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History of the Moravian Church
« Prev Chapter X. The Martyr-Bishop, 1548–1560. Next »

CHAPTER X.

THE MARTYR-BISHOP, 1548–1560.

MEANWHILE, John Augusta, the great leader of the Brethren, was passing through the furnace of affliction.

Of all the tools employed by Ferdinand, the most crafty, active and ambitious was a certain officer named Sebastian Schöneich, who, in the words of the great historian, Gindely, was one of those men fitted by nature for the post of hangman.

For some months this man had distinguished himself by his zeal in the cause of the King. He had seized sixteen heads of families for singing hymns at a baker’s funeral, had thrown them into the drain-vaults of the White Tower at Prague, and had left them there to mend their ways in the midst of filth and horrible stenches. And now he occupied the proud position of town-captain of Leitomischl. Never yet had he known such a golden chance of covering himself with glory. For some time Augusta, who was now First Senior of the Church, had been hiding in the neighbouring woods, and only two or three Brethren knew his exact abode. But already persecution had done her work, and treachery now did hers.

Among the inhabitants of Leitomischl were certain renegade Brethren, and these now said to the Royal Commissioners: “If the King could only capture and torture Augusta, he could unearth the whole conspiracy.”

“Where is Augusta?” asked the Commissioners.

“He is not at home,” replied the traitors, “but if you will ask his friend, Jacob Bilek, he will tell you all you want to know.”

The wily Schöneich laid his plot. If only he could capture Augusta, he would win the favour of the King and fill his own pockets with money. As he strolled one day through the streets of Leitomischl he met a certain innocent Brother Henry, and there and then began his deadly work.

“If you know,” he said, “where Augusta is, tell him I desire an interview with him. I will meet him wherever he likes. I have something special to say to him, something good, not only for him, but for the whole Brethren’s Church. But breathe not a word of this to anyone else. Not a soul—not even yourself—must know about the matter.”

The message to Augusta was sent. He replied that he would grant the interview on condition that Schöneich would guarantee his personal safety.

“That,” replied Schöneich, “is quite impossible. I cannot give any security whatever. The whole business must be perfectly secret. Not a soul must be present but Augusta and myself. I wouldn’t have the King know about this for a thousand groschen. Tell Augusta not to be afraid of me. I have no instructions concerning him. He can come with an easy mind to Leitomischl. If he will not trust me as far as that, let him name the place himself, and I will go though it be a dozen miles away.”

But Augusta still returned the same answer, and Schöneich had to strengthen his plea. Again he met the guileless Brother Henry, and again he stormed him with his eloquent tongue.

“Have you no better answer from Augusta?” he asked.

“No,” replied Brother Henry.

“My dear, my only Henry,” pleaded Schöneich, “I do so long for a little chat with Augusta. My heart bleeds with sympathy for you. I am expecting the King’s Commissioners. They may be here any moment. It will go hard with you poor folk when they come. If only I could have a talk with Augusta, it would be so much better for you all. But do tell him not to be afraid of me. I have no instructions concerning him. I will wager my neck for that,” he said, putting his finger to his throat. “I am willing to give my life for you poor Brethren.”

The shot went home. As Augusta lay in his safe retreat he had written stirring letters to the Brethren urging them to be true to their colours; and now, he heard from his friends in Leitomischl that Schöneich was an evangelical saint, and that if he would only confer with the saint he might render his Brethren signal service, and deliver them from their distresses. He responded nobly to the appeal. For the sake of the Church he had led so long, he would risk his liberty and his life. In vain the voice of prudence said “Stay!”; the voice of love said “Go!”; and Augusta agreed to meet the Captain in a wood three miles from the town. The Captain chuckled. The time was fixed, and, the night before, the artful plotter sent three of his trusty friends to lie in wait. As the morning broke of the fateful day {April 25th, 1548.}, Augusta, still suspecting a trap, sent his secretary, Jacob Bilek, in advance to spy the land; and the three brave men sprang out upon him and carried him off to Schöneich. And then, at the appointed hour, came John Augusta himself. He had dressed himself as a country peasant, carried a hoe in is hand, and strolled in the woodland whistling a merry tune. For the moment the hirelings were baffled. They seized him and let him go; they seized him again and let him go again; they seized him, for the third time, searched him, and found a fine handkerchief in his bosom.

“Ah,” said one of them, “a country peasant does not use a handkerchief like this.”

The game was up. Augusta stood revealed, and Schöneich, hearing the glorious news, came prancing up on his horse.

“My lord,” said Augusta, “is this what you call faith?”

“Did you never hear,” said Schöneich, “that promises made in the night are never binding? Did you never hear of a certain Jew with his red beard and yellow bag? Did you never hear of the mighty power of money? And where have you come from this morning? I hear you have plenty of money in your possession. Where is that money now?”

As they rode next day in a covered waggon on their way to the city of Prague, the Captain pestered Augusta with many questions.

“My dear Johannes,” said the jovial wag, “where have you been? With whom? Where are your letters and your clothes? Whose is this cap? Where did you get it? Who lent it to you? What do they call him? Where does he live? Where is your horse? Where is your money? Where are your companions?”

“Why do you ask so many questions?” asked Augusta.

“Because,” replied Schöneich, letting out the murder, “I want to be able to give information about you. I don’t want to be called a donkey or a calf.”

And now began for John Augusta a time of terrible testing. As the Captain rapped his questions out he was playing his part in a deadly game that involved the fate, not only of the Brethren’s Church, but of all evangelicals in the land.

For months King Ferdinand had longed to capture Augusta. He regarded him as the author of the Smalkald League; he regarded him as the deadliest foe of the Catholic faith in Europe; he regarded the peaceful Brethren as rebels of the vilest kind; and now that he had Augusta in his power he determined to make him confess the plot, and then, with the proof he desired in his hands, he would stamp out the Brethren’s Church for once and all.

For this purpose Augusta was now imprisoned in the White Tower at Prague. He was placed in the wine vaults below the castle, had heavy fetters on his hands and feet, and sat for days in a crunched position. The historic contest began. For two hours at a stretch the King’s examiners riddled Augusta with questions. “Who sent the letter to the King?”4141The letter, that is, in which the Brethren had pleaded not guilty to the charge of treason. they asked. “Where do the Brethren keep their papers and money? To whom did the Brethren turn for help when the King called on his subjects to support him? Who went with you to Wittenberg? For what and for whom did the Brethren pray.”

“They prayed,” said Augusta, “that God would incline the heart of the King to be gracious to us.”

“By what means did the Brethren defend themselves?”

“By patience,” replied Augusta.

“To whom did they apply for help?”

Augusta pointed to heaven.

As Augusta’s answers to all these questions were not considered satisfactory, they next endeavoured to sharpen his wits by torturing a German coiner in his presence; and when this mode of persuasion failed, they tortured Augusta himself. They stripped him naked. They stretched him face downwards on a ladder. They smeared his hips with boiling pitch. They set the spluttering mess on fire, and drew it off, skin and all, with a pair of tongs. They screwed him tightly in the stocks. They hung him up to the ceiling by a hook, with the point run through his flesh. They laid him flat upon his back and pressed great stones on his stomach. It was all in vain. Again they urged him to confess the part that he and the Brethren had played in the great revolt, and again Augusta bravely replied that the Brethren had taken no such part at all.

At this the King himself intervened. For some months he had been busy enough at Augsburg, assisting the Emperor in his work; but now he sent a letter to Prague, with full instructions how to deal with Augusta. If gentle measures did not succeed, then sterner measures, said he, must be employed. He had three new tortures to suggest. First, he said, let Augusta be watched and deprived of sleep for five or six days. Next, he must be strapped to a shutter, with his head hanging over one end; he must have vinegar rubbed into his nostrils; he must have a beetle fastened on to his stomach; and in this position, with his neck aching, his nostrils smarting, and the beetle working its way to his vitals, he must be kept for two days and two nights. And, third, if these measures did not act, he must be fed with highly seasoned food and allowed nothing to drink.

But these suggestions were never carried out. As the messenger hastened with the King’s billet-doux, and the Brethren on the northern frontier were setting out for Poland, Augusta and Bilek were on their way to the famous old castle of Pürglitz. For ages that castle, built on a rock, and hidden away in darkling woods, had been renowned in Bohemian lore. There the mother of Charles IV. had heard the nightingales sing; there the faithful, ran the story, had held John Ziska at bay; there had many a rebel suffered in the terrible “torture-tower”; and there Augusta and his faithful friend were to lie for many a long and weary day.

They were taken to Pürglitz in two separate waggons. They travelled by night and arrived about mid-day; they were placed in two separate cells, and for sixteen years the fortunes of the Brethren centred round Pürglitz Castle.

If the Bishop had been the vilest criminal, he could not have been more grossly insulted. For two years he had to share his cell with a vulgar German coiner; and the coiner, in facetious pastime, often smote him on the head.

His cell was almost pitch-dark. The window was shuttered within and without, and the merest glimmer from the cell next door struggled in through a chink four inches broad. At meals alone he was permitted half a candle. For bedding he had a leather bolster, a coverlet and what Germans call a “bed-sack.” For food he was allowed two rations of meat, two hunches of bread, and two jugs of barley-beer a day. His shirt was washed about once a fortnight, his face and hands twice a week, his head twice a year, and the rest of his body never. He was not allowed the use of a knife and fork. He was not allowed to speak to the prison attendants. He had no books, no papers, no ink, no news of the world without; and there for three years he sat in the dark, as lonely as the famous prisoner of Chillon. Again, by the King’s command, he was tortured, with a gag in his mouth to stifle his screams and a threat that if he would not confess he should have an interview with the hangman; and again he refused to deny his Brethren, and was flung back into his corner.

The delivering angel came in humble guise. Among the warders who guarded his cell was a daring youth who had lived at Leitomischl. He had been brought up among the Brethren. He regarded the Bishop as a martyr. His wife lived in a cottage near the castle; and now, drunken rascal though he was, he risked his life for Augusta’s sake, used his cottage as a secret post office, and handed in to the suffering Bishop letters, books, ink, paper, pens, money and candles.

The Brethren stationed a priest in Pürglitz village. The great Bishop was soon as bright and active as ever. By day he buried his tools in the ground; by night he plugged every chink and cranny, and applied himself to his labours. Not yet was his spirit broken; not yet was his mind unhinged. As his candle burned in that gloomy dungeon in the silent watches of the night, so the fire of his genius shone anew in those darksome days of trial and persecution; and still he urged his afflicted Brethren to be true to the faith of their fathers, to hold fast the Apostles’ Creed, and to look onward to the brighter day when once again their pathway would shine as the wings of a dove that are covered with silver and her feathers with yellow gold. He comforted Bilek in his affliction; he published a volume of sermons for the elders to read in secret; he composed a number of stirring and triumphant hymns; and there he penned the noble words still sung in the Brethren’s Church:—

Praise God for ever.

Boundless is his favour,

To his Church and chosen flock,

Founded on Christ the Rock.

As he lay in his cell he pondered much on the sad fate of his Brethren. At one time he heard a rumour that the Church was almost extinct. Some, he knew, had fled to Poland. Some had settled in Moravia. Some, robbed of lands and houses, were roaming the country as pedlars or earning a scanty living as farm labourers. And some, alas! had lowered the flag and joined the Church of Rome.

And yet Augusta had never abandoned hope. For ten years, despite a few interruptions, he kept in almost constant touch, not only with his own Brethren, but also with the Protestant world at large. He was still, he thought, the loved and honoured leader; he was still the mightiest religious force in the land; and now, in his dungeon, he sketched a plan to heal his country’s woes and form the true disciples of Christ into one grand national Protestant army against which both Pope and Emperor would for ever contend in vain.


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