League of the Holy Court

The League of the Holy Court, Vehmgericht, or just the Vehm was a secret tribunal of Westphalia during the Middle Ages, the principal seat of which was in Dortmund. Traditionally founded in the year 772 CE by Charlemagne, The members of the Vehmic courts were called francs-juges or Freischöffen ("free judges"). The holy vehme took jurisdiction over all crimes during the lawless phase of the Middle Ages, and those condemned by the tribunal were done away with by secret means; but by whose hand, no one knew. After the execution of the death sentence, the corpse was hung on a tree to advertise the fact and deter others.

Their origin is uncertain, but is traceable to the time of Charlemagne and in all probability to the old Teutonic free courts. They were, indeed, also known as free courts (Freigerichte) because all free-born men were eligible for membership and also because they claimed certain exceptional liberties.

The Vehmic courts were the regional courts of Westphalia which, in turn, were based on the county courts of Franconia. They received their jurisdiction from the emperor, from whom they also received the power of life and death (Blutbann) which they exercised in his name. Everywhere else the power of life and death, originally reserved to the emperor alone, had been usurped by the territorial nobles; only in Westphalia, called "the Red Earth" because here the imperial Blutbann was still valid, were capital sentences passed and executed by the Fehmic courts in the emperor's name alone.

Membership and procedure

The sessions were often held in secret, whence the names of secret court (heimliches Gericht, Stillgericht, etc.); and these the uninitiated were forbidden to attend, on pain of death, which led to the designation forbidden courts (verbotene Gerichte). Presiding over the court was the Stuhlherr (chairman), and passing judgment were the Freischöffen (lay judges).

Any free man of good character could become a lay judge. The new candidate was given secret information and identification symbols. The Wissende (knowing one) had to keep his knowledge secret, even from his closest family ("vor Weib und Kind, vor Sand und Wind"). Lay judges had to give formal warnings to known troublemakers, issue warrants, and take part in executions.

The organization of the Fehme was elaborate. The head of each centre of jurisdiction (Freistuhl), often a secular or spiritual prince, sometimes a civic community, was known as the Stuhlherr, the archbishop of Cologne being, as stated above, supreme over all Oberststuhlherren. The actual president of the court was the Freigraf (free count), chosen for life by the Stuhlherr from among the Freischöffen, who formed the great body of the initiated. Of these the lowest rank were the Fronboten or Freifronen, charged with the maintenance of order in the courts and the duty of carrying out the commands of the Freigraf. The immense development of the Fehme is explained by the privileges of the Freischöffen; for they were subject to no jurisdiction but those of the Westphalian courts: whether as accused or accuser they had access to the secret sessions, and they shared in the discussions of the general chapter as to the policy of the society. At their initiation these swore to support the Fehme with all their powers, to guard its secrets, and to bring before its tribunal anything within its competence that they might discover. They were then initiated into the secret signs by which members recognized each other, and were presented with a rope and with a knife on which were engraved the mystic letters S.S.G.G., supposed to mean Stein, Strick, Gras, grün (stone, rope, grass, green).

The procedure of the fehmic courts was practically that of the ancient German courts generally. The place of session, known as the Freistuhl (free seat), was usually a hillock, or some other well-known and accessible spot. The Freigraf and the Schöffen (judges) occupied the bench, before which a table, with a sword and rope upon it, was placed. The court was held by day and, unless the session was declared secret, all freemen, whether initiated or not, were admitted, The accusation was in the old German form; but only a Freischöffe could act as accuser. If the offence came under the competence of the court, i.e. was punishable by death, a summons to the accused was issued under the seal of the Freigraf. This was not usually served on him personally, but was nailed to his door, or to some convenient place where he was certain to pass. Six weeks and three days' grace were allowed, according to the old Saxon law, and the summons was thrice repeated. If the accused appeared, the accuser stated the case, and the investigation proceeded by the examination of witnesses as in an ordinary court of law. The judgment was put into execution on the spot if that was possible.

The secret court, from whose procedure the whole institution has acquired its evil reputation, was closed to all but the initiated, although these were so numerous as to secure quasi-publicity; any one not a member on being discovered was instantly put to death, and the members present were bound under the same penalty not to disclose what took place. Crimes of a serious nature, and especially those that were deemed unfit for ordinary judicial investigation, such as heresy and witchcraft, fell within its jurisdiction, as also did appeals by persons condemned in the open courts, and likewise the cases before those tribunals in which the accused had not appeared. The accused, if a member, could clear himself by his own oath, unless he had revealed the secrets of the Fehme. If he were one of the uninitiated it was necessary for him to bring forward witnesses to his innocence from among the initiated, whose number varied according to the number on the side of the accuser, but twenty-one in favour of innocence necessarily secured an acquittal. The only punishment which the secret court could inflict was death. If the accused appeared, the sentence was carried into execution at once; if he did not appear, it was quickly made known to the whole body, and the Freischöffe who was the first to meet the condemned was bound to put him to death. This was usually done by hanging, the nearest tree serving for gallows. A knife with the cabalistic letters was left beside the corpse to show that the deed was not a murder.

It has been claimed that, in some cases, the condemned would be set free, given several hours' head start and then hunted down and put to death. This practice was referred to as "Free As A Bird". So fearsome was the reputation of the Fehme and its reach that many thus released committed suicide rather than prolonging the inevitable. This practice could have been a holdover from the ancient Germanic legal concept of outlawry.

Legend and romance have combined to exaggerate the sinister reputation of the Fehmic courts; but modern historical research has largely discounted this, proving that they never employed torture, that their sittings were only sometimes secret, and that their meeting-places were always well known.

They were, in fact, a survival of an ancient and venerable German institution; and if, during a certain period, they exercised something like a reign of terror over a great part of Germany, the cause of this lay in the sickness of the times, which called for some powerful organization to combat the growing feudal anarchy. Such an organization the Westphalian free courts, with their discipline of terror and elaborate system of secret service, were well calculated to supply.

The spread of the Fehmic courts

The system, though ancient, began to become of importance only after the division of the duchy of Saxony on the fall of Henry the Lion, when the archbishop of Cologne, duke of Westphalia from 1180 onwards, placed himself as representative of the emperor at the head of the Fehme. The organization now rapidly spread. Every free man, born in lawful wedlock, and neither excommunicate nor outlaw, was eligible for membership.

Princes and nobles were initiated; and in 1429 even the emperor Sigismund himself became "a true and proper Freischöffe of the Holy Roman Empire." There is a manuscript in the Town Hall of the Westphalian town of Soest, which consists of an original Vehmic Court Regulation document, along with illustrations.

By the middle of the 14th century these Freischöffen (Latin scabini), sworn associates of the Fehme, were scattered in thousands throughout the length and breadth of Germany, known to each other by secret signs and pass-words, and all of them pledged to serve the summons of the secret courts and to execute their judgment.

Some see them as precursors of the Society of the Illuminati, the Freemasons and the Ku Klux Klan.

Decline and dissolution of the Courts

That an organization of this character should have outlived its usefulness and ushered in intolerable abuses was inevitable. With the growing power of the territorial sovereigns and the gradual improvement of the ordinary process of justice, the functions of the Fehmic courts were superseded. By the action of the emperor Maximilian and of other German princes they were, in the 16th century, once more restricted to Westphalia, and here, too, they were brought under the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts, and finally confined to mere police duties. With these functions, however, but with the old forms long since robbed of their impressiveness, they survived into the 19th century. They were finally abolished by order of Jerome Bonaparte, king of Westphalia, in 1811. The last Freigraf died in 1835.


Vehm (Ger. Femgerichte, or Vehmgerichte) is of disputed origin, but probably, according to J. Grimm, from Old High German feme or feime, a court of justice or perhaps the Middle High German word veime, meaning punishment. In modern German, the variant form of Feme is much more common. Other variant forms are: Fehme, Feime, Veme. Another interpretation, put forth by the Scottish authority James Skene in 1824, was that it was derived from Baeume Gericht (Lit. 'Tree law') and actually traced its own roots back to paganism and the forest law of the Wild hunt and pagan secret societies.

In the early 20th century, there were 'Fememorde' (Vehm murders, or lynchings) of republican politicians (e.g. Walther Rathenau) by rightwing groups.

The verb 'verfemen' is in current use and means 'to outlaw', 'to ban', 'to ostracise'. A noun derived from this is 'der Verfemte' - the one who has been outlawed / ostracised = the outlaw / the ostracised person.

The Vehmic courts in fiction

The Vehmic courts have been used several times in fiction. Because of the secrecy that they operated under, many fanciful tales emerged regarding their activities.Vehmic courts play a key role in the novel Anne of Geierstein or, The Maiden of the Mist by Sir Walter Scott in which Archibald von Hagenbach, the Duke of Burgundy's governor at Brisach (Switzerland), is condemned and executed by the Vehmgericht. Scott drew his inspiration from Goethe's play Goetz von Berlichingen which he had translated, alas, incorrectly.It is mentioned in a fictional newspaper article in A Study in Scarlet, one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels. The Femgerichte also makes a sinister appearance in The Strong Arm by the English novelist Robert Barr. The term is also used as an allusion by William Makepeace Thackeray in Vanity Fair::Was Rebecca guilty or not? The Vehmgericht of the servants' hall pronounced against her.—Vanity Fair, xliv. (1848). The Holy Vehm is alleged to be an Illuminati front in "The Illuminatus! Trilogy" by Robert Shea and Robert Anton WilsonA character in the Dorothy L. Sayers novel "Murder Must Advertise" appears at a fancy-dress party as a member of the Vehmgericht, which allows him to wear a hooded costume to disguise his identity. "Court of Honour" by Geoff Taylor. Published by Granada Publishing Limited, 1968. A frightening war novel of the brutal last-ditch attempts to keep Nazism alive. In Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain Naphta declares that Settembrini should be brought before the Fehme. Page 515 of the Vintage paperback, 1996.


  • P. Wigand, Das Femgericht Westfalens (Hamm, 1825, 2nd ed., Halle, 1893)
  • L. Tross, Sammlung merkwurdiger Urkunden für die Geschichte der Femgerichte (Hanover, 1826)
  • F. P. Usener, Die frei- und heimlichen Gerichte Westfalens (Frankfort, 1832)
  • K. G. von Wachter, Beitrage zur deutschen Gesch., insbesondere des deutschen Strafrechts (Tübingen, 1845)
  • 0. Wachter, Femgerichte und Hexenprozesse in Deutschland (Stuttgart. 1882)
  • T. Lindner, Die Feme (Munster and Paderborn, 1888)
  • F. Thudichum, Femgericht und Inquisition (Giessen, 1889) whose theory concerning the origin of the Fehme is combated in
  • T. Lindner, Der angebliche Ursprung der Fern gerichte aus der Inquisition (Paderborn, 1890).

For works on individual aspects see further Dahlmän and Waitz, Quellenkunde (ed. Leipzig, 1906), p. 401; also lb. supplementary vol. (1907), p. 78.

  • Daraul, Arkon, A History of Secret Societies, London, Tandem, 1965, has a chapter on the Holy Vehm; among other things, it describes the practice of "Free As a Bird".


Note: This article (or an earlier version) contains text from the public domain Brewer's Reader's Handbook, published in 1898, and from an 1911 public domain encyclopedia. Note that it may still contain scanning errors, which need correction. Error checking by German speakers is particularly welcomed.

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