The Peasants War. Belfort Bax

The Alpine Glow in the Austrian Territories.

The revolt in Styria (Steuermarck) which Sigsmund Dietrichstein had partially suppressed, broke out again later on. Encouraged from Vienna, Dietrichstein glutted himself with the most monstrous exactions and cruelties. All the districts where the revolt had sprung up were condemned to ruinous tribute and ransom money. In addition to this, impaling, flaying and quartering constituted the order of the day with him. His mercenaries amused themselves with cutting off the breasts of the peasant women and ripping open the abdomens of those about to become mothers. So at last the cup was filled to overflowing. The town of Schladming, on the border of the Salzburg territory, had yielded to Dietrichstein. Seeing the situation, the united contingent of the Styrian and Salzburg peasants sent a demand to the town to enter the “Christian Brotherhood”. Dietrichstein, on being informed of this, proceeded to the township with a force which he disposed partly inside the walls and partly before them outside. He then proceeded to enter into negotiations with the peasants, being, of course, on treachery intent. Suddenly, on the morning of the 3rd of July, the alarm was given that the enemy was approaching. On showing himself at the window of the inn where he was lodging, he was struck by a missile. He succeeded, however, in rushing downstairs anti mounting his horse, and with two hundred followers he gained the place where fighting was going on. His horse was stabbed under him, and he himself received a blow on the head. By his side other knights fell. But now most of the men he had about him deserted to the peasants. The rest of the knights fled and entrenched themselves in the church, Dietrichstein himself surrendering to his own mutinous free-lances. By a surprise, a body of about four thousand peasants had overpowered the camp outside the town, and had become possessed of its ordnance and ammunition. The horsemen had fled in a panic. Of the Bohemian mercenaries, some escaped and some were made prisoners. Numbers were killed or driven into the stream. The town opened its gates after three thousand of Dietrichstein’s force were killed, amongst them a large number of Carinthian and Styrian nobles. Eighteen knights were taken in the church alone.

The prisoners of rank were brought into the peasant camp, Dietrichstein amongst them. A ring was formed, and the whole body of peasants was called together to give judgment. The captain of the baronial forces was brought forward, and a formal accusation of all his crimes was entered against him. A demand was made that he should be impaled. On the matter being put to the vote, the whole four thousand hands were held up in favour of the execution. Dietrichstein pleaded the promise of knightly treatment he had obtained from the free-lances. Thereupon a dissension arose between the latter and the peasants, and eventually the matter was referred to the peasant council sitting at Salzburg. Here again, dissension seems to have arisen between the council and the maim body of the insurgents assembled in the town. The council wrote recommending honourable captivity for the noble prisoners. The general assembly, on the contrary, sent a letter demanding their execution.

A compromise is stated to have been effected in the camp outside Schladming, by which the Bohemian and other foreigners, noble and otherwise, were beheaded in the market-place of the town. The German nobles, on the other hand, including Dietrichstein, were spared, but had to suffer every imaginable contumely from their captors. They were stripped of their knightly raiment and dressed in peasant clothes. Peasant hats were put upon their heads, and they were led away on waggon-horses to the castle of Werfen, already occupied by the insurgents. The peasants found in the town all the money which Dietrichstein had amassed through his impositions, besides considerable property belonging to the imprisoned nobles.

After these events the Schladming contingent proceeded to take steps to renew the insurrection throughout Styria. In Carinthia and the Austrian hereditary dominions an agreement had been come to between the peasants and their lords. The smaller nobles and the townships in fact, in many cases, had themselves urged a general reduction of the burdens of the “common man”. They were lenient as regarded ransom-money, in spite of the representations of the archduke. The leaders fled into the Salzburg territory.

In the Landtag at Innsbruck the archduke had succeeded in pacifying the greater part of his own Duchy of Tyrol. He had abolished many grievances, and had fixed the next Landtag to be held at Bozen. The concessions which Ferdinand accorded the Tyrolese were in fact sufficiently remarkable to lend colour to the supposition that he had a sentimental affection for his patrimonial province. Amongst other things, a complete amnesty was granted. Gaismayr, however, does not seem to have been at all satisfied with the result. As we have already seen, he looked farther than the mere alleviation of the feudal yoke. He had meanwhile resigned the leadership, but his followers were not inactive. Two of them were zealously preaching at Meran and Sterzing, and inveighing against the decisions of the Landtag. Several of the rural communities refused to give their assent, and organised themselves anew, notably in the Brixen territories. Having appointed leaders, they formed themselves into a contingent and marched upon Trient, which town they bombarded.

About sixteen thousand men were got together to suppress the revolt. By the end of September it was completely crushed, several of the leaders being executed, and the rest fleeing, mostly into Venetian territory, which at this time furnished a refuge for numbers of the archduke’s rebellious subjects. In Trient and the surrounding district the repression was frightful. The current forms of torture were ruthlessly applied — mutilation, quartering, impaling and roasting alive. Some, according to the contemporary chronicle, had their hearts cut out and suspended round their necks. Every prisoner was branded on the forehead before being dismissed. Numbers, however, succeeded in escaping into Italy.

Gaismayr was meanwhile arrested and brought to Innsbruck. He was at first liberated on parole, but, finding that the authorities neglected to carry out the accepted decisions of the Landtag and were everywhere shedding the blood of the peasants, he probably thought himself absolved from his oath, and accordingly, at the end of September, he sought refuge in flight. He threatened that, should he be molested, he had eighteen townships and villages sworn to defend him.

Meanwhile the movement in Salzburg went on apace. As we have seen, Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria was not displeased at the uncomfortable position of his feudal neighbour, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Indeed, he let the insurgents clearly understand that his emissaries were sent merely to mediate and not to intimidate. The Bavarian chancellor, the stern old aristocrat Leonhard von Eck, opposed this policy of his master, which threatened at one time to bring about a serious conflict between the Bavarian Wittelsbachs and the Austrian Hapsburgs, but which in the long run came to nothing. When, towards the end of June, the Swabian League, in response to the urgent representations of the archbishop, claimed Bavarian assistance for the suppression of the Salzburg rebels, the duke succeeded it: postponing the day of decision. It was thus not until the end of August that the terms of peace were arranged, by which the old dues and corvées were to be re-established, indemnification made for loss sustained by the rebellion, and a fine of 14,000 gulden paid to the Swabian League. An amnesty was granted, and the Swabian League was to decide the villeins’ claims against their lords. But ominous threatenings were still heard that “so soon as the bushes should be green they would be rid of nobles and gentlemen”. The Duke of Bavaria had thus to be satisfied with effecting what proved little more than an armistice. In fact, the peasants had shown themselves more than a match for the League’s troops sent against them under Frundsberg in conjunction with the reluctant assistance of the Bavarian duke.

As a result of the treaty, the nobles detained in the castle of Werfen were released, and the archbishop, who for months had been besieged in his fortress above Salzburg, was, of course, once more free. But the remembrance of the defeat at Schladming still rankled in the breasts of the Archduke Ferdinand and the nobles. The peasants were indeed magnanimous enough in their treatment of their captives, notably of Dietrichstein, from whom they had suffered so much.[1] But this did not satisfy the authorities and territorial lords, who thought that they ought to have a monopoly of killing. Accordingly, in the midst of the peace, Count Salm with a company: of free-lances swept down upon the town and fired it on all sides. The wretched inhabitants rushing out were hurled back into the flames, without regard to age or sex. Large numbers of peasants in the neighbourhood of Schladming were hanged from the trees. The town itself was reduced to a heap of ashes. This dastardly and bloodthirsty act of treachery excited the peasants anew. Finally, about the middle of October, the countrymen once more met together near the town of Radstadt, and drew up a remonstrance against the archbishop’s multitudinous breaches of the treaty, and against the atrocities committed by the imperial troops, presumably at the instance of the archduke.

Similar assemblies were held in other places, and communications were entered into with the Brixen district of Tyrol, special use being made of the great “church-ale” of the town of Brixen itself. But the inhabitants were disinclined for the moment to break the treaty they had entered into with their bishop, and in fact the revolt did not burst into renewed activity until early in the following year.

Meanwhile Michael Gaismayr had escaped into Switzerland, visiting Zurich, Luzern, and parts of Graubünden, and entering into relations with the numerous refugees from South Germany and elsewhere then in the Swiss cantons. In Chur he was seen, it was alleged, in company with an emissary of the French court. Francis I. was at this time in league with Venice to secretly further the rebellion in the Alpine districts, with a view of harassing his enemy Charles V. He was now, it is true, a prisoner in the hands of the latter, but his policy was, of course, being carried on by his representatives. Towards the end of the winter, Gaismayr took up his abode at Taufers, on the Tyrolese frontier of Appenzell, whence he endeavoured to stir up a revolt in order to seize some of the Bishop of Chur’s ordnance in the neighbourhood. This plan, however, miscarried.

In the beginning of January, 1526, he issued a manifesto containing the objects for which the Tyrolese were to rise. The first demand was the destruction of all the godless, who persecuted the true word of God and oppressed the “common man”. Pictures, masses and shrines were to be abolished. The walls and towers of the towns, together with all castles and strongholds, were to be levelled with the ground. Henceforth, there were to be only villages, to the end that complete equality might obtain. Each year magistrates were to be chosen by the popular voice, who were to hold court every Monday. All the judicial authorities were to be paid for out of the common treasury. A central government was to be chosen by the whole country and a university established at Brixen, three members of which were to be appointed as permanent assessors to the government. Dues and rents were to be done away with; the tithe was to be retained, but applied to the support of the Reformed Church and of the poor. The monasteries were to be turned into hospitals and schools. The breeding of cattle was to be improved and the land irrigated. Oil-trees, saffron, vines and corn were to be everywhere planted. There was to be a public inspection of wares to ensure their quality and reasonable price. Usury and debasement of the coinage were to be punished. The mines were to become the property of the whole land. Passes, roads, bridges and rivers were to be kept in order by the public authority and suitable measures taken for the defence of the country against external foes.

Such is the main substance of the manifesto which the messengers of Michael Gaismayr now distributed in the valleys of western Tyrol. The ink with which he had written it was scarcely dry before news arrived of the resuscitation, in the archiepiscopal territories of Salzburg, of the movement of the previous autumn. In a few days, Gaismayr was on his wary to the seat of the struggle. Arrived there, he soon became practically the head of the movement, and later on its recognised commander, whilst his friends, most of whom he had brought with him, became his lieutenants. The miners, however, remained quiet. In fact, two companies, composed partly of miners and partly of handicraftsmen, were enrolled by the archbishop and induced to march against their peasant brethren. They were, however, defeated by the rebels.

Radstadt, a town on the frontier of Salzburg and the Austrian hereditary lands, Styria and Carinthia, was besieged by Gaismayr on the 1st of May, 1526. The capture of this town was important alike from its strategic position and from its possession of some of the best ordnance at the disposal of Archduke Ferdinand. The latter, of’ hearing of Gaismayr’s operations, immediately sent reinforcements to relieve Radstadt. The Swabian League also sent a small force. Gaismayr, however, as a good strategist, had taken the precaution of blocking the main roads leading to the beleaguered town. Amidst rain and sleet, the forces of the authorities with difficulty traversed the rough mountain roads, but before they were half to Radstadt they were fallen upon by a large body of peasants in a narrow defile, and out of a force of more than a thousand less than two hundred escaped.

On the 14th of June, Gaismayr’s men defeated with heavy loss eight companies of the Swabian League’s best fighting men. They fled in confusion, and were pursued nearly to the gates of Salzburg. Three days later, the remainder, suffered as heavy a loss in a storm on a mountain pass. But the League continued to send reinforcements, and on the 3rd of July they gained their first victory in these districts, which cost the peasants six hundred men.

Meanwhile, Gaismayr pressed closer and closer the siege of Radstadt. He stormed the town three times, but without result. At length, he found himself borne down upon from three sides by the forces of the League and of Count Salm, accordingly, he was compelled to raise the siege, and retired hurriedly but in perfect order, with a considerable body of men, first to his former camp a little way from the town and then over a pass into the Pusterthal. But Frundsberg, with three thousand mercenaries of the League, followed close upon his heels, and eventually overtook him, and the insurgent leader’s contingent was forced to make its way over the passes into Venetian territory. He himself with a following reached Venice, where he received a pension of four hundred ducats, and where, it is said, he lived like a cardinal for some time.

Thus ended the campaign which Michael Gaismayr had entered upon so full of hope. Indeed the genius of this remarkable man had given this last episode in the peasant rising — this afterglow in the Alpine lands — a reasonable probability of success which scarcely any previous enterprise of the “common man” had possessed. He had, however, taken steps to negotiate with the French and Venetians with a view to military assistance, and, although his allies failed him so far as active support was concerned, the credit belongs to him of a more far-sighted diplomacy than was exhibited by any of the other leaders of the movement. His plan was for a simultaneous rising in the Salzburg district, in Tyrol and in Upper Swabia, and the failure of this plan was not due to any want of energy on his part.

“The nobleman of Etschland,” as Michael was called, had a brother, Hans Gaismayr, living in a good position at Sterzing, equally enthusiastic and with unlimited confidence in his relative. Unfortunately this brother, without having succeeded in raising the district, was captured by the Austrian authorities at Sterzing, and brought to Innsbruck on the 9th of April, where he was cruelly tortured and afterwards drawn and quartered as a traitor. That this incident made Michael more unbending in his vow of destruction to all nobles may well be imagined. Indeed, until his death his name was one of terror to the constituted authorities.

In Venice, Gaismayr continued to gather up the threads of his relations alike with the popular leaders and with the agents of the more powerful states, and the prospect, in spite of the heavy discomfiture of the “common man” throughout the German territories, seemed by no means hopeless. On the contrary, from many points of view the signs of success appeared more promising than in the period just passed through of the great spontaneous but ill-organised and badly-disciplined upheaval of the peasantry and poor townsmen. For the Protestant districts and principalities were now becoming alarmed at the turn things were taking. There was a growing feeling that an attempt would be made by the victorious feudal lords, still mainly Catholic and inspired by the archduke and the chief ecclesiastical princes, to crush Lutheranism itself. A commanding personality — a strong man in the Carlylean sense — had at last appeared in the person of Gaismayr. In addition, was there not “the Man of Twiel,” Duke Ulrich, secure in his powerful stronghold on the Swiss frontier of Würtemberg? Was he not surrounded by numbers of refugees, including many of the local leaders of the late movement, who had fled thither? Was he not simply waiting his opportunity to march into his hereditary dominions with a force sufficient to defy the imperial power, and to re-establish himself as Würtemberg’s master at Stuttgart?

Meanwhile, on the collapse of the Tyrol movement, consequent upon the retreat of Gaismayr, the usual policy of ferocious and bestial oppression combined with treachery was pursued. An appearance of moderation was affected in the treatment of the first batch of insurgents who surrendered. They were merely required to give up their arms and to pay a fine of eight gulden per hearth. An appeal was then made to those who had not yet given in their submission to appear on a specified day at Radstadt. The seeming clemency enticed large numbers to offer themselves on the day in question. On the peasants having assembled at the town gate, the nobles rode out at the head of a body of horse and foot. One of their number then addressed the unarmed people, descanting on the sin of rebellion against their lords. This ended, a list of twenty-seven names was read out, and those who bore them were ordered to come forward. Four executioners at the same time appeared, and proceeded to strike off the heads of the designated twenty-seven leaders. The remainder of those present were compelled to take their old oath of allegiance and obedience before they were allowed to return home. The houses of those known to have taken a prominent part in the rebellion, who now either were executed or had fled, were pulled down, and painted posts were set up in their place. Small towns were degraded to the rank of villages, and the alarm-bells were torn down from the church towers.

The two towns of Radstadt and Zell, which had closed their gates and resolutely resisted the followers of Gaismayr, were, on the other hand, rewarded with special privileges. They were accorded the right of making, every Whit Monday, a procession round the high altar of the cathedral of St. Ruprecht at Salzburg during vespers and there sinking the songs of their district. The same evening, they were to be entertained from the archbishop’s cellar and kitchen, the cathedral canons and the courtiers taking part. On the Tuesday after St. Vitus’s Day, they, might hang their flag from the Rathhaus, and also received a gift of wine from the archiepiscopal cellars, besides being allowed to fish in the preserved streams of their feudal overlord.

Throughout the year 1527, especially in the early summer, the whole Catholic feudal world was filled with dread at the return of Gasmayr to revivify the suppressed movement, perhaps with a French and Venetian understanding and the co-operation or benevolent neutrality of some at least of the Protestant states. The peasants, the small townsmen, and the Protestant sectaries generally were correspondingly hopeful. The Alpine lands were looked toward on the one side with fear and on the other with joyful expectation as the hearth and refuge of popular freedom. Through the whole of central and southern Germany the name of the great peasant leader from Tyrol became in every village a household word. Free-lances back from serving in the recent campaigns spoke in terms of unconcealed admiration for the valiant commander against whom they had been fighting. In the public room of many a hostelry the deeds of Michael Gaismyr, and the chances of his return to head a larger movement than the one just defeated, were eagerly discussed.

Various were the reports as to his probable action. It was said at one time that he was about to proceed from Venetian territory to Trient, and thence by forced marches into the Tyrol valleys, to call the people to arms under the protection of the Venetian Republic and its allies, who would thereby secure a free hand against Charles V. In other directions. But time passed on and yet there was no invasion from the south. Finally, in the early spring of 1528, Gaismayr was reported to have been seen in Switzerland, particularly in Zurich. The rumour was confirmed, and it further became known that he had received the citizenship of this canton, and that he was regarded as plenipotentiary for the Venetian Republic, in which capacity he was negotiating with Count Ulrich of Würtemberg, with the reformed Swiss cantons, and with other powerful Protestant interests in Germany. It was believed that he had, in short, in his hands the threads of a strong combination against the emperor. Certain it was that extensive recruitings in various districts, especially in Graubünden, were being made in his name.

By the middle of June; the matter had so far taken definite shape that it was reported that several thousand Swiss were already on the march to join Gaismayr in the mountain passes leading to Austria, and that the intention was to invade his native Etschland. This last report was not true, and it is difficult now to say precisely how far the negotiations for an anti-imperial league had proceeded, but that there were such there is no doubt. We may reasonably suppose that affairs were in train by August, 1528, when news arrived of Charles’s victory at Naples on the 19th of that month, and the parties concerned seemed to have lost heart, the scheme coming to nothing in a few weeks. Ferdinand and his councillors had already set a price on Gaismayr’s head. One of his followers was bribed to murder him. The man took the money, but omitted his part of the bargain. The Bishop of Brixen now also adopted the assassination policy, but still no German-speaking man was forthcoming to carry it out. At last, two wretched Spanish bravos expressed their readiness for a large sum in gold to undertake the crime. They repaired to Padua, in the Venetian territory, whither Gaismayr had returned, and one night, breaking into his apartment whilst he was asleep, they stabbed him to the heart, subsequently severing his head from his body. The head was then carefully preserved and brought by the assassins to the archduke at Innsbruck. Shortly afterwards, Gaismayr’s chief lieutenant, a brave man named Pässler, was murdered by one of his own followers, also bribed to the deed by the Austrian Court. The money was again in this case handed over on the receipt of the head at Innsbruck.

All prospects were now gone, for the time being, for the popular movement. The terror of the Catholic feudal estates and the hope of the “common man,” Michael Gaismayr, was dead. The other leaders were dispersed in exile or killed or imprisoned, save for a few who remained with Duke Ulrich in the “Hohentwiel “. The duke himself was to regain his patrimony of Würtemberg, but not as he at one time imagined by the aid of the peasants ostensibly fighting for their own rights. In short, with Gaismayr’s death the afterglow of the Peasants War finally faded away. The revolt of the “common man” had been extinguished.

1. Indeed, if we may believe a recent authority, the story of the executions by the peasants on Schladming marketplace is a historical fable. [Krones apud Janssen, vol. ii., p.571, note].