The Reformation In The Netherlands

Charles Addressing the States

Perhaps no people suffered more in the struggle for liberty of conscience than did those of the Low Countries. The German states were a loose coalition held together by their fear of the Turks; but even though subject to the emperor, they had gone to great lengths to retain a degree of their sovereignty as independent states. The Low Countries, however, were directly under the control of the King of Spain, and as such, had nothing standing between them and the Spanish hatred of the Reformation, such as Luther had in Duke Frederick of Saxony.

In the thirteenth century, the Church of Rome in the Netherlands was flourishing in both wealth and power. However, by the fourteenth century, numbers of Waldenses and Abligenses, driven from Southern France or from the valleys of the Alps, had sought refuge in Netherlands, bringing with them the Romaunt version of the Bible which was translated into Low Dutch rhymes.

Charles V

Charles V flung down the gage of battle to Protestantism vowing most solemnly to extirpate heresy or to sacrifice armies, treasures, kingdoms and soul, in the attempt. Germany was largely spared from the consequences of that threat by the sovereign rights of its hereditary princes, who stood between their subjects and Charles, but the Netherlands had no such protection.

One edict after another was issued, but unlike in Germany, they were ruthlessly executed. According to the historian Meteren, during the last thirty years of Charles’s reign, no fewer than 50,000 Protestants were put to death in the provinces of the Netherlands. Other historians raise the number to closer to 100,000. Even were these figures somewhat exaggerated, there is no question that the number of victims was not small. The persecution continued from July of 1523 until the day of Charles’s abdication. By this time, it was becoming evident to all who were not so blinded by bigotry as to be rendered incapable of seeing the obvious, that the life was departing from the country and it was rapidly approaching ruin, as artisans fled and commerce declined, but that the extinction of heresy was still distant and likely to be reached only when the land had become a desert and the harbors empty.

On October 25, 1555, the Estates of the Netherlands were summoned by an imperial edict to witness the surrender of the sovereignty of Charles in favor of his son. Though only fifty-five years of age, the constant toils had worn him down and Charles entered the hall leaning on the shoulder of William of Nassau. “The murderer of his subjects would fain seem the paternal ruler; the disappointed, baffled, fleeing opponent of Protestantism puts on the airs of the conqueror, and strives to hide defeat under the pageantries of State, and the symbols of victory. The closing scene of Charles V. is but a repetition of Julian’s confession of discomfiture—“Thou hast overcome, O Galilean.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 18, chapter 4

The young man on whose shoulder Charles leaned, though only twenty-three, had already shown himself to be resourceful and courageous and Charles recognizing his abilities, had placed him in command of the army of the frontier where he had confronted some of the best generals of France. As the emperor leaned upon his shoulder, could he have but seen the future, one wonders if Charles would have withdrawn his arm, for this man was Prince of Orange, destined to be the great antagonist of his son and the one who would eventually bring down from its pinnacle of power the great monarchy which Charles was bequeathing his son, raising little Holland to a level of commercial prosperity and literary glory which Spain had never known.

During the closing years of Charles’s reign, there had been a lull in the terrible persecution of his earlier years. Though it had not completely ceased, it had lessened to an extent, no doubt in part to smooth the way for his son. An extension of some few years of comparative tranquility intervened between the accession of Phillip II and the commencement of the terrible events that would mark his reign as one long dark tragedy.

It was four years after his accession that Philip renewed the persecution that had disgraced the last thirty years of Charles’ reign. The court in Flanders, over which Philip presided, though it did not have the name, was for all practical purposes the Inquisition which was exercised by the Holy Office in Spain. Even among the submissive natives of Italy and Spain, the establishment of the Inquisition had encountered opposition; but among the spirited wealthy citizens of the Netherlands, whose privileges had been expanding, and whose love of liberty and been growing ever since the twelfth century, it was regarded with universal horror.

Philip of Spain

At his accession Philip had sworn to uphold all the chartered rights of the Netherlands; but a series of new edicts over rode every one of them. The nobles realized that this violation of faith on the part of their monarch did not bode well for them.  One fundamental law, ever esteemed by the Netherlanders as one of the most valuable of their privileges, and which Philip and sworn to respect, made it unlawful to bring foreign soldiers into the country. Philip, despite his oath, refused to withdraw his Spanish troops. So long as they remained, the Netherlanders well knew that the door stood open for the entrance of a much larger force.

Another of their rights, stipulated in the ancient charters, provided that the citizens should be tried before the ordinary courts and by ordinary judges. But, with the introduction of an Inquisition type of court, all these rights were swept aside. This new court was allowed the most unrestrained indulgence in a capricious and murderous tyranny.

Before setting leaving the Netherlands, Philip convoked an assembly of the States in Ghent in order to deliver to them his parting instructions. After having expressed his great affection for the Provinces, he asked of them three million gold florins. These preliminaries out of the way, he indicated his intention to renew previous edicts for the extirpation of all heresy. The charge was laid on all in authority to trample heresy and heretics out of existence. The convention begged till tomorrow to return and an answer regarding the three million levy which the king asked.

The following day, the Estates indicated their cheerful willingness to yield to the king the monies he requested but they appended it with a condition; that condition was the withdrawal of all Spanish troops. The king’s face grew dark. To ask him to withdraw his soldiers was to ask him to give up the Netherlands. Without the soldiers how could he maintain the edicts and Inquisition? The very idea of such a thing threw him into a rage that he took no pains to conceal.

However, a still greater mortification awaited him. Before the convention broke up, a formal remonstrance on the subject of the Spanish soldiers was presented to Philip in the name of the States General, signed by the Prince of Orange, as well as other nobles. At the same time, it was requested that he annul, or at least moderate the edicts. When one of his ministers presented in the most tactful terms possible that to persist in their execution would sow the seeds of rebellion, and thereby risk the loss of his sovereignty over the Provinces, Philip replied that he had rather be no king at all than have heretics for subjects, leaving the hall in a rage.

A day or two later, his passion having had time to subside, he determined upon a policy of dissimulation until such a time as he had successfully tamed the stubbornness and pride of the Netherland nobles.

Margaret, Duchess of Parma

Before departing for Spain, Philip looked around for someone to appoint as regent of this important part of his dominion and decided upon Margaret, Duchess of Parma, and a natural daughter of Charles. Three councils were organized to assist her in the government of the Provinces; the nobles selected to serve in these councils were those highest in rank and who fully enjoyed the confidence of their countrymen. However, these men ruled in name only. The real power lay with three members of the Council of State composed of the Bishop of Arras, Viglius, and Berlaymont. As the latter two were so thoroughly identified in sentiment with and will with with Arras, who has become known in history by the title of Cardinal Granvelle, it was in fact with him that lay all the power of government.

Granvelle was entirely devoted to Philip. Thus from Spain came the orders that ruled the Netherlands. At the State Council storms were a frequent occurrence. At the table sat men, some of whom were superior in rank to Arras, yet his equals in talent, and who, due to the brilliant service which they had rendered in the field could lay claim to Philips regard to which the bishop could make no pretension.  Most notable of these were the Prince of Orange and Counts Egmont and Horn, who in addition to great wealth and distinguished merit, held high positions in the State as the Stadtholders of important Provinces. Yet they were mere puppets at the council board, while an arrogant and haughty ecclesiastic ruled the country.

Cardinal Granville

Meanwhile, popular discontent was growing. Protestantism, which Margaret and her ministers were doing everything possible to extirpate, was spreading every day. Granvelle ascribed this growth to negligence to the magistrates failing to execute the “edicts.” Orange and Egmont, on the other hand, placed the blame on the cardinal who was replacing old Netherland liberty with Spanish despotism. The history of the years 1560–64 can be written in the blood of the confessors of Jesus Christ. “It was death to pray to God in one’s own closet; it was death not to bow when an image was carried past one in the street; it was death to copy a hymn from a Genevese psalter, or sing a psalm; it was death not to deny the heresy of which one was suspected when one was questioned, although one had never uttered it.” Ibid., chapter 6. While many thousand were killed, many more thousands fled the country, among these, William of Orange.

On February 16, 1568, it was declared by the Fathers of the Spanish Inquisition that “ ‘with the exception of a select list of names which had been handed them, all the inhabitants of the Netherlands were heretics or abettors of heresy, and so had been guilty of the crime of high treason.’ On the 26th of the same month, Philip confirmed this sentence by a royal proclamation, in which he commanded the decree to be carried into immediate execution, without favor or respect of persons. The King of Spain actually passed sentence of death upon a whole nation.” Ibid., chapter 14

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