In the Flanders of Charles’s maturity a thriving commerce was more than making up for sporadic industrial decline. Bruges and Ghent were depressed, but Brussels survived by being the Flemish capital, Louvain was brewing theology and beer, and Antwerp was becoming—would be by 1550—the richest, busiest city in Europe. To that hectic port on the broad and navigable Scheldt international trade and finance were drawn by low import and export dues, by the political connection with Spain, and by a bourse dedicated, its inscription said, ad usum mercatorum cuiusque gentis ac linguae—“to the use of merchants of every land and tongue.” 11 Business enterprise was here free from the guild restrictions and municipal protectionism that had kept medieval industry happily unprogressive. Here Italian bankers opened agencies, English “merchant adventurers” established a depot, the Fuggers centered their commercial activities, the Hanse built its lordly House of the Easterlings (1564). The harbor saw 500 ships enter or leave on any day, and 5,000 traders trafficked on the exchange. A bill on Antwerp was now the commonest form of international currency. In this period Antwerp gradually replaced Lisbon as the chief European port for the spice trade; cargoes sailing into Lisbon were bought afloat by Flemish agents there, and were sailed directly to Antwerp for distribution through northern Europe. “I was sad at the sight of Antwerp,” wrote a Venetian ambassador, “for I saw Venice surpassed”;12 he was witnessing the historic transfer of commercial hegemony from the Mediterranean to the North Atlantic. Spurred on by this commerce, Flemish industry revived, even in Ghent; and the Lowlands provided Charles V with 1,500,000 livres ($ 37,500,000?) a year, half his total revenue.13
He responded by giving Flanders and Holland reasonably good government except in religious liberty—a boon hardly conceived by his friends or his foes. His authority was constitutionally limited by his sworn pledge to observe the charters and local laws of the cities and provinces; by personal and domiciliary rights stoutly maintained by the burghers; by councils of state and finance, and a court of appeal, established as part of the central administration. Generally Charles ruled the Netherlands by indirection, through regents acceptable to the citizens: first his aunt, nurse, and tutor, Margaret of Austria, then his sister Mary, ex-queen of Hungary, both women of competence, humanity, and tact. But Charles became more imperious with more Empire. He stationed Spanish garrisons in the proud cities, and suppressed with severity any serious contravention of his international policies. When Ghent refused to vote the military funds demanded by him and granted by the other cities, Charles put down the revolt by a show of indisputable force, exacted the subsidy and an indemnity, abolished the traditional liberties of the municipality, and substituted Imperial appointees for the locally chosen government (1540).14 But this was hardly typical. Despite such occasional harshness Charles remained popular with his Lowland subjects; he received credit for the political stability and social order that supported the economic prosperity; and when he announced his abdication nearly all citizens mourned.15
Accepting the current theory that national peace and strength required unity of religious belief, and fearing that Protestantism in the Netherlands would endanger his flank in his strife with France and Lutheran Germany, Charles fully supported the Church in prosecuting heresy in Flanders and Holland. The reform movement there was mild before Luther; after 1517 it entered as Lutheranism and Anabaptism from Germany, as Zwinglianism and Calvinism from Switzerland, Alsace, and France. Luther’s writings were soon translated into Dutch, and were expounded by ardent preachers in Antwerp, Ghent, Dordrecht, Utrecht, Zwolle, and The Hague. Dominican friars led a vivacious rebuttal; one said he wished he could fasten his teeth on Luther’s throat, and would not hesitate to go to the Lord’s Supper with that blood on his mouth.16 The Emperor, still young, thought to stop the agitation by publishing (1521), at the Pope’s request, a “placard” forbidding the printing or reading of Luther’s works. In the same year he ordered the secular courts to enforce throughout the Netherlands the Edict of Worms against all proponents of Lutheran ideas. On July 1, 1523, Henry Voes and Johann Eck, two Augustinian friars, were sent to the stake at Brussels as the first Protestant martyrs in the Lowlands. Henry of Zutphen, friend and pupil of Luther’s, and prior of the Augustinian monastery at Antwerp, was imprisoned, escaped, was caught in Holstein, and was there burned (1524). These executions advertised the Reformers’ ideas.
Despite censorship Luther’s translation of the New Testament was widely circulated, more fervently in Holland than in rich Flanders. A longing for the restoration of Christianity to its pristine simplicity generated a millenarian hope for the early return of Christ and the establishment of a New Jerusalem in which there would be no government, no marriage, and no property; and with these notions were mingled communistic theories of equality, mutual aid, and even “free love.” 17 Anabaptist groups formed at Antwerp, Maastricht, and Amsterdam. Melchior Hofmann came from Emden to Amsterdam in 1531, and in 1534 John of Leyden returned the visit by carrying the Anabaptist creed from Haarlem to Münster. In some Dutch towns it was estimated that two thirds of the population were Anabaptists; in Deventer even the burgomaster was converted to the cause. Fanned by famine, the movement became a social revolt. “In these provinces,” wrote a friend to Erasmus in 1534, “we are made extremely anxious by the Anabaptist conflagration, for it is mounting up like flames. There is hardly a spot or town where the torch of insurrection does not secretly glow.” 18 Mary of Hungary, then Regent, warned the Emperor that the rebels planned to plunder all forms of property among the nobility, clergy, and mercantile aristocracy, and to distribute the spoils to every man according to his need.19 In 1535 John of Leyden sent emissaries to arrange a simultaneous uprising of Anabaptists at several Dutch centers. The rebels made heroic efforts; one group captured and fortified a monastery in West Friesland; the governor besieged them with heavy artillery; 800 died in a hopeless defense (1535). On May 11 some armed Anabaptists stormed and captured the city hall of Amsterdam; the burghers dislodged them, and wreaked uoon the leaders the frightful vengeance of frightened men: tongues and hearts were torn from living bodies and flung into the faces of the dying or dead.20
Thinking the whole social structure challenged by a communistic revolution, Charles imported the Inquisition into the Netherlands, and gave its officials power to stamp out the movement, and all other heresies, at whatever cost to local liberties. Between 1521 and 1555 he issued placard after placard against social or religious dissent. The most violent of these (September 25, 1550) revealed the deterioration of the Emperor, and laid the foundations for the revolt of the Netherlands against his son.
No one shall print, write, copy, keep, conceal, sell, buy, or give, in churches, streets, or other places, any book or writing made by Martin Luther, John Oecolampadius, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, or other heretics reprobated by the Holy Church .... nor break or otherwise injure the images of the Holy Virgin or canonized saints .... nor hold conventicles, or illegal gatherings, or be present at any such in which the adherents of the above-mentioned heretics teach, baptize, and form conspiracies against the Holy Church and the general welfare.... . We forbid all lay persons to converse or dispute concerning the Holy Scriptures, openly or secretly... or to read, teach, or expound the Scriptures, unless they have duly studied theology, or have been approved by some renowned university... or to entertain any of the opinions of the above-mentioned heretics... on pain of being... punished as follows... the men [to be beheaded] with the sword, and the women to be buried alive, if they do not persist in their errors; if they persist in them they are to be executed with fire; all their property in both cases to be confiscated to the Crown.....
We forbid all persons to lodge, entertain, furnish with food, fire, or clothing, or otherwise to favor, anyone holden or notoriously suspected of being a heretic; and anyone failing to denounce any such we ordain shall be liable to the above-mentioned punishments.... . All who know of any person tainted with heresy are required to denounce and give them up .... The informer, in case of conviction, shall be entitled to one half the property of the accused.... To the end that the judges and officers may have no reason—under pretext that the penalties are too great and heavy and only devised to terrify delinquents—to punish them less severely than they deserve, [we ordain] that the culprits really be punished by the penalties above declared; we forbid all judges to alter or moderate the penalties in any manner; we forbid anyone, of whatever condition, to ask of us, or of anyone having authority, to grant pardon to, or to present any petition in favor of, such heretics, exiles, or fugitives, on penalty of being declared forever incapable of civil or military office, and of being arbitrarily punished.21
In addition, any person entering the Low Countries was required to sign a pledge of loyalty to the full orthodox creed.22
Through these desperate edicts the Netherlands were made a major battleground between the old and the new forms of Christianity. The Venetian ambassador at Charles’s court estimated in 1546 that 30,000 persons, nearly all Anabaptists, perished in this prolonged Imperial pogrom;23 a less excited estimate reduced the victims to 1,000.24 So far as the Dutch Anabaptists were concerned, the Caroline Inquisition succeeded; a remnant survived in Holland by adopting non-resistance; some fled to England, where they became active supporters of Protestantism under Edward VI and Elizabeth. The communistic movement in the Netherlands collapsed, frightened by prosecution and stifled by prosperity.
But as the Anabaptists wave subsided, a stream of hunted Huguenots poured into the Lowlands from France, bringing the gospel of Calvin. The stern and theocratic fervor of the new heresy appealed to those who inherited the traditions of the mystics and the Brethren of the Common Life; and the Calvinist acceptance of work as a dignity instead of a curse, of wealth as a blessing instead of a crime, of republican institutions as more responsive than monarchy to the political ambitions of the business class, contained ingredients diversely welcome to many elements in the population. By 1555 there were Calvinist congregations in Ypres, Tournai, Valenciennes, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, and the movement was spreading into Holland. It was with Calvinism, not Lutheranism or Anabaptism, that Charles’s son would be locked, through a bitter generation, in the conflict that would break the Netherlands in two, liberate Holland from the Spanish domination, and make her one of the major homes and havens of the modern mind.
In 1555 Charles V put aside all dreams except that of dying in sanctity. He relinquished his hope of either suppressing Protestantism in Germany and the Netherlands, or reconciling it with Catholicism at the Council of Trent. He abandoned his aspiration to lead Protestants and Catholics, Germans and French, in a magnificent march against Suleiman, Constantinople, and the Turkish threat to Christendom. His excesses in eating, drinking, and sex, his exhausting campaigns, the burdens of an office that bore the brunt of revolutionary change, had ruined his body, dulled his statesmanship, and broken his will. Suffering from ulcers at thirty-three, old at thirty-five, afflicted at forty-five with gout, asthma, indigestion, and stammering, he was now half his waking time in pain, and found it hard to sleep; often his difficulty in breathing kept him sitting upright all the night through. His fingers were so distorted with arthritis that he could hardly grasp the pen with which he signed the Peace of Crépy. When Coligny presented a letter from Henry II, Charles could hardly open it. “What think you of me, Sir Admiral?” he asked. “Am I not a fine knight to charge and break a lance, I who can only open a letter after so much trouble?” 25 Perhaps his occasional cruelty, and something of the savagery with which he attacked Protestantism in the Netherlands, came from the exhaustion of his patience by his pains. He ordered the amputation of the feet of captured German mercenaries who had fought for France, though his son, the future inexorable Philip II, begged mercy for them.26 He had mourned long and bitterly the death of his beloved wife Isabella (1539); but in time he allowed helpless maidens to be brought to his bed.27
In the fall of 1555 he called a meeting of the States-General of the Netherlands for October 25, and summoned Philip to it from England. In the great tapestried hall of the dukes of Brabant at Brussels, where the Knights of the Golden Fleece were wont to hold their assemblies, the deputies, nobles, and magistrates of the seventeen provinces gathered within a guard of armed soldiery. Charles entered leaning on the shoulder of his son’s future enemy, William of Orange. Philip followed with the Regent Mary of Hungary; then Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, and the Emperor’s councilors, and the Knights of the Fleece, and many other notables around whom the world once turned before forgetting them. When all had been seated Philibert rose and explained, too lengthily and vividly for Charles’s enjoyment, the medical, mental, and political reasons why the Emperor wished to abdicate his rule in the Netherlands to his son. Then Charles himself stood up, leaning again on the tall and handsome Prince of Orange, and spoke simply and to the point. He summarized his rise to successively wider powers, and the absorption of his life in government. He recalled that he had visited Germany nine times, Spain six, Italy seven, France four, England and Africa twice, and had made eleven voyages by sea. He continued:
This is the fourth time that I am setting out hence for Spain.... . Nothing that I have ever experienced has given me so much pain... as that which I feel in parting from you today without leaving behind me that peace and quiet which I so much desired.... . But I am no longer able to attend to my affairs without great bodily fatigue and consequent detriment to the state.... . The cares which so great a responsibility involves, the extreme dejection which it causes, my health already ruined—all these leave me no longer the vigor necessary for governing.... In my present state I should have to render a serious account to God and man if I did not lay aside authority.... My son, King Philip, is of an age sufficiently advanced to be able to govern you, and he will be, I hope, a good prince to all my beloved subjects.... .28
When Charles sank painfully into his chair the audience forgot his sins, his persecutions, and his defeats in pity for a man who for forty years had labored according to his lights under the heaviest obligations of the time. Many auditors wept. Philip was formally installed as ruler of the Netherlands, and took a solemn oath (as he would be later reminded) to observe all the laws and traditional rights of the provinces. Early in 1556 Charles surrendered to him the crown of Spain, with all its possessions in the Old World and the New. Charles reserved the Imperial title, hoping to transmit that too to his son; but Ferdinand protested, and in 1558 the Emperor resigned it to his brother. On September 17,1556, Charles sailed from Flushing to Spain.