Tag Archives: 1537

1537: Jurgen Wullenwever, Burgermeister of Lubeck

On this date in 1537, Jürgen Wullenwever was decapitated and quartered at Wolfenbüttel.

Photo by Agnete (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wullenwever (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a merchant from Hamburg who came to the fore of a popular Lutheran movement in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck that claimed the power of its old aristocratic council for the city’s burghers.

In this capacity, Wullenwever maneuvered — vainly as it turned out — to arrest the century-long wane of the city’s influence. Lubeck in its day had been “the Queen of the Hanseatic League”. Come 16th century, it was struggling to maintain its trading preeminence against the inroads of Dutch merchants and the fragmentation of the once-mighty Hanse.

This project was doomed in its conception — there was nothing Lubeck could really have done to hold back the historical developments happening around it — and bungled in its execution. The merchant magnates of Wullenwever’s democratic coalition grew suspicious of (too-)popular religiosity.

And Wullenwever’s political high-wire act involved arrangements of convenience with the Anabaptist commune of Münster — spurring rumors of his own radical baptist conversion* — and fomenting Catholic peasant uprisings to meddle in the succession of the Danish-Swedish crown. Whatever else one could say of him, one can’t fault him for a want of daring, a quality that stood him in good stead with romantic era writers.

But Wullenwever’s allies lost their fights, and the political coalition that supported his municipal leadership soon broke up under the pressure of events.

The aristocratic party re-took power in 1535 and didn’t immediately persecute Wullenwever. But the hostile Archbishop of Bremen eventually seized the man on his territory and turned him over to a Catholic Saxon duke for punishment.

* I’m certainly not a specialist, but I’m skeptical of the claim in some sources that Wullenwever was an Anabaptist Manchurian candidate type. Wullenwever confessed to a great Anabaptist scheme … but that was under torture of enemies determined to do him to death, and it was retracted before his execution. The claim implies that all of northern Germany might have gone over to a radically democratic Anabaptism had not the ancien regime overthrown the Burgermeister, and for that reason it’s gained Wullenwever the surprising latter-day embrace of nationalists and revolutionaries.

1537: Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis

On this date in 1537, a Scottish noblewoman suffered the fate decreed for her treason — in the terse entry of the judicial record, combusta.

Knocking around Glamis Castle — where Shakespeare’s great villain Macbeth got his start, as Thane of Glamis* — Janet Douglas had the going enmity of Scottish king James V on the substantial grounds that Janet’s father had held the teen-king his virtual prisoner for a few years in the 1520s. Once James got free, he proscribed the lady’s brother, the Earl of Angus (whom Janet continued to shelter when occasioned), confiscated properties, forbade Douglases from approaching his person, and all that sort of thing.

Presumably according to this same anti-Douglas animus, an abortive attempt was made in 1531 to try our Lady Glamis for poisoning her late first husband, Lord Glamis. However, the charge foundered on the refusal of her peers to participate: “the lairds of Ardoch, Braco, Fingask, Abernethy, Piferran, Lawers, Carnock, Moncreiff, Anstruther, Lord Ruthven, Lord Oliphant, and many others, were fined for absenting themselves from the jury.”

Six years later she was more successfully returned to the dock, this time on a charge of plotting to poison the king himself. There seems to remain very little detail that would trace the precise unfolding of those years and offer later interlocutors a clear interpretation; while “innocent noble railroaded” is the most conventional read — Henry VIII’s agent reported that the conviction was secured “without any substanciall ground or proyf of mattir” — this book gives it a “maybe she did, maybe she didn’t” spin. That whole embittered proscription thing cuts both ways, as motives go.

At any rate, torture induced Janet Douglas’s own 16-year-old son John to testify that she had procured a potion intended to resolve that feud, and despite reported doubts and a spirited defense, the judges found her “committit art and part of the tressonabill Conspiratioune and ymaginatioune of the slauchter and destructioune of our soverane lordis” and therefore to “be had to Castell hill of Edinburghe, and thair brynt in ane fyre to the deid as ane Traytour.” (John was reprieved of this fate, but he still had to watch.)

King Jamie took over Glamis Castle and hung his spurs there until his own death in 1542 … whereupon his crown passed to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the castle reverted to that young John, the new Lord Glamis.

Glamis Castle still stands, picturesquely, and legend has it that the visitor there might encounter the burned woman’s ghost haunting the place as the Grey Lady.**

* Not actually true of the historical man Macbeth.

** Not to be confused with the New York Times. Actually, there are several ghosts who go by this colorless title.