Katherine Von Bora (1499–1552)

Runaway nun who became Luther’s “lord”

When Martin Luther heard that the monks joining in his reformation had begun getting married, he rejected the idea for himself: “Good heavens! They won’t give me a wife!” But time would prove otherwise. In 1523, Katherine von Bora and eleven (some say eight) other nuns wanted to escape their cloister, and they wrote to Luther, whose radical new ideas had filtered into their convent. Though liberating nuns was a capital offense, Luther devised an ingenious plan with Leonhard Koppe, who regularly delivered herring to the cloister. On Koppe’s next delivery, twelve nuns were smuggled out—inside empty herring barrels. As a man in Wittenberg put it, “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life.” Luther found husbands for most, but he struggled to find a suitable match for Katherine, a feisty redhead in her mid-20s, far beyond the usual age for marriage. He proposed one older man, but she refused him, adding that if Luther himself were willing, she would say yes. Luther was not interested. “I am not now inclined to take a wife,” he wrote to a friend. “Not that I lack the feelings of a man (for I am neither wood nor stone), but my mind is averse to marriage because I daily expect the death decreed to the heretic.” Bolstered by his parents’ encouragement to wed, however, Luther married in the summer of 1525, “quickly and secretly.” He knew his best friends would not have approved of his choice: “All my best friends exclaimed, ‘For heaven’s sake, not this one,’ ” he admitted. The marriage brought even more scorn from his Catholic opponents, such as Henry VIII, who considered the union “a crime.” ...

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