The springs of this extraordinary occurrence are plainly not to be sought for so far back as many historians affect to trace them. It is certainly possible, and very probable, that the French Protestants did industriously exert themselves to raise in the Netherlands a nursery for their religion, and to prevent by all means in their power an amicable adjustment of differences between their brethren in the faith in that quarter and the King of Spain, in order to give that implacable foe of their party enough to do in his own country. It is natural, therefore, to suppose that their agents in the provinces left nothing undone to encourage their oppressed brethren with daring hopes, to nourish their animosity against the ruling church, and by exaggerating the oppression under which they sighed to hurry them imperceptibly into illegal courses. It is possible, too, that there were many among the confederates who thought to help out their own lost cause by increasing the number of their partners in guilt; who thought they could not otherwise maintain the legal character of their league unless the unfortunate results against which they had warned the king really came to pass, and who hoped in the general guilt of all to conceal their own individual criminality. It is, however, incredible that the outbreak of the Iconoclasts was the fruit of a deliberate plan, preconcerted, as it is alleged, at the convent of St. Truyen. It does not seem likely that in a solemn assembly of so many nobles and warriors, of whom the greater part were the adherents of popery, an individual should be found insane enough to propose an act of positive infamy, which did not so much injure any religious party in particular, as rather tread under foot all respect for religion in general, and even all morality too, and which could have been conceived only in the mind of the vilest reprobate. Besides, this outrage was too sudden in its outbreak, too vehement in its execution altogether, too monstrous to have been anything more than the offspring of the moment in which it saw the light; it seemed to flow so naturally from the circumstances which preceded it that it does not require to be traced far back to remount to its origin.
A rude mob, consisting of the very dregs of the populace, made brutal by harsh treatment, by sanguinary decrees which dogged them in every town, scared from place to place and driven almost to despair, were compelled to worship their God, and to hide like a work of darkness the universal, sacred privilege of humanity. Before their eyes proudly rose the temples of the dominant church, in which their haughty brethren indulged in ease their magnificent devotion, while they themselves were driven from the walls, expelled, too, by the weaker number perhaps, and forced, here in the wild woods, under the burning heat of noon, in disgraceful secrecy to worship the same God; cast out from civil society into a state of nature, and reminded in one dread moment of the rights of that state! The greater their superiority of numbers the more unnatural did their lot appear; with wonder they perceive the truth. The free heaven, the arms lying ready, the frenzy in their brains and fury in their hearts combine to aid the suggestions of some preaching fanatic; the occasion calls; no premeditation is necessary where all eyes at once declare consent; the resolution is formed ere yet the word is scarcely uttered; ready for any unlawful act, no one yet clearly knows what, the furious band rushes onwards. The smiling prosperity of the hostile religion insults the poverty of their own; the pomp of the authorized temples casts contempt on their proscribed belief; every cross they set up upon the highway, every image of the saints that they meet, is a trophy erected over their own humiliation, and they all must be removed by their avenging hands. Fanaticism suggests these detestable proceedings, but base passions carry them into execution.
1566. The commencement of the attack on images took place in West Flanders and Artois, in the districts between Lys and the sea. A frantic herd of artisans, boatmen, and peasants, mixed with prostitutes, beggars, vagabonds, and thieves, about three hundred in number, furnished with clubs, axes, hammers, ladders, and cords (a few only were provided with swords or fire arms), cast themselves, with fanatical fury, into the villages and hamlets near St. Omer, and breaking open the gates of such churches and cloisters as they find locked, overthrow everywhere the altars, break to pieces the images of the saints, and trample them under foot. With their excitement increased by its indulgence, and reinforced by newcomers, they press on by the direct road to Ypres, where they can count on the support of a strong body of Calvinists. Unopposed, they break into the cathedral, and mounting on ladders they hammer to pieces the pictures, hew down with axes the pulpits and pews, despoil the altars of their ornaments, and steal the holy vessels. This example was quickly followed in Menin, Comines, Verrich, Lille, and Oudenard; in a few days the same fury spreads through the whole of Flanders. At the very time when the first tidings of this occurrence arrived Antwerp was swarming with a crowd of houseless people, which the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin had brought together in that city. Even the presence of the Prince of Orange was hardly sufficient to restrain the licentious mob, who burned to imitate the doings of their brethren in St. Omer; but an order from the court which summoned him to Brussels, where the regent was just assembling her council of state, in order to lay before them the royal letters, obliged him to abandon Antwerp to the outrages of this band. His departure was the signal for tumult. Apprehensive of the lawless violence of which, on the very first day of the festival, the mob had given indications in derisory allusions, the priests, after carrying about the image of the Virgin for a short time, brought it for safety to the choir, without, as formerly, setting it up in the middle of the church. This incited some mischievous boys from among the people to pay it a visit there, and jokingly inquire why she had so soon absented herself from among them? Others mounting the pulpit, mimicked the preacher, and challenged the papists to a dispute. A Roman Catholic waterman, indignant at this jest, attempted to pull them down, and blows were exchanged in the preacher's seat. Similar scenes occurred on the following evening. The numbers increased, and many came already provided with suspicious implements and secret weapons. At last it came into the head of one of them to cry, "Long live the Gueux!" immediately the whole band took up the cry, and the image of the Virgin was called upon to do the same. The few Roman Catholics who were present, and who had given up the hope of effecting anything against these desperadoes, left the church after locking all the doors except one. So soon as they found themselves alone it was proposed to sing one of the psalms in the new version, which was prohibited by the government. While they were yet singing they all, as at a given signal, rushed furiously upon the image of the Virgin, piercing it with swords and daggers, and striking off its head; thieves and prostitutes tore the great wax-lights from the altar, and lighted them to the work. The beautiful organ of the church, a masterpiece of the art of that period, was broken to pieces, all the paintings were effaced, the statues smashed to atoms. A crucifix, the size of life, which was set up between the two thieves, opposite the high altar, an ancient and highly valued piece of workmanship, was pulled to the ground with cords, and cut to pieces with axes, while the two malefactors at its side were respectfully spared. The holy wafers were strewed on the ground and trodden under foot; in the wine used for the Lord's Supper, which was accidentally found there, the health of the Gueux was drunk, while with the holy oil they rubbed their shoes. The very tombs were opened, and the half-decayed corpses torn up and trampled on. All this was done with as much wonderful regularity as if each had previously had his part assigned to him; every one worked into his neighbor's hands; no one, dangerous as the work was, met with injury; in the midst of thick darkness, which the tapers only served to render more sensible, with heavy masses falling on all sides, and though on the very topmost steps of the ladders, they scuffled with each other for the honors of demolition — yet no one suffered the least injury. In spite of the many tapers which lighted them below in their villanous work not a single individual was recognized. With incredible rapidity was the dark deed accomplished; a number of men, at most a hundred, despoiled in a few hours a temple of seventy altars — after St. Peter's at Rome, perhaps the largest and most magnificent in Christendom.
The devastation of the cathedral did not content them; with torches and tapers purloined from it they set out at midnight to perform a similar work of havoc on the remaining churches, cloisters, and chapels. The destructive hordes increased with every fresh exploit of infamy, and thieves were allured by the opportunity. They carried away whatever they found of value — the consecrated vessels, altar-cloths, money, and vestments; in the cellars of the cloisters they drank to intoxication; to escape greater indignities the monks and nuns abandoned everything to them. The confused noises of these riotous acts had startled the citizens from their first sleep; but night made the danger appear more alarming than it really was, and instead of hastening to defend their churches the citizens fortified themselves in their houses, and in terror and anxiety awaited the dawn of morning. The rising sun at length revealed the devastation which had been going on during the night; but the havoc did not terminate with the darkness. Some churches and cloisters still remained uninjured; the same fate soon overtook them also. The work of destruction lasted three whole days. Alarmed at last lest the frantic mob, when it could no longer find anything sacred to destroy, should make a similar attack on lay property and plunder their ware houses; and encouraged, too, by discovering how small was the number of the depredators, the wealthier citizens ventured to show themselves in arms at the doors of their houses. All the gates of the town were locked but one, through which the Iconoclasts broke forth to renew the same atrocities in the rural districts. On one occasion only during all this time did the municipal officers venture to exert their authority, so strongly were they held in awe by the superior power of the Calvinists, by whom, as it was believed, this mob of miscreants was hired. The injury inflicted by this work of devastation was incalculable. In the church of the Virgin it was estimated at not less than four hundred thousand gold florins. Many precious works of art were destroyed; many valuable manuscripts; many monuments of importance to history and to diplomacy were thereby lost. The city magistrate ordered the plundered articles to be restored on pain of death; in enforcing this restitution he was effectually assisted by the preachers of the Reformers, who blushed for their followers. Much was in this manner recovered, and the ringleaders of the mob, less animated, perhaps, by the desire of plunder than by fanaticism and revenge, or perhaps being ruled by some unseen head, resolved for the future to guard against these excesses, and to make their attacks in regular bands and in better order.
The town of Ghent, meanwhile, trembled for a like destiny. Immediately on the first news of the outbreak of the Iconoclasts in Antwerp the magistrate of the former town with the most eminent citizens had bound themselves to repel by force the church spoilers; when this oath was proposed to the commonalty also the voices were divided, and many declared openly that they were by no means disposed to hinder so devout a work. In this state of affairs the Roman Catholic clergy found it advisable to deposit in the citadel the most precious movables of their churches, and private families were permitted in like manner to provide for the safety of offerings which had been made by their ancestors. Meanwhile all the services were discontinued, the courts of justice were closed; and, like a town in momentary danger of being stormed by the enemy, men trembled in expectation of what was to come. At last an insane band of rioters ventured to send delegates to the governor with this impudent message: "They were ordered," they said, "by their chiefs to take the images out of the churches, as had been done in the other towns. If they were not opposed it should be done quietly and with as little injury as possible, but otherwise they would storm the churches;" nay, they went so far in their audacity as to ask the aid of the officers of justice therein. At first the magistrate was astounded at this demand; upon reflection, however, and in the hope that the presence of the officers of law would perhaps restrain their excesses, he did not scruple to grant their request.
In Tournay the churches were despoiled of their ornaments within sight of the garrison, who could not be induced to march against the Iconoclasts. As the latter had been told that the gold and silver vessels and other ornaments of the church were buried underground, they turned up the whole floor, and exposed, among others, the body of the Duke Adolph of Gueldres, who fell in battle at the head of the rebellious burghers of Ghent, and had been buried herein Tournay. This Adolph had waged war against his father, and had dragged the vanquished old man some miles barefoot to prison — an indignity which Charles the Bold afterwards retaliated on him. And now, again, after more than half a century fate avenged a crime against nature by another against religion; fanaticism was to desecrate that which was holy in order to expose once more to execration the bones of a parricide. Other Iconoclasts from Valenciennes united themselves with those of Tournay to despoil all the cloisters of the surrounding district, during which a valuable library, the accumulation of centuries, was destroyed by fire. The evil soon penetrated into Brabant, also Malines, Herzogenbusch, Breda, and Bergen-op-Zoom experienced the same fate. The provinces, Namur and Luxemburg, with a part of Artois and of Hainault, had alone the good fortune to escape the contagion of those outrages. In the short period of four or five days four hundred cloisters were plundered in Brabant and Flanders alone.
The northern Netherlands were soon seized with the same mania which had raged so violently through the southern. The Dutch towns, Amsterdam, Leyden, and Gravenhaag, had the alternative of either voluntarily stripping their churches of their ornaments, or of seeing them violently torn from there; the determination of their magistrates saved Delft, Haarlem, Gouda, and Rotterdam from the devastation. The same acts of violence were practised also in the islands of Zealand; the town of Utrecht and many places in Overyssel and Groningen suffered the same storms. Friesland was protected by the Count of Aremberg, and Gueldres by the Count of Megen from a like fate. An exaggerated report of these disturbances which came in from the provinces spread the alarm to Brussels, where the regent had just made preparations for an extraordinary session of the council of state. Swarms of Iconoclasts already penetrated into Brabant; and the metropolis, where they were certain of powerful support, was threatened by them with a renewal of the same atrocities then under the very eyes of majesty. The regent, in fear for her personal safety, which, even in the heart of the country, surrounded by provincial governors and Knights of the Fleece, she fancied insecure, was already meditating a flight to Mons, in Hainault, which town the Duke of Arschot held for her as a place of refuge, that she might not be driven to any undignified concession by falling into the power of the Iconoclasts. In vain did the knights pledge life and blood for her safety, and urgently beseech her not to expose them to disgrace by so dishonorable a flight, as though they were wanting in courage or zeal to protect their princess; to no purpose did the town of Brussels itself supplicate her not to abandon them in this extremity, and vainly did the council of state make the most impressive representations that so pusillanimous a step would not fail to encourage still more the insolence of the rebels; she remained immovable in this desperate condition. As messenger after messenger arrived to warn her that the Iconoclasts were advancing against the metropolis, she issued orders to hold everything in readiness for her flight, which was to take place quietly with the first approach of morning. At break of day the aged Viglius presented himself before her, whom, with the view of gratifying the nobles, she had been long accustomed to neglect. He demanded to know the meaning of the preparations he observed, upon which she at last confessed that she intended to make her escape, and assured him that he would himself do well to secure his own safety by accompanying her. "It is now two years," said the old man to her, "that you might have anticipated these results. Because I have spoken more freely than your courtiers you have closed your princely ear to me, which has been open only to pernicious suggestions." The regent allowed that she had been in fault, and had been blinded by an appearance of probity; but that she was now driven by necessity. "Are you resolved," answered Viglius, "resolutely to insist upon obedience to the royal commands?" "I am," answered the duchess. "Then have recourse to the great secret of the art of government, to dissimulation, and pretend to join the princes until, with their assistance, you have repelled this storm. Show them a confidence which you are far from feeling in your heart. Make them take an oath to you that they will make common cause in resisting these disorders. Trust those as your friends who show themselves willing to do it; but be careful to avoid frightening away the others by contemptuous treatment." Viglius kept the regent engaged in conversation until the princes arrived, who he was quite certain would in nowise consent to her flight. When they appeared he quietly withdrew in order to issue commands to the town council to close the gates of the city and prohibit egress to every one connected with the court. This last measure effected more than all the representations had done. The regent, who saw herself a prisoner in her own capital, now yielded to the persuasions of the nobles, who pledged themselves to stand by her to the last drop of blood. She made Count Mansfeld commandant of the town, who hastily increased the garrison and armed her whole court.
The state council was now held, who finally came to a resolution that it was expedient to yield to the emergency; to permit the preachings in those places where they had already commenced; to make known the abolition of the papal Inquisition; to declare the old edicts against the heretics repealed, and before all things to grant the required indemnity to the confederate nobles, without limitation or condition. At the same time the Prince of Orange, Counts Egmont and Horn, with some others, were appointed to confer on this head with the deputies of the league. Solemnly and in the most unequivocal terms the members of the league were declared free from all responsibility by reason of the petition which had been presented, and all royal officers and authorities were enjoined to act in conformity with this assurance, and neither now nor for the future to inflict any injury upon any of the confederates on account of the said petition. In return, the confederates bound themselves to be true and loyal servants of his majesty, to contribute to the utmost of their power to the re-establishment of order and the punishment of the Iconiclasts, to prevail on the people to lay down their arms, and to afford active assistance to the king against internal and foreign enemies. Securities, formally drawn up and subscribed by the plenipotentiaries of both sides, were exchanged between them; the letter of indemnity, in particular, was signed by the duchess with her own hand and attested by her seal. It was only after a severe struggle, and with tears in her eyes, that the regent, as she tremblingly confessed to the king, was at last induced to consent to this painful step. She threw the whole blame upon the nobles, who had kept her a prisoner in Brussels and compelled her to it by force. Above all she complained bitterly of the Prince of Orange.
This business accomplished, all the governors hastened to their provinces; Egmont to Flanders, Orange to Antwerp. In the latter city the Protestants had seized the despoiled and plundered churches, and, as if by the rights of war, had taken possession of them. The prince restored them to their lawful owners, gave orders for their repair, and re-established in them the Roman Catholic form of worship. Three of the Iconoclasts, who had been convicted, paid the penalty of their sacrilege on the gallows; some of the rioters were banished, and many others underwent punishment. Afterwards he assembled four deputies of each dialect, or nations, as they were termed, and agreed with them that, as the approaching winter made preaching in the open air impossible, three places within the town should be granted then, where they might either erect new churches, or convert private houses to that purpose. That they should there perform their service every Sunday and holiday, and always at the same hour, but on no other days. If, however, no holiday happened in the week, Wednesday should be kept by them instead. No religious party should maintain more than two clergymen, and these must be native Netherlanders, or at least have received naturalization from some considerable town of the provinces. All should take an oath to submit in civil matters to the municipal authorities and the Prince of Orange. They should be liable, like the other citizens, to all imposts. No one should attend sermons armed; a sword, however, should be allowed to each. No preacher should assail the ruling religion from the pulpit, nor enter upon controverted points, beyond what the doctrine itself rendered unavoidable, or what might refer to morals. No psalm should be sung by them out of their appointed district. At the election of their preachers, churchwardens, and deacons, as also at all their other consistorial meetings, a person from the government should on each occasion be present to report their proceedings to the prince and the magistrate. As to all other points they should enjoy the same protection as the ruling religion. This arrangement was to hold good until the king, with consent of the states, should determine otherwise; but then it should be free to every one to quit the country with his family and his property. From Antwerp the prince hastened to Holland, Zealand, and Utrecht, in order to make there similar arrangements for the restoration of peace; Antwerp, however, was, during his absence, entrusted to the superintendence of Count Howstraten, who was a mild man, and although an adherent of the league, had never failed in loyalty to the king. It is evident that in this agreement the prince had far overstepped the powers entrusted to him, and though in the service of the king had acted exactly like a sovereign lord. But he alleged in excuse that it would be far easier to the magistrate to watch these numerous and powerful sects if he himself interfered in their worship, and if this took place under his eyes, than if he were to leave the sectarians to themselves in the open air.
In Gueldres Count Megen showed more severity, and entirely suppressed the Protestant sects and banished all their preachers. In Brussels the regent availed herself of the advantage derived from her personal presence to put a stop to the public preaching, even outside the town. When, in reference to this, Count Nassau reminded her in the name of the confederates of the compact which had been entered into, and demanded if the town of Brussels had inferior rights to the other towns? she answered, if there were public preachings in Brussels before the treaty, it was not her work if they were now discontinued. At the same time, however, she secretly gave the citizens to understand that the first who should venture to attend a public sermon should certainly be hung. Thus she kept the capital at least faithful to her.
It was more difficult to quiet Tournay, which office was committed to Count Horn, in the place of Montigny, to whose government the town properly belonged. Horn commanded the Protestants to vacate the churches immediately, and to content themselves with a house of worship outside the walls. To this their preachers objected that the churches were erected for the use of the people, by which terms, they said, not the heads but the majority were meant. If they were expelled from the Roman Catholic churches it was at least fair that they should be furnished with money for erecting churches of their own. To this the magistrate replied even if the Catholic party was the weaker it was indisputably the better. The erection of churches should not be forbidden them; they could not, however, after the injury which the town had already suffered from their brethren, the Iconoclasts, very well expect that it should be further burdened by the erection of their churches. After long quarrelling on both sides, the Protestants contrived to retain possession of some churches, which, for greater security, they occupied with guards. In Valenciennes, too, the Protestants refused submission to the conditions which were offered to them through Philip St. Aldegonde, Baron of Noircarmes, to whom, in the absence of the Marquis of Bergen, the government of that place was entrusted. A reformed preacher, La Grange, a Frenchman by birth, who by his eloquence had gained a complete command over them, urged them to insist on having churches of their own within the town, and to threaten in case of refusal to deliver it up to the Huguenots. A sense of the superior numbers of the Calvinists, and of their understanding with the Huguenots, prevented the governor adopting forcible measures against them.
Count Egmont, also to manifest his zeal for the king's service, did violence to his natural kind-heartedness. Introducing a garrison into the town of Ghent, he caused some of the most refractory rebels to be put to death. The churches were reopened, the Roman Catholic worship renewed, and all foreigners, without exception, ordered to quit the province. To the Calvinists, but to them alone, a site was granted outside the town for the erection of a church. In return they were compelled to pledge themselves to the most rigid obedience to the municipal authorities, and to active co-operation in the proceedings against the Iconoclasts. He pursued similar measures through all Flanders and Artois. One of his noblemen, John Cassembrot, Baron of Beckerzeel, and a leaguer, pursuing the Iconoclasts at the head of some horsemen of the league, surprised a band of them just as they were about to break into a town of Hainault, near Grammont, in Flanders, and took thirty of them prisoners, of whom twenty-two were hung upon the spot, and the rest whipped out of the province.
Services of such importance one would have thought scarcely deserved to be rewarded with the displeasure of the king; what Orange, Egmont, and Horn performed on this occasion evinced at least as much zeal and had as beneficial a result as anything that was accomplished by Noircarmes, Megen, and Aremberg, to whom the king vouchsafed to show his gratitude both by words and deeds. But their zeal, their services came too late. They had spoken too loudly against his edicts, had been too vehement in their opposition to his measures, had insulted him too grossly in the person of his minister Granvella, to leave room for forgiveness. No time, no repentance, no atonement, however great, could efface this one offence from the memory of their sovereign.
Philip lay sick at Segovia when the news of the outbreak of the Iconoclasts and the uncatholic agreement entered into with the Reformers reached him. At the same time the regent renewed her urgent entreaty for his personal visit, of which also all the letters treated, which the President Viglius exchanged with his friend Hopper. Many also of the Belgian nobles addressed special letters to the king, as, for instance, Egmont, Mansfeld, Megen, Aremberg, Noircarmes, and Barlaimont, in which they reported the state of their provinces, and at once explained and justified the arrangements they had made with the disaffected. Just at this period a letter arrived from the German Emperor, in which he recommended Philip to act with clemency towards his Belgian subjects, and offered his mediation in the matter. He had also written direct to the regent herself in Brussels, and added letters to the several leaders of the nobility, which, however, were never delivered. Having conquered the first anger which this hateful occurrence had excited, the king referred the whole matter to his council.
The party of Granvella, which had the preponderance in the council, was diligent in tracing a close connection between the behavior of the Flemish nobles and the excesses of the church desecrators, which showed itself in similarity of the demands of both parties, and especially the time which the latter chose for their outbreak. In the same month, they observed, in which the nobles had sent in their three articles of pacification, the Iconoclasts had commenced their work; on the evening of the very day that Orange quitted Antwerp the churches too were plundered. During the whole tumult not a finger was lifted to take up arms; all the expedients employed were invariably such as turned to the advantage of the sects, while, on the contrary, all others were neglected which tended to the maintenance of the pure faith. Many of the Iconoclasts, it was further said, had confessed that all that they had done was with the knowledge and consent of the princes; though surely nothing was more natural, than for such worthless wretches to seek to screen with great names a crime which they had undertaken solely on their own account. A writing also was produced in which the high nobility were made to promise their services to the "Gueux," to procure the assembly of the states general, the genuineness of which, however, the former strenuously denied. Four different seditious parties were, they said, to be noticed in the Netherlands, which were all more or less connected with one another, and all worked towards a common end. One of these was those bands of reprobates who desecrated the churches; a second consisted of the various sects who had hired the former to perform their infamous acts; the "Gueux," who had raised themselves to be the defenders of the sects were the third; and the leading nobles who were inclined to the "Gueux" by feudal connections, relationship, and friendship, composed the fourth. All, consequently, were alike fatally infected, and all equally guilty. The government had not merely to guard against a few isolated members; it had to contend with the whole body. Since, then, it was ascertained that the people were the seduced party, and the encouragement to rebellion came from higher quarters, it would be wise and expedient to alter the plan hitherto adopted, which now appeared defective in several respects. Inasmuch as all classes had been oppressed without distinction, and as much of severity shown to the lower orders as of contempt to the nobles, both had been compelled to lend support to one another; a party had been given to the latter and leaders to the former. Unequal treatment seemed an infallible expedient to separate them; the mob, always timid and indolent when not goaded by the extremity of distress, would very soon desert its adored protectors and quickly learn to see in their fate well-merited retribution if only it was not driven to share it with them. It was therefore proposed to the king to treat the great multitude for the future with more leniency, and to direct all measures of severity against the leaders of the faction. In order, however, to avoid the appearance of a disgraceful concession, it was considered advisable to accept the mediation of the Emperor, and to impute to it alone and not to the justice of their demands, that the king out of pure generosity had granted to his Belgian subjects as much as they asked.