John of Leiden
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"I flew me over to Munster in Germany, which an Anabaptistical brother named John Leyden kept at that instant against the Emperor and the Duke of Saxony. Here I was in good hope to set up my staff for some reasonable time, deeming that no city would drive it to a siege except they were able to hold out, and prettily well had these Munsterians held out, for they kept the Emperor and the Duke of Saxony play for the space of a year, and longer would have done but that Dame Famine came amongst them, whereupon they were forced by messengers to agree upon a day of fight when, according to their Anabaptistical error they might all be new christened in their own blood." --The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe, describing the events of the Münster Rebellion.
John of Leiden (born Johan Beukelszoon; 2 February 1509 – 22 January 1536) was a Dutch Anabaptist leader who moved to Münster in 1533, capital of the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, where he became an influential prophet, turned the city into a millenarian Anabaptist theocracy, and proclaimed himself King of New Jerusalem in September 1534. The insurrection was suppressed in June 1535 after Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck besieged the city and captured John. John was tortured to death in the city's central marketplace on 22 January 1536, along with Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Krechting.
Raised in poverty, young John became a charismatic leader who was widely revered by his followers. According to his own testimony, he went to the German city of Münster, arriving in 1533, because he had heard there were inspired preachers there. He sent for Jan Matthys, who had baptized him, to come. After his arrival Matthys – recognized as a prophet – became the principal leader in the city. Following a failed military attempt on Easter Sunday 1534, in which Matthys died, John of Leiden became King of Münster until its fall in June of 1535. The conventional view is that he set up in Münster a polygamous theocracy, best known for a law John passed stating that any unmarried woman must accept the first or any requests for a husband, with the result that men competed to acquire the most wives. Some sources report that John himself took sixteen wives, and that he publicly beheaded one of his wives after she rebelled against his authority. Karl Kautsky however, in his Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation, notes that this picture of Anabaptist Münster is based almost entirely on accounts written by the Anabaptists' enemies, who sought to justify their bloody reconquest of the city. Kautsky's reading of the sources emphasizes the Anabaptists' emphasis on social equality, political democracy, and communal living during the time of John's nominal rule.
The army of Münster was defeated in 1535 by the prince bishop Franz von Waldeck, and John of Leiden was captured, found in a cellar of a house and then was taken to a dungeon in Dülmen, then brought back to Münster. On January 22, 1536, along with Bernhard Krechting and Bernhard Knipperdolling, he was tortured and then executed. Each attached to a pole by an iron spiked collar, their bodies were ripped with red-hot tongs for the space of an hour. After Knipperdolling saw the process of torturing John of Leiden, he attempted to kill himself with the collar, using it to choke himself. The executioner tied him to the stake to make it impossible after that. After the burning, their tongues were pulled out with tongs before each was killed with a burning dagger thrust through the heart. Their bodies were raised in three cages above St. Lambert's Church, the remains left to rot. Their bones were removed about 50 years later, but the cages have remained into the 21st century.
In proverb, on stage and in fiction
The opera Le prophète (1849) by Giacomo Meyerbeer features John as its hero. It involves the capture of Munster (Acts III and IV), John's coronation as God's elect at the cathedral (Act IV), and its finale is set in John's palace in Münster.
John (as Jan Bockelson) is one of the main protagonists in the play Die Wiedertäufer by Friedrich Dürrenmatt