corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 24 — Administration of Don John, and first Synod of Dort

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26  27  28  29  30

Little and Great Countries – Their respective Services to Religion and Liberty – The Pacification of Ghent brings with it an Element of Weakness – Divided Counsels and Aims – Union of Utrecht – The new Governor Don John of Austria – Asked to Ratify the Pacification of Ghent – Refuses – At last Consents – " The Perpetual Edict" – Perfidy meditated – A Martyr – Don John Seizes the Castle of Namur – Intercepted Letters – William made Governor of Brabant – His Triumphal Progress to Brussels – Splendid Opportunity of achieving Independence – Roman Catholicism a Dissolvent – Prince Matthias – his Character-Defeat of the Army of the Netherlands – Bull of the Pope – Amsterdam – Joins the Protestant Side – Civic Revolution – Progress of Protestantism in Antwerp, Ghent, etc. – First National Synod – Their Sentiments on Toleration – " Peace of Religion " – The Provinces Disunite – A Great Opportunity Lost – Death of Don John.

The great battles of religion and liberty have, as a rule, been fought not by the great, but by the little countries of the world. History supplies us with many striking examples of this, both in ancient and in modern times. The Pacification of Ghent is one of these. It defined the territory which was to be locked in deadly struggle with Spain, and greatly enlarged it. By the side of the little Holland and Zealand it placed Brabant and Flanders, with their populous towns and their fertile fields. With this vast accession of strength to the liberal side, one would have expected that henceforth the combat would be waged with greater vigor, promptitude, and success. But it was not so, for from this moment the battle began to languish. William of Orange soon found that if he had widened the area, he had diminished the power of the liberal cause. An element of weakness had crept in along with the new territories. How this happened it is easy to explain. The struggle on both sides was one for religion Philip had made void all the charters of ancient freedom, and abolished all the privileges of the cities, that he might bind down upon the neck of the Netherlands the faith and worship of Rome. On the other hand, William and the States that were of his mind strove to revive these ancient charters, and immemorial privileges, that under their shield they might enjoy freedom of conscience, and be able to profess the Protestant religion. None but Protestants could be hearty combatants in such a battle; religion alone could kindle that heroism which was needed to bear the strain and face the perils of so great and so prolonged a conflict. But the fifteen Provinces of the Southern Netherlands were now more Popish than at the abdication of Charles V. The Protestants whom they contained at that era had since been hanged, or burned, or chased away, and a reaction had set in which had supplied their places with Romanists; and therefore the Pacification, which placed Brabant alongside of Holland in the struggle against Spain, and which gave to the Dutch Protestant as his companion in arms the Popish Fleming, was a Pacification that in fact created two armies, by proposing two objects or ends on the liberal side. To the Popish inhabitants of the Netherlands the yoke of Spain would in no long time be made easy enough; for the edicts, the Inquisition, and the bishops were things that could have no great terrors to men who did not need their coercion to believe, or at least profess, the Romish dogmas. The professors of the Romish creed, not feeling that wherein lay the sting of the Spanish yoke, could not be expected therefore to make other than half-hearted efforts to throw it off.

But far different was it with the other and older combatants. They felt that sting in all its force, and therefore could not stop half-way in their great struggle, but must necessarily press on till they had plucked out that which was the root of the whole Spanish tyranny. Thus William found that the Pacification of Ghent had introduced among the Confederates divided counsels, dilatory action, and uncertain aims; and three years after (1579) the Pacification had to be rectified by the "Union of Utrecht," which, without dissolving the Confederacy of Ghent, created an inner alliance of seven States, and thereby vastly quickened the working of the Confederacy, and presented to the world the original framework or first constitution of that Commonwealth which has since become so renowned under the name of the "United Provinces."

Meanwhile, and before the Union of Utrecht had come into being, Don John of Austria, the newly-appointed governor, arrived in the Low Countries. He brought with him an immense prestige as the son of Charles V., and the hero of Lepanto. He had made the Cross to triumph over the Crescent in the bloody action that reddened the waters of the Lepantine Gulf; and he came to the Netherlands with the purpose and in the hope of making the Cross triumphant over heresy, although it should be by dyeing the plains of the Low Countries with a still greater carnage than that with which he, had crimsoned the Greek seas. He arrived to find that the seventeen Provinces had just banded themselves together to drive out the Spanish army: and to re-assert their independence; and before they would permit him to enter they demanded of him an oath to execute the Pacification of Ghent. This was a preliminary which he did not relish; but finding that he must either accept the Pacification or else return to Spain, he gave the promise, styled the "Perpetual Edict," demanded of him (17th February, 1577), and entered upon his government by dismissing all the foreign troops, which now returned into Italy [1] With the departure of the soldiers the brilliant and

ambitious young governor seemed to have abandoned all the great hopes which had lighted him to the Netherlands. There were now great rejoicings in the Provinces: all their demands had been conceded.

But Don John trusted to recover by intrigue what he had surrendered from necessity. No sooner was he installed at Brussels than he opened negotiations with the Prince of Orange, in the hope of drawing him from "the false position" in which he had placed himself to Philip, and winning him to his side. Don John had had no experience of such lofty spirits as William, and could only see the whims of fanaticism, or the aspirings of ambition, in the profound piety and grand aims of William. He even attempted, through a malcontent party that now arose, headed by the Duke of Aerschot, to work the Pacification of Ghent so as to restore the Roman religion in exclusive dominancy in Holland and Zealand, as well as in the other Provinces. But these attempts of Don John were utterly futile.

William had no difficulty in penetrating the true character and real design of the viceroy. He knew that, although the Spanish troops had been sent away, Philip had still some 15,000 German mercenaries in the Provinces, and held in his hands all the great keys of the country. William immovably maintained his attitude of opposition despite all the little arts of the viceroy. Step by step Don John advanced to his design, which was to restore the absolute dominancy at once of Philip and of Rome over all the Provinces. His first act was to condemn to death Peter Panis, a tailor by trade, and a man of most exemplary life, and whose only crime had been that of hearing a sermon from a Reformed minister in the neighborhood of Mechlin. The Prince of Orange made earnest intercession for the martyr, imploring the governor "not again to open the old theaters of tyranny, which had occasioned the shedding of rivers of blood;" [2] notwithstanding the poor man was beheaded by the order of Don John. The second act of the viceroy, which was to seize on the Castle of Namur, revealed his real purpose with even more flagrancy. To make himself master of that stronghold he had recourse to a stratagem. Setting out one morning with a band of followers, attired as if for the chase, but with arms concealed under their clothes, the governor and his party took their way by the castle, which they feigned a great desire to see. No sooner were they admitted by the castellan than they drew their swords, and Don John at the same instant winding his horn, the men-at-arms, who lay in ambush in the surrounding woods, rushed in, and the fortress was captured. [3] As a frontier citadel it was admirably suited to receive the troops which the governor expected soon to return from Italy; and he remarked, when he found himself in possession of the castle, that this was the first day of his regency: it might with more propriety have been called the first day of those calamities that pursued him to the grave.

Intercepted letters from Don John to Philip II. fully unmasked the designs of the governor, and completed the astonishment and alarm of the States. These letters urged the speedy return of the Spanish troops, and dilating on the inveteracy of that disease which had fastened on the Netherlands, the letters said, "the malady admitted of no remedies but fire and sword."

This discovery of the viceroy's baseness raised to the highest pitch the admiration of the Flemings for the sagacity of William, who had given them early warning of the duplicity of the governor, and the cruel designs he was plotting. Thereupon the Provinces a third time threw off their obedience to Philip II., declaring that Don John was no longer Stadtholder or legitimate Governor of the Provinces. [4] Calling the Prince of Orange to Brussels, they installed him as Governor of Brabant, a dignity which had been bestowed hitherto only on the Viceroys of Spain. As the prince passed along in his barge from Antwerp to Brussels, thousands crowded to the banks of the canal to gaze on the great patriot and hero, oil whose single shoulder rested the weight of this struggle with the mightiest empire then in existence. The men of Antwerp stood on this side-of the canal, the citizens of Brussels lined the opposite bank, to offer their respectful homage to one greater than kings. They knew the toils he had borne, the dangers he had braved, the princely fortune he had sacrificed, and the beloved brothers and friends he had seen sink around him in the contest; and when they saw the head on which all these storms had burst still erect, and prepared to brave tempests not less fierce in the future, rather than permit the tyranny of Spain to add his native country to the long roll of unhappy kingdoms which it had already enslaved and crushed, their admiration and enthusiasm knew no bounds, and they saluted him with the glorious appellations of the Father of his Country, and the guardian of its liberties and laws? [5]

This was the third time that liberty had offered herself to the Flemings; and as this was to be the last, so it was the fairest opportunity the Provinces ever had of placing their independence on a firm and permanent foundation, in spite of the despot of the Escorial. The Spanish soldiers were withdrawn, the king's finances were exhausted, the Provinces were knit together in a bond for the prosecution of their common cause, and they had at their head a man of consummate ability, of incorruptible patriotism, and they lacked nothing but hearty co-operation and union among themselves to guide the struggle to a glorious issue. With liberty, who could tell the glories and prosperities of that future that awaited Provinces so populous and

rich? But, alas! it began to be seen what a solvent Romanism was, and of how little account were all these great opportunities in the presence of so disuniting and dissolving a force. The Roman Catholic nobles grew jealous of William, whose great abilities and pre-eminent influence threw theirs into the shade. They affected to believe that liberty was in danger from the man who had sacrificed all to vindicate it, and that so zealous a Calvinist must necessarily persecute the Roman religion, despite the efforts of his whole life to secure toleration for all creeds and sects. In short, the Flemish Catholics would rather wear the Spanish yoke, with the Pope as their spiritual father, than enjoy freedom under the banners of William the Silent. Sixteen of the grandees, chief among whom was the Duke of Aerschot, opened secret negotiations with the Archduke Matthias, brother of the reigning emperor, Rudolph, and invited him to be Governor of the Netherlands. Matthias, a weak but ambitious youth, greedily accepted the invitation; and without reflecting that he was going to mate himself with the first politician of the age, and to conduct a struggle against the most powerful monarch in Christendom, he departed from Vienna by night, and arrived in Antwerp, to the astonishment of those of the Flemings who were not in the intrigue. [6] The archduke owed the permission given him to enter the Provinces to the man he had come to supplant. William of Orange, so far from taking offense and abandoning his post, continued to consecrate his great powers to the liberation of his country. He accepted Matthias, though forced upon him by an intrigue; he prevailed upon the States to accept him, and install him in the rank of Governor of the Netherlands, he himself becoming his lieutenant-general. Matthias remained a puppet by the side of the great patriot, nevertheless his presence did good; it sowed the seeds of enmity between the German and Spanish branches of the House of Austria, and it made the Roman Catholic nobles, whose plot it was, somewhat obnoxious in the eyes both of Don John and Philip. The cause of the Netherlands was thus rather benefited by it. And moreover, it helped William to the solution of a problem which had occupied his thoughts for some time past – namely, the permanent form which he should give to the government of the Provinces. So far as the matter had shaped itself in his mind, he purposed that a head or Governor should be over the Netherlands, and that under this virtual monarch should be the States-General or Parliament, and under it a State Council or Executive; but that neither the Governor nor the State Council should have power to act without the concurrence of the States-General. Such was the programme, essentially one of constitutionalism, that William had sketched in his own mind for his native land. Whom he should make Governor he had not yet determined: most certainly it would be neither himself nor Philip of Spain; and now an intrigue of the Roman Catholic nobles had placed Matthias of Austria in the post, for which William knew not where to find a suitable occupant. But first the country had to be liberated; every other work must be postponed for this.

The Netherlands, their former Confederacy ratified (December 7th, 1577) in the "New Union" of Brussels – the last Confederacy that was ever to be formed by the Provinces – had thrown down the gauntlet to Philip, and both sides prepared for war, The Prince of Orange strengthened himself by an alliance with England. In this treaty, formed through the Marquis of Havree, the States ambassador, Elizabeth engaged to aid the Netherlanders with the loan of 100,000 pounds sterling, and a force of 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, their commander to have a seat in the State Council. Nor was Don John idle He had collected a considerable army from the neighboring Provinces, and these were joined by veteran troops from Italy and Spain, which Philip had ordered Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, to lead back into the Netherlands The States army amounted to about 10,000; that of Spain to 15,000; the latter, if superior in numbers, were still more superior in discipline. On joining battle at Gemblours the army of the Netherlands encountered a terrible overthrow, a result which the bulk of the nation attributed to the cabals and intrigues of the Roman Catholic nobles.

At this stage the two great antagonistic principles which were embodied in the respective policies of Philip and William, and whose struggles with one another made themselves audible in this clash of arms, came again to the front. The world was anew taught that it was a mortal combat between Rome and the Reformation that was proceeding on the theater of the Netherlands. The torrents of blood that were being poured out were shed not to revive old charters, but to rend the chains from conscience, and to transmit to generations unborn the heritage of religious freedom. In this light did Pope Gregory XIII. show that he regarded the struggle when he sent, as he did at this time, a bull in favor of all who should fight under the banner of Don John, "against heretics, heretical rebels, and enemies of the Romish faith." The bull was drafted on the model of those which his predecessors had been wont to fulminate when they wished to rouse the faithful to slaughter the Saracens and Turks; it offered a plenary indulgence and remission of sins to all engaged in this new crusade in the Low Countries. The bull further authorised Don John to impose a tax upon the clergy for the support of the war, "as undertaken for the defense of the Romish religion." The banners of the Spanish general were blazoned with the sign of the cross, and the following motto: In hoc signo vici Turcos: in hoc signo vincam hereticos (" Under this sign

I have vanquished the Turks: under this sign I will vanquish the heretics"). And Don John was reported to have said that "the king had rather be lord only of the ground, of the trees, shrubs, beasts, wolves, waters, and fishes of this country, than suffer one single person who has taken up arms against him, or at least who has been polluted with heresy, to live and remain in it." [7] On the other side Protestantism also lifted itself up. Amsterdam, the capital of Protestant Holland, still remained in the hands of the Romanists.

This state of matters, which weakened the religious power of the Northern States, was now rectified. Mainly by the mediation of Utrecht, it was agreed on the 8th of February, 1578, that Amsterdam should enroll itself with the States of Holland, and swear allegiance to the Prince of Orange as its Stadtholder, on condition that the Roman faith were the only one publicly professed in the city, with right to all Protestants to practice their own worship, without molestation, outside the walls, and privilege of burying their dead in unconsecrated but convenient ground, provided that neither was psalm sung, nor prayer offered, nor any religious act performed at the grave, and that the corpse was followed to the tomb by not more than twenty-six persons. To this was added a not less important concession – namely, that all who had been driven away on account of difference of religious opinion should have liberty to return to Amsterdam, and be admitted to their former rights and privileges. [8] This last stipulation, by attracting back crowds of Protestant exiles, led to a revolution in the government of the city. The Reformed faith had now a vast majority of the citizens – scarcely were there any Romanists in Amsterdam save the magistrates and the friars – and a plot was laid, and very cleverly executed, for changing the Senate and putting it in harmony with the popular sentiment. On the 26th May, 1578, the Stadthouse was surrounded by armed citizens, and the magistrates were made prisoners.

All the monks were at the same time secured by soldiers and others dispersed through the city. The astonished senators, and the not less astonished friars, were led through the streets by their captors, the crowd following them and shouting, "To the gallows! to the gallows with them, whither they have sent so many better men before them!" The prisoners trembled all over, believing that they were being conducted to execution. They were conveyed to the river's edge, the magistrates were put on board one boat, and the friars, along with a few priests who had also been taken into custody, were embarked in another, and both were rowed out into deep water. Their pallid faces, and despairing adieus to their relations, bespoke the apprehensions they entertained that the voyage on which they had set out was destined to be fatal. The vessels that bore them would, they believed, be scuttled, and give them burial in the ocean. No such martyrdom, however, awaited them; and the worst infliction that befell them was the terror into which they had been put of a watery death.

They were landed in safety on St. Anthony's Dyke, and left at liberty to go wherever they would, with this one limitation, that if ever again they entered Amsterdam they forfeited their lives. Three days after these melo-dramatic occurrences a body of new senators was elected and installed in office, and all the churches were closed during a week. They were then opened to the Reformed by the magistrates, who, accompanied by a number of carpenters, had previously visited them and removed all their images. Thus, without the effusion of a drop of blood, was Protestantism established in Amsterdam. The first Reformed pastors in that capital were John Reuchelin and Peter Hardenberg. [9] The Lutherans and Anabaptists were permitted to meet openly for their worship, and the Papists were allowed the private exercise of theirs.

With this prosperous gale Protestantism made way in the other cities of Holland and of Brabant. This progress, profoundly peaceful in the majority of cases, was attended with tumult in one or two instances. In Haarlem the Protestants rose on a Communion Sunday, and coming upon the priests in the cathedral while in the act of kindling their tapers and unfurling their banners for a grand procession, they dispossessed them of their church. In the tumult a priest was slain, but the soldier who did the deed had to atone for it with his life; the other rioters were summoned by tuck of drum to restore the articles they had stolen, and the Papists were assured, by a public declaration, of the free exercise of their religion. [10] The presence of the Prince of Orange in Brussels, and the Pacification of Ghent, which shielded the Protestant worship from violence, had infused new courage into the hearts of the Reformed in the Southern Netherlands.

From their secret conventicles in some cellar or dark alley, or neighboring wood, they came forth and practiced their worship in the light of day. In Flanders and Brabant the Protestants were increasing daily in numbers and courage. On Sunday, the 16th of May, in the single city of Antwerp, Protestant sermons were preached in not less than sixteen places, and the Sacrament dispensed in fourteen. In Ghent it was not uncommon for Protestant congregations to convene in several places, of four, five, and six hundred persons, and all this in spite of the Union of Brussels (1577), which trenched upon the toleration accorded in the Pacification of Ghent. [11]

The first National Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church met at Dort on the 2nd of June, 1578. This body, in a petition equally distinguished for the strength of its reasonings and the liberality of its sentiments, urged the States-General to make provision for the free exercise of the Reformed religion, as a measure righteous

in itself, and the surest basis for the peace of the Provinces. How truly catholic were the Dutch Calvinists, and how much the cause of toleration owes to them, can be seen only from their own words, addressed to the Archduke Matthias and the Council of State.

After having proved that the cruelties practiced upon them had led only to an increase of their numbers, with the loss nevertheless of the nation's welfare, the desolation of its cities, the banishment of its inhabitants, and the ruin of its trade and prosperity, they go on to say that the refusal of the free exercise of their religion reduced them to this dilemma, "either that they must live without any religion, or that they themselves must force a way to the public exercise of it." They object to the first alternative as leading to an epicurean life, and the contempt of all laws human and divine; they dread the second as tending to a breach in the union of the Provinces, and possibly the dissolution of the present Government. But do they therefore ask exclusive recognition or supremacy? Far from it. "Since the experience of past years had taught them," they say, "that by reason of their sins they could not all be reduced to one and the same religion, it was necessary to consider how both religions could be maintained without damage or prejudice to each other. As for the objection," they continue, "that two religions are incompatible, in the same country, it had been refuted by the experience of all ages. The heathen emperors had found their account more in tolerating the Christians, nay, even in using their service in their wars, than in persecuting them. The Christian emperors had also allowed public churches to those who were. of a quite different opinion from them in religious matters, as might be seen in the history of Constantine, of his two sons, of Theodosius, and others. The Emperor Charles V. found no other expedient to extricate himself from the utmost distress than by consenting to the exercise of both religions." After citing many other examples they continue thus: "France is too near for us to be ignorant that the rivers of blood with which that kingdom is; overflowed can never be dried up but by a toleration of religion. Such a toleration formerly produced peace there; whereas being interrupted the said kingdom was immediately in a flame, and in danger of being quite consumed. We may likewise learn from the Grand Seignior, who knows how to tyrannise as well as any prince, and yet tolerates both Jews and Christians in his dominions without apprehending either tumults or defections, though there be more Christians in his territories who never owned the authority of the Pope, than there are in Europe that acknowledge it." And they concluded by craving "that both religions might be equally tolerated till God should be pleased to reconcile all the opposite notions that reigned in the land." [12]

In accordance with the petition of the Synod of Dort, a scheme of "Religious Peace," drafted by the Prince of Orange and signed by Matthias, was presented to the States-General for adoption. Its general basis was the equal toleration of both religions throughout the Netherlands. In Holland and Zealand, where the Popish worship had been suppressed, it was to be restored in all places where a hundred resident families desired it. In the Popish Provinces an equivalent indulgence was to be granted wherever an equal number of Protestant families resided. [Nowhere was the private exercise of either faith to be obstructed; the Protestants were to be eligible to all offices for which they were qualified, and were to abstain from all trade and labor on the great festivals of the Roman Church. This scheme was approved by the States-General, under the name of the "Peace of Religion." William was overjoyed to behold his most ardent hopes of a united Fatherland, and the vigorous prosecution of its great battle against a common tyranny, about to be crowned.

But these bright hopes were only for a moment. The banner of toleration, bravely uplifted by William, had been waved over the Netherlands only to be furled again. The Roman Catholic nobles, with Aerschot and Champagny at their head, refused to accept the "Peace of Religion." In their immense horror of Protestantism they forgot their dread of the Spaniard, and rather than that heresy should defile the Fatherland, they were willing that the yoke of Philip should be bound down upon it.

Tumults, violences, and conflicts broke out in many of the Provinces. Revenge begat revenge, and animosity on the one side kindled an equal animosity on the other. Something like a civil war raged in the Southern Netherlands, and the sword that ought to have been drawn against the common foe was turned against each other. These strifes and bigotries wrought at length the separation of the Walloon Provinces from the rest, and in the issue occasioned the loss of the greater part of the Netherlands. The hour for achieving liberty had passed, and for three centuries nearly these unwise and unhappy Provinces were not to know independence, but were to be thrown about as mere political make-weights, and to be the property now of this master and now of that.

Meanwhile the two armies lay inactive in the presence of each other. Both sides had recently received an augmentation of strength. The Netherlands army had been increased to something like 30,000, first by an English levy led by John Casimir, and next by a French troop under the command of the Duke of Alencon, for the Netherlands had become the pivot on which the rival policies of England and France at this moment revolved. The sinews of war were lacking on both sides, and hence the pause in hostilities. The scenes were about to shift in a way that no one anticipated. Struck down by fever, Don John lay a corpse

in the Castle of Namur. How different the destiny he had pictured for himself when he entered this fatal land! Young, brilliant, and ambitious, he had come to the Netherlands in the hope of adding to the vast renown he had already won at Lepanto, and of making for himself a great place in Christendom-of mounting, it might be, one of its thrones. But a mysterious finger had touched the scene, and suddenly changed its splendours into blackness, and transformed the imagined theater of triumph into one of misfortune and defeat. Fortune forsook her favourite the moment his foot touched this charmed soil. Withstood and insulted by the obstinate Netherlanders, outwitted and baffled by the great William of Orange, suspected by his jealous brother Philip II., by whom he was most inadequately supported with men and money, all his hours were embittered by toil, disappointment, and chagrin. The constant dread in which he was kept by the perils and pitfalls that surrounded him, and the continual circumspection which he was compelled to exercise, furrowed his brow, dimmed his eye sapped his strength, and broke his spirit. At last came fever, and fever was followed by delirium. He imagined himself upon the battle-field: he shouted out his orders: his eye now brightened, now faded, as he fancied victory or defeat to be attending his arms. Again came a lucid interval, [13] but only to fade away into the changeless darkness of death. He died before he had reached his thirtieth year. Another hammer, to use Beza's metaphor, had been worn out on the anvil of the Church. [14]

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, March 22nd, 2018
the Fifth Week of Lent
There are 10 days til Easter!
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology