Tragedies of the European Reformation
Theocracy, mass executions & bloody, bloody revolt

The Protestant Reformation was a period of difficult reform in a violent time, and although many of the main protagonists did not seek violence (sovereigns always wanted social stability and the reformers, knowing this, knew "revolution" would not aid their goals1) it inexorably bubbled to the top from time to time. Cruelty and extremism came from all sides in this war of ideas, and the balance of power was very much in the favour of sovereigns when they chose to exercise it, as even was the war of ideas. Martin Luther, regarded at the time as a religious revolutionary, admonished the sovereigns of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) during the Peasants' War to "smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly," the rebels for "there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man." This had the effect of reducing Luther's influence among the peasants somewhat (although he himself was of peasant stock).

The Peasants' War: the prelude at Wittenberg

"It is with the Word that we must fight, by the Word must we overthrow and destroy what has been set up by violence."
~ Martin Luther

It was on the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral that Martin Luther first posted his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, which is generally considered to have kicked this whole Reformation thing off. Whilst Luther was seen as "dangerous" and revolutionary by the Humanists like Erasmus, he certainly did not demand quick and violent change in the practices of the Catholic Church, realising they would have to be introduced slowly. But whilst Luther was absent from his alma mater the religious authorities in Wittenberg started taking things a bit too quickly. In the autumn of 1521 the changes were fairly radical, although not a patch on what was to come: the laity was given communion in both kinds and monks began to leave their monasteries (sola fide, or "faith alone", was the Lutheran doctrine which taught salvation was achieved by faith alone and not good works). Luther didn't have too much beef with this, but soon three men known as the Zwickau prophets arrived and threatened the tacit approval of the temporal authorities which had existed to this point.

The Radical Reformation can in many respects be seen to have started in Zwickau, where the first of the men that would mockingly be labelled "Anabaptists" ("re-baptizers", for they believed any subject of Pedobaptism must be re-baptized as an adult) voiced their views. Nicholas Storch (who claimed the Angel Gabriel told him "Thou shalt sit on my throne"), Mark Stubner (who said God had given him the divine gift of interpreting the Scripture), Mark Thomas and Thomas Munzer (a man of most fanatical character) appealed to the people of Zwickau, who for a large part seem to have eagerly accepted the notion that Prophets once again walked amongst men, and that they walked within their own city limits. The Eschaton was declared to be impending (5-7 years away, which tied in with the occurence of the Peasants' War). However, spiritual authorities in Zwickau had held firm under the guiding hand of pastor Nicholas Hausmann, and eventually the "prophets" were ejected from the city. Storch, Thomas and Stubner repaired to Wittenberg.

Here they caught the imagination of the people and of Andreas von Karlstadt, Luther's university superior at Wittenberg. Luther was greatly disturbed when he heard of the men who had arrived in Wittenberg, but he was as always jealous in his guarding of religious liberties for all: "Let not the prince dip his hand in the blood of these new prophets," wrote he, although "I always expected that Satan would send us this plague." Iconoclasm soon took hold in a most violent fashion, and there was a great fear that Frederick of Saxony, the sovereign, would take steps to put down the new religion. But in these confused times it seems no-one had the nerve to stand up to men who could well, in their eyes, have been true prophets: yet all over the rest of Europe, far removed from the preachings of the Anabaptists, men said that Luther was to blame for the destruction taking place in Wittenberg. He would have to return there, preach against these false prophets, and hope edification would win out over destruction.

For eight days Luther preached before the people of Wittenberg. The series of sermons is known as the Invocavit sermons, and they were successful. He denounced the teachings of the Zwickau prophets as having no basis in Holy Scripture. An extract -

"Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank beer with my friends, the Word so greatly weakened the Papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing: the Word did everything."

Luther was again rejecting violence as a way to achieve reform, and he was again saying that reform should be based purely on the Word of God, and no "mere fables". The Zwickau prophets were expelled from Wittenberg; a crisis had been averted at the heart of the Reformation. But five years later, their claim that the Eschaton was impending seemed to be coming true, and if events at Wittenberg were a warning, this was the disaster for real.

The Peasants' War of 1524-25

"Then Lucifer and all his angels were let loose; for [the peasants] raged and stormed no differently than if they were mad and possessed by every devil."
~ Parson Johann Herolt

The lower orders, in their illiteracy, cannot be held to have understood fully the preachings of Luther. It is likely that the woodcuts circulated to try and educate them put across a message of simple anti-Papism more than anything else. In Germany, anti-Papism spelled anti-society, and the peasants had many troubles with regard to society of late. A second age of serfdom seemed to be on the rise in Germany as Lords ate away at peasant liberties, and a string of bad harvests denied people the "belly cheer" which the lack of aggravates sedition. The Peasants' War was more of a series of de-centralised risings that one big, coherent "war". The demands of the peasants in various areas where not homogenous, but the one which had the most circulation was the Twelve Articles. Whilst many of their demands were economic and social in their nature, the first Article bore the unmistakable stamp of the Reformation -

"it is our humble petition and desire, as also our will and resolution, that in the future we should have power and authority so that each community should choose and appoint a pastor, and that we should have the right to depose him should he conduct himself improperly. The pastor thus chosen should teach us the Gospel pure and simple, without any addition, doctrine or ordinance of man."

As well as this religious demand, the peasants asked for a halt in the passing of new laws by their Lords which they felt disadvantaged them, to be allowed again to poach, log and fish freely in their forests, and "take it for granted that you will release us from serfdom as true Christians, unless it should be shown us from the Gospel that we are serfs." The revolt began near the Swiss border at Schaffhausen and some discontented nobles lent themselves to the cause. Thomas Münser, inspiration for the Zwickau prophets before and the theocracy of Münster afterwards, took control and established a theocracy in preparation for the Second Coming which this anarchy surely heralded. Münser was defeated at the Battle of Frankenhausen in May 1525 by Philip of Hesse and Duke George of Saxony. Elsewhere, atrocities came from both sides of the conflict: at Weinsberg, the garrison was put to death and Count Louis of Helfenstein was run through with a pike in front of his wife and infant son. The peasants burnt manor houses, monasteries and castles alike. Fields were laid to waste. It seemed in Germany that the Apocalypse was near and all Christendom would be consumed by the fire; but at length the Princes gathered themselves into Leagues and put the revolt down. Estimates of the number dead range from 50,000 to 100,000 - some killed in battle, some cut down as they fled, some offered pardon and killed in cold blood. Münser was decapitated, and some places were burnt to the ground in retribution.

The Peasants' War cost an unbelievable amount of lives and greatly reduced the influence of the peasantry for a long time to come: the Lords tightened the shackles of oppression afterwards. Protestantism, it was now seen, could not be advanced by violence any more than Catholic conformity could be enforced from above by the same. The violent egalitarianism of the people had been defeated, and the dream of a classless society ruled only by the Word was dead to most of the people of Germany.

The Spanish Inquisition

"The majority of Spaniards consider it a gross impiety, offensive in the highest degree to the Supreme Being, to worship him in any other manner than the Roman Catholic"
~ John Stuart Mill

If this was true at time of J. S. Mill, it was certainly no falser during the time of Reformation. The Kings Charles V (r. 1516-1556) and Philip II (r. 1556-1598) were for their lifetimes the most powerful men in Europe, and numbered among the most pious (in conformity to the Catholic Church). The Inquisition had been set up by Ferdinand and Isabella in Castile (half of Spain) in 1478, and extended to Aragon (the other half of Spain) six years later. During these years it killed many people: mainly conversos (Jews who converted to Christianity), of whom 2000 were put to death before 1498. During the reign of Charles V there was very little trouble with Protestantism on the Iberian peninsula (in contrast to the trouble Charles had with it abroad). Illuminism and Erasmianism were the only real problems Spanish Kings had with heresy, and they were easily stamped out once discovered. 250 people were burnt by the Inquisition during the reign of Philip II, which is 24 less than 'Bloody' Mary I burnt in her five years.

Whilst the Spanish Inquisition was not quite the all-powerful tool of a totalitarian state it has sometimes been made out to be, it was an instrument of massive fear and resented by even those who thought it was necessary. Perhaps its greatest sin was putting an intellectual noose around Spain and tightening it until she died: for no Spaniard was allowed to attend a University outside Spain, and the Spaniard was forbidden from reading any book with a trace of un-Orthodox content. And whilst the Inquisition did a good job in spreading the Catholic faith to the uneducated people of Spain, it has been argued the country's decline was in part caused by this uncompromising attitude.

The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre

Religious civil war was an ugly thing to behold, and the sixteenth century beheld it in France and the Netherlands. The French Wars of Religion kept France divided for decades and cost untold lives. It was fought between two factions, one Huguenot (Protestant) and the other Catholic, but the massacre came at a time of supposed truce. The Catholics and Huguenots were all in Paris to celebrate the marriage of Charles of Lorraine's sister to the Huguenot King Henry of Navarre. Tensions between the two groups were high due to disagreement over intervention in the Dutch revolt (which was a religious civil war going on between Protestant nobles and their overlord, King Philip II of Spain). Some Frenchmen feared that if they did not intervene on behalf of the rebels then Philip would easily defeat them and soon turn his attention and armies towards their own country (it was precisely this reason that would drive Elizabeth I of England to intervene overtly thirteen years later).

It is thought the Royal family merely wanted to purge the Huguenot leaders, but soon 2000-3000 bodies lay on the streets or in the Seine. As news spread nationally, some 10,000-15,000 others were murdered in Rouen, Orleans, Toulouse and Lyon in what the people believed was an action sanctioned from the highest authority; in reality, the Royal family beseeched the people to stop. The Huguenots were devestated - they had no force with which to retaliate, and they had been victims of one of the biggest systematic killings in Early Modern history.

The Dutch Revolt and the 'Council of Blood'

Which brings us rather neatly to the Dutch revolt, which is a subject that has been written on at length by many biased individuals. A 'Black Legend' has sprung up around the Spanish King Philip II, who was at this time overlord of the Netherlands as well. Protestant and Dutch historians have written about the evil tyranny of Philip and his underlings, whom sat hundreds of miles distant in Madrid issuing edicts which effected every sphere of their lives. This belief was recurrent down the ages, particularly from the pens of the biased - C. J. Cadoux declared as late as 1947 that Philip was a 'monstrous tyrant'. More modern ('Revisionist') historians tend not to see pure malice as the motivating factor behind Philip - rather, he is seen as a pragmatist and a pious Catholic. I have written of the relationship between King and Church here; suffice to say, whilst not heeding every order from the Curia, he was mindful of the need to suppress heresy and oppose heterodoxy.

The mercantile nature of the Netherlands meant that they were susceptible to heresy, as traders from across Europe brought their ideas and customs inside the seveteen provinces. Charles V had taken a somewhat detached attitude and had not been moved to action when the local nobility (whom enforced law in the Netherlands) did not enforce his decrees against heresy - Philip II was not a native of the Netherlands like his father, and was not very mindful nor respectful of their customs. He would not for one second contemplate tolerance, and upon coming to power he ordered the Inquisitor-General of the Netherlands to step up arrests. Repression was stepped up and Anabaptists, Calvinists and Lutherans were expelled from the towns and executed when caught practicing their faither. J. A. Wylie describes one case thus -

"Two young gentlewomen of the Province of Over-Issel were sentenced to the fire. One of the sisters was induced to abjure on a promise of mercy. She thought she had saved her life by her abjuration, whereas the mercy of the placards meant only an easier death. When the day of execution arrived, the two sisters, who had not seen each other since they received their sentence, were brought forth together upon the scaffold. For the one who remained steadfast a stake had been prepared; the other saw with horror a coffin, half filled with sand, waiting to receive her corpse as soon as the axe should have severed her head from her body. "This," said the strong sister to the weak one, "this is all you have gained by denying Him before whom you are within an hour to appear." Conscience-stricken she fell upon her knees, and with strong cries besought pardon for her great sin. Then rising up - a sudden calm succeeding the sudden tempest - she boldly declared herself a Protestant. The executioner, fearing the effect of her words upon the spectators, instantly stopped her by putting a gag into her mouth, and then he bound her to the same stake with her sister. A moment before, it seemed as if the two were to be parted for ever; but now death, which divides others, had united them in the bonds of an eternal fellowship: they were sisters evermore."

But it was to no avail, and mob violence broke out after Protestant 'hedge-preachers' began to preach openly to crowds of thousands: generally, the violence was iconoclastic in nature. Margaret of Parma wrote alarmist letters to Philip begging for assisstance, and he resolved to send the Duke of Alva at the head of an army of 10,000 men to restore order. He set up shop in Brussels and arrested the Counts Egmont and Horne, whom were to be executed in 1568 - then he set up an institution with which to oppress the rest of the Dutch people with equal viciousness. The Council of Troubles, which history has called the Council of Blood, effectively declared every single person in the Netherlands a traitor, for "the heretical inhabitants broke into the churches, and the orthodox inhabitants did nothing to hinder it, therefore they ought all of them to be hanged together." The punishment for treason was of course death, of which 1,000-2,000 suffered this fate. A further 9,000 had their property confiscated to the Crown, which was most convienient given the wealth of the Netherlands. The Dutch rebels would have to fight for many decades before they achieved independence from Philip, and live through many more tragedies: Antwerp was sacked by mutineering Spanish troops in 1576 to the loss of 8,000 lives and the devestation of the mercantile jewel in the crown of Northern Europe.


The theocracy of Münster established by Anabaptists was of a most brutal character. As Spiritualists its leaders did not even feel the need to use the Bible to justify themselves - that "paper Pope", they called it. They drew inspiration from an inner light which seems to have carried some weight - if only inspiring fear - with the people, and with the help of the city's mayor they soon controlled it. Starting on Febuary 27, 1534, the Anabaptists in Münster drove all Lutherans and Catholics from the city (they had originally wanted to execute them all, but it seems the mayor advised a compromise), beating them and leaving them with no money nor food. The city's Bishop, Franz von Waldeck, recruited mercenaries from the expelled and soon put the city under siege. This atmosphere of war only heightened the sense of instability within the city and the conditions for revolution were ripe. Lenin has observed that it is necessary for one particular factor to become the focal point of a revolution - for Jan Matthys, the lead Anabaptist, this factor was the aggressor beyond the city walls. He declared the property of the exiles to be owned communally, and then the property of all. He gained a monopoly over interpretation of the Scripture by commanding all books but the Bible to be burnt.

Matthys died in a skirmish with Waldeck's forces, and Jan Bockelszoon van Leiden took leadership. Even more fanatical than Matthys, he began his reign by running naked through the streets and then falling into an ecstasy for three days. Upon awakening he appointed twelve Elders or the Judges of the Tribes of Israel and eventually declared himself King Jan. Seditious language, adultery, lewd conduct, complaining and chastising one's parents all became capital crimes. Polygamy became not just legal, but compulsory: a woman had to marry the first man that asked her (which one can only assume made adultery somewhat unnecessary). Then Matthys went as far to declare himself Son of David, Messiah, and overlord of the entire World. He ruled within the city limits by absolute terror, torturing and killing sixty-four men that tried to depose him over four days. He executed those who tried to escape the famine that was developing inside the city walls. At length his army was defeated and the attackers showed no mercy except for women and priests. The leaders of the Anabaptist ring were brutally tortured and killed and their bodies laid on display for all to see.

'Bloody' Mary I

The English Reformation had seen tragedy enough when Mary I ascended the throne of England - the Dissolution of the English Monasteries had seen a destruction of artwork and property, with the impoverishment of its erstwhile monkish owners - and oppression for religious views had not only been rampant but swung violently from approving one mode of worship to another. Mary was as impeccably Roman Catholic as her husband, the much maligned Philip II of Spain, and her single desire was to undo the work of Henry VIII and restore England to communion with Rome. In the process she executed 274 of her subjects, who died for their faith but entirely in vain. Most of the dead were drawn from the lower orders, as the rich could afford to flee abroad to safe havens such as Geneva and Zurich and await happier days. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs recorded with a justly forked pen the sufferings of the persecuted, from the esteemed Bishops Latimer and Ridley to the lowest ploughswain. Mary had amplified the number of burnings in her country fiftyfold from the years preceding, and she made quite an impact on the Protestants of the day. As Latimer predicted to Ridley whilst on the stake:

"We shall this day, by God's grace, light up such a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out."

The first century of the Reformation had been bloody and brutal. But the candle of religious tolerance, which is what all should be concerned with, was burning brightly in the minds of some: in England, Mary perished and Elizabeth took a more tolerant line (although it faded somewhat for pragmatic reasons). This freedom was brought with many lives.

"If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men."

I should add a note in memory of the countless tens of thousands Jews and Moors who died by the hands of the Inquisition or when they were expelled from Iberia, whom have thus far being absent from this write-up as I have focused on Schismatic violence. I am an atheist and no "bias" exists in my reporting of the above, if you wish me to include an event dear to your heart I shall do so.

1. It was the opinion of the Magesterial Reformers (the less radical ones) that obedience to sovereign authority was the correct duty of a Christian man, quoting for instance Matthew 22:21, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's".


D'Aubigne, J.H. Merle. The Life and Times of Martin Luther, which is available here:

Foxe, John. Book of Martyrs, which is available here:

Kilsby, Jill. Spain Rise and Decline 1474-1643: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986.

Lotherington, John. Years of Renewal: European History 1470-1600: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

Luther, Martin. Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, which can be read here:

Twelve Articles of the Peasants, available here:

Woodward, Geoffrey. Philip II: Longman, 1992.

Wylie, J. A. The History of Protestantism, Volume the First, available here:

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