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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 25 — Abjuration of Philip, and rise of the Seven United Provinces

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Alexander, Duke of Parma – His Character – Divisions in the Provinces – Siege of Maestricht – Defection of the Walloons – Union of Utrecht – Bases of Union – Germ of the United Provinces – Their Motto – Peace Congress at Cologne – Its Grandeur – Philip makes Impossible Demands – Failure of Congress – Attempts to Bribe William – His Incorruptibility – Ban Fulminated against him – His "Apology " – Arraignment of Philip – The Netherlands Abjure Philip II. as King – Holland and Zealand confer their Sovereignty on William – Greatness of the Revolution-Its Place in the History of Protestantism.

Don JOHN having on his death-bed nominated Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, to succeed him, and the choice having soon afterwards been ratified by Philip II., the duke immediately took upon him the burden of that terrible struggle which had crushed his predecessor. If brilliant abilities could have commanded corresponding success, Parma would have speedily re-established the dominion of Spain throughout the whole of the Netherlands. His figure was finely moulded, and his features were handsome, despite that the lower part of his face was buried in a bushy beard, and that his dark eye had a squint which warned the spectator to be on his guard. His round compact head was one which a gladiator might have envied; his bearing was noble; he was temperate, methodical in business, but never permitted its pressure to prevent his attendance on morning mass; his coolness on the battle-field gave confidence to his soldiers; and while his courage and skill fitted him to cope with his antagonists in war, his wisdom, and cunning, and patience won for him not a few victories in the battles of diplomacy. His conduct and valor considerably retrieved at the beginning the affairs of Philip, but the mightier intellect with which he was confronted, and the destinies of the cause against which he did battle, attested in the end their superiority over all the great talents and dexterous arts of Alexander of Parma, seconded by the powerful armies of Spain. After the toil and watchfulness of years, and after victories gained with much blood, to yield not fruit but ashes, he too had to retire from the scene disappointed, baffled, and vanquished.

A revived bigotry had again split up the lately united Fatherland, and these divisions opened an entrance for the arts and the arms of Parma. Gathering up the wreck of the army of Don John, and reinforcing the old battalions by new recruits, Parma set vigorously to work to reduce the Provinces, and restore the supremacy of both Philip and Rome. Sieges and battles signalized the opening of the campaign; in most of these he was successful, but we cannot stay to give them individual narration, for our task is to follow the footsteps of that Power which had awakened the conflict, and which was marching on to victory, although through clouds so dark and tempests so fierce that a few only of the Netherlanders were able to follow it. The first success that rewarded the arms of Parma was the capture of Maestricht. Its massacre of three days renewed the horrors of former sieges. The cry of its agony was heard three miles off; and when the sword of the enemy rested, a miserable remnant (some three or four hundred, say the old chroniclers) [1] was all that was spared of its thirty-four thousand inhabitants. Crowds of idlers from the Walloon country flocked to the empty city; but though it was easy to repeople it, it was found impossible to revive its industry and prosperity. Nothing besides the grass that now covered its streets would flourish in it but vagabondism. The loss which the cause of Netherland liberty sustained in the fall of Maestricht was trifling, compared with the injury inflicted by another achievement of Parma, and which he gained not by arms, but by diplomacy. Knowing that the Walloons were fanatically attached to the old religion, he opened negotiations, and ultimately prevailed with them to break the bond of common brotherhood and form themselves upon a separate treaty. It was a masterly stroke. It had separated the Roman from the Batavian Netherlands. William had sought to unite the two, and make of them one nationality, placing the key-stone of the arch at Ghent, the capital of the Southern Provinces, and the second city in the Netherlands. But the subtle policy of Parma had cut the Fatherland in twain, and the project of William fell to the ground.

The Prince of Orange anxiously considered how best to parry the blow of Parma, and neutralise its damaging effects. The master-stroke of the Spaniard led William to adopt a policy equally masterly, and fruitful beyond all the measures he had yet; employed; this was the "Union of Utrecht." The alliance was formed between the States of Holland, Zealand, Utrecht, Guelder-land, Zutphen, Overyssel, and Groningen. It was signed on the 23rd of January, 1579, and six days thereafter it was proclaimed at Utrecht, and hence its name. This "Union" constituted the first foundation-stone in the subsequently world-renowned Commonwealth of the United Provinces of the Low Countries. The primary and main object of the Confederated States was the defense of their common liberty; for this end they resolved to remain hereafter and for ever united as one Province – without prejudice, however, to the ancient privileges and the peculiar customs of each several State. As regarded the business of religion, it was resolved that each Province should determine that question for itself – with this proviso, that no one should be molested for his opinion. The toleration previously enacted by the Pacification of Ghent was to rule throughout the bounds of the Confederacy. [2] When the States contrasted their own insignificance with the might of their great enemy, seven little Provinces banding themselves against an aggregate of nearly twice that number of powerful Kingdoms,

they chose as a fitting representation of their doubtful fortunes, a ship laboring amid the waves without sail or oars, and they stamped his device upon their first coins, with the words Incertum quo fata ferant [3] ("We know not whither the fates shall bear us"). Certainly no one at that hour was sanguine or bold enough to conjecture the splendid future awaiting these seven adventurous Provinces.

This attitude on their part made the King of Spain feign a desire for conciliation. A Congress was straightway assembled at Cologne to make what was represented as a hopeful, and what was certainly a laudable, attempt to heal the breach. On the Spanish side it was nothing more than a feint, but on that account it wore externally all the greater pomp and stateliness. In these respects nothing was lacking that could make it a success. The first movers in it were the Pope and the emperor. The deputies were men of the first rank in the State and the Church; they were princes, dukes, bishops, and the most renowned doctors in theology and law. Seldom indeed have so many mitres, and princely stars, and ducal coronets graced any assembly as those that shed their brilliance on this; and many persuaded themselves, when they beheld this union of rank and office with skill in law, in art, and diplomacy, that the Congress would give birth to something correspondingly magnificent. It met in the beginning of May, 1579, and it did not separate till the middle of November of the same year. But the six months during which it was in session were all too short to enable it to solve the problem which so many conventions and conferences since the breaking out of the Reformation had attempted to solve, but had failed – namely, how the absolute demands of authority are to be reconciled with the equally inflexible claims of conscience. There were only two ideas promulgated in that assembly; so far the matter was simple, and the prospect of a settlement hopeful; but these two ideas were at opposite poles, and all the stars, coronets, and mitres gathered there could not bridge over the gulf between them. The two ideas were those to which we have already referred – Prerogative and Conscience.

The envoys of the Netherland States presented fourteen articles, of which the most important was the one referring to religion. Their proposal was that "His Majesty should be pleased to tolerate the exercise of the Reformed religion and the Confession of Augsburg in such towns and places where the same were at that time publicly professed. That the States should also on their part, presently after the peace was declared, restore the exercise of the Roman Catholic religion in all the aforesaid towns and places, upon certain equitable conditions which should be inviolably preserved." "The Christian religion," said the envoys in supporting their proposal, "was a great mystery, in promoting of which God did not make use of impious soldiers, nor of the sword or bow, but of his own Spirit and of the ministry of pastors, or shepherds sent by him. That the dominion over souls and consciences belonged to God only, and that he only was the righteous Avenger and Punisher of the abuses committed in matters of religion. They insisted particularly upon the free exercise of religion." [4]

The deputies on the king's side refused to listen to this proposal. They would agree to nothing as a basis of peace, save that the Roman Catholic religion – all others excluded – should be professed in all the Provinces; and as regarded such as might refuse to return to the Roman faith, time would be given them to settle their affairs, and retire from the country. [5] Half the citizens well-nigh would have had to exile themselves if this condition had been accepted. Where so large a body of emigrants were to find new seats, or how the towns left empty by their departure were to be re-peopled, or by what hands the arts and agriculture of the country were to be carried on, does not seem to have been provided for, or even thought of, by the Congress.

William of Orange had from the first expected nothing from this Conference. He knew Philip never would grant what only the States could accept – the restoration, namely, of their charters, and the free exercise of their Protestant faith; he knew that to convene such an assembly was only to excite hopes that could not possibly be fulfilled, and so to endanger the cause of the Provinces; he knew that mitres and ducal coronets were not arguments, nor could render a whit more legitimate the claims of prerogative; that ingenious and quirky expedients, and long and wordy discussions, would never bring the two parties one hair's-breadth nearer to each other; and as he had foreseen, so did it turn out. When the Congress ended its sitting of six months, the only results it had to show were the thousands of golden guilders needed for its expenses, and the scores of hogsheads of Rhenish wine which had been consumed in moistening its dusty deliberations and debates.

Contemporaneously with this most august and most magnificent, yet most resultless Congress, attempts were made to detach the Prince of Orange from his party and win him over to the king's side. Private overtures were made to him, to the effect that if he would forsake the cause of Netherland independence and retire to a foreign land, he had only to name his "price" and it should be instantly forthcoming, in honor, or in money, or in both.

More particularly he was promised the payment of his debts, the restitution of his estates, reimbursement of all the expenses he had incurred in the war, compensation for his losses, the liberation of his son the Count of Buren, and should William retire into Germany, his son would be placed

in the Government of Holland and Utrecht, and he himself should be indemnified, with a million of money as a gratuity. These offers were made in Philip's name by Count Schwartzenburg, who pledged his faith for the strict performance of them.

This was a mighty sum, but it could not buy William of Orange. Not all the honors which this monarch of a score of kingdoms could bestow, not all the gold which this master of the mines of Mexico and Peru could offer, could make William sell himself and betray his country. He was not to be turned aside from the lofty, the holy object he had set before him the glory of redeeming from slavery a people that confided in him, and of kindling the lamp of a pure faith in the land which he so dearly loved. If his presence were an obstacle to peace on the basis of his country's liberation, he was ready to go to the ends of the earth, or to his grave; but he would be no party to a plot which had only for its object to deprive the country of its head, and twine round it the chain of a double slavery. [6]

The gold of Philip had failed to corrupt the Patriot: the King of Spain next attempted to gain his end by another and a different stratagem. The dagger might rid him of the man whom armies could not conquer, and whom money could not buy. This "evil thought" was first suggested by Cardinal Granvelle, who hated the prince, as the vile hate the upright, and it was eagerly embraced by Philip, of whose policy it was a radical principle that "the end justifies the means." The King of Spain fulminated a ban, dated 15th March, 1580, against the Prince of Orange, in which he offered "thirty thousand crowns, or so, to any one who should deliver him, dead or alive." The preamble of the ban set forth at great length, and with due formality, the "crimes," in other words the services to liberty, which had induced his patient and loving sovereign to set a price upon the head of William, and make him a mark for all the murderers in Christendom. But the indignation of the virtuous king call be adequately understood only by perusing the words of the ban itself. "For these causes," said the document, "we declare him traitor and miscreant, enemy of ourselves and of the country. As such we banish him perpetually from all our realms, forbidding all our subjects..... to administer to him victuals, drink, fire, or other necessaries......We expose the said William as an enemy of the human race, giving his property to all who may seize it. And if any one of our subjects, or any stranger, should be found sufficiently generous of heart to rid us of this pest, delivering him to us, dead or alive, or taking his life, we will cause to be furnished to him, immediately after the deed shall have been done, the sum of twenty-five thousand crowns of gold. If he have committed any crime, however heinous, we promise to pardon him; and if he be not already noble we will ennoble him for his valor."

The dark, revengeful, cowardly, and bloodthirsty nature of Philip II. appears in every line of this proclamation. In an evil hour for himself had the King of Spain launched this fulmination. It fixed the eyes of all Europe upon the Prince of Orange, it gave him the audience of the whole world for his justification; and it compelled him to bring forward facts which remain an eternal monument of Philip's inhumanity, infamy, and crime. The Vindication or "Apology" of William, addressed to the Confederated, States, and of which copies were sent to all the courts of Europe, is one of the most precious documents of history, for the light it throws on the events of the time, and the exposition it gives of the character and motives of the actors, and more especially of himself and Philip. It is not so much a Defence as an Arraignmnent, which, breaking in a thunder-peal of moral indignation, must have made the occupant of the throne over which it rolled to shake and tremble on his lofty seat. After detailing his own efforts for the emancipation of the down-trodden Provinces, he turns to review the acts, the policy, and the character of the man who had fulminated against him this ban of assassination and murder. He charges Philip with the destruction, not of one nor of a few of those liberties which he had sworn to maintain, but of all of them; and that not once, but a thousand times; he ridicules the idea that a people remain bound while the monarch has released himself from every promise, and oath, and law; he hurls contempt at the justification set up for Philip's perjuries – namely, that the Pope had loosed him from his obligations – branding it as adding blasphemy to tyranny, and adopting a principle which is subversive of faith among men; he accuses him of having, through Alva, concerted a plan with the French king to extirpate from France and the Netherlands all who favored the Reformed religion, giving as his informant the French king himself, He pleads guilty of having disobeyed Philip's orders to put certain Protestants to death, and of having exerted himself to the utmost to prevent the barbarities and cruelties of the "edicts." He boldly charges Philip with living in adultery, with having contracted an incestuous marriage, and opening his way to this foul couch by the murder "of his former wife, the mother of his children, the daughter and sister of the kings of France." He crowns this list of crimes, of which he accuses Philip, with a yet more awful deed – the murder of his son, the heir of his vast dominions, Don Carlos.

With withering scorn he speaks of

the King of Spain's attempt to frighten him by raising against him "all the malefactors and criminals in the world." "I am in the hand of God," said the Christian patriot, "he will dispose of me as seems best for his glory and my salvation." The prince concludes his Apology by dedicating afresh what remained of his goods and life to the service of the States. If his departure from the country would remove an impediment to a just peace, or if his death could bring an end to their calamities, Philip should have no need to hire assassins and poisoners: exile would be sweet, death would be welcome. He was at the disposal of the States. They had only to speak – to issue their orders, and he would obey; he would depart, or he would remain among them, and continue to toil in their cause, till death should come to release him, or liberty to crown them with her blessings. [7]

This Apology was read in a meeting of the Confederated Estates at Delft, the 13th of December, 1580, and their mind respecting it was sufficiently declared by the step they were led soon thereafter to adopt. Abjuring their allegiance to Philip, they installed the Prince of Orange in his room. Till this time Philip had remained nominal sovereign of the Netherlands, and all edicts and deeds were passed in his name, but now this formality was dropped. The Prince of Orange had before this been earnestly entreated by the States to assume the sovereignty, but he had persistently declined to allow himself to be clothed with this office, saying that he would give no ground to Philip or to any enemy to say that he had begun the war of independence to obtain a crown, and that the aggrandisement of his family, and not the liberation of his country, was the motive which had prompted him in all his efforts for the Low Countries. Now, however (5th July, 1581), the dignity so often put aside was accepted conditionally, the prince assuming, at the solemn request of the States of Holland and Zealand, the "entire authority, as sovereign and chief of the land, as long as the war should continue." [8]

This step was finally concluded on the 26th of July, 1581, by an assembly of the States held at the Hague, consisting of deputies from Brabant, Guelderland, Zutphen, Flanders, Holland, Zealand, Utrecht, Overyssel, and Friesland. The terms of their "Abjuration" show how deeply the breath of modern constitutional liberty had entered the Low Countries in the end of the sixteenth century; its preamble enunciates truths which must have shocked the adherents of the doctrine of Divine right. The "Abjuration" of the States declared "that the people were not created by God for the sake of the prince, and only to submit to his commands, whether pious or impious, right or wrong, and to serve him and his slaves; but that, on the contrary, the prince was made for the good of the people, in order to feed, preserve, and govern them according to justice and equity, as a father his children, and a shepherd his flock: that whoever in opposition to these principles pretended to rule his subjects as if they were his bondmen, ought to be deemed a tyrant, and for that reason might be rejected or deposed, especially by virtue of the resolution of the States of the nation, in case the subjects, after having made use of the most humble supplications and prayers, could find no other means to divert him from his tyrannical purposes, nor to secure their own native rights." [9]

They next proceed to apply these principles. They fill column after column with a history of Philip's reign over the Low Countries, in justification of the step they had taken in deposing him. The document is measured and formal, but the horrors of these flaming years shine through its dry technicalities and its cold phraseology. If ever there was a tyrant on the earth, it was Philip II. of Spain; and if ever a people was warranted in renouncing its allegiance, it was the men who now came forward with this terrible tale of violated oaths, of repeated perfidies, of cruel wars, of extortions, banishments, executions, martyrdoms, and massacrings, and who now renounced solemnly and for ever their allegiance to the prince who was loaded with all these crimes.

The act of abjuration was carried into immediate execution. Philip's seal was broken, his arms were torn down, his name was forbidden to be used in any letters-patent, or public deed, and a new oath was administered to all persons in public office and employment.

This is one of the great revolutions of history. It realized in fact, and exhibited for the first time to the world, Representative Constitutional Government. This revolution, though enacted on a small theater, exemplified principles of universal application, and furnished a precedent to be followed in distant realms and by powerful kingdoms. It is important to remark that this is one of the mightiest of the births of Protestantism.

For it was Protestantism that inspired the struggle in the Low Countries, and that maintained the martyr at the stake and the hero in the field till the conflict was crowned with this ever-memorable victory. The mere desire for liberty, the mere reverence for old charters and municipal privileges, would not have carried the Netherlanders through so awful and protracted a combat; it was the new force awakened by religion that enabled them to struggle on, sending relay after relay of martyrs to die and heroes to fight for a free conscience and a scriptural faith, without which life was not worth having. In this, one of the greatest episodes of the great drama of the Reformation, we behold Protestantism, which had been proceeding step by step in its great work of creating a new society – a new world – making another great advance.

In Germany it had produced disciples and churches; in Geneva it had moulded a theocratic republic; in France it had essayed to set up a Reformed throne, but, failing in this, it created a Reformed Church so powerful as to include well-nigh half the nation. Making yet another essay, we see it in the Netherlands dethroning Philip of Spain, and elevating to his place William of Orange. A constitutional State, summoned into being by Protestantism, is now seen amid the despotisms of Christendom, and its appearance was a presage that in the centuries to follow, Protestantism would, in some cases by its direct agency, in others by its reflex influence, revolutionise all the governments and effect a transference of all the crowns of Europe.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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