Visitors to St. Lambert’s church in Münster, Germany may notice something odd about the building’s facade. Three gleaming iron cages, 7 feet tall and a yard wide and deep, hang empty from the church spire. Once home to the mutilated bodies of three revolutionaries who shaped one of the strangest chapters in the Protestant Reformation, the cages have hung there for nearly 500 years. They remain on the spire as a testament to their former occupants’ experiment in religious utopia—and the tremors they sent through German religious and political life for years after their occupants' deaths.
MÜNSTER’S RADICAL ROOTS
In 1530, Münster was a divided city. Although technically self-governing, the Catholic Church vied with the city council for control of the town. The aristocrats who had owned the land and nearly everything on it for generations existed in sharp conflict with the peasants, craftsmen, and trade guilds that were beginning to threaten their economic dominance. Meanwhile, Germany was still recovering from a 1525 peasant uprising that didn’t have much of an effect on Münster, but frayed the nerves of the ruling class across the Holy Roman Empire. To make matters worse, Europe was also still reeling from the startling intensity of the Protestant Reformation, 13 years after Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses.
Against this fraught backdrop, an evangelical Protestant preacher named Bernhard Rothmann began preaching against Catholic doctrine and drew a large following in Münster, particularly among the peasants and the trade guilds. Alarmed at his threat to their dominance, the Catholic Church banned him from the pulpit. But in February 1532, a mob of his supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church—the main parish church in Münster—and installed Rothmann as its preacher.
That May, Franz von Waldeck was elected prince-bishop of Münster, becoming the highest-ranking Church official in town. As the little brother of the Count of Waldeck-Eisenberg, a minor aristocrat, young Franz had access to family money and military power. Rothmann’s Protestant rabble-rousing threatened to turn Münster against the Catholic Church, which would render the new prince-bishop's position powerless. Von Waldeck hired mercenary cavalry to blockade Münster until its citizens expelled Rothmann and his allies—but the city council, under pressure from Rothmann’s supporters, refused.
And the people of Münster struck back: In a surprise attack early on the morning of December 26, 600 armed townspeople, backed by 300 newly minted city soldiers, assailed von Waldeck at his council in nearby Telgte. They raided his residence, and captured several high-born hostages. But after a neighboring noble stepped in to mediate the conflict, von Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from Münster’s parish churches.
That caught the attention of a band of Dutch Anabaptists led by one Jan Matthijs, who for years had been persecuted for their faith and chased from town to town throughout the Low Countries. The Anabaptists believed in baptizing only adults, not children, marking them as radicals even among their fellow Protestants, who feared that unbaptized children who died before reaching adulthood would burn in hell—and who feared the upturning of social orders the Anabaptists represented. Four years before Münster’s religious toleration treaty, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had ordered that every Anabaptist in his territory “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”
Matthijs, a charismatic baker-turned-Anabaptist prophet, sent two of his acolytes to Münster in January 1534. When they arrived, Rothmann—who by then had become more radical and supported the idea of adult baptism—embraced them. The Anabaptists reportedly rebaptized 1400 people (20 percent of the city’s adult population) within a week of their arrival. Along the way, they spread Matthijs’s apocalyptic prophesy: Jesus Christ would return to Earth that Easter, and all Christians needed to prepare themselves for the imminent end of the world.
THE NEW JERUSALEM
On February 11, 1534, the Münster city council granted full religious toleration to Anabaptists, who began referring to Münster as the “New Jerusalem.” They sent out messengers far and wide to recruit new believers to the city. As the month went on, armed city employees reportedly moved through the city warning those who refused adult baptism to flee, reportedly crying "Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!" When Matthijs arrived, he delivered a sermon calling for the execution of Catholics and Lutherans alike. He preached, "Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!" When the execution idea failed to fly, his advisors convinced him to settle for expelling the Catholics and Lutherans from the city.
More than 2000 Catholics and moderate Protestants poured out of Münster—and just as many Anabaptists streamed in from the countryside to replace them. By February 23, a new city council election gave the Anabaptists, led by Matthijs, full control of Münster. Watching these developments from outside the walls, Bishop von Waldeck prepared to besiege the city with a mercenary army in hopes of reestablishing Catholic control.
Münster simultaneously prepared to battle von Waldeck and to meet Jesus Christ. The citizens beefed up the city walls. They rounded up all residents who hadn’t yet been rebaptized and forced them to accept baptism or leave. They confiscated food and weapons from departing Catholics, and then, in March, the city council abolished private property altogether. That month, Matthijs also had all archives, documents, contracts, accounts, and ledgers destroyed in a Fight Club-style attempt to abolish all debt. "Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other," Rothmann preached.
Meanwhile, von Waldeck’s troops surrounded the city and the siege began.
On April 5, 1534, Easter came—but Christ did not. With his apocalyptic prophecy shattered, Matthijs claimed to have a divine vision. He mounted a horse and sallied forth with a small entourage to personally break von Waldeck’s siege and free the city. But his plan failed miserably: Von Waldeck’s troops ran Matthijs through with a spear, and then put his head on a spike in front of the city gates for all of Münster to see. The Anabaptists’ prophet was dead.
To quell the city’s rising panic, Matthijs’s main lieutenant, a 25-year-old tailor named Jan of Leiden, gave a speech reinterpreting the apocalyptic prophesy and postponing doomsday. On April 8, he dissolved the elected city council and appointed 12 elders to run the city.
Münster became increasingly militarized: Armed bands of citizens lived communally near their posts by the city gates, and two church steeples were repurposed as platforms for cannons. Residents adhered to a regimented daily schedule, and were required to wear simple clothing to erase social distinctions.
But as the city transformed, it still faced threats from the outside. Von Waldeck launched a massive engineering project to drain the moat surrounding Münster and allow his troops to attack the city gates. He conscripted over 2000 farmers from the surrounding land to leave their spring planting aside and dig a drainage ditch under cover of night. With the moat drained, von Waldeck's cannons pummeled Münster's walls for four straight days. But when the prince-bishop finally attacked on May 25, the Anabaptists staved off his disorganized and reportedly drunk mercenaries.
In June, an Anabaptist woman named Hille Feicken hatched a plan to assassinate von Waldeck and break the siege. She was inspired by the Biblical character Judith, who during the siege of Bethulia seduced the attacking general Holofernes and beheaded him in his sleep. Early in the morning on June 16, Feicken snuck out of Münster to seduce von Waldeck—but unlike Judith, she was quickly discovered, captured, and executed.
Soon after Feicken’s death, Jan of Leiden announced his plans to legalize polygamy and make marriage mandatory for all women—even those who had living Catholic or Protestant husbands in exile. Those who refused to marry were imprisoned in church cloisters, where preachers attempted to reeducate them. Historians speculate that Jan of Leiden’s motives were partially demographic: At that point, there were 2000 adult men and over 5500 adult women in Münster. The unmarried women were not under the protection—or control—of a husband, who might prevent them from sneaking off like Hille Feicken did.
Rothmann defended Jan of Leiden's decision. "God wills to create something new on earth," he wrote. "Just as the women commonly have been lords and have had their own way, now among us he has subjected the women to the men, so that all of them, young as well as old, have to let themselves be ruled by the men according to the word of God."
The polygamy announcement drew major backlash. On the night of July 30, 1534, 47 conspirators, led by a blacksmith named Heinrich Mollenhecke, attempted to overthrow the city government. They managed to take Jan of Leiden prisoner and hole up in the city hall, but the majority of Münster didn’t rally to the conspirators’ cause. Loyalists surrounded the mutineers, forcing them to surrender and free Jan of Leiden.
Over the next four days, all 47 conspirators were shot or beheaded. The polygamy plan went forward, and every woman in Münster was married. (Jan of Leiden himself reportedly took as many as 16 wives over the next year, including Jan Matthijs’s widow.)
A NEW KING
Meanwhile, von Waldeck's siege continued. He launched yet another assault in August 1534, which the Anabaptists narrowly repelled. Afterward, a new Anabaptist prophet, a goldsmith named August Johann Dusentschuer, proclaimed that Jan of Leiden should rule as king. Jan of Leiden accepted the prophecy, adding that God had revealed to him that he was to be the new King David and rule until Jesus’s return to Earth. He replaced the Council of Elders with a royal court and began wearing a crown and carrying a scepter.
Over the winter, von Waldeck choked off all remaining routes in or out of Münster with walls and moats. The city ran out of grain and residents began slaughtering young cows for food. "Anyone who still has something must share with his brother," Jan of Leiden declared. But by April, facing a mounting famine, the king dismissed exhausted and hungry women, children, and old men from the city. About 1600 armed men remained within the walls.
As life inside of Münster became increasingly grim, Jan of Leiden promised his subjects that God would deliver them from the prince-bishop's besieging army. "God will smite them in their hearts, so that they will run away," he predicted. But by Easter, he clarified that he meant his promise of deliverance in a metaphorical, spiritual sense—not literally.
In May 1535, an Anabaptist carpenter named Heinrich Gresbeck tried to flee Münster, but was captured by von Waldeck’s troops. In exchange for his life, he agreed to help the besiegers take the city. On the night of June 25, he led 300 of von Waldeck’s soldiers into town through a poorly guarded city gate. The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster for hours, killing over 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered. They took Jan of Leiden, his viceroy Bernd Knipperdollinck, and another Anabaptist leader named Bernd Kretchtinck prisoner. Bernhard Rothmann, the upstart Protestant preacher who had stirred up the entire conflict from his pulpit at St. Lambert’s church, apparently died fighting, although his body was never found.
With von Waldeck's victory, events took an even more gruesome turn. On January 22, 1536, the prince-bishop gathered a crowd in front of city hall to see Jan of Leiden, Knipperdollinck, and Kretchtinck tortured and killed. Executioners ripped the flesh from their bodies with hot tongs for an hour before stabbing them each in the heart. Their bodies were bound into iron cages and then hoisted from the tower of St. Lambert’s church.
IN “MEMORY OF THEIR DEPARTED SOULS”
As he retook control of Münster, von Waldeck re-Catholicized the city, and from 1536 on he appointed the city council members himself. Citizens weren’t allowed to elect their own representatives again until 1554.
The Münster Rebellion also marked the end of the militant streak in Anabaptism. The Münster Anabaptists were universally condemned, and exaggerated accounts of their treachery have circulated until the present day. Although the religious movement continued for centuries—evolving into today’s Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites—no Anabaptist group would ever attempt to take and wield political power on that level again.
The bodies of the three Anabaptist leaders stayed in their cages for 50 years before St. Lambert’s removed them, prompting artists to draw pictures of ravens descending on the church tower to feast on stray bits of flesh. But the original cages remained, even after the tower from which they hung was demolished and replaced in the 1880s. The church repaired the cages, which had been damaged by rust, and strung them back up on the newly constructed tower.
When British bombs hit the church on November 18, 1944, the highest cage—Jan of Leiden’s—fell into the street, another fell into the organ loft, and the third remained dangling by a thread. When the church rebuilt the tower four years later, workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting on their sturdy construction.
In 1987, as a small act of reconciliation, the church installed a small yellow bulb in each cage to burn from dusk until dawn each night “in memory of their departed souls.”