Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists

Hogenberg, attack on Königswinte
Hogenberg, attack on Königswinter

The Rhineland around 1530. Since the Late Middle Ages, large parts of our region including the villages of Oberdollendorf, Niederdollendorf, Küdinghoven, Oberkassel and Honnef with the Löwenburg mountain belonged to the Duchy of Berg.

By the time of the reformation, the duchies of Jülich, Cleves (on the left bank of the Rhine river) and Berg (on the right bank) were united in one family, and the ruling Duke Wilhelm (William, 1539-1592) was a mighty man. The Duke was an open-minded humanist, in his lands lived Catholics and Protestants, and he met reforms initiated by Prince-Archbishop Hermann von Wied with tolerance. His sister Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of Henry VIII of England.


Martin Luther’s reformation was spreading in Germany. Some of the princes converted, for instance the rulers of Hesse, Palatinate, Saxony and Wurttemberg. They did so for conviction, but also for political calculations: by becoming a Lutheran, they did away with the Pope’s authority and the overwhelming dues to the curia in Rome. Instead, they could build up their own Lutheran national churches and strengthen their position against the Catholic Emperor, Charles V of the Habsburg dynasty. Obviously, reformation was no longer a matter of theologians only.

Charles V, however, was one of the mightiest men of his time, ruling over an Empire in which “the sun does not set”: extensive territories in Europe, inherited from his Spanish and Burgundian ancestors and the Spanish colonies in the Americas and Philippines. Charles V was the only Habsburg Emperor who, at least for some years, united all the Habsburg power in his hands. He must have hated to see reformation spread, but he could hardly interfere as the continuous war against France kept him abroad. It came even worse for him: after defeating the Hungarians in the battle of Mohacs in 1529, the Ottoman Turks threatened the Empire. In 1529, the siege of Vienna began. With the Turks threatening the Empire, a compromise was made: the Lutherans could practice their religion until a general council on issues of faith would restore unity.

Also in Zurich, the Anabaptist movement began. It was very complex and included people who would consciously suffer injustice done to them, but also militant and violent people to whom the aim justified the mains. The Anabaptists believed that it was not right to baptize infants and accepted only adults being baptized. Moreover, they demanded freedom of worship and rejected all church authority – a demand that led to them being heavily prosecuted by the Catholic and Lutheran authorities.

Emperor Charles’ struggle

At last, peace was made between Charles V, France and the Ottoman Sultan. Meanwhile, reformation had spread further, only Austria, Bavaria and the three ecclesiastical states (under the control of a bishop) Cologne, Mainz and Trier had “officially” remained catholic, yet also here the Reformation found followers. In Geneva, John Calvin had founded the “Reformed Church” in 1541. His teachings quickly spread to France, the Netherlands, England and Scotland and later to North America. Also in Germany Calvinism found followers.

In 1543, Duke Wilhelm of Jülich-Cleves-Berg claimed on Gelderland, which would have made him a regional super-power. That brought Emperor Charles V into the arena. After his long absence from Germany, he could now impose his will on a German Prince. When the Imperial troops marched through the town of Bad Honnef, they got into fights with the Duke’s men, and many houses were destroyed. Finally, Duke Wilhelm was defeated. In the treaty of Venlo of 1543, he was forced not only to give up Gelderland, but also to vigorously proceed against reformation.

Finally, the Council of Trent (1546-1563) came together on the Emperor’s urging. Yet, it was dominated by the Pope, and it was not a German council as the Lutherans had demanded, so they refused to participate. Again Charles V took up arm. His troops, enforced by Spanish and Italian mercenaries, prevailed, and Charles V was at the height of his power. A year later, at an Imperial Diet in Augsburg he “dictated” a religion to the Lutherans, the Augsburg Interim (1548). But the Lutherans mostly resented the interim, and also the Catholic princes feared the increasing dominance of the Emperor and Spain. When Charles suggested his son Philip II of Spain as his successor, the princes, supported by the French King, rebelled against him. After a devastating defeat, Charles V had to retreat (1556). His son Philip II of Spain inherited the Spanish empire, his younger brother Ferdinand the Austrian lands.

The new Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564) made peace with the Lutherans. The Augsburg Peace of 1555 stated that the princes could choose the religion in their lands (in Latin “cuius regio, eius religio), in other words: the prince could freely decide to be either a Catholic or a Lutheran, and his decision was binding for his subjects, they had no freedom of religion. The Augsburg Peace also stipulated that bishops could convert, in that case, however, they had to give up their ecclesiastical territories. Whereas the Catholic and the Lutheran confession were recognized, the Calvinist was not.

Calvinists and Anabaptists in the Rhineland

After the defeat of Charles V. and the Augsburg Peace, reformation in our region grew stronger again. However, now it was characterized by John Calvin’s teachings, not Luther’s. In many villages Calvinist parishes were founded, also in in Niederdollendorf and above all Oberkassel. But it was dangerous to confess to Calvinism, and these people could only meet secretly As mentioned above, the Augsburg Peace did not recognize the Calvinist confession. Moreover, since 1566 the Calvinist Netherlands fought for their independence from Spain, which was ruled by the Spanish line of the Habsburg dynasty, so there was no way that the Habsburg authorities in Germany would tolerate Calvinist parishes within the Empire, right at the border to the Netherlands.

Even more than Calvinism, Anabaptism as preached by Menno Simons had gained ground in the villages on the right bank of the Rhine. These Anabaptists were non-violent, even pacifistic, but nonetheless they were prosecuted. Since the Diet of Speyer of 1529, Anabaptists who did not recant could be executed on the spot, without legal proceedings. In the Rhineland, it was handled in a milder way, one tried to convert them and deported them if they refused, but also here arrests and executions occurred.

Witch Hunts

Another dark chapter of those days are the witch hunts throughout the Empire. In the territories of the Archbishops of Cologne and the Counts of Berg, hundreds of people were arrested for being witches or sorcerers, tortured and sentenced to death on a stake. One the courageous fighters again the witch trials was Dr. Johannes Weyer, the personal physician of Duke Wilhelm of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Protected by the Duke, Dr. Weyer accused the outrageous injustice and the cruelties of the witch trials in his books. Years later, the Jesuit priest Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld fought against the witch hunts. He had been father confessor to countless women and had accompanied them on their way to the stakes. And yet, he had no other way to help than to decry again and again the cruelties in his writings. All the time, he risked to be accused and burned himself.

War of Cologne (1583-1588)

Prince-Archbishop of Cologne Gebhard I Truchsess von Waldburg had converted to Calvinism and married the woman he loved, Agnes von Mansfeld. According to the Augsburg Peace, that was his right, but he had to give up his territories. Yet, he refused to, and that was not only against the law, but also a highly political issue. As Prince-Archbishop of Cologne, he was an Imperial Elector, and his now Calvinist vote could have led to a Protestant majority in the Electoral College. The Cologne cathedral chapter replaced him by Ernst of Bavaria of the Wittelsbach dynasty. Both sides took up arms. Gebhard was supported by troops from the Palatinate, the cathedral chapter by troops from Bavaria and Spain. Also the Lord of the Drachenfels sided with him. During the next years violent fights occurred. In vain Gebhard entrenched on the Godesburg Castle close to Bonn, it was besieged and in 1583 conquered and blown up. The same year Königswinter was occupied and pillaged until it was finally rescued by Bavarian troops. Gebhard had to flee. Supported by Dutch troops, he took up the fight once again and conquered Bonn in 1587. But when the Dutch withdraw their troops in 1588, he had to give up.

With Archbishop Ernst von Bayern, a series of Archbishops coming from the Bavarian Wittelsbach dynasty began (1583-1761). In the course of the War of Cologne, many medieval castles and villages had been destroyed, the Augsburg Peace, the peaceful side by side of confessions had been violated. Moreover, both sides had called foreign troops into the country. About 50 years later, it should become much worse in the Thirty Years War.

Early Modern Period
Early Modern Period | Lutherans, Calvinists, Anapabtists | Thirty Years’ War | Absolutism and wars of succession | Emigration to North America

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.