Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

C3. Wullenweber

Among the various disintegrating influences at work upon the League we have already named the Reformation. The new doctrines were destined at first to bring little blessing to the land in which they took their birth, and more especially to the Hansa was the purer creed to prove a source of dissension, resulting in eventual dissolution. Among other causes this was due to the fact that the cities did not all or at the same time embrace Protestantism. Thus a schism arose in their very midst: the Protestant cities eyeing the Catholic with distrust, and vice versa. Moreover, these changes of view and system led to great disunion in the various towns themselves, often temporarily weakening the authority of the municipality and causing the city to be too much pre-occupied to attend to the common affairs and the welfare of the entire League. The movement also took different forms in different centres. In some it came about quite easily, and found the ground all ready prepared; in others, it entered with strife and bloodshed, or with fanatical excesses and absurdities, as for example in Bremen, and Munster, where the over-excited sect of the Anabaptists held sway.

It was especially in the North, that the trade in indulgences, consequent on a Papal need for ready money, found the most rigid opponents. The clear-headed burghers resented this demand as an insolent defiance of their common sense, and many who had already been half unconsciously influenced by the stream of tendency towards a reformed faith, manifested in the persons of Wickliffe and Huss, felt that this outrageous and unblushing traffic was too much for their credulity. The travelling merchants bought Luther's pamphlets, and carried them to their various homes. The wandering apprentices learnt the stirring psalms of the "Wittenberg nightingale." A new spiritual day was dawning, above all for the lower classes, who, ignorant of Latin, the language of the Catholic creed, were unable to follow or comprehend the services of the church they attended.

It was in consequence of this awakening, and the wider and nobler mode of thinking, and the educating force which it implied, that hand-in-hand with the religious movement there became manifest also a political stirring. The character of this was democratic, and it is not hard to understand why it was so. The people who had groaned under the oppression of the clergy and of the aristocracy, who almost invariably were their allies, began to assert their rights. They could now read the Scriptures in the vulgar tongue, and thence could learn that the blind submission demanded by the priests was by no means an integral part of Christianity. They remembered how the cities had been founded on democratic principles; they drew to light old privileges and charters; and by their memory and their ardour they made things far from comfortable for the burgomasters and patricians who held the government of the towns. Especially was their power felt by the arrogant and dissolute clergy, whose property they confiscated and devoted to public purposes, and whose churches and monasteries they converted into almshouses and schools.

It is necessary to realize the absolute moral corruption of the priests, monks, and nuns, in order to comprehend the anger of the populace, and to excuse the excesses into which they were led by their righteous zeal. Nor must it be forgotten that the people had groaned under the Vehmic Tribunal, which persecuted heretics, and that they had beheld Christians burn their fellow-Christians for the glory of God.

Already, early in the century, Dr. Johann Bugenhagen had been elected Bishop of the Lutheran Hanseatic cities, and their need for such an office gives us an indication of their numbers and importance. Bugenhagen was a man specially suited to work out the reform of doctrines and to set in order church affairs, and this work he performed for the whole of Northern Germany and Denmark. The new movement gathered strength. It advanced like a mighty ocean with resistless power. Only Lubeck, of all the northern cities, remained untouched by the storms beating around it. True to its stubbornly conservative character it continued longer than the rest faithful to the Roman hierarchy. But even Lubeck had to yield. The pressure to which it gave way came from the people. For some time past these had craved teachers of "the purer word" as the new creed was at first called. At first the demands were refused on imperial authority, but after a while concessions were made. It was needful to conciliate the inhabitants, for the funds of the city were low, thanks to the wars for Frederick and Gustavus, and it was foreseen that new taxes would be submitted to with a bad grace. Indeed, when in 1529 the rulers appealed to the guilds to support them in imposing new taxes they were answered by a delegation of forty-eight persons who replied to the municipal demands in bold terms, of which the upshot was that they would treat of "no money questions until the municipality should permit the introduction of the evangelical teaching" and the sacrament be administered in both forms. This language was unmistakably clear, and the city rulers seeing the townspeople were in earnest, yielded to all their demands. Thus in 1531 Lubeck openly acknowledged the Lutheran creed. The democracy had spoken and triumphed. They had made their power felt; they were conscious of their success, and they did not mean easily to abandon their newly acquired position of importance. The leader and spokesman of this demonstration was Jurgen Wullenweber, the man whose ambition and energy were to give to the Hansa yet one more proud moment of triumph; one more, and the last.

The origin and the life of Jurgen Wullenweber are to this day wrapped in some mystery. It suited the various party factions to represent him respectively as an idol and a scoundrel. Even the records that survive concerning him in Lubeck are few. But modern research has unearthed much, and proved incontestably that Wullenweber, even if personally ambitious, was a true and disinterested patriot. Time has thrown round his figure a sort of mystical halo. He has been made the hero of many German romances, and the protagonist of various German plays.

Of his family little is known except that they came from Hamburg, and were no doubt at first wool weavers, as the name implies. Jurgen's name does not appear in any Lubeck register until the year 1530, when he was chosen a member of the Burgher Committee. He is there described as a merchant.

This man had been the chosen spokesman of the democratic party on the occasion when they defied the city rulers. Soon after he was elected into the municipal council, and it was not long before it was generally felt that new blood stirred within that body. In 1533 King Frederick of Denmark died. During the interregnum that followed the Danes entered into a defensive alliance with the Swedes against their common oppressors, the Hansa. The Scandinavian nations wished to emancipate themselves from the League's tutelage. Wullenweber at a glance recognized the full gravity of the situation. He thought now or never the time had come to reassert, if need be by force of arms, the Hansa's might; now or never was the moment to punish for their ingratitude and faithlessness the two kings Lubeck had created. He called together a council, meeting in the guildhall, March 16, 1533, and with eloquent, ardent words, he laid before the assembly the whole political situation, its gravity, and its possibilities. He showed how the entire Hanseatic trade was endangered by the commerce of the Netherlands in the Baltic. He urged the bold scheme that Lubeck should take forcible possession of the Sound, and thus hold in its own hands the key to that sea.

It was a scheme which had often crossed the minds of the Lubeck councillors, but which since the days of Waldemar Atterdag they had never tried to carry into effect, recognizing probably that the might of the League was not great enough to retain such a point of vantage, even if their physical force sufficed to gain it.

Wullenweber's eloquence and self-confidence, however, carried the day. The next thing was to consider the matter of funds. Jurgen reminded his hearers of the silver and gold ornaments and church decoration confiscated by the State in consequence of the Reformation. These he said could be melted down. As before, he was listened to and obeyed. He spared nothing in his zeal, even the colossal chandelier of St. Mary's Church had to go into the melting pot to make cannons. So much for the funds. It was now needful to find the men. This was no arduous task. Lubeck was a favourite resort for the mercenaries who in those times roamed the world in search of adventure and pay. Among these men were Max Meyer, a native of Hamburg, destined to become the condottiere of the League in its last war.

The figure of Max Meyer is a most romantic one. His parents can never have credited what the fairies sang around the boy's cradle, that he would become a friend of the great king of England, Henry VIII., and have his portrait painted by the most eminent artist of his day, Holbein. He was born in the humblest circumstances, and brought up as a blacksmith. Two great iron conduits, the work of his hand, are shown in Hamburg to this day. He was a tall, strong, fine looking man, with lively eyes and large hands, and whoever beheld him at his smithy, swinging his large hammer upon the anvil, could not help fancying that he beheld some old Norse Viking, who was moulding his own sword, so bold and enterprising did he look. And, indeed, a desire for adventures stirred in his blood. He knew no rest beside his smithy fire. He felt he must go into the world. Already, as an apprentice, he had fought in some of the northern disturbances, had served as ensign under Christian II. Throwing aside his hammer, he once more ranged the world in search of danger and distinction. Coming to Lubeck, in the course of his travels, he was engaged by that city to lead the 800 men whom she was sending to the emperor as aid against the Turks. A year after he returned to his native city, glorious and victorious, rich in booty and honours. Hamburg received him as though he were a great and powerful lord, and he impressed all his friends and relations by his magnificence. When he rode away to return to Lubeck, dressed in a full cuirass, with nodding plumes upon his helmet, a local chronicler wrote that "he was so good to look upon, that, although he was a blacksmith, yet he was such a fine, clever fellow, he could pass anywhere for a nobleman." He left Hamburg in triumph, trumpeters heading the procession, in which there were forty men in full armour, and two great waggon-loads of booty. The foremost men of the city conducted him to the gates.

Arrived at Lubeck, Max Meyer entered it in the same proud manner in which he had left Hamburg, greatly impressing the townspeople by his wealth and splendour. Among those who saw his entry and beheld him with a favourable eye was the rich widow of the Burgomaster Lunte. She lost her heart entirely to the handsome blacksmith, and at last she married him, sorely against the wish and will of her family. Thus Max Meyer became a person of importance in Lubeck, thanks to his marriage and his wife's connections, and, consequently, he was thrown into close relations with Wullenweber. The latter was not slow to recognize that he was dealing with no common person, and that here might be the instrumental hand to aid his schemes. And, indeed, Max Meyer soon became Wullenweber's close ally.

It was while Lubeck was thus at war with the Netherlands that Max Meyer, as commander of the city's war-ships, approached the English coasts, hearing that some twenty-four Dutch merchant vessels were sailing in these waters. He hoped to capture them and to obtain rich booty. In this attempt, however, he failed; but he took, instead, some Spanish ships laden with English goods. This was a breach of the peace, since the Hansa was not at war with England; but, regardless of this act, Meyer, perhaps because in want of provisions, actually sailed into an English harbour and anchored his vessel. King Henry, who had heard of his presence, and knew him to be a Lubeck captain carrying on hostilities against the Netherlands, received him with great honour. The English king had his own private reasons for wishing to stand well with the Hansa. He knew they were Protestants, and that they were not too well disposed to the Emperor Charles, from whom he also had become estranged, now that he had grown weary of his Imperial Highness's aunt, the elderly Catherine of Aragon. As the Pope would not listen to the scruples of his tender conscience about having taken to wife his brother's widow, from whom he sought a divorce on that account—according to his own showing—he hoped, not wrongly, that the Protestants would take less stubborn and unscriptural views of the indissolubility of the marriage contract, and he therefore sought to conciliate all Protestant powers.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


But the England of those days, like the England of ours, was a law-abiding country, and three days after King Henry had received Meyer with great feasts and honours at Court, the royal guest was arrested as a pirate. It was pleaded that he ought to suffer the common penalty of piracy, that is to say, death. In these straits the merchants of the Steelyard came forward to aid their representative, offering to stand surety for him. They succeeded in averting the sentence of death by restoring the value of the goods seized; they could not succeed in relieving him from the imprisonment which his breach of international faith had incurred. Max Meyer had to go to prison, whence he was released at last only by the intervention of the municipality of Lubeck, though not until he had almost served his time.

Justice satisfied, Max Meyer returned to King Henry's Court, and was once more made a welcome guest. Whether he was empowered by the city to act as plenipotentiary, or whether, in the first instance, he acted on his own account, does not appear. But what is certain is that he made a number of proposals to King Henry, to which the latter lent a willing ear, that Meyer was knighted by his royal host, and received from him a golden chain in token of the honour in which he held him, and that Henry further promised him a yearly income of three hundred and a half golden crowns. The terms were that the English king should advance a considerable sum to Lubeck towards her war expenses—a sum which the city promised to refund and to double, out of the first profits derived from the conquered Danish kingdom.

Henry's object in this alliance was chiefly to harass and annoy his Catholic compeers, and to have a rich Protestant ally in the complications that were thickening round him. There was not much result from the friendship on either side; but for the moment, the news that the King of England was their friend and supporter, gave renewed courage to the democratic party in Lubeck. It also gave them ready cash wherewith to carry on the war with the Netherlands and their friends the Danes. For war it must be. This Wullenweber openly advocated, after various vain attempts to induce the Danish king to grant the Hansa's requests. Wullenweber himself had on two occasions been sent by Lubeck as their ambassador to Copenhagen, and had returned home furious at the want of success that met his negotiations. Why should not the Hansa, he pleaded, once more play the role of king-maker? Gustavus Vasa had proved a failure and a disappointment to the League, had broken every promise he had made to them. Let a new king be put in his place. Those who had helped the Swedish king into power with a hundred marks, should help him out of power with five hundred marks, he boasted; adding that before the next carnival he should make a masquerade before King Gustavus that he would not despise. For Denmark too he had his plan; and this was no other than to reinstate Christian II., once the enemy of the League. Christian had always opposed the aristocracy and the clergy, and had proclaimed himself the friend of the people. Reinstated by the Hansa, he would owe them gratitude, so reckoned Wullenweber, and being popular with the lower classes in Denmark the League might reckon upon their support. To aid him in this enterprise the dictator turned to the Count of Oldenburg, a relation of the dethroned king, an intrepid and intelligent Lutheran known as the Alcibiades of the North.

Christopher of Oldenburg, at that time thirty years of age, handsome in face and stature, was one of those princelings of Germany, of which the race is not quite extinct, whose title was their sole fortune and who, in former days, were willing to sell their services to any king who needed their aid, and in more modern times are utilized to marry the redundant princesses of royal parentage, for whom no match can be found among the reduced number of reigning houses. These bold condottieri, whether in search of adventure, of booty, or of a marriage portion and ease, had little but their wits to rely upon. Christopher of Oldenburg, for example, possessed as his whole patrimony an old convent. He had attracted around him, however, a band of devoted troops, free lances, willing to follow wherever he led: men without fatherland, faith, or ideal, the scum of all lands, whose desire was bloodshed and booty, and whose sole religion was obedience to their chosen captain. Christopher of Oldenburg was not an ordinary chief. With the military courage of a condottiere he combined a bright intellect and a mind of real elevation. He was well educated and well read. A copy of Homer accompanied him in all his adventures; his passionate desire was to be a hero of romance. This was the kind of instrument Wullenweber required; the man who could realize, appreciate, and help to carry out his bold designs. And these were, in a word, to put the Hansa in possession of the Sound. Possessing this advantage, with two obedient monarchs upon the respective thrones of Denmark and Sweden, and enjoining the moral and material support of the English king, the League would once more be as in the days of its greatest glory.

So reasoned Wullenweber, and not without reason. But he was too ambitious, or, at any rate, too bold. He had not reckoned with the apathy and the economic egotism that dictated the policy of the sister towns. He was to play a dangerous game. He staked his all and he lost.

Wullenweber's original plan was to attack Denmark, while carrying on at the same time the war with the Netherlands. This proposal, which besides being audacious, meant a great outlay of money, alarmed the other cities, and, above all, the town of Hamburg. Owing to her endeavours, a brilliant congress was assembled within her walls during the month of March, 1534, when it was proposed to examine carefully the various points of grievance at issue between the Hansa and her opponents. There were present delegates from the various Baltic cities, imperial councillors, Netherland grandees, and Danish nobles. But none of them exceeded in outward splendour the representatives of Lubeck, Jurgen Wullenweber and Max Meyer, as they rode into the city of Hamburg, dressed in full armour preceded by the chief of Lubeck's militia, by trumpeters and drummers, and followed by sixty armed riders. The timid Hamburgers glanced at all this military display with some terror, feeling assured that such a proud bearing meant that the town that sent forth these men would not easily yield its claims. Already, before the first assembly of the delegates, Wullenweber had been regarded with an evil eye by many of the other Hanseatic envoys. They could not grasp the ultimate ends he had in view for the benefit of the League. They thought he was inciting to needless expense and disturbance. They did not understand, still less did they sympathize with, the democratic wave which had swept over Lubeck, and which had brought two such men as Wullenweber and Max Meyer to the front. Local chroniclers, speaking of this meeting of plenipotentiaries, call the Hamburgers "the peace loving," and accuse the Lubeckers of being "the instigators of the woful wars."

On March 2, 1534, the Congress was opened by the Burgomaster of Hamburg in the grand council chamber of the local guildhall, an historical room, unfortunately destroyed in the great fire that devastated Hamburg in 1842. In an eloquent speech the local magnate described the miseries entailed by the war in which the Lubeckers had engaged against the Dutch, and urged that peace should be concluded in the interest of the common Hanseatic merchants. The burgomaster was followed by an imperial councillor, who said the same things in yet stronger terms. Wullenweber was visibly angered. His anger was increased when the Dutch envoy rose to his feet and claimed that it should be laid down as a principle "that the sea and all other waters should be free to the shipping of whosoever listed," adding that "if the Lubeckers suffered damage in consequence, they should find comfort in God's will and in the mutability of all earthly things."

This was too much for Wullenweber's temper to bear. He declared with violence that if the speeches continued in this tone and spirit he and his colleagues should leave the assembly, and this, in fact, they shortly afterwards did. Not only did he leave the assembly, but the city also, after he found that all the demands of Lubeck fell on deaf ears. But before he left he made a powerful speech in the guildhall, wherein he asserted and maintained that all he had done had been done solely for the general benefit of the League. He even accused the other Hanseatic delegates of being Dutch in sympathy, "a thing," he added, "which they and the Dutch would repent of as long as he lived."

He was asked to explain his projects. He sketched a plan almost identical in spirit with the Navigation Act of Cromwell; it might indeed almost be regarded as its prototype. When taunted regarding the egotism of this proposal, when told that the sole purpose that inspired it was to prevent the vessels of other powers from deriving a profit out of carriage of goods, Wullenweber retorted as angrily as Cromwell might have done, and with the same contempt for the petty spirits that could see no higher object, nor any larger or wider aims than purely personal and financial ones. To Wullenweber's mind there was at stake not only vulgar profit, but the control and supervision of the Baltic trade, the maintenance of the Hanseatic colonies, indeed of all commercial navigation; in a word, of everything that had made the Hansa what it was.

The colonial policy pursued by the Hansa, which had been one of its sources of strength, became a cause of weakness, and ultimately led to its fall. It was based in all essentials upon the same principles as those pursued later by other nations with regard to their foreign non-European colonies, and which led in time to the loss of these same colonies. The chief points were these: that the direct intercourse and traffic with the Eastern settlements and their commercial domain were reserved exclusively to Hanseatic vessels, and that transport by land was forbidden, because in that case it was not so easy to keep watch upon business, and to be assured that no Hanseatic laws were transgressed. Foreign flags were excluded from all Eastern ports and non-Hanseatic merchants not admitted to their markets. All traffic from the Eastern cities to non-Hanseatic places, and all traffic with these places were to go by way of Lubeck. This is the sum of the Lubeck Staple Act, which had a little sunk into abeyance during the late disorders and which Wullenweber desired to see fully reinforced. Again, to refer to England's dictator, with whom Wullenweber had some points of resemblance, this Lubeck staple was neither more nor less than the British staple, prescribed by Cromwell's Navigation Act, when it excluded foreign flags from American harbours, and interdicted the Americans from sending ships to any other European harbour than those of the mother-land. Two hundred years separated these two Tribunes of the People from each other, and yet, in some respects, their ideals and ideas were identical. But to return to the course of our narrative, which has been interrupted in order to make clearer the aims the Lubeck burgomaster had in view.

Wullenweber grew daily more angered at the tone adopted in the Congress, not only from his opponents, but by those from whom he had a right to look for support.

On March 12th, accompanied by Max Meyer, and the same military train with which he had entered, he left Hamburg, shaking the dust of the city off his feet in anger. He was soon followed by the delegates of the other Baltic cities. The congress had come to an untimely end, and nothing had been settled.

Wullenweber's object in returning so precipitately was twofold. He desired to know the wishes of the city under the changed circumstances, and he wished to complain of the colleagues who had failed to support him. This precipitous return greatly alarmed the citizens, all the more because during Wullenweber's absence the aristocratic party had tried to lodge various complaints against the absent burgomaster, and to stir up the people to revolt and discontent. They had even ventured to insinuate that he was guilty of "stealing and treason." Indeed, the tumult in the city was so great and seemed so threatening, that many timid spirits began to think that discretion was the better part of valour, and that it would be well to absent themselves awhile.

Into this state of affairs Wullenweber, by his unexpected return, dropped like a bombshell. He saw that energetic steps were needful here. He did not hesitate for a moment to take them. A meeting of the Forty-six was held, who were charged to invite the burghers to a general assembly in St. Mary's Church. More than a thousand persons replied to the summons. Wullenweber mounted the pulpit. In ardent words he expressed his patriotic intentions, and related in detail the reasons for his abrupt departure from Hamburg. He also complained most bitterly of the conduct of those who should have supported him. Next day he addressed a similar meeting in the guildhall, and spoke, if possible, in stronger terms, openly accusing his opponents of envy, and saying he was well aware that some among them even intended to attack him at night in his house, and to make him prisoner.

The upshot of his two speeches was that the democratic party once more gained the upper hand; that it was agreed that Wullenweber should act entirely according to his own discretion in the matter with the Netherlanders; that three of the municipal councillors inimical to him should be removed from their place; and that various burghers, whom he designated as "of Swedish or Netherlandish sympathy," should either be banished or imprisoned.

With his power thus increased, Wullenweber returned to Hamburg, and the congress was reopened. Since, however, he could gain no support from the other Hanseatic cities for his policy of continuing the war with the Netherlands, he at last consented to accept a truce of four years; a truce which he recognized would leave his hands free for the execution of his other plans.

Nor did he hesitate for a moment to put them into action. Riders and foot messengers were engaged in all directions; the "peace ships" were put into war condition; emissaries were sent to the sister towns to explain fully the purpose of the new attack upon the Scandinavian North, and to ask what assistance they proposed to render in money, ships, and men.

Wullenweber's plan was really a stroke of genius, and by no means so foolhardy or foolish as his enemies have since tried to prove it. It was: to form around the whole Baltic basin a sort of German confederation, and had it succeeded, or rather had it not been impeded by the petty vacillating policy of the other cities, it would have marked a re-birth of the Hansa, and there would have been no power in the North that could have opposed it.

In May, 1534, hostilities began with Denmark, and Sweden was also threatened with armed intervention, in case the broken promises to the Hansa were still left unfulfilled. To the people, the counter promise was made that they should have nothing to fear from the Hansa's armies, "if they did not second the arrogance of their king."

To this Gustavus replied by demanding help from his brother rulers, saying "that it was intolerable that the Lubeckers should put up for auction the three good old northern realms, just as if they were their market wares."

In a short time the whole North was in flames. At first extraordinary success crowned the attacks of the Hansa's fleet and armies, and by Midsummer, 1534, almost the entire Danish kingdom was in the hands of the Lubeckers. Then fortune somewhat turned, and Lubeck had to see an army surround its very walls, much to the consternation of the inmates. This danger was however happily averted, thanks to clever negotiations and force of arms; but meanwhile things had grown yet more complicated and intricate in the Scandinavian question. Party faction and religious jealousies prevented corporate action. There was a moment when things looked so black that even Wullenweber was daunted, and the confession escaped him that "if he were not in the middle of all this muddle, he should take good care to keep outside it."

In the midst of these difficulties dawned the year 1535, one of the most fatal in the life of the German States; a year destined to unravel and settle for ever the northern confusions.

Such a spectacle as the Baltic presented at this period it had not shown for many a long day. In the Sound, in all the Danish seas, in all the narrow waterways that separated the islands from one another, were seen waving from the tall masts of the Hanseatic "peace ships," the flag of the League, and in the harbours of Lubeck, Rostock, and Stralsund, more ships were put upon a war footing. There was likewise seen the white-and-black banner of the Prussian flotilla, sent to aid the imprisoned Danish king, while the flags of Denmark and Sweden fluttered from their respective vessels.

Nor was the spectacle on land less animated than that on the sea. Troops, mercenaries of every land and language crowded the shore of the mainland. It was evident that the encounter would be severe, the resistance great. The first check came to the Hansa in the shape of the capture of Max Meyer, owing to the false information given to him by the Danish commandant of Scania. Christian III. was proclaimed king of Denmark, and Gustavus Vasa lent the new king his most active aid. Things did not look well for the League, but Wullenweber, though he grew serious and thoughtful as he learnt the news, was not discouraged. He continued to confide "in divine help."

A vast number of intrigues were now set on foot, whose purpose was to alienate or conciliate, as the case might be, the various Catholic and Protestant kings and princes; thus giving to the entire quarrel a party character. Lubeck counted on the assistance of Henry of England, and offered the king in return for substantial subsidies the entire kingdom of Denmark as his booty.

Meanwhile Max Meyer was fretting at his enforced imprisonment and absence from the scene of action. In March, by means of a subtle, but not specially honest, subterfuge, he managed to escape from the castle that held him, and thanks to his fertility of resource, and to his popularity, he soon found himself surrounded by quite a little army, and resolved to carry on the war in his own manner, and according to his own ideas. It is said that he offered the throne of Denmark to Francis I. of France, an offer which that monarch refused. Nor did he forget his old friend, bluff King Hal of England, who, in his turn, seems not to have forgotten him. Though Henry nominally rejected the proposals made to him by Max Meyer, it is certain he continued to give him substantial and moral support, so that, owing to English help, Max Meyer was able to hold out in the seaboard castle of Vardberg, in which he had ensconced himself, until his tragic end. The gateway over its lintel, bore, till the time of its destruction, the arms of the Tudor, a delicate compliment from Max Meyer to Henry, implying that the castle was in very truth the king's.

The first great encounter of the armies took place by sea in the month of June. In number and excellence of ships the Hansa had the advantage. The Lubeckers were still the best shipbuilders of the northern world, and many of the Danish and Swedish vessels sent against them were nothing more than herring-boats and fishing smacks roughly put on a war footing. If victory depended on strength and numbers alone, it seemed assured to the Hansa. Unhappily, among the many secret methods employed by the aristocratic party to break the power of the democratic faction, there existed bribery and corruption of the ship captains. The usual Hanseatic concord was absent.

Indeed, herein is to be found in a great measure the explanation of the ill success of the Hansa. When Jurgen Wullenweber dreamed that he would revive the days and glories of Waldemar Atterdag he forgot that the burgomasters of those days when they set out for battle were followed by an army consisting of the burghers themselves, that, for example, in the struggle for Scania in 1368, no less than sixteen hundred citizens gave up their lives to gain a victory for the League. With the increase of wealth had grown up, as is usual, an increase of luxury and idleness. Citizens of rich Hanseatic towns contented themselves with keeping watch in turns at the city gates, with defending their own city walls, with interfering in street brawls and keeping order in the town. But when it came to active fighting, to going abroad to battle, they preferred to hire the mercenaries with which Germany was overrun, thanks to the disturbed state of the land arising out of the continual wars of Charles V. Hence arose the class known as Landsknechte; hence it came about that in those days German often fought against German, and that all true patriotic sentiments were extinguished. The rich Queen of the Hansa, Lubeck, had of course met with no difficulty in finding numbers willing to serve under her flag and to accept her pay, but these men, as is but too natural, did not fight with that enthusiasm and ardour which men display when the cause is their own. Jurgen Wullenweber was of the old Hanseatic type, but the mould that had formed him was broken. His contemporaries were not up to the level of his noble and patriotic ambition. Had he been ably seconded the whole history of Northern Germany might have been transformed.

As we have said, the fleets met in hostile encounter in the month of June. After some heavy fighting the heavens themselves interposed in the strife. A great storm arose, driving the vessels of the foes asunder. Two days later the decisive combat was fought on land. The place of encounter was Assens, on the island of Funen, a spot where human sacrifices used to be offered to the great Norse god Odin. This battle of Assens ended in the complete discomfiture of the burgher army, and there followed immediately afterwards another meeting by sea, when the Hansa had to suffer the shame of seeing some of its vessels flee before the enemy, while others capitulated in cowardly fashion.

The consequences of these battles made themselves felt instantly. What Wullenweber had said the previous year when he was yet the victor was now realized, "that it was easier to conquer Denmark than to keep it." For not only Funen, but Zealand and Scania fell off from the burgomaster's party after the defeat at Assens, and did homage to Christian III. as their king and ruler. Only Copenhagen, Malmoe, and a few small towns refused this allegiance, and still offered an armed resistance. But it was not to be of long duration.

Meanwhile the close of Wullenweber's proud career approached. It is characteristic of the whole course of German history, that the fall of Wullenweber, and the ultimate fall of the Hansa, were due not so much to external as to internal enemies. Petty jealousies, "particularism," to use their own phrase, that is to say, practising a church-steeple policy rather than a wide and liberal one, has ever been a danger to Germany. It defeated the efforts of Wullenweber, as it did those of the patriots of 1848, and of many more before and since.

In July the Hanseatic Diet was called together to consider the state of the League's affairs; and on this occasion a number of the cities, and chief among them the inland ones, found a much desired occasion to vent the wrath and envy which they had long nourished against Lubeck and its democratic dictator. A number of attacks, some of them of the most despicably petty character, were made against Wullenweber. The Lubeckers were told that they had permitted "irregular disorders," and that it was they who disturbed the general concord of the common Hansa. Most bitter of all were the charges launched by Cologne, the town that had long been jealous of the power of her northern sister. Forgetful of the whole course of Hanseatic history, she ventured to say that it would seem strange to the emperor and other princely potentates, that a town like Lubeck should meddle with such great matters as the deposition and installation of kings.

To this taunt Lubeck replied with dignity, pointing out that she had no wish either to change the faith of the kings or to murder them (as Cologne had previously suggested), but that according to treaty she had the right to act as she had done, and that she had acted, not for the sake of exhibiting her own power, but because of the natural, intimate, and needful relationship that existed between Denmark and the Baltic towns. Since olden days no king might be elected in Denmark without the knowledge of Lubeck, and on this they had ever acted.

The men of Cologne were not abashed by this reference to history. They replied that it might be so, and that the Lubeckers had the right they would not deny; but they repeated, it made a strange impression upon kings and princes that the men of Lubeck should make and unmake kings.

Alas! how were the mighty fallen! What a degradation of sentiment in the Hansa when the cause of one was no longer the cause of all!

Some days later, in reply to a similar attack, the Lubeckers replied, in the old bold spirit that characterized the Hansa in its best times, "In one thing they had made a mistake, and that was when they helped two such worthless men as the kings of Denmark and Sweden to power, and had further made them great, in return for which they were now ill repaid."

Cologne then tried to shift its recriminations on to the religious ground. Glancing at the excesses committed in Munster by the Anabaptists, she ventured to question the benefits that had accrued to Lubeck and other Hanse cities from the Reformation, concluding with the shameless words, "In our city we hang, behead, or drown all heretics, and find ourselves very comfortable in consequence."

To most of these attacks Wullenweber as representative of Lubeck had to reply in person. He knew too well that many of them were aimed directly at himself. He strove hard to keep his hot temper in check and to reply with moderation and dignity.

The attitude of these Diet meetings, however, was but to prove the prologue to the intrigues which were to eject Wullenweber and his party from power, and to break not only the hegemony of Lubeck, but that of the whole Hansa—a consummation the opponents certainly did not intend. "Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first strike with blindness," says the Latin proverb, and its truth was once more made manifest by the attitude of the Hanseatic towns among themselves. They who had ever been so strong and so united, now no longer held together in brotherly concord, and weakness and disruption were the result.

The instrument that was to spring the chief mine on Wullenweber and his party was found in the person of Nicholas Bromse. This man was one of the leading personages of the Municipal Council of Lubeck in the early days of the sixteenth century, and was burgomaster of the town in the days when Gustavus Vasa arrived there as a fugitive. Indeed, he is said to have been one of the most zealous friends and protectors of the young Vasa. When the Reformation dissensions began to stir in the city, Bromse was among the most pronounced opponents of the purer creed, and repeatedly, by his personal interference, retarded its introduction. Indeed once, after it was officially introduced, he succeeded, in virtue of his personal influence with Charles V., in getting the Lutheran creed forbidden in the town. In so doing, however, he somewhat exceeded his limits; his action aroused suspicion in the council and hatred among the citizens; and finally, in 1532, he had to resign his post and fly secretly from Lubeck to escape the wrath of his enemies. He made his way to the imperial Court, at that time located in Brussels, and there he gained the ear and favour of Charles. Thence he watched with anxious curiosity the course which events were taking in his native town. He was biding his time to revenge himself upon the city that had ejected him, and upon the burgomaster who had supplanted him in popular favour.

When Nicholas Bromse learnt how the Hanseatic Diet had censured the action of Jurgen Wullenweber, he thought that the time for which he had long waited had come. He employed all his personal influence with the emperor to induce him to take a decisive step against the city of Lubeck, and with good result. For there issued from the imperial council chamber, June 7, 1535, a decree, stating that unless within six weeks and three days from the receipt of this document the town of Lubeck had abolished all democratic innovations and reinstated in the government Nicholas Bromse and other councillors banished together with him, the town would be declared under the imperial ban.

With Jesuitical astuteness not a word was breathed regarding Church reforms, but it was fully understood that a blow was aimed at the Lutheran creed quite as much as at Jurgen Wullenweber and the democratic party.

A Hanseatic Diet was sitting at Lubeck when this decree arrived. A committee was at once chosen to discuss the acceptance of the imperial mandate. It decided that obedience must be tendered to the dictates of the imperial council. In consequence the democratic party resigned power, and Wullenweber, who understood well that the whole was chiefly aimed at him, saw that there remained nothing for him to do but follow his party.

After delivering before the Diet a speech of great dignity marked by unusual moderation, in which he said if it were the will of God and were adjudged for the common weal that he should retire, he should certainly not refuse, he laid down in August, 1535, the office he had filled with such zeal and patriotic ambition.

It is characteristic of popular gratitude that when he returned from the guildhall, after completing the deed of renunciation, he was followed by a crowd that hissed and hooted him. This people of shopkeepers turned upon the man who was their true friend because the wars had impoverished them, had slackened their trade, and had brought distress within their walls. They did not recognize, or they forgot, that they themselves had encouraged the outbreak of these hostilities, and had applauded and sustained the man who proposed them; and that had he been better supported, his plans would have resulted in their pecuniary benefit.

It is evident that his fellow-rulers among the Lubeck Council knew that Wullenweber had been wronged, since they offered to bestow on him for six years the governorship of a neighbouring dependency. This he refused, but before he finally quitted office he took good care that the welfare and existence of the new creed should not be endangered by the return of the zealous Papist, Bromse, and also that an amnesty should be accorded to all political offenders.

Shortly afterwards Bromse entered the city in stately procession, preceded by a hundred and fifty horsemen. He proceeded at once to St. Mary's Church and took possession of the burgomaster's chair, whence he listened to the minutes decided upon by the Hanseatic Diet. The decree by no means pleased his Catholic soul that whatever else was reinstated, the new religion should be left intact; but he held his peace and trusted to time, as he had already done, with good result, while he waited at the Court of the Emperor Charles. In this one respect, however, he was to be disappointed. Lubeck never again changed its creed, or bowed its head to the Papal party.

But where now was the man to find peace who but recently had held as ruler both sides of the Sound, who had dared to fling the gauntlet to two monarchs, and who had been dictator throughout all Scandinavia? Notwithstanding many negotiations, peace had not yet been concluded between Lubeck and Denmark. Copenhagen was still held by the Hansa's allies. It is easy to understand that the temptation presented itself to Wullenweber to make common cause with them, and to try in yet another form to gain success for the League. But whether this was really his plan or not we have now no means of deciding. The latter years of Wullenweber's life are wrapped in much mystery, owing to intentional falsification of facts on the part of his enemies. Thus much is certain, that in the autumn of 1535 he set forth on a journey northwards, making for the province of Halland on the Cattegat, where lay the castle held by Max Meyer. Probably he wished to confer with his trusty colleague. His friends tried to dissuade him from his intention, reminding him that his road led him through the territory of the Archbishop of Bremen, one of his most violent opponents. It was impossible, however, to control or guide this headstrong and fearless man. Ambition and self-confidence made him fall into the trap which his enemies had laid for him.

Nicholas Bromse and his followers, hearing of this journey, at once sent messengers to the ecclesiastical prince, and by heavy bribes bought him over to their side. In consequence, scarcely had Wullenweber touched the archbishop's domains than he was seized and imprisoned, regardless of the letter of safe conduct he bore about him. He was carried off to Rothenburg, one of the archbishop's castles, and for some weeks the world knew nothing of his whereabouts, until his foes had matured their plans against him.

Wullenweber's brother, Joachim, at that time one of the Council of Hamburg, was the first to be uneasy regarding Jurgen's fate, and he succeeded in ascertaining the fact of his imprisonment and the perpetrator of the deed. He addressed a letter to the archbishop, demanding an explanation of this breach of faith. The audacious prelate replied, that "Since it was notorious how designedly and presumptuously Jurgen had acted against the will of God, of the emperor, and of the spiritual rulers of Lubeck, and how he had spent a night in his, the archbishop's domains without his permission, his will or a safe conduct, he, as the emperor's relative and as prince of the empire, had held himself in duty bound towards his Church to take the man prisoner. Further reasons for this step would be made known in course of time."

Armed with this insolent reply Joachim Wullenweber turned to King Henry VIII. of England in his sore strait, and implored him to befriend the man who had ever befriended him. To this request Henry lent a ready ear and he pleaded, but in vain, for his "faithful and honoured friend," with the Council of Hamburg and Bremen, and at last with the archbishop himself.

But Bromse and his party were not the men to release their prey when once it had fallen into their hands. They were determined to have their revenge. They hated Wullenweber; Bromse, in particular, hated him so much that it was possible for a contemporary chronicler to declare that he even tore Wullenweber's flesh off his bones with his own teeth. This no doubt is a baseless charge. Nicholas Bromse, the patrician, with the delicate coquettish features of a woman, with the lily white hands that were noted among his contemporaries, is not likely to have done such a thing. He might be false and cruel, but he could not have been actively bestial and ferocious.

What is certain is that Wullenweber's enemies were determined to destroy him. So great and powerful a man could not be simply put aside; he had to be sacrificed. A truly fiendish scheme of incrimination was opened against him; so painful and unfair that it awoke pity even in the breasts of his contemporaries. Among them, Maria, at that time regent of the Netherlands, was so deeply moved by the burgomaster's fate, that she felt herself called upon to demand that the prisoner should at least be brought before an imperial governor, in order that his case might have a more impartial consideration. But Wullenweber's foes would not listen to any mild or merciful counsels. Their chief endeavour was to spread abroad a belief that the dictator had acted in concert and sympathy with the Anabaptists, at that moment the bogey with which to scare both Catholics and Protestants.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The exact means employed to break Wullenweber's strong spirit during the first months of his imprisonment are not known. There is no doubt, however, that he was subjected to torture, and that upon the rack he was made to acquiesce in statements, many of them quite false, and others distorted to serve the purpose of his tormentors. Among the so-called confessions were said to be an admission of his Anabaptist leanings, an intimation that he had proposed to murder and kill as many nobles as possible, that he had abstracted for his own private ends public and church property, and other statements, so manifestly out of keeping with his previously known character and general bearing, that it is amazing to think how his contemporaries, even those most opposed to him, could for a moment have given them credit.

Hero though Wullenweber was in the moral sense he was no hero at bearing physical pain, and, indeed, the two qualities by no means go together, nor does nervous shrinking from pain necessarily imply moral weakness. The contrary is often the case. The man of finely strung nerves, to whom bodily pain is on this account less supportable than to his more coarse-grained brother, is, for that very reason, capable of a refinement of sentiment and action equally unknown to the other. The beef-built man is apt to be beef-witted.

It is quite certain that all the admissions undoubtedly made by Wullenweber were wrung from him under excruciating tortures. Indeed, in the hour of his death, and in two letters to his brother Joachim, he affirmed that "the jailer of Bremen, together with his mortal enemies, had forced him into the admission of political and moral sins." He says he was racked again and again, and on one occasion had to swear that he would not answer in any other sense than that demanded of him. If he failed in obedience to this command he should be torn to little pieces on the wheel, but, so God help him, he knew nothing whatever of Anabaptists or these other charges. He implores his brother to make known all this to his friends at Lubeck, and to beg that some honourable men would search his account books, and see whether it be true that he had abstracted State moneys. The brother himself might come and hang him higher than any thief yet hung, if he could prove that he, Jurgen, had stolen anything from the Lubeckers. Finally, he warns the zealous Lutherans that the purpose of all that he had to suffer, all that was now being done, was to restore the old state of things, and that he feared that his foes would effect this in Lubeck of all other places.

Meantime, King Henry of England repeatedly demanded of the Archbishop of Bremen that his "beloved and trusty servant, Jurgen Wullenweber," should be treated with more clemency. Receiving no reply from the archbishop, the king turned to the city of Hamburg for aid to release the imprisoned burgomaster. He said he had need of his "innocent servant" for most important purposes, and pointed out that it was for the weal, not only of his own kingdom, but also, and even more, for that of the German nation, that Jurgen should be freed. Baffled on all sides, the king demanded at last, that at least the reasons for this confinement should be made publicly known.

These reasons could not be given, based as they were on motives of the lowest kind, that would not bear the light of day and of judicial investigation. The inquiries, however, caused the archbishop and his wire-pullers at Lubeck to think it well to remove Wullenweber from his prison at Rothenburg to some other more distant place. In consequence, he was passed on in the spring of 1536 to the custody of the archbishop's brother, Duke Henry of Brunswick, a bigoted Catholic and zealous persecutor of heretics. He confined Wullenweber in his castle of Steinbruck, a strong fortress situated between the towns of Brunswick and Hildesheim. The dark dungeon with its walls ten feet in thickness, with its small door but a foot and a half in breadth, are shown to this day. Quite recently this inscription has been put up inside it—"Here Jurgen Wullenweber lay and suffered. 1536-1537."

Yes, suffered indeed. For a year and a half this unfortunate man suffered mental and physical tortures in this hole. On one occasion he was racked in the presence of Nicholas Bromse and other burghers from Lubeck, and in order that he might recant nothing he had previously been made to say, he was racked twice before this public torture came about, and threatened with instant death did his answers vary. The duke was present on all occasions, it being a special pleasure to him to witness the sufferings of heretics. At the end, when the questions and replies were read aloud in the presence of the Lubeckers and the lacerated man, the duke turned on him harshly, asking, "Jurgen what do you say to all this?" "I have said, yes," replied the broken man, in low tones.

A letter written to his brother a few days after this event is heart-rending in its accents of despair and sorrow that he had been made to incriminate others by enforced false testimony. He begs his brother to do his best to make this good; he says he knows that he himself will lose his life, though he had two kings of England to friend, but he wished to save those who had stood by him and aided him. Bromse and the others who persecute him, know well that all the accusations are false, but it suits their purpose to put them forward. "Vouchsafe me credit; if I am a thief, may you yourself help me on to the gallows; if I am a traitor, on to the wheel; if I am an Anabaptist, into the fire."

Thus Wullenweber's confinement dragged on, and public sympathy for his fate increased. Seeing this, his persecutors thought it desirable to make an end. They announced that "the honest country" should judge Wullenweber. They carried out this proposal in the most despicable and treacherous manner. On a Monday morning September 24, 1537, a large gathering of peasants was assembled in an open space in the neighbourhood of Wolfenbuttel. From their midst were chosen twelve farmers who had not the smallest knowledge of State affairs, and barely comprehended the question at stake against the accused. Then the charges made against Wullenweber and to which he had acquiesced under torture were read before them. Called upon to reply, Wullenweber boldly, in a speech of great dignity, denied the charges, and declared himself willing to die to prove his innocence. That he should die was unanimously resolved; indeed, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. As they were unable to resolve upon the method it was voted that the hangman should decide on Wullenweber's punishment. Master Hans, called on by the judge, said that he "deemed it right and fitting that Wullenweber should be led forth and quartered and his body be torn on four wheels, and that he should be judged thus between heaven and earth, that he might act in this wise no more, and that others should remember how he had been dealt by."

But even after this Wullenweber's enemies were not appeased. They read out three more articles of accusation against him, articles which the advocate said he could not hear because of the noise made by the crowd. Jurgen replied. It was true he had confessed this while in prison, but under great pain, and in order to save his body and soul. But in order that his soul might not lie before the stern judgment seat of God, he herewith exculpated those whom he had inculpated while in prison, and begged his gracious lord (Duke Henry was close by) not to stain his hands with innocent blood and to bring therewith his (Wullenweber's) soul to lasting damnation. He then requested, as a last favour, to be permitted to speak a word or two with the emissaries from Lubeck. Most unwillingly the two men came into the presence of their late chief. "Jurgen, what do you want?" said one of them, in harsh tones that roused all the pent-up ire of Wullenweber's soul. In presence of the miserable instruments of his oppressors he broke, for the first time, his silence of two years' standing.

"This," he said in loud, clear tones: "this is what you have striven after so long, even four years ago when you wanted to surprise and carry me off by night in my house, which God Almighty did not permit. Now after all you have succeeded, that I admit before God. But I also tell you before the whole world, that the last articles are false, and that what I said in prison, I said under torture and to save my life."

He wanted to add yet more, but the Lubeckers were afraid lest a tumult in his favour should arise among the people. One of them urged Master Hans, the hangman, to hurry on the execution. But the hangman had a soul of mercy. He listened to Wullenweber's prayer, "I have but a short while left. Let me say two or three words more, then I will gladly die." And yet again he repeated, taking Almighty God to witness, that he had in no respect failed in his duty or his obligations to the town of Lubeck; that he was no thief, no traitor! Then as though he had done with his conscience, with the world, he sank upon his knee, and bent his head to receive his death-blow. Master Hans severed the noble head from its trunk with one sharp blow. The body was then quartered and torn to little pieces on the wheel.

So perished the last great Hanseatic hero and with him the Hansa's power. At that time, so great was the fear of his foes, so blindly prejudiced the masses, that no one ventured to speak a good word for the dead man. But that all did not think that he had suffered justly is made manifest by a few little trifles. Thus, for example, a worthy Hamburg burgher of the period notes in his private diary the fate that had befallen this great man. In the margin he painted a red flaming sword and underneath he wrote the words, "This he did not deserve." The same man writing a few days later and speaking of his execution and quartering, notes again in the margin, "Duke Henry merited this." Even the chancellor of Zelle, one day in his cups, ventured the utterance that "Wullenweber had died as a martyr to the gospel."

Yes, he had died as a martyr; a martyr to his town and to his faith, and the Hanseatic League was not to see the like of him again. He was no perfect hero of romance. Indeed his impetuosity and his excitable temperament, which caused him to be carried away by his enthusiasms, hindered him from developing one of those firm characters that excite eternal admiration and respect; he was lacking in moderation, and in foresight; but combined with his faults there were grand and noble elements, and take him "all in all," he was a man to honour and admire, a true patriot, a true friend to the people and their cause.

In the archives of Weimar are deposited and can be seen to this day, the acts of interrogation and indictment planned against Wullenweber by his enemies; curious documents, well worth the study of a student of humanity, as proving how even truth can be distorted to bad ends. In one of them Wullenweber's signature is scarcely decipherable; no wonder when we learn that he had just before been hung up for four hours by his thumbs!

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Jurgen's friend and ally Max Meyer had not survived him. He too fell a victim to treachery and cruelty. Vardberg's walls were subjected to hot bombardment, from which sacks stuffed full of wool taken in booty could not preserve them. Then too the hired soldiery had grown restive, their wages being in arrear, owing to the delay with which supplies arrived from England. In the month of May, 1536, the castle was forced to surrender and open its gates to the enemy. Max Meyer was promised a safe pass, a promise that in accordance with the usages of the time was broken. The whilom blacksmith was delivered over into the hands of King Christian III., who caused him to be put in irons. He was then accused of all manner of offences, many of them, as in the case of Wullenweber, purely imaginary; was tortured, and made to confess to fictitious crime; and finally, given over to the keeping of the Danish governor from whose guardianship he had months before escaped by his happy ruse. On June 17, 1536, Max Meyer was beheaded at Helsingoer, and his body quartered and torn upon the wheel. So ended this handsome adventurer, and with his death, and that of his friend Jurgen Wullenweber, ended also an important and picturesque episode in Hanseatic history.