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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 4 — Abdication of Charles V and accession of Philip II

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Decrepitude of the Emperor – Hall of Brabant Palace – Speech of the Emperor – Failure of his Hopes and Labours – Philip II. – His Portrait – Slender Endowments – Portrait of William of Orange – Other Netherland Nobles – Close of Pageant.

In the midst of his cruel work, and, we may say, in the midst of his years, the emperor was overtaken by old age. The sixteenth century is waxing in might around him; its great forces are showing no sign of exhaustion or decay; on the contrary, their rigour is growing from one year to another; it is plain that they are only in the opening of their career, while in melancholy contrast Charles V. is closing his, and yielding to the decrepitude that is creeping over himself and his empire. The scepter and the faggot – so closely united in his case, and to be still more closely united in that of his successor – -he must hand over to his son Philip. Let us place ourselves in the hall where the act of abdication is about to take place, and be it ours not to record the common-places of imperial flattery, so lavishly bestowed on this occasion, nor to describe the pomps under which the greatest monarch, of his age so adroitly hid his fall, but to sketch the portraits of some of those men who await a great part in the future, and whom we shall frequently meet in the scenes that are about to open.

We enter the great hall of the old palace of Brabant, in Brussels. It is the 25th of October, 1555, and this day the Estates of the Netherlands have met here, summoned by an imperial edict, to be the witnesses of the surrender of the sovereignty of his realms by Charles to his son. With the act of abdication one tragedy closes, and another and bloodier tragedy begins. No one in that glittering throng could forecast the calamitous future which was coming along with the new master of the Spanish monarchy. Charles V. enters the gorgeously tapestried hall, leaning his arm on the shoulder of William of Nassau. Twenty-five years before, we saw the emperor enter Augsburg, bestriding a steed of "brilliant whiteness," and exciting by his majestic port, his athletic frame, and manly countenance, the enthusiasm of the spectators, who, with a touch of exaggeration pardonable in the circumstances, pronounced him "the handsomest man in the empire." And now what a change in Charles! How sad the ravages which toil and care have, during these few years, made on this iron frame! The bulky mould in which the outer man of Charles was cast still remains to him – the ample brow, the broad chest, the muscular limbs; but the force that animated that powerful framework, and enabled it to do such feats in the tournament, the bull-ring, and the battle-field, has departed. His limbs totter, he has to support his steps with a crutch, his hair is white, his eyes have lost their brightness, his shoulders stoop – in short, age has withered and crippled him all over; and yet he has seen only fifty-five years. The toils that had worn him down he briefly and affectingly summarised in his address to the august assemblage before him. Resting this hand on his crutch, and that on the shoulder of the young noble by his side, he proceeds to count up forty expeditions undertaken by him since he was seventeen – nine to Germany, six to Spain, seven to Italy, four to France, ten to the Netherlands, two to England, and two to Africa. He had made eleven voyages by sea; he had fought four battles, won victories, held Diets, framed treaties – -so ran the tale of work. He had passed nights and nights in anxious deliberation over the growth of Protestantism, and he had sought to alleviate the mingled mortification and alarm its progress caused him, by fulminating one persecuting edict after another in the hope of arresting it.

In addition to marches and battles, thousands of halters and stakes had he erected; but of these he is discreetly silent. He is silent too regarding the success which had crowned these mighty efforts and projects. Does he retire because he has succeeded? No; he retires because he has failed. His infirm frame is but the image of his once magnificent empire, over which decrepitude and disorder begin to creep. One young in years, and alert in body, is needed to recruit those armies which battle has wasted, to replenish that exchequer which so many campaigns have made empty, to restore the military prestige which the flight, from Innspruck and succeeding disasters have tarnished, to quell the revolts that are springing up in the various kingdoms which form his vast monarchy, and to dispel those dark clouds which his eye but too plainly sees to be gathering all round the horizon, and which, should he, with mind enfeebled and body crippled, continue to linger longer on the scene, will assuredly burst in ruin. Such is the true meaning of that stately ceremonial in which the actors played so adroitly, each his part, in the Brabant palace at Brussels, on the 25th of October, 1555. The tyrant apes the father; the murderer of his subjects would fain seem the paternal ruler; the disappointed, baffled, fleeing opponent of Protestantism puts on the airs of the conqueror, and strives to hide defeat under the pageantries of State, and the symbols of victory. The closing scene of Charles V. is but a repetition of Julian's confession of discomfiture – "Thou hast overcome, O Galilean."

We turn to the son, who, in almost all outward respects, presents a complete contrast to the father. If Charles was prematurely old, Philip, on the other hand, looked as if he never had been young. He did not attain to middle height. His small body was mounted on thin legs. Nature had not fitted

him to shine in either the sports of the tournament or the conflicts of the battle-field; and both he shunned, he had the ample brow, the blue eyes, and the aquiline nose of his father; but these agreeable features were forgotten in the ugliness of the under part of his face. His lower jaw protruded. It was a Burgundian deformity, but in Philip's case it had received a larger than the usual family development. To this disagreeable feature was added another repulsive one, also a family peculiarity, a heavy hanging under-lip, which enlarged the apparent size of his mouth, and strengthened the impression, which the unpleasant protrusion of the jaw made on the spectator, of animal voracity and savageness.

The puny, meagre, sickly-looking man who stood beside the warlike and once robust form of Charles, was not more unlike his father in body than he was unlike him in mind. Not one of his father's great qualities did he possess. He lacked his statesmanship; he had no knowledge of men, he could not enter into their feelings, nor accommodate himself to their ways, nor manifest any sympathy in what engaged and engrossed them; he, therefore, shunned them. He had the shy, shrinking air of the valetudinarian, and looked around with something like the scowl of the misanthrope on his face. Charles moved about from province to province of his vast dominions, speaking the language and conforming to the manners of the people among whom he chanced for the time to be; he was at home in all places. Philip was a stranger everywhere, save in Spain. He spoke no language but his mother tongue. Amid the gay and witty Italians – amid the familiar and courteous Flemings – amid the frank and open Germans – Philip was still the Spaniard: austere, haughty, taciturn, unapproachable. Only one quality did he share with his father – the intense passion, namely, for extinguishing the Reformation. [1]

From the two central figures we turn to glance at a third, the young noble on whose shoulder the emperor is leaning. He is tall and well-formed, with a lofty brow, a brown eye, and a peaked beard. His service in camps has bronzed his complexion, and given him more the look of a Spaniard than a Fleming. He is only in his twenty-third year, but the quick eye of Charles had discovered the capacity of the young soldier, and placed him in command of the army on the frontier, where resource and courage were specially needed, seeing he had there to confront some of the best generals of France. Could the emperor, who now leaned so confidingly on his shoulder, have foreseen his future career, how suddenly would he have withdrawn his arm! The man on whom he reposed was destined to be the great antagonist of his son. Despotism and Liberty stood embodied in the two forms on either hand of the abdicating emperor – Philip, and William, Prince of Orange; for it was he on whom Charles leaned. The contest between them was to shake Christendom, bring down from its pinnacle of power that great monarchy which Charles was bequeathing to his son, raise the little Holland to a pitch of commercial prosperity and literary glory which Spain had never known, and leave to William a name in the wars of liberty far surpassing that which Charles had won by his many campaigns – a name which can perish only with the Netherlands themselves.

Besides the three principal figures there were others in that brilliant gathering, who were either then, or soon to be, celebrated throughout Europe, and whom we shall often meet in the stirring scenes that are about to open. In the glittering throng around the platform might be seen the bland face of the Bishop of Arras; the tall form of Lamoral of Egmont, with his long dark hair and soft eye, the representative of the ancient Frisian kings; the bold but sullen face, and fan-shaped beard, of Count Horn; the debauched Brederode; the infamous Noircarmes, on whose countenance played the blended lights of ferocity and greed; the small figure of the learned Viglius, with his yellow hair and his green glittering eye, and round rosy face, from which depended an ample beard; and, to close our list, there was the slender form of the celebrated Spanish grandee, Ruy Gomez, whose coal-black hair and burning eye were finely set off by a face which intense application had rendered as colourless almost as the marble.

The pageant was at an end. Charles had handed over to another that vast possession of dominion which had so severely taxed his manhood, and which was crushing his age. The princes, knights, warriors, and counsellors have left the hall, and gone forth to betake them each to his own several road – Charles to the monastic cell which he had interposed between him and the grave; Philip to that throne from which he was to direct that fearful array of armies, inquisitors, and executioners, that was to make Europe swim in blood; William of Orange to prepare for that now not distant struggle, which he saw to be inevitable if bounds were to be set to the vast ambition and fanatical fury of Spain, and some remnants of liberty preserved in Christendom. Others went forth to humbler yet important tasks; some to win true glory by worthy deeds, others to leave behind them names which should be an execration to posterity; but nearly all of them to expire, not on the bed of peace, but on the battle-field, on the scaffold, or by the poignard of the assassin.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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