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The Knights' Revolt of 1522 was a revolt by a number of protestant and humanist German knights led by Franz von Sickingen, against the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. It has also been called the "Poor Barons' Rebellion". The revolt was short-lived but would inspire the bloody Peasants' War of 1524-26.

Contents

Context

In the late Middle Ages, the Imperial Knights were in a period of constant decline caused by several factors. The encroachment of urban-dominated trade and industry against traditional agriculture harmed the knights, as did the growing confederations of cities that now had the power to resist attacks. The steadily growing inflation contrasting with the reduction in value of agricultural land hurt the knights financially. The growing power of the higher nobility, or the princes, helped by the introduction of Roman law which was sweeping away previous Common law, hurt the knights politically. On top of this, their importance in combat was declining with advance of military technology and tactics. Mercenary Landsknechts were now the staple of warfare, and the importance of personal ability and bravery in warfare was much reduced.

The Knights refused to co-operate with either the higher nobility to gain power from the cities, or with the cities against the Princes, nor would these have responded favourably had they done so. In the 1495 Reichstag, the Imperial Cities put forward an Act of Protest, containing several points, which they put forward to protest their lack of effective representation in the Reichstag. The only part of the Act which was actually passed was the request for a ban on private warfare. Even then, the Princes made sure that they were exempt and so it applied only to the Knights. This took away a major source of income and pride, as holding cities and Princes to ransom had been the main income of the Knights.

Brotherly Convention of Knights

Franz von Sickingen, often called the ‘Last Knight’, lived most of his life along the Rhine. After spending some time in the service of the Emperor Maximillian against Venice, he spent many years terrorising cities and Princes up and down the Rhine, which made him a very rich man. When the election of 1519 took place, he had accepted heavy bribes from Francis I of France, but had eventually led his troops to Frankfurt where their presence helped to ensure the victory of Charles V. After this, Von Sickingen had mounted an invasion of French Picardy for Charles.

Sickingen became acquainted with Ulrich von Hutten, a humanist Knight, and under his influence his castle of Ebernburg became a centre of Humanist and later Lutheran thinking, with many pamphlets emanating from the castle. Sickingen helped Johann Reuchlin escape from the Dominicans of Cologne, and sheltered other reformers such as Martin Bucer and Johannes Oecolampadius. He had even offered shelter to Martin Luther after the diet of Worms, but he had chosen to stay with Frederick of Saxony instead.

In 1522, while the Emperor was in Spain, Sickingen convened a ‘Brotherly Convention’ of Knights. The Convention elected him as their leader, and resolved to take by force that which the Knights had been unable to obtain through their poor representation in the Reichstag. The target chosen by the Knights to start their revolt was Richard Greiffenklau, Archbishop of Trier, a staunch opponent of Luther and his supporters. The excuse used for the attack was an unpaid ransom by two city councillors to another knight who had captured them some years ago. Sickingen’s declaration of war was full of religious rhetoric designed to encourage the people of the city to surrender and overthrow their Archbishop, and so save the Knights the trouble of a siege.

Campaign against Trier

Sickingen had his soldiers fly the imperial flag, and he claimed he was acting on behalf of the Emperor. However, the Imperial Diet in Nuremberg which was acting as regent during his absence, did not agree, and ordered Sickingen to stop his campaign under threat of an imperial ban. The campaign was launched in the autumn, which indicates that Von Sickingen did not intend to press on further that year.

Sickingen ignored the Diet, however, and pressed on to Trier. Unfortunately for him, the people of the city did not revolt against Richard, and Richard proved to be an able soldier. In addition, the Count palatine and the Landgrave of Hesse came to Richard’s aid. After seven days siege, including five assault attempts, Von Sickingen ran out of gunpowder, and retreated to Ebernberg. Meanwhile, the Imperial Regency Council laid on him the Ban of the Empire.

During his retreat, his detractors alleged that he plundered the entire countryside, including the town of Kaiserslautern. However, his supporters maintained that they only plundered the hated catholic churches and monasteries.

Defeat

Sickingen left Ebernberg to spend the winter in Landstuhl, his strongest castle, which had recently had extensive repairs and was reckoned to be one of the strongest castles in Germany. Hutten was in Switzerland, and other emissaries were in other parts of the Empire, looking to raise more support for a new campaign next year.

When Ludwig of Palatine, Philip of Hesse and Richard of Trier laid siege to his castle, he fully expected to last at least four months, by which time reinforcements would arrive to rescue him. However, he had underestimated the power of the new artillery weapons, and within one week his defences were in ruins and he had received a very serious wound himself. When he surrendered to the three princes on the 7th of May, he died the same day.

With his death, Knighthood as a significant force in Central Europe died too. Hutten only outlived him by a few months, first meeting the reformer Huldrych Zwingli in Zürich, before dying alone of syphilis in a Swiss monastery.

Further evolutions

Most of the Revolt's significant supporters had their castles confiscated. The Archbishop of Mainz was even fined for his suspected complicity in the plot. The Knights were now generally bankrupt as a result of the Revolt's inability to change their situation in the same of increasing inflation, declining agriculture, increased demands by the princes and the inability to live by legal ‘highway robbery’.

Most Knights therefore lived as petty feudal masters, making a living by taxing their peasants hard. They had no real independence now, and those that did rise above their status did so by acting as competent managers, priests and generals for the Princes. A few, such as Florian Geyer, refused to give in, and assisted the peasants in their own rebellion a few years later.

The widespread refusal to pay church tithes during the Revolt spread to the peasant classes subsequently, and inspired them to refuse to pay the tithe which was one of the factors leading to the peasants' revolt. Thus either the government of the province would have to deal with the corrupt institutions, or the peasants would take this into their own hands and plunder them.

See also

References

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