Philip had appointed as his regent Margaret, Duchess of Parma, a natural daughter of Charles V by a Flemish mother. She had been brought up in the Netherlands and, despite long residence in Italy, she could understand the Flemings if not the Dutch. She was neither bigoted nor intolerant, but was a devout Catholic who, annually in Holy Week, washed the feet of twelve maidens and gave them marriage dowries. She was an able and kindly woman, uncomfortably lost in a maelstrom of revolution.

Her authority was limited by advisers whom Philip had designated. Egmont and Orange were in her Council of State, but, finding themselves consistently outvoted by the three other members, they ceased to attend. In the resultant triumvirate the dominant personality was Antoine Perrenot, Bishop of Arras, known to history as Cardinal de Granvelle. He was a man of good character according to his lights; like Margaret, he was inclined to peaceful means in dealing with “heresy,” but he was so dedicated to Catholicism and monarchy that he found it hard to understand dissent. He and the Regent were handicapped by Philip’s insistence that no important measure could be taken without the royal consent, which took weeks to transmit from Madrid to Brussels. The Cardinal sacrificed popularity by obeying the King. He privately opposed the multiplication of bishoprics, but yielded to Philip’s insistence that four sees were not enough for seventeen provinces. The Protestant minority noted with anger that the new bishops were spreading and intensifying the papal Inquisition. In March 1563 Orange, Egmont, and Horn, themselves Catholics, wrote to Philip charging Granvelle with violating provincial rights that the King was pledged to maintain; they thought the Cardinal responsible for the new bishops, and they urged his removal from office. Margaret herself did not relish his assumption of powers; she longed for some accord with the dissatisfied nobles, who were important to her in preserving social order; finally (September 1563) she too recommended that Granvelle be sent to other pastures. After long resistance, Philip yielded, and invited the lordly minister to enjoy a leave of absence. Granvelle left Brussels (March 13, 1564), but he continued to be one of the King’s most trusted counselors. The nobles returned to Margaret’s Council of State. Some of their appointees sold offices, justice, and pardons, and the Regent seems to have shared in the spoils.9

The Inquisition spread. Philip watched it from Spain, urged it on, and sent Margaret the names of suspected heretics. Hardly a day passed without an execution. In 1561 Geleyn de Muler was burned at Audenaarde; Thomas Calberg was burned alive at Tournai; an Anabaptist was hacked to death with seven blows of a rusty sword in the presence of his wife, who died with horror at the sight.10 Enraged by these barbarities, Bertrand le Blas invaded the cathedral of Tournai during Christmas Mass, rushed to the altar, snatched the Host from the priest, trampled it underfoot, and cried out to the congregation, “Misguided men, do ye take this thing to be Jesus Christ, your Lord and Saviour?” He was put to torture, his right hand and foot were burned away to the bone, his tongue was torn out, he was suspended over a fire and was slowly roasted to death. At Lille Robert Ogier, his wife, and his sons were burned because they called the worship of the consecrated Host a blasphemous idolatry.II

The Torquemada of the Netherlands was Peter Titelman, whose methods were so arbitrary and brutal that the city council of Bruges, all Catholic, denounced him to the Regent as a barbarian who dragged people from their homes, tried them without any legal checks, forced them to say whatever he wished, and then condemned them to death; and the magistrates of Flanders, in an earnest address to Philip, begged him to end these enormities. Margaret timidly asked the Inquisitor to conduct himself “with discretion and modesty,” but the executions continued. Philip supported Titelman, and bade the Regent enforce without mercy or delay the decrees recently issued by the Council of Trent (1564). The Council of State protested that several of these decrees violated the recognized privileges of the provinces, and it suspended their publication.

William of Orange, anxious to keep the Netherlands united in the preservation of their traditional political liberties, proposed a policy of toleration far in advance of his time. “The King errs,” he told the Council of State, “if he thinks that the Netherlands … can indefinitely support these sanguinary edicts. However strongly I am attached to the Catholic religion, I cannot approve of princes attempting to rule the consciences of their subjects and wanting to rob them of the liberty of faith.”11 Catholics joined with Protestants in branding the edicts as tyrannical.12 Egmont was sent to Madrid to ask for a mitigation of the edicts; Margaret privately seconded the request. Egmont was feted in Spain, but came back empty-handed. The bishops of Ypres, Namur, Ghent, and St.-Omer addressed a petition to Philip (June 1565), begging him to soften the edicts and “to admonish the people by gentleness and fatherly love, not by judicial severity.”13 To all such protests Philip replied that he would rather sacrifice a hundred thousand lives than change his policy,14 and in October 1565 he sent this plain directive to the agents of the Inquisition:

As to the Inquisition, my will is that it be enforced … as of old, and as is required by all law, human and divine. This lies very near my heart, and I require you to carry out my orders. Let all condemned prisoners be put to death, and suffer them no longer to escape through the neglect, weakness, and bad faith of the judges. If any are too timid to execute the edicts, I will replace them by men who have more heart and zeal.15

Margaret obeyed Philip and ordered full enforcement of the edicts (November 14, 1565). Orange and Egmont again withdrew from her Council. Orange, other nobles, and many magistrates refused to enforce the edicts. Protestants poured forth pamphlets and broadsheets denouncing the persecution. Foreign merchants, sensing revolution in the air, began to leave the Low Countries. Stores closed, trade languished, Antwerp seemed dead. Many Netherland Protestants fled to England or Germany. In England they helped to develop those textile industries which in the seventeenth century competed with the United Provinces, and in the eighteenth led the Industrial Revolution.

Many of the lesser nobles secretly adopted the Protestant creed. In December 1565 some of these—Louis, Count of Nassau (the chivalrous younger brother of William), Philip van Marnix, Lord of St.-Aldegonde, his brother Jean van Marnix, Lord of Tholouse, Hendrik, Count of Brederode, and others—met in the palace of the Count of Culemborch in Brussels, drew up a “Compromise” denouncing the introduction of the Inquisition into the Netherlands, and formed a league pledged to drive it from the country. On April 5, 1566, some four hundred of these minor nobles marched to the palace of the Regent, and presented to her a “Request” that she ask the King to end the Inquisition and the edicts in the Netherlands, and that all enforcement of the edicts be suspended until Philip’s reply was received. Margaret replied that she would communicate their petition to the King, but that she had no authority to suspend the edicts; however, she would do all in her power to mitigate their operation. One of her councilors, seeing her frightened by the number and the resolution of the petitioners, reassured her: “What, madam, is your Highness afraid of these beggars [ces gueux]?” The confederates defiantly accepted the name; many of them adopted the coarse gray costume, the wallet and bowl then characteristic of mendicants; “Vivent les Gueux!” became the battle cry of the revolution, and for a year it was these younger nobles who led and nourished the revolt.

Margaret apprised Philip of the “Request” and its wide popular support, and renewed her efforts to bring him around to moderation. He answered in an apparently conciliatory mood (May 6, 1566): he hoped that heresy could be suppressed without further shedding of blood, and he promised to visit the Netherlands soon. The Council of State sent to him Florent de Montmorency, Baron of Montigny, and the Marquis of Bergheon to reinforce the Regent’s plea. Philip received them handsomely; wrote to Margaret (July 31) consenting to the abolition of the episcopal Inquisition in the Netherlands, and offering a general pardon to all for whom the Regent should recommend it.

The Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists of the Netherlands took advantage of this lull in the storm to bring their worship out in the open. Protestant refugees returned in considerable number from England, Germany, and Switzerland; preachers of all kinds—ex-monks, learned theologians, ambitious hatters, curriers, and tanners—addressed large gatherings of fervent men and women, many of them armed, all chanting psalms and crying, “Vivent les Gueux!” Near Tournai Ambrose Wille, who had studied with Calvin, preached to six thousand (June 28, 1566); two days later, on the same spot, another minister addressed ten thousand; a week later, twenty thousand.16 Half of Flanders seemed to have gone Protestant. On Sundays the churches and towns were almost empty while the townspeople attended the Protestant assemblies. When word went about the province of Holland that the eloquent Peter Gabriel was to preach at Overeen, near Haarlem, Protestants by the thousands flocked there and shook the fields with their psalms. Near Antwerp the Protestant assemblages numbered fifteen thousand—some said thirty thousand—nearly every man armed. The Regent ordered the magistrates of Antwerp to prevent such gatherings as a danger to the state; they replied that their militia was inadequate and unreliable. Margaret herself, since the departure of the Spanish garrisons, had no troops at her disposal. Antwerp was in such turmoil that economic life was seriously impeded. The Regent asked William of Orange to go there and arrange some peaceful settlement between Catholics and Protestants. He quieted the strife by persuading the preachers to confine their assemblies to the suburbs and to keep them unarmed.

In this same month (July 1566) two thousand “Beggars,” led by Count Louis of Nassau, gathered at St.-Trond, in the bishopric of Liége, and, amid much joyous roistering, laid plans to advance their cause. They resolved to communicate with German Protestants and to raise among them an army that would come to the aid of the Netherland Protestants in case these should be attacked. On July 26 Louis and twelve others, garbed as beggars, presented to the Regent a demand that she convene the States-General, and that meanwhile she be guided by Orange, Egmont, and Horn. Her answer being noncommittal, they intimated that they might be obliged to seek foreign aid. Louis at once proceeded, with the connivance of his more cautious brother William, to raise in Germany four thousand cavalry and forty companies of infantry.17

On August 9 Philip signed a formal instrument declaring that his offer of pardon had been wrung from him against his will and did not bind him, and on August 12 he assured the Pope that the suspension of the Inquisition was subject to papal approval.18 On August 14 a Protestant crowd, aroused by preachers who denounced religious images as idols, broke into one after another of St.-Omer’s churches, smashed the images and the altars, and destroyed all decorations. In that week similar mobs accomplished like denudations in Ypres, Courtrai, Audenaarde, and Valenciennes. At Antwerp, on the sixteenth and seventeenth, mobs entered the great cathedral, broke up the altars, shattered stained glass, the crucifixes and other images, destroyed organs, embroideries, chalices, and monstrances, opened sepulchers, and stripped corpses of ornaments. They drank the sacramental wine, burned costly missals, and trampled upon masterpieces of art. Having sent for ladders and ropes, they hauled statues down from niches and smashed them with sledge hammers. Shouting in triumph, the crowd passed through Antwerp, destroyed the images and ornaments in thirty churches and monasteries, burned monastic libraries, and drove monks and nuns from their convents.19 When the news of this “Calvinist Fury” reached Tournai the iconoclastic ecstasy was let loose there, and every church was sacked. In Flanders alone four hundred churches were cleansed of their imagery. At Culemborch the jolly Count presided over the devastation, and fed his parrots with consecrated Hosts;20 elsewhere some former priests toasted the wafers on forks.21 From Flanders the Fury passed into the northern provinces, to Amsterdam, Leiden, Delft, Utrecht, at last into Groningen and Friesland. Most Protestant leaders condemned these ravages, but some of them, noting that very little violence had been done to persons, judged the destruction of statues and pictures as less criminal than the burning of live “heretics.”

Margaret of Parma shrank before this storm. “Anything and everything is now tolerated in this country,” she wrote to Philip, “except the Catholic religion.”22 Philip bided his time for revenge, but the Regent, faced with armed mobs and audacious leaders, felt compelled to make concessions. On August 23 she signed with the representatives of the Gueux an “Accord” by which Calvinist worship was to be permitted wherever it was already practiced, on condition that it should not interfere with Catholic services, and that the Protestants should leave their weapons at home. The confederate spokesmen agreed to disband their league if the government lived up to this accord. The persecution halted, and for a moment there was peace.

Neither William of Orange nor the King of Spain was satisfied to let matters rest. William saw in the growth of a passionate Protestantism an instrument with which to win independence for the Netherlands. Though still nominally a Catholic, he resigned all his state offices, organized his own system of espionage, and went to Germany (April 22, 1567) to seek soldiers and funds. Five days later the Duke of Alva left Spain, commissioned by Philip to raise and use sufficient troops to avenge the Calvinist riots and stamp out, by uncompromising force, all heresy, rebellion, and freedom in the Netherlands.

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