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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 1 — The Netherlands and their inhabitants

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Batavia – Formed by Joint Action of the Rhine and the Sea – Dismal Territory – The First Inhabitants – Belgium – Holland – Their First Struggles with the Ocean – Their Second with the Roman Power – 'they Pass under Charlemagne – Rise and Greatness of their Commerce – Civic Rights and Liberties – These Threatened by the Austro-Burgundian Emperors – A Divine Principle comes to their aid.

DESCENDING from the summits of the Alps, and rolling its floods along the vast plain which extends from the Ural Mountains to the shores of the German Ocean, the Rhine, before finally falling into the sea, is parted into two streams which enclose between them an island of goodly dimensions. This island is the heart of the Low Countries. Its soil spongy, its air humid, it had no attractions to induce man to make it his dwelling, save indeed that nature had strongly fortified it by enclosing it on two of its sides with the broad arms of the disparted river, and on the third and remaining one with the waves of the North Sea. Its earliest inhabitants, it is believed, were Celts. About a century before our era it was left uninhabited; its first settlers being carried away, partly in the rush southward of the first horde of warriors that set out to assail the Roman Empire, and partly by a tremendous inundation of the ocean, which submerged many of the huts which dotted its forlorn surface, and drowned many of its miserable inhabitants. Finding it empty, a German tribe from the Hercynian forest took possession of it, and called it Betauw, that is, the "Good Meadow," a name that has descended to our day in the appellative Batavia.

North and south of the "Good Meadow" the land is similar in character and origin. It owes its place on the surface of the earth to the joint action of two forces – the powerful current of the Rhine on the one side, continually bringing down vast quantities of materials from the mountains and higher plains, and the tides of the restless ocean on the other, casting up sand and mud from its bed. Thus, in the course of ages, slowly rose the land which was destined in the sixteenth century to be the seat of so many proud cities, and the theater of so many sublime actions.

An expanse of shallows and lagoons, neither land nor water, but a thin consistency, quaking beneath the foot, and liable every spring and winter to the terrible calamities of being drowned by the waves, when the high tides or the fierce tempests heaped up the waters of the North Sea, and to be over-flown by the Rhine, when its floods were swollen by the long-continued rams, what, one asks, tempted the first inhabitant to occupy a country whose conditions were so wretched, and which was liable moreover to be overwhelmed by catastrophes so tremendous? Perhaps they saw in this oozy and herbless expanse the elements of future fertility. Perhaps they deemed it a safe retreat, from which they might issue forth to spoil and ravage, and to which they might retire and defy pursuit. But from whatever cause, both the center island and the whole adjoining coast soon found inhabitants. The Germans occupied the center; the Belgae took possession of the strip of coast stretching to the south, now known as Belgium. The similar strip running off to the north, Holland namely, was possessed by the Frisians, who formed a population in which the German and Celtic elements were blended without uniting.

The youth of these three tribes was a severe one. Their first struggle was with the soil; for while other nations choose their country, the Netherlanders had to create theirs. They began by converting the swamps and quicksands of which they had taken possession into grazing-lands and corn-fields. Nor could they rest even after this task had been accomplished: they had to be continually on the watch against the two great enemies that were ever ready to spring upon them, and rob them of the country which their industry had enriched and their skill embellished, by rearing and maintaining great dykes to defend themselves on the one side from the sea, and on the other from the river.

Their second great struggle was with the Roman power. The mistress of the world, in her onward march over the West, was embracing within her limits the forests of Germany, and the warlike tribes that dwelt in them. It is the pen of Julius Caesar, recording his victorious advance, that first touches the darkness that shrouded this land. When the curtain rises, the tribe of the Nervii is seen drawn up on the banks of the Sambre, awaiting the approach of the master of the world. We see them closing in terrific battle with his legions, and maintaining the fight till a ghastly bank of corpses proclaimed that they had been exterminated rather than subdued. [1]

The tribes of Batavia now passed under the yoke of Rome, to which they submitted with great impatience. When the empire began to totter they rose in revolt, being joined by their neighbors, the Frisians and the Belgae, in the hope of achieving their liberty; but the Roman power, though in decay, was still too strong to be shaken by the assault of these tribes, however brave; and it was not till the whole German race, moved by an all-pervading impulse, rose and began their march upon Rome, that they were able, in common with all the peoples of the North, to throw off the yoke of the oppressor.

After four centuries of chequered fortunes, during which the Batavian element was inextricably blended with the Frisian, the Belgic, and the Frank, the Netherlanders, for so we may now call the mixed population, in which however the German element predominated, came under the empire of Charlemagne. They continued under his sway and that of his successors for

some time. The empire whose greatness had severely taxed the energies of the father was too heavy for the shoulders of his degenerate sons, and they contrived to lighten the burden by dividing it. Germany was finally severed from France, and in AD 922 Charles the Simple, the last of the Carlovingian line, presented to Count Dirk the northern horn of this territory, the portion now known as Holland, which henceforth became the inheritance of his descendants; and about the same time, Henry the Fowler, of Germany, acquired the sovereignty of the southern portion, together with that of Lotharinga, the modern Lorraine, and thus the territory was broken into two, each part remaining connected with the German Empire; but loosely so, its rulers yielding only a nominal homage to the head of the empire, while they exercised sovereign rights in their own special domain. [2]

The reign of Charlemagne had effaced the last traces of free institutions and government by law which had lingered in Holland and Belgium since the Roman era, and substituted feudalism, or the government of the sword. Commerce began to flow, and from the thirteenth century its elevating influence was felt in the Netherlands. Confederations of trading towns arose, with their charters of freedom, and their leagues of mutual defense, which greatly modified the state of society in Europe. These confederated cities were, in fact, free republics flourishing in the heart of despotic empires. The cities which were among the first to rise into eminence were Ghent and Bruges. The latter became a main entrepot of the trade carried on with the East by way of the Mediterranean. "The wives and daughters of the citizens outvied, in the richness of their dress, that of a queen of France.... At Mechlin, a single individual possessed counting-houses and commercial establishments at Damascus and Grand Cairo." [3] To Bruges the merchants of Lombardy brought the wares of Asia, and thence were they dispersed among the towns of Northern Europe, and along the shores of the German Sea. "A century later, Antwerp, the successful rival of Venice, could, it is said, boast of almost five hundred vessels daily entering her ports, and two thousand carriages laden with merchandise passing through her gates every week." [4] Venice, Verona, Nuremberg, and Bruges were the chief links of the golden chain that united the civilised and fertile East with the comparatively rude and unskillful West. In the former the arts had long flourished. There men were expert in all that is woven on the loom or embroidered by the needle; they, were able to engrave on iron, and to set precious jewels in cunningly-wrought frames of gold and silver and brass. There, too, the skillful use of the plough and the pruning-hook, combined with a vigorous soil, produced in abundance all kinds of luxuries; and along the channel we have indicated were all these various products poured into countries where arts and husbandry were yet in their infancy. [5]

Such was the condition of Holland and Flanders at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries. They had come to rival the East, with which they traded. The surface of their country was richly cultivated. Their cities were numerous; they were enclosed within strong ramparts, and adorned with superb public buildings and sumptuous churches. Their rights and privileges were guaranteed by ancient charters, which they jealously guarded and knew how to defend. They were governed by a senate, which possessed legislative, judicial, and administrative powers, subject to the Supreme Council at Mechlin – as that was to the sovereign authority. The population was numerous, skillful, thriving, and equally expert at handling the tool or wielding the sword. These artisans and weavers were divided into guilds, which elected their own deans or rulers. They were brave, and not a little turbulent. When the bell tolled to arms, the inmate of the workshop could, in a few minutes, transform himself into a soldier; and these bands of artificers and weavers would present the appearance as well as the reality of an army. "Nations at the present day scarcely named," says Muller, "supported their struggle against great armies with a heroism that reminds us of the valor of the Swiss." [6]

Holland, lying farther to the north, did not so largely share in the benefits of trade and commerce as the cities of Flanders. Giving itself to the development of its internal resources, it clothed its soil with a fertility and beauty which more southern lands might have envied. Turning to its seas, it reared a race of fishermen, who in process of time developed into the most skillful and adventurous seamen in Europe. Thus were laid the foundations of that naval ascendency which Holland for a time enjoyed, and that great colonial empire of which this dyke-encircled territory was the mother and the mistress. "The common opinion is, "says Cardinal Bentivoglio, who was sent as Papal nuncio to the Low Countries in the beginning of the seventeenth century – " The common opinion is that the navy of Holland, in the number of vessels, is equal to all the rest of Europe together." [7] Others have written that the United Provinces have more ships than houses. [8] And Bentivoglio, speaking of the Exchange of Amsterdam, says that if its harbour was crowded with ships, its piazza was not less so with merchants, "so that the like was not to be seen in all Europe; nay, in all the world." [9]

By the time the Reformation was on the eve of breaking out, the liberties of the Netherlanders had come to be in great peril. For a century past the Burgundo-Austrian monarchs had been steadily encroaching upon them. The charters under which their cities enjoyed municipal life had become little more than nominal. Their senates were entirely subject to the Supreme Court at Mechlin. The forms of their ancient liberties remained, but the spirit

was fast ebbing. The Netherlanders were fighting a losing battle with the empire, which year after year was growing more powerful, and stretching its shadow over the independence of their towns. They had arrived at a crisis in their history. Commerce, trade, liberty, had done all for them they would ever do. This was becoming every day more clear.

Decadence had set in, and the Netherlanders would have fallen under the power of the empire and been reduced to vassalage, had not a higher principle come in time to save them from this fate. It was at this moment that a celestial fire descended upon the nation: the country shook off the torpor which had begun to weigh upon it, and girding itself for a great fight, it contended for a higher liberty than any it had yet known. [10]

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