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The Netherlands formed part of the vast territories ruled over by Charles V. For many reasons it was not to be wondered at that the people should sympathise with the great religious revolt in Germany. They were allied closely with the Germans by blood and language. Like them, too, they looked upon Spain and upon the Spaniards with feelings of distrust. Again, as in other parts of the world, so too in the Netherlands the wealth of the Church had led to grave abuses as well as to a loss of respect for ecclesiastical authority, the latter of which was fostered in the minds of some by the spirit of mysticism that flourished in the land of St. Thomas a Kempis.
Yet, notwithstanding these favourable circumstances, the Reformation made little progress in the Netherlands during the reign of Charles V. He was a man who understood the people and who respected their rights and privileges. He visited the country frequently, was always ready to listen to their demands, and he took care not to offend their national instincts by a display of Spanish troops or Spanish officials. Besides, having a freer hand to deal with the new religious movement in the Netherlands than he had in Germany, he was determined to preserve his hereditary dominions from the dimensions and civil strife that had done so much to weaken the empire. He insisted on the proclamation and execution of the decree of the Diet of Worms against Luther, forbade the spread of heretical writings, introduced the Inquisition, and punished with great severity those who were found guilty of attempting to tamper with the faith of the people. But despite his efforts the trouble that had broken out in the neighbouring countries, France and Germany, could not fail to find an echo in the Netherlands, and the views of Calvin and Luther found some support.
In 1555 Charles retired and was succeeded by his son Philip II. (1555-98). The new ruler unlike his father made no effort to win the affections of his subjects in the Netherlands, or to attach them to himself by bonds of loyalty. On the contrary he came amongst them only too seldom, and after 1559 he never set foot in the country. He showed himself careless about their commercial interests, regardless of their constitutional rights and privileges, and indifferent to their national prepossessions. Instead of relying on the native officials and nobles to carry on the administration of the kingdom, he sought to strengthen his own power by appointing Spaniards to offices of trust and by sending Spanish troops to suppress all symptoms of discontent. He set aside the Grand Council which by custom had the rights of a parliament, and without consultation with the authorities in the Netherlands he decided upon a new ecclesiastical division of the country. Hitherto there were only four bishops, whose Sees were subject to foreign metropolitans. Philip decided that the time had come when the number of bishoprics should be increased, and the jurisdiction of foreign metropolitans should be abolished. The main reason that influenced him to adopt this decision was the fact that, as matters stood, a complete and far-reaching scheme of reform could not be put into operation. In conjunction with Pope Paul IV. he arranged (1559) that the Spanish Netherlands should be placed under the three newly-erected archiepiscopal Sees of Utrecht, Cambrai, and Mechlin, and that suitable provision should be made for the maintenance of the new bishops out of the possessions of the monasteries and of the ecclesiastical institutions as well as from the contributions of the laity.
Many of the nobles were already tired of the Spanish rule, and were not unwilling to look favourably on the religious struggle as a means of securing independence. They objected to several unconstitutional acts of which the government of Philip II. had been guilty. They disliked Cardinal de Granvelle, the prime minister in the Netherlands, and insisted on his recall. They objected to the introduction of the Inquisition, and they protested against the new diocesan division as unnecessary, burdensome to the country, and an infringement of the rights and privileges of certain individuals. The clergy and people, whose positions were affected by the new arrangement, supported them strongly in their opposition to this measure. The leaders of this movement were the Count of Egmont and William of Orange,1 the latter of whom was a clever politician of boundless ambitions, who was not without hope that a rebellion against Spain might be the means of securing supreme power in the Netherlands. His brother, the Prince of Nassau, had adopted Calvinism, and William himself was not troubled with any particularly strong religious convictions. By his marriage with the daughter of Maurice of Saxony he sought to assure himself of the support of the German Protestant princes, while at the same time he was intimately connected with the Huguenots of France, and was on terms of the closest friendship with Counts Egmont and Horn, both of them, though for different reasons, hostile to Philip II. For William and for many of his abettors religion was but a secondary issue, provided only that by means of a religious revolution the power of Spain could be overthrown. Cardinal Granvelle, the minister of the Duchess of Parma,2 who was then regent of the country, was a strong man and a dangerous opponent, for whose removal the party of William of Orange strove with all their might. They succeeded at last in 1564, but despite all their efforts they could not prevent the publication of the decrees of the Council of Trent. They met together in the following year (1565) and formed the union known as the Compromise of Breda, nominally for the preservation of their constitutional rights but in reality to promote a political and religious rebellion. Many earnest Catholics unaware of the motives that inspired the leaders of this movement lent them their support. Having strengthened themselves by negotiations with some of the Protestant princes of Germany, the revolutionary party presented themselves before Margaret of Parma at Brussels to demand redress (1566). During the course of the interview Count de Berlaymont referred to them as a crowd of “gueux” or beggars, and this was the name they adopted to designate their party (Les Gueux).
Though they professed themselves willing to maintain the Catholic religion the friends of William of Orange had strong leanings towards Protestantism. Calvinist preachers flocked in from France; Calvinist communities began to be formed; and in districts where the party found itself powerful enough to do so, attacks were made on Catholic churches and Catholic worship. These outrages served to indicate the real tendency of the movement, and to drive into the opposite camp many Catholics who had joined the party merely to secure redress of political grievances. The Duchess of Parma, having failed to put an end to the disturbances by friendly negotiations, determined to employ force against the rebels. She was completely successful. William of Orange fled to Germany, and Counts Egmont and Horn surrendered themselves to the mercy of the king (1567). Had Philip II. known how to take advantage of this victory he might have put an end to Calvinism in the Netherlands, for as yet the vast majority of the inhabitants were at heart loyal to the Catholic church.
But instead of coming to make a personal appeal for the allegiance of his subjects and of trying to win over the malcontents by a policy of moderation Philip II., more concerned for the suppression of heresy than for the maintenance of Spanish rule, sent the Duke of Alva3 (1567-72) with an army of ten thousand men to punish the offenders and to wipe out all traces of Calvinism. Alva was a soldier who had distinguished himself on many a field against the Turks and against France. His character is sufficiently indicated by the title “the iron duke” given him by those who knew him best. He had no faith in diplomacy or concession. For him martial law was the only means of reducing rebels to subjection. The Duchess of Parma, unwilling to share the responsibility of government with such an associate, petitioned for her recall, and the Duke of Alva was appointed regent of the Netherlands. Two leaders of the rebellion, Counts Egmont and Horn, were tried and put to death (1568), as were also many of their followers. The goods of the rebels were confiscated, soldiers were quartered on the districts which were supposed to be sympathetic with the movement, and martial law became the order of the day. But the cruel measures adopted by the Duke of Alva did not put an end to the rebellion in the Netherlands. On the contrary, the contempt shown by him for the constitution of the country and the rights of individual citizens, the excessive taxation, and the license given to the soldiers in their treatment of civilians served only to embitter the issue and to drive even moderate men into the path of rebellion. William of Orange, backed by his brother, Louis of Nassau, made descents upon the country, while vessels manned by their supporters set themselves to do as much harm as possible to Spanish trade. With the aid of England they managed to capture the city and port of Briel (1572). Several of the northern states threw off the yoke of Spain and acknowledged William of Orange as their ruler, so that in a short time the Provinces of Holland and Zeeland were practically lost to Philip II. William of Orange tried to obscure the religious nature of the campaign by proclaiming religious freedom, but his followers could not be restrained. The Catholic churches were attacked, the clergy were expelled, and in 1572 nineteen priests were martyred for the faith at Gorcum. Holland and Zeeland went over completely to Calvinism, nor were the southern provinces, which were still Catholic, contented with the rule of Alva. Driven to desperation by his taxation and unconstitutional policy they formed a league with the followers of William of Orange to put an end to Spanish rule in the Netherlands. Philip II. began to realise that he had been unfortunate in his selection of a governor. A deputation that was sent from the insurgents was received kindly, and Alva’s resignation of his office was accepted.
In his place Don Louis Requesens was sent as governor of the Netherlands (1573-5). Though inferior to Alva in military skill he was much superior to him in the arts of diplomacy and conciliation. He withdrew promptly the financial decrees that had caused such general discontent, yielded to most of the demands made by the people, and offered a general amnesty to those who would return to their allegiance. It required all the skill of William of Orange to prevent the submission of his adherents. Disappointed by the removal of the grievances that had provoked a national uprising, he was forced to have recourse more and more to the religious issues in order to maintain his power. He proclaimed himself the protector and champion of Calvinism, and as such he could still count on the aid of the northern provinces. Unfortunately, too, at the very time when the success of his policy of mildness seemed assured, Requesens died leaving it to his successor to complete his work.
Don Juan of Austria, the natural son of Charles V., who had won renown throughout the world by his annihilation of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto, was appointed in his place. Before his arrival the southern and northern provinces had bound themselves together in the Pacification of Ghent (1576). Don Juan was obliged to accept the terms of the Pacification and to dismiss the Spanish troops before his authority would be recognised. William of Orange, secure in the north, determined to occupy the southern provinces, but his public profession of Calvinism and the religious intolerance of his followers prevented a combined national effort. The Catholic nobles of the Walloon provinces objected to the Protestant campaign that was being carried on in the name of liberty, and showed themselves not unwilling to come to terms with Don Juan. The latter, only too glad to meet them half-way, issued a very conciliatory decree (1577), which secured him the support of many of the Catholic party, and partly by force, partly by negotiation he succeeded in winning back much of what had been lost.
On the death of Don Juan (1578) Alexander Farnese, son of the former regent Margaret of Parma, was appointed his successor. Being something of a statesman as well as a soldier he lost no opportunity of endeavouring to break the power of the Prince of Orange. He devoted a great deal of his energies to the work of detaching the southern provinces, which still remained Catholic, from the northern, which had gone over to Calvinism. The intolerance of the Calvinists and their open violation of the religious freedom guaranteed to all parties tended to the success of his plans. During his term of office Belgium returned its allegiance to Spain, and this step put an end to the hopes entertained by the Calvinists of winning that country to their side. Meanwhile the northern provinces were entirely in the hands of William of Orange. In 1579 the five provinces Holland, Zeeland, Friesland, Geldern, and Zutphen bound themselves together by a solemn compact in the Union of Utrecht under the name of the United Provinces, and practically speaking established a Dutch republic. They agreed to make common cause in war and in peace, and appointed William of Orange as Stadtholder for life. A short time later (1581) William of Orange, notwithstanding all his proclamations regarding religious liberty, forbade the public exercise of the Catholic religion, and refused to allow the new Archbishop of Utrecht to take possession of his See. In these circumstances nothing remained for the Pope except to appoint a vicar-apostolic to take charge of the religious interests of the Catholics, who formed two-fifths of the population of Holland, but even the vicar-apostolic was soon banished from the country.
In 1584 William of Orange was assassinated, and his son Maurice was appointed to succeed him. The English Government anxious to strike a blow at Spain encouraged the Dutch to continue the war, and despatched troops to their assistance. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada the situation was much more favourable to the rebels, and at last in 1609 a twelve years’ truce was concluded. On the expiration of the truce the war was renewed without any very striking success on either side. Finally in the Peace of Westphalia (1648) the independence of the Dutch republic was acknowledged by Spain. From the very beginning of the religious revolt in the Netherlands Calvinism was the sect most favoured by the people, as is evidenced by the Confessio Belgica in 1562. The University of Leyden decided in its favour, as did also the Synods of Dordrecht in 1574 and 1618. The Catholic minority in Holland were treated with the greatest severity, but in spite of all the efforts to induce them to change their faith many of the districts remained completely Catholic.
The Catholic provinces, which remained true to Spain and to the Catholic Church, suffered very severely from the long-drawn-out struggle, but despite the ravages of war they were soon the centre of a great religious, literary and artistic revival. The University of Louvain, founded in 1425, developed rapidly under the generous patronage of the civil rulers. During the sixteenth century it was recognised as an important centre of learning whither scholars flocked not merely from the Low Countries but from all parts of Europe. Throughout the Reformation struggle Louvain and Douay, the latter of which was founded in 1562 by Philip II. to assist in stemming the rising tide of Calvinism, remained staunch defenders of Catholic orthodoxy, though the unfortunate controversies waged round the doctrines of Baius and Jansenius did something to dim the glory of the university to which both belonged. The Jesuits, too, rendered invaluable service to religion and learning, particularly the men who hastened to offer their services to Father van Bolland in his famous Acta Sanctorum. Nor can it be forgotten that it was in these days Catholic Belgium gave to the world the great Flemish school of artists, amongst whom must be reckoned such men as Rubens, Van Dyck, and Jordaens.
Chapter III Section (c) Footnotes
1 Lacheret, L’evolution religieuse de Guillaume le Taciturne, 1904.
2 Rachfal, Margareta von Parma, 1898.
3 Vita Ferdinandi Toletani, ducis Albani, 1669.
Chapter III Section (c) Bibliography
Cramer-Piper, Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica, 1903-11. Juste, Histoire de la revolution des Pays Bas sous Philippe II., 2 vols., 1863-7. De Lettenhove, Les Huguenots et les Gueux, 6 vols., 1882-5. Gossart, La domination espagnole dans les Pays Bas a la fin du regne de Philippe II., 1906. Holzwarth, Der Abfall der Niederlanden, 2 Bde, 1865-72.
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Lane Core Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Created November 14, 2000; revised November 19, 2000.