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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 28 — Disorganisation of the provinces

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Vessels of Honour and of Dishonour – Memorial of the Magistrates of Leyden – They demand an Undivided Civil Authority – The Pastors demand an Undivided Spiritual Authority – The Popish and Protestant Jurisdictions – Oath to Observe the Pacification of Ghent Refused by many of the Priests – The Pacification Violated – Disorders – Tumults in Ghent, etc. – Dilemma of the Romanists – Their Loyalty – Miracles – The Prince obliged to Withdraw the Toleration of the Roman Worship – Priestly Charlatanties in Brussels – William and Toleration.

In proportion as the Reformed Church of the Netherlands rises in power and consolidates her order, the Provinces around her fall into disorganisation and weakness. It is a process of selection and rejection that is seen going on in the Low Countries. All that is valuable in the Netherlands is drawn out of the heap, and gathered round the great principle of Protestantism, and set apart for liberty and glory; all that is worthless is thrown away, and left to be burned in the fire of despotism.

Of the Seventeen Provinces seven are taken to be fashioned into a "vessel of honour," ten are left to become a "vessel of dishonour." The first become the "head of gold," the second are the "legs and feet of clay." Notwithstanding the efforts of the Synod of Middelburg, the peace at large was not restored; there was still war between the pastors and some of the municipalities. The next move in the battle came from the magistrates of Leyden. Their pride had been hurt by what the Synod of Middelburg had done, and they presented a complaint against it to the States of Holland. In a Synod vested with the power of enacting canons, the magistrates of Leyden saw, or professed to see, another Papacy rising up. The fear was not unwarranted, seeing that for a thousand years the Church had tyrannised over the State. "If a new National Synod is to meet every three years," say the magistrates in their memorial to the States, "the number of ecclesiastical decrees will be so great that we shall have much ado to find the beginning and the end of that link." It was a second canon law which they dreaded. "If we receive the decrees of Synods we shall become their vassals," they reasoned. "We demand," said they in conclusion, "that the civil authority may still reside in the magistrates, whole and undivided; we desire that the clergy may have no occasion to usurp a new jurisdiction, to raise themselves above the Government, and rule over the subjects."

The ministers and elders of the Churches of Holland met the demand for an undivided civil authority on the, part of the magistrates by a demand for an undivided spiritual authority on the part of the Church. They asked that "the government of the Church, which is of a spiritual nature, should still reside, whole and undivided, in the pastors and overseers of the Churches, and that politicians, and particularly those who plainly showed that they were not of the Reformed religion, should have no occasion to exercise an unreasonable power over the Church, which they could no more endure than the yoke of Popery." And they add, "that. having escaped from the Popish tyranny, it behoved them to see that the people did not fall into unlimited licentiousness, or libertinage, tending to nothing but disorder and confusion. The blunted rod should not be thrown away lest peradventure a sharper should grow up in its room." [1] It is true that both the Popish and the Protestant Churches claim a spiritual jurisdiction, but there is this essential difference between the two powers claimed – the former is lawless, the latter is regulated by law. The Popish jurisdiction cannot be resisted by conscience, because, claiming to be infallible, it is above conscience. The Protestant jurisdiction, on the contrary, leaves conscience free to resist it, should it exceed its just powers, because it teaches that God alone is Lord of the conscience.

But to come to the root of the unhappy strifes that now tore up the Netherlands, and laid the better half of the Provinces once more at the feet of Rome – there were two nations and two faiths struggling in that one country. The Jesuits had now had time to bring their system into fill operation, and they succeeded so far in thwarting the measures which were concerted by the Prince of Orange with the view of uniting the Provinces, on the basis of a toleration of the two faiths, in a common struggle for the one liberty. Led by the disciples of Loyola, the Romanists in the Netherlands would neither be content with equality for themselves, nor would they grant toleration to the Protestants wherever they had the power of refusing it; hence the failure of the Pacification of Ghent, and the Peace of Religion. The Fathers kept the populations in continual agitation and alarm, they stirred up seditions and tumults, they coerced the magistrates, and they provoked the Protestants in many places into acts of imprudence and violence. On the framing of the Pacification of Ghent, the Roman Catholic States issued an order requiring all magistrates and priests to swear to observe it. The secular priests of Antwerp took the oath, but the Jesuits refused it, "because they had sworn to be faithful to the Pope, who favored Don John of Austria." [2] Of the Franciscan monks in the city twenty swore the oath, and nineteen refused to do so, and were thereupon conducted peaceably out of the town along with the Jesuits. The Franciscans of Utrecht fled, as did those of other towns, to avoid the oath.

In some places the Peace of Religion was not accepted, and in others where it had been formally accepted, it was not only not kept, it was flagrantly violated by the Romanists. The basis of that treaty was the toleration

of both worships all over the Netherlands. It gave to the Protestants in the Roman Catholic Provinces – in all places where they numbered a hundred – the right to a chapel in which to celebrate their worship; and where their numbers did not enable them to claim this privilege, they were nevertheless to be permitted the unmolested exercise of their worship in private. But in many places the fights accorded by the treaty were denied them: they could have no chapel, and even the private exercise of their worship exposed them to molestations of various kinds. The Protestants, incensed by this anti-national spirit and bad faith, and emboldened moreover by their own growing numbers, seized by force in many cities the rights which they could not obtain by peaceable means.

Disorders and seditions were the consequence. Ghent, the city which had given its name to the Pacification, led the van in these disgraceful tumults; and it was remarked that nowhere was the Pacification worse kept than in the city where it had been framed. The Reformed in Ghent, excited by the harangues delivered to them from the pulpit by Peter Dathenus, an ex-monk, and now a Protestant high-flier, who condemned the toleration granted to the Romanists as impious, and styled the prince who had framed the treaty an atheist, rose upon the Popish clergy and chased them away, voting them at the same time a yearly pension. They pillaged the abbeys, pulled down the convents, broke the images, melted the bells and cast them into cannon, and having fortified the town, and made themselves masters of it they took several villages in the neighborhood and enacted there the same excesses. [3] These deplorable disorders were not confined to Ghent; they extended to Antwerp, to Utrecht, to Mechlin, and to other towns – the Protestants taking the initiative in some places, and the Romanists in others; but all these violences grew out of the rejection of the Peace of Religion, or out of the flagrant violation of its articles. [4] The commanding influence of the Prince of Orange succeeded in pacifying the citizens in Ghent and other towns, but the tumults stilled for a moment broke out afresh, and raged with greater violence. The country was torn as by a civil war.

This state of matters led to the adoption of other measures, which still more complicated and embarrassed the movement. It was becoming evident to William that his basis of operations must be narrowed if he would make it stable; that the Pacification of Ghent, and the Peace of Re-ligon, in themselves wise and just, embraced peoples that were diverse, and elements that were irreconcilable, and in consequence were failing of their ends. A few Romanists were staunch patriots, but the great body were showing themselves incapable of sympathising with, or heartily co-operating in, the great struggle for the liberation of their native land. Their consciences, in the guidance of the Jesuits, stifled their patriotism. They were awkwardly placed between two alternatives: if Philip should conquer in the war they would lose their country, if victory should declare for the Prince of Orange they would lose their faith. From this dilemma they could be delivered only by becoming Protestants, and Protestants they were determined not to become; they sought escape by the other door – namely, that of persuading or compelling the Protestants to become Romanists. Their desire to solve the difficulty by this issue introduced still another element of disorganisation and danger. There came a sudden outburst of propagandist zeal on the part of the priests, and of miraculous virtue on the part of statues and relics. Images began to exude blood, and from the bones of the dead a healing power went forth to cure the diseases of the living. These prodigies greatly edified the piety of the Roman Catholics, but they inflamed their passions against their Protestant fellow subjects, and they rendered them decidedly hostile to the cause of their country's emancipation. The prince had always stood up for the full toleration of their worship, but he now began to perceive that what the Flemish Romanists called worship was what other men called political agitation; and though still holding by the truth of his great maxim, and as ready to tolerate all religions as ever, he did not hold himself bound to tolerate charlatanry, especially when practiced for the overthrow of Netherland liberty. He had proclaimed toleration for the Roman worship, but he had not bound himself to tolerate everything which the Romanist might substitute for worship, or which it might please him to call worship.

The prince came at length to the conclusion that he had no alternative but to withdraw by edict the toleration which he had proclaimed by edict; nor in doing so did he feel that he was trenching on the rights of conscience, for he recognised on the part of no man, or body of men, a right to plead conscience for feats of jugglery and tricks of legerdemain. Accordingly, on the 26th of December, 1581, an edict was published by the prince and the States of Holland, forbidding the public and private exercise of the Roman religion, but leaving opinion free, by forbidding inquisition into any man's conscience. [5] This was the first "placard" of the sort published in Holland since the States had taken up arms for their liberties; and the best proof of its necessity is the fact that some cities in Brabant, where the bulk of the inhabitants were Romanist-Antwerp and Brussels in particular – were compelled to have recourse to the same measure, or submit to the humiliation of seeing their Government bearded, and their public peace hopelessly embroiled. Antwerp chose six "discreet ecclesiastics" to baptise, marry, and visit the sick of their own communion, granting them besides the use of two little chapels; but even these functions they were not permitted to undertake till first they had sworn fidelity to the Government.

The rest of the priests were required to leave the town within twenty-four hours under a penalty of 200 crowns. [6] In Brussels the suppression of the Popish worship, which was occasioned by a tumult raised by a seditious curate, brought with it an exposure of the arts which had rendered the edict of suppression necessary. "The magistrates," says the edict, "were convinced that the three bloody Hosts, which were shown to the people by the name of the Sacrament of Miracles, were only a stained cloth; that the clergy had exposed to the people some bones of animals as relics of saints, and deceived the simple many other ways to satisfy their avarice; that they had made them worship some pieces of alder-tree as if they had been a part of our Savior's cross; that in some statues several holes had been discovered, into which the priests poured oil to make them sweat; lastly, that in other statues some springs had been found by which they moved several parts of their bodies. [7]

These edicts, unlike the terrible placards of Philip, erected no gibbets, and dug no graves for living men and women; they were in all cases temporary, "till public tranquillity should be restored; " they did not proscribe opinion, nor did they deny to the Romanist the Sacraments of his Church; they suppressed the public assembly only, and they suppressed it because a hundred proofs had demonstrated that it was held not for worship but sedition, and that its fruits were not piety but tumults and disturbances of the public peace. Most unwilling was the Prince of Orange to go even this length; it placed him, he saw, in apparent, not real, opposition to his formerly declared views. Nor did he take this step till the eleventh hour, and after being perfectly persuaded that without some such measure he could not preserve order and save liberty.

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