Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

The Beggars of the Sea

The Netherlands, lying like a kind of debateable land between France and Germany, were apt to be influenced by the different forms of Protestantism which were established in those countries. The inhabitants were remarkably quick-witted and attracted by anything which appealed to their reason. Their breadth of mind and cosmopolitan outlook was, no doubt, largely due to the extensive trade they carried on with eastern and western nations. The citizens of the well-built towns studding the Low Countries, had become very wealthy. They could send out fine soldiers, as Charles V had seen, but their chief pursuit was commerce. Education rendered them far superior to many other Europeans, who were scarcely delivered from the ignorance and superstition of the Middle Ages. Having proved themselves strong enough to be independent, they formed a Confederacy of Republics on the death of Charles V in 1558.

The Emperor was sincerely mourned because he had possessed Flemish tastes, yet he had always failed in his attempts to unite the whole of the Low Countries into one kingdom. There were no less than seventeen provinces in the Netherlands, with seventeen petty princes over them. Each province disdained the other as quite alien and foreign. Both French and a dialect of German were spoken by the natives. It was a great drawback to Philip II, their new ruler, that he could only speak Castilian.

Philip had been unpopular from the time of his first visit to the Netherlands, before the French war was settled by the treaty of Cateau Cambresis. The credit of the settlement was chiefly due to the subtle diplomacy of William, Prince of Orange, the trusted councillor of Charles V, on whose shoulder the Emperor leant during the ceremony of abdication.

William of Orange yielded to none in pride of birth, being descended from one of the most illustrious houses of the Low Countries. He was young, gallant, and fond of splendour when he negotiated on the Emperor's behalf with Henry II of France. He managed matters so successfully that the Emperor was able to withdraw without loss of prestige from a war he was anxious to end at any cost. William received his nickname of the Silent during his residence as a hostage at the French court.

One day, at a hunting party, Henry II uncautiously told Orange of a plan he had made with Philip to stamp out every heretic in their dominions of France and the Netherlands by a sudden deadly onslaught that would allow the Protestants no time for resistance. It was assumed that William, being a powerful Catholic noble, would rejoice in this scheme. He held his peace very wisely but, in reality, he was full of indignation. He cared nothing for the reformed religion in itself, but he was a humane generous man, and from that hour determined that he would defend the helpless, persecuted Protestants of the Low Countries.

Philip II was not long in showing himself zealous to observe his father's instructions to preserve the Catholic faith in all its purity. He renewed the edict or "placard" against heresy which had been first issued in 1550. This provided for the punishment of anyone who should "print, write, copy, keep, conceal, sell, buy, or give in churches, streets, or other places" any book of the Reformers, anyone who should hold conventicles, or anyone who should converse or dispute concerning the Holy Scriptures, to say nothing of those venturing to entertain the opinions of heretics. The men were to be executed with the sword and the women buried alive, if they should persist in their errors. If they were firm in holding to their beliefs, such deaths were held too merciful. Execution by fire was a punishment that was universal in the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Philip watched the burning of his heretic subjects with apparent satisfaction. The first ceremony that greeted him on his return to Spain was an Auto da fe, or Act of Faith, in which many victims were led to the stake. The scene was the great square of Valladolid in front of the Church of Saint Francis, and the hour of six was the signal for the bells to toll which brought forth that dismal train from the fortress of the Inquisition. Troops marched before the hapless men and women, who were clad in the hideous garb known as the San Benito—a loose sack of yellow cloth which was embroidered with figures of flames and devils feeding on them, in token of the destiny that would attend the heretics, soul and body. A pasteboard cap bore similar devices, and added grotesque pathos to the suffering faces of the martyrs. Judges and magistrates followed them, and nobles of the land were there on horseback, while members of the dread tribunal came after these, bearing aloft the arms of the Inquisition.

Philip occupied a seat upon the platform erected opposite to the scaffold. It was his duty to draw his sword from the scabbard and to repeat an oath that he would maintain the purity of the Catholic faith before he witnessed the execution of "the enemies of God," as he thought all those who laid down their lives for the sake of heretical scruples.

A few who recanted were pardoned, but for the majority recantation only meant long imprisonment in cells where many hearts broke after years of solitude. The property of the accused was confiscated in any case; and this rule was a sore temptation to informers, who received a certain share of their neighbour's goods if they denounced him. When the "reconciled" had been sent back to prison under a strong guard, all eyes were fixed on the unrepentant. These wore cards round their necks and carried in their hands either a cross, or an inverted torch, which was a sign that their own life would shortly be extinguished. Few of these showed weakness, since they had already triumphed over long-protracted torture. They walked with head erect to the quemada or place of execution.

Dominican monks, by whose fanatic zeal the Holy Office gained a hold on every Spaniard, often walked among the doomed, stripped of their former vestments. Once a noble Florentine appealed to Philip as he was led by the royal gallery. "Is it thus that you allow your innocent subjects to be persecuted?" The King's face hardened, and his reply came sharply. "If it were my own son, I would fetch the wood to burn him, were he such a wretch as thou art." And there is no doubt that Philip spoke truth when he uttered words so merciless.

Under the royal sanction the persecution was continued in the Netherlands. It had closed the domains of science and speculation for Spain. It must break the free republican spirit of the Low Countries. Charles V had been afraid of injuring the trade which enabled him to pay a vast, all-conquering army. His son was less tolerant, and thought religion of greater importance even than military successes.

The terror of that formidable band of Inquisitors came upon the Protestant Flemings like the shadow on some sunny hill-side. They had lived in comfort and independence, resisting every attempt at royal tyranny. Now a worse tyranny was ruling in their midst—secret, relentless, inhuman—demanding toll of lives for sacrifice. Philip was zealous in appointing new bishops, each of whom should have inquisitors to aid in the work of hunting down the Protestants. "There are but few of us left in the world who care for religion," he wrote, "'tis necessary therefore for us to take the greater heed for Christianity."

Granvelle, a cardinal of the Catholic Church, was the ruler of the Low Countries, terrorizing Margaret of Parma, whom Philip had appointed to act there as his Regent. Margaret was a worthy woman of masculine tastes and habits; she was the daughter of Charles V and therefore a half-sister of Philip. She would have won some concessions for the Protestants, knowing the temper of the Flemish, to whom she was allied by birth, but Granvelle was artful in his policy and managed by frequent correspondence with Spain to baffle the efforts of the whole party, which looked with indignation on the work of the Inquisitors. Peter Titelmann, the chief instrument of the Holy Office in the Netherlands, alarmed Margaret as well as her subjects, who were at the mercy of this monster. He rode through the country on horseback, dragging suspected persons from their very beds, and glorying in the knowledge that none dared resist him. He burst into a house at Ryssel one day, seized John de Swarte, his wife and four children, together with two newly-married couples and two other persons, convicted them of reading the Bible, of praying within their own dwellings, and had them all immediately burned. No wonder that the Duchess of Parma trembled when the same man clamoured at the doors of her chamber for admittance. High and low were equally in danger. Even the royal family were at the mercy of the Holy Office. Spies might be found in any household, and both men and women disappeared to answer "inquiries" made with torture of the rack, without knowing their accusers.

Granvelle had enemies, who bent themselves to accomplish the downfall of the minister. He was of humble origin, though he had amassed great wealth and possessed a remarkable capacity for administration. Egmont, the fierce, quarrelsome soldier, was his chief adversary among the nobles. There was a lively scene when Egmont drew his sword on the Cardinal in the presence of the Regent.

William of Orange was, perhaps, the one man whom all respected for his true courage and strength of character. Granvelle wrote of him to Philip as highly dangerous, knowing that in the Silent he had met his match in cunning; for William's qualities were strangely mingled—he had vast ambition and yet took up a cause later that broke his splendid fortunes. He was upright, yet he had few scruples in dealing with opponents. He would employ spies to acquaint him with secret papers and use every possible means of gaining an advantage.

Egmont and Orange vied with each other in the state they kept, their wives being bitterly jealous of each other. William's second marriage had been arranged for worldly motives. His bride was Princess Anna of Saxony, daughter of the Elector Maurice who had worked such evil for the Emperor Charles and had embraced the new religion. The Princess was only sixteen; she limped, and was by no means handsome. It was hinted, too, that her temper was stormy and her mind narrow. The advantages of the match consisted in her high rank, which was above that of Orange. Philip disliked the wedding of a Reformer with one of his most powerful subjects. He disliked the bride's family, as was natural, and the bride's family did not approve of her wedding with a "Papist." The ceremony took place on St Bartholomew's Day, 1561.

After his second marriage the Prince of Orange continued to exercise a lordly hospitality, for his staff of cooks was famous. His wife quarrelled for precedence with the Countess Egmont, till the two were obliged to walk about the streets arm-in-arm because neither would acknowledge an inferior station. Being magnificently dressed, they suffered much inconvenience from narrow doorways, which were not built to admit more than one dame in the costume of the period. The times were not yet too serious to forbid such petty bickering, and there was a certain section of society quite frivolous enough to enjoy the ridiculous side of it.

Margaret of Parma openly showed her delight when Granvelle was banished, for she felt herself relieved from a tyrant. She now gave her confidence to Orange, who was very popular with the people. There seemed to be some hope of inducing Philip to withdraw some of the edicts against his Protestant subjects. Their cries were daily becoming louder, and there was an uneasy spirit abroad in the Low Countries which greeted with delight the device of Count Egmont for a new livery for his servants that should condemn the ostentation of such ministers as Granvelle. His retainers appeared in doublet and hose of the coarsest grey material, with long hanging sleeves and no embroideries. They wore an emblem of a fool's cap and bells, or a monk's cowl, which was supposed to mock the Cardinal's contemptuous allusion to the nobles as buffoons. The King was furious at the fashion which soon spread among the courtiers. They changed the device then to a bundle of arrows or a wheat-sheaf which, they asserted, denoted the union of all their hearts in the King's service. Schoolboys could not have betrayed more joy in the absence of their pedagogue than the whole court showed when Granvelle left the country in 1564 on a pretended visit to his mother.

Orange had now three aims in life, to convoke the States-General, to moderate or abolish the edicts, and to suppress both council of finance and privy council, leaving only the one council of state, which he could make the body of reform. By this time the persecutions were rousing the horror of Catholic as well as Calvinist. The prisons were crowded with victims, and through the streets went continual processions to the stake. The four estates of Flanders were united in an appeal to Philip. Egmont was to visit Spain and point out the uselessness of forcing the Netherlands to accept religious decrees which reduced them to abject slavery. Before he set out, William of Orange made a notable speech, declaring the provinces free and determined to vindicate their freedom.

Egmont's visit was a failure, since he suffered himself to be won by the flattery of Philip II. He was reproached with having forgotten the interests of the State when he returned, and was consumed by regrets that were unavailing. The wrath of the people was increasing daily as the cruel persecution devastated the Low Countries. All other subjects were forgotten in the time of agony and expectation. There was talk of resistance that would win death on the battlefield, more merciful than that proceeding from slow torture. In streets, shops, and taverns men gathered to whisper of the dark deeds done in the name of the Inquisition. Philip had vowed "never to allow myself either to become or to be called the lord of those who reject Thee for their Lord," as he prostrated his body before a crucifix. The doom of the Protestants had been sealed by that oath. Henceforth, those who feared death were known to favour freedom of religion.

The Duke of Alva was firm in his support of Philip's measures. The Inquisition was formally proclaimed in the market-place of every town and village in the Netherlands. Resistance was certain. All knew that contending armies would take the field soon. Commerce ceased to engage the attention of the people. Those merchants and artisans who were able left the cities. Patriots spoke what was in their hearts at last, and pamphlets "snowed in the streets." The "League of the Compromise" was formed in 1566, with Count Louis of Nassau as the leader; it declared the Inquisition "iniquitous, contrary to all laws, human and divine, surpassing the greatest barbarism which was ever practised by tyrants, and as redounding to the dishonour of God and to the total desolation of the country." The members of the League might be good Catholics though they were pledged to resist the Inquisition. They always promised to attempt nothing "to the diminution of the King's grandeur, majesty, or dominion." All who signed the Compromise were to be mutually protected by an oath which permitted none to be persecuted. It was a League, in fact, against the foreign government of the Netherlands, signed by nobles whose spirit was roused to protest against the influence of such men as Alva.

The Compromise did not gain the support of William of Orange because he was distrustful of its objects. The members were young and imprudent, and many of them were not at all disinterested in their desire to secure the broad lands belonging to the Catholic Church. Their wild banquets were dangerous to the whole country, since spies sat at the board and took note of all extravagant phrases that might be construed into disloyalty. Orange himself held meetings of a very different sort in his sincere endeavour to avert the catastrophe he feared.

Troops rode into Brussels, avowing their intention to free the country from Spanish tyranny. Brederode was among them—a handsome reckless noble, descended from one of the oldest families of Holland. The citizens welcomed the soldiers with applause and betrayed the same enthusiasm on the following day when a procession of noble cavaliers went to present a petition to Margaret of Parma, urging that she should suspend the powers of the Inquisition while a messenger was sent to Spain to demand its abolition.

As the petitioners left the hall, they heard with furious resentment the remark of one Berlaymont to the troubled Regent. "What, Madam! is it possible that your highness can entertain fears of these beggars? (gueux). Is it not obvious what manner of men they are? They have not had wisdom enough to manage their own estates, and are they now to teach the King and Your Highness how to govern the country? By the living God, if my advice were taken, their petition should have a cudgel for a commentary, and we would make them go down the steps of the palace a great deal faster than they mounted them."

The Confederates received an answer from the Duchess not altogether to their satisfaction, though she promised to make a special application to the King for the modification of edicts and ordered the Inquisitors to proceed "moderately and discreetly" with their office. Three hundred guests met at Brederode's banquet on the 8th of April, and there and then, amid the noise of revelry and the clink of wine-cups, they adopted the name of "Beggars," flung at them in scorn by Berlaymont.

Brederode was the first to call for a wallet, which he hung round his neck after the manner of those who begged their bread. He filled a large wooden bowl as part of his equipment, lifted it with both hands and drained it, crying, "Long live the Beggars!" The cry was taken up as each guest donned the wallet in turn and drank from the bowl to the Beggars' health. The symbols of the brotherhood were hung up in the hall so that all might stand underneath to repeat certain words as he flung salt into a goblet:

"By this salt, by this head, by this wallet still,

These beggars change not, fret who will."

A costume was adopted in accordance with the fantastic humour of the nobles. Soon Brussels stared at quaint figures in coarse grey garments, wearing felt hats, and carrying the beggar's bowl and wallet. The badges which adorned their hats protested fidelity to Philip.

Twelve of the Beggars sought an interview with the Duchess of Parma to demand that Orange, Egmont, and Admiral Hoorn should be appointed to guard the interests of the States, and they even threatened to form foreign alliances if Margaret refused to grant what they wanted. They knew that they could count now on assistance from the Huguenot leaders in France and from the Protestant princes in Germany.

The war was imminent in which the Beggars would avenge the insult uttered by the haughty lips of Berlaymont. The sea-power of Holland had its origin in the first fleet which the Sea-Beggars equipped in 1569. These corsairs who cruised in the narrow waters and descended upon the seaport towns were of many different nationalities, but were one and all inspired by a fanatic hatred of the Spaniard and the Papist.