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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part Three.   Leave a comment


The Wars of the Roses and the Tudor State of Wales:

By the time of the ensuing Wars of the Roses, the Crown territories had spread throughout Wales, leaving the Marcher lordships with less power. Yorkist and Lancastrian families in the March provided fighting men for the armies of the rival factions, and when Harlech fell to William Herbert, the first Welsh-speaking earl,  the poet Guto’r Glyn had no hesitation in calling upon him to unite Glamorgan and Gwynedd, pardon not a single burgess, and expel all Englishmen from office in Wales. Only the Anglo-Welsh Lancastrians should be spared. However, it was Edward of York, earl of the March and Lord Mortimer, who became Edward IV in 1461. As a result, many of the lordships changed hands or were forfeited. Many of these passed to the Crown, the twenty-two Mortimer lordships included. York controlled the March and Lancaster the Principality, and practically every family of substance was drawn into the conflict. William Herbert built himself up to become Earl of Pembroke, the effective ruler of south Wales. Griffith ap Nicolas rose from humble origins to make himself and his family ‘kings of south-west Wales’ and to establish the ‘House of Dinefwr’.

The Crown lordships and the Principality now dominated the political landscape of Wales, enabling the king to establish a Prince’s council of the Marches of Wales in 1471 which continued to function intermittently until the Tudor ‘invasion’ of Wales and ‘takeover’ of England in 1485. The Tudors of Anglesey were, like the bulk of their compatriots, survivors. The family fortunes had been established by Tudur ap Gronw, whose sons had fought alongside Owain Glyndwr as his cousins. One of them, Rhys was executed and another, Maredudd, was driven into exile. His son, Owen, was taken on as a page-boy by Henry V, later marrying his widow, Catherine de Valois. His stepson, Henry VI, made his Tudor half-brothers earls of Richmond and Pembroke. Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, married Margaret Beaufort, who brought a claim to the English throne. Edmund died and was buried in Carmarthen; his son, Henry, was born posthumously. His mother was now a fourteen-year-old widow, so the boy was taken in by his uncle Jasper at Pembroke Castle, where he learnt Welsh. Following the Lancastrian disaster of 1471, Jasper took the boy to Brittany, and when his small army landed at Dale in Pembrokeshire, he depended entirely on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England. Many of the northern Welsh lords did rally to him at Shrewsbury, and at Bosworth Henry unfurled the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr. He called his eldest son Arthur, and the Venetian ambassador commented that,

The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman…

The old Yorkist order in the Marches tried to hang on and, in the boroughs, made a last stand against the incoming tide of Welshmen. Henry kept St David’s Day and packed his own minor offices with Welshmen. By the end of his reign almost every marcher lordship was in royal hands, ‘over-mighty subjects’ had been cut down and charters of emancipation issued to north Wales. Under Henry VII’s firm hand a reinvigorated Council in the Marches began in the king’s name to bring about some uniformity in the government of the various lordships, particularly in the field of administration of justice. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw an increasingly centralised Tudor state in which the special political arrangements of the March were becoming untenable. In 1490, Henry VII agreed to a form of extradition treaty with the steward of the lordships of Clifford, Winforton and Glasbury which allowed ‘hot pursuit’ of criminals in certain circumstances.


However, as he himself had demonstrated by his successful invasion on the way to ‘picking up the crown’ at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there remained a problem of the defence of the extended kingdom. Wales was England’s weakly bolted backdoor. Some degree of unified defence of Wales was of major importance to England’s security. His second son was left to find a solution to this problem, which was further complicated by his decision, in 1529, to go into action against the papacy. As the commissioners moved on the monasteries and their property, with Welsh gentry eagerly joining in, there was cause for alarm. As the Marcher lordships collapsed into gangster fiefdoms, just across the water, Catholic Ireland was also restive. If Wales was its backdoor, Ireland beyond ‘the Pale’ remained its back gate. It was from there that the Plantagenets had sought to dethrone Henry VII at Stoke Field in 1487, and even in the 1540s, Henry VIII remained paranoid about the threat from that quarter. The March of Wales had become so disorderly as a separate part of the kingdom that the Duke of Buckingham asked for a royal licence from Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to allow him to have an armed guard when he travelled through his lordships, declaring that he did not dare enter his lands in the March without an escort of three to four hundred armed men. Under these circumstances, the King’s solution for the disorder in the March of Wales was not to tinker with the constitutional anachronism which had become, but to abolish it.

By 1536, Thomas Cromwell realised that a ham-fisted coercion would not suffice. The law and order of England would have to embrace Wales with the aid of Justices of the Peace drawn from its gentry. The ‘British’ nation-state in the making was faced with the difficulty that there were two nations within it, with a visible border between them. So both the border and the smaller nation would have to become invisible. Therefore, between 1536 and 1543, the English crown put through a number of measures which have gone down in British history as the Acts of Union. The Act for Laws and Justice to be Ministered in Wales in like Fourme as it is in this Realm united the Principality and the March of Wales as part of ‘the kingdom of England and Wales’. The Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, bound the two countries into a single state of ‘England and Wales’. The Act of Union of 1536 completed the long process of the absorption of the Principality of Wales and the March of Wales into the English kingdom. It rendered superfluous the castles that until then had held these territories in subjugation.


The old Principality was wiped off the map, and the lordships in the March were abolished and, by combining them in groups, new shires were created to be added to the two established by Henry III in South Wales, and the four in Gwynedd and Dyfed, which had been created by the Statute of 1284. Wales became thirteen counties in all. The marchers were permitted to retain their lands and rights of lordship as practised in England, but they lost their previous prerogatives and privileges. The whole country was subsequently administered as a corporate element of the same realm. Shrewsbury remained in all but name the administrative capital of the whole of Wales, with the Council in the Marches, responsible for maintaining law and order in the English Marches and Wales, meeting there until its abolition in the 1640s. A consequence of these changes was that the language of the ruling gentry class became predominantly English. The key office of the Justice of the Peace passed to the gentry as ‘kings of the bro‘ (the ‘locality’). Welshmen became entitled to the same rights under the law as Englishmen, including the right to representation, for the first time, in the Westminster Parliament. However, because Wales was poor compared to most regions of England, the ‘burden’ of sending an MP was reduced to one MP per county, and the boroughs of each county were grouped together to supply a second MP. Wales was provided with a distinct system of higher administration and justice, in that twelve of its counties were grouped into four circuits of three for a Welsh Great Sessions, meeting for convenience in the borderlands, which also meant that Ludlow became an important centre for many years.


In the Tudor ‘nation-state’, English was supposed to be the only official language. Henry VIII proclaimed the necessity of extirpating all and singular the sinister usages of customs of Wales. No person or persons that use the Welsh speech shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees within this realm. The threat of cultural genocide was not, in fact, fulfilled. In many ways, Wales remained a ‘peculiar’, if not a separate nation, with a unique administration and its own customs and language. Although the official, written language of local administration and the courts was to be English, the right of monolingual speakers of Welsh to be heard in courts throughout the country necessitated the appointment of Welsh-speaking judges and ensured the continued public use of the language. The dominance of the local gentry ensured that the justices of the peace and the men running the shires on behalf of the Crown were magistrates of their own nation, thereby guaranteeing that Wales would not come to be regarded simply as a part of England. This was the case even in Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, and became part of Wales only in 1972.

At the same time as its administration was being remodelled, Wales also experienced the religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. At first, the Reformation simply substituted one barely intelligible tongue (Latin) with another (English). However, in contrast to Ireland, where little effort was made to make religious texts available in the native language, Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer came out as early as 1547, and these were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. Since the Welsh could not be made invisible in the Tudor state, they had to be made Protestant, which meant that the Crown was forced to accede to pressure and authorise Welsh translations of the Bible, whose 1588 version was to prove a sheet-anchor for the threatened language. The early translation of the scriptures into Welsh also helped Protestantism to be accepted in Wales. In fact, the Welsh people embraced it enthusiastically, and later Puritanism and Nonconformity.


Above: The frontispiece of the first full translation of the Bible into Welsh, published in 1588.

Nevertheless, although it could be used when necessary in the courts, Welsh ceased to be an official language and had to retreat into the Church and the kitchen. The long-term effects of this were very serious for the language. Since it was all but excluded from administration, the position of Welsh gained as the language of religion did much to ensure its survival. The survival of Welsh as a living tongue compensated for the collapse of the medieval bardic tradition with its characteristic prophetic elements. Another Celtic tradition that sank into disfavour was the use of patronymics, by which a person’s second name identified or her as the child of a known parent (e.g. ap Arthur). This was superseded by the use of surnames, in the English manner, handed down from one generation to another. Many traditional Welsh Christian names also fell out of fashion in this period.

At the time, however, the Union was celebrated among the self-confident Welsh burgesses, who saw themselves as being as free as Englishmen under the law of England and Wales. Most importantly, perhaps, the ‘ordinary’ Welshman was no longer at the mercy of his lord or prince in terms of justice, which could no longer be administered arbitrarily by a master who was ‘a law unto himself’. Henry VIII was as masterful a monarch as Edward I in cutting the Lords Marcher down to size, and the lords seem to have accepted that their time for full submission to kingly authority had finally come. Now fewer in number and with most of the lordships already in the hands of the Crown, they were largely absentee landlords; their interests in England were, vulnerable to royal retaliation, were more valuable to them than their Welsh ones, which were still recovering their economic value from the long-term effects of the Glyndwr Rebellion.


These political changes in Tudor times left the Border itself with less strategic importance. Wales after the Union was no cultural backwater. The Welsh adopted Jesus College in Oxford (founded in 1571) and the Inns of Court in London to complete their education. The Welsh gentry took enthusiastically to the Renaissance, building houses and art collections comparable with those anywhere else in Europe. Against these cosmopolitan tendencies should be set the work of Sir John Price in defending the Arthurian tradition in the face of general scepticism, and the work of Gruffydd Done, in the sixteenth century, and of Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, in the seventeenth, who both collected and preserved Welsh medieval texts. By the time of the early Stuarts, ‘the Wales of the squires’ was entering a golden age in which Anglicanism and royalism were becoming rooted among the Welsh gentry. James I and VI was therefore favourably disposed to them and their loyalties were easily transferred to the Scottish dynasty with its own idea of Great Britain, not far removed from their own developing identity as Cambro-Britons. William Vaughan of Cardiganshire, who tried to launch a Welsh colony, Cambriol, in Newfoundland, was also keen to discard the ‘idea’ of the old frontier when he wrote:

I rejoice that the memorial of Offa’s Ditch is extinguished.


Above: Plas Teg, near Mold, Flintshire, the earliest Renaissance-style house in Wales, built c. 1610 for Sir John Trevor, a senior figure in naval administration.

Administration, Language, Trade and Religion:

Wales had acquired its historic frontier in the estate boundaries of an Anglo-Norman oligarchy. Ethnic minorities were left on both sides of the line. Old Ergyng (Archenfield) disappeared into Herefordshire but remained Welsh-speaking for three hundred years. The integration of Britain became visible in the large-scale migration of the Welsh to London, the growing centre of both trade and power. Dafydd Seisyllt, from Ergyng, was one of those who went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman. The Seisyllts, in a transliteration which became commonplace, became the Cecils. The family of Morgan Williams the brewer who had married a sister of Thomas Cromwell changed his name and Oliver arrived three generations later.

Monmouth became an anomaly; nearer to London and relatively wealthy, with an early tin-plating industry, it was saddled with the full parliamentary quota and subjected to the courts of the capital. Always reckoned to be a part of the ‘Welsh’ Church in diocesan terms, it was, however, excluded from the Great Sessions and the Welsh parliamentary system. This led to the curious hybrid title of ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ as a standard secular description, which continued English settlement in the county reinforced. Among the landowners clustering thick in Glamorgan and Monmouth in the south were some of the richest squires in contemporary Europe.

The lordships had varied greatly in size and in physical character, which largely governed their capacity for profitable exploitation, their lords’ primary aim in winning, holding and administering their conquests:

Glamorgan (Morgannwg) was large, much of it agriculturally productive;

Maelienydd, a core lordship of the Mortimer family, was small, an upland and sparsely populated territory of little intrinsic value other than its strategic location;

Clifford, another Mortimer lordship, was very small, perhaps only twenty square miles in extent, but of strategic importance in the Wye valley, the ancient and medieval gateway into Wales.

Conquest was followed by settlement and the evolution of ‘Englishries’ and ‘Welshries’, an ethnic division of population. The Welsh were evicted from the more low-lying arable districts of the lordships which then became ‘the Englishries’, organised in the English manorial system. Here the lords established their ‘vassals’ and immigrant settlers to farm their ‘demesne’ as tenants, paying rent. Often the marcher lords would be absentee landlords, leaving their officials to administer the lands. In this respect, the Mortimers were atypical in that their power and prosperity lay in the March of Wales. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had connections all over Wales of long duration. A Mortimer had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the last half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the inheritance of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry. The poet Iolo Goch, who was one of his tenants, wrote a fulsome ode of loyalty to him, presenting him as an Arthurian ‘Hero Returned’ who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more significant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. This shift in consciousness came just at the time when a  renaissance of the Welsh language and culture was beginning to provoke political responses and to meet with judicial resistance.

The dispossessed Welsh, were effectively ‘internal exiles’, resettled in ‘the Welshries’ which consisted of the upland and less productive districts of the lordships where raising cattle and sheep were the principle agricultural enterprises. These areas would be more or less self-governing, with courts conducted according to Welsh customs and practice, and in the Welsh language, with little if any interference from the lord provided its inhabitants gave no trouble and paid their tributes in kind. In the lordship of Hay, in the mid-fourteenth century, while the men of the Englishry paid for their land with rent and services, the Welshry as a whole gave the lord the traditional tribute of twenty-four cows every year, though this was later replaced by payment in money. In the later Middle Ages the gradual abandonment of Welsh laws, customs and systems of land tenure was welcomed in some quarters of Wales, particularly among peasant farmers; in the second half of the fourteenth century, Welshmen in Clwyd were eager to surrender their holdings and receive them back on ‘English’ terms, while others were willing to pay for the privilege of ‘English’ status. This was because they preferred the inheritance law of primogeniture to the Welsh system of gavelkind, the equal division of a man’s inheritance among his sons, involving restrictions on his disposal of land according to his family’s individual circumstances.

These moves towards greater integration in the March of Wales had various manifestations. The Welsh language had started to reconquer the Vale of Glamorgan; Welshmen began to appear in the lowland and valley towns, in Oswestry, Brecon and Monmouth; the Welsh began ‘harassing’ English merchants in the March. A chorus of complaint against them burst from boroughs not only in Wales but in the English border counties. Nearly every Parliament which sat between 1378 and 1400 demanded urgent action against these impertinent ‘scrubs’. Even as the gentry turned their hopes towards Richard II, the English administrations in Wales slammed their doors hard. This was a reassertion of colonialism in a régime that was breaking down under its own contradictions, and the Welsh-English tensions that it provoked provided an even greater incentive for the discontented Welsh to support Richard II and Roger (VI) Mortimer.

Although the distinctions between Englishries and Welshries were breaking down by the later Middle Ages, these can sometimes be identified on the landscape today from old place names, where these appear as either English or Welsh, or sometimes bilingually:

Gwerthrynion and Cwmwd Deuddwr (the latter identifiable on today’s map as one of the longest original Welsh place-names, Llansantffraed Cwmdeuddwr) were two Mortimer upland lordships, located north-west of Rhayader on the upper reaches of the Wye. Presumably, they were unattractive to English settlers as there is also a notable absence of English placenames in that area.


Newtown bears its English name, with a translation provided into Welsh (Y Dref Newydd), despite being surrounded by villages with Welsh nomenclature, because it was established as a borough by Mortimer. Other attempts by them to found boroughs were not so successful. Cefnllys remains the name of a long-ruined castle near Llandrindod Wells, because the Mortimers failed to take into account both its isolated position remote from major trade routes as well as the very limited potential for agricultural production within its close vicinity. When the once important castle had been abandoned as no longer of strategic value, its fate was sealed. Similarly, the prosperity of the borough of Wigmore, and the value of its castle languished after the Mortimers moved their seat of power to Ludlow. The military security of the marcher lordships depended on castles, boroughs and the lords’ private armies. Castles were pivotal in their survival and territorial ambitions as well as being status symbols; they served as ‘launching pads’ for aggression, defensive strongholds and bases in which they could reside when in their Lordships. They were also administrative centres from which their stewards could operate, collecting rents and dues and exercising justice.


The marcher lords inherited from the Welsh princes the obligation of all free men to fight for them, and Wales throughout the Middle Ages provided a pool of experienced fighting men on which the marcher lords, and by extension, the king, could draw. Most of the infantrymen in the king’s armies were Welsh, and the archers, in particular, distinguished themselves in the Hundred Years War, and for both Yorkist and Lancastrian armies in the Wars of the Roses. The bowmen of Monmouthshire and south Wales were celebrated in both English and Welsh writing; in the March this intensified a loyalty to their lords which became a political as well as a military force. Thousands of Welshmen in their proud livery – like Mortimer’s men, all clothed in green with their arms yellow – were a force to be reckoned with in the politics of England itself, whenever the marchers were heavily involved, as they nearly always were.

Some of the larger lordships, like Glamorgan and Pembroke were organised along the lines of English shires, long before they were formally recognised as such in Tudor times. Maelienydd, by contrast, did not even have knight service, and the Mortimer administration was far less English in form. Rhys ap Gruffydd was knighted by Edward III, one of a number of Welshmen who achieved rank, office and respect in the king’s service and in the March. He commanded the Welsh bowmen in France, as a discrete unit in the English army. Hywel ap Meurig’s family had long been associated with the Mortimer family. In 1260, he was appointed as the negotiator with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd on behalf of the Crown and then became constable of the Mortimer castle at Cefnllys. He served as the king’s bailiff in Builth and soon after the end of the Welsh War of Independence of 1276-77 was commissioned as a justice in Wales. He and his family prospered as important cogs in the administration of Wales. Roger Mortimer (IV) maintained a retinue, or private army of Welsh soldiers during his ascendancy in the late 1320s. Although the final resort in settling disputes among the marcher lords, and with their princely Welsh neighbours may have been to engage in warfare, a full-blown war was unusual and arrangements developed among them for settling quarrels which would usually have been of a minor nature over such matters as cattle rustling and boundaries. ‘Letters of the March’ were forms of passports for travellers and merchants passing from one lordship to another. If a traveller was arrested in a lordship other than his own, he could present his letter, which would have been issued by his lord stating that he was a tenant, and request to be returned to face justice in his own lordship.


The prosperity of the lordships depended largely on agricultural exports of cattle to England and across England to the continent. In 1349, four hundred cattle were driven from the Bohun lordship of Brecon to Essex for fattening. The first part of this journey was along long-established drovers’ roads through the hills, which still mark the landscape of Wales today. Twelve years earlier fourteen sacks of wool were dispatched to from the Mortimer lordship of Radnor en route to Dordrecht, and in 1340 another thirty were awaiting dispatch (each sack weighed 165 kilos). They were probably held up because of the chaotic conditions in trade as a result of the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Wool exports to Flanders had been a thriving business since the early twelfth-century. Welsh border wool may have been of an inferior quality to that of the prime sheep-rearing centres of the Yorkshire moors and dales, but it was certainly superior to the wool of East Anglia.

When Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack, the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Yet Suffolk was richer than Shropshire and closer to their foreign customers. The sight of foreign buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of pack horses laden with Welsh wool was a familiar one in medieval East Anglia. Suffolk farmers and merchants could do a brisker business with the continent because they were closer, but they could not compete in volume or the quality needed by the weavers of fine cloth in Flanders. Then Edward III decided to levy swingeing taxes on markets and customs duties on ports both in order to raise money for his wars with France and as an economic weapon in those wars. In the wool-producing areas the immediate effects were catastrophic, but after 1350 the introduction of weaving to East Anglia, accompanied by the migration of skilled weavers from the depressed textile industries of Flanders, led to a boom in demand for fleeces.

Throughout the early modern period, Wales remained predominantly agrarian, specialising in cattle production, rather than sheep-grazing; dairy products, and, until the Industrial Revolution, cloth-manufacture. The countryside underwent gradual enclosure and deforestation. Settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer homes and lowland winter houses. Towns, other than the boroughs already referred to, were not an important feature until the eighteenth century and even then were restricted largely to Glamorgan. There was some tin-plating in Monmouthshire, but neither coal-mining nor iron-casting was as important as they were to become.


Dislike of the Anglo-Norman hegemony in Wales was not confined to the civil sphere; it was also present in the Church. The great religious revival of the eleventh century in Normandy was carried to England by the Conquest, which the Roman Church and the Norman barons themselves regarded as a Crusade, predating the ones they began to the ‘Holy Land’ in 1096. They considered the Welsh Church, still with its independent Celtic roots, to be, like the English one, in need of reform and physical rebuilding. The early conquests in Wales were accompanied by expropriation of church property for the benefit of religious foundations in Normandy and appointed French bishops whose dioceses by the early twelfth century had been incorporated into the province of Canterbury. In the Anglo-Norman borderlands and the Anglo-Welsh March, the abbey at Much Wenlock was refounded circa 1080; the Mortimers founded an abbey circa 1140 at Shobdon, a predecessor of Wigmore Abbey, and were later benefactors of the abbey at Cwm Hir in Maelienydd. Llanthony Abbey (detailed below) was founded in 1107. The native religious houses of Wales were slowly superseded by Anglo-Norman foundations or reformed in the new tradition as religious and cultural control of the Church passed out of Welsh hands for the next eight hundred years. Hardly surprisingly, this meddling was a cause of great resentment, with that champion of the Welsh Church, Giraldus Cambrensis, indignantly asking the Pope, …

… Because I am a Welshman, am I to be debarred from all preferment in Wales?


A Pilgrimage to Llanthony Abbey & through Gospel Pass:

Above: The Landor Estate at Llanthony.

This is an appropriate point to engage with the path itself. The section from ‘Pandy to Hay-on-Wye’ officially begins where it crosses the A465 from Hereford to Abergavenny by “the Lancaster Arms.” However, by following the Afon Honddu northwards along the B4423 from Llanfihangel Crucorney, we can find our way to Llanthony Abbey. Given the remarks of Giraldus Cambrensis above, this is perhaps a better place to start a historical walk. The Priory is directly below in the deep Vale of the Ewyas which, as the twelfth-century itinerant Giraldus described it, is about an arrow shot broad. The priory he found, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, not unhandsomely constructed. It is, in fact, well worth the detour, either along the ‘B’ road or coming down from the Loxidge Tump from the Dyke Path (see maps below).


You come to the priory ruins in a beautiful setting of meadows and groves of chestnuts. It is said that St David settled at Llanthony during his travels through Wales in the sixth century, establishing the llan (church). It is unlikely that he stayed long, but Llanthony’s special claim to fame is that he supposedly ate the leeks here that were to become the Welsh badge during the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ Wars with France. The priory was founded in 1107 by the powerful marcher lord William de Lacy at the place where, while on a deer hunt, he is said to have forsaken ambition and decided to devote his life to the service of God. As a result of Welsh raids on the Augustinians whom they no doubt considered to be the Roman Church’s supporters of the Norman incursion, the monks sought refuge with the Bishop of Hereford, only a few of them returning to the priory. From 1300, with Edward I’s conquest, the priory flourished once more, and at some point housed the largest single body of medieval Welsh ecclesiastical manuscripts, but by 1376 it was in a poor state of repair. Owain Glyndwr burnt it down around 1400; by 1481 only four canons and a prior remained, and its end came with its Dissolution by Henry VIII.

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In 1807 the estate was bought by the poet Walter Savage Landor (right) for twenty thousand pounds. From a wealthy Whig family, he held estates at Rugeley in Staffordshire and Bishop’s Tatchbrook in Warwickshire, but had been looking for a more secluded country property in which to write, and settled on Llanthony. The previous owner had erected some buildings in the ruins of the ancient abbey, but an Act of Parliament, passed in 1809, was needed to allow Landor to pull down these buildings and construct a house, (which he never finished). He wanted to become a model country gentleman, planting trees, importing sheep from Spain, and improving the roads. The Victorian diarist Kilvert wrote of his varied experiences of coming down the valley to the Abbey:

Under the cloudless blue and glorious sunshine the Abbey looked happy and peaceful. … How different from the first day that I pilgrimaged down the Vale of Ewyas under a gloomy sky, the heavy mist wreathing along the hillsides cowling the mountain tops. 


There is still an avenue of trees in the area known as “Landor’s Larches” and many old chestnuts have been dated back to his time. But though he had literally fallen in love with Welsh people as a young man in Tenby and Swansea, where he lived for a time, he quarrelled with local people and the Bishop of St David’s, also finding the Black Mountains to have an “ungenial clime”. He left the estate in the hands of trustees and moved to Italy with his wife, whom he had met and married in Bath while living at Llanthony. They had returned to live in Llanthony. The remains of Landor’s house lie at Siarpal in the ‘cwm’ above the priory formed by the Hatterall Ridge and the Loxidge Tump. Together with the tower of the priory, they form what is now the Llanthony Abbey Hotel. The main surviving buildings of the priory are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh ‘keeper’ of historic monuments. Entrance is free.

It’s a pretty steep climb up the cwm to the ridge and the tump where the path can be regained, so the four-mile trek up the valley road to Capel-y-ffin seems more inviting, particularly as it’s rewarded by another monastery, founded in 1870 by the Rev. J. L. Lyne (Father Ignatius) for the Benedictines, in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce monasticism into the Anglican Church.

Soon after his death in 1908 the community ceased to exist, and the church became ruined. In the 1920s, though, the artist Eric Gill lived at the monastery for four years, and the house remained in his family after he returned to London. Besides the Catholic church are an Anglican chapel and a Baptist chapel. Capel-y-ffin means ‘chapel on the border’.  Just over a mile further on towards the Gospel Pass is the Youth Hostel.

The road goes on through the pass between ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ and ‘Hay Bluff’, where it eventually joins the Dyke path for the descent into Hay-on-Wye, avoiding the steep section on the road. This is where you are likely to see the Welsh mountain ponies.  Following the path itself from Black Daren northwards brings you very gradually to towards the unmarked summit of the ridge, and of the path, at 2,306 feet, on a broad and bleak nameless plateau of peat.

The surrounding landscape becomes wild and remote, a place to avoid in mist and rain. The Welsh have a saying, mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffin, meaning “it’s raining old ladies and sticks” (“cats and dogs” in English, of course!) Although “ffin” could mean “boundary” as suggested above, it might also mean “sticks” and there is a legend tell of the Old Lady of the Black Mountains, who is said to appear at night or in mist with a pot and/or wooden cane in her hand and who, going before wayfarers, will cause them to lose their way.


A friendlier spectre, said to appear to travellers lost in the mountains between Llanthony and Longtown, is of a man who will guide them to the nearest road before disappearing. Best take the road in the first place, I say, with its beautiful views along the Ewyas Valley (above). At Pen y Beacon (or Hay Bluff), which is bypassed by the official path, we come to the to the steep north-west facing scarp of the Black Mountains, high above the middle Wye Valley. The way-marked alternative path to the beacon itself was described by the Victorian diarist Kilvert, and has apparently changed little over the last century and a half:

Soon we were at the top, which was covered with peat bog and black and yellow coarse rushy grass and reed. Here and there were pools and holes filled with black peat waters. … The mountains were very silent and desolate. No human being in sight, not a tree. 

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On the high and windswept bluff, on the very cornice of the range, a wide-sweeping countryside stretches away almost to the limits of vision. Beyond the Wye, hidden from view, where the Dyke path continues its journey, the Silurian hills of Radnorshire rise to grassy tops or to open hill common. In the distance are the outlines of Mynydd Eppynt, and the Radnor Forest. Dropping down over the cornice of Brownstones you aim between two deep gullies to join the Gospel Pass road on its way from the Honddu Valley. The path leads past the prehistoric burial mound at Twyn y Beddau and along the side of Cusop Dingle, on a steady descent into Hay. In a triangle bounded on two sides by main roads, Hay forms a compact and sleepy town, except when the International Book Festival is in town, in May.


In the town, there are the remains of two castles, both Norman. The mound of the earlier motte and bailey, built around 1100 by William de Braose, is beyond the medieval core of the town, near St Mary’s Church. Legend has it that the castle was in fact built, not by William, but by his wife, Maud de St Valerie (‘Moll Walbee’). She is said to have built it in one night, carrying the stones in her apron. A pebble that dropped into her shoe is reputed to have been thrown into Llowes churchyard, three miles away. The ‘pebble’ measures nine feet in length and a foot in thickness! The later castle seems to have been destroyed by King John in 1215, the year that he signed the Magna Carta. It was rebuilt and then burnt by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1231, though it was apparently still in use when Henry III rebuilt it about two years later. In 1236, the town walls were built, and by 1298 a compact town had grown within them. The castle was captured and changed hands several times in the succeeding decades so that John Leland in the sixteenth century found Hay to show…

… the token of a right strong Waulle having in it three Gates and a Posterne. Ther is also a Castel the which sumtime hath bene right stately.

The seventeenth-century Jacobean castle incorporated into it was owned in the 1980s by R. Booth, who ran a remarkable second-hand book business in the town. Apart from the castle itself, where rarer books were kept, many shops and other buildings have become bookshops. The collection is claimed to be the largest collection in the world, and it is well worth setting aside time to explore the bookshops. It is this recent remarkable piece of social history which has given rise to the book festival and Hay’s unofficial title as ‘the book capital of the world’. As a postgraduate student in Cardiff, I well remember organising a minibus trip to Hay and returning with a number of books which were out of publication, dating back to the early twentieth century, the period I was researching.

North of Hay, the Dyke crisscrosses the border into Herefordshire, before reaching the lowlands of Montgomeryshire. This is the ancient territory of the kingdom of Powys known as Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (‘between Wye and Severn’). Although Mercian influences were strong along this part of the Border, this is essentially a countryside of dispersed habitation in the Welsh tradition. Much of the walk is through some of the quietest and most beautiful, undulating country along the Border. Leaving Hay en route for Knighton you cross over the Wye into Kilvert country, where the wayfaring diarist we met at Lanthony Priory and atop the Black Mountains, Francis Kilvert, was curate of the parish of Clyro from 1865-72 and where, in 1870, he began his diary, describing vividly both the way of life in the area and much of the surrounding countryside. As it is only a mile along the road, but is not on the Dyke Path, it seems sensible to include the short walk to Newchurch as part of a sojourn in Hay. That is where I plan to end my journey this year.


For some of its course, the Dyke marks local government boundaries, or more locally the boundaries to farmsteads, like Pen Offa near Chirk, where I hope to get to next year. But while, for the most part, the political boundary between England and Wales no longer follows it, and there are many gaps in the great earthwork itself (mostly due to modern development), the Dyke retains its place in the imagination as the symbolic frontier. It represents a natural if man-made division between upland and lowland peoples, as the only visible and historic structure which corresponds both to the imagination of those peoples, and to the fundamental reality of that division.


Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers, Lords of the March. Hereford: Logaston Press.

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Asa Briggs, John Morrill,, (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

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

George Taylor & J. A. Morris (1939), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe, 1485-1783. London: Harrap.

John B. Jones (1976, ’80), Offa’s Dyke Path (Long-Distance Footpath Guide No 4). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (Prepared for the Countryside Commission). 




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Berlin 1948: Spring Crises, Midsummer Madness, Blockades & Airlifts.   Leave a comment

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By the spring of 1948, the ideological division of Europe into two rival camps was almost complete, except in Germany and the two capital cities of Vienna and Berlin, where Britain, France, the USSR and the USA each governed a separate sector. Agreements had been formalised in the autumn of 1945, guaranteeing the Western Allies free access to Berlin. The former capital of Germany was a special case in the four-power joint occupation and control of the country, a hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, and therefore a key strategic point for the Soviets to apply pressure on the Western Allies. Road and rail lines were designated for the supply of those areas of the city occupied by them. Air corridors across the Soviet zone between Berlin and the western sectors of Germany had also been agreed, and for three years there was free movement along the accepted routes of access to the city. Britain, America and France relied on the road, rail and canal links into the city, but in the spring of 1948, the Soviet authorities decided to make use of this vulnerability by making access from the west more difficult.

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Added to these issues, Berlin had been subjected to an around-the-clock air bombardment in the war and the city had also endured a heavy artillery bombardment by the Red Army during the final battle. The destruction was almost total: whole districts had been flattened; entire apartment blocks had been demolished and almost every building in the city bore signs of damage. Food was perpetually in short supply and the official currency, the Reichsmark, had gradually become worthless. The black market was flourishing, and the cigarette had become the form of currency. The citizens had, literally, to dig into the rubble to find something with which they could barter in order to scratch out a living. They were joined by refugees arriving in the city, who faced an even more desperate struggle for food, warmth and light.



In January 1948 the British cabinet had discussed the situation in Germany. In the previous year, the three Western Allies had joined their zones of occupation together into one Western zone. Stalin had watched these events with mistrust. The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had presented a paper to his government that argued for slow movement towards a West German government, and for action on currency reform to undercut the rampant black market. Bevin thought of Britain as an intermediary between the French, who were still fearful of German recovery, and the Americans, who were increasingly frustrated by what they saw as French obstructionism. The French were haunted by an ancient rivalry with Germany and bitter memories of recent defeat and occupation. On 23rd February representatives from the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, along with the United States, met in London to plan for the new West German entity, and for the participation of Germany in the Marshall Plan. News of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia added impetus to the urgency for creating the new state. On 12th March, the Soviet leadership was advised by its spies in the Foreign Office in London that the Western powers are transforming Germany into their strongpoint and incorporating it into a military-political bloc aimed at the Soviet Union. Molotov accused the Allies of violating the agreements of Potsdam and announced that decisions made at the London conference were invalid.


007 (2)Worse was to follow on 20th March 1948, at a routine Allied Council meeting, when Marshal Vassily Sokolovsky, the Soviet military governor in Germany pressed his US and British counterparts for information about the secret London conference, already knowing, of course, exactly what had happened. When General Lucius D. Clay, the US military governor told him that they were not going to discuss the London meetings, Sokolovsky demanded to know what the point was of having a ‘Control Council’ at all. The Soviets then got up and walked out of the meeting, effectively ending joint control of Germany.

As a result, around Berlin, the Soviet authorities began applying a range of petty bureaucratic obstacles to the free movement of people and supplies in and out of the city.


Restrictions were placed on the use of the ‘autobahn’ between Berlin and the British sector to the west. The bridge over the Elbe at Hohenwarte, the only other road-crossing point, was closed for “maintenance.” The British offered to send engineers to build another to build another bridge, but Sokolovsky turned down the offer. The Soviets announced that they would search military passengers and their cargo on the rail lines, and stated that no freight shipments between Berlin and the western zones could be made without Soviet permission. On 1st April the Soviets halted two American and two British trains after their commanders refused access to Soviet inspectors. All this amounted to what was later called the “mini-blockade.” General Clay ordered a “baby airlift” to fly into Berlin enough supplies for forty-five days.



On 5th April a Vickers Viking of British European Airways took from an airfield in West Germany on a scheduled flight into RAF Gatow, one of the Allied air bases in West Berlin. As it came into Berlin, in one of the agreed twenty-mile-wide air corridors, the Viking was buzzed by a Soviet Yak-3 fighter plane. It was not the first time this had happened. For a few days, Soviet fighters had been carrying out mock attacks on Allied planes flying into Berlin. But this time, as the British transport plane took evasive action, it collided with the Yak fighter. Both planes crashed to the ground, killing all ten people on board the BEA plane and the pilot of the Soviet fighter. The Soviets blamed the British for the collision, and the British blamed the Soviet pilot. A joint investigation of the accident broke down when the Soviets refused to allow German witnesses to testify. The British and Soviets separately concluded that the mid-air collision was an accident, but thereafter both sides were more nervous that such accidents could bring open conflict.

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008With the situation in Berlin now alarmingly tense, the confrontation between the Soviets and the West spilt over into Berlin’s internal politics. The Berlin City Council was the scene of a fierce power struggle between the East German Communists and their political foes, led by Ernst Reuter, a powerful orator, and his Social Democrats. Reuter had been forced to leave Germany by the Nazis but had returned in 1946. hoping to rebuild the country as a democratic state. His election in 1948 as Mayor of Berlin (the whole city) was vetoed by the Soviets and the East German Communists, whose agents operated in both East and West Berlin, using a combination of intimidation, blackmail and kidnapping to get their way.

As far as the Soviets were concerned, East Germany was Stalin’s by right of conquest; for the West Berliners it was, and remained (until 1972), the Soviet occupation zone, SBZ. The old pre-war Kommunist Partei Deutschlands, boosted by sizeable numbers of Soviet-German agents who had spent the war in Moscow and had been sent back to Berlin as early as May 1945, merged forcibly with the socialists and created a new party, Socialist Unity, led by Walter Ulbricht. It took over the main offices of state and reduced the civil service and the other political parties which remained to the status of mere figureheads. Its constitution made it clear that all fundamental human rights were subject to the concrete conditions under which the proletarian revolution must triumph (Article 19). 

Although, by 1948, the Soviets had forced the Eastern ‘zone’ of Germany to accept Communism, in the Western zone elections they never gained more than eight per cent support for the Communists, and despite the level of intimidation, the Communists had failed to gain control of Berlin.  Around Berlin, tensions had worsened. Soviet military authorities threatened to close down the rail traffic with the West. By 15th June canal boats and freight trains were the only means left of supplying the city. In this explosive situation, the Western Allies decided to introduce their new currency, which was announced on 18th June. Sokolovsky immediately issued a proclamation denouncing their action as being…

against the wishes and interests of the German people and in the interests of the American, British and French monopolists … The separate currency reform completes the splitting of Germany. It is a breach of the Potsdam decisions.


Sokolovsky also prohibited the introduction of the Western Deutschmark (above left) into the Soviet zone and into Berlin. On 22nd June, the Soviets announced that they would be introducing their own currency, the Ostmark (right) for the Eastern zone and, they hoped, the whole of Berlin. The Western military commanders declared the Soviet order null and void for West Berlin and introduced the B-mark, a special Deutschmark overprinted with the letter ‘B’, for the Western sectors of Berlin. General Clay, who made the decision without consulting Washington, insisted it was a technical, non-political measure. But Sokolovsky announced that the Western mark would not be permitted to circulate in Berlin, which lies in the Soviet zone of Germany and economically forms part of the Soviet zone. General Clay assured his staff that he was not concerned by these developments:

If they had put in a currency reform and we didn’t, it would have been (our) first move.   

007Over the next twelve hours, Berlin endured an extraordinary spate of ‘midsummer madness’. On the evening of 23rd June, at a meeting of the Berlin City Council, which was located in the Soviet sector of the city, Reuter tried to persuade the Assembly to approve the circulation of both the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. As thugs beat up non-Communists to intimidate them from supporting Reuter’s proposal, Soviet officials and Communist-controlled police stood by and watched. Nevertheless, the Berlin Assembly voted to accept the Deutschmark in the Western sectors and the Ostmark in the Soviet sector.

Sokolovsky rang Molotov to ask what he should do; should he surround Berlin with tanks? Molotov told him not to, as this might provoke the Western powers into doing the same, and then the only way out of such an impasse would be through military confrontation. They decided instead to impose an immediate blockade around Berlin, and at 6:00 a.m. on 24th June, the barriers were lowered on all road, rail and canal routes linking Berlin with West Germany. The reason given was “technical difficulties.” That same morning, electricity from power stations in the Soviet sector was cut off to factories and offices in West Berlin. The official reason given was “coal shortages.” So the blockade of Berlin began. The Soviets’ purpose was clear; either the Western Allies must change their policies or be forced out of Berlin altogether. General Clay clearly identified this purpose:

When Berlin falls, Western Germany will be next. If we withdraw our position in Berlin, Europe is threatened … Communism will run rampant.


Berlin was effectively cut off from the West, with only enough food and fuel to last six weeks. In both London and Washington, there was a clear determination that the Western powers would hold on to West Berlin. President Truman vowed; We are going to stay, period and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that the abandonment of Berlin would mean the loss of Western Europe. It was easy to make such statements, but much more difficult to decide what to do next. West Berlin did indeed have a symbolic status as an outpost of the democratic West inside the Communist East, but by an agreement made at the time of Potsdam, the Soviet authorities were not obliged to supply the British, American and French sectors of the city. So 2.3 million Berliners, and the Allied military garrison there were now cut off. The Western part of the city relied upon the arrival of twelve thousand tons of supplies each day. At the time, there was only enough food for thirty-six days, and enough coal for forty-five. The key to keeping a Western presence in Berlin clearly lay in finding a way to supply the citizens with their bare necessities. With rail, road and canal routes blocked, the only way to get supplies in was by air. However, the American C-47 transport, the military ‘workhorse’ of the day, could only deliver a payload of three tons. Initially, the prospect for an airlift to Berlin appeared to be bleak.

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On 24 June, the West had introduced a counter-blockade, stopping all raid traffic into eastern Germany from the British and US zones. Over the following months, this counter-blockade was to have a damaging effect on the East, as the drying up of coal and steel shipments seriously hindered industrial development in the Soviet zone. On that same day, General Clay rang General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in Wiesbaden and asked him to put on standby his fleet of C-47s and any other aircraft that could be utilised. The RAF had come forward with an ambitious plan to supply Berlin by air, but Clay was sceptical. He favoured sending a convoy of US military engineers down the autobahn to force their way through the Soviet blockade, with instructions to fire back if they were fired upon. But in Washington, Truman’s advisers urged caution and restraint. The president was backed into a corner as it was an election year; the American people would never support going to war with the Soviet Union just to defend Berlin, the capital of a country they had been at war with only three years earlier. At the same time, Truman had to be seen championing a firm line with the Soviets, so he made no final decision that day, but Clay was told by telephone that the president did not want any action taken in Berlin which might lead to possible armed conflict.

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Although both the British and Americans had experience with major air supply operations, neither had ever attempted anything on this scale. Clay warned Reuter that to begin with there would be severe shortages and hardships; initially, he did not believe that the Allies could fly in more than five hundred tons a day. Reuter assured him that the Allies could count on the West Berliners to grin and bear it. Then, without consulting Washington, Clay authorised the start of the airlift. On 26th June, the first American transport planes flew into Berlin from air bases in West Germany, following three narrow air corridors through the Soviet zone. The first flight brought in eighty tons of milk, flour and medicine. The Americans code-named the airlift Operation Vittles; to the British, it was Operation Plainfare. To begin with, about eighty C-47s flew two daily round trips into RAF Gatow and Tempelhof, air bases in the British and American sectors of Berlin. Soon the Americans were bringing fifty C-54 Skymasters, four-engined transports each containing nine tons, three times the payload of the C-47s. The Allies organised willing gangs of workers to unload the aircraft and turn them around quickly. Over time these workers learned to empty each plane in just seven minutes. The citizens of Berlin became increasingly confident that the Allies would be able to save their city. They had had few problems delivering bombs, they reminded each other, so why wouldn’t be able to deliver potatoes?


The Royal Air Force had fewer service aircraft available for the operation, and spare planes of any type were soon pressed into the airlift. British business executive Freddie Laker had begun to buy and sell aircraft parts after the war, and by 1948 he owned twelve converted Halifax bombers. He was asked to make them available for supplying Berlin and provided a team of pilots and engineers as well. As the operation grew over succeeding months, it grew into a ‘crusade for freedom’, with the pilots determined to keep Berlin alive, despite the hazards of flying old, rickety aircraft, often buzzed by Soviet fighters and frequently at risk when flying heavy loads in bad weather. Bevin set up a crisis-management team in London to supervise the effort, and early expectations were soon exceeded, as roughly a thousand tons per day were flown into the besieged city. The irony was not lost on many of the veteran fliers involved; instead of destroying Berlin, they were now keeping it alive.


In July, General Clay returned to Washington for talks with President Truman. He still favoured a military a military convoy to break the blockade, for he believed that the Soviets would back down rather than confronting the West. However, Truman did not want to chance it. If they chose not to let the convoy through, there would be war. Instead, Truman guaranteed more C-54s, and the two men talked of doubling the airlift to two thousand tons daily. The American intelligence community, knowing that the Soviets still had two and a half million men at arms, was convinced that in a conventional military confrontation the Red Army would walk right over the US forces. At the same time, they were equally confident that the Kremlin would not sanction direct military conflict with the Western powers, which might provoke the Americans to use nuclear weapons, as they had in Japan. To stop the airlift, the USSR would have had to shoot down British and American planes. Stalin was frightened by the USA’s nuclear capability, since, as yet, the Soviet Union had not developed its own capacity. Perhaps because of this overall military superiority, General Clay remained convinced that the Soviets would not risk a military confrontation:

The chances of war are 1 in 10. The Russians know they would be licked. If they cut our air route, they know it is an act of war.

Besides, the Soviet Union was not yet secure within its own accepted sphere of influence. Yugoslavia split away from the Eastern camp, a defection that made the Kremlin even more nervous about its support among its satellites, especially after events in Czechoslovakia in February and March of the same year. On 28th June, only four days after launching the blockade against Berlin, Moscow expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform and called on other Communist parties to isolate Marshal Tito, its charismatic partisan leader who had taken power after the war without Stalin’s help or support. An economic blockade was organised against Yugoslavia that caused great hardship, but Belgrade stood firm. Rejected by the Eastern ‘bloc’, Tito turned, albeit slowly and a little reluctantly, towards the West. Although not technically a member of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia went on to receive $150 million in aid from the United States. Threatened with invasion by Stalin, Yugoslavia remained the only independent state in Europe throughout the Cold War and a ‘thorn in the side’ of the USSR. Any attempt of an Eastern bloc country to establish its independence from Moscow was labelled ‘Titoism’, a heresy to be rooted out and purged.


Back in the ‘Berlin Crisis’ during July, attempts were made through diplomatic channels to bring about a settlement. On 2nd August, the British, American, and French ambassadors had a private meeting with Stalin to test his willingness to find a peaceful solution. Stalin made it clear that from the Soviet point of view the currency question was crucial, together with the London agreement to create a united West Germany. He argued that if there were now two German states then Berlin was no longer the capital, making the Western presence in the city no longer relevant. Stalin stated that the USSR was not seeking conflict with the West and would lift the blockade as soon as the West withdrew the B-mark from circulation and agreed to reinstate joint four-power rule over Germany. In point of fact, there was little that the Soviets could do in the face of the West’s superiority in the air and its determination to keep up the airlift. What became clear to the Western ambassadors was that the Soviet blockade had only one principal purpose: to prevent the creation of a West German state.

Pictured Above: On 19th August, A C-47 Dakota comes in for a landing while a huge C-74 Globemaster from Frankfurt unloads 23 tons of flour for the people of Berlin. With some difficulty, the enormous plane landed on a new runway at Gatow in the British zone. Below: Inside the Globemaster.

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Throughout the summer of 1948, the British and American governments constantly reviewed their options. Military thinking concluded that the airlift could hardly continue through the winter; that October was to be the cut-off point. The British chiefs of staff prepared a contingency plan to withdraw their troops to the Rhine in case of an emergency. In Washington, the air force commanders were convinced that the airlift was doomed to fail and concluded that there was a high likelihood of war with the Soviets over Berlin. The question which arose from this for the administration was whether the United States would be willing to use nuclear weapons in the developing crisis, for there was still no clear policy emanating from the White House. Truman argued with his Pentagon chiefs that because they were so terribly destructive, atomic weapons could not be treated as conventional weaponry. He urged the military leaders…

to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people.

In September, the US National Security Council produced a secret report designated as NSC-30: United States Policy on Atomic Welfare. This required the military to be ready to utilize promptly a and effectively all appropriate means available, including atomic weapons, in the interests of national security and to plan accordingly.  However, any decision about the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the president, when he considers such decisions to be required. Truman endorsed NC-30. In a briefing with his chief air force commanders, he…

prayed he would never have to make such a decision, but … if it became necessary, no one need have misgiving but he would do so.


In a dramatic gesture that summer, a fleet of sixty B-29 ‘Superfortress’ bombers was flown into the United Kingdom. These were the latest American heavy bombers, designed to carry atomic weapons. The deployment of the B-29s established the US Strategic Air Command in the UK, and the arrival of “the atomic bombers” was widely publicised. The threat of nuclear retaliation was now made explicit. After a brief debate, at the height of the Berlin crisis, the British Government had formally invited Washington to station the bombers in Britain. The invitation neatly fudged the issue as to who would have his finger on the nuclear trigger; the US Air Force bombers would respond to orders from the United States, but their bases would be technically under the command of the RAF.


This theoretical ambivalence lasted for more than forty years. I remember going on a CND march to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk to demonstrate against the presence of the US bombers, and their bombs, in 1976. But in practice the real decision, if it ever came to that, would always be made as NSC-30 directed, by the president of the United States. The planes, in fact, carried no atomic weapons, but this was a closely guarded secret. There were not enough atomic warheads in existence to equip the B-29s in Britain. Their arrival was mainly a signal to Moscow that the West meant business over Berlin, and Washington took advantage of the crisis to get congressional approval for permanent overseas bases.  The British Government knew that the B-29s carried no atomic weapons, and through spies at the London Foreign Office, Moscow also, almost certainly knew too. The British, German and Russian people, of course, did not.


Meanwhile, the Berlin airlift was proving more successful than anyone ever expected. Tens of thousands of Berliners helped build a new airport at Tegel to reduce congestion at the other two airfields. With capacity for more flights, the Americans added another sixty C-54s to their fleet. Clay now spoke of bringing in 4,500 tons each day. By September, aircraft were landing in Berlin every three minutes, day and night. On 18th September, 861 British and American flights delivered a record seven thousand tons in a single day. By this date roughly two hundred thousand tons of supplies had been delivered, the ‘split’ between the USAF and the RAF being about sixty-forty in percentage terms. Coal, flour, drums of petrol, potatoes, medical supplies were all brought in by air. It began to look as if the airlift would be able to supply the city through the winter, after all. But West Berliners were still fearful that the West might not continue the airlift. On 6th September, another meeting of the City Council in East Berlin had been broken up by Communist agitators with violence and intimidation. The Western representatives decided that the Council was no longer functional, so they left and agreed to meet separately in West Berlin. Three days later, a huge gathering of three hundred thousand Berliners, mostly from the western zones, collected outside the ruins of the Reichstag (below). Standing on a pile of rubble, Reuter addressed the huge crowds, calling upon the Western governments not to abandon Berlin.


By October, many West Berliners were getting desperate. They were allowed only small amounts of fat, spam (tinned meat), potatoes, cereal and bread. Berlin’s people needed four thousand tons of supplies a day to survive. People had got used to the rationing, and even to feeling cold, since electricity was only available four hours a day. But the blockade was not, in any case, absolute, so a minority of West Berliners were able to register for food rations with the Soviet authorities, and about one in ten of them were, therefore, able to draw food and coal from the East. As there was no restriction on travel within the city, so many West Berliners regularly visited the eastern part of the city, where there were well-lit and heated dance halls.


The airlift became almost a way of life. Although expensive, its cost represented only a fraction of the total cost of American aid to Europe. Despite bad weather and constant harassment by Soviet fighters, the transports continued to bring their cargoes into West Berlin. By December, the goal of 4,500 tons flown in each day was reached. At Gatow and Tempelhof flights landed every ninety seconds. Enough coal was freighted in to keep West Berliners from freezing. The gamble had paid off. Production in the city picked up and output grew rapidly. The feared economic collapse did not materialise.

Below (left): A German child’s drawing commemorates the airlift: “We thank the pilots for their work and effort.” Right: A new game, “Airlift.”

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By the spring of 1949, the weather improved considerably. Food supplies in Berlin could be built up and fuel stocks maintained at a sufficient level. The airlift ensured that eight thousand tons were being flown in each day. In one twenty-four hour period, on Easter Sunday, April 1949, a record number of 1,398 flights came into  Berlin, carrying a total of thirteen thousand tons of supplies. In all, two million tons of supplies had been flown in since the airlift began. As the counter-blockade of eastern Germany hurt more and more, the Soviets took the only course left open to them and tried to end the whole Berlin debacle. The Kremlin indicated that it would consider ending its blockade with minimal conditions imposed: The counter-blockade would have to be lifted and the Council of Foreign Ministers reconvened. The bellicose General Clay quietly returned to Washington, ceasing to be military governor and claiming that, in any case, after the tensions of the preceding year he needed a break. On 12th May 1949, the blockade was finally lifted, and the Western military authorities reciprocated by lifting their counter-blockade. Both sides claimed victory and Berliners were jubilant; many thought this would be the end of the conflict between the Great Powers. In reality, the blockades had resulted in the end of the war-time alliance and in the formation of two Berlins: West and East. Added to that, as the heavy transports continued to fly their daily missions, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany was being drafted. Stalin’s attempt to prevent the division of Germany had failed. President Truman commented:

When we refused to be forced out of Berlin, we demonstrated to Europe that we would act when freedom was threatened. This action was a Russian plan to probe the soft spots in the Western Allies’ positions.


Above: RIAS, Radio in the American Sector, American-financed, with a mix of popular music and upbeat news, kept up Berliners’ morale. Presenter and entertainer Christina Ohlsen became a celebrity.

The West did, indeed, secure a major propaganda victory through the airlift. It was a reminder to the Soviet Union, and the whole international community, of Western technological superiority, especially in the air. Conversely, the Berlin crisis showed the Soviets in a poor light: they seemed to be willing to threaten 2.3 million people with starvation. The Soviet view of the events was, not surprisingly, quite different:

The crisis was planned in Washington, behind a smoke-screen of anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1948 there was the danger of war. The conduct of the Western powers risked bloody incidents. The self-blockade of the Western powers hit the West Berlin population with harshness. The people were freezing and starving. In the spring of 1949 the USA was forced to yield … their war plans had come to nothing, because of the conduct of the Soviet Union.


The Soviets, operating outside the framework of American loan credits and facing the Western alliance, saw themselves to be increasingly threatened. We now know that Stalin privately felt far weaker than was known at the time, but in 1948 many in the West genuinely believed that Stalin planned to dominate the entire European continent. The US policy of ‘containment’ meant confronting Communism at all agreed critical points, and Berlin was one of these. Old wartime loyalties to Russia were being replaced by fear of Soviet ambitions; a “them and us” syndrome had emerged. As US Secretary of State, George C Marshall observed,…

There has been a definite crystallization of American public and Congressional opinion over the Berlin issue. … The country is more unified in its determination not to weaken in the face of pressure of an illegal blockade than on any other issue we can recall in time of peace.  


The Berlin blockade made clear to most Americans that the new enemy was definitely the Soviet Union. The Blockade and Airlift was the first open struggle between East and West. The tactics were designed not to start a war, but to threaten to go to war if necessary. This set the pattern for future Cold War conflicts, including further tensions over Berlin. 


Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                


Britain Seventy Years Ago, 1948-49: Race, Class and Culture.   1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

(to be continued…)



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


Part Three – From Zwickau to Worms: Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer:

Thomas Müntzer was born into modest comfort in Thuringia in 1488 or 1489. When he first came clearly into public view, in his early thirties, Müntzer appears neither as a victim nor as an enemy of social injustice but rather as an ‘eternal student’, extraordinary learned and intensely intellectual. After graduating from university he became a priest and led a restless, wandering life, always choosing places where he could hope to further his studies. Profoundly versed in the Scriptures, he learned Greek and Hebrew, read patristic and scholastic theology and philosophy, also immersing himself in the writings of the German mystics. Yet he was never a pure scholar; his voracious reading was carried on in a desperate attempt to solve a personal problem. For Müntzer was at that time a troubled soul, full of doubts about the truth of Christianity and even about the existence of God but obstinately struggling after certainty, in fact in that labile condition which so often ends in a conversion.

Müntzer came from Zwickau and revived some of the ideas of the earlier ‘prophets’ from that town, but with much greater allure because of his learning, ability and intense enthusiasm. Müntzer held, with the Catholic Church, that the Bible is inadequate without a divinely inspired interpreter, but that interpreter is not the Church nor the pope but the prophet, the new Elijah, the new Daniel, to whom is given the key of David to open the book sealed with seven seals.

Martin Luther, who was some five or six years older than Müntzer, was just then emerging as the most formidable opponent that the Church of Rome had ever known and also, if only incidentally and transiently, as the effective leader of the German nation. In 1519 he had questioned the supremacy of the Pope in public disputation with John Eck in Leipzig and in 1520 he published, and was excommunicated for publishing, the three treatises which formed the manifestos of the German Reformation. During the summer of 1520, he delivered to the printer a sheaf of tracts which are still referred to as his primary works: The Sermon on Good works in May, The Papacy at Rome in June, and The Address to the German Nobility in August. The Babylonian Captivity followed in September and The Freedom of the Christian Man in November. The latter three were more immediately pertinent to the controversy with the Papal Curia.

The most radical of these three in the eyes of contemporaries was the one dealing with the sacraments, entitled  The Babylonian Captivity, with reference to the enslavement of the sacraments of the Church. This assault on Catholic teaching was more devastating than anything that had preceded it: and when Erasmus read the tract, he exclaimed, “the breach is irreparable.” The reason was that the pretensions of the Roman Catholic Church rested so completely on the sacraments as the exclusive channels of grace and upon the prerogatives of the clergy, by whom the sacraments were administered. Luther with one stroke reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two. Confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, and extreme unction were eliminated. The Lord’s Supper and baptism alone remained. According to Luther, a sacrament must have been directly instituted by Christ and must be distinctively Christian. He did not utterly abolish penance, recognising the need for contrition and regarding confession as useful, provided it was not institutionalised. The key point of divergence was with regard to absolution, which he said was only a declaration by a man of what God had decreed in heaven and not a ratification by God of what that man had ruled on earth.

In Luther’s eyes, the Church had made the sacrament of the mass mechanical and magical. He, too, would not subject it to human frailty and would not concede that he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faith was a gift from God, but given when, where and to whom he will and efficacious without the sacrament, whereas the sacrament was not efficacious without faith. On this belief, Luther affirmed:

I may be wrong on indulgencies, but as to the need for faith in the sacraments I will die before I will recant. 

This insistence upon faith diminished the role of the priests who may place a wafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart. Neither is Christ sacrificed in the mass because his sacrifice was made once and for all upon the cross, but God is present in the elements because Christ, being God, declared, “This is my body.” The ‘official’ view called transubstantiation was that the elements retained their accidents of shape, taste, colour and so on, but lose their substance, for which is substituted the substance of God. Luther rejected this position on rational rather than biblical grounds. The sacrament for him was not a chunk of God fallen like a meteorite from heaven. God does not need to fall from heaven because he is everywhere present throughout his creation as a sustaining and animating force, and Christ as God is likewise universal, but his presence is hidden from human eyes. For that reason, God has chosen to declare himself to mankind at three loci of revelation. The first is Christ, in whom the word was made flesh. The second is Scripture, where the word uttered is recorded. The third is the sacrament, in which the Word is manifest in food and drink. The sacrament does not conjure up God as the witch of Endor but reveals him where he is.

Nonetheless, Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper pointed the Church in one direction and his view of baptism pointed it to another. That is why he could be at once to a degree the father of the Congregationalism of the Anabaptists and of the territorial church of the later Evangelicals. This was the product of Luther’s individualism, not that of the Renaissance Humanists, but the fulfilment of the individual’s capacities; it is not the individualism of the late scholastic, who on metaphysical grounds declared that reality consists only of individuals and that aggregates like Church and State are not entities but simply the sum of their components. Luther was not concerned to philosophise about the structures of the Church and State; his insistence was simply that every man must answer for himself to God. That was the extent of his individualism.

Baptism rather than the Lord’s Supper was, for Luther, the sacrament which linked the Church to society. For the medieval Christian community, every child outside the ghetto was by birth a citizen and by baptism a Christian. Regardless of personal conviction, the same persons constituted the State and the Church. An alliance of the two institutions was thus natural. Here was a basis for Christian society. The greatness and the tragedy of Luther were that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporatism of the baptismal font. This doctrinal duality would have made him a troubled spirit in a tranquil age, but his age was not tranquil. Rome had not forgotten him. The lifting of the pressure on him was merely opportunistic, with the papacy waiting for the arrival of the Most Catholic Emperor in Germany,  from Spain,  before resuming its persecution of Luther. On 10 October, Luther received the Papal Bull, Exsurge Domine, excommunicating him.


The Bull was sparse in its reproof. Luther’s views on the mass were condemned only at the point of the cup to the laity. None other of the seven sacraments received notice, except for penance. There was nothing about monastic vows, only a disavowal of Luther’s desire that princes and prelates might suppress the sacks of the mendicants. There was nothing about the priesthood of all believers. The articles centred on Luther’s disparagement of human capacity even after baptism, on his derogation from the power of the pope to bind and loose penalties and sins, from the power of the pope and councils to declare doctrine, from the primacy of the pope and of the Roman Church. The charge of Bohemianism had plainly lodged, because he was condemned on the score of introducing certain of the articles of John Hus. Luther’s articles were not pronounced uniformly heretical but condemned as heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth, respectively. The entire formula was stereotyped and had been used in the condemnation of Hus. Despite his initial blasts against the Bull, Luther’s prevailing mood was expressed in a pastoral letter to a minister who was prompted to leave his post, written in October:

Our warfare is not with flesh or blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places, against the world rulers of this darkness. Let us then stand firm and heed the trumpet of the Lord. Satan is fighting, not against us, but against Christ in us. We fight the battles of the Lord. Be strong therefore, if God is for us, who can be against us?…

If you have the spirit, do not leave your post, lest another receive your crown. It is but a little thing that we should die with the Lord, who in our flesh laid down his life for us. We shall rise with him and abide with him in eternity. See then that you do not despise your holy calling. He will come, he will not tarry, who will deliver us from every ill. 


Meanwhile, Luther had already published another mighty manifesto of Reformation in his Address to the German Nobility. The term ‘nobility’ was used, in a broad sense, to cover the ruling classes in Germany from the emperor down. Some contend that in this tract Luther broke with his earlier view of the Church as a persecuted remnant and instead laid the basis for a church allied with and dependent on the State.  Luther adduced three grounds for his appeal. The first was simply that the magistrate was the magistrate, ordained by God to punish evildoers. All that Luther demanded of him was that he should hold the clergy to account before the civil courts, that he should protect citizens against ecclesiastical extortion and that he should vindicate the state in the exercise of its civil functions, free from clerical interference. The theocratic pretentiousness of the Church was to be rejected.

Yet Luther was far more concerned for the purification of the Church than for the emancipation of the state. The second ground was that the Church’s temporal power and inordinate wealth must be stripped away in order to emancipate it from worldly concerns and enable it to better perform its spiritual functions. He used the language of the Christian society in asserting that the temporal authorities are baptised with the same baptism as we, building upon the sociological sacrament administered to every babe born into the community. In such a society, Church and State are mutually responsible for the support and correction of each other. His third ground for the appeal was that magistrates were fellow Christians sharing in the priesthood of all believers, which was made to rest on the lower grade of faith implicit in the baptised infant. Luther’s whole attitude to the reformatory role of the magistrate was essentially medieval, but it was deeply religious in tone. The complaints of Germany were combined with the reform of the Church, and the civil power itself was directed to rely less on the arm of the flesh than upon the hand of the Lord.


Underlying his ‘appeal to Caesar’ was a deep indignation against the corruption of the Church, however, as again and again the pope was shamed by a comparison with Christ (seen in the cartoon by Cranach above). This theme went back through Hus to Wyclif. In contrast to the pope’s view that promises to heretics are not binding, Luther argues that heretics should be vanquished with books, not with burnings. He ended his Address to the German Nobility with an uncompromising appeal to heaven:

O Christ, my lord, look down. Let the day of thy judgment break and destroy the devil’s nest at Rome!

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In the meantime, the papal bull was being executed in Rome and Luther’s books were being burned in the Piazza Navona. The bull was printed and sealed for wider dissemination. The two men charged with this task as papal nuncios were John Eck and Jerome Aleander, a distinguished Humanist and former rector of the University of Paris. But in the Rhineland, the emperor ruled only by virtue of his election. When at Cologne on 12 November Aleander tried to have a bonfire, having gained the consent of archbishop, the executioner refused to proceed without an express imperial mandate. The archbishop asserted his authority, and the books were burned. At Mainz, at the end of the month, the opposition was more violent. Before applying the torch, the executioner asked the assembled crowd whether the books had been legally condemned. When they, with one voice, cried “No!”, he stepped down and refused to act. Aleander again appealed to Albert, the archbishop, and secured his authorisation to destroy a few books the following day. The order was carried out by a gravedigger with no witnesses apart from Aleander and a few women who had brought their geese to market. Aleander was pelted with stones and had to be rescued by the abbot. Ulrich von Hutten came out in verse with an invective both in Latin and German:

 O God, Luther’s books they burn.

Thy godly truth is slain in turn.

Pardon in advance is sold,

And heaven marketed for gold

The German people is bled white

And is not asked to be contrite.


To Martin Luther wrong is done –

O God, be thou our champion.

My goods for him I will not spare,

My life, my blood for him I dare.


Luther’s ‘private’ response to receiving the papal bull, given in his letter to Spalatin, to which he appended a copy of his reply in Latin, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist, was apocalyptic in tone and content:

When since the beginning of the world did Satan ever so rage against God? I am overcome by the magnitude of the horrible blasphemies of this bull. I am almost persuaded by many and weighty arguments that the last day is on the threshold. The Kingdom of Antichrist begins to fall. I see an unsuppressible insurrection coming out of this bull, which the Roman ‘curia’ deserves.

His public pronouncements were also, now, almost equally uncompromising in their millenarianist, direct condemnation of the ‘curia’:

You then, Leo X, you cardinals and the rest of you at Rome, I tell you to your faces: “If this bull has come out in your name then… I call upon you to renounce your diabolical blasphemy and audacious impiety, and, if you will not, we shall all hold your seat as possessed and oppressed by Satan, the damned seat of Antichrist, in the name of Jesus Christ, whom you persecute.”


He added the caveat, however, that he was still not persuaded that the bull was the work of the pope, but rather that of that apostle of impiety, John Eck. Nevertheless, as to the content of his reply, he left his readers in no doubt of his determination to hold to the beliefs he had expressed in it and his previous articles:

It is better that I should die a thousand times than that I should retract one syllable of the condemned articles. And as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.

Two weeks after the appearance of this tract another came out so amazingly different as to make historians wonder if it was written by the same man. It was entitled Freedom of the Christian Man and commenced with a deferential address to Leo X. In it, he issued a disclaimer of personal abusiveness and a statement of faith. He was not fighting a man, but a system. Then followed Luther’s canticle of freedom, but if he supposed that this would mollify the pope, he was naïve. The deferential letter itself denied the primacy of the pope over councils, and the treatise asserted the priesthood of all believers. The pretence that the attack was directed, not against the pope, but against the curia is the device commonly employed by constitutionally minded revolutionaries who do not like to admit that they are rebelling against a head of a  government or church.

Although it was to be many years before Evangelical churches appeared on a territorial basis, there now existed a recognisable Lutheran party among the German ‘nobles’ to whom Luther had appealed. Many of the clergy also joined it, though they clung firmly to ‘the old religion’. It was as a follower of Luther that Thomas Müntzer first broke away from Catholic orthodoxy; all the deeds which have made him famous were done in the midst of the great religious earthquake which first cracked and at length destroyed the massive structure of the medieval Church. Yet he himself abandoned Luther almost as soon as he had found him; it was in ever fiercer opposition to Luther that he worked out and proclaimed his own doctrine.

What Müntzer needed if he was to become a new man, sure of himself and of his aim in life, was not to be found in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.  It was to be found, rather, in the militant and bloodthirsty millenarianism that was unfolded to him when in 1520 he took up a ministry in the town of Zwickau and came into contact with a weaver called Nikla Storch. Zwickau lies close to the Bohemian border, where Storch himself had been born. It was essentially the old Táborite doctrines which were being revived in his teaching. He proclaimed that now, as in the days of the Apostles, God was communicating directly with his Elect; the reason for this was that the Last Days were at hand. First, the Turks must conquer the world and Antichrist must rule over it; but then, and it would be very soon, the Elect would rise up and annihilate all the godless so that the Second Coming could take place and the millennium begin. What most appealed to Müntzer in this programme was the war of extermination which the righteous were to wage against the unrighteous. Abandoning Luther, who had the previous year refused to lead a knights’ crusade with Hutten, he now talked and thought only of the Book of Revelation and of such incidents from the Old Testament of as Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal, Jehu’s slaying of the sons of Ahab and Jael’s assassination of the sleeping Sisera. Contemporaries noted and lamented the change that had come over him, the lust for blood which at times expressed itself in sheer raving. By contrast, for all his use of apocalyptic tropes to attack the papacy, Luther wrote to Spalatin in January 1521:

I am not willing to fight for the gospel with bloodshed… The world is conquered by the Word, and by the Word the Church is served and rebuilt. As Antichrist rose without the hand of man, so without the hand of man will he fall. 

For Müntzer, the Elect must prepare the way for the Millennium. Like Luther, however, he believed that he who would be saved must be prepared to suffer as the historical Christ had done, must be purged of all self-will and freed from everything that binds him to the world and to created beings. ‘The Cross’ may include sickness and poverty and persecution, all of which must be borne in patience, but above all, they will include intense mental agonies, weariness with the world and with oneself, loss of hope, despair, terror. According to Müntzer, but also in traditional doctrine, only when this point has been reached, when the soul has been stripped utterly naked, can direct communication with God take place. Such beliefs had been held by many Medieval Catholic mystics, but when Müntzer came to speak of the outcome of this suffering, he followed an altogether less orthodox tradition. For him, once ‘the living Christ’ enters the soul it is for evermore; the man so favoured becomes a vessel of the Holy Spirit. Müntzer even speaks of his ‘becoming God’; endowed with perfect insight into the divine will and living in perfect conformity with it, such a man is incontestably qualified to discharge the divinely appointed eschatological mission. That is precisely what Müntzer claimed for himself.

As soon as Storch had enabled him to find himself Müntzer changed his way of life, abandoning reading and the pursuit of learning, condemning the Humanists who abounded among Luther’s followers, ceaselessly propagating his eschatological faith among the poor. In the middle of the fifteenth-century silver-mines had been opened up at Zwickau, turning the town into an important industrial centre, three times the size of Dresden. From all over southern and central Germany labourers streamed to the mines, with the result that there was a chronic surplus of manpower. Moreover, the uncontrolled exploitation of the silver ore resulted in an inflation which reduced all the skilled workers, including those in the traditional weaving industry, to near-penury. A few months after he arrived at Zwickau, Müntzer became a preacher at the church where the weavers had their special altar, and he used the pulpit to denounce the local preacher, a friend of Luther’s, who enjoyed the favour of the well-to-do burghers. Before long the whole town was divided into two hostile camps and the antagonism between them was becoming so sharp that violent disorders seemed imminent.

Müntzer was readily able to find support for his view of the spirit in the Scripture itself, where it is said that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (II Cor. 3:6). Luther replied that of course the letter without the spirit is dead, but the two are no more to be divorced than the soul is to be separated from the body. The real menace of Müntzer in Luther’s eyes was that he destroyed the uniqueness of Christian revelation in the past by his elevation of revelation in the present. In his own experience, Luther had no great contemporary revelation of his own. On the contrary, in times of despondency, the advice to rely upon the spirit was for him a counsel of despair, since within he could find only utter blackness. In such times, only the assurance he received from the written Word of God of the stupendous act of God in Christ would suffice. Luther freely avowed his weakness and his need for historic revelation. Had Müntzer drawn no practical consequences from his view, Luther would have been less outraged, but Müntzer proceeded to use the gift of the Spirit as a basis for the formation of a church. He is the progenitor of sectarian Protestant theocracies, based not as in Judaism primarily on blood and soil, nor as in Catholicism on sacramentalism, but rather on inner experience and the infusion of the Spirit. Those who are thus reborn can recognise each other and can join a covenant of the Elect, whose mission is to erect God’s kingdom.

Müntzer did not expect the elect to enter into their inheritance without a struggle. They would have to slaughter the ungodly. At this point, Luther was horrified because the sword is given to the magistrate, not the minister, let alone to the saints. In the struggle, Müntzer recognised that many of the godly would fall, and he was constantly preaching on suffering and cross-bearing as a mark of the elect. Luther was often taunted as “Dr Easychair and Dr Pussyfoot,” basking in the favour of the princes. His reply was that the outward cross is neither to be sought nor evaded. The constant cross is suffering within. So, who was really the champion of the inner spiritual life?

Meanwhile, Luther was himself facing a divided public opinion. Those who were for him were numerous, powerful and vocal. Aleander, the papal nuncio in Germany, reported that nine-tenths of the Germans cried “Luther” and the other one-tenth, “Death to the pope.” This was undoubtedly an exaggeration as far as the Germans were concerned, but even if it were true, there was by now a middle party, both within the German states and more broadly in Europe, headed personally by Erasmus, who, despite his statement that the breach was irreparable, did not desist from efforts at mediation and even penned a memorandum proposing the appointment by the emperor and the kings of England and Hungary of an impartial tribunal. The Erasmians as a party sensed less than their leader the depth of the cleavage between Luther and the Church and between Luther and themselves.

Curiously, however, some of the greatest obstructionists were in the Vatican, because the pope had seen his worst fears realized in the election of Charles as emperor, and was trying to curb his power by supporting France. But Charles, for all his Spanish orthodoxy, knew how to use Luther as a weapon in this power struggle. At the same time, Aleander was intimidated by Hutten’s fulminating, and when the pope sent his bull of excommunication against both Luther and Hutten, Aleander withheld the publication and sent it back to Rome to have Hutten’s name removed. Such communications took months, which explains why Luther was actually outlawed by the empire before he was formally excommunicated by the Church.

Where, how and by whom his case should be handled was, therefore, the dilemma which was faced by Charles V. A decision was reached upon the point on 4 November 1520, after his coronation at Aachen, when he went to confer with ‘Uncle Frederick’ the Wise, who was marooned by gout in Cologne. Frederick secured an agreement from Charles that Luther would not be condemned without a hearing. The University of Wittenberg promptly pointed to the possibility of a hearing before the forthcoming Diet of Worms, before the assembled German nation. Frederick transmitted the proposal to the emperor’s counsellors and received a reply from His Majesty a reply dated 28 November addressed to his “beloved Uncle Frederick” in which he invited Luther to defend his views at Worms. The appeal to Caesar had been heard, the invitation marking an amazing reversal of policy. The Defender of the Faith, who had been burning Luther’s books, now invited their author to a hearing. Had the emperor been won over by Erasmus’ policy? Had some disquieting political news disposed him to bait the pope and cultivate the Germans? His motives elude historians. The invitation was issued at the end of November, but Luther did not actually appear at the diet until the April of 1521.


As the princes and nobles began to arrive in Worms at Epiphany, Charles gave Frederick the Wise an assurance that he would take personal responsibility for Luther’s case. When Luther received this news, he replied to Frederick that he was heartily glad that His Majesty will take to himself this affair, which is not mine but that of the whole German nation. While Luther’s coming was awaited, a lampoon was published in Worms, entitled the Litany of the Germans:

Christ hear the Germans; Christ hear the Germans. From evil counselors deliver Charles, O Lord. From poison on the way to Worms deliver Martin Luther, preserve Ulrich von Hutten, O Lord. Suffer not thyself to be crucified afresh. Purge Aleander, O Lord. The nuncios working against Luther at Worms, smite from heaven. O Lord Christ, hear the Germans.


Had Luther been prepared to abandon the attack on the sacraments he had made in The Babylonian Captivity, he might indeed have rallied a united German nation for the reduction of papal power and extortion. The diet might have wrung from the pope the sort of concessions already granted to the strong nation-states of France, Spain and England. Schism might have been avoided, and religious war could have been averted. To a man like Frederick, this compromise proposed by the Erasmians must have seemed most appealing, but he was also resolved to make no overtures which would give the emperor an opportunity to evade his newly accepted responsibility. So it was that on the sixteenth of April, Luther entered Worms in a Saxon two-wheeled cart with a few companions. He was examined by an official of the Archbishop of Trier, who confronted him with a pile of his books and asked whether he had written them and whether he wanted to defend or retract all or part of them. 


He asked for time to consider his response and was recalled at six the following evening, when the same question was put to him. He answered:

Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

The earliest printed version added, before ‘God help me’, the words:

Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.


These words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been moved to write them down. The emperor then called in the electors and a number of the princes to ask their opinions. They requested time to reflect before responding. “Very well,” he said, “I will give you my opinion,” and he read a statement from a paper that he himself had composed in French:

A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. Therefore I am resolved to stake my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life and my soul. Not only I, but you of this noble German nation, would be forever disgraced if by our negligence not only heresy but the very suspicion of heresy were to survive… I will proceed against him as a notorious heretic, and ask you to declare yourselves as you promised me.

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On the following day the electors declared themselves fully in accord with the emperor, but out of six, only four signed the declaration. The dissenters were Ludwig of the Palatinate and Frederick of Saxony. On the sixth of May, the Emperor presented to a diminishing diet the final draft of the Edict of Worms, prepared by Aleander. Luther was charged with attacking the seven sacraments after the manner of ‘the damned Bohemians’. The Edict of Worms, passed by a secular tribunal entrusted with a case of heresy at the instance of Lutherans and against the opposition of the papists, was at once repudiated by the Lutherans as having been passed by only a rump, and was sponsored by the papists because it was a confirmation of the Catholic faith. The Church of Rome, which had so strenuously sought to prevent turning the Diet of Worms into an ecclesiastical council, became in the light of the outcome the great vindicator of the pronouncement of a secular tribunal on heresy. Now an outlaw, on his way home to Wittenberg he was taken into refuge in the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. There he devoted his energies to translating the New Testament from Greek into German, in the tradition of Wyclif, so that all Germans might be able to read it for themselves.


Above: Luther’s room at the Wartburg, where he translated the New Testament.

Meanwhile, that same month, the Town Council of Zwickau had intervened to dismiss the troublesome newcomer, Thomas Münzer; whereupon a large section of the populace, under Storch’s leadership, rose in revolt. The rising was put down, and many arrests were made, including more than fifty weavers. Müntzer himself went into exile in Bohemia, apparently in the hope of finding some Táborite groups there. In Prague he preached with the help of an interpreter; he also published in German, Czech and Latin a manifesto announcing the founding of a new church in Bohemia which was to consist entirely of the Elect and which would, therefore, be directly inspired by God. His own role he now defined in terms of the same eschatological parable of the wheat and the tares which had been invoked during the English Peasants’ Revolt:

Harvest-time is here, so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed on the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair,soul, body, life curse the unbelievers.

Müntzer’s appeal to the Bohemians was a failure and he was expelled from Prague. For the next couple of years, he wandered from place to place in central Germany, in great poverty but sustained by an unshakable confidence in his prophetic mission. He no longer used his academic titles but signed himself Christ’s messenger. His very hardships assumed in his eyes a messianic value:

Let my sufferings be a model for you. Let the tares all puff themselves up as much as ever they like, they will still have to go under the flail along with the pure wheat. The living God is sharpening his scythe in me, so that later I can cut down the red poppies and the blue cornflowers.

His wanderings came to an end when, in 1523, he was invited to take up a ministry at the small Thuringian town of Alstedt. There he married, created the first liturgy in the German language, translated Latin hymns into the vernacular and established a reputation as a preacher which extended throughout central Germany. Peasants from the surrounding countryside, above all some hundreds of miners from the Mansfeld copper-mines, came regularly to hear him. As many as two thousand outsiders flocked to his preaching. Together with the residents of Alstedt, these people provided him with a following which he set about turning into a revolutionary organisation, the League of the Elect. This league, consisting in the main of uneducated, was Müntzer’s answer to the university which had always been the centre of Luther’s influence. Now spiritual illumination was to oust the learning of the scribes; Alstedt was to replace Wittenberg and become the centre of a new Reformation which was to be both total and final and which was to usher in the Millennium. He was able to report thirty units ready to slaughter the ungodly…

(…to be continued).

Appendix: From R. Stupperich’s article (1977) in The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing. 






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

Part Two: Bohemian Fantasies…


Central-Eastern Europe in the Fifteenth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Source: Wikipaedia

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Escape of King Sigismund from Kutná Hora

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

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

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

Above. The Battle of Lipany

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

Johan amos comenius 1592-1671.jpg

Above: John Amos Comenius

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Part One: Emperors, Flagellants and Lollards


Central-Eastern Europe in 1382 showing the Ottoman Advance

By the middle of the fourteenth century, quite apart from the Ottoman threat in the Byzantine Empire, the rest of Europe was in a period of crisis. The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague which devastated Europe from 1346 to 1353, killing at least twenty million out of a population of about eighty million. Further outbreaks later in the century prevented new population growth. This helped to exacerbate social and economic tensions: the socio-economic system of the “High Middle Ages” broke down, helping to cause a wave of both rural and urban disorder. There was a sense of crisis in the Church, too: the transfer of the papacy to Avignon (1305-77) and the Great Schism (1378-1417) in western Christendom between areas owing allegiance to rival popes in Rome and Avignon challenged patterns of authority and obedience, contributing to a sense of fragmentation.


Above: The courtyard of the papal palace at Avignon,

built during the ‘Avignon Captivity’ of the popes.

In the course of the fourteenth century all the eschatological hopes which the medieval masses had ever managed to squeeze out of the early Christian apocalyptic prophecies became concentrated in Germany on the future resurrection of Frederick II. Thirty-four years after his death, the Holy Roman Emperor underwent a resurrection very similar to that which had once befallen Baldwin, Count of Flanders and, briefly, Byzantine Emperor. Under the year 1284, a chronicler wrote of a former hermit near Worms who, claiming to be the Emperor, had been escorted into Lübeck amidst great popular enthusiasm. By then, Frederick had taken his place in the line of King Arthur, Charlemagne and Baldwin as a Sleeping Emperor who would one day return as saviour, this time of the German people. The fake Frederick gained some support among the princes who wanted to embarrass Rudolf, the first Habsburg who had been elected German king in 1273. But he was eventually burnt at the stake in the town of Wetzlar.

But the execution served only to increase the reputation of the Emperor as a superhuman and immortal being. It was reported that amongst the ashes at the stake no bones had been found, but only a little bean, which people at once concluded must mean that the Emperor had been rescued from the flames by divine providence, that he was still alive, and that he must one day return. This conviction persisted for generation after generation, so that in the middle of the fourteenth century it was still being claimed that Frederick must return, for such was God’s unalterable decree. It was also claimed that Prester John, the fabulous oriental monarch, had provided the Emperor with an asbestos robe, a magic ring which enabled him to disappear and a magic drink which kept him forever young. The Emperor would often appear to peasants in the guise of a pilgrim, confiding in them that the time would yet come when he would take his rightful place at the head of the Empire. One chronicler recorded how,

In all countries a hard time sets in. A feud flares up between the two heads of Christendom, a fierce struggle begins. Many a mother must mourn her child, men and women alike must suffer. Rapine and arson go hand in hand, everyone is at everyone else’s throat, everyone harms everyone else in his person and his belongings, there is nobody but has cause to lament. But when suffering has reached such a pitch that no-one can allay it, then there appears by God’s will the Emperor Frederick, so noble and so gentle… Full of courage, men and women at once stream together for the journey overseas. The Kingdom of God is promised to them. They come in crowds, each hurrying ahead of the other… peace reigns in all the land, fortresses threaten no longer, there is no need to fear force any more. Nobody opposes the crusade to the withered tree. When the Emperor hangs his shield upon it, the tree puts forth leaf and blossom. The Holy Sepulcre is freed, from now on no sword need be drawn on its behalf. The noble Emperor restores the same law for all men… All heathen realms do homage to the Emperor. He overthrows the power of the Jews, though not by force of arms; their might is broken for ever and they submit without a struggle. Of the domination of the clergy almost nothing remains. The high-born prince dissolves the monasteries altogether, he gives the nuns to be wedded; I tell you, they must grow wine and corn for us!


By the middle of the fourteenth century, Germany had become what it was to remain down to the sixteenth century; a mass of warring principalities, a perpetual chaos in the midst of which the Emperor was altogether helpless. At the same time, the towns of southern and central Germany had replaced the towns of the Low Countries as the main centres of mercantile capitalism north of the Alps, and the social conflicts within them had reached a fierce intensity. While the prosperous guilds fought the patricians and one another, amongst the poor there smouldered a deadly hatred of all the rich. One chronicler from Magdeburg warned the well-to-do burghers that…

… one must not let the common people have their way too much, as has been done of late. They should be kept firmly under control; for there is an old hatred between rich and poor. The poor hate everyone with any possessions and are more ready to harm the rich than the rich are to harm the poor.

The point of view of the poor now found in German literature an expression as violent as it had found a century earlier in French. The poet Suchenwirt, for instance, described how hungry men, leaving their pale and emaciated wives and children in their hovels, crowd together in the narrow streets, armed with improvised weapons and full of desperate courage:

The coffers of the rich are full, those of the poor are empty. The poor man’s belly is hollow… Hack down the rich man’s door! We’re going to dine with him. It’s better to be cut down, all of us, than die of hunger, we’d rather risk our lives bravely than perish in this way…

It was to be expected that in such a society the future Frederick would take on ever more clearly the aspect of the great social revolutionary, the Messiah and the poor. In 1348, the prophecies of the Swabian preachers of a century before recurred in a still more emphatic form in the popular expectations noted by the monk John of Winterthur:

As soon as he has risen from the dead and stands once more at the height of his power, he will marry poor women and maidens to rich men, and ‘vice versa’… He will see to it that everything that has been stolen from minors and orphans and widows is returned to them, and that full justice is done to everyone… he will persecute the clergy so fiercely that if they have no other means of hiding their tonsures they will cover them with cow-dung…

In his text, John of Winterthur disassociated himself from these disturbing beliefs. It was, he remarked, sheer madness to suppose that the Emperor-heretic could ever return; it was contrary to the Catholic faith that a man who had been burnt at the stake could ever again wield sovereign power. The ‘dogma’ of the Second Coming of Frederick was indeed regarded as a dangerous heresy. As another chronicler wrote in 1434,

From the Emperor Frederick, the heretic, a new heresy arose which some Christians still hold to in secret; they believe absolutely that the Emperor Frederick is still alive and will remain alive until the end of the world, and that there has been and shall be no proper Emperor but he… The Devil invented this folly, so as to mislead these heretics and certain simple folk…

How seriously the clergy took this heresy and how alert they were to detect it is shown by the curious story of a Greek philosopher who ventured to divulge in Rome the conviction which he had derived from a long study of the Greek Sibylline, which was that the Last Emperor would shortly be converting all people to Christianity. In this, as in other Byzantine prophecies, the coming of the Last Emperor in no way implied a massacre of the Jews, the clergy or the rich, but this was so inconceivable to the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome that they imprisoned the Greek and confiscated his belongings.

This period from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century witnessed a considerable decline in the authority of the papacy. At the same time, there was a rise in various dissident religious movements. One such movement which was particularly bizarre was that of the Flagellants, with their practice of whipping themselves. There were other lesser groups which fell outside the lines of orthodoxy, for example, the Brothers of the Free Spirit. 

The two most troublesome movements for wholesale reform from within the Church were those initiated by John Wyclif in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia. They went as far as to attack the very foundations of the medieval hierarchy, including the papacy. However, they did so still, mostly, by using the language of the Church, Latin. The attacks on the Church came not only in the sophisticated writings of theologians, however, but more and more in the vernacular languages. Much of the literature in these languages, written in the later medieval centuries, reveals the popular discontent with the condition of the church and the papacy. Examples occur in the anti-clerical attacks in the writings of Boccaccio, as well as in the condemnation of church wealth by the English poet Langland. His compatriot Geoffrey Chaucer also shows no love for the materialism of the church in fourteenth-century England. Everywhere more and more men began to question the basic tenets of the church.

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The revolutionary flagellant movement of the mid-fourteenth century also spread to most areas of the Low Countries and all over Germany, and ended as a militant and bloodthirsty pursuit of the Millennium. As it turned into a messianic mass movement, its behaviour came to resemble that of its forerunner, the People’s Crusades. The German flagellants, in particular, ended as uncompromising enemies of the Church who not only condemned the clergy but utterly repudiated the clergy’s claim to supernatural authority. They denied that the sacrament of the Eucharist had any meaning, and when the host was elevated they refused to show it reverence. They interrupted church services, setting themselves above not only the clergy but also the Pope. They argued that while clerics could only point to the Bible and to tradition as sources of authority, they themselves had been taught directly by the Holy Spirit which had sent them out across the world. They refused to accept criticism from any cleric, but like the ‘Master of Hungary’, they declared that any priest who contradicted them should be dragged from his pulpit and burnt at the stake. At times, the flagellants would urge the populace on to stone the clergy. A French chronicler wrote that the movement aimed at utterly destroying the Church, expropriating its wealth and killing all the clergy.

As usual, the Jews suffered along with the clergy, and on a far greater scale. Following the massacres of the First Crusade (1096-99), the Jews were banished from England in 1290, from France in 1306, 1322 and finally in 1394. Increasingly, the Jews were given the choice of accepting Christianity, banishment or massacre. In the great massacre of European Jewry which accompanied the Black Death, the greatest before the twentieth century, the flagellants played important roles. The first killings were carried out spontaneously by a populace convinced that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. they had come to an end by March 1349, perhaps because by that time people had recognised that among the Jews there were just as many victims of the plague as there were among Christians and that neither were the areas spared where all the Jews had been killed. Four months later the second wave of massacres was launched by the propaganda of the flagellants. Wherever the authorities had so far protected the Jews, these hordes now demanded their massacre. When, in July 1349, flagellants entered Frankfurt, they rushed straight to the Jewish quarter, where the townsfolk joined them in exterminating the whole community. The town authorities were so perturbed by the incident that they drove the penitents from the town and reinforced the gates to prevent their return.


A month later massacres took place simultaneously at Mainz and Cologne. During a flagellant ceremony at Mainz, the crowd of spectators suddenly ran amok and fell upon the Jews, with the result that the largest Jewish community in Germany was annihilated. At Cologne, a flagellant band which had for some time been encamped outside the city entered its gates and collected a great crowd of ‘those who had nothing to lose.’ They ignored the town councillors and the rich burghers and attacked the Jews, killing many of them. In Brussels too it was the combination of the rumours of well-poisoning and the role of the flagellants which launched the massacre of the whole community of six hundred Jews, despite the efforts of the Duke of Brabant to stop the slaughter. Through large areas of the Low Countries the flagellants, aided by the poor, burnt and drowned all the Jews they could find because they thought to please God in that way.

The sources are few and it is impossible to say how many massacres were led or instigated by the flagellants during the second half of 1349, but they must have been numerous. The Jews themselves came to regard the flagellants as their worst enemies. The Pope gave as one of his chief complaints against them that…

… most of them or their followers, beneath an appearance of piety, set their hands to cruel and impious works, shedding the blood of the Jews, whom Christian piety accepts and sustains…

By the time the flagellants had finished their ‘works’, which the panic of 1348 had begun, there were very few Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries. The 1348-49 massacres completed the deterioration in the position of European Jewry which had begun in 1096. Throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages the Jewish communities in Germany remained small, poor and, of course, condemned to the segregation of the ghetto. In Spain, the massacres of 1391 led many Marranos to accept Christianity, though often only nominally. The Inquisition investigated with its horrors the genuineness of their faith.


Above: An illustration of the Eve of Passover service at a Jewish synagogue in

fourteenth-century Spain.

It was in the turbulent years around 1380 that the new social myth of a ‘Golden Age’ came into being in Europe. People ceased to think of a society without distinctions of status as being irrecoverably lost in the dim and distant mists of past time and began to think of it instead as preordained for the future, even the near or immediate future. Perhaps it first took place in the towns of Flanders and northern France, which had been swept up throughout the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century in waves of insurrectionary violence. Yet when we examine the chronicles dealing with the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the preaching attributed to John Ball, the myth is found, unmistakably, bubbling away just below the surface. In a celebrated passage, Froissart gives us what is supposed to be a typical sermon of the leader:

And if we are all descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can the lords say or prove that they are more lords than we are, save that they make us dig and till the ground so that they can squander what we produce? They are clad in velvet and satin, set off with squirrel fur, while we are dressed in poor cloth. They have wines and spices and fine bread, and we have only rye and spoilt flour and straw, and only water to drink. They have beautiful residences and manors, while we have the trouble and the work, always in the fields under rain and snow. But it is from us and our labour that everything comes with which they maintain their pomp.

For this unequal state of affairs, the preacher prescribes a drastic remedy:

Good folk, things cannot go well in England nor ever shall until all things are in common and there is neither villein nor noble, but all of us are of one condition


The villeins’ determination to be free men was the main cause of the the revolt. Since the twelfth century they had been able to gain their freedom by paying money to the lord instead of giving personal service. In some counties, like Suffolk, perhaps as many as half the peasants were free men by the mid-fourteenth century. The landlords, sitting in Parliament had agreed to the Statute of Labourers in 1351, reducing wages which had increased since the Black Death had wiped out a third of the population between 1348 and 1349, which in turn had led to a great shortage of labour. As both landlords and labourers broke the new law, however, it was difficult to force wages down, so the landlords began to refuse to make more villeins in order to ‘tie’ more of the peasants to their land. The landlords also began to let more of their land to their tenants, increasing the money rents for it. In some places they also found it more profitable to change arable land into sheep pasture, requiring fewer labourers and producing greater profits from the sale of wool. Many peasants were forced to give up their land and became labourers.

Peasant risings also broke out in France, but resulted in few changes to the feudal system, since most of them were local in character, based on abuses of the system by landlords. The Revolt in England was regional in character, but national in focus with the aim of radical reform of the system. In fact, by the middle of the fifteenth century in England, villeinage was fast disappearing in England as landlords were ready to exchange service for a payment and set the villeins free. Nevertheless, the immediate cause or catalyst of the 1381 Revolt was the imposition of an unfair tax, the poll tax, which resulted from the mismanagement of the wars with France. The Revolt was put down with great severity, and the peasants failed to get any of their demands. When the rebels had dispersed, Ball was taken prisoner at Coventry, given a trial in which, unlike most, he was permitted to speak. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at St Alban’s in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381. His head was displayed stuck on a pike on London Bridge, and the quarters of his body were displayed in four different towns. The English chronicler Thomas Walsingham, the monk of St Alban’s, also gave a report of the sermon which Ball is said to have preached to the rebel host at Blackheath on a text which has remained famous to this day and was already, then, a well-known proverb:

When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler rebels from ca 1470 MS of Froissart Chronicles in BL.jpg

Above: Medieval drawing of John Ball preaching to the rebels at Blackheath.

According to Walsingham, Ball’s argument was that in the beginning all human beings had been created free and equal. It was evil men who, by unjust oppression, had first introduced serfdom, against the will of God. The common people could cast off the yoke they had borne so long and thereby win the freedom they had always yearned for. Therefore they should be of good heart and conduct themselves like the wise husbandman in the Scriptures who gathered the wheat into the barn, but uprooted and burnt the tares which had almost choked the good grain; for harvest-time had come. The tares were the great lords, the judges and the lawyers, all of whom must be exterminated, and so must everyone else who might be dangerous to the community in the future. Once they had been dealt with, all remaining men would enjoy equal freedom, rank and power.

Above: From William Morris’ Dream of John Ball (1888).

In more academic guise, this doctrine of the primal egalitarian State of Nature had been mooted by John Wyclif (1329-84), the Morning Star of the Reformation in his Latin treatise De civili dominio, which he composed in Oxford in 1374. He argued that it for the unrighteous to hold lordship was mere usurpation, contrary to the first principles of law and incompatible with the divine purpose; whereas the righteous man, who renounced lordship for the sake of obedience to Christ, obtained in return complete lordship over the whole universe, such as had not been enjoyed since our first parents and the Fall. Wyclif went on to produce his own variation on the theory of man’s original egalitarian state of grace:

Firstly, that all good things of God ought to be in common. The proof of this is as follows: Every man ought to be in a state of grace; if he in a state of grace he is lord of the world and all that it contains; therefore every man ought to be lord of the whole world. But, because of the multitudes of men, this will not happen unless they all hold all things in common: therefore all things ought to be in common. 


Of course, Wyclif never intended this theory to be applied in practice to secular society, himself adding that in practical life the righteous must acquiesce in inequalities and injustices and leave the unrighteous in possession of their wealth and power. If in his attacks on the wealth and worldliness of the clergy Wyclif was in deadly earnest, these comments of his on the communal ownership of all things were little more than an exercise in formal logic. Nevertheless, when abstracted from their scholastic context and stripped of their qualifying clauses those same comments appear to be socially radical. Wyclif was in a position to speak truth to power as John of Gaunt had invited him to serve at the court of Richard II. Wyclif offended the church by backing the right of the state to seize the property of corrupt clergymen. His views were condemned by the pope in 1377, but Wyclif’s influential friends protected him.Wyclif pushed his anti-clerical views further, and began to attack some of the central doctrines of the medieval church, including ‘transubstantiation’. He also claimed that since the church consisted of God’s chosen people, they did not need a priest to mediate for them.

However, it would be surprising if, among his ‘congregations’ at Oxford, there had been none who snatched at such radical social ideas and scattered them abroad, simplified into propaganda slogans. He attracted support by his energetic teaching and preaching. Wyclif was gradually deserted by his friends in high places and the church authorities forced him and his friends out of Oxford. In 1382, he went to live in Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he died in 1384. Some of his followers had gone there with him and continued his mission after his death. It has been suggested that John Ball had been one of his poor itinerant priests, or ‘Lollards’, whom he had sent out to share the gospels in his newly translated text from Latin into English. By 1395 they had developed into an organised group, with their own ministers enjoying widespread popular support.


The Lollards stood for many of the ideas set out by Wyclif. In particular, they believed that the main task of a priest was to preach and that the Bible should be available to everyone in his own language. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Lollards were suppressed, particularly when their protest became linked with social and political unrest. But Lollardy continued to thrive in some parts of England, thus preparing the way for the spread of Lutheranism to England in the next century.

For the fifteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth in Germany, the myth of the future Frederick no longer has to be pieced together from occasional reports from hostile chroniclers. At this point, it emerges into full daylight, in the form of detailed manifestos. The earliest of these works, the Latin tract known as Gamaleon, probably produced either in 1409, tells of a future German Emperor who is to overthrow the French monarchy and the Papacy. When he has accomplished his mission France will be remembered no more, the Hungarians and Slavs will have been subjugated and reduced to complete dependence, Jewry will have been crushed forever; while the Germans will be exalted above all peoples. The Church of Rome will have been expropriated and all its clergy killed. In place of the Pope a German patriarch will preside from Mainz over a new church, but a church subordinate to the Emperor, the eagle from the eagle’s race, a new Frederick whose wings will stretch from sea to sea and to the very limits of the earth. Those will be the Last Days, followed by the Second Coming and the Judgement.

In about 1439 a far more influential work was produced, the so-called Reformation of Sigismund. Its origin lay in a Latin manifesto prepared by a priest called Frederick of Lantnaw for submission to the General Council of Basle, which had been struggling to achieve reform in the Church since 1431. It was far more than a translation of this manifesto into German, however. The tract deals with the reform of the Empire as fully as it does that of the Church. Its author was clearly familiar with the conditions of life in the towns of southern Germany and sets out his stall as the spokesman above all of the urban poor, not the skilled artisans in the guilds but the unorganised workers, the poorest and least privileged stratum of the urban population. The Reformation of Sigismund demands the suppression of the monopolistic guilds and the great trading companies. It advocates an egalitarian order in which wages, prices and taxes will be fixed to serve the interests of the poor. Wherever serfdom still survives it must be abolished and towns must allow former serfs to immigrate.


Portrait of Sigismund of Luxemburg, by Pisanello

The book is inspired almost throughout by an empirical rather than a millenarian approach. It ends, however, with a curious messianic prophecy which the author puts into the mouth of Emperor Sigismund. He had only recently died after being himself for some years a subject of messianic expectations. Sigismund had been the longest-reigning medieval monarch of Hungary (1387-1437) was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1433, an event which marked the establishment of the great central-European empire which existed, under Habsburg rule, until 1918. His son-in-law, Albert Habsburg, was the first of that name to sit on the Hungarian throne (1437-39). Even before he became Emperor, Sigismund played a major role in European political affairs since, in addition to his extensive Hungarian crown lands, which included Croatia, he also ruled over Germany (from 1411) and Bohemia (1419).


In 1396 Sigismund led the combined armies of Christendom, comprising a legion of knights from all over Europe, against the advancing Turks, who had taken advantage of the temporary helplessness of Hungary to extend their dominion to the banks of the Danube. This crusade, preached by Pope Boniface IX, was very popular in Hungary. The nobles flocked in the thousands to the royal standard and were reinforced by volunteers from nearly every part of Europe, the most important contingent being that of the French led by John the Fearless, son of Philip II, Duke of Burgundy. Sigismund set out with 90,000 men and a flotilla of 70 galleys. After capturing Vidin, he camped with his Hungarian armies before the fortress of Nicopolis. Sultan Bayezid I raised the siege of Constantinople and, at the head of 140,000 men, completely defeated the Christian forces in the Battle of Nicopolis fought between the 25 and 28 September 1396.

The disaster in Nicopolis angered several Hungarian lords, leading to instability in the kingdom. Deprived of his authority in Hungary, Sigismund then turned his attention to securing the succession in Germany and Bohemia, where his childless half-brother Wenceslaus IV recognised him as Vicar-General of the whole Empire. However, he was unable to support Wenceslaus when he was deposed in 1400, and Rupert of Germany, Elector Palatine, was elected German king in his stead. After the death of King Rupert in 1410, Sigismund – ignoring the claims of his half-brother Wenceslaus – was elected as successor by three of the electors on 10 September 1410, but he was opposed by his cousin Jobst of Moravia, who had been elected by four electors in a different election on 1 October. Jobst’s death 18 January 1411 removed this conflict and Sigismund was again elected as King of Germany on 21 July 1411. His coronation was deferred until 8 November 1414, when it took place at Aachen.


Right: The growth of Luxemburg power to 1387

As the King of Germany, he now took advantage of the difficulties of Antipope John XXIII to obtain a promise that a council should be called in Constance in 1414 to settle the Western Schism. He took a leading part in the deliberations of this assembly, and during the sittings made a journey to France, England and Burgundy in a vain attempt to secure the abdication of the three rival popes. The council finally ended in 1418, solving the Schism.

The Council created another problem for Sigismund, however, by having the Czech religious reformer, Jan Hus, burned at the stake for heresy in July 1415. This turned out to be of great consequence for Sigismund’s future career as it was an act which touched off the fifteen-year-long Hussite War.  It is thought that Sigismund’s sister, Anne of Bohemia (1366-94), who married Richard II of England, was instrumental in bringing the ideas of John Wycliffe to Bohemia, thus influencing Hus and his followers. The students of Prague had been going in great numbers to Oxford since the marriage between the two Angevin dynasties in 1382. Although Wyclif was forced to leave Oxford that same year and died in Lutterworth two years later, his teachings were still flourishing in the hands of his followers, the Lollards. Anne died of the plague in  1394, but the interest shown by Sigismund in English events persisted throughout his life.

(to be continued… )


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