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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Revolt Of The Netherlands - Severer Religious Edicts--Universal Opposition Of The Nation
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The Revolt Of The Netherlands - Severer Religious Edicts--Universal Opposition Of The Nation Post by :frenzy Category :Nonfictions Author :Frederich Schiller Date :May 2012 Read :3034

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The Revolt Of The Netherlands - Severer Religious Edicts--Universal Opposition Of The Nation

Scarcely was Egmont returned when severer edicts against heretics, which, as it were, pursued him from Spain, contradicted the joyful tidings which he had brought of a happy change in the sentiments of the monarch. They were at the same time accompanied with a transcript of the decrees of Trent, as they were acknowledged in Spain, and were now to be proclaimed in the Netherlands also; with it came likewise the death warrants of some Anabaptists and other kinds of heretics. "The count has been beguiled," William the Silent was now heard to say, "and deluded by Spanish cunning. Self-love and vanity have blinded his penetration; for his own advantage he has forgotten the general welfare." The treachery of the Spanish ministry was now exposed, and this dishonest proceeding roused the indignation of the noblest in the land. But no one felt it more acutely than Count Egmont, who now perceived himself to have been the tool of Spanish duplicity, and to have become unwittingly the betrayer of his own country. "These specious favors then," he exclaimed, loudly and bitterly, "were nothing but an artifice to expose me to the ridicule of my fellow-citizens, and to destroy my good name. If this is the fashion after which the king purposes to keep the promises which he made to me in Spain, let who will take Flanders; for my part, I will prove by my retirement from public business that I have no share in this breach of faith." In fact, the Spanish ministry could not have adopted a surer method of breaking the credit of so important a man--than by exhibiting him to his fellow citizens, who adored him, as one whom they had succeeded in deluding.

Meanwhile the commission had been appointed, and had unanimously come to the following decision: "Whether for the moral reformation of the clergy, or for the religious instruction of the people, or for the education of youth, such abundant provision had already been made in the decrees of Trent that nothing now was requisite but to put these decrees in force as speedily as possible. The imperial edicts against the heretics already ought on no account to be recalled or modified; the courts of justice, however, might be secretly instructed to punish with death none but obstinate heretics or preachers, to make a difference between the different sects, and to show consideration to the age, rank, sex, or disposition of the accused. If it were really the case that public executions did but inflame fanaticism, then, perhaps, the unheroic, less observed, but still equally severe punishment of the galleys, would be well-adapted to bring down all high notions of martyrdom. As to the delinquencies which might have arisen out of mere levity, curiosity, and thoughtlessness it would perhaps be sufficient to punish them by fines, exile, or even corporal chastisement."

During these deliberations, which, moreover, it was requisite to submit to the king at Madrid, and to wait for the notification of his approval of them, the time passed away unprofitably, the proceedings against the sectaries being either suspended, or at least conducted very supinely. Since the recall of Granvella the disunion which prevailed in the higher councils, and from thence had extended to the provincial courts of justice, combined with the mild feelings generally of the nobles on the subject of religion, had raised the courage of the sects, and allowed free scope to the proselytizing mania of their apostles. The inquisitors, too, had fallen into contempt in consequence of the secular arm withdrawing its support, and in many places even openly taking their victims under its protection. The Roman Catholic part of the nation. had formed great expectations from the decrees of the synod of Trent, as well as from Egmont's embassy to Spain; but in the latter case their hopes had scarcely been justified by the joyous tidings which the count had brought back, and, in the integrity of his heart, left nothing undone to make known as widely as possible. The more disused the nation had become to severity in matters pertaining to religion the more acutely was it likely to feel the sudden adoption of even still more rigorous measures. In this position of affairs the royal rescript arrived from Spain in answer to the proposition of the bishops and the last despatches of the regent. "Whatever interpretation (such was its tenor) Count Egmont may have given to the king's verbal communications, it had never in the remotest manner entered his mind to think of altering in the slightest degree the penal statutes which the Emperor, his father, had five-and-thirty years ago published in the provinces. These edicts he therefore commanded should henceforth be carried rigidly into effect, the Inquisition should receive the most active support from the secular arm, and the decrees of the council of Trent be irrevocably and unconditionally acknowledged in all the provinces of his Netherlands. He acquiesced fully in the opinion of the bishops and canonists as to the sufficiency of the Tridentine decrees as guides in all points of reformation of the clergy or instruction of the people; but he could not concur with them as to the mitigation of punishment which they proposed in consideration either of the age, sex, or character of individuals, since he was of opinion that his edicts were in no degree wanting in moderation. To nothing but want of zeal and disloyalty on the part of judges could he ascribe the progress which heresy had already made in the country. In future, therefore, whoever among them should be thus wanting in zeal must be removed from his office and make room for a more honest judge. The Inquisition ought to pursue its appointed path firmly, fearlessly, and dispassionately, without regard to or consideration of human feelings, and was to look neither before nor behind. He would always be ready to approve of all its measures however extreme if it only avoided public scandal."

This letter of the king, to which the Orange party have ascribed all the subsequent troubles of the Netherlands, caused the most violent excitement amongst the state counsellors, and the expressions which in society they either accidentally or intentionally let fall from them with regard to it spread terror and alarm amongst the people. The dread of the Spanish Inquisition returned with new force, and with it came fresh apprehensions of the subversion of their liberties. Already the people fancied they could hear prisons building, chains and fetters forging, and see piles of fagots collecting. Society was occupied with this one theme of conversation, and fear kept no longer within bounds. Placards were affixed to houses of the nobles in which they were called upon, as formerly Rome called on her Brutus, to come forward and save expiring freedom. Biting pasquinades were published against the new bishops--tormentors as they were called; the clergy were ridiculed in comedies, and abuse spared the throne as little as the Romish see.

Terrified by the rumors which were afloat, the regent called together all the counsellors of state to consult them on the course she ought to adopt in this perilous crisis. Opinion varied and disputes were violent. Undecided between fear and duty they hesitated to come to a conclusion, until at last the aged senator, Viglius, rose and surprised the whole assembly by his opinion. "It would," he said, "be the height of folly in us to think of promulgating the royal edict at the present moment; the king must be informed of the reception which, in all probability, it will now meet. In the meantime the inquisitors must be enjoined to use their power with moderation, and to abstain from severity." But if these words of the aged president surprised the whole assembly, still greater was the astonishment when the Prince of Orange stood up and opposed his advice. "The royal will," he said, "is too clearly and too precisely stated; it is the result of too long and too mature deliberation for us to venture to delay its execution without bringing on ourselves the reproach of the most culpable obstinacy." "That I take on myself," interrupted Viglius; "I oppose myself to, his displeasure. If by this delay we purchase for him the peace of the Netherlands our opposition will eventually secure for us the lasting gratitude of the king." The regent already began to incline to the advice of Viglius, when the prince vehemently interposing, "What," he demanded, "what have the many representations which we have already made effected? of what avail was the embassy we so lately despatched? Nothing! And what then do we wait for more? Shall we, his state counsellors, bring upon ourselves the whole weight of his displeasure by determining, at our own peril, to render him a service for which he will never thank us?" Undecided and uncertain the whole assembly remained silent; but no one had courage enough to assent to or reply to him. But the prince had appealed to the fears of the regent, and these left her no choice. The consequences of her unfortunate obedience to the king's command will soon appear. But, on the other hand, if by a wise disobedience she had avoided these fatal consequences, is it clear that the result would not have been the same? However she had adopted the most fatal of the two counsels: happen what would the royal ordinance was to be promulgated. This time, therefore, faction prevailed, and the advice of the only true friend of the government, who, to serve his monarch, was ready to incur his displeasure, was disregarded. With this session terminated the peace of the regent: from this day the Netherlands dated all the trouble which uninterruptedly visited their country. As the counsellors separated the Prince of Orange said to one who stood nearest to him, "Now will soon be acted a great tragedy."


(The conduct of the Prince of Orange in this meeting of the council has been appealed to by historians of the Spanish party as a proof of his dishonesty, and they have availed themselves over and over again to blacken his character. "He," say they, "who had, invariably up to this period, both by word and deed, opposed the measures of the court so long as he had any ground to fear that the king's measures could be successfully carried out, supported them now for the first time when he was convinced that a scrupulous obedience to the royal orders would inevitably prejudice him. In order to convince the king of his folly in disregarding his warnings; in order to be able to boast, 'this I foresaw,' and 'I foretold that,' he was willing to risk the welfare of his nation, for which alone he had hitherto professed to struggle. The whole tenor of his previous conduct proved that he held the enforcement of the edicts to be an evil; nevertheless, he at once becomes false to his own convictions and follows an opposite course; although, so far as the nation was concerned, the same grounds existed as had dictated his former measures; and he changed his conduct simply that the result might be different to the king." "It is clear, therefore," continue his adversaries, "that the welfare of the nation had less weight with him than his animosity to his sovereign. In order to gratify his hatred to the latter he does not hesitate to sacrifice the former." But is it then true that by calling for the promulgation of these edicts he sacrificed the nation? or, to speak more correctly, did he carry the edicts into effect by insisting on their promulgation? Can it not, on the contrary, be shown with far more probability that this was really the only way effectually to frustrate them? The nation was in a ferment, and the indignant people would (there was reason to expect, and as Viglius himself seems to have apprehended) show so decided a spirit of opposition as must compel the king to yield. "Now," says Orange, "my country feels all the impulse necessary for it to contend successfully with tyranny! If I neglect the present moment the tyrant will, by secret negotiation and intrigue, find means to obtain by stealth what by open force he could not. The some object will be steadily pursued, only with greater caution and forbearance; but extremity alone can combine the people to unity of purpose, and move them to bold measures." It is clear, therefore, that with regard to the king the prince did but change his language only; but that as far as the people was concerned his conduct was perfectly consistent. And what duties did he owe the king apart from those he owed the republic? Was he to oppose an arbitrary act in the very moment when it was about to entail a just retribution on its author? Would he have done his duty to his country if he had deterred its oppressor from a precipitate step which alone could save it from its otherwise unavoidable misery?)

An edict, therefore, was issued to all the governors of provinces, commanding them rigorously to enforce the mandates of the Emperor against heretics, as well as those which had been passed under the present government, the decrees of the council of Trent, and those of the episcopal commission, which had lately sat to give all the aid of the civil force to the Inquisition, and also to enjoin a similar line of conduct on the officers of government under them. More effectually to secure their object, every governor was to select from his own council an efficient officer who should frequently make the circuit of the province and institute strict inquiries into the obedience shown by the inferior officers to these commands, and then transmit quarterly, to the capital an exact report of their visitation. A copy of the Tridentine decrees, according to the Spanish original, was also sent to the archbishops and bishops, with an intimation that in case of their needing the assistance of the secular power, the governors of their diocese, with their troops, were placed at their disposal. Against these decrees no privilege was to avail; however, the king willed and commanded that the particular territorial rights of the provinces and towns should in no case be infringed.

These commands, which were publicly read in every town by a herald, produced an effect on the people which in the fullest manner verified the fears of the President Viglius and the hopes of the Prince of Orange.

Nearly all the governors of provinces refused compliance with them, and threatened to throw up their appointments if the attempt should be made to compel their obedience. "The ordinance," they wrote back, "was based on a statement of the numbers of the sectaries, which was altogether false."


(The number of the heretics was very unequally computed by the two parties according as the interests and passions of either made its increase or diminution desirable, and the same party often contradicted itself when its interest changed. If the question related to new measures of oppression, to the introduction of the inquisitional tribunals, etc., the numbers of the Protestants were countless and interminable. If, on the other hand, the question was of lenity towards them, of ordinances to their advantage, they were now reduced to such an insignificant number that it would not repay the trouble of making an innovation for this small body of ill-minded people.)


"Justice was appalled at the prodigious crowd of victims which daily accumulated under its hands; to destroy by the flames fifty thousand or sixty thousand persons from their districts was no commission for them." The inferior clergy too, in particular, were loud in their outcries against the decrees of Trent, which cruelly assailed their ignorance and corruption, and which moreover threatened them with a reform they so much detested. Sacrificing, therefore, the highest interests of their church to their own private advantage, they bitterly reviled the decrees and the whole council, and with liberal hand scattered the seeds of revolt in the minds of the people. The same outcry was now revived which the monks had formerly raised against the new bishops. The Archbishop of Cambray succeeded at last, but not without great opposition, in causing the decrees to be proclaimed. It cost more labor to effect this in Malines and Utrect, where the archbishops were at strife with their clergy, who, as they were accused, preferred to involve the whole church in ruin rather than submit to a reformation of morals.

Of all the provinces Brabant raised its voice the loudest. The states of this province appealed to their great privilege, which protected their members from being brought before a foreign court of justice. They spoke loudly of the oath by which the king had bound himself to observe all their statutes, and of the conditions under which they alone had sworn allegiance to him. Louvain, Antwerp, Brussels, and Herzogenbusch solemnly protested against the decrees, and transmitted their protests in distinct memorials to the regent. The latter, always hesitating and wavering, too timid to obey the king, and far more afraid to disobey him, again summoned her council, again listened to the arguments for and against the question, and at last again gave her assent to the opinion which of all others was the most perilous for her to adopt. A new reference to the king in Spain was proposed; the next moment it was asserted that so urgent a crisis did not admit of so dilatory a remedy; it was necessary for the regent to act on her own responsibility, and either defy the threatening aspect of despair, or to yield to it by modifying or retracting the royal ordinance. She finally caused the annals of Brabant to be examined in order to discover if possible a precedent for the present case in the instructions of the first inquisitor whom Charles V. had appointed to the province. These instructions indeed did not exactly correspond with those now given; but had not the king declared that he introduced no innovation? This was precedent enough, and it was declared that the new edicts must also be interpreted in accordance with the old and existing statutes of the province. This explanation gave indeed no satisfaction to the states of Brabant, who had loudly demanded the entire abolition of the inquisition, but it was an encouragement to the other provinces to make similar protests and an equally bold opposition. Without giving the duchess time to decide upon their remonstrances they, on their own authority, ceased to obey the inquisition, and withdrew their aid from it. The inquisitors, who had so recently been expressly urged to a more rigid execution of their duties now saw themselves suddenly deserted by the secular arm, and robbed of all authority, while in answer to their application for assistance the court could give them only empty promises. The regent by thus endeavoring to satisfy all parties had displeased all.

During these negotiations between the court, the councils, and the states a universal spirit of revolt pervaded the whole nation. Men began to investigate the rights of the subject, and to scrutinize the prerogative of kings. "The Netherlanders were not so stupid," many were heard to say with very little attempt at secrecy, "as not to know right well what was due from the subject to the sovereign, and from the king to the subject; and that perhaps means would yet be found to repel force with force, although at present there might be no appearance of it." In Antwerp a placard was set up in several places calling upon the town council to accuse the King of Spain before the supreme court at Spires of having broken his oath and violated the liberties of the country, for, Brabant being a portion of the Burgundian circle, was included in the religious peace of Passau and Augsburg. About this time too the Calvinists published their confession of faith, and in a preamble addressed to the king, declared that they, although a hundred thousand strong, kept themselves nevertheless quiet, and like the rest of his subjects, contributed to all the taxes of the country; from which it was evident, they added, that of themselves they entertained no ideas of insurrection. Bold and incendiary writings were publicly disseminated, which depicted the Spanish tyranny in the most odious colors, and reminded the nation of its privileges, and occasionally also of its powers.


(The regent mentioned to the king a number (three thousand) of these writings. Strada 117. It is remarkable how important a part printing, and publicity in general, played in the rebellion of the Netherlands. Through this organ one restless spirit spoke to millions. Besides the lampoons, which for the most part were composed with all the low scurrility and brutality which was the distinguishing character of most of the Protestant polemical writings of the time, works were occasionally published which defended religious liberty in the fullest sense of the word.)


The warlike preparations of Philip against the Porte, as well as those which, for no intelligible reason, Eric, Duke of Brunswick, about this time made in the vicinity, contributed to strengthen the general suspicion that the Inquisition was to be forcibly imposed on the Netherlands. Many of the most eminent merchants already spoke of quitting their houses and business to seek in some other part of the world the liberty of which they were here deprived; others looked about for a leader, and let fall hints of forcible resistance and of foreign aid.

That in this distressing position of affairs the regent might be left entirely without an adviser and without support, she was now deserted by the only person who was at the present moment indispensable to her, and who had contributed to plunge her into this embarrassment. "Without kindling a civil war," wrote to her William of Orange, "it was absolutely impossible to comply now with the orders of the king. If, however, obedience was to be insisted upon, he must beg that his place might be supplied by another who would better answer the expectations of his majesty, and have more power than he had over the minds of the nation. The zeal which on every other occasion he had shown in the service of the crown, would, he hoped, secure his present proceeding from misconstruction; for, as the case now stood, he had no alternative between disobeying the king and injuring his country and himself." From this time forth William of Orange retired from the council of state to his town of Breda, where in observant but scarcely inactive repose he watched the course of affairs. Count Horn followed his example. Egmont, ever vacillating between the republic and the throne, ever wearying himself in the vain attempt to unite the good citizen with the obedient subject--Egmont, who was less able than the rest to dispense with the favor of the monarch, and to whom, therefore, it was less an object of indifference, could not bring himself to abandon the bright prospects which were now opening for him at the court of the regent. The Prince of Orange had, by his superior intellect, gained an influence over the regent--which great minds cannot fail to command from inferior spirits. His retirement had opened a void in her confidence which Count Egmont was now to fill by virtue of that sympathy which so naturally subsists between timidity, weakness, and good-nature. As she was as much afraid of exasperating the people by an exclusive confidence in the adherents to the crown, as she was fearful of displeasing the king by too close an understanding with the declared leaders of the faction, a better object for her confidence could now hardly be presented than this very Count Egmont, of whom it could not be said that he belonged to either of the two conflicting parties.

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