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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 16 — The "beggars of the sea," and second campaign of Orange

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Brabant Inactive – Trials of the Blood Council – John Hassels – Executions at Valenciennes – The Year 1568 – More Edicts – Individual Martyrdoms – A Martyr Saving the Life of his Persecutor – Burning of Four Converted Priests at the Hague-William enters on his Second Campaign – His Appeal for Funds – The Refugees – The "Beggars of the Sea" – Discipline of the Privateer Fleet – Plan for Collecting Funds – Elizabeth – De la Marck – Capture of Brill by the Sea Beggars – Foundations laid of the Dutch Republic – Alva's Fury – Bossu Fails to Retake Brill – Dort and Flushing declare against Spain – Holland and Zealand declare for William – Louis of Nassau takes Mons – Alva Besieges it – The Tenth Penny – Meeting of the States of Holland – Speech of St. Aldegonde – Toleration – William of Orange declared Stadtholder of Holland.

William, Prince of Orange, having consecrated his life to the great struggle for the rights of conscience, carried the first offer of deliverance to Brabant. Had its great and powerful cities heartily entered into his spirit, and risen at the sound of the advancing steps of the deliverer, the issue would have been far different from what it was. But Brabant saw that the struggle must be tremendous, and, rather than gird itself for so terrible a fight, preferred to lie still ingloriously in its chains. Sad in heart William retired to a distance, to await what further openings it might please that great Power, to whose service he had consecrated himself, to present to him.

The night of horrors which had descended on the Low Countries continued to deepen. The triumph of Alva, instead of soothing him, made him only the more intolerant and fierce. There came new and severer edicts from Spain; there were gathered yet greater crowds of innocent men for the gallows and the stake, and the out flowing tide from that doomed shore continued to roll on. A hundred thousand houses, it is thought, were now left empty. Their inmates transported their trade and handicrafts to other nations. Wives must not correspond with their exiled husbands; and should they venture to visit them in their foreign asylum, they must not return to their native land. The youth of Flanders were forbidden to go abroad to acquire a foreign tongue, or to learn a trade, or to study in any university save that of Rome.

The carelessness with which the trials of the Blood Council were conducted was shocking. Batches were sent off to the gallows, including some whose cause had not been tried at all. When such were inquired for to take their trial, and it was found that their names had been inserted in the death-list, and that they had been sent to the gallows – a discovery which would have startled and discomposed most judges – -the news was very coolly received by the men who constituted this terrible tribunal. Vargas on those occasions would console his fellow-judges by saying that "it was all the better for the souls of such that they were innocent."

One member of the Blood Council, John Hassels by name, was accustomed on the bench to sleep through the examinations of the prisoners, and, when awakened to give his vote, he would rub his eyes and exclaim, "To the gallows! to the gallows!" [1] In Valenciennes, in the space of three days, fifty-seven citizens of good position were beheaded. But Alva wanted more than their blood. He had boasted that he would make a stream of gold, three feet in depth, flow from the Netherlands to Spain, and he proceeded to make good his words. He imposed heavier subsidies upon the inhabitants. He demanded, first, the hundredth penny of every man's estate; secondly, the twentieth penny of all immovable property; and, thirdly, the tenth penny of all movable goods. This last was to be paid every time the goods were sold. Thus, if they changed hands five times it is clear that one-half their value had passed to the Government; and if, as sometimes happened, they changed hands ten times, their entire value was swallowed up by the Government tax. Under such a law no market could be kept open; all buying and selling must cease. The Netherlanders refused to submit to the tax, on the ground that it would bring what remained of their commerce to an utter end, and so defeat itself. After many cajoleries and threats, Alva made a virtue of necessity, and modified the tax.

Such is the melancholy record of the year 1568. Its gloom deepened as the months rolled on. First came the defeat of Count Louis, and the overcasting of the fair morning of a hoped-for deliverance for the miserable Provinces. Next were seen the scaffolds of Egmont and Horn, and of many others among the more patriotic of the Flemish nobility. Then followed the disastrous issue of the attempt of William to emancipate Brabant, and with it the loss of all his funds, and many thousands of lives, and a tightening of the tyrant's grasp upon the country. Wherever one turned one's eye there was a gibbet; wherever one planted one's foot there was blood. The cities were becoming silent; the air was thick with terror and despair. But if 1568 closed in gloom, 1569 rose in a gloom yet deeper.

In the beginning of this year the sword of persecution was still further sharpened. There came a new edict, addressed to the Stadtholders of the Provinces, enjoining that "when the Host or the holy oil for extreme unction was carried to sick people, strict notice should be taken of the behavior, countenance, and words of every person, and that all those in whom any signs of irreverence were discovered should be punished; that all such dead bodies to which the clergy thought fit to deny Christian

burial and the consecrated ground, should be thrown out on the gallows-field; that notice of it should be given to him (Alva), and their estates registered; and that all midwives should report every birth within twenty-four hours after the child had come into the world, to the end that it might be known whether the children were baptised after the Roman manner." [2]

The carrying out of this order necessitated the creation of a new class of agents. Spies were placed at the corners of all the streets, whose duty it was to watch the countenances of the passers-by, and pounce on those whose looks were ill-favored, and hale them to prison. These spies were nick-named the "Seven penny Men," because the wages of their odious work was paid them in pieces of that value. Thus the gallows and the stake continued to be fed.

The crowd of martyrs utterly defies enumeration. Many of them were of low estate, as the world accounts it, but they were rich in faith, noble in spirit, and heirs of a greater kingdom than Philip's, though they had to pass through the fire to receive possession of it. The deaths of all were the same, yet the circumstances in which it was endured were so varied:, and in many cases so peculiar and tragic, that each differs from the other. Let us give a very few examples. On the 8th of July, 1569, William Tavart was led to the place of execution in Antwerp, in order to undergo death by burning. While his executioners were binding his hands, and putting the gag into his mouth, being a man of eighty years, and infirm, he fainted in their hands. He was thereupon carried back to his prison, and drowned. Another martyr, also very aged, worn out moreover by a long imprisonment, was kneeling on the faggots in prayer before being bound to the stake. The executioner, thinking that he was spending too much time in his devotions, rushed forward to raise him up and put him into the fire. He found that the old man was dead. The martyr had offered up his life in intention, and his gracious Master, compassionating his age and frailties, had given him the crown, yet spared him the agony of the stake. Richard Willemson, of Aspern, being pursued by an officer of the Blood Council, was making his escape on the ice. The ice gave way, and the officer fell in, and would have been drowned but for the humanity of the man whom he was pursuing, who, perceiving what had happened, turned back, and stretching out his hand, at the risk of being himself dragged in, pulled out his enemy. The magnanimous act touched the heart of the officer, and he would have let his deliverer escape; but unhappily the burgomaster happened to come up at the moment, and called out sharply to him, "Fulfil your oath." Thereupon he seized the poor man who but a moment before had saved his life, and conducted him to prison. He was condemned to the fire, and burned without the walls of Aspern, on the side next to Leerdam. While at the stake, a strong east wind springing up, the flames were blown away from the upper part of his body, leaving the lower extremities exposed to the torment of a slow fire. His cries were heard as far as Leerdam. In this fashion was he rewarded for saving his enemy's life at the peril of his own.

About the same time, four parish priests were degraded and burned at the Hague. The bishop first clothing them with their mass-garments, and then stripping them, as is usual on such occasions, said, in the Latin tongue, "I divest you of the robe of Righteousness." "Not so," replied one of the four; "you divest us of the robe of Unrighteousness." "Nor can you," added the other three, "strip us of our salvation as you strip us of these vestments." Whereupon the bishop, with a grave countenance, laid his hand upon his breast, and calling on God, solemnly declared that "he believed from his heart that the Romish religion was the most certain way to salvation." "You did not always think so," replied Arent Dirkson, a man of seventy years, and known to be learned and judicious; "you knew the truth formerly, but you have maliciously rejected it, and you must answer for it at the great Day of Judgment." The words of the old man found a response in the conscience of the apostate. The bishop shook and trembled before his own prisoner. Nevertheless he went on with the condemnation of the four men, delivering them to the temporal arm with the usual prayer that the magistrate would deal tenderly with them. Upon this, the grey-haired pastor again burst out, "Quam pharisaice! How pharisaically do they treat us!" They were sent back to prison. The same night they celebrated the Lord's Supper for their mutual consolation, and continued till break of day in singing psalms, in reading the Holy Scriptures, and in prayer. The hour of execution being come, the father of one of the martyrs, mingling in the crowd, waited till his son should pass to the stake, that he might whisper a few words of encouragement. "My dear son," said he, when he saw him approach, "fight manfully for the crown of everlasting life." The guards instantly dragged the old man away to prevent him saying more. His sister now came forward, and spoke to him with equal courage. "Brother," cried she, "be constant; it will not last long; the gate of eternal life is open for you." The scene made a deep impression upon the spectators.

A burgher and bargeman of Amsterdam, Gerrit Cornelison by name, was one day brought out to be burned. In prison he had twice been tortured to force him to betray his associates, but no pain could overcome his constancy. Turning to the people

at the stake, he cried, "Good people, eternity is so long, and our suffering here is so short, and yet the combat is very sharp and cruel. Alas! how am I distressed! O my flesh, bear and resist for a little, for this is thy last combat." This, his last battle, he fought courageously, and received the crown. [3]

While these humble men were dying for their faith, Providence was preparing in high quarters for the deliverance of the country. After the close of his first unsuccessful campaign, William of Orange retired for a short time to France, and was present at the battle of Jarnac, where he witnessed the disaster which there befel the Huguenot arms. It seemed as if a thick cloud was everywhere gathering above the Protestant cause. In a few months he was recalled by his friends to Germany. Disguising himself as a peasant, and accompanied by only five attendants, he crossed the French lines, traversed Flanders in safety, and reached his principality of Nassau. He there learned all that had passed in the Netherlands during his absence. He was told that every day the tyranny of Alva waxed greater, as did also the odium in which both his person and government were held. The unhappy country had but one hope, and if that should misgive it, it must abandon itself to utter despair. That hope was himself. From all sides, from Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, from the exiles abroad and from the sufferers at home, came the most urgent appeals to him to again unfurl the standard of battle. He had consecrated his life to the defense of the Reformed religion, and the maintenance of his country's liberties, and was ready to respond to the appeal of those who had no human help save in his wisdom and courage. But he recollected what had so largely contributed to the failure of his first attempt, and before un-sheathing the sword he set about collecting the sinews of war. William had already all but beggared himself in his attempt to break the yoke from the neck of the Netherlands; his plate and jewels and furniture had all been sold to pay his soldiers; his paternal estates were heavily burdened; he would give what remained of his possessions, together with his courage and blood, in promotion of the cause; but others also, at home and abroad, must contribute both their money and their blood, and in no stinted measure, if success was to crown their efforts. William took the first step by forming a comprehensive plan for raising the necessary funds.

The Flemish refugees in London and other parts had united together, and had fitted out a great number of armed vessels. These they sent to cruise on the English and Flemish seas, and make prize of all. Spanish ships that came in their way. Their skill and daring were rewarded by numerous rich captures. As the growing fury of Alva swelled the number of refugees in London and other cities, so did the strength of the privateering fleet continue to increase. While Alva was gathering his taxes on land, they were reaping a rich harvest at sea. They scoured the English Channel, they hovered on the coast of the Netherlands, and preyed upon the merchandise of Spain. These cruisers became renowned under the title of the "Sea Beggars." It occurred to the Prince of Orange that these "terrible beggars" might do good service in the cause of their country's emancipation; and it was ultimately arranged that a fifth of the value of all the prizes which they made should be given to officers appointed by William, and the sum devoted to the support of the war of liberation.

Measures were at the same time adopted to improve the morale and discipline of a fleet that was becoming the terror of Alva and the Spaniards. No one was to exercise authority in it save those to whom William himself should grant commissions. Every ship was to carry a Protestant minister on board, whose duty it was to conduct regular religious service; and no one who had ever been convicted of a crime was to be permitted to serve in the fleet. The ships of all friendly Powers were to pass untouched, and Alva and his adherents only were the Sea Beggars to regard as lawful prey.

At the same time the prince adopted another method of improving his finances in prospect of the coming war of independence. Commissions were given to the Protestant preachers, who traversed the Provinces in disguise, and collected money from all who were disaffected to the Spanish Government, or inimical to the Romish religion. None knew so well as they to whom to apply, or were so able by their eloquence to recommend the cause. William, besides, acquired by their means an intimate and accurate knowledge of the dispositions of all classes in the Netherlands. Their mission was specially successful in Holland and Zealand, where the Reformed religion had made greater progress than in the southern Provinces, and where the people, enjoying the natural defences of canals, rivers, and sea-friths, felt less the terror of the Spaniards. On these grounds, too, William resolved to seek in these northern parts a first footing for his enterprise. While these measures were being vigorously prosecuted in Holland, a trustworthy agent, Sonoy, was sent to canvass the Governments and people of Germany, adjuring them in the name of a common faith and a common liberty to put their shoulder to the great enterprise. Not a whisper of what was in preparation was wafted to the ears of Alva, although the prince's designs must have been known to a vast number of persons, so universal was the detestation in which the tyrant was held. Alva himself unconsciously helped to prepare the way for William, and to draw down the first blow of the great conflict.

It was about the end of March, 1572, and the fleet

of the Beggars of the Sea was lying off Dover. Spain, smarting from the damage that these daring sea-rovers were constantly inflicting on her merchandise, complained to England that she opened her harbours to Flemish pirates, and permitted the goods stolen by them from Spanish subjects to be sold in her dominions, and so violated the treaties subsisting between the Spanish and English crowns. Elizabeth, though secretly friendly to the Flemish exiles, was yet unwilling to come to an open rupture with Philip, and accordingly she ordered their ships to quit her ports, [4] and forbade her subjects to supply provisions to their crews. The Sea Beggars instantly weighed anchor, and shot across the German Sea. Half famished they arrived off the mouth of the Meuse, and sailed up its broad channel to Brill. The fleet was under the command of Admiral de la Marck, who held a commission from William of Orange. Coming to anchor opposite Brill, De la Marck sent a herald to summon the town to surrender. "The people," says Strada, "supposed them at first to be merchantmen cast upon their coast by storm, but before they were aware they brought war, not merchandise." [5]

Brill, though a small place, was strongly fortified, but the summons of the Beggars of the Sea, inspired such a terror that the magistrates fled, and were followed by many of the inhabitants. De la Marck's soldiers battered open the gates, and having entered they hoisted their flag, and took possession of Brill, in the name of William of Orange. Thus on the 1st of April, 1572, were laid the foundations of the Free Protestant Holland, and thus was opened a conflict whose course of thirty years was to be marked by alternate defeats and triumphs, by the tragedies and crimes of a colossal tyranny, and the heroism and self-devotion of a not less colossal virtue and patriotism, till it should end in the overthrow of the mighty Empire of Spain, and the elevation of the little territory of Holland to a more stable prosperity, and a more enviable greatness and renown, than Philip's kingdom could boast in its palmiest days.

Meanwhile Alva was giving reins to a fury which had risen to madness. He was burning the Prince of Orange in effigy, he was dragging his escutcheon through the streets at the tails of horses, and proclaiming William and his offspring infamous to all posterity. At the same time he was fighting with the inhabitants about "the tenth penny." The consequences of enforcing so ruinous a tax, of which he had been warned, had now been realised: all buying and selling was suspended: the shops were shut, and the citizens found it impossible to purchase even the most common necessaries.

Thousands were thrown out of employment, and the towns swarmed with idlers and beggars. Enraged at being thus foiled, Alva resolved to read the shopkeepers of Brussels a lesson which they should not soon forget. He made arrangements that when they awoke next morning they should see eighteen of the leading members of their fraternity hanged at the doors of their own shops. The hangman had the ropes and ladders prepared overnight. But morning brought with it other things to occupy Alva's attention. A messenger arrived with the news that the great Sea Beggar, De la Marek, had made himself master of the town of Brill, and that the standard of William was floating on its walls. Alva was thunderstruck. [6]

The duke instantly dispatched Count Bossu to retake the town. The Spaniards advanced to the walls of Brill and began to batter them with their cannon. A carpenter leaped into the canal, swam to a sluice and with his axe hewed it open, and let in the sea. The rising waters compelled the besiegers to remove to the south side of the town, which chanced to be that on which De la Marck had planted his largest cannon. While the Spaniards were thundering at this gate, La Marck's men, issuing out at the opposite one, and rowing to the Spanish ships, set fire to them. When the Spaniards saw their ships beginning to blaze, and marked the waves steadily rising round them, they were seized with panic, and made a hasty retreat along the dyke. Many perished in the waves, the rest escaping to the fleet crowded into the vessels that remained unburned, weighed anchor and set sail. The inhabitants who had fled at the first surprise now returned, their names were registered, and all swore allegiance to the Prince of Orange, as Stadtholder for Philip. [7]

Misfortune continued to dog the steps of the Spaniards. Bossu led his troops toward Dort, but the inhabitants, who had heard of the capture of Brill, closed their gates against him. [8] He next took his way to Rotterdam. There too his demand for admission to a garrison in the king's name was met with a refusal. The crafty Spaniard had recourse to a stratagem. He asked leave for his companies to pass through one by one; this was given, but no sooner had the first company entered than Bossu, regardless of his promise, made his soldiers keep open the gates for his whole army. The citizens attempted to close the gates, but were hewn down; and the Spaniards, giving loose to their fury, spread themselves over the city, and butchered 400 of the inhabitants. The sanguinary and brutal ravages which Bossu's soldiers inflicted on Rotterdam had nearly as great an effect as the capture of Brill in spreading the spirit of revolt over Holland.

Flushing, an important town from its position at the mouth of the Scheldt, was the next to mount the flag of defiance to the Spaniards. They drove out the garrison of Alva, and razed the foundations of a citadel which the governor was preparing as the chain wherewith to bind them. Next day the Spanish fleet appeared in their harbour; the citizens were

deliberating in the market-place when a drunken fellow proposed, for three guilders, to mount the ramparts, and fire one of the great guns upon the ships. The effect of that one unexpected shot was to strike the Spaniards with panic. They let slip their cables and stood out to sea.

Two hundred years afterwards we find Flushing commemorating its deliverance from the yoke of Alva. The minutes of the consistory inform us "that the minister, Justus Tgeenk, preached [April 5th, 1772] in commemoration of Flushing's delivery from Spanish tyranny, which was stopped here on the 6th April, 1572, when the citizens, unassisted and unsupported by any foreign Power, drove out the Walloons and opened their gates, and laid the corner-stone of that singular and always remarkable revolution, which placed seven small Provinces in a state of independency, in despite of the utmost efforts of Philip II., then the most powerful monarch in Europe." The Sunday after (April 12th), the Lord's Supper was dispensed, and "at the table," say the minutes, was used "a silver chalice," the property of the burgomaster E. Clyver, "wherein two hundred years ago the Protestants in this town had, for the first time, celebrated the Lord's Supper in a cellar here at the head of the Great Market, on account of the, unrelenting persecution." [9]

In a few months all the more important towns of Holland and Zealand followed the example of Brill and Flushing, and hung out upon their walls the standard of the man in whom they recognised their deliverer. [10] Haarlem, Leyden, Gouda, Horn, Alkmaar, Enkhuizen, and many others broke their chain. No soldier of the prince, no sea-rover of De la Marck's incited them to revolt: the movement was a thoroughly spontaneous one; it originated with the citizens themselves, the great majority of whom cherished a hatred of the Roman faith, and a detestation of Spanish tyranny. Amsterdam was the only exception that is worth noting in Holland. The flame which had been kindled spread into Friesland, and Utrecht and other towns placed their names on the distinguished list of cities that came forth at this great crisis to the help of conscience and of liberty against the mighty.

A small incident which happened at this moment was fraught with vast consequences. Count Louis of Nassau, approaching from France, made himself master of the frontier town of Mons in the south. [11] Alva was excessively mortified by this mishap, and he was bent on recovering the place. He was counselled to defer the siege of Mons till he should have extinguished the rising in the north. He was reminded that Holland and Zealand were deeply infected with heresy; that there the Prince of Orange was personally popular; that nature had fortified these Provinces by intersecting them with rivers and arms of the sea, and that if time were given the inhabitants to strengthen their canals and cities, many sieges and battles might not suffice to reduce them to their obedience. This advice was eminently wise, but Alva stopped his ear to it. He went on with the siege of Mons, and while "he was plucking this thorn out of his foot," the conflagration in the north of the Netherlands had time to spread. He succeeded eventually in extracting the thorn that is, he took Mons – but at the cost of losing Holland.

William himself had not yet arrived in the Netherlands, but he was now on his way thither at the head of a new army well nigh 20,000 strong, which he had raised in Germany. He caused to be distributed before him copies of a declaration, in which he set forth the grounds of his taking up arms. These were, in brief, "the security of the rights and privileges of the country, and the freedom of conscience." In the instructions which he issued to his deputy in Holland, Diedrich Sonoy, he required him, "first of all, to deliver the towns of that Province from Spanish slavery, and to restore them to their ancient liberties, rights and privileges, and to take care that the Word of God be preached and published there, but yet by no means to suffer that those of the Romish Church should be in any sort prejudiced, or that any impediment should be offered to them in the exercise of their religion." [12]

Meanwhile, Alva was left literally without a penny; and, finding it hard to prosecute the siege of Mons on an empty military chest, he announced his willingness to remit the tax of the tenth penny, provided the States-General would give him "the annual twenty tuns of gold" [13] (about two millions of florins) which they had formerly promised him in lieu of the obnoxious tax; and he summoned the States of Holland to meet at the Hague, on the 15th of July, and consider the matter.

The States of Holland met on the day named, not at the Hague, but at Dort; and in obedience to the summons, not of Alva, but of William. Nor had they assembled to deliberate on the proposal of Alva, and to say whether it was the "tenth penny" or the "twenty tuns of gold" that they were henceforth to lay at his feet. The banner of freedom now floated on their walls, and they had met to devise the means of keeping it waving there. The battle was only beginning: the liberty which had been proclaimed had yet to be fought for. Of this we find their great leader reminding them. In a letter which William addressed at this time to the States of Holland, he told them, in words as plain as they were weighty, that if in a quarrel like this they should show themselves sparing of their gold, they would incur the anger of the great Ruler, they would make themselves the scorn of foreign nations, and they would bind a bloody yoke on themselves and their posterity for ever.

William was not present in the assembly at Dolt, but he was ably represented by St. Aldegonde.

This eloquent plenipotentiary addressed the members in a powerful speech, in which he rehearsed the efforts the Prince of Orange had already made for the deliverance of the land from Spanish cruelty; that he had embarked the whole of his fortune in the struggle; that the failure of the expedition of 1568 was owing to no fault of his, but entirely in his not being adequately supported, not a Fleming having lifted a finger in the cause; that he was again in the field with an army, and that supplies must be found if it was to be kept there, or if it was to accomplish anything for the country. "Arouse ye, then," were the thrilling words in which St. Aldegonde concluded his oration, "awaken your own zeal and that of your sister cities. Seize Opportunity by the locks, who never appeared fairer than she does to-day."

St. Aldegonde was further instructed by the prince to state the broad and catholic aims that he proposed to himself in the struggle which they were to wage together. If that struggle should be crowned with success, the Papist would have not less cause to rejoice than the Protestant; the two should divide the spoils. "As for religion," said St. Aldegonde, "the desires of the prince are that liberty of conscience should be allowed as well to the Reformed as to the Roman Catholics; that each party should enjoy the public exercise of it in churches or chapels, without any molestation, hindrance, or trouble, and that the clergy should remain free and unmolested in their several functions, provided they showed no tokens of disaffection, and that all things should be continued on this footing till the States-General otherwise directed." In these intentions the States expressed themselves as at one with the prince.

A patriotic response was made to the prince's appeal by the Northern Netherlands. All classes girded themselves for the great struggle. The aristocracy, the guilds, the religious houses, and the ordinary citizens came forward with gifts and loans. Money, plate, jewellery, and all kinds of valuables were poured into the common treasury. A unanimous resolution of the States declared the Prince of Orange Stadtholder of Holland. The taxes were to be levied in his name, and all naval and land officers were to take an oath of obedience to him. What a contrast between the little territory and the greatness of the contest that is about to be waged! We behold the inhabitants of a small platform of earth, walled in by dykes lest the ocean should drown it, heroically offering themselves to fight the world's battle against that great combination of kingdoms, nationalities, and armies that compose the mighty monarchy of Spain!

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