in countries where national governments curbed papal exploitation. The representatives of German nationalism who for several years in some measure affected Luther’s career were Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen. Hutten was himself both a knight and a Humanist. He illustrates the diversity of Humanism, which could at once be internationalist in Erasmus, and nationalist in him.

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Hutten did much to create the concept of German nationalism and to construct the picture of the ideal German, who should repel the enemies of the fatherland and erect a culture able to vie with the Italian culture. In the opening stages of Luther’s skirmishes with Eck at Leipzig, Hutten looked on the controversy as a squabble between monks, but he soon realised that Luther’s words had a ring of his own about them. Luther, too, resented the fleecing of Germany, Italian chicanery and duplicity. Luther wished that St Peter’s might lie in ashes rather than that Germany should be despoiled. Hutten’s picture of the Romantic German could be enriched by Luther’s concept of a mystical depth in the German soul exceeding that of other peoples.


In August 1520 Luther intimated that, due to the promises of support he had received from Hutten and Sickingen, including an offer to ride to his aid with a hundred knights, he would attack the papacy as Antichrist. He also wanted the curia to know that, if by their fulminations he was exiled from Saxony, he would not go to Bohemia, but would find asylum in Germany itself, where he might be more obnoxious than he would be under the surveillance of the prince and fully occupied with his teaching duties. While the assurance of protection from the German knights undoubtedly emboldened him, the source of his courage was not to be found in a sense of immunity. As Roland Bainton has pointed out, the most intrepid revolutionary is the one who has a fear greater than anything his opponents can inflict upon him. Luther, who had trembled before the face of God, had no fear before the face of man. It was at this point, in August 1520, that Luther penned his tract, The Address to the German Nobility, one of several that he wrote during the summer months of that year.


Franz von Sickengen’s castle, where Hutten also established himself during

the ‘warless winter’ of 1519-20.

The poet laureate read to the illiterate knights from Luther’s German works.

(to be continued…)

Posted January 22, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Apocalypse, Austria-Hungary, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Calais, Christian Faith, Church, Conquest, Egalitarianism, Empire, Europe, France, Germany, Gospel of John, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Matthew, Henry VIII, History, Humanism, Hungary, Integration, Medieval, Mediterranean, Messiah, Migration, Millenarianism, Monarchy, Monuments, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Ottoman Empire, Papacy, Reformation, Renaissance, Statehood, theology, Tudor England, Turkey, Uncategorized, Warfare

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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…)

Kit ‘Catesby’ Harington’s ‘Gunpowder’. Was 17th-century Britain really so brutal and sickening?: A response to Rebecca Rideal’s article in ‘the Guardian’, 24 October.   Leave a comment

Kit Harington, Liv Tyler and Sian Webber in Gunpowder.

Above: Kit Harington, Liv Tyler and Sian Webber in Gunpowder. ‘This was a century of fierce religious conflict which was defined by conflict wrought by the competing powers of state battling for supremacy.’ Photograph: Robert Viglaski/BBC / Kudos.

The following article appeared in The Guardian last week, and it not only got me thinking about my favourite period in British and European history, one which had me dressing up as a Roundhead army chaplain in the Sealed Knot, but also researching into both my own ancestors from that period and those of ‘Kit Harington’. Just as it’s quite likely that my own ancestors were on both sides of the Gunpowder Rebellion, as it should more properly be called, it is certain that this was the case with those of the now famous actor. As a historical event, it is not unsurprising that the ‘Plot’ should be seen as a precursor to the full-scale civil wars which were to dominate the middle years of the century both in Britain and on the continent, but the nature of the actual and potential violence involved was more reminiscent of the previous century than it was of the battles, sieges and skirmishes which provided the context for the fratricide of the new one. Life in the 1600s remained as ‘nasty, brutal and short’ as it had done in the 1500s, but for most of the population this was due to the virulence of pestilences in Britain, whereas in Tudor times many had lived in terror of the violence of the state towards the adherents of the Catholic cause on the one hand, or Protestantism on the other. The Peace of Augsburg of 1555 had given both sides the right to impose their faith on the other through the rulers of the cities and states in which they lived. Civilian Catholics were massacred in the North of England, the Huguenots were massacred on St Bartholemew’s Day 1572 in France and thereafter ‘harried out of the land’ by Louis XIV, and the Dutch fought a guerilla war against the Spanish Empire’s Counter-Reforming zeal. In all of this, torture and the torch were the main weapons of oppression of both individuals and whole communities. Against this backcloth, plots and counter-plots became the order of the day in Elizabeth’s reign. Admittedly, had the 1605 Plot succeeded in blowing up the entire Establishment at Westminster, it would have dwarfed even the Spanish Armada in the scale of its attempt to restore Britain to Catholic Christendom, but in its abject failure it mirrored the Earl of Essex’s ‘Rebellion’ against Queen Elizabeth of four years earlier.

When battles and skirmishes are re-enacted, the attempt to portray the nature and extent of the violence on TV is often shielded from the viewer by the rapid repetition with which it occurs, together with the sheer scale of the events depicted. Massacres of baggage trains are beginning to be shown, but generally the violence is seen as occurring between armed forces roughly equal in their power of arms. Despite this, I was recently reminded of the importance of the unsentimental portrayal of violence in children’s literature from this period, in reading Captain Maryat’s Children of the New Forest to my eleven-year-old son. Maryat made no attempt to shield his young readers from the results of violent acts on the individual.  To depict the more personal and individual violence inflicted by powerful states in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in massacres and executions, it is the inequality of power which needs to be depicted. That is one reason why I find the reaction to violent ‘re-enactments’ and representations of historical realities so surprising, especially when they come from historians.

Gunpowder: viewers shocked by violent scenes in BBC drama

Unnecessarily gruesome and brutal”, “sickening” and “gore-filled” are just some of the ways Kit Harington’s new BBC series, Gunpowder, has been described by viewers and critics.

The series follows the events of the plot to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 and, during the first episode, we saw a Catholic woman crushed to death as punishment for her faith, and a Jesuit priest hanged, drawn and quartered. We saw the blood. We saw the guts. We saw the pain. Unsurprisingly, some viewers were shocked, and have argued that the explicit violence was gratuitous and too much for a Saturday night TV show.

But when it comes to history on television, too often the brutal reality of everyday life is brushed under the sumptuous carpets of romantic period dramas… Dramas such as Gunpowder (and, indeed, ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘Harlots’) provide a crucial insight into a violent past that modern Brits need to confront.

What’s more, it is only by understanding this past that we can begin to fully understand the religious persecutions of our history and the country we live in today. That Gunpowder is shockingly violent is undeniable, but what is also undeniable is that it provides an authentic glimpse into the real, raw world that 17th-century people had to endure.

Actually, another reason for my surprise at the way some critics have reacted, is that ‘it’s all been done before’. There was an excellent historical drama on the Plot in 2005 (with Robert Carlyle as James I) which also contained graphic violence, including the gruesome execution of Jesuit priests. What was most interesting, however, was the way in which James I’s change of policy in reviving the more barbaric forms of execution was justified with reference to the Jesuit belief that martyrdom would result in them going straight to heaven, without passing through purgatory. In the film, both James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, agree that only a slow and agonising death would act as a deterrence. Although the violent solution may be very much of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, there is little doubt that the failure of deterrence used by powerful but democratic states today leaves them vulnerable to terrorism on a small-scale, as well as on a larger one. Yet we are critical when counter-terrorist forces use even discriminatory violence to ‘take out’ suspect terrorists ‘in theatre’ in order to prevent them from mounting further attacks and to deter others from joining the ‘jihadis’.

Arguably, the gruesome death of my own ancestors, the Wintour brothers, made them more central to the Plot as it occurred than even Catesby, whom they recruited as a ‘celebrity’ leader, though he himself was a recent convert to Catholicism. In the end, it was the brothers, from a long line of noble and gentlemen recusants, degraded through persecution, who paid for their choice and his mistakes by facing the Scaffold, since both ‘financiers’, Catesby and Percy, were killed (allegedly by the same musket-ball) at the siege at Holbeach. It was the gruesome death of two brothers with the right to wear Plantagenet coats of arms, which finally terrorised the Catholic gentry of the Midlands into submission and put an end to the Plantaganet plotting which had continued since their defeat at Stoke Field in 1487. Elizabeth’s policy of fines and imprisonment had failed, hence the reintroduction of more barbaric methods of torture and execution. I shall be interested to see how well this dilemma is portrayed in this series, or whether it simply succeeds in substituting one ‘celebrity’, Guy Fawkes, for another, Robert Catesby.

Perhaps Kit Harington might have made his drama less violent, and at the same time more interesting, by paying homage to the other side of his family, who were just as involved in the events of 1603-5 as the Catesbys and the Wintours. In addition to being a direct descendant of Robert Catesby through his mother, from whose maiden name he acquired his middle name, Catesby, Christopher  (or ‘Kit’ from Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright, Christopher Marlowe) Harington is directly descended through his paternal grandfather,  Sir Richard Harington, 14th baronet, to the sixteenth century Haringtons, to Sir James Harington of Exton, Rutland and his sons. Sir John Harington, created 1st baronet Exton at the coronation of James I, was a close member of the courts of both Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Sir James Harington, the third son, became 1st baronet of Ridlington, from whom Kit Harington’s father is directly descended.

Sir John Harington became guardian and tutor to the King’s daughter, Elizabeth, on whom the Midland Rebellion centred, and who was spirited away to the walled city of Coventry from Harington’s home at nearby Coombe Abbey on the night the plot in London was ‘discovered’ by the King and Cecil. This followed their receipt of the anonymous warning letter,  which both Catesby and Percy claimed to have been written to Lord Monteagle by Francis Tresham, the thirteenth plotter. But Tresham pleaded his innocence, and recent evidence suggests that the letter have been written by Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland, Thomas Percy’s own cousin and patron. He was also the man most likely to become Elizabeth’s Protector, had the Plot succeeded. Both Thomas and Henry had been frequent guests at Coombe Abbey, so both would have known the young princess well. In an extraordinary act of bravado Catesby had planned to go hunting with James just before the opening of Parliament, but was warned of the ‘betrayal’ by Monteagle’s servant.

Harington accompanied the Earl of Warwick, Fulke Greville, in his pursuit and besieging of the rebels at Holbeach House. He had himself been made High Sheriff of Rutland under Elizabeth and was Greville’s Deputy Lieutenant in Warwickshire. Sir John had acquired Coombe Abbey on his marriage to Anne Kelway. Though the Haringtons were a Rutland family, they claimed descent from the Scottish Bruces, hence their closeness to the royal family. Harington had accompanied Mary Queen of Scots on her progress from Staffordshire to Fotheringay in Northamptonshire, and his wife attended on Anne of Denmark, James’ Queen consort, during her stay in Edinburgh, as well as on the couple’s progress to London in the spring of 1603. The Princess Elizabeth broke her journey to attend the coronation two months later, and had been just seven years of age when her new governor brought her to live at Coombe Abbey in October. It remained her chief place of residence between 1603 and 1608. There she formed a close friendship with Harington’s niece, Ann Dudley. It is said that they could often be seen going off for walks in the nearby woods, or sitting together in the beautiful formal gardens that immediately surrounded the house.

The second baronet Exton, John Harington, born at Coombe in 1592, was a close friend and companion of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, on 5 January 1604 he was created, along with The Duke of York and others, a Knight of the Bath. In September he went a foreign tour with John Tovey, a master of the free school at Guildford, who later became Elizabeth’s Tutor and Chaplain during her time at Coombe, when he was master of the Free School in Coventry. While abroad, young John corresponded in French and Latin with Prince Henry. After seven weeks in the Low Countries, where he visited the universities, courts of three princes, and military fortifications, he went to Italy in 1608. He wrote from Venice (28 May 1609) announcing his intention of returning through France to spend the rest of his life with his royal friend. Henry’s death (6 November 1612) greatly grieved him, as it did his sister (I have written about their sibling relationship elsewhere on this site). The following year, Elizabeth married Frederick V, Elector Palatine and Lord Harington accompanied her to the Electoral Palatinate, but died at Worms, Germany on his way home in 1613. After his death his estate at Exton was sold to pay his creditors, so the young Lord Harington had only the Coombe estate to fall back on. Aged 21, he never recovered from the debts his father had incurred in providing royal hospitality, and continued to grieve deeply for Prince Henry. He died in 1614 and was buried at Exton with an eulogy from John Donne.

Not only did Coombe host Prince Henry on an occasional basis, in addition to the Princess, but the Harington’s second home also provided lodging to several Scottish and English noblemen, including two Percies, a Devereux, a Hume and a Bruce. The combined households of the Prince and Princess numbered 141 above and 85 below stairs. At one point, Lord Harington was entertaining no fewer than 426 guests at the Abbey, of whom 207 were in receipt of salaries and a further 97 were employed by the architect Inigo Jones, who had been hired to carry out renovations at this time.

Above: Elizabeth Stuart, aged 7 (1603, at Coombe?)


Right: Elizabeth, aged 10 (1606)


It may have been Thomas Percy’s frequent visits to Coombe which led to the plot to capture the royal princess. The rebels may have hoped that Prince Henry would have been there too. He was only two years older than Elizabeth in 1605, aged 11. If he was in the House of Lords with his father, as Prince of Wales, he would lose his life. Thomas Percy, as a member of the royal household, was trying to find out what the plans were, but seems not to have succeeded in doing so before the fuse was about be lit. He visited his cousin on 4th November, to find out how much Northumberland, and perhaps others, knew about the plot. The younger of James’ sons, Prince Charles, was quite a sickly child, and was not expected to long outlive his brother, although he was second in line before Elizabeth. Percy had visited him on 1 November to try to ascertain his whereabouts on 5th.

It therefore seemed to be a lower-risk strategy to kidnap Elizabeth from her country residence than to attempt to smuggle Charles out of his rooms in Whitehall, where he would have been surrounded by guards. In any case, the people would surely warm to a talented young woman as Queen who, even at the age of seven, was displaying all the skills of her illustrious aunt and namesake, and James had probably not yet fixed the succession in any case.

At Allhallowtide on 31 October, 1603, Catesby had sent for his cousin Thomas Wintour, who was at Huddington Court in Worcestershire with his brother Robert. As descendents of both the Golafre and Huddington families, they were entitled to wear the baronial coats of arms of both families. Thomas was educated as a lawyer and had fought for England in the Low Countries, but in 1600 had converted to Catholicism. Following the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion, he had travelled to Spain to raise support for English Catholics, a mission which the authorities would later describe as comprising part of a ‘Spanish Treason’. Although Thomas declined his invitation, Catesby again invited him in February the next year. They were related through the wealthy recusant Throckmorton family of Coughton Court in Warwickshire, which was to feature in the plot. When Wintour responded to the summons he found his cousin with the swordsman John Wright. Catesby told him of his plan to kill the king and his government by blowing up “the Parliament howse with Gunpowder … in that place have they done us all the mischiefe, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment.” Wintour at first objected to his cousin’s scheme, but Catesby, who said that “the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy”, won him over.

Despite Catholic Spain’s moves toward diplomacy with England, Catesby still harboured hopes of foreign support and a peaceful solution. Wintour therefore returned to the continent, where he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the affable Constable of Castille to press for good terms for English Catholics in forthcoming peace negotiations. He then turned to Sir William Stanley, an English Catholic and veteran commander who had switched sides from England to Spain, and the exiled Welsh spy Hugh Owen; both cast doubt on the plotters’ chances of receiving Spanish support. Owen did, however, introduce Wintour to Guy Fawkes, whose name Catesby had already supplied as “a confidant gentleman” who might enter their ranks. Fawkes was a devout English Catholic who had travelled to the continent to fight for Spain in the Dutch War of Independence. Wintour told him of their plan to “doe some whatt in Ingland if the pece with Spaine healped us nott”, and thus in April 1604 the two men returned home. Wintour told Catesby that despite positive noises from the Spanish, he feared that they “the deeds would nott answere”. This was a response that in Nicholls’s opinion came as no surprise to Catesby, who wanted and expected nothing less.

A monochrome engraving of eight men, in 17th-century dress; all have beards, and appear to be engaged in discussion.A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe; Catesby is second from the right.

Early in June 1605, Catesby met the principal Jesuit in England, Father Henry Garnet, on Thames Street in London. While discussing the war in Flanders, Catesby asked about the morality of “killing innocents”, in other words, the royal children who would be at the state opening of Parliament. This continued to prick the consciences of the plotters right up until 4th November, which is why they sought opportunities to kidnap all three of the children. It is also notable that this is what sets them apart from more recent terrorists, who have no such moral qualms in sacrificing children to their cause. Garnet said that such actions could often be excused, but according to his own account during a second meeting in July he showed Catesby a letter from the pope which forbade rebellion anyway. Catesby replied, “Whatever I mean to do, if the Pope knew, he would not hinder for the general good of our country.” Father Garnet’s protestations prompted Catesby’s next reply, “I am not bound to take knowledge by you of the Pope’s will.”Soon after, Father Tesimond told Father Garnet that, while taking Catesby’s confession, he had learned of the plot. Father Garnet met with Catesby a third time on 24 July at White Webbs in Enfield Chase, the home of Catesby’s wealthy relative Anne Vaux, and a house long suspected by the government of harbouring Jesuit priests. Without acknowledging that he was aware of the precise nature of the plot, the priest tried in vain to dissuade Catesby from his course.

At the beginning of November, as Fawkes made a final check on the gunpowder, other conspirators took up their positions in the Midlands. Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, already aware of certain stirrings before he received the letter, did not yet know the exact nature of the plot or who exactly was involved. He elected to wait, to see how events unfolded. On 3 November, Catesby met with Wintour and Percy in London. Although the nature of their discussion is unknown, Antonia Fraser theorises that some adjustment of their plan to abduct Princess Elizabeth may have occurred, as later accounts told how Percy had been seen at Charles, Duke of York’s lodgings, also enquiring as to the movements of the king’s daughter. A week earlier—on the same day that Monteagle received his letter—Catesby had been at White Webbs with Fawkes, to discuss kidnapping Prince Henry rather than Princess Elizabeth. As already conjectured, he may have received information from Percy that both the Prince and Princess would be at Coombe during the state opening, though Fawkes’ possible involvement may also suggest that he would kidnap the Prince from Whitehall, perhaps with the help of Percy. Certainly, it seems to have been part of the plan for Henry Percy to become Elizabeth’s Protector had the Plot in London succeeded. Both Thomas and Henry were probably well-known to both Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth, from the time they spent together at Coombe Abbey. 

The events of the night of 4th-5th November are well-known. Catesby and Percy met up with other gentry under the guise of a hunting match on Dunsmore near Coombe Abbey. When the news from London reached the ears of those assembled at Dunchurch, most refused to join Catesby’s rebellion. Those who did rode off in the direction of Warwick, seemingly abandoning their plan to kidnap the Princess Elizabeth. On 6 November the rebels raided Warwick Castle for supplies, before continuing to Norbrook to collect stored weapons. From there they continued their journey to Huddington in Worcestershire. Catesby gave his servant Bates a letter to deliver to Father Garnet and the other priests gathered at Coughton Court, informing them of what had transpired, and asking for their help in raising an army in Wales, where Catholic support was believed to be strong. The priest begged Catesby and his followers to stop their “wicked actions”, and to listen to the Pope’s preachings. Father Garnet fled, and managed to evade capture for several weeks. Catesby and the others arrived at Huddington at about 2:00 pm, and were met by Thomas Wintour. Terrified of being associated with the fugitives, family members and former friends showed them no sympathy.

Meanwhile, it  was also on the morning of 6th November that Lord Harington received a letter from Mr Benock, the Horse Trainer at Warwick Castle, informing him that John Grant of Norbrook had stolen some of the war horses and, judging from the manner in which these circumstances occurred, he feared that insurrection was at hand in the country. Harington wrote immediately to Salisbury, enclosing Benock’s letter and asking for an immediate reply as to what was to be done if there was indeed a rebellion taking place. He then arranged for the Princess Elizabeth to be taken into the walled City of Coventry, where she was lodged in the Palace Yard, remaining there until the apparent danger had passed. The citizens of Coventry, loyal protestants all, rallied to her defence and armed themselves in readiness. Harington himself rode to Warwick Castle to lend Sir Fulke Greville, as County Sheriff, his assistance in the pursuit of the rebels, who by this time were already at Huddington.

Back in London, under pain of torture, Fawkes had started to reveal what he knew, and on 7 November the government named Catesby as a wanted man. Early that morning at Huddington, the remaining outlaws went to confession, before taking the sacrament — in Fraser’s opinion, a sign that none of them thought they had long to live. The party of fugitives, which included those at the centre of the plot, their supporters and Digby’s hunting party, by now had dwindled to only thirty-six in number. From there, they struck out for Staffordshire and Holbeche House, perhaps still with the intention of trying to raise a Welsh army. The House was home to Stephen Lyttleton, one of their party. The following day, 8th November, while the fugitives were recovering from injuries sustained in an accident while trying to dry the gunpowder, the sheriffs of Staffordshire and Worcestershire had joined Fulke Greville’s posse from Warwickshire.

Percy and Catesby slain in attempting their escape from Holbeach, unknown artist.

Again, the main events are relatively well-known. Richard Walsh, Sheriff of Worcester, and his company of 200 men besieged Holbeche House at about 11:00 a.m. While crossing the courtyard Thomas Wintour was hit in the shoulder. John Wright was shot, followed by his brother, and then Rookwood. Catesby and Percy were reportedly both dropped by a single lucky shot, while standing near the door, and not, as depicted above, in the sword-fight in which Catesby had vowed to die defending his faith. He managed to crawl inside the house, where his body was later found, clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary. The survivors were taken into custody and the dead buried near Holbeche. On the orders of the Earl of Northampton however, the bodies of Catesby and Percy were later exhumed and decapitated, their heads taken to London to be placed on spikes to look upon the parliament buildings they had failed to destroy.

With Thomas Percy dead, there was nobody who could either implicate or clear his cousin, Henry Percy of any involvement in the plot. Some have speculated that this was why Catesby and Thomas Percy were not captured alive at Holbeach, along with most of the other conspirators, and why they were mysteriously killed by the same musket ball. Was someone under orders to make sure they did not survive to tell the tale, or, as seems more likely, were they determined to die then and there rather than implicating others under torture? Certainly, it seems strange that they were the only principle plotters to meet their end under musket fire, when the group as a whole, about thirty in number at most, could easily have been wiped out by a force of two hundred trained musketeers. As it was, Henry’s failure to ensure that Thomas took the Oath of Supremacy upon his appointment as a Gentleman Pensioner, and their meeting on 4 November, constituted damning evidence. The Privy Council also suspected that had the plot succeeded, he would have been Princess Elizabeth’s Lord Protector. With insufficient evidence to convict him, however, he was charged with contempt, fined £30,000 and stripped of all public offices. He remained in the Tower until 1621.

A few months later, when Princess Elizabeth was safely back at Coombe Abbey, Lord Harington wrote a letter to his cousin, James Harington of Ridlington, describing the events of 5-8 November. In it, he suggests that the rebellion was not finally put down until 10th November, with the three sheriffs and himself remaining on active duty and alert until then (we know that at least four of the major protagonists had left Holbeach before the siege):

Our great care and honourable charge entrusted to us by the King’s majesty hath been a matter of so much concern that it almost effaced the attentions of kin or friend. With God’s assistance we hope to do our lady Elizabeth such service as is due to her princely endowments and natural abilities, both which appear the sweet dawning of future comfort to her Royal Father. The late devilish conspiracy did much to disturb this part. I went with Sir Fulke Greville to alarm the neighbourhood and surprise the villains who came to Holbeche and was out five days in peril of death, in fear for the great charge I had left at home. Her highness doth often say, “What a Queen I should have been by this means. I had rather have been with my Royal Father in the Parliament House, than wear his crown on such condition.” This poor Lady hath not yet recovered the surprise and is very ill and troubled.

The princess  remained at Coombe for another three years, until at Christmas 1608 she moved to her own establishment at Kew, though Lord Harington still controlled her movements and expenditure. This was the source of many of Harington’s troubles, since the two thousand pounds a year pension promised by the King was never paid, but, in any case, would have come nowhere near meeting the princess’ expenditure, which in 1612-13 alone was in the region of 3,500 pounds (she was unaware of these debts, unpaid by her father, until after her wedding). She was married to Frederick, Elector Palatine, on Valentine’s Day in 1613, despite her mother’s disapproval, and Lord Harington rode at the head of the wedding procession to Whitehall. He also bore the costs of the wedding, later disclosing that it had cost him in the region of thirty thousand pounds to take care of her. Lord and Lady Harington accompanied the Royal couple to Heidelberg after the wedding, as did Elizabeth’s friend, Ann Dudley. Frederick was so besotted by his new bride that he had a whole new wing of the castle built for her and her servants. Harington stayed at Heidelberg for a further four months, arbitrating in various disputes within her household in his role as Royal Ambassador.  Worn out by these cares and concerns, he decided to return to England, but died of a fever at Worms, only fifty miles from the castle. His body was returned to Exton for burial, after which Lady Harington was invited to rejoin Elizabeth’s household. Finally, James granted her a stipend of five thousand pounds.

John Harington, 2nd Baron.jpg

Young John Harington, who became the 2nd baron of Exton, a teenager at the time of the plot, later remembered making an opportune study of the heads of Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy while en route to London, and later reflected: “more terrible countenances were never looked upon”. The second baronet, described by one of his companions as the most complete young gentleman of his age that this kingdom could afford for religion, learning and courteous behaviour, tragically died of smallpox in February 1614, aged just 22, having sold his family home at Exton just a week before. The Coombe estates passed to his sister Lucy, by then the Countess of Bedford, though she was forced to sell it to cover her gambling debts, to Elizabeth Craven, the widow of William Craven, in 1622. By a strange twist of fate, their eldest son, also William Craven, entered the service of Maurice, Prince of Orange, in the fight to restore the Bohemian Crown to Frederick and Elizabeth, the couple now known as ‘the winter King and Queen’ of Bohemia, having been deposed by the Hapsburgs after just one winter in Prague. These were the events which marked the beginning the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, which laid waste to much of Europe.

Coat of Arms of the Harington baronets, ancestors of Kit Harington

In 1632, Frederick and Elizabeth were refugees at the court of the Prince of Orange in the Netherlands. Lord Craven was among the first to respond to the call to reinstate the exiles to the throne of Bohemia, and was appointed one of the commanders of the English army in Germany. He accompanied Frederick when he left the Hague to begin his campaign. He led his British volunteers on a seemingly hopeless attack on the Fortress at Creuznach, himself planting the Bohemian standard in victory on the Citadel walls. He was knighted by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden as he lay wounded among the ruins. King Gustavus was killed during the victorious Battle of Lutzen. This demoralised Frederick so much that he gave up the fight, falling into a fit of melancholy which, together with illness, brought about his death in November 1632. The following year, Craven returned to England, where he received a hero’s welcome and Charles I granted him permission to enclose six hundred acres around Coombe Abbey to form a park. He became the principal benefactor for the widowed Elizabeth and in 1637 was back on the continent fighting for Prince Rupert, her eldest son, in his attempt to regain his father’s throne. They were both captured at the Battle of Limgea but, having secured his own release on ransom of twenty thousand pounds, Craven remained in Germany to secure Prince Rupert’s release on the condition that he ceased hostilities against the Emperor.

Shortly after Craven returned to England, but in 1640 he moved permanently to Elizabeth’s Court at the Hague. Although supporting Charles I on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, he remained abroad and aided the Royalist cause with financial contributions. When Parliament eventually won the war, the majority of his estates were confiscated. However, his prospective heir had married into the Fairfax family, leading Parliamentarians, so the Cravens were allowed to keep Coombe Abbey. When, following his restoration in 1660, King Charles II turned his back on his aunt, making no palace or house available to her, Craven, who had continued to support her in the Hague, offered her his own house in Drury Lane. She continued to live there until 1662, when she leased her own dwelling at Leicester House. There she died a fortnight after moving in, on 26 February, aged 66. There were rumours of a romantic relationship between Craven and Elizabeth, and some suggested that a private marriage existed between them. However, she was twelve years his senior, he having been born in 1608. Perhaps he was simply the perfect, gallant and chivalrous knight who had sworn to serve Elizabeth and considered it a great honour to do so. Certainly, he continued to spend vast amounts on her. When she died, he was having a country house built for her, Ashdown House, near his own house at Hamstead Marshall in Berkshire, which, along with Coombe Abbey, was also being rebuilt. The latter was leased to his godson, Isaac Gibson, and in 1667-1669 a new wing was added to the original Harington building.

Ashdown House

Lord Craven regained control of Coombe in the 1670s, putting his son and heir in charged of the planned alterations to the House. He had planned for some time to create an appropriate setting for collection of Stuart portraits left to him by the Queen of Bohemia. He may also have decided to house the few possessions she held at her death to a place where, as a child, she had spent her happiest hours. The idea to transform Hamstead Marshall into a “miniature Heidelberg” had never materialised and the sentimental links with Coombe Abbey may have persuaded Lord Craven to make Coombe Abbey their permanent home, as well as the principal family seat of the Cravens, following the death of the Earl himself. He eventually died on 9 April 1697 at Drury Lane, aged 89.

We should not assume that people at that time were any more inured to the violence than we are to the use of torture and execution in the twentieth century (in recent memory). Neither was the state violence of the seventeenth century primarily anti-Catholic or religiously motivated. The executions, viewed in the context and the standards of the time, were punishments for treason, not heresy, as the Marian burnings had been. Nevertheless, the Jacobite policy was a radical return to methods not used since that time, an admission that Elizabeth I’s ‘via media’ had not worked in bringing about the Tudor dynasty’s hoped for security from foreign-sponsored plots and insurrections. This has also to be seen in the broader geographical context of a successful counter-reformation in Europe led, violently, by the Hapsburgs, as evident in the Spanish Inquisition. Anti-Catholic feeling in Britain was certainly at a high water mark in 1601-5, manipulated by a vulnerable establishment. In this context, the Jesuits were seen as the ‘Jihadi’ apologists of a terrorist network stretching through the Spanish Netherlands to Wales and Ireland. In fact, their role in the Gunpowder Plot indicates that they were extremely reluctant to justify acts of violence by lay Catholics. As for the rest of the century, although it was one of continual conflict throughout Europe, it was not one of continuous violence in Britain and Ireland. Even the attack on Drogheda of 1649, although often described as a ‘massacre’ by Cromwell’s troops was, at the time, viewed as an act of war. Although an atrocity worthy of the title ‘war crime’, it should not be compared with the massacre of Protestant settlers which took place decades earlier. Again, the intention of the war in Ireland was to provide security for the newly established British Republic, not to terrorise the native population. Besides this, a fuller exploration of the lives of those associated with the events of 1605 would also suggest that, in British terms, that we need also to consider their constructive contribution in art, architecture and chivalry, not to mention their advocacy and practice of religious toleration and the refusal of many to take up arms in any cause. Life for many may have continued nasty, brutish and short in Burke’s well-known phrase, but it was not just about the enactment of sickening violence. Neither should it be re-enacted as such from an unearned sense of post-millenial, secular superiority.

‘He must conquer Wales, if he will have it…’: Glyn Dwr & the Mortimers in the Civil Wars in Wales & the Marches, 1398-1413.   Leave a comment

Part One: The Men and the Myths, 1398-1403

The Welsh Dynasties:

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, much of Wales was ruled by a succession of resolute Princes of Gwynedd, from the area around Snowdonia which the Anglo-Norman marcher lords had failed to penetrate. The princes strove to bring the whole of Wales under their banner, but they could only achieve this if the messy parochialism of separate territories could be sorted out by instilling in their rulers and sub-rulers the order of hierarchical allegiance demanded by the Anglo-Norman kings of the Welsh princes themselves. The Gwynedd dynasty was willing to pay this price so that, within Wales, they could exert the same feudal pyramid by referring to themselves as Princes of Wales. Through a clever combination of diplomacy and war they came close to achieving this, though not without upsetting other Welsh rulers and causing internecine strife. Wales might have emerged as a semi-feudal kingdom in a feudal Europe had it not been for the growing unease about an English kingdom which was undergoing the same process, combined with the deep mistrust felt by other Welsh princes and lords for the ‘modernising’ tendencies of the Gwynedd dynasty. When Llywelyn the Last was killed in 1282 at Cilmeri, near Builth Wells, far from his northern base, military initiatives designed to unify Wales disappeared for more than a century.


One major source of alarm in the century following Edward I’s establishment of an ‘iron ring’ of fortresses around Snowdonia was those Welshmen who took service with the enemies of the English kings. Outstanding among these was Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri, a descendent of the Gwynedd dynasty, who from 1369 led a Welsh free company of mercenaries in the service of France. Owain Lawgoch,  of the Bloody Hand, based his claim on direct dynastic inheritance of the Llywelyns and announced the imminence of his arrival with a French fleet. He sailed from Harfleur on two occasions, and throughout the 1370s there were ripples of support for his name throughout north Wales. The English authorities took these threats seriously and sent one John Lambe to murder him in Mortagne-sur-Mer in 1378, paying him twenty pounds to do the deed. There were repeated security clampdowns in Wales itself, with a coastal watch, the manning of walls and the renewed exclusion of all Welshmen from any office of significance from 1385-6. In the Welsh poetry of the period there is a note of discord and dissatisfaction at the treatment of the Welsh gentry in their own country. Gruffydd Llwyd, for example, wrote a poem bemoaning the lack of honour accorded to Welshmen of merit of the old tradition. Few Welshmen were knighted and even his own patron, Owain Glyn Dwr, who to him seemed so worthy of such reward, had been slighted.

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Where the idea of ‘the Return of Arthur’ could find an anchorage in political reality was the March, the borderland, among the Norman baronage which had long Welsh heritage. The Mortimer family could lay claim to such connections, since one of their number had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the second half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the Principality of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry.The poet Iolo Goch, one of his tenants, wrote an ode of loyalty in which he addressed Mortimer as the inheritor of the Arthurian mantle. Here was the Hero Returned who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more poignant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. With the accession of Richard II, some of the Welsh officials, at least in north Wales, returned to favour. Prominent among his supporters were the five sons of Tudur ap Gronw who, from their base in Anglesey commanded an influential set of familial connections in north Wales. Gwilym and Rhys Tudor in particular were favoured by Richard, who was as popular in north Wales as he was in Cheshire. It was at this time that the renaissance of the Welsh language was beginning to meet with judicial resistance. The language was resurgent in the Vale of Glamorgan and the Welsh became town-dwellers, in Oswestry, Brecon, and Monmouth, among others. A chorus of complaint against them burst out not only from these towns, but from merchants on the English side of the March.  Nearly every Parliament between 1378 and 1400 demanded action against the impertinent Welsh peasants, and there was even an anti-Welsh riot at the University of Oxford in which the cry went up to ‘kill the Welsh dogs!’

With this reaction, by the end of the fourteenth century, the administration of Wales was returned solidly under the control of the English crown. Wales had been experiencing growing tensions during the last quarter of the fourteenth century. At a time of falling agricultural revenues, the great landlords had become increasingly rapacious, exacting heavy fines and subsidies from their tenants. Despite the popularity of Mortimer and Richard II with the Welsh, the English king, at least, did not reciprocate in his appointments. Between 1372 and 1400, of the sixteen bishops appointed in Wales, only one was Welsh.The Welsh clergy had become increasingly outraged at the exploitation of ecclesiastical revenues by English bishops who had been appointed to the Welsh sees. Racial tensions were also growing among the burgesses of ‘English’ boroughs and their Welsh neighbours, as can be seen in the granting of charters such as that received by the Mortimer borough of St Clears in 1393, guaranteeing that cases involving burgesses should only be heard by English burgesses and true Englishmen (to the west of St Clears, along the southern coast to Pembroke, Englishmen had settled in large numbers since the Norman Conquest of Wales). There was also a significant power vacuum at the head of Welsh society. In 1398, somewhat inexplicably, Richard II exiled the dukes of Norfolk and Hereford, who had engaged in a bitter personal dispute. The banishing of Hereford, better known as Henry Bolingbroke, was an action which ultimately sealed the king’s doom. The crackdown on the over-mighty magnates, coupled with the death of Roger Mortimer (VI), meant that most of the marcher lords had been removed. Richard II’s favourites who had been appointed to the vacant lands were incapable of exercising similar authority to that of the old marcher lords, a factor which was made worse by the division of Mortimer lands by the Crown following Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399.


The Mortimers had ruled the borderlands, the Marcher Lordships, virtually unopposed, and that was enough for the English to stomach. But Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II, by which he became King Henry IV opened an era of instability in the succession in England, interwoven with the repeatedly renewed French wars, which thrust real power into the hands of the aristocracy, not least those in the March, where there were disturbances as factions moved against each other. When Henry IV made his son Prince of Wales, a French knight commented, but I think he must conquer Wales if he will have it… 

Resentment soon led to outright rebellion. As heavy communal levies were imposed, Lord Grey of Ruthin reported serious misgovernance and riot beginning in the north-eastern March, and demanded action throughout Wales, particularly against Welsh officials who were kinsmen of the troublemakers. By the spring and summer of 1400, the administration at Caernarfon was nervous. It claimed evidence of letters passing between the Welsh and the Scots which called for rebellion: men in Merioneth were stealing arms and horses; ‘reckless men’ of many areas were meeting to plot sedition. In Anglesey, certainly, the Tudors were planning a protest in their island to tap the widespread dismay of their cohort of cousins.

Who was Owain Glyn Dwr?

On his father’s side, Glyn Dwr was a member of the dynasty of northern Powys and, on his mother’s side, a descendent of the princes of Deheubarth in the south-west. The family had fought for Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in the last war of independence and regained its lands in north-east Wales through a calculated alliance with the Marcher lords of Chirk, Bromfield and Yale. In 1328 it abandoned Welsh law and secured its estate with the English feudal hierarchy. They were therefore rooted in the official Welsh aristocracy. Glyn Dwr’s grandmother was a member of the lesser aristocrat family of Lestrange.

Glyn Dwr himself held the lordships of Glyn Dyfrdwy and Cynllaith Owain near the Dee directly of the king by Welsh barony. He had an income of two hundred pounds a year and a fine, moated mansion at Sycharth with tiled and chimneyed roofs, a deerpark, heronry, fishpond and mill. He was a complete Marcher gentleman and had put in his term (possibly seven years) at the Inns of Court. He must have been knowledgeable in law and married the daughter of Sir David Hanmer, a distinguished lawyer from a cymricised Flintshire family, who had served under Edward III and Richard II. In 1386 Glyn Dwr appeared at the same court of chivalry, together with a throng of baronial youth. He had served in the French wars in the retinues of Henry of Lancaster and the Earl of Arundel. In the Scottish campaign of 1385, according to the poet, he had worn his scarlet flamingo feather and driven the enemy before him like goats, with a broken lance.

In the troubles of 1399-1400, however, Glyn Dwr ran up against a powerful neighbour in Reginald de Grey, lord of Ruthin, an intimate of the new king, Henry IV. They quarreled over common land which de Grey had stolen. Glyn Dwr lost his dispute, and could not get justice from either king or parliament; Welshmen were seen as suspect, due to their support of Richard II – What care we for these barefoot rascals? A proud man, over forty and grey-haired in service, Glyn Dwr was subjected to malicious insults and the conflict turned violent. His response was a traditional one for a Marcher lord – he would avenge his honour with his sword. But he was more than a Marcher.

He was one of the living representatives of the old royal houses of Wales, Powys, an heir to Cadwaladr the Blessed, in a Wales strewn with the rubble of such dynasties. The bards had already reminded him of this heritage, which, in any case, he was himself steeped in. His correspondence suggests that an effort was made to contact the disaffected elsewhere, and when he raised his standard outside Ruthin on 16 September 1400, his followers at once proclaimed him Prince of Wales at his manor of Glyn Dyfrdwy. This was the signal for spontaneous outbreaks in north Wales, which within a matter of weeks had devastated town like Oswestry and engulfed the whole region of north-east Wales. The response to this call was extraordinary and may have startled even Glyn Dwr himself. Supported by the Hanmers and other Norman-Welsh Marchers, together with the Dean of St Asaph, he attacked Ruthin with several hundred men and went on to ravage every town in north-east Wales: Denbigh, Rhuddlan, Flint, Hawarden, Holt, and Welshpool. Rhys and Gwilym Tudor raised a rebellion in Anglesey. Hundreds of people rushed to join and churches followed towns into flame. The lesser clergy in north Wales joined promptly, as did the Cistercians throughout Wales. In Conwy, Strata Florida, Whitland, Llantarnam they rallied to the cause. In the latter of these, the Abbot, John ap Hywel, joined Glyn Dwr’s army as its chaplain and went on to fall in battle. The Franciscans also joined the cause; the friars at Llanfaes were ejected by Henry IV’s forces and their house was ravaged. There was an immediate response from Oxford, too, where Welsh scholars at once dropped their books and picked up arms, flocking home. They entered into ‘treasonous correspondence’ and met to plot the destruction of the kingdom and the English language. There were rumours that Welsh labourers in England were downing tools and heading for home. The English Parliament at once rushed to place anti-Welsh legislation on the books. As Edward I had done more than a century before, they singled out the bards of Wales in particular.

The English ‘marchers’ were utterly unable to cope with the rebellion. The sheer scale and ferocity of the Welsh attacks overwhelmed both the Principality and the March. Henry IV marched a big army in a great arc right across north Wales, burning and looting without mercy. He left the pacification to Henry Hotspur who offered general pardons , except to the ringleaders, in order to soften the heavy communal fines which were to follow. Whole populations scrambled to make peace. Over the winter of 1400-01, Glyn Dwr took to the hills with just seven men. In the Spring, however, the Tudors snatched control of Conwy Castle by a clever trick. The capture of the castle on Good Friday 1401, while the garrison was at prayers, was an act of great bravado which captured the imaginations of many disaffected Welshmen. It was a major propaganda coup, humiliating the English and inspiring the Welsh. Owain’s little band moved quickly into the centre and the south of Wales and once more hundreds ran to join the rebel army at Mynydd Hyddgen in the Pumlumon range, where they won a decisive victory. Carmarthenshire also erupted into revolt and so many rushed to arms that the government panicked that there might be an invasion of England. Another royal army was sent to trudge in futility through south Wales, the Welsh guerilla forces melting into the countryside before it, attacking its baggage trains as it retreated. Meanwhile, a powerful onslaught on Caernarfon drove the King’s Council to consider peace terms.

The key men were coming over to Glyn Dwr’s side, the gentry. There also seems to have been a network of supporters even in the towns. Glyn Dwr’s letters went to men such as Henry Dwnn of Kidwelly, who had served under John of Gaunt in France in 1371-2 and Richard II in Ireland in 1393-4. Dwnn had already had his estates confiscated once, in 1389. His retinue of two hundred men were said to terrorise the district. Many more local magnates like him joined Glyn Dwr’s cause. It was during 1401 that Owain became fully aware of his growing power to attract such support from local populations across Wales. He also addressed letters to the Irish, in Latin, and to the Scots, in French, reminding them of the prophecy that Wales would not be freed without their assistance and urged them to send support. In his letters to south Wales he declared himself as the divinely-appointed liberator who would deliver the Welsh from their oppressors. By the end of 1401 the revolt had spread across western and central Wales, though the English government still controlled large areas in the marches, and the southern lordships were as yet untouched.

Legendary Battles and Sieges:

In June 1401, Glyn Dwr had defeated an English Army at the Battle of Hyddgen near Brecon, and the next June (1402), he personally led a force into mid Wales. To combat this, Sir Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the ten-year old earl, also Edmund, assembled an army of Herefordshire men at Ludlow, later joined by a contingent from Maelienydd. The Mortimer forces met Glyn Dwr in open battle on 22 June 1402 at Bryn Glas near Pilleth, Hay-on-Wye. Many English knights were eager to engage the Welsh forces in open battle for the first time. Although Owain’s men had waged successful guerilla campaigns, they had only once faced the English in open conflict, at Hyddgen. The odds were stacked against them and the English were expecting to slaughter the upstarts. There were about 2,500 English troops and less than a thousand Welshmen. The Welsh wore light armour but were armed with a variety of deadly hand-to-hand combat weapons adapted from farmyard tools. The English knights had polished armour-plate, battle-axes and swords. The Welsh archers, however, had the strategic advantage of the high ground at the top of a steep hill, while the English position down in the valley was hampered by marshland, through which they had had to march in order to take it up. When they saw the Welsh archers taking up their position on the brow of the hill, the English knights decided to charge up it to do battle. They were supposed to be given cover by the long bowmen whom they had recruited from Maelienydd. At a crucial moment in the battle, this contingent lowered their bows, turned around, and fired upon the English infantry below them. Under attack from all sides and immobile in their heavy armour, they provided easy prey for the Welsh peasant foot soldiers, especially once they were down off their horses.  By the end of the battle, the English had suffered a heavy defeat, losing more than a thousand men compared with Owain’s losses of just two hundred. It was a total and terrifying slaughter after which the land was said to be a sea of mud and blood. Perhaps the most important result, however, was that Sir Edmund Mortimer was captured and taken to Snowdonia by Glyn Dwr.

Following the disaster at Bryn Glas, the Percies and other relations of the Mortimers began to raise money for the ransom of Sir Edmund, but the king, already suspecting collusion between Mortimer and Glyn Dwr, forbade the payment of the ransom, and instead ordered the confiscation of Sir Edmund’s plate and jewels. Partly as a result of this, Edmund decided to make common cause with his captor, marrying Owain’s daughter, Catherine, at the end of November, then ordering his people to rally to Glyn Dwr. This may have been a ploy to obtain a quicker release, or might have been motivated by the deeper dynastic values and issues already referred to. The marriage echoed that of Ralph (II) Mortimer to Gwladus Ddu, the daughter of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in 1228, and was popular with the Mortimer ‘clan’, which had always been attracted by Cymric lore in relation to the early British kings. The family genealogy and chronicle is preceded by a ‘Brut’, a chronicle of the ancient kings of Britain, drawn up some time after 1376 when John of Gaunt was attempting to secure the royal succession for his heirs. This was used as a means of harnessing legendary ancestry to the rival Mortimer claims. It is also significant that two of the three ‘Round Tables’, tournaments and entertainments with an Arthurian theme, were hosted by the Mortimers. The first, a great four-day event, took place at Kenilworth in 1279 and celebrated the knighting of the three sons of Roger (III) Mortimer.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the death in 1398 of Roger (VI) Mortimer, who enjoyed a considerable degree of support in Shropshire and north Wales, meant that his six-year-old son Edmund was not only heir to the whole Mortimer empire in England and Wales, but was also regarded as heir to the throne. Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399 had dramatically changed this situation. Henry IV’s first Parliament recognised Bolingbroke’s son Henry as heir apparent, and the young Edmund, as a royal ward, was kept under close scrutiny, though treated with respect. Although the Mortimer estates were initially split up, in February 1400 they were taken into the hands of the steward and treasurer of the Great Council in order that their revenues could be used to defray the expenses of the royal household. Edmund and his brother Roger were allowed three hundred marks per year for their maintenance. So, when Sir Edmund, his uncle, decided to switch sides in the war of independence, the young earl’s position became an uncomfortable one, at least in political terms.

By December 1402 Sir Edmund had returned to Maelienydd proclaiming  that he had joined Owain to restore Richard II, if alive, or otherwise to place his ‘honoured nephew’, Edmund earl of March, on the throne. In the event of the success of this scheme, Owain’s claims to Wales would be respected. The men of Maelienydd were again called up to join the campaign, and they were soon joined by the earl of Northumberland and his son, Henry (‘Harry’) Hotspur, who had recently had their own rather complex quarrel with the king. Despite the death of Hotspur and a number of leading rebel nobles at the bloody engagement at Shrewsbury on 21 July 1403, Glyn Dwr continued to make headway in south Wales. His forces stormed the towns and liberated Abergavenny, Usk, Caerleon, Newport and Cardiff. In 1402-3 the whole of Wales was at war, and the English were attacked wherever they went. But to gain complete control of the country he had to overcome the biggest and toughest obstacles, the castles. Each castle was garrisoned to deal with local rebellions, equipped and supplied to withstand lengthy sieges. Owain’s men used a variety of ingenious methods to gain control of the castles. At Conwy, the Tudors had used a trick. At Dynefor they ‘sounded out’ the garrison by shouting out all the gruesome things they would inflict on the English if they did not surrender. At Caerphilly they formed a human pyramid to jump over the walls and open the gates. By the middle of 1403 Glyn Dwr had captured most of the castles and was in control of the country. Gwyn Williams (1985) distilled the essence of the war in Wales in the following graphic terms:

The twelve-year war of independence was, for the English, largely a matter of relieving their isolated castles. Expedition after expedition was beaten bootless back. Henry IV, beset by Welsh, Scots, French and rebellious barons, sent in army after army, some of them huge, all of them futile; he never really got to grips with it and the revolt largely wore itself out, in a small country blasted, burned and exhausted beyond the limit of endurance. For the Welsh, it was a Marcher rebellion and a peasants’ revolt which grew into a national guerilla war , its leader apparently flitting so swiftly and mysteriously from one storm centre to the next that in English eyes he grew to be an ogre credited with occult powers, a name to frighten children with. This probably reflects the operation of widely scattered guerilla bands operating in his name.

The sheer tenacity of the war of independence was startling. Few revolts in contemporary Europe lasted more than a few months and no previous Welsh uprising had lasted as long. This one raged for more than a full decade and didn’t really end for fifteen. While guerilla bands lurked and fought throughout the length and breadth of the country, Owain was able to put armies of ten thousand men into the field. Adam of Usk credited him with an irregular force of thirty thousand at the peak of the war. They maintained themselves partly by sheer pillage, while Owain used a combination of fire, sword and blackmail, with whole districts as well as rich men being held to ransom. For their part, the royal armies exacted a terrible vengeance in wholesale arson, looting and confiscations, even as retreating rebels scorched their own earth. Many a town and village was trapped in the grim grip of terror and counter-terror. In February 1404 the people in the hill country above Brecon agreed to submit to the king if he could defeat the rebels in their area; if not, they would remain loyal to Owain. In effect, as well as cause, this was a state of civil war. Most of the English in Wales were viewed as enemies, especially in the towns. Thomas Dyer of Carmarthen lost a thousand pounds in the rebellion. Many Welsh families had split allegiances. Robert, Abbot of Bardsey, declared for Glyn Dwr; his brother, Evan, was killed defending Caernarfon Castle for the king. Even in Owain’s own family, his cousin Hywel tried to murder him.

Yet the English campaigns of 1400 to 1403 were unable to exploit these divisions and did little to dent Owain’s military and diplomatic successes. For this was more than mere rebellion. It had serious international dimensions. During 1402-3 the revolt became enmeshed in baronial conspiracies in England which were to rally the powerful northern Percies against Henry and to cost Archbishop Scrope of York his life. The Civil War had spread to the North of England.

(to be continued…)

Early Modern English: The Sixteenth Century   1 comment

Tudor Styles and Spellings       

Just as the private letters of the Pastons and the Celys written in the fifteenth century give us some idea of everyday speech among the merchant families of the time, so the letters of the Lisle family, from the early sixteenth century, give us some idea of colloquial language fifty years later.

Writers at that time were still not using a nationally standardised form of spelling, but this does not mean that their spelling was haphazard or that they simply ‘wrote as they spoke’. There were inconsistencies, particularly in the use of the now redundant final ‘e’ in many words, but the authors of letters had clearly learnt a system of spelling. Variations were the result of the lack of dictionaries until the latter part of the century.

The Lisle letters were written to and by Lord Lisle, his family, friends and staff, when he was Governor of Calais, then still an English possession under Henry VIII, from 1533 to 1540. The letters reveal a wide range of styles of correspondence, both formal and informal, therefore providing important primary evidence of the state of the language in the first half of the century before the Anglican Reformation.

A letter of 1539, written by George Bassett, Lady Lisle’s fourteen-year-old son by her first marriage, reveals the use of purely formal family correspondence. George has no news to convey, being a servant in the household of Sir Francis Bryan in order to further his education, but he addresses his mother in the approved Tudor manner, according to Muriel St Clare Byrne, the editor of The Lisle Letters:


Ryht honorable and my most dere and singler goode lorde and ladye/ in my most humble man(ner) I recomaunde me unto yow besechynge to have yor dailye blessynge/ and to here of yor goode and prospus helth/ fore the conservatione of whiche/ I praye dailye unto almyghty godde… ffurthermore I beseche yor lordship and ladishipe to have me heartilye recomendyde unto my Brother and Systers. And thus I praye godde to conserve yor ladyshipe ever in goode/ longe/ and prosperus helthe wt honor. ffrom Woburn the firste daye of Julye

By yor humble and

owne Son George


So, George’s formal ‘duty letter’ to his parents does not tell us much about him, except that he can write very competently and in beautiful handwriting (see the facsimile above). He uses the ‘strike’ or ‘virgule’ (/) as a mark of punctuation, and the occasional full-stop, then called a ‘prick’.

Sir William Kingston’s letter of September 1533 to Lord Lisle (see facsimile below) is an interesting example of an educated man’s style, since Kingston was not only a member of the King’s Privy Council, but also Constable of the Tower of London. The presentation of the letter would be unacceptable to modern readers, since there is no punctuation. The content, however, refers to the gentlemanly pursuit of hawking, or falconry, and gives the names of several birds used in the activity.


In January 1536, Sir Thomas Audley wrote to Lord Lisle as Governor of Calais to request a post of ‘Spear’ in the Retinue on behalf of Robert Whethill, whose father had been Mayor of Calais and was still resident there. He had been constantly at loggerheads with Lisle, who nevertheless replied affirmatively, though with obvious reluctance, to the request:


Rhyt honorabyll after my most hymbylyst wyse I commend me unto you & have reseyvyd yor yentyll letter in the favour of R whethyll cosrnyng the next speris rome within myn offyce her hit shall plesse yor good lordshype that ther is not the trustit srvat in yor house nother in yngland that shall gladlyer do yor commandment & plessur then I wold w owght desemylassion as evr deuryng my lyffe shall aper toward you & yors thys whethill & his father orderyd me opynly at lantern gate w word & countenans that I nevr sofferyd so muche of no degre sens I whas xvj yer old notwstandyng I woll at yor comandement forget all.


An example of formal written language contemporary with the Lisle letters is Sir Thomas Elyot’s The boke named the Governour, printed in London in 1531. It was dedicated unto the most victorious prince King Henry VIIIth, King of England and France, Defender of the True Faith and Lord of Ireland. Elyot’s purpose was to to describe in our vulgare tunge/ the fourme of a just publike weal (= welfare/ prosperity/ (common)wealth)… for as much as this present boke treateth of the education of them that hereafter may be demed worthy to be governors of the publike weal. He wrote it in English, but – in common with all educated men – regarded Latin and Greek as the essential languages of learning. He refers to the insufficience of our own langage when defining the words publike and commune which he borrowed from Latin. His ‘commune’ is the equivalent of the modern ‘common’, used in the sense of ‘commoner’ as compared with ‘noble’ or ‘lord’. Both words were taken from Old French during the Middle English period, but their sources were the Latin publicus and communis. Elyot, like many other scholarly writers of the period, anglicised many Latin and Greek words in order to express his meaning.


Sir Thomas Elyot set out a programme of education for young noblemen, beginning with the learning of Latin from the age of six. Strong feelings were aroused over accents and dialects, and Elyot directed that a young nobleman of this age should only be placed in the care of a nurse or serving woman who spoke none Englisshe but that which is cleane, polite, perfectly and articulately pronounced. The texts from The Governour, one of which is shown in facsimile below,  reveal not only matters of substance and style, but also features of grammar and lexis, which mark out Elyot’s language as being in transition from archaic forms to standard English. He expressed a scholar’s view on the superiority of Latin and Greek, from which hundreds of words were borrowed into English in anglicised forms. These words were referred to, somewhat disparagingly, as ‘inkhorn terms’, words coming from the scholar’s horn of ink and therefore often pedantic in use. George Puttenham called this development a ‘corruption’ of the English language, the result of the peevish affectation of clerks and scholars, introducing unnecessarily long, polysyllabic words.


There were some who went even further in their rejection of not just the ‘inkhorn terms’ but of any borrowings from other languages:


Above: Richard Verstagen’s

A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1605

During the latter half of the sixteenth century, the first dictionaries, spelling books and grammars of English began to be published. The writers of them were responding to a growing sense that the language needed agreed forms. They noticed that there were too few letters in the alphabet to match the sounds in English, and that the spelling of many words did not match their pronunciation. The common view was that the language had become ‘corrupted’. One of the earliest books to advocate a reform of English spelling was John Hart’s Orthographie, published in 1569 (see facsimile below). Hart pointed out two spelling conventions which are still part of the modern English system, but which he did not use in his reformed spelling. The first was the use of a final ‘e’ to mark a preceding ‘long’ vowel, as in hate/hat. The second was the use of double consonants to mark a preceding ‘short’ vowel, as in matting/ mating and robbing/ robing.


The Great Vowel Shift  

Between the time of Chaucer in the late fourteenth century and Shakespeare two centuries later, all the long vowels in English spoken in the Midlands and South of England shifted their pronunciation in what has been called the Great Vowel Shift. John Hart’s reference to the ‘i’ vowel in exercise – that it was being pronounced as a diphthong by some speakers – is contemporary evidence of this shift. It was not complete by 1569, and there were both regional and social variations in dialect, but in time all the vowels were either raised or became diphthongs. However, right up until the present day, the spelling system in English has never been altered to fit these changed pronunciations. As a consequence, there are still only five letters corresponding to the fifteen vowels and diphthongs in Modern English.

Just as in Middle English there was no standard language, but a number of interrelated dialects, English today also consists of these dialects, spread throughout the world. However, in England people now tend to regard the Standard English dialect, with its ‘received pronunciation’ as ‘good’ or ‘correct’ English, looking down on the other regional and social dialects of English as substandard or inferior. This tendency is not new. Concern over differences in dialect dates back to the fourteenth century, with both Chaucer and Caxton referring to the ‘diversity’ of the English language. A written standard was the first form to develop. Educated men and women wrote in this standard form but continued to speak in the dialects of their regions. John Aubrey, writing in the seventeenth century, commented on Sir Walter Raleigh’s enduring dialect:

Old Sir Thomas Malett, one of the Justices of the King’s bench… knew Sir Walter, and I have heard him say, that notwithstanding his so great Mastership in Style and his conversation with the learnedest and politest persons, yet he spake broad Devonshire to his dying day.


Aubrey implies that this was somewhat unusual, and that gentlemen in his time did not speak in regional dialects at the Stuart Court, hinting that this would have been considered unfitting for learned and polite society. We also know, from surviving documents, that Raleigh often signed his name Rawley, clear evidence of how he himself must have pronounced it. Standard vocabulary and grammar eventually spread to spoken English as well as to written forms. By the end of the fifteenth century, there is less evidence in both printed and manuscript documents of the range of dialects in English. Regional and social varieties still flourished, but evidence for them is much more difficult to find. The language of informal letters or the dialogue of characters in prose drama is probably the nearest we can get to everyday speech in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. George Puttenham, writing in 1589 in The Arte of English Poesie, illustrates his awareness of the range of available regional and social varieties available before Standard English became a fully defined and accepted written variety (see the facsimile below):


Puttenham was expressing a concern that was common to many sixteenth century scholars and writers, that there was too great a ‘diversity’ in the language. These were not simply social and regional, but also national in their characteristics. The dialogue of characters in plays cannot be taken as completely authentic evidence of the spoken language, but may indicate some of the more obvious dialectical features of speech. In Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fift, there is a comic episode involving four captains – Gower (an Englishman), ‘Fluellen’ (Llewelyn – Welsh), Mackmorrice (Scottish) and Iamy (Irish):


In general, reading texts from Shakespeare’s time onwards into the seventeenth century, we find fewer and fewer features of vocabulary and grammar that are archaic and unfamiliar, and it becomes more difficult to specify exactly what differences there are between older and contemporary English. Facsimiles or exact reproductions make the language of the 1620s look more unfamiliar than it really is. There were some obvious differences in spelling and punctuation, but commas, colons, full stops (‘pricks’) were all in use, as were exclamation and question marks. In pronunciation, the raising or diphthongisation of long vowels in the South and Midlands (the ‘Great Vowel Shift’) had taken place, but was not yet complete. In vocabulary, the adoption of a large number of Latin words into written language had been made easy by the previous adoption of hundreds of French words. At the same time, a number of prefixes and suffixes were also adopted and used with English words. In general terms, the grammar of English at the end of the sixteenth century was the same as English today, except for the use of personal pronouns such as thou, thee, thy, thine and ye. The relative pronoun ‘which’ was still common, but ‘who’ and ‘whom’ had also come into regular usage. With verbs, the third person, the ending ‘-eth’ (southern) as well as ‘-s’ (northern) was still in use, as in ‘he maketh’ and ‘she makes’. The inversion of subject and verb in the simple present and past interrogative forms was also still in use, as in ‘knowest thou?’ and ‘came he?’, but the use of the auxiliary ‘do’ had also become common, as in ‘dost thou know?’ or ‘did he come?’.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

… And Even More of All That… The Mysterious Magyar Origins of Margaret of Wessex and Scotland: I   1 comment


The Princes of Wessex Exiled in Hungary:

Of the three grandchildren of the Saxon King, Eadmund Ironside, the name of Margaret is the most marked by place and time. Her importance lies not only in the fact that the reforms started in the ecclesiastical and political life of Scotland during the reign of Malcolm (Canmore) were due to Margaret’s gentle influence, but also that she ennobled the still austere morals and customs of the kingdom. Indeed, according to the contemporary evidence of both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Simeon of Durham, she also civilized her adoptive country. However, her importance to her paternal country, England, has been underestimated.


England, or rather the loosely allied Saxon kingdoms which the Kings of Wessex had unified in resistance to Scandinavian invasions and encroachments, from Alfred the Great to Edward the Confessor, was once more divided by the Norman Conquest after 1066, losing its short-lived independence. Ealdred, the Bishop of Worcester who had arranged for Edward’s return to claim the throne, continued to support the rights of Edgar after the Battle of Hastings. He only abandoned his cause when Edgar himself showed no desire to resist William usurping the throne.

Accepting the hopelessness of Edgar’s case, Ealdred was himself among those who crowned William I at Westminster Abbey, as Archbishop of York (from 1060). It is said that he died of a broken heart in 1069, due to the desperate state of the Saxon cause in the North, following yet another Danish incursion.

The Norman land grab and their tight system of feudal dues, which was later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, was resisted by the thanes, among them ‘Hereward the Wake’ in East Anglia, and many of the commoners followed them, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. William responded by resorting to terror tactics in his well-known ‘harrying of the North’. Although initially proclaiming him king on hearing of Harold Godwinson’s death at Hastings, the Saxon Witenagemot had been disappointed in the teenage Edgar, and he was never crowned. There was no other male descendant of the House of Wessex, though the rule of the foreign conqueror was all but unbearable.


William kept Edgar in his custody and took him, along with other English leaders, to his court in Normandy in 1067, before returning with them to England. Edgar may have been involved in the abortive rebellion of the Earls Edwin and Morcar in 1068; in any case, in that year he fled with his mother and sisters to the court of King Malcolm of Scotland. Malcolm married Edgar’s sister Margaret and agreed to support Edgar in his attempt to reclaim the English throne. When a major rebellion broke out in Northumbria at the beginning of 1069, Edgar returned to England with other rebels who had fled to Scotland, to become the leader, or at least the figurehead, of the revolt. However, after early successes the rebels were defeated by William at York and Edgar again sought refuge with Malcolm. In late summer that year the arrival of a fleet sent by King Sweyn of Denmark triggered a fresh wave of English uprisings in various parts of the country. Edgar and the other exiles sailed to the Humber, where they linked up with Northumbrian rebels and the Danes. Their combined forces overwhelmed the Normans at York and took control of Northumbria, but a small seaborne raid which Edgar led into Lindsey ended in disaster and he escaped with only a handful of followers to rejoin the main army.

Late in the year William fought his way into Northumbria and occupied York, buying off the Danes and devastating the surrounding country. Early in 1070 he moved against Edgar and other English leaders who had taken refuge with their remaining followers in a marshy region, perhaps Holderness, and put them to flight. Edgar returned to Scotland. He remained there until 1072, when William invaded Scotland and forced King Malcolm to submit to his overlordship. The terms of the agreement between them probably included the expulsion of Edgar. He therefore took up residence in Flanders, whose Count, Robert the Frisian, was hostile to the Normans.

However, in 1074 Edgar was able to return to Scotland. Shortly after his arrival there he received an offer from Philip I of France, who was also at odds with William, of a castle and lands near the borders of Normandy from which he would be able to raid his enemies’ homeland. He embarked with his followers for France, but a storm wrecked their ships on the English coast. Many of Edgar’s men were hunted down by the Normans, but he managed to escape with the remainder to Scotland by land. Following this disaster, he was persuaded by Malcolm to make peace with William and return to England as his subject, abandoning any ambition of regaining his ancestral throne.

The continuing tension was finally brought to an end by the marriage of Margaret’s daughter, Matilda, to King Henry I of England, son of William of Normandy (11 November 1100). The marriage produced the conditions necessary for the reconciliation of the Normans and the Saxons: through it the Norman usurpers became rightful claimants to the English throne. In the course of English history, perhaps British history, no marriage was more important than that of Henry I and the daughter of Margaret of Wessex and Scotland, at least until that of Henry Tudor and Margaret of York nearly four hundred years later, which brought together the rival houses of Lancaster and York, ending Plantagenet rule and bringing about the union of England and Wales.

Another consequence of Matilda’s marriage was that the crown of Alfred the Great passed through Margaret to the Plantagenet dynasty. Margaret’s granddaughter, also named Matilda, was the mother of the first Plantagenet king, Henry II (1154-1189), so that the blood of the Anglo-Saxon kings continued to flow in the veins of the Kings of England through to the end of the Middle Ages.

The story of the flight of the Anglo-Saxon princes to Hungary via Sweden, the return of the rightful heir and his family to English shores and the love match of Margaret with Malcolm Canmore is the stuff of legend and romance which remains unmatched in the annals of British, perhaps European history. I have detailed this in my previously-posted article. The story caught the fancy of one of the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the extent that he related the return of Edward’s family from their Hungarian exile in verse form.


However, there are two points on which these romantic legends and the literature which they inspired do not transfer clearly into historical narrative. Firstly, some writers have suggested that, after leaving Sweden, the young Princes of Wessex found refuge in Russia, before eventually returning to Hungary with its King Andrew I, ‘the Catholic’, in 1046.

Certainly, Edmund and Edward had to be hidden away, especially while they were still in their infancy, having been born only a few months before being sent to the Swedish Court by Canute. Their whereabouts had to be kept a secret while the Danish King of England was still alive (he died in 1035) or even while his dynasty remained (1042). From 1017 on Conrad II was Canute’s ally; his son Henry III was the latter’s son-in-law, and although Gunhilda, Canute’s daughter and Henry II’s wife, died early, loosening the ties between Canute’s family and the German Emperor, it may be that the English princes could not have been allowed refuge in Transdanubia, exposed as it was to attacks from the Emperor’s armies. Sándor Fesk, writing in 1940, believed that the Princes lived in Hungary somewhere near the Russian border, hence the confusion of the German chronicler who claimed they were domiciled in ‘Ruzzia’. At that time there was a frontier between Russia and Hungary and the region where the Hungarian, Russian and Polish territories touched was not so well-defined as to exclude the possibility of chroniclers confusing their geographical and political data. The Princes of Wessex may have spent their early years, if not decades, of their exile in the north-east of Hungary in the County of Zemplén, near the Russian frontier, where they first met the future wife of Andrew I, the daughter of Yaroslav, the Grand Duke of Kiev.


However, although they may have lived near Russia initially, the Princes enjoyed the hospitality of the Hungarian king and, probably following the death of Canute in 1035, Edward (his brother having died) moved to the Court of István, where he married the Princess Agatha. They had two daughters, Margaret, born in 1045, and Christine, and a son, Edgar, born in 1051. Therefore, Edward must have been at the Hungarian Royal Court before this and probably before István died in 1038, because the King considered making him his heir.

In the event, he chose Peter Orseolo, his nephew. Popular belief has it that, on their marriage, István gave Edward and Agatha a region in the County of Baranya as their home, in the hills close to the cathedral city of Pécs, which became known as ‘terra Britannorum’ . As Edward the Confessor did not return to the throne until 1042, this was probably considered remote enough within Hungary from the Royal Court to provide a home for Edward and Agatha to raise a family, safe enough from Canute’s successors. Margaret is said to have been born there, and if this was the case probably Christine also, a few years later, in Mecseknádásd,  but Edgar may have been born at Court, to which the Royal couple returned to aid Andrew I in gaining control of the country and consolidating the Catholic Church.

(to be continued…)

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