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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 One   Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To God in Heaven we complain

Kyrie eleison

That the priests cannot be slain

Kyrie eleison.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

The Legacy of Tudor and Jacobean England: Part One: Princes, Prelates and Popes   Leave a comment

Henry Tudor reigned for twenty-four years, established the power of the monarchy over the nobility, kept England out of foreign conflicts and passed on a full treasury to his son. He also left a Suffolk churchman close to the throne, a man who was to dominate affairs of state for most of the next reign.

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Thomas Wolsey was the son of a grazier, a supplier of wool and meat to the clothiers and townsfolk of Ipswich, where a half-timbered house in Silent Street is still claimed as his birthplace. He entered the Church and used it as a pathway to royal service. He so impressed Henry VIII with his capacity for hard work and his grasp of state matters that the young King was soon happy to leave these matters in Wolsey’s hands. The rise and fall of the great Cardinal are part of national history, but Wolsey never forgot his origins, and the town never forgot him. There is even a stained glass panel of him in the County Library. He himself built a college at Ipswich which, had it survived his downfall, might have established Ipswich as England’s third university city, completing a neat triangle with Oxford and Cambridge.

At these universities, emancipated scholars with Renaissance ideas were challenging the accepted beliefs and traditions of the Church. Like the Lollards before them, they found allies in a growing number of less educated people who shared their disillusionment with contemporary society, though they were not always clear about what they wanted to put in its place. Most of this disenchantment and discontent expressed itself in attacks on the religious establishment. This was strongly represented throughout East Anglia, particularly through the great abbeys which, through the trade in pilgrimage and its control of land, dominated both town and countryside, from Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk to Walsingham in Norfolk. In previous centuries, the simmering resentment of peasants and citizens alike could suddenly blaze up out of control, into white-hot rage, and anti-clericalism was by no means restricted to small urban areas, as the Peasant’s Revolt and the growth of Lollardy had demonstrated.

005Neither was anti-clericalism the only cause of discontent at this time. It was closely linked to social and economic causes, especially to the effects of enclosure in increasing poverty and vagrancy in Tudor times. The growing wealth of the trade in wool and woollen cloth was leading both to the growth of the newly enriched ranks of the gentry and to the dispossession of people on their lands in favour of sheep. The monks of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire enclosed whole manors which came into their possession, in order to convert the huge acreage into grazing for sheep. The Golafres of Gnosall in Staffordshire had also married into the Knightleys of the same county, who by the fifteenth century had moved to Fawsley Hall in Northants, from where they married into the Spencer family of Althorp. The effects of early enclosures by the gentry were being felt at this time. In 1498 an inquest jury recorded that sixty villagers had been evicted from the Althorp estate, and left ’weeping, to wander in idleness’ had ’perished in hunger’. New wealth, with no great affinity for the feudal responsibilities as well as rights of landholders was spreading across the countryside seeking out new property. Tudor government was soon to help them acquire it, by taking it from the monks at Coombe Abbey (above) and giving it to the likes of Sir John Harington.

 Many Suffolkers resented the parish priests to whom they paid burdensome tithes, however marginal their surplus harvest might be. Many of these priests were no more virtuous than themselves and, by contrast with thrifty, hard-working merchants who re-built the churches they said mass in, they were often less so. The standard of education among the parish clergy was often abysmally low, especially in Latin, which was the language of all church services. They mumbled their way through these, hardly understanding a word themselves, yet they were supposedly performing the miracle of transubstantiation at the mass, saying the words which turned the wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ. They also had to hear the confessions of their flock, mediating between them and God, and imposing sanctions on them for moral misconduct.

King Hal seemed, at seventeen, a paragon of the Renaissance Prince – handsome, athletic and intelligent, as at home in religious disputation and debate as in jousting and hunting. Yet, even then, something happened to him which made him doubt the efficacy of the rites and rituals associated with his faith. All his children by Catherine of Aragon had died in infancy, except for Mary, and on the birth of yet another infant son he made the pilgrimage to Walsingham himself to pray for the baby. However, the boy died like all the others, and Henry, enraged within his grief, had the monks expelled, and the beautiful buildings of the priory, all except the east end of the Church, and its healing wells, were destroyed, plundered for their stone, and fell into ruins over the centuries.

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By the 1520s, heresies like those of John Wycliffe began to reach Suffolk again, this time from northern Europe via Cambridge, which had become the academic centre of the English Reformation. The teachings of Luther had set Germany alight, and rapidly spread through its cities and territories, along its trade routes, so that the international mercantile community became one of the principal agents in this spreading of unorthodox ideas and new doctrines to western Europe and into East Anglia. Books by German Protestants and English heretics in exile were smuggled in bales and barrels and then sent out along the pack-horse routes to wealthy clothiers, patrons among the gentry, yeomen farmers and merchants in the towns. One book in particular, Tyndale’s English New Testament, was to make a revolutionary impact on the towns and villages of East Anglia. One of the most remarkable of the itinerant preachers of   the Word was known as Little Bilney, whose simple and earnest style impressed many, but whose denunciation of idolatry and superstition enraged the local clergy. He was eventually burnt at the stake in Norwich in 1531. Three years later, the chronicler of Butley Priory wrote that

the charity of many people grows cold; no love, not the least devotion remains in the people, but rather many false opinions and schisms against the sacraments of the Church.

Within four years his beloved priory had been stripped of all valuables, its lead roof removed, its coloured glass smashed and its deserted walls left open to the weather and those seeking free building materials. Henry VIII’s attack on the monasteries began in 1535 when royal commissioners made a lightning tour of all religious foundations in order to discover reasons, or excuses, for closure. However, it had been Wolsey himself who had inadvertently added to the vulnerability of the smaller monasteries. In 1527 he had been casting around for funds for his colleges at Oxford and Ipswich. He had obtained papal bills for the suppression of a number of small religious houses whose numbers had dwindled in size. Many of them were in his native county, including the priories of Snape and Rumburgh, and St Peter and St Paul in Ipswich. The lesson was not lost on the King or on Wolsey’s young secretary, Thomas Cromwell.

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The middle years of the sixteenth century were tumultuous times. In the 1380’s, John Wycliffe had been denounced as a heretic for his translation of the Bible from Latin into English, the Angel not the angel speech, as one contemporary commented. He went on, and so the pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine. So Wycliffe and his dissident Lollard movement had been rigorously suppressed. The orthodox view was that to make the Bible accessible to the common people would threaten the authority of the Church, and lead the people to question its teaching. Similarly, when William Tyndale published his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek in 1525, he entered into a conflict that eventually brought him to the stake (see inset above). Translating and publishing God’s word in the language of the people was a revolutionary act. However, in 1534, the English Reformation reached its turning point when Henry VIII defied the Pope and broke with the Roman Church. The following year, Coverdale, Tyndale’s disciple, published his vernacular translation of the Bible (see picture above). This was the turning point in the history of the English language. Between 1535 and 1568 five major versions were printed, including Cranmer’s Great Bible, which had Henry’s official seal (on the right is the title page, in which King Henry VIII is pictured giving copies to Archbishop Cranmer and Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, who in turn distribute them to the people, loyally shouting ‘Vivat Rex’.

All were immediate bestsellers, and were the most widely read texts of the sixteenth century in English, with an enormous influence over the spread of the language as well as the egalitarian ideas contained within them. In 1536 all small religious houses were closed down. A few were in a state of decay, but the majority were simply valued at less than two hundred pounds. This was the reason why the nuns of Campsey Ash and Bungay were turned out, as were the Benedictine monks of Eye who had been established there at the time of the Conquest. The dissolution of Leiston Abbey also dates from this time (see the photos of the ruins below). After the suppression the king bestowed the abbey on his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. A farmhouse was built into the corner of the nave and north transept and the abbey ruins were used as farm buildings, the church itself being used as a barn.

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The Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, had his eyes on the lands of the Cistercian Abbey of Sibton, and used his patronage to install William Flatbury as Abbot in 1534. Flatbury then acted as the agent of Cromwell and Howard in persuading his brothers to surrender the Abbey in return for assured pensions. Thus, although Sibton was worth more than two hundred pounds in 1536, it was surrendered to the Duke in 1536.

The Northern Rising, or Pilgrimage of Grace, against the religious changes was quickly and savagely put down in 1536, with Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, playing a major role. He had succeeded to the title in 1524 upon the death of his father the 2nd Duke. One of the last of the old nobility, Howard found an early enemy in Cardinal Wolsey, whose destruction he helped to effect. He was active in battle and diplomacy throughout the whole of the reign of Henry VIII. He was present at Flodden; at the suppression of the `Prentice Riots’ in 1517; in the varying skirmishes against the Scots; in Spain and France; and in Ireland where he was Viceroy for about two years.

Norfolk rebuilt the huge family mansion at Kenninghall, near Norwich, because Framlingham, like other castles had become outdated as a domestic residence. Norfolk’s private life was disturbed by contentions with his second wife, Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of the 3rd and last Duke of Buckingham. He first married Anne, daughter of Edward IV, who died childless in 1512. Howard seems to have been as cruel and uncompromising in his dealings with his relatives as he was with his enemies in and out of Court. Though he promoted two of his nieces, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, to be Queens of England for purposes of family advancement, he felt able to abandon them (and indeed pass sentence of death on Anne) in their time of need. His treatment of the Catholics during the Pilgrimage of Grace was the subject of an apology from the King himself.

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However, Howard’s cruel crushing of the rebellion enabled Henry and Cromwell to move against the larger monasteries. Early in 1538 the Keeper of the King’s Jewels, Sir John Williams, arrived in Bury with a party of workmen. They marched into the great church and set to work with picks, hammers and chisels on the shrine of St Edmund. Henry and Cromwell had decided that the new religious ideas were right insofar as they complained of the superstitious influences of pilgrimages. With some difficulty, they removed the gold, silver, emeralds and various other precious stones, but left the Abbot very well furnished with plate of silver.By this time the royal strategy for the Dissolution had proved almost total successful in Suffolk. The friaries had all disappeared in 1537-8 and, of all the ancient monastic establishments, Bury St Edmund’s Abbey stood alone. Abbot John Reeve resisted until November 1539. Then, in return for an enormous pension, the highest granted to any abbot, he surrendered his office. From a nearby house, he watched the carts carry away the Abbey’s vestments, silver plate, books, bells, and rolls of lead from the roof, while crowds of townspeople cheered before falling upon the ruined buildings to see what they could scavenge and to cart away loads of stone for their own use. This was too much for the old Abbot, and he died at the end of March 1540, without drawing a penny of his pension. Most of the newly acquired church lands were disposed of through the Court of Augmentations in the form of grants to royal servants and sales to land speculators. By far the largest beneficiary was Charles Brandon, now Duke of Suffolk, after the execution of the last of the de la Pole Duke.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries swept away the active life of many of the holy places of the Middle Ages. The monks and nuns were expelled from their monasteries and convents and pensioned off, apart from those executed for active or suspected resistance to Henry VIII’s designs. The shrines and sites of pilgrimage were largely destroyed, together with venerated images and relics. The lands and buildings of the abbeys passed first into Henry’s possession and then into the hands of established and up-and-coming families. This wholesale expropriation gave rise to the biggest territorial and social upheaval in British history. In a prosperous county like Suffolk, there were many men able and willing to compete for monastic land. Neither was it just church land which came onto the market, but a large number of manors, estates and parcels of arable land, which gave opportunities for men of all degrees from great magnates to yeomen farmers to exchange, buy and sell property in order to consolidate their holdings. Yeomen farmers found it easier to consolidate their holdings in Suffolk than elsewhere where the feudal strip systems continued to complicate the land tenure. By 1536 many small freeholders had built up farms which could be simply and efficiently operated. Now they could add to these holdings by purchase, exchange and marriage.

However, it was the official publication of the English Bible in 1539 which brought religious discord out into the open. In 1545, Henry VIII himself was driven to complain that, that most precious jewel, the Word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same. Priests and objects of superstition were attacked. Preachers, licensed and unlicensed, wandered from church to church, market to market, and from one village green to another, planting new conviction in the hearts of some and confusion in the minds of many. The Lady Chapel of Ely is a superb example of the most ornate fourteenth-century church architecture, richly decorated with hundreds of stone carvings of saints and holy figures. In 1539 every face was smashed by religious zealots in one of the earliest acts of desecration done in defiance of the established church.

Alice de la Pole (granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer) had retained direct control of the family seat of Ewelme in Oxfordshire until her death in 1475, when the manor passed to her son John (d. 1492), Second Duke of Suffolk and brother-in-law to both Edward IV and Richard III. The last surviving legitimate male Plantagenet claimant to the throne, the Earl of Warwick, had died on the scaffold in 1499. The Second Duke was succeeded by his second son Edmund, who was demoted to the rank of earl by Henry VII and fled abroad in 1501, prompting the seizure of his estates. Formally attainted in 1504, he was imprisoned from 1506 and executed in 1513. However, the Poles did not give up their claim to the throne until 1525, when the younger of the two surviving brothers was killed at the Battle of Pavia. The fact that the Yorkist cause lived on for forty years into the Tudor dynasty shows how fragile the Tudor royal line really was, descended through the illegitimate child of John of Gaunt. Ewelme was one of several manors vested in trustees for the life of Edmund’s widow, but it was controlled by the Crown and granted to the new Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, in 1525. Henry VIII took it back in 1535, when he also obliged Brandon to exchange most of his Suffolk estates for lands in Lincolnshire, so that, after 1536, Grimsthorpe in that county became the principal seat of the Dukes of Suffolk.

Meanwhile, a paranoid Henry VIII carried on a vindictive campaign against the Pole family after the son of Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury’s son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, penned a stinging attack against the King’s divorce, from exile in Italy. This resulted in the execution of one of his brothers in 1539 and the suicide of the other. Margaret, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, was an old woman in 1541, once the governess to Mary Tudor, whose mother’s betrothal to Arthur, Prince of Wales, had caused the execution of her brother, Edward Plantagenet, the rival claimant to the throne. Despite this, she became a loyal Tudor courtier. However, because she was also a Neville, she was accused of complicity in the Northern Rebellion, and sent to the Tower without trial. From there she was executed in May, after ten or eleven blows of the axe. When Mary became Queen, her son became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and she herself was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. Her granddaughter became a close friend of Elizabeth I. Perhaps by coincidence, in 1550 Ewelme was among the estates settled by Edward VI on the Princess Elizabeth. It remained in royal possession until 1628.

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At the end of Henry’s reign, when the succession was of doubtful continuance in the light of two daughters having been declared bastards and an only son who was sickly, inter-Court rivalry reached a peak over the protectorate of Edward VI. On the one hand were the Seymour brothers, Edward’s uncles, and on the other, the Duke of Norfolk and his son the Earl of Surrey. Surrey acted rashly in the matter of armorial bearings and charges of treason were successfully, if unreasonably, pressed. Surrey lost his head and his father would similarly have died had not the King himself died during the night prior to the day fixed for Norfolk’s execution. Howard spent the next six years in the Tower.

In the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, under the guidance of Archbishop Cranmer, an episcopalian Protestantism with an English liturgy was established as the state religion. When, in 1553, the boy king died, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the de facto ruler of England from 1549, tried to exclude his sister, Mary, the Catholic daughter of Catherine of Aragon, from the succession by setting Lady Jane Grey on the throne. She was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, and Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. The Commons of England were almost unanimous in rejecting Northumberland and his protégé, and the people of Suffolk soon had an opportunity to demonstrate their feelings in a practical way.

Mary was at Hunsdon, near Hertford, when the news of this attempted coup d’etát broke. She moved away northwards towards Cambridge when a messenger from London caught up with her and demanded her urgent return to the capital, advising her that the East Anglian ports had been blocked, rendering escape impossible. Mary sojourned at Sawston Hall, south of Cambridge, and then turned into Suffolk. She attracted support from nobles and commons alike, and received a royal reception at Bury, but Northumberland’s forces were already on the road, so she could not remain there in safety. She made her temporary headquarters at the Duke of Norfolk’s house at Kenninghall near Thetford, where she summoned all the local nobility and gentry to come to her aid with men and arms. She also ordered the release the old noble, also keeper of Framlingham Castle, the Duke of Norfolk, from the Tower of London. He was aged eighty, and died at Kenninghall within the year. His was a momentous life. He has been called a cruel man, but one who lived in cruel times. For over thirty years he had been one of the most powerful and active men in Tudor England, and perhaps his greatest triumph was that he survived in his important offices so close to a despotic King, dying in his bed and not upon the block. His magnificent tomb, and that of two of his wives, is in Framlingham Church (pictured right).

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DSC09612By the time she set out for Framlingham on 14 July, Suffolk had committed itself. A sizeable army encamped around the fortress under the leadership of the Sheriff, Sir Thomas Cornwallis, Sir William Drury and Sir William Waldegrave. Two days later, Northumberland’s men, on reaching Cambridge, heard rumours that Mary commanded thirty thousand men in arms. Their refusal to advance to Framlingham sealed the Duke’s fate. Mary was proclaimed Queen and quickly selected a council from among her supporters, emptied the prisons to swell her army, and secured the support of the main towns and east coast ports.  All opposition to Mary becoming Queen collapsed totally and swiftly.

As she made her way slowly through Suffolk and Essex a few days later it was at the head of a triumphant procession, not a cautious army. Towns and villages greeted the rightful heir to the throne who would, they felt, heed their petitions, and deliver them from self-seeking landlords. Yet this mood of celebration was soon replaced by one of disillusionment and hatred. Queen Mary could do little to re-establish the monasteries whose lands now belonged to families professing Catholicism on whom she depended for support, and the landlords, old and new, remained in power. The clothiers continued to keep as large a gap as possible between wages and prices, and destitution and vagabondage increased. Added to all these ills was a religious persecution of unparalleled savagery. Examinations and imprisonments began in 1554. Parish clergy were expelled from their livings for refusing to reinstate Catholic rituals. Women were encouraged to denounce their neighbours, and houses were searched for Protestant books. Heretics were cajoled, bullied, threatened and bribed into submission and recantation. There were many who would not recant, and so, in February 1555, the burnings started.

006Among the first to suffer martyrdom was Dr Rowland Taylor, the incumbent of Hadleigh. Ever since the time of Little Bilney, Hadleigh had remained an important centre of Protestantism. Taylor was appointed rector in 1544, and many of his parishioners became exceedingly well learned in the holy scriptures, so that a man might find among them many who had often read the whole Bible through…so..that… the whole town seemed rather a university of the learned, than a town of cloth-making and labouring people. Taylor was openly hostile to the religious policy of the Marian government, and therefore attracted a great deal of support from the ordinary people of Essex and Suffolk. When the Bishop was sent to say mass in Taylor’s church, he was turned away. Taylor was then called to London, where he was subjected to many trials and repeated examinations. He defended himself cheerfully, and refused to recant, so he was condemned to the stake and degraded from his orders. He was brought back to Hadleigh for his execution, and crowds of parishioners thronged the town to encourage him in his ordeal. So, the first Suffolk martyr perished on Aldham Common on 9 February 1555, where a stone monument marks the spot. A further seventeen men and women from the county died for their faith, and many more suffered ill-treatment, harassment and torture.

008 (2)He was soon to be followed to the stake by his Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, who was, of course, the architect of the English Protestant Church. He was born at Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, and educated at Cambridge. He was a quiet scholar, but was summoned to Canterbury following the advice he had given on Henry’s divorce. He was well-respected by Henry throughout his turbulent reign, as the picture showing the course of the English Reformation demonstrates, with Henry pointing to his son and successor, with the Archbishop standing beside him as advisor. Cranmer was a godly man, Lutheran in theology, well read in the church Fathers, a gifted liturgist with a superb command of English. He was sensitive and brave, but cautious and slow to decide in a period bedeviled by turbulence and treachery. Cranmer preferred a reformation by gentle persuasion, rather than by force.

Like Luther, he believed in the role of the godly prince, who had a God-given task to uphold a just society, and give free scope to the gospel. He was responsible for the Great Bible and its prefaces; the Litany of 1545 and the two Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552.

The driving force of Cranmer’s life was to bring about a restoration of the Western Protestant Church to the Catholic faith. When the Church of Rome refused to be reformed, Cranmer took it upon himself to reform his own province of Canterbury. He sought an ecumenical council with the Lutherans and Calvinists on the continent. He also sought to restore a living theology based on personal experience and the mission of Christ. From this doctrine came his belief in justification by faith and of Christ’s presence in the sacraments. His third doctrine was that of the Holy Spirit, which lay behind his high view of scripture and tradition, and the meaning of union with Christ. At the end he experienced a long solitary confinement, and was brain-washed into recanting. But at his final trial in 1556 he put up a magnificent defense, and died bravely at the stake. He first thrust into the fire the hand that had once written the recantations. The Martyrs’ Memorial at Oxford commemorates his death, together with those of Latimer and Ridley, whose deaths he had witnessed from prison in the previous year.

Bloody Mary died childless in November 1558, but her persecution of Protestants did lasting damage to the Catholic cause, ensuring that, in future, no Catholic monarch would accede to the throne. Her attempt to impose an English Inquisition had failed, and made earthly life intolerable for many English Catholics in successive generations, when even the private practice of their faith was barely tolerated, if at all. The young Queen Elizabeth made her first progress through Suffolk five years later, but the Marian counter-Reformation had left their mark on the people and clergy alike. Although well-received by the nobility, gentry and burgesses of Ipswich, the behaviour of the local clergy made her indignant. The Protestantism which had taken root in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI had been nourished with the blood of the martyrs and had grown into a strident Puritanism. Clergy refused to wear the surplice, were dissatisfied with the remnants of popery in the Anglican services and disliked the Prayer Book. Angrily, Elizabeth ordered them to conform. Some of them did so, at least outwardly, but a royal dictat in matters of religion was no longer going to make either the clergy nor the congregations of Suffolk conform against their consciences.

On the other hand, the new Queen continued to face the threat from resurgent Catholicism on the continent, which encouraged the resistance to conformity among the Catholic gentry at home. The association of the Golafre name with the plots and rebellions of the early Tudor period may have been one reason why the other members of the family were glad to adopt more anglicised and ’gentrified’ versions of the name. Interestingly, the Golafre family were closely related, through the marriage of Beatrix Golafre of Satley, Warwickshire, to the Arden family, through which the writer William Shakespeare was descended. Beatrix’s grandson, Robert Ardern of Park Hall (b. 1413), was the son of a Worcestershire gentleman, who had been one of the claimants to the Fyfield estate, following the death of Sir John Golafre. In 1452, he had been executed for taking part in the uprising of Richard, Duke of York. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Ardens were continually suspected of being first rebels and then recusants throughout the Tudor Period, and one of them, Edward Arden, was executed in 1583 for plotting against Elizabeth I. He was a close relative of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, who had lived near Stratford at a gentrified farmstead in Wilmcote before moving into the town.

It has often been strongly suggested that Shakespeare himself was a Catholic, hence his determination to prove his loyalty, first to Elizabeth and then to James, at a time when Midland gentry families fell under suspicion of harbouring Jesuits in priest holes, such as at nearby Baddesley Clinton, and of plotting against the Protestant monarchy and cause. They were seen as ’the enemy within’ and heavily fined for not attending their parish church and for having private masses said in their homes. The Jesuit priests who ministered to them were ’flushed out’ before and after the 1605 Rebellion, but their confessions in the state papers have left historians with detailed descriptions of the Catholic gentry of Northants, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and of their extensive conspiratorial network across the three counties. The Margaret Golafre, or Gollafor, who had married into the Hodington (Huddington) family was probably from a prominent gentry family herself. There does appear to be a link with the older, aristocratic family, however, in that her descendents, the Huddington heiresses, Joan and Agnes, married Robert Winter and William Strensham. By these marriages, both the Winters of Huddington and the Russells of Strensham were entitled to bear the Golafre arms. The brothers Robert and Thomas Winter (Wintour), were executed (hung, drawn and quartered) in 1606 for their part in the Gunpowder Plot and Midland Rebellion of the previous year. They had both grown up at Huddington Hall.

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Religious unrest in Suffolk, as elsewhere in England, continued throughout   Elizabeth’s reign. As her government and bishops pursued its via media (middle way), extremists at both ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum were periodically pressed to conform.   A number of Catholics were fined and imprisoned if they did not attend the parish church, otherwise the government turned something of a blind eye to private masses in manor houses owned by the gentry. A show of unity, or uniformity, in public was what was essential, since the Virgin Queen’s reign was continually beset by plots and planned invasions, even after the defeat of Philip II’s Spanish Armada in 1588. Puritanism was much more of an everyday problem, however, because parish clergy, as well unlicensed preachers could easily stir up their congregations against all religion that was not pure. The Bishop of Norwich’s officers often brought offenders before the magistrates only to find, on many occasions, that the JP himself was sympathetic to puritans, if not to nonconfomists. Many of the leading county families were, by this time, of a Puritan persuasion. They patronised preachers, appointed radical clergy to their parishes, where the livings were in their gift and not that of the bishop, and even opened their houses to separatist meetings.

004However, as with the Catholics, it was not, at this stage, the separatists who met in isolated congregations, mostly secretly, who posed the biggest threat to the authorities, but those who were forming themselves, however loosely, into an organised grouping or party, both within the county and at the national level, in Parliament. In 1582 there was a meeting held at Cockfield, of…

three score ministers, appointed out of Essex, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk… to confer of the Common Book, what might be tolerated, and what necessarily refused in every point of it; apparel, matter, form, days, fasting, injunctions, etc.

The rector of Cockfield, John Knewstub, was a leading light among the Puritans in West Suffolk, with others in the important centres of Hadleigh, Ipswich and Beccles. Puritanism therefore went from strength to strength in East Anglia and it is no coincidence that the first group of separatist pilgrims intending to settle permanently in the New World, or at least New England, were from Old Anglia, and that the distinctive dialect of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk can still be detected in much of the eastern seaboard they settled, remaining distinct from the Midland English which predominates across most of the United States.

018 (2)The Reformation may be seen as the triumph of the venacular over the old international Latin culture of Western Catholicism. Religion became a matter of the word rather than the image, of the sermon rather than the sacrament. In England the new liturgy remained much closer to the old forms it replaced and so most churches required few changes to their interiors. Churches and college chapels continued to be built and decorated in the late Perpendicular Tudor style of Gothic. Wealthy London merchants came to live in Suffolk, men like Sir Thomas Kytson at Hengrave, who built a splendid new house for himself. Local clothiers also put their wealth into land, buying themselves into an expanding gentry class. Both men and women established charities as memorials, as well as setting up elaborate tombs and monuments in brass, marble and stone in the parish churches. The history of Woodbridge has been substantially influenced by the life of its greatest benefactor, Thomas Seckford, who crowned a brilliant legal career when he became Master in Ordinary of the Court of Requests. In 1587 he decided to donate a measure of his wealth to Woodbridge by endowing charities which still pay for the hospital, almshouses, dispensary, lending library and grammar school (see photos). He was also a Tudor statesman and in 1550, 1563 and 1572 was elected to parliament by the burgesses of   Ipswich.

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At St Mary’s Parish Church in Woodbridge, besides the tomb of Thomas Seckford (d. 1587) on the north wall of the sanctuary, there is the interesting Pitman monument on the south side of the chancel, in fine ornate marble (above far right). It commemorates Jeffrey Pitman, a tanner and haberdasher and Churchwarden in 1596 and 1608. He was also High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1625 and left a considerable amount of money for the repair and maintenance of the church. His monument also contains figures of his two wives and his two lawyer sons. In St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham, besides the magnificent tombs of the Dukes of Norfolk, there is the tomb of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, which was given into the keeping of the Duke of Norfolk by his father (see above right).

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Printed Sources:

Derek Wilson (1997), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford

David & Pat Alexander (eds.)(1997), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury

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