An immense revolution was preparing in all the empire.
Continuing The Peasants’ War in Germany,
our selection from History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by J. H. Merle d’Augbigne published in 1853. The selection is presented in «DAYSALPHA» easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Peasants’ War in Germany.
At the approach of the peasants, the cities that were unable to resist them opened their gates and joined them. In whatever place they entered, they pulled down the images and broke the crucifixes; armed women paraded the streets and threatened the monks. If they were defeated in one quarter, they assembled in another, and braved the most formidable forces. A committee of peasants was established at Heilbrunn. The counts of Lowenstein were taken prisoners, dressed in a smock-frock, and then, a white staff having been placed in their hands, they were compelled to swear to the twelve articles. “Brother George, and thou, brother Albert,” said a tinker of Ohringen to the counts of Hohenlohe who had gone to their camp, “swear to conduct yourselves as our brethren, for you also are now peasants; you are no longer lords.” Equality of rank, the dream of many democrats, was established in aristocratic Germany.
Many nobles, some through fear, others from ambition, then joined the insurgents. The famous Goetz von Berlichingen, finding his vassals refuse to obey him, desired to flee to the Elector of Saxony; but his wife, who was lying-in, wishing to keep him near her, concealed the Elector’s answer. Goetz, being closely pursued, was compelled to put himself at the head of the rebel army. On the 7th of May the peasants entered Wuerzburg, where the citizens received them with acclamations. The forces of the princes and knights of Swabia and Franconia, which had assembled in this city, evacuated it, and retired in confusion to the citadel, the last bulwark of the nobility.
But the movement had already extended to other parts of Germany. Spires, the Palatinate, Alsace, and Hesse accepted the twelve articles, and the peasants threatened Bavaria, Westphalia, the Tyrol, Saxony, and Lorraine. The Margrave of Baden, having rejected the articles, was compelled to flee. The coadjutor of Fulda acceded to them with a smile. The smaller towns said they had no lances with which to oppose the insurgents. Mentz, Treves, and Frankfort obtained the liberties they had claimed.
An immense revolution was preparing in all the empire. The ecclesiastical and secular privileges, that bore so heavily on the peasants, were to be suppressed; the possessions of the clergy were to be secularized, to indemnify the princes and provide for the wants of the empire; taxes were to be abolished, with the exception of a tribute payable every ten years; the imperial power was to subsist alone, as being recognized by the New Testament; all the other princes were to cease to reign; sixty-four free tribunals were to be established, in which men of all classes should have a seat; all ranks were to return to their primitive condition; the clergy were to be henceforward merely the pastors of the churches; princes and knights were to be simply the defenders of the weak; uniformity in weights and measures was to be introduced, and only one kind of money was to be coined throughout the empire.
Meanwhile the princes had shaken off their first lethargy, and George von Truchsess, commander-in-chief of the imperial army, was advancing on the side of the Lake of Constance. On the 2d of May he defeated the peasants at Beblingen; then marched on the town of Weinsberg, where the unhappy Count of Helfenstein had perished, burned and razed it to the ground, giving orders that the ruins should be left as an eternal monument of the treason of its inhabitants. At Fairfeld he united with the Elector Palatine and the Elector of Treves, and all three moved toward Franconia.
The Frauenburg, the citadel of Wuerzburg, held out for the princes, and the main army of the peasants still lay before its walls. As soon as they heard of the Truchsess’ march, they resolved on an assault, and at nine o’clock at night on the 15th of May the trumpets sounded, the tricolor flag was unfurled, and the peasants rushed to the attack with horrible shouts. Sebastian von Rotenhan, one of the warmest partisans of the Reformation, was governor of the castle. He had put the fortress in a formidable state of defence, and, having exhorted the garrison to repel the assault with courage, the soldiers, holding up three fingers, had all sworn to do so. A most terrible conflict took place. To the vigor and despair of the insurgents, the fortress replied from its walls and towers by petards, showers of sulphur and boiling pitch and the discharges of artillery. The peasants, thus struck by their unseen enemies, were staggered for a moment; but in an instant their fury grew more violent. The struggle was prolonged as the night advanced. The fortress, lit up by a thousand battle-fires, appeared in the darkness like a towering giant, who, vomiting flames, struggled alone amid the roar of thunder, for the salvation of the empire against the ferocious valor of these furious hordes. Two hours after midnight the peasants withdrew, having failed in all their efforts.
They now tried to enter into negotiations, either with the garrison or with Truchsess, who was advancing at the head of his army. But this was going out of their path; violence and victory alone could save them. After some little hesitation they resolved to march against the imperial forces, but the cavalry and artillery made terrible havoc in their ranks. At Koenigshofen, and afterward at Engelstadt, those unfortunate creatures were totally defeated. The princes, the nobles, and bishops, abusing their victory, indulged in the most unprecedented cruelties. The prisoners were hanged on the trees by the wayside. The Bishop of Wuerzburg, who had run away, now returned, traversed his diocese accompanied by executioners, and watered it alike with the blood of the rebels and of the peaceful friends of the Word of God. Goetz von Berlichingen was sentenced to imprisonment for life. The margrave Casimir of Anspach put out the eyes of eighty-five insurgents who had sworn that their eyes should never look upon that Prince again; and he cast this troop of blinded individuals upon the world, to wander up and down, holding each other by the hand, groping along, tottering, and begging their bread. The wretched boy who had played the dead-march on his fife at the murder of Helfenstein, was chained to a post, a fire was kindled around him, and the knights looked on, laughing at his horrible contortions.
Public worship was now everywhere restored in its ancient forms. The most flourishing and populous districts of the empire exhibited to those who traveled through them nothing but heaps of dead bodies and smoking ruins. Fifty thousand men had perished, and the people lost nearly everywhere the little liberty they had hitherto enjoyed. Such was the horrible termination of this revolt in the south of Germany.