1. The opposition of the nobility
The general disaffection with Granvelle grew to such a degree that Philip, probably gnashing his teeth, had to dismiss him in October 1564, leaving Orange as the unofficial, but undisputed leader of the Netherlands. He made a skilful use of the power vacuum created by Granvelle's departure by speaking out in the Council against the royal policy, sustained in this by Egmond and by Philip of Montmorency, count of Horn (1518-1568), members of the Council. Their aim was not to depose Philip as Lord of the Netherlands or to create a new sort of state; no, what they wanted was relaxation of the anti-heresy measures (just as Orange, Egmond and Horn were Catholics). It was hoped that the king, now that he had given in with regard to Granvelle, would acquiesce in this.
Philip took a long time to react, but when he did so, the effect was devastating for his authority. In October 1565 the so-called `Letters of Segovia' arrived, written by the king in a palace of his in the wood of Segovia. He told the Netherlanders unambiguously that there would not be the slightest relaxation of the anti-heresy policy. The effect of these Letters was also detrimental to the authority of the self-appointed leaders of the opposition. They had protested in vain and had proved to be powerless.
2. The opposition of the lower nobles
Others now stepped forward to take things in hand, mostly members of the middle and lower nobility and of the gentry. They were Protestants, mostly Calvinists, or sympathized with the Reformation. Their leaders were Hendrik of Brederode, Lord of Vianen (1531-1568), who bragged that his pedigree was much older than that of Nassau, Floris I van Pallandt, count of Culemborg (1537-1598), and Orange's brother Louis of Nassau (1538-1571). In October 1565 they founded the `League of Compromise' to which hundreds of nobles and members of the gentry adhered. The agitation in the country was fed by a stream of pamphlets.
The fifth of April 1566 became a momentous day. A procession of two hundred noblemen entered the palace of Margaretha of Parma in Brussels, led by Brederode; they presented a petition to the governess. This petition is known in the Netherlands as the Smeekschrift der edelen, the Petition of the Nobles. It contained the following claims: the immediate end of the prosecution of heretics and the dissolution of the Inquisition. In a veiled way the Petition suggested that resort to violence might be taken, if the claims were rejected. In fact, Louis of Nassau had already visited Germany to sound the Lutheran princes whether they were ready to lend military assistance in case of an armed rebellion. He had not met with success, but it is evident that at least part of the nobles would not shrink back from taking up arms. The governess, who was not a strong personality, was obviously at a loss what to answer; after a few minutes she said that she would consider the Petition. A few days later she ordered the Inquisition to practice moderation.
There is a story, perhaps legendary, that Margaretha's adviser Gilles de Berlaymont, Baron of Hierges (1510-1579), had said, when he saw the tears rolling over her cheeks: `Comment, Madame, peur de ces gueux?' = How now, Madam, afraid of these beggars, referring to the fact that many nobles were living of their debts. A few days later the members of the League assembled to celebrate their victory with a banquet, probably in Brederode's palace. He informed his guests that they had been called `beggars', gueux, Geuzen in Dutch, adding that, if they were called beggars, they would behave as beggars. At these words his servants came in with beggar's wallets and wooden begging bowls and distributed them among the guests. Under acclamations they proposed toasts with the slogan Vive les gueux, drinking from their bowls. Then they exchanged their hats and put them upside down on their heads, in this way symbolizing that the order of the world had been reversed. Later silver medals were made, adorned with little beggar's bowls and with the ironic inscription Jusqu'à la besace, until the beggar's staff, which means: we remain true to our ruler, because it is he who is running this country. The League members wore these medals on chains around their necks.
3. Ongoing Protestantization
It seemed as though the Habsburg government was losing its grip on the country; an atmosphere in which everything seemed possible was originating. Protestantization was going on rapidly; exiled Calvinists returned and the hagepreken drew thousands of hearers, one near Antwerp fifteen thousand. Everywhere in the Netherlands the Calvinists were getting organized; consistories were instituted. The powerless government was unable to stop this, although the Court of Holland forbade the distribution of rebellious pamphlets (many of which were printed in Vianen) `at the penance of the gallows'.
The consistories were so certain of their cause that they promised to finance the levying of troops by the League, on the condition that it would come out openly in favour of Protestantism. For many members this was asking too much. They appointed, however, a commission, called the `Twelve Apostles', led by Louis of Nassau. On July 30 this commission presented a second petition to the governess that went further than the first one; it asked for 1. freedom of religion; 2. the convocation of the States General; 3. the institution of a triumvirate, consisting of Orange, Egmond, and Horn, which would rule the country. Although this made Margaretha exceedingly angry - "she almost burst with rage', said Louis of Nassau -, she was once again at a loss what to do.
4. The annus mirabilis
The tension grew daily. The country resembled a powder keg; one spark would be sufficient to cause an explosion. "An intoxicating expectation of spiritual renewal swept the Low Countries", writes Israel, "creating a feverish mood which pervaded every niche of culture and social awareness."[i] We are now on the threshold of what is called the annus mirabilis. the year of wonders, in Dutch the wonderjaar. This refers to the suddenness of what happened - the great iconoclasm - and its fateful and unexpected consequences. A storm raged over the Netherlands, emerging in the south and dying out in the north, leaving in its wake heavily damaged churches, smashed altars, torn up priestly vestments, and above all mountains of destroyed or mutilated statues, images, and paintings, to say nothing of the sacrileges committed with the Holy Sacrament. Incomparable works of art, centuries old, were hacked to pieces or went up in flames on bonfires during this wild tumult.
It has been suggested that something else than the `expectation of spiritual renewal' may have played a role in the events. Some historians have proposed not to speak of the wonderjaar, but, instead, of the hongerjaar, the year of hunger. This was been forcefully brought forward by a German scholar, who fled Nazi Germany and came to live in the Netherlands, Erich Kuttner (1887-1942). The book he wrote, called Het hongerjaar, was never published during his lifetime; it appeared only in 1947, but had a second edition in 1964 and a third in 1974. Kuttner was a Marxist who based his investigation on the main Marxist thesis that all political, social, and cultural events have a material basis. The title of the German translation of his book, which appeared in 1997, makes explicit what he had in mind, Das Hungerjahr. Eine Studie zur Geschichte des niederländischen Frühproletariat und seine Revolution; what happened was, according to Kuttner, a revolution of the early Netherlands proletariat. The year 1566, he argued, was a year of hunger, of shortage of bread, and of rising prices. It was this what caused the outburst in the summer.
This thesis, although long popular with Dutch historians, has now been largely disregarded.[ii] It is true that in some cities, for instance in Gent and Leiden, famine riots occurred immediately preceding the iconoclasm, but post hoc is not always propter hoc. There had been famine, shortage of bread, and rising prices in the second half of 1565 and in the first months of 1566, but in August 1566 the worst was already past. Iconoclasm also occurred in regions where there had been no famine at all. It is also remarkable that nowhere the warehouses were plundered or the grain merchants molested. If the term `proletariat' is not an anachronism for this period, it must be stated that the rebels did not come from the disprivileged classes alone.
5. What was attacked and why
The fact is that the rebels only aimed at religious objects. Here and there some violence against persons occurred, that is, against priests and friars, but although convents were attacked, the inmates were left unmolested. The attackers directed themselves at what may be called the paedagogical and liturgical infrastructure of the Church. In a time when there was still much illiteracy, statues, images and paintings served to instruct the faithful, while the liturgical apparatus - altars, vestments, thuribles - made the liturgy impressive, transferring the faithful to an unearthly sphere.
The reformers did not see it this way. To them these objects were means used as priestcraft in order to keep the faithful in check and made them do what the clergy wanted them to do, mainly pay. The whole apparatus of imagery and liturgy was, in their view, a barrier erected between God and the faithful. Still worse, it was the sheerest idolatry. Did not the Bible say `Thou shalt not make images'? And because Netherlanders are thrifty people, also an economical argument was used: this whole upkeep cost much money that had better be spent on the poor. Finally a practical argument. The Calvinists, no longer satisfied with listening to long sermons in the burning sun or in the rain, wanted to have churches, that, however, were thoroughly cleansed of popery and idolatry, churches fit for the preaching of the Word and nothing else.
Israel concludes: "Decades of iconoclastic indoctrination by Erasmian humanists and crypto-Protestants in the schools, rhetoric chambers and taverns of the Low Countries - even in the churches - had done its work. A deep estrangement from the traditional forms of piety had set in decades before and advanced so far by this point that the country's vast and ancient fabric of faith, resplendent with images, paintings, vestments, altars, and church plate, was looked with veneration by most and with hostility by many." And he adds: "Alienation of a society from its own religious culture, on such a scale, was a phenomenon without precedent or parallel."[iii] We are confronted with a dualistic phenomenon without parallel indeed: a clean break with the past was effectuated.[iv]
6. The path the storm took
The Beeldenstorm, the breaking of the images, began on August 10, 1566, in the village of Steenvoorde, in West Flanders. Having heard an inciting sermon, people attacked the convent of St.Lawrence and smashed all its statues. From there the storm raged over all Flanders; in a few day's time four hundred churches and convents were `purified'. On August 21/22 it was the turn of Antwerp. Without anybody opposing the attackers and with large crowds cheering them with Vivent les gueux, the image-breakers attacked all the twenty-four churches of the city; the streets lay full with broken statues, torn paintings, and smashed liturgical vessels. On August 24, the iconoclasm raged in Flushing in Zeeland, after wich the famous abbey of Middelburg was ransacked; on that same day it was also the turn of Breda.
Let me relate in some detail what happened in Amsterdam. On August 23, merchants arriving from the south showed their colleagues of the stock exchange in the Warmoesstraat pieces of marble and alabaster, which, they said, came from statues smashed by the populace of Antwerp. When the burgomasters heard this, they advised the clergy to bring their treasures into safety, because they feared there would image-breaking also in their city. Taking heed of this well-meant counsel, the clergy began to carry their treasures away. It was then eleven o'clock; during the sixteenth century this was still the usual hour for the main meal of the day. When the workmen, returning home for their dinner, saw the clerics carrying statues and paintings along the street, they forced them to bring the valuables back to where they belonged, mainly to the chapels of the guilds in the parish churches.
The clergy of the church of St.Mary and St.Catherine decided not to sing the vespers that afternoon. There was already an angry mob in the building, but `good citizens with good swords' succeeded in persuading these people to leave the church, after which it was closed. Thus the New Church was spared.
In the church of St.Nicholas, the Old Church, things took a different turn. There the vespers were sung indeed, and some children were baptized. Loud protests were heard against these `popish rites'. Some children were carried home unbaptized; others were baptized in the vernacular. Evermore angry, the mob inside the building began throwing stones and hauling down the statues, first those in the church and then those on the outer walls. When I pass along the still standing Old Church, I see the empty niches, where the statues once stood. There were four Protestant leaders in the church, but they made away as quickly as they could; they went to the Plaetse (now the Dam square) and walked to and fro in front of the town hall, in order to show that they were not involved in the riot. They had, however, done nothing to stop the violence.
The sheriff arrived with forty of his men, who began beating the people in the church with their halberds. There was panic; a little girl was pressed to death in the crowd. Finally, the people succeeded in chasing the sheriff away. The militia men arrived who at long last succeeded in persuading the mob to leave the building, the interior of which was by then badly knocked about. The burgomasters ordered that the churches must remain closed for the time being. Breaking statues was forbidden on the pain of corporal punishment. The magistrates made (unlawfully) some concessions; for instance, hedge-preaching was allowed outside the walls. On September 7, a letter from the government arrived: hedge-preaching was not to be allowed, and the churches must immediately be reopened. The burgomasters were prepared to obey, but the city council prevented the publication of Margaretha's decree. The churches remained closed.
Naturally, all this seeped through to the populace, which remained unruly. On September 25, there was a burial in the New Church. The Catholic ritual was not followed, but psalms were sung; in the afternoon there was a similar burial on the (no longer existing) cemetery outside the church, to which a large crowd attended. Then the city council had guards placed around the church and ordered that burials might only be attended by four or five members of the family. When the body of a Protestant was being carried into the church, the crowd tried to follow the bier. The guards opened fire, but were chased away, after much many people attended the funeral service. Once again, some citizens persuaded the mob to leave the church, which was spared for the second time.
Yet the mob was out to bruise. On the 26th it went to the convent of the Minorites in the inner city and attacked it. In great haste the burgomasters dispatched some prominent Protestant citizens to the convent, but these came barely away with their lives in the fray. The friars took to their heels, while the mob hacked the whole interior to pieces, first of all the statues. Having become hungry and thirsty, the people threw itself upon the provisions in the cellars. This time the sheriff and his men were nowhere to be seen.
The feast was not yet over. The next day, the 27th, a furious mob left the city and ran to the convent of the Carthusians, that was situated in the meadows at some distance from the walls. Here everything was destroyed; the work done, the people feasted on the food and the drink they found in the cellars. It was only on the next day that the burgomasters sent the militia men to the convent, but with strict orders to make no arrests - a clear sign of how afraid they were of the populace. When the militia men entered the convent, they found drunken people laying around, who fled as soon as they saw the men. In spite of the orders four men were arrested, but the burgomasters ordered to set them free.[v]
7. Who did this?
Who were the men and women who did this? The Catholics had their answers ready: rabble! Yet many Protestants, fearing the consequences and wanting to exculpate themselves, were of the same opinion. We possess a list of persons who later were condemned because of their part in the iconoclasm. It is not certain that they all actively participated in the destruction; it seems that the dirty work was done by members of the lower classes, while those of the higher classes restricted themselves to inciting and paying the perpetrators. The high fines some people had to pay prove that there were well-to-do citizens among them: a brewer, a wood merchant, a grain merchant, the daughter of a notary, a sexton, and others. It was by no means so that there ran a social divide in the city between the iconoclastic members of the `proletariat' and the higher classes who remained disgustedly aloof.[vi]
The question of whether the iconoclasm was spontaneous or orchestrated is in many cases hard to answer. Often the mob appeared to act out of a blind hatred against all that was Catholic. People defecated in the churches, urinated in the sacred vessels and rubbed their boots with sacred oil; the count of Culemborg fed hosts to his parrot.[vii] Yet elsewhere things were kept under some sort of control. In the small town of Asperen the local sheriff, together with two sons of the baron, were in charge of the action. In Leeuwarden there was no destruction at all, because the `cleansing' of the churches was performed under the supervision of two burgomasters. In Elburg's Great Church the baptismal font and the pulpit were spared, because they could be used by the Calvinists.[viii] In other cases stealing was not allowed; guards stood at the church doors to prevent people from getting away with treasures.
8. No Catholic response
Let us conclude this section with what Israel has to say. "What is remarkable about the North Netherlands, in 1566, is that (except in Gelderland) there was practically no response to Protestant action at all. No doubt only a minority of the populace were committed Protestants. But committed Catholics, in the sense of people willing to go into the streets and demonstrate or fight, to defend the old Church and its symbols and clergy, must have been fewer. So few, indeed, that they were powerles to intervene."[ix]
9. The reaction
The official reaction was not long in waiting. Some of the greatest nobles, disgusted with what was happening, decidedly sided with the government. Others, inspired by Brederode, favoured resistance, to the point of armed rebellion. Orange led a third party that advocated a religious compromise. He travelled from city to city in the south and in the north, feverishly attempting to bring both religious groups on one line, but he met with little success. On the whole it was so that the nobles did not want disorder. On August 23, 1566, the highest members of the League concluded an `accord' with the governess, in which they promised to help her to restore order, if only she was prepared to allow the Calvinistic cult in those cities where it was already practised. The governess acquiesced in this, probably knowing that Philip II would never condone it. In any case, this practically meant the end of the League.
The governess levied troops with which she put an end to the reformed cult in the Walloon south. Valenciennes, the main Calvinist bastion, was besieged and captured in March 1567,[x] an almost fatal blow to the cause of Calvinism in the Low Countries. Reformed sermons were no longer heard in the Walloon regions, the heartland of Netherlandish Calvinism; many Calvinists returned to the bosom of the Church. All over the country Reformed churches were closed. In Amsterdam Protestant preaching ceased on April 17, 1567. The whole leadership of the movement fled to Germany, Orange (to the ancestral Nassau castle at Dillenburg), Hoogstraten, Brederode, Culemborg, and many others.
On May 9, 1567, governemental troops occupied Amsterdam; their commander was Noircarmes (+ 1574), once a member of the League, but now the conqueror of Valenciennes. With him came Maximilien de Hennin, count of Bossu (1542-1578). Bossu, although only twenty-five years old, was to replace Orange as Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht (1567-1573).
ISRAEL, Jonathan, The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806. Oxford, 1995.
KAPTEIN, Herman, De beeldenstorm. Serie: Verloren verleden 18. Hilversum. 2002.
KUTTNER, Erich, Het wonderjaar. Amsterdam, 1947 (1974²).
NIEROP, Henk van, Beeldenstorm en burgerlijk verzet in Amsterdam 1566-1567. Nijmegen (1978).
[i].. Israel, Dutch Republic 147.
[ii].. Israel mentions neither Kuttner's book in his Bibliography nor his name in his Index.
[iii].. Israel, Dutch Republic 148.
[iv].. Describing this well-known story that I so often told to my classes, I let myself being led by Israel, the most recent of the long row of Anglosaxon historians interested in Dutch history, Dutch Republic 129-148, and also by a useful little book by Herman Kaptein, De beeldenstorm. Series: Verloren verleden 18. Hilversum, 20o2.
[v].. Van Nierop, Beeldenstorm en burgerlijk verzet 30-38.
[vi].. Van Nierop, Beeldenstorm and burgerlijk verzet 38-40 and 144.
[vii].. Kaptein, Beeldenstorm 52.
[viii].. Kaptein, Beeldenstorm 56/57.
[ix].. Israel, Dutch Republic 150. This does not exclude that there were local differences. There was iconoclasm in Weert, in the province of Limburg, in 1566. The Minorite monastery, a nunnery, and the church of St.Martin were stormed, while leading Weerters went over to the Reformation. From Weert the people marched on December 21 to the nearby village of Nederweert (where my wife comes from) to do the same to the (still standing) church of St.Lambert). However, the Nederweerters, led by their parish priest Antonius van der Steen, manfully defended their church, armed with halberds, potato forks, and spades. They had the help of some militiamen. Bruekers, De Broederschap van Onze Lieve Vrouw 94.
During the same period a ci-devant Franciscan friar, now a reformed pastor, came to Nederweert to preach the Easter sermon in the parish church. As soon as he began to expound the Calvinistic faith, the women began to stamp with their wooden shoes. When the man tried to raise his voice above the noise, they screamed: "The devil has gone on the pulpit." When the man gave up, the congregation triumphantly burst out into the Easter song Christ has arisen. Until recent times it was the custom that in Catholic churches the men sat on the right, on the gospel side, amd the women on the left, on the epistle side. Since 1566, however, the Nederweert women sat on the right, because they had defended the Gospel. The song Christ has arisen is still sung annually during the Easter High Mass. From a chronicle of 1618, written by another Antonius van der Steen, nephew of the one of 1556; a handwritten copy of the relevant passage is in my possession.
[x].. Israel, Dutch Republic 153.