Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

C6. Emperor Lewis the Bavarian

Charles IV.—Wenceslaus—Rupertian Reformation—Encroachments of the Fehm-courts—Case of Nickel Weller and the town of Gorlitz—Of the City of Dantzig—Of Hans David and the Teutonic Knights—Other instances of the presumption of the Free-counts—Citation of the Emperor Frederic III.—Case of the Count of Teckenburg.

The history of the Fehm-gerichte, previous to the fifteenth century, offers but few events to detain attention. The Emperor Lewis the Bavarian appears to have exerted his authority on several occasions in granting privileges in Westphalia according, as it is expressly stated, to the Fehm-law. His successor, the luxurious Charles IV., acted with the same caprice respecting the Fehm-tribunals as he did in every thing else, granting privileges and revoking them just as it seemed to accord with his interest at the moment. This monarch attempted also to extend the Fehm-system beyond Westphalia, deeming it perhaps a good mean for bringing all Germany under the authority of his patrimonial kingdom of Bohemia. He therefore gave permission to the Bishop of Hildesheim to erect two Free-tribunals out of Westphalia. On the representations of the Archbishop of Cologne and the lords of Westphalia, however, he afterwards abolished them.

Wenceslaus, the son of Charles, acted with his usual folly in the case of the Fehm-tribunals; he is said, as he could keep nothing secret, to have blabbed their private sign, and he took on him to make frei-schoppen, contrary to the law, out of Westphalia. These schoppen of the emperor's making did not, however, meet with much respect from the genuine ones, as the answer given to the Emperor Rupert by the Westphalian tribunals evinces. On his asking how they acted with regard to such schoppen, their reply was, "We ask them at what court they were made schoppen. Should it appear that they were made schoppen at courts which had no right so to do, we hang them, in case of their being met in Westphalia, on the instant, without any mercy." Wenceslaus, little as he cared about Germany in general, occasionally employed the Fehm-courts for the furtherance of his plans, and, in the year 1389, he had Count Henry of Wernengerode tried and hanged for treason by Westphalian schoppen. The reign of Wenceslaus is particularly distinguished by its being the period in which the Archbishop of Cologne arrived at the important office of lieutenant of the emperor over all the Westphalian tribunals.

The reign of Rupert was, with respect to the Westphalian Fehm-courts, chiefly remarkable by the reformation of them named from him. This reformation, which is the earliest publicly-accredited source from which a knowledge of the Fehm-law can be derived, was made in the year 1404. It is a collection of decisions by which the rights and privileges of a king of the Romans are ascertained with respect to these tribunals.

The Rupertian reformation, and the establishment of the office of lieutenant in the person of the Archbishop of Cologne, which was completed by either Rupert or his successor Sigismund, form together an epoch in the history of the Fehm-gerichte. Hitherto Westphalia alone was the scene of their operations, and their authority was of evident advantage to the empire. Their power had now attained its zenith; confidence in their strength led them to abuse it; and, during the century which elapsed between the Rupertian reformation and the establishment of the Perpetual Public Peace and the Imperial Chamber by the Emperor Maximilian, we shall have to contemplate chiefly their abuses and assumptions.

The right of citation was what was chiefly abused by the Free-courts. Now that they were so formally acknowledged to act under the imperial authority, they began to regard Westphalia as too narrow a theatre for the display of their activity and their power. As imperial commissioners, they maintained that their jurisdiction extended to every place which acknowledged that of the emperor's, and there was hardly a corner of Germany free from the visits of their messengers; nay, even beyond the limits of the empire men trembled at their citations.

It was chiefly the towns which were harassed by these citations, which were frequently issued at the instance of persons whom they had punished or expelled for their misdeeds. Their power and consequence did not protect even the greatest: we find, during the fifteenth century, some of the principal cities of the empire summoned before the tribunals of Westphalian counts. Thus in the records of those times we read of citations served on Bremen, Lubeck, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Erfurt, Gorlitz, and Dantzig. Even Prussia and Livonia, then belonging to the order of the Teutonic knights, were annoyed by their interference.

One of the most remarkable cases which this period presents is that of the uneasiness caused to the town of Gorlitz by means of one of its inhabitants named Nickel Weller. This man, who was a Westphalian schoppe, was accused of having disinterred an unchristened child, and of having made a candle of the bone of its arm, which he had filled with the wax of an Easter-taper and with incense, and of having employed it in a barn in presence of his mother, his wife, and an old peasant, for magical purposes. As he could not deny the fact, he was, according to the law of those times, liable to be hanged; but the high-bailiff of Stein, and some other persons of consequence, interfering in his favour, the magistrates contented themselves with expelling him from the town and confiscating his goods. As it afterwards proved, they would have acted more wisely had they condemned him to perpetual imprisonment.

Weller immediately repaired to Bresslau, and besought the council, the Bishop of Waradein, and the imperial chancellor, to advocate his cause. They acceded to his desire; but the magistrates of Gorlitz perfectly justified their conduct. Weller, still indisposed to rest, applied to the pope, Innocent VIII., asserting that he could not to any purpose bring an accusation against the council of Gorlitz within the town of the diocese of Meissen, and that he had no chance of justice there. The pope forthwith named John de' Medici and Dr. Nicholas Tauchen of Bresslau spiritual commissioners in this affair, and these desired the high-bailiff of Stein to do his best that Weller should recover his rights within the space of a month, on his taking his oath to the truth of his statements, otherwise they should be obliged themselves to take measures for that purpose.

From some unassigned cause, however, nothing came of this, and Weller once more addressed himself to the pope, with whom the Bishop of Ostia became his advocate. He was re-admitted into the bosom of the Church; but the decree of the magistracy of Gorlitz still remained in force, and the new commissioners appointed by the pope even confirmed it.

Finding that he had nothing to expect from papal interference, Weller had at last recourse to the Fehm-tribunals, and on the 3d May, 1490, John of Hulschede, count of the tribunal at Brackel, cited the burgomasters, council, and all the lay inhabitants of Gorlitz above the age of eighteen years, before his tribunal. This summons was served in rather a remarkable manner, for it was found fastened to a twig on a hedge, on a farm belonging to a man named Wenzel Emmerich, a little distance from the town.

As by the Golden Bull of the Emperor Charles IV., and moreover by a special privilege granted by Sigismund, Gorlitz was exempted from all foreign jurisdiction, the magistracy informed Vladislaus, King of Bohemia, of this citation, and implored his mediation. The Bohemian monarch accordingly addressed himself to the tribunal at Brackel, but George Hackenberg, who was at that time the free-count of that court, Hulschede being dead, did not even deign to give him an answer.

Meanwhile the appointed period had elapsed without the people of Gorlitz having appeared to the summons, and Weller, charging them with disobedience and contempt of court, prayed that they might be condemned in all the costs and penalties thereby incurred, and that he might be himself permitted to proceed with his complaint. To this end he estimated the losses and injuries which he had sustained at 500 Rhenish florins, and made a declaration to that effect on oath, with two joint-swearers. He was accordingly authorised by the court to indemnify himself in any manner he could at the expense of the people of Gorlitz. It was farther added that, if any one should impede Weller in the prosecution of his rights, that person should ipso facto fall under the heavy displeasure of the empire and the pains and penalties of the tribunal at Brackel, and be moreover obliged to pay all the costs of the accuser.

On the 16th August of the same year, the count set a new peremptory term for the people of Gorlitz, assuring them that, in case of disobedience, "he should be obliged, though greatly against his inclination, to pass the heaviest and most rigorous sentence on their persons, their lives, and their honour." The citation was this time found on the floor of the convent church. The council in consternation applied to the Archbishop of Cologne and to the free-count himself, to be relieved from this condition, but in vain; the count did not condescend to take any notice of their application, and when they did not appear at the set time, declared the town of Gorlitz outlawed for contumacy.

It appears that Weller had, for some cause or other, brought an accusation against the city of Bresslau also; for in the published decree of outlawry against Gorlitz it was included. By this act it was prohibited to every person, under penalty of similar outlawry, to harbour any inhabitant of either of these towns; to eat or drink, or hold any intercourse with them, till they had reconciled themselves to the Fehm-tribunals, and given satisfaction to the complainant. Weller himself stuck up a copy of this decree on a market-day at Leipzig; but it was instantly torn down by some of the people of Gorlitz who happened to be there.

The two towns of Gorlitz and Bresslau held a consultation at Liegnitz, to devise what measures it were best to adopt in order to relieve themselves from this system of persecution. They resolved that they would jointly and separately defend themselves and their proceedings by a public declaration, which should be posted up in Gorlitz, Bresslau, Leipzig, and other places. They also resolved to lay their griefs before the Diet at Prague, and pray for its intercession with the Archbishop of Cologne and the Landgraf of Hessen. They accordingly did so, and the Diet assented to their desire; but their good offices were of no avail, and the answer of the landgraf clearly showed, either that he had no authority over his count, or that he was secretly pleased with what he had done.

The indefatigable Weller now endeavoured to seize some of the people of Bresslau and Gorlitz, in Hein and other places in Meissen. But they frustrated his plans by obtaining a promise of protection and safe-conduct from the Duke George. Weller, however, did not desist, and when Duke Albert came from the Netherlands to Meissen, he sought and obtained his protection. But here again he was foiled; for, when the high-bailiff and council of Gorlitz had informed that prince of the real state of the case, he withdrew his countenance from him. Wearied out by this ceaseless teasing, the towns applied, through the king of Bohemia, to the Emperor Frederic III. for a mandate to all the subjects of the empire, and an inhibition to the tribunal at Brackel and all the free-counts and schoppen. These, when obtained, they took care to have secretly served on the council of Dortmund and the free-count of Brackel. By these means they appear to have put an end to their annoyances for the remainder of Weller's life. But, in the year 1502, his son and his son-in-law revived his claims on Gorlitz. Count Ernest of Hohenstein interceded for them; but the council adhered firmly to their previous resolution, and declared that it was only to their own or to higher tribunals that they must look for relief. The matter then lay over for ten years, when it was again stirred by one Guy of Taubenheim, and was eventually settled by an amicable arrangement.

As we have said, the Fehm-tribunals extended their claims of jurisdiction even to the Baltic. We find that a citizen of the town of Dantzig, named Hans Holloger, who was a free schoppe, was cited to appear before the tribunal of Elleringhausen, under the hawthorn, "because he had spoken what he ought not to have spoken about the Secret Tribunal." This might seem just enough, as he belonged to the society; but the town-council were commanded, under a penalty of fifty pounds of fine gold, to cast the accused into prison till he had given security for standing his trial.

Even the powerful order of the Teutonic Knights, who were the masters of Prussia and Livonia, did not escape being annoyed by the Fehm-tribunals. How little their power availed against that formidable jurisdiction is evinced by the answer made by the Grand Master to the towns which sued to him for protection. "Beloved liegemen! you have besought us to protect you therefrom; we would cheerfully do it knew we but ways and means thereto." And when he wrote to Mangolt, the count of the tribunal at Freyenhagen, warning him against summoning before him the subjects of the order, the latter haughtily replied, "You have your rights from the empire, and I have power to judge over all who hold of the empire."

The following very curious case occurred in the first half of the fifteenth century:—

A shopkeeper at Liebstadt died very much indebted to the two officers of the Teutonic order, whose business it was to keep the small towns in Prussia supplied with mercantile goods, and they accordingly seized on the effects which he had left behind him. These, however, were not sufficient to satisfy even the demands of one of them, much less of both, and they had made up their minds to rest content with the loss, when, to their surprise, Hans David, the son of the deceased, came forward with an account against the order of such amount, that, as it was observed, if all the houses in the town were sold, and all the townsmen taxed to the utmost, the produce would not discharge the one-half of it. He however produced a document purporting to be a bond of the order. This instrument bore all the marks of falsification; it was full of erasures and insertions; among the witnesses to it, some were set down as priors who were only simple brethren of the order; there were the names of others who had never seen it; it was asserted to have been attested and verified by the tribunal at Passnar, but in the records of that court there were not the slightest traces of it; the seal of the Grand Master, which was appended to every document of any importance, was wanting. Of course payment was resisted, but Hans David was told to pursue his claim, if he pleased, before the emperor and the pope, whom the order recognised as their superiors.

As Hans David was under the protection of the king of Poland, he had recourse to that prince; but he declined interfering any farther than to apply for a safe-conduct for him that he might apply for a new inquiry. The Grand Master, on application being made to him, swore on his honour that he owed to the complainant nothing, and that the bond was a forgery; he moreover promised to answer the charge in any fit place that the complainant might select; nay, even in Prussia, and he granted him a safe-conduct as before.

It is not known what course Hans David now adopted; but nine years afterwards (1441) we find him addressing himself to the Free-tribunal at Freyenhagen, whose count, the notorious Mangolt, forthwith issued his citations, "because, as he expressed himself, the order judges with the sword and gentle murder and burning." The Grand Master, indignant at this piece of arrogance, immediately brought the matter before the assembly of the free-counts at Coblentz, who declared the proceedings null, and Mangolt liable to punishment, as the knights were spiritual persons. He moreover applied to the emperor, who, to gratify him, issued a mandate, addressed to all princes of the empire, declaring the act of Mangolt to be a piece of iniquity, and null and void.

Hans David was now cast into prison at Cologne, and, notwithstanding a prohibition of the Free-tribunal, was detained there for two years. Existing documents attest (though the fact is inexplicable) that the emperor directed the Archbishop of Cologne and the Margraf of Baden to examine anew into the affair, and to send the acts into the imperial chancery, and, finally, to set the complainant free on his oath, or on his giving bail to appear at Nuremberg. As this proceeding can only be ascribed to the influence of the Secret Tribunals, bent on annoying the order, it serves to show what their power and consequence must have been at that time.

Two years afterwards it was clearly proved at Vienna that the bond had been forged, at the desire of Hans David, by a scholar of Elbingen, named Rothofe. As the case against the former was now so plain, it might be supposed that he would be punished at once. Instead of that, the emperor referred the parties to the pope, as Hans David had struck a prior of the order, and this last was not content with the satisfaction accorded by the emperor.

The cause of the order was triumphant in Rome also, yet still Hans David found means to keep off the execution of the sentence already passed on him at Vienna. It was not till after the death of the then Grand Master that final judgment was formally delivered by Cardinal Jossi, and Hans David, his comrade Paul Frankleuen, and the Count Mangolt, were condemned to perpetual silence, and to payment of the sum of 6,000 Rhenish florins to the order, and, in case of disobedience, they were declared to be outlawed. All this, however, did not yet avail, and two years afterwards Jossi was obliged to apply to the emperor for the aid of the temporal arm for the execution of the sentence. The chaplain of the order at Vienna also found that Hans David had still the art to deceive many and gain them over to his cause, and he accordingly took care to have the whole account of his conduct posted up on the church-doors.

Still the unwearied Hans David did not rest. He now went to the Free-tribunal at Waldeck, and had the art to deceive the count by his false representations. He assured him that the order had offered him no less than 15,000 florins and an annuity, if he would let his action drop; that they would have been extremely well content if he had escaped out of prison at Cologne, but that he preferred justice and truth to liberty. The order however succeeded here again in detecting and exposing his arts, and the count honestly confessed that he had been deceived by him. He cast him off forthwith, and Hans David, ceasing to annoy the order, devoted himself to astrology and conjuring for the rest of his days.

He had, however, caused the order abundance of uneasiness and expense. Existing documents prove that this affair cost them no less than upwards of 1580 ducats, and 7000 florins, which must be in a great measure ascribed to the secret machinations of the Free-tribunals, anxious to depress the Teutonic Knights, who stood in their way.

In 1410 the Wild and Rhein Graf was summoned before the tribunal at Nordernau, and, in 1454, the Duke of Saxony before that at Limburg. The Elector-Palatine found it difficult, in 1448, to defend himself against a sentence passed on him by one of the Fehm-courts. Duke Henry of Bavaria found it necessary, on the following occasion, actually to become a frei-schoppe in order to save himself. One Gaspar, of Torringen, had accused him before the tribunal of Waldeck of "having taken from him his hereditary office of Chief Huntsman; of having seized and beaten his huntsmen and servants, taken his hounds, battered down his castle of Torringen, and taken from his wife her property and jewels, in despite of God, honour, and ancient right." The free-count forthwith cited the duke, who applied to the emperor Sigismund, and procured an inhibition to the count. The duke found it necessary, notwithstanding, to appear before the court; but he adopted the expedient of getting himself made a frei-schoppe, and then, probably in consequence of his rank and influence, procured a sentence to be passed in accordance with his wishes. Gaspar, who was probably an injured man, appealed to the emperor, who referred the matter to the Archbishop of Cologne, and we are not informed how it ended.

But the audacity of the free-counts went so far as even to cite the head of the empire himself before their tribunals. The imperial chancery having, for just and good cause, declared several free-counts and their Tribunal-lord, Walrabe of Waldeck, to be outlawed, three free-counts had the hardihood, in 1470, to cite the emperor Frederic III., with his chancellor, the Bishop of Passau, and the assessors of the chancery-court, to appear before the free-tribunal between the gates of Wunnenberg in the diocese of Paderborn, "there to defend his person and highest honour under penalty of being held to be a disobedient emperor;" and on his not appearing, they had the impudence to cite him again, declaring that, if he did not appear, justice should take its course. Feeble, however, as was the character of the emperor, he did not give way to such assumptions.

Even robbery and spoliation could find a defence with the Fehm-courts. Towards the end of the thirteenth century a count of Teckenburg plundered and ravaged the diocese of Munster. The bishop assembled his own people and called on his allies to aid him, and they took two castles belonging to the count and pushed him to extremity. To extricate himself he accused the bishop, and all those who were with him, before his Fehm-court, and though there were among them the Bishop of Paderborn, three counts, and several knights, the free-count had the boldness to cite them all to appear and defend their honour. The affair was eventually amicably arranged and the citation recalled.

These instances may suffice to show how far the Fehm-tribunals had departed from the original object of their institution, and how corrupt and iniquitous they were become.