Bride of the Reformation

BASEL, on the Rhine where France, Germany, and Switzerland meet, was a bustling hub of commerce and culture in the early 16th century. From all over Europe, students flocked to its university and writers brought their books to its presses. Chief among the intellectuals of Basel was the reformer Desiderius Erasmus. At Basel, in 1515–16, Erasmus produced his famous edition of the Greek New Testament, assisted by younger scholars such as Johannes Oecolampadius, a priest who was working for the Froben printing house, and Wolfgang Capito, preacher and theology professor.

A marriage of penance?

Also in Basel were Margareta Rosenblatt—a military wife—and her daughter Wibrandis, who would play an important role in the lives of both Oecolampadius and Capito. The two Rosenblatts moved in university-educated circles, from which Wibrandis picked up German, Latin, and a husband, Ludwig Keller, whom she married in 1524 at the age of 20. Two years later Keller was dead, leaving her with a daughter also named Wibrandis.

Both Wibrandises returned to live with Grandmother Margareta, and for two more years they lived in poverty. Meanwhile, they became attracted to the evangelical teachings being proclaimed by Oecolampadius. The former printer’s assistant was back in Basel as cathedral preacher after a stint as preacher in Augsburg (1518–20), two years in a monastery (1520–22), and several months as chaplain to the outlaw knight Franz von Sickingen. Capito, meanwhile, had left Basel in 1520 for a job with the Archbishop of Mainz, in which capacity he attempted to stall the case against Luther.

Erasmus, still in Basel, feared that the “evangelicals” were tearing the Church apart. He therefore took full advantage of the possibility for satire when the 45-year-old Oecolampadius married the 24-year-old widow Wibrandis Keller. Oecolampadius, Erasmus quipped, had married an attractive girl as his Lenten penance. In Oecolampadius’s own account, Wibrandis was a bit too young, but she was a good Christian, of respectable family but not too rich, and had “several years’ experience bearing the cross.” He wrote to Capito the year after the wedding: “My wife is what I always wanted . . . She is not contentious, garrulous, or a gadabout, but looks after the household.”

Oecolampadius’s fate

In 1529, Oecolampadius and a Protestant mob succeeded in destroying the images in Basel’s churches and reforming the Lord’s Supper according to Protestant doctrine. Meanwhile, similar changes had taken place in Strasbourg, where Capito had overcome his last qualms about the divisive potential of Protestantism and was working zealously alongside the ex-Dominican Martin Bucer. Throughout southern Germany and Switzerland, a like-minded group of theologians took control of the religious life of some of the region’s most important city-states. They and their wives formed not only a theological but a social circle. Capito had married a local magistrate’s daughter, Agnes, at the urging of Bucer. And in turn, Capito had urged Oecolampadius to take a wife. Both Elisabeth and Agnes corresponded with Wibrandis, as did Anna Zwingli.

This network of friendship would be sorely needed. The Reformation had triumphed in much of Switzerland, but the warlike “Forest Cantons” remained Catholic, and in 1531 civil war erupted. On Oct. 11 Zwingli was killed in battle at Kappel, and Basel’s attempt to help Zurich and Bern resulted in a second defeat. Oecolampadius had defended the legitimacy of war, but he saw the military disasters as a sign that Christians should trust in God alone. Weak and discouraged, Oecolampadius died on Nov. 23, 1531. Bucer commented, “We have no greater theologian.”

Meanwhile at Strasbourg, Capito’s wife Agnes had died of the plague, leaving him a widower with several children. In the 16th century, this situation obviously called for immediate remarriage. Bucer was afraid that Capito might marry the widow of a martyred Anabaptist leader (a self-proclaimed “king"). Capito had Anabaptist leanings and was, in Bucer’s view, an impulsive sort. He needed a practical wife who would put up with his eccentricities, provide for his needs, and link him more firmly to the evangelical mainstream. Wibrandis fit the bill, and Bucer hoped the plight of Oecolampadius’s widow and three children in Basel would distract Capito from the Anabaptist “queen” in Augsburg.

Bucer’s plans worked. Capito (over 50 at the time) proposed to Wibrandis and brought her back to Strasbourg. Once again, Wibrandis found herself living in a major center of the Reformation. Strasbourg, even more than Basel, was between worlds—between France and Germany culturally, and between the Reformed and the Lutherans theologically, while it also (for a time) served as the haven for Anabaptists and other radicals. Bucer was the dominant figure at this point, negotiating (successfully) for reconciliation with the Lutherans, and (unsuccessfully) for the formation of a national church where Protestants and Catholics could join in worship as the Gospel slowly transformed society. These efforts culminated at the ill-fated Regensburg Colloquy in 1541, and Bucer returned home to find plague sweeping Strasbourg. In the months that followed he watched four of his five children die, while the Capitos lost two of theirs, besides Wibrandis’s son Eusebius Oecolampadius. Then Capito himself and Bucer’s wife Elisabeth were both stricken.

As Martin and Wibrandis stood by Elisabeth’s deathbed, she made them promise to marry each other in order to provide for the children of both families. “We could not answer except by tears,” Bucer recalled later.

A very Reformation household

In March of 1542, the 51-year-old Bucer fulfilled his wife’s dying wish. Bucer was one of the most respected theologians of the Protestant world at this point, and traveled frequently. Wibrandis, in weak health, managed the household, took care of the children (two surviving from Oecolampadius, two from Capito, and two from Bucer, besides her stepson from Bucer’s first marriage) and entertained a wide variety of guests. The couple also adopted needy children and gave shelter to students and refugees living in Strasbourg. The Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli spoke glowingly of the piety and order of Bucer’s household.

Like Oecolampadius and Capito, Bucer was restrained in his own comments on his marriage to Wibrandis. He once said that she was perfect in every respect except that she did not rebuke him as much as Elisabeth had done, and that he now felt the need of Elisabeth’s plain speaking.

Meanwhile, in 1546, Emperor Charles V mustered his forces and dealt a decisive defeat to the Protestant forces. Forced to sue for peace, the Protestants found themselves saddled with an imperially mandated compromise, the “Interim.” They were allowed to continue to preach freely, but they had to give back several churches in each city to the Catholics, and the remaining Protestant churches had to reintroduce certain Catholic ceremonies.

On to England

Some Protestant theologians believed that they could conform to this in good faith. Bucer did not. He would not have been given the choice anyway. The emperor regarded him as one of the principal troublemakers, and Bucer’s exile was a condition of the peace treaty with Strasbourg. In 1548, then, he set out accompanied only by his assistant Fagius for Protestant England, where he had been offered a post as theology professor at Cambridge.

Bucer arrived in England lonely and discouraged. He was convinced the failure of German Protestantism was due to the sinfulness of the Protestants and their failure to practice Christian discipline. He proclaimed this message to his English students with a dour prophetic insistence that some of them found dismaying. Meanwhile, he found the English winter bitterly cold, and a special German-style stove was constructed for him. The food, he complained to Wibrandis, was nothing but meat.

Wibrandis came to England, looked at the situation, and decided that everyone should emigrate. She went back to Strasbourg to make arrangements, where she narrowly escaped being summoned by a Catholic official who was trying to confiscate her property (she admitted that if she had gone she might have “said something hot” which would not have been a good idea). By the end of 1549 she had herded the whole family to England, in time to nurse Martin through two more difficult winters. In 1551 Bucer died, worn out by his endless activity, discouraged by the apparent failure of his work, and weakened by the climate. It was left to Wibrandis to organize the Bucer household for the return trip to Strasbourg. But Strasbourg was no longer a haven. The Interim was still in force (though not for much longer) and the family of a prominent heretic was not safe there. Wibrandis and her household therefore returned to Basel, where she lived for more than 10 years as a much respected matriarch until her death (in yet another plague epidemic) in 1564.

A decisive—if supporting—role

Though Wibrandis never wrote or spoke publicly, and her husbands spoke little of her except to praise her virtue and gentleness, her threat to “say something hot” to the intrusive Strasbourg official shows another side. The details of the move to England also show her to have been decisive and capable, sometimes overruling her ailing husband.

For the most part, Wibrandis stood in the background—but what a background! From the heady beginnings in Basel to the stress and bustle of Strasbourg to the wintry gloom of Edwardian England, Wibrandis played a key (if supporting) role in the unfolding Reformation. The men she married were among the most moderate of the Protestant leaders. They combined learning with reforming fire, and against great odds they struggled to hold the Protestant movement together and make it a genuine renewal of the Church. CH

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #84 in 2004]

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