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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 9 — The confederates or "beggars"

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League of the Flemish Nobles – Franciscus Junius – The "Confederacy " – Its Object – Number of Signatories – Meeting of the Golden Fleece and States-General – How shall Margaret Steer? – Procession of the Confederates – Their Petition – Perplexity of the Duchess – Stormy Debate in the Council – The Confederates first styled "Beggars" – Medals Struck in Commemoration of the Name – Livery of the Beggars – Answer of the Duchess – Promised Moderation of the Edicts – Martyrdoms Continued – Four Martyrs at Lille – John Cornelius Beheaded.

Finding that new and more tyrannical orders were every day arriving from Spain, and that the despot was tightening his hold upon their country, the leading nobles of the Netherlands now resolved to combine, in order to prevent, if possible, the utter enslavement of the nation. The "Compromise," as the league of the nobles was called, was formed early in the year 1566. Its first suggestion was made at a conventicle, held on the Prince of Parma's marriage-day (3rd of November, 1565), at which Franciscus Junius, the minister of the Walloon or Huguenot congregation in Antwerp, preached. [1] This Junius, who was a Frenchman and of noble birth, had studied in Geneva, and though not more than twenty years of age, his great learning and extraordinary talents gave his counsel weight with the Flemish nobles who sometimes consulted him in cases of emergency. As he studied Tully, De Legibus, in his youth, there came one who said to him, in the words of the epicure, "God cares for none of us," and plied Junius with arguments so subtle that he sucked in the poison of this dreary belief. Libertinism laid the reins on the neck of passion. But a marvellous escape from death, which he experienced at Lyons about a year afterwards, arrested him in his wickedness. He opened the New Testament, and the passage on which his eyes first lighted was this: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," etc. As the stars grow dim and vanish when the sun rises, so the wisdom and eloquence of the pagans paled before the surpassing majesty and splendor of the Gospel by St. John. "My body trembled," said he, "my mind was astonished, and I was so affected all that day that I knew not where nor what I was. Thou wast mindful of me, O my God, according to the multitude of thy mercies, and calledst home thy lost sheep into the fold." From that day he studied the Scriptures; his life became pure; and his zeal waxed strong in proportion as his knowledge enlarged. He possessed not a little of the fearless spirit of the great master at whose feet he had sat. He would preach, at times, with the stake standing in the square below, and the flames in which his brethren were being burned darting their lurid flashes through the windows of the apartment upon the faces of his audience. [2] On the present occasion the young preacher addressed some twenty of the Flemish nobles, and after sermon a league against the "barbarous and violent Inquisition" was proposed. All Brussels was ringing with the marriage festivities of Parma. There were triumphal arches in the street, and songs in the banquet-hall; deep goblets were drained to the happiness of Parma, and the prosperity of the great monarchy of Spain. At the same moment, in the neighboring town of Antwerp, those movements were being initiated which were to loosen the foundations of Philip's empire, and ultimately cast down the tyrant from the pinnacle on which he so proudly, and as he deemed so securely, stood.

The aims of the leaguers were strictly constitutional; they made war only against the Inquisition, "that most pernicious tribunal, which is not only contrary to all human and divine laws, but exceeds in cruelty the most barbarous institutions of the most savage tyrants in the heathen world." "For these reasons," say they, "we whose names are here subscribed have resolved to provide for the security of our families, goods, and persons; and for this purpose we hereby enter into a secret league with one another, promising with a solemn oath to oppose with all our power the introduction of the above-mentioned Inquisition into these Provinces, whether it shall be attempted secretly or openly, or by whatever name it shall be called...

We likewise promise and swear mutually to defend one another, in all places, and on all occasions, against every attack that shall be made, or prosecution that shall be raised, against any individual among us on account of his concern in this Confederacy." [3] The first three who took the pen to sign this document were Count Brederode, Charles de Mansfeld, and Louis of Nassau. Copies were circulated over the country, and the subscribers rapidly multiplied. In the course of two months 2,000 persons had appended their names to it. Tidings of the league were wafted to the ears of the governor, and it was added – a slight exaggeration, it may be – that it was already 15,000 strong. [4] Roman Catholics as well as Protestants were permitted to sign, and the array now gathering round this uplifted standard was, as may be supposed, somewhat miscellaneous.

The Duchess of Parma was startled by the sudden rise of this organisation, whose numbers increased every day. Behind her stood Philip, whose truculent orders left her no retreat; before her was the Confederacy, a less formidable but nearer danger. In her perplexity the governor summoned the Knights of the Fleece and the Stadtholders of the Provinces, to ask their advice touching the steps to be taken in this grave emergency. Two courses, she said, appeared to be open to her – the one was to modify the edicts, the other was to suppress the Confederacy by arms; the latter course, she said, was the one

to which she leaned, especially knowing how inexorable was the will of the king, but her difficulty lay in finding one to whom she could safely entrust the command of the troops. Orange was disqualified, having pronounced so strongly against the edicts and in favor of liberty of conscience; and Egmont had positively declined the task, saying that "he would never fight for the penal laws and the Inquisition." [5]

What was to be done?

While the Council was deliberating, the Confederates arrived in a body at Brussels. On the 3rd of April, 1566, a cavalcade of 200 nobles and knights, headed by the tall, military form of Brederode, rode into Brussels. The nobleman who was foremost in the procession traced his lineage backwards 500 years, in unbroken succession, to the old sovereigns of Holland. Amid the chances and turnings of the contest now opening, who could tell whether the sovereignty of the old country might not return to the old line? Such was the vision that may have crossed the mind of Brederode. The day following the number of Confederates in Brussels was augmented by the arrival of about 100 other cavaliers. Their passage through the streets was greeted, as that of the first had been, by the acclamations of the populace. "There go," said they, "the deliverers of our country." Next day, the 5th of April, the whole body of Confederates, dressed in their richest robes, walked in procession to the old palace of Brabant, and passing through the stately hall in which Charles V. eleven years before had abdicated his sovereignties, they entered the audience chamber of the Regent of the Netherlands. Margaret beheld not without emotion this knightly assemblage, who had carried to her feet the wrongs of an oppressed nation. Brederode acted as spokesman. The count was voluble. Orange possessed the gift of eloquence, but the latter had not yet enrolled himself among the Confederates. William the Silent never retraced his steps, and therefore he pondered well his path before going forward.

He could not throw down the gauntlet to a great monarchy like Spain with the light-hearted, jaunty defiance which many of the signatories of the Confederacy were now hurling against the tyrant, but whose heroism was likely to be all expended before it reached the battlefield, in those Bacchanalian meetings then so common among the Flemish nobles. Brederode on this occasion was prudently brief.

After defending himself and his associates from certain insinuations which had been thrown out against their loyalty, he read the petition which had been drafted in view of being presented to the duchess, in order that she might convey it to Philip. The petition set forth that the country could no longer bear the tyranny of the edicts: that rebellion was rearing its head, nay, was even at the palace-gates; and the monarch was entreated, if he would not imperil his empire, to abolish the Inquisition and convoke the States-General. Pending the king's answer, the duchess was asked to suspend the edicts, and to stop all executions for religious opinion. [6]

When Brederode had finished, the duchess sat silent for a few minutes. Her emotion was too great to be disguised, the tears rolling down her cheeks. [7] As soon as she had found words she dismissed the Confederates, telling them that she would consult with her councillors, and give her answer on the morrow. The discussion that followed in the council-hall, after Brederode and his followers had withdrawn, was a stormy one. The Prince of Orange argued strongly in favor of liberty of conscience, and Count Berlaymont, a keen partisan of Rome and Spain, argued as vehemently, if not as eloquently, against the Confederates and the liberty which they craved. This debate is famous as that in which Berlaymont first applied to the Confederates an epithet which he meant should be a brand of disgrace, but which they accepted with pride, and wore as a badge of honor, and by which they are now known in history. "Why, madam," asked Berlaymont of the duchess, observing her emotion, "why should you be afraid of these beggars?" The Confederates caught up the words, and at once plucked the sting out of them. "Beggars, you call us," said they; "henceforth we shall be known as beggars." [8] The term came soon to be the distinguishing appellation for all those in the Netherlands who declared for the liberties of their country and the rights of conscience.

They never met at festival or funeral without saluting each other as "Beggars." Their cry was "Long live the Beggars!" They had medals struck, first of wax and wood, and afterwards of silver and gold, stamped on the one side with the king's effigies, and on the other with a beggar's scrip or bag, held in two clasped right hands, with the motto, "Faithful to the king, even to beggary." Some adopted grey cloth as livery, and wore the common felt hat, and displayed on their breasts, or suspended round their beavers, a little beggar's wooden bowl, on which was wrought in silver, Vive le Gueux. At a great entertainment given by Brederode, after drinking the king's health out of wooden bowls, they hung the dish, together with a beggar's scrip, round their necks, and continuing the feast, they pledged themselves at each potation to play their part manfully as "Beggars," and ever to yield a loyal adherence and stout defense to the Confederacy. [9]

The duchess gave her answer next day. She promised to send an envoy to Spain to lay the petition of the Confederates before Philip. She had no power, she said, to suspend the Inquisition, nevertheless she would issue orders to the inquisitors to proceed with discretion. The discretion of an inquisitor! Much the Beggars marvelled what that might mean. The new project shortly afterwards enlightened them. As elaborated, and published in fifty-three articles, that project amounted to this: that heretics, instead of being burned, were to

be beheaded or hanged; but they were to be admitted to this remarkable clemency only if they did not stir up riots and tumults. The people appear to have been but little thankful for this uncommon "moderation," and nicknamed it "murderation." It would appear that few were deemed worthy of the Government's mercy, for not only did blood continue to flow by the axe, but the stake blazed nearly as frequently as before. About this time, four martyrs were burned at Lille.

"They all four," says Brandt, "sung as with one mouth the first verse of the twenty-seventh Psalm, and concluded their singing and their life together with the hymn of Simeon, ' Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.'" A tapestry weaver of Oudenard, near Ghent, by name John Tiscan, who had committed the indiscretion of snatching the wafer from the hand of the priest and crumbling it into bits, to show the people that it was bread and not God, had his hand cut off, and afterwards his body cast into the flames. Some there were, however, who were judged to fall within the scope of the Government's indulgence, and were permitted to die by the sword. John Cornelius Winter had been minister in the town of Horn, and had spent some thirty years in the quiet but zealous diffusion of the truth. He was apprehended and thrown first into prison at the Hague, and afterwards into the Bishop of Utrecht's prisons, and now this year he was brought forth to be beheaded. He submitted, himself cheerfully, and it was observed that, singing the Te Deum on the scaffold, the executioner struck, and his head was severed from his body just as he had finished the line, "All the martyrs praise thee." [10]

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