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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 13 — The Council of Blood

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Orange's Penetration of Philip's Mind – Conference at Dendermonde – Resolution of Egmont – William Retires to Nassau in Germany – Persecution Increased – The Gallows Full – Two Sisters – Philip resolves to send an Army to the Netherlands – Its Command given to the Duke of Alva – His Character – His Person – His Fanaticism and Bloodthirstiness – Character of the Soldiers – An Army of Alvas – Its March – Its Morale – Its Entrance Unopposed – Margaret Retires from the Netherlands – Alva Arrests Egmont and Horn – Refugees – Death of Berghen and Montigny – The Council of Blood – Sentence of Death upon all the Inhabitants of the Netherlands – Constitution of the Blood Council – Its Terrible Work – Shrove-tide – A proposed Holocaust – Sentence of Spanish Inquisition upon the Netherlands.

"Whirlwinds from the terrible land of the South" – in literal terms, edicts and soldiers from Spain – -were what might now be looked for. The land had been subjugated, but it had yet to be chastised. On every side the priests lifted up the head, the burghers hung theirs in shame. The psalm pealed forth at the field-preaching rose no longer on the breeze, the orison of monk came loud and clear instead; the gibbets were filled, the piles were re-lighted, and thousands were fleeing from a country which seemed only now to be opening the dark page of its history. The future in reserve for the Low Countries was not so closely locked up in the breast of the tyrant but that the Prince of Orange could read it. He saw into the heart and soul of Philip. He had studied him in his daily life; he had studied him in the statesmen and councillors who served him; he had studied him in his public policy; and he had studied him in those secret pages in which Philip had put on record, in the depth of his own closet, the projects that he was revolving, and which, opened and read while Philip slept, by the spies which William had placed around him, were communicated to this watchful friend of his country's liberties; and all these several lines of observation had led him to one and the same conclusion, that it was Philip's settled purpose, to be pursued through a thousand windings, chicaneries, falsehoods, and solemn hypocrisies, to drag the leading nobles to the scaffold, to hang, burn, or bury alive every Protestant in the Low Countries, to put to death every one who should hesitate to yield absolute compliance with his will, and above the grave of a murdered nation to plant the twin fabrics of Spanish and Romish despotism. That these were the purposes which the tyrant harboured, and the events which the future would bring forth, unless means were found to prevent them, William was as sure as that the revolution of the hours brings at length the night.

Accordingly he invited Horn, Egmont, Hoogstraaten, and Count Louis to all interview at Dendermonde, in order to concert the measures which it might be advisable to take when the storm, with which the air was already thick, should burst. The sight of Egmont and the other nobles unhappily was not so clear as that of William, and they refused to believe that the danger was so great as the prince represented. Count Egmont, who was not yet disenthralled from the spell of the court, nor fated ever to be till he should arrive at the scaffold, said that "far from taking part in any measure offensive to the king, he looked upon every such measure as equally imprudent and undutiful." This was decisive. These three seigniors must act in concert or not at all. Combined, they might have hoped to make head against Philip; singly, they could accomplish nothing – -nay, in all likelihood would be crushed. The Prince of Orange resigned all his offices into the hands of the regent, and retired with his family to his ancestral estate of Nassau in Germany, there to await events. Before leaving, however, he warned Count Egmont of the fate that awaited him should he remain in Flanders. "You are the bridge," said he, "by which the Spanish army will pass into the Netherlands, and no sooner shall they have passed it than they will break it down." [1] The warning was unheeded. The two friends tenderly embraced, and parted to meet no more on earth.

No sooner was William gone (April, 1567) than a cloud of woes descended upon the Netherlands. The disciples of the Reformation fled as best they could from Amsterdam, and a garrison entered it. At Horn, Clement Martin preached his farewell sermon a month after the departure of William, and next day he and his colleague were expelled the town. About the same time the Protestants of Enkhuizen heard their last sermon in the open air. Assemblies were held over-night in the houses of certain of the burghers, but these too were discontinued in no long time. A deep silence – "a famine of hearing the Word of the Lord" – -fell upon the land. The ministers were chased from many of the cities. The meetings held in out-of- the-way places were surprised by the soldiers; of those present at them some were cut in pieces or shot down on the spot, and others were seized and carried off to the gallows. It was the special delight of the persecutors to apprehend and hang or behead the members of the consistories. "Thus," says Brandt, "the gallows were filled with carcases, and Germany with exiles." The minister of Cambray first had his hand cut off, and was then hanged. At Oudenard and other towns the same fate was inflicted on the pastors. Monks, who had ceased to count beads and become heralds of the glorious Gospel rather than return to the cloister, were content to rot in dungeons or die on

scaffolds. Some villages furnished as many as a hundred, and others three hundred victims. [2] A citizen of Bommel, Hubert Selkart by name, had the courage to take a Bible to the market-place, and disprove the errors of Popery in presence of the people assembled there. A night or two thereafter he was put into a sack and thrown into the river Wael. There were no more Scripture expositions in the marketplace of Bommel. All the Protestant churches in course of erection were demolished, and their timbers taken for gallows to hang their builders. Two young gentlewomen of the Province of Over-Issel were sentenced to the fire. One of the sisters was induced to abjure on a promise of mercy. She thought she had saved her life by her abjuration, whereas the mercy of the placards meant only an easier death. When the day of execution arrived, the two sisters, who had not seen each other since they received their sentence, were brought forth together upon the scaffold. For the one who remained steadfast a stake had been prepared; the other saw with horror a coffin, half filled with sand, waiting to receive her corpse as soon as the axe should have severed her head from her body. "This," said the strong sister to the weak one, "this is all you have gained by denying Him before whom you are within an hour to appear." Conscience-stricken she fell upon her knees, and with strong cries besought pardon for her great sin. Then rising up – a sudden calm succeeding the sudden tempest – she boldly declared herself a Protestant. The executioner, fearing the effect of her words upon the spectators, instantly stopped her by putting a gag into her mouth, and then he bound her to the same stake with her sister. A moment before, it seemed as if the two were to be parted for ever; but now death, which divides others, had united them in the bonds of an eternal fellowship: [3] they were sisters evermore.

As regarded the Netherlands, one would have thought that their cup of suffering was already full; but not so thought Philip. New and more terrible severities were in course of preparation at Madrid for the unhappy Provinces.

The King of Spain, after repeated deliberations in his council, resolved to send a powerful army under the command of the Duke of Alva, to chastise those turbulent citizens whom he had too long treated with gentleness, and exact a full measure of vengeance for that outbreak in which they had discovered an equal contempt for the true religion and the royal authority.

The Duke of Alva, setting sail from Carthagena (May 10th, 1567), landed in the north of Italy, and repairing to Asti, there assembled under his standard about 10,000 picked soldiers from the army in Italy, consisting of 8,700 foot and 1,200 cavalry. [4] He now set out at the head of this host to avenge the insulted majesty of Rome and Spain, by drowning Netherland heresy in the blood of its professors. It was a holy war: those against whom it was to be waged were more execrable than Jews or Saracens: they were also greatly richer. The wealth of the world was treasured up in the cities of the Netherlands, and their gates once forced, a stream of gold would be poured into the coffers of Spain, now beginning to be partially deplenished by the many costly enterprises of Philip.

A fitter instrument for the dreadful work which Philip had now in hand than the Duke of Alva, it would have been impossible to find in all Europe. A daring and able soldier, Alva was a very great favourite with the Emperor Charles V., under whom he had served in both Europe and Africa, and some of the more brilliant of the victories that were gained by the armies of Charles were owing to his unquestionable ability, but somewhat headlong courage. He had warred against both the Turks and Lutherans, and of the two it is likely that the latter were the objects of his greatest aversion and deepest hatred. He was now sixty, but his years had neither impaired the rigour of his body nor quenched the fire of his spirit.

In person he was thin and tall, with small head, leathern face, twinkling eyes, and silvery beard. [5] He was cool, patient, cruel, selfish, vindictive, and though not greedy of wine and the pleasures to which it often incites, was inflamed with a most insatiable greed of gold.

Haughty and over-bearing, he could not tolerate a rival, and the zeal he afterwards showed in dragging Count Egmont to the scaffold is thought to have been inspired, in part at least, by the renown Egmont had acquired over the first generals of France, and which had thrown Alva somewhat into the shade, being compelled to occupy an inglorious position in the north of Italy, while his rival was distinguishing himself on a far more conspicuous theater. But the master-passion of this man's soul was a ferocious fanaticism. Cruel by nature, he had become yet more cruel by bigotry. This overbearing passion had heated his instincts, and crazed his judgment, till in stealthy bloodthirstiness he had ceased to be the man, and become the tiger.

As was the general, so were the soldiers. The Duke of Alva was, in fact, leading an army of Alvas across the Alps. Their courage had been hardened and their skill perfected in various climes, and in numerous campaigns and battles; they were haughty, stern, and cruel beyond the ordinary measure of Spanish soldiers. Deeming themselves Champions of the Cross, the holy war in which they were fighting not only warranted, but even sanctified in their eyes, the indulgence of the most vindictive and sanguinary passions against those men whom they were marching to attack, and whom they held to be worthy of death in the most terrible form in which they

could possibly inflict it.

Climbing the steep sides of Mont Cenis, the duke himself leading the van, this invading host gained the summit of the pass. From this point, where nothing is visible save the little circular lake that fills the crater of a now exhausted volcano, and the naked peaks that environ it, the Spaniards descended through the narrow and sublime gorges of the mountains to Savoy. Continuing. their march, they passed on through Burgundy and Lorraine, [6] attended by two armies of observation, the French on this side and the Swiss on that, to see that they kept the straight road. Their march resembled the progress of the boa-constrictor, which, resting its successive coils upon the same spot, moves its glittering but deadly body forwards.

Where the van-guard had encamped this night, the main body of the army was to halt the next, and the rear the night following. Thus this Apollyon host went onward.

It was the middle of August when the Spaniards arrived at the frontier of the Low Countries. They found the gates open, and their entrance unopposed. Those who would have suffered the invaders to enter only over their dead bodies were in their graves; the nobles were divided or indifferent; the cities were paralysed by the triumph of the royal arms at Valenciennes; thousands, at the first rising of the tempest, had retreated into the Church of Rome as into a harbour of safety; tameness and terror reigned throughout the country, and thus the powerful Netherlands permitted Philip to put his chain upon its neck without striking a blow. The only principle which could have averted the humiliation of the present hour, and the miseries of the long years to come, had meanwhile been smitten down.

Cantoning his soldiers in the chief cities, the Duke of Alva in the end of August took up his residence in Brussels, Count Egmont riding by his side as he entered the gates of the Belgian capital. He soon showed that he had arrived with a plenitude of power; that, in fact, he was king. Margaret felt her authority over-topped by the higher authority of the duke, and resigned her office as regent. She accompanied her retirement with a piece of advice to her brother, which was to the effect that if the measures that she feared were in contemplation should be carried out, the result would be the ruin of the Netherlands. Although Philip had been as sure of the issue as Margaret was, he would have gone forward all the same. Meanwhile his representative, without a moment's delay, opened his career of tyranny and blood. His first act was to arrest the Counts Egmont and Horn, and in manner as crafty as the deed was cruel, he invited them to his house on pretense of consulting with them respecting a citadel which he meant to erect at Antwerp. When the invitation reached these noblemen, they were seated at a banquet given by the Prior of the Knights of St. John. "Take the fleetest horse in your stable," whispered the prior in the ear of Egmont, "and flee from this place." The infatuated nobleman, instead of making his escape, went straight to the palace of the duke. After the business of the citadel had been discussed, the two counts were conducted into separate rooms. "Count Egmont," said the captain of the duke's guard, "deliver your sword; it is the will of the king." Egmont made a motion as if he would flee. A door was thrown open, and he was shown the next apartment filled with Spanish musketeers. Resistance was vain.

The count gave up his sword, saying, "By this sword the cause of the king has been oftener than once successfully defended." [7] He was conducted up-stairs to a temporary prison; the windows were closed; the walls were hung in black, and lights were burned in it night and day – a sad presage of the yet gloomier fate that awaited him. Count Horn was treated in a precisely similar way. At the end of fourteen days the two noblemen were conducted, under a strong guard, to the Castle of Ghent. At the same time two other important arrests were made – -Bakkerzeel, the secretary of Egmont; and Straalen, the wealthy Burgomaster of Antwerp. [8]

These arrests spread terror over the whole country. They convinced Romanists equally with Protestants that the policy to be pursued was one of indiscriminate oppression and violence. Count Egmont had of late been, to say the least, no lukewarm friend of the Government; his secretary, Bakkerzeel, had signalised his zeal against Protestantism by spilling Protestant blood, yet now both of these men were on the road to the scaffold. The very terror of Alva's name, before he came, had driven from the Low Countries 100,000 of their inhabitants. The dread inspired by the arrests now made compelled 20,000 more to flee. The weavers of Bruges and Ghent carried to England their art of cloth-making, and those of Antwerp that of the silk manufacture. Nor was it the disciples of the Reformation only that sought asylum beyond seas. Thomas Tillius forsook his rich Abbey of St. Bernard, in the neighbourhood of Antwerp, and repaired to the Duchy of Cleves. There he threw off his frock, married, and afterwards became pastor, first at Haarlem, and next at Delft. [9]

Every day a deeper gulf opened to the Netherlands. The death of the two Flemish envoys, the Marquis of Berghen and the Baron de Montigny, was immediately consequent on the departure of the duke for the Low Countries. The precise means and manner of their destruction can now never be known, but occurring at this moment, it combined with the imprisonment of Egmont and Horn in prognosticating times of more than usual calamity. The next measure of Alva was to erect a new tribunal, to which he gave the name of the "Council of Tumults," but which came to

be known, and ever will be known in history, by the more dreadful appellative of the "Council of Blood." Its erection meant the overthrow of every other institution. It proscribed all the ancient charters of the Netherlands, with the rights and liberties in which they vested the citizens.

The Council of Tumults assumed absolute and sole jurisdiction in all matters growing out of the late troubles, in opposition to all other law, jurisdiction, and authority whatsoever. Its work was to search after and punish all heretics and traitors. It set about its work by first defining what that treason was which it was to punish. This tribunal declared that "it was treason against the Divine and human Majesties to subscribe and present any petition against the new bishops, the Inquisition, or the placards; as also to suffer or allow the exercise of the new religion, let the occasion or necessity be what it would." [10] Further, it was treason not to have opposed the image-breaking; it was treason not to have opposed the field-preachings; it was treason not to have opposed the presenting of the petition of the Confederate nobles; in fine, it was treason to have said or thought that the Tribunal of Tumults was obliged to conform itself to the ancient charters and privileges, or "to have asserted or insinuated that the king had no right to take away all the privileges of these Provinces if he thought fit, or that he was not discharged from all his oaths and promises of pardon, seeing all the inhabitants had been guilty of a crime, either of omission or of commission." In short, the King of Spain, in this fulmination, declared that all the inhabitants of the Low Countries were guilty of treason, and had incurred the penalty of death. Or as one of the judges of this tremendous tribunal, with memorable simplicity and pithiness, put it, "the heretical inhabitants broke into the churches, and the orthodox inhabitants did nothing to hinder it, therefore they ought all of them to be hanged together." [11]

The Council of Blood consisted of twelve judges; the majority were Spaniards, and the rest fast friends of the Spanish interest. The duke himself was president. Under the duke, and occupying his place in his absence, was Vargas, a Spanish lawyer. Vargas was renowned among his countrymen as a man of insatiable greed and measureless cruelty. He it was who proposed the compendious settlement of the Netherlands question to which we have just referred, namely, that of hanging all the inhabitants on one gallows. "The gangrene of the Netherlands," said the Spaniards, "has need of a sharp knife, and such is Vargas." [12] This man was well mated with another Spaniard nearly as cruel and altogether as unscrupulous, Del Rio. This council pronounced what sentences it pleased, and it permitted no appeal.

It would be both wearisome and disgusting to follow these men, step by step, in their path of blood. Their council-chamber resembled nothing so much as the lair of a wild beast, with its precincts covered with the remains of victims. It was simply a den of murder; and one could see in imagination all its approaches and avenues soaked in gore and strewn with the mangled carcases of men, women, and children. The subject is a horrible one, upon which it is not at all pleasant to dwell.

All was now ready; Alva had erected his Council of Blood, he had distributed his soldiers over the country in such formidable bodies as to overawe the inhabitants, he was erecting a citadel at Antwerp, forts in other places, and compelling the citizens to defray the cost of the instruments of their oppression; and now the Low Countries, renowned in former days for the mildness of their government and the happiness of their people, became literally an Aceldama. We shall permit the historian Brandt to summarise the horrors with which the land was now overspread.

"There was nothing now," says he, "but imprisoning and racking of all ages, sexes, and conditions of people, and oftentimes too without any previous accusation against them. Infinite numbers (and they not of the Religion neither) that had been but once or twice to hear a sermon among the Reformed, were put to death for it. The gallows, says the Heer Hooft in his history, the wheels, stakes, and trees in the highways were loaden with carcases or limbs of such as had been hanged, beheaded, or roasted, so that the air which God had made for the respiration of the living, was now become the common grave or habitation of the dead. Every day produced fresh objects of pity and mourning, and the noise of the bloody passing-bell was continually heard, which by the martyrdom of this man's cousin, or t' other's friend or brother, rung dismal peals in the hearts of the survivors. Of banishment of persons and confiscations of goods there was no end; it was no matter whether they had real or personal estates, free or entailed, all was seized upon without regarding the claims of creditors or others, to the unspeakable prejudice both of rich and poor, of convents, hospitals, widows and orphans, who were by knavish evasions deprived of their incomes for many years." [13]

Bales of denunciations were sent in. These were too voluminous to be read by Alva or Vargas, and were remitted to the other councils, that still retained a nominal existence, to be read and reported on. They knew the sort of report that was expected from them, and took care not to disappoint the expectations of the men of the Blood Council. With sharp reiterated knell came the words, "Guilty: the gallows." If by a rare chance the accused was said to be innocent, the report was sent back to be amended: the recommendation to death was always carried out within forty-eight hours. This bloody harvest was gathered all over the country, every town, village,

and hamlet furnishing its group of victims. To-day it is Valenciennes that yields a batch of eighty-four for the stake and the gallows; a few days thereafter, a miscellaneous crowd, amounting to ninety-five, are brought in from different places in Flanders, and handed over by the Blood Council to the scaffold; next day, forty-six of the inhabitants of Malines are condemned to die; no sooner are they disposed of than another crowd of thirty-five, collected from various localities by the sleuth-hounds of the Blood Council, are ready for the fire. Thus the horrible work of atrocity went on, prosecuted with unceasing rigour and a zeal that was truly awful.

Shrovetide (1568) was approaching. The inhabitants of the Netherlands, like those of all Popish countries, were wont to pass this night in rejoicings. Alva resolved that its songs should be turned into howlings. While the citizens should be making merry, he would throw his net over all who were known to have ever been at a field-preaching, and prepare a holocaust of some thousand heads fittingly to celebrate the close of "Holy Week." At midnight his myrmidons were sent forth; they burst open the doors of all suspected persons, and dragging them from their beds, hauled them to prison. The number of arrests, however, did not answer Alva's expectations; some had got timely warning and had made their escape; those who remained, having but little heart to rejoice, were not so much off their guard, nor so easy a prey, as the officers expected to find them. Alva had enclosed only 500 disciples or favourers of the Gospel in his net – too many, alas! for such a fate, but too few for the vast desires of the persecuter. They were, of course, ordered to the scaffold. [14]

Terror was chasing away the inhabitants in thousands. An edict was issued threatening severe penalties against all carriers and ship-masters who should aid any subject of the Netherlands to escape, but it was quite ineffectual in checking the emigration; the cities were becoming empty, and the land comparatively depopulated. Nevertheless, the persecution went on with unrelenting fury. Even Viglius counselled a little lenity; the Pope, it is said, alarmed at the issue to which matters were tending, was not indisposed to moderation. Such advisers ought to have had weight with the King of Spain, but Philip refused to listen even to them. Vargas, whom he consulted, declared, of course, for a continuance of the persecution, telling his sovereign that in the Netherlands he had found a second Indies, where the gold was to be had without even the trouble of digging for it, so numerous were the confiscations. Thus avarice came to the aid of bigotry.

Philip next submitted a "Memorial and Representation" of the state of the Low Countries to the Spanish Inquisition, craving the judgment of the Fathers upon it. After deliberating, the inquisitors pronounced their decision on the 16th of February, 1568. It was to the effect that, "with the exception of a select list of names which had been handed to 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. We behold him erecting a common scaffold for its execution, and digging one vast grave for all the men, and women, and children of the Low Countries. "Since the beginning of the world," says Brandt," men have not seen or heard any parallel to this horrible sentence." [15]

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