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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 2 — Introduction of Protestantism into the Netherlands

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Power of the Church of Rome in the Low Countries in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries – Ebb in the Fifteenth Century – Causes – Forerunners – Waldenses and Albigenses – Romaunt Version of the Scriptures – Influence of Wicliffe's Writings and Huss's Martyrdom – Influence of Commerce, etc. – Charles V. and the Netherlands – Persecuting Edicts – Great Number of Martyrs.

The great struggle for religion and liberty, of which the Netherlands became the theater in the middle of the sixteenth century, properly dates from 1555, when the Emperor Charles V. is seen elevating to the throne, from which he himself has just descended, his son Philip II. In order to the right perception of that momentous conflict, it is necessary that we should rapidly survey the three centuries that preceded it. The Church of Rome in the Netherlands is beheld, in the thirteenth century, flourishing in power and riches. The Bishops of Utrecht had become the Popes of the North.

Favoured by the emperors, whose quarrel they espoused against the Popes in the Middle Ages, these ambitious prelates were now all but independent of Rome. "They gave place," says Brandt, the historian of the Netherlands' Reformation, "to neither kings nor emperors in the state and magnificence of their court; they reckoned the greatest princes in the Low Countries among their feudatories because they held some land of the bishopric in fee, and because they owed them homage. Accordingly, Baldwin, the second of that name and twenty-ninth bishop of the see, summoned several princes to Utrecht, to receive investiture of the lands that were so holden by them: the Duke of Brabant as first steward; the Count of Flanders as second; the Count of Holland as marshal." [1] The clergy regulated their rank by the spiritual princedom established at Utrecht. They were the grandees of the land. They monopolised all the privileges but bore none of the burdens of the State. They imposed taxes on others, but they themselves paid taxes to no one. Numberless dues and offerings had already swollen their possessions to an enormous amount, while new and ever-recurring exactions were continually enlarging their territorial domains. Their immoralities were restrained by no sense of shame and by no fear of punishment, seeing that to the opinion of their countrymen they paid no deference, and to the civil and criminal tribunals they owed no accountability. They framed a law, and forced it upon the government, that no charge should be received against a cardinal-bishop, unless supported by seventy-two witnesses; nor against a cardinal-priest, but by forty-four; nor against a cardinal-deacon, but by twenty-seven; nor against the lowest of the clergy, but by seven. [2] If a voice was raised to hint that these servants of the Church would exalt themselves by being a little more humble, and enrich themselves by being a little less covetous, and that charity and meekness were greater ornaments than sumptuous apparel and gaily-caparisoned mules, instantly the ban of the Church was evoked to crush the audacious complainer; and the anathema in that age had terrors that made even those look pale who had never trembled on the battle-field. But the power, affluence, and arrogance of the Church of Rome in the Low Countries had reached their height; and in the fourteenth century we find an ebb setting in, in that tide which till now had continued at flood. Numbers of the Waldenses and Albigenses, chased from Southern France or from the valleys of the Alps, sought refuge in the cities of the Netherlands, bringing with them the Romaunt version of the Bible, which was translated into Low Dutch rhymes. [3]

The city of Antwerp occupies a most distinguished place in this great movement. So early as 1106, before the disciples of Peter Waldo had appeared in these parts, we find a celebrated preacher, Tanchelinus by name, endeavoring to purge out the leaven of the Papacy, and spread purer doctrine not only in Antwerp, but in the adjoining parts of Brabant and Flanders; and, although vehemently opposed by the priests and by Norbert, the first founder of the order of Premonstratensians, his opinions took a firm hold of some of the finest minds. [4] In the following century, the thirteenth, William Cornelius, also of Antwerp, taught a purer doctrine than the common one on the Eucharistic Sacrament, which he is said to have received from the disciples of Tanchelinus. Nor must we omit to mention Nicolas, of Lyra, a town in the east of Brabant, who lived about 1322, and who impregnated his Commentary on the Bible with the seeds of Gospel truth. Hence the remark of Julius Pflugius, the celebrated Romish doctor [5] – "Si Lyra non lirasset, Lutherus non saltasset." [6] n the fourteenth century came another sower of the good seed of the Word in the countries of which we speak, Gerard of Groot. Nowhere, in short, had forerunners of the Reformation been so numerous as on this famous sea-board, a fact doubtless to be accounted for, in part at least, by the commerce, the intelligence, and the freedom which the Low Countries then enjoyed.

Voices began to be heard prophetic of greater ones to be raised in after-years. Whence came these voices? From the depth of the convents. The monks became the reprovers and accusers of one another. The veil was lifted upon the darkness that hid the holy places of the Roman Church. In 1290, Henry of Ghent, Archbishop of Tournay, published a book against the Papacy, in which he boldly questioned the Pope's power to transform what was evil into good. Guido, the forty-second Bishop of Utrecht, refused – rare modesty in those times – the red hat and scarlet mantle from the Pope. He contrasts with Wevelikhoven, the fiftieth bishop of that see, who in 1380 dug the bones of a Lollard out of the grave, and burned them before the gates of his episcopal palace, and cast the

ashes into the town ditch. His successor, the fifty-first Bishop of Utrecht, cast into a dungeon a monk named Matthias Grabo, for writing a book in support of the thesis that "the clergy are subject to the civil powers."The terrified author recanted the doctrine of his book, but the magistrates of several cities esteemed it good and sound notwithstanding. As in the greater Papacy of Rome, so in the lesser Papacy at Utrecht, a schism took place, and rival Popes thundered anathemas at one another; this helped to lower the prestige of the Church in the eyes of the people. Henry Loeder, Prior of the Monastery of Fredesweel, near Northova, wrote to his brother in the following manner – " Dear brother, the love I bear your state, and welfare for the sake of the Blood of Christ, obliges me to take a rod instead of a pen into my hand... I never saw those cloisters flourish and increase in godliness which daily increased in temporal estates and possessions... The filth of your cloister greatly wants the broom and the mop... Embrace the Cross and the Crucified Jesus; therein ye shall find full content." Near Haarlem was the cloister of "The Visitation of the Blessed Lady," of which John van Kempen was prior. We find him censuring the lives of the monks in these words – "We would be humble, but cannot bear contempt; patient, without oppressions or sufferings; obedient, without subjection; poor, without wanting anything, etc. Our Lord said the kingdom of heaven is to be entered by force." Henry Wilde, Prior of the Monastery of Bois le Duc, purged the hymn-books of the wanton songs which the monks had inserted with the anthems. "Let them pray for us," was the same prior wont to say when asked to sing masses for the dead; "our prayers will do them no good." We obtain a glimpse of the rigour of the ecclesiastical laws from the attempts that now began to be made to modify them. In 1434 we find Bishop Rudolph granting power to the Duke of Burgundy to arrest by his bailiffs all drunken and fighting priests, and deliver them up to the bishop, who promises not to discharge them till satisfaction shall have been given to the duke. He promises farther not to grant the protection of churches and churchyards to murderers and similar malefactors; and that no subject of Holland shall be summoned to appear in the bishop's court at Utrecht, upon any account whatsoever, if the person so summoned be willing to appear before the spiritual or temporal judge to whose jurisdiction he belongs. [7]

There follow, as it comes nearer the Reformation, the greater names of Thomas a. Kempis and John Wessel. We see them trim their lamp and go onward to show men the Way of Life. It was a feeble light that now began to break over these lands; still it was sufficient to reveal many things which had been unobserved or unthought of during the gross darkness that preceded it. It does not become Churchmen, the barons now began to say, to be so enormously rich, and so effeminately luxurious; these possessions are not less ours than they are theirs, we shall share them with them.

These daring barons, moreover, learned to deem the spiritual authority not quite so impregnable as they had once believed it to be, and the consequence of this was that they held the persons of Churchmen in less reverence, and their excommunications in less awe than before. There was planted thus an incipient revolt. The movement received an impulse from the writings of Wicliffe, which began to be circulated in the Low Countries in the end of the fourteenth century. [8] There followed, in the beginning of the next century, the martyrdoms of Huss and Jerome. The light which these two stakes shed over the plains of Bohemia was reflected as far as to the banks of the Rhine and the shores of the North Sea, and helped to deepen the inquiry which the teachings of the Waldenses and the writings of Wicliffe had awakened among the burghers and artisans of the Low Countries. The execution of Huss and Jerome was followed by the Bohemian campaigns. The victories of Ziska spread the terror of the Hussite arms, and to some extent also the knowledge of the Hussite doctrines, over Western Europe. In the great armaments which were raised by the Pope to extinguish the heresy of Huss, numerous natives of Holland and Belgium enrolled themselves; and of these, some at least returned to their native land converts to the heresy they had gone forth to subdue. [9] Their opinions, quietly disseminated among their countrymen, helped to prepare the way for that great struggle in the Netherlands which we are now to record, and, which expanded into so much vaster dimensions than that which had shaken Bohemia in the fifteenth century.

To these causes, which conspired for the awakening of the Netherlands, is to be added the influence of trade and commerce. The tendency of commerce to engender activity of mind, and nourish independence of thought, is too obvious to require that we should dwell upon it. The tiller of the soil seldom permits his thoughts to stray beyond his native acres, the merchant and trader has a whole hemisphere for his mental domain. He is compelled to reflect, and calculate, and compare, otherwise he loses his ventures. He is thus lifted out of the slough in which the agriculturist or the herdsman is content to lie all his days. The Low Countries, as we have said in the previous chapter, were the heart of the commerce of the nations. They were the clearing-house of the world. This vast trade brought with it knowledge as well as riches; for the Fleming could not meet his customers on the wharf, or on the Bourse, without hearing things to him new and strange. He had to do

with men of all nations, and he received from them not only foreign coin, but foreign ideas.

The new day was coming apace. Already its signals stood displayed before the eyes of men. One powerful instrumentality after another stood up to give rapid and universal diffusion to the new agencies that were about to be called into existence. Nor have the nations long to wait. A crash is heard, the fall of an ancient empire shakes the earth, and the sacred languages, so long imprisoned within the walls of Constantinople, are liberated, and become again the inheritance of the race. The eyes of men begin to be turned on the sacred page, which may now be read in the very words in which the inspired men of old time wrote it. Not for a thousand years had so fair a morning visited the earth. Men felt after the long darkness that truly "light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun." The dawn was pale and chilly in Italy, but in the north of Europe it brought with it, not merely the light of pagan literature, but the warmth and brightness of Christian truth.

We have already seen with what fierce defiance Charles V. flung down the gage of battle to Protestantism. In manner the most public, and with vow the most solemn and awful, he bound himself to extirpate heresy, or to lose armies, treasures, kingdoms, body and soul, in the attempt. Germany, happily, was covered from the consequences of that mortal threat by the sovereign rights of its hereditary princes, who stood between their subjects and that terrible arm that was now uplifted to crush them. But the less fortunate Netherlands enjoyed no such protection. Charles was master there. He could enforce his will in his patrimonial estates, and his will was that no one in all the Netherlands should profess another than the Roman creed.

One furious edict was issued after another, and these were publicly read twice every year, that no one might pretend ignorance. [10] These edicts did not remain a dead letter as in Germany; they were ruthlessly executed, and soon, alas! the Low Countries were blazing with stakes and swimming in blood. It is almost incredible, and yet the historian Meteren asserts that during the last thirty years of Charles's reign not fewer than 50,000 Protestants were put to death in the provinces of the Netherlands.

Grotius, in his Annals, raises the number to 100,000. [11] Even granting that these estimates are extravagant, still they are sufficient to convince us that the number of victims was great indeed. The bloody work did not slacken owing to Charles's many absences in Spain and other countries. His sister Margaret, Dowager-queen of Hungary, who was appointed regent of the provinces, was compelled to carry out all his cruel edicts. Men and women, whose crime was that they did not believe in the mass, were beheaded, hanged, burned, or buried alive. These proceedings were zealously seconded by the divines of Louvain, whom Luther styled "bloodthirsty heretics, who, teaching impious doctrines which they could make good neither by reason nor Scripture, betook themselves to force, and disputed with fire and sword. [12] This terrible work went on from the 23rd of July, 1523, when the proto-martyrs of the provinces were burned in the great square of Brussels, [13] to the day of the emperor's abdication. The Dowager-queen, in a letter to her brother, had given it as her opinion that the good work of purgation should stop only when to go farther would be to effect the entire depopulation of the country. The "Christian Widow," as Erasmus styled her, would not go the length of burning the last Netherlander; she would leave a few orthodox inhabitants to repeople the land.

Meanwhile the halter and the axe were gathering their victims so fast, that the limits traced by the regent – -wide as they were – bade fair soon to be reached. The genius and activity of the Netherlanders were succumbing to the terrible blows that were being unremittingly dealt them. Agriculture was beginning to languish; life was departing from the great towns; the step of the artisan, as he went to and returned from his factory at the hours of meal, was less elastic, and his eye less bright; the workshops were being weeded of their more skillful workmen; foreign Protestant merchants were fleeing from the country; and the decline of the internal trade kept pace with that of the external commerce.

It was evident to all whom bigotry had not rendered incapable of reflection, that, though great progress had been made towards the ruin of the country, the extinction of heresy was still distant, and likely to be reached only when the land had become a desert, the harbours empty, and the cities silent. The blood with which the tyrant was so profusely watering the Netherlands, was but nourishing the heresy which he sought to drown.

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