Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

A General Pardon Proclaimed

The Duke of Alva had come to the Netherlands with the purpose not only of crushing out heresy, but of filling the always empty coffers of the King. Confiscation of the estates of the nobles and innumerable fines imposed on the wealthy had failed to satisfy the needs of Philip's purse. Accordingly, the Duke could ill brook the loss which befell him shortly after his return to Brussels. Some merchant ships, sailing from Spain with 450,000 ducats for the Spanish army in the Netherlands, were chased by certain roving vessels into the ports of England. Here the merchant fleet lay, not daring to leave the harbour they had gained, for the privateers were watching in the neighbouring ports, ready to pounce on their prey as soon as they put to sea.

The Spanish ambassador in London appealed to Queen Elizabeth, who promised her assistance to the distressed merchantmen. But almost as soon as the promise had been made, she herself seized upon a large portion of the sum carried by the Spanish ships, and proceeded to use it for her own purposes.

Alva was furious, not only at the loss of the money, of which his need was urgent, but at Elizabeth's insult to the Spanish nation. He at once sent a special envoy to the Queen of England. Not only, however, was his messenger refused an audience, but the Duke was rebuked for daring, as though he himself were a Sovereign, to send an ambassador to a crowned head. To emphasise her disdain more thoroughly, Elizabeth then sent a secret commission to Spain to discuss the entire matter with King Philip himself.

Stung to the quick by this scornful treatment, Alva resorted to high-handed measures. He commanded that every Englishman within the Netherlands should be arrested and his property seized. The result was that the same treatment was meted out to every Netherlander then living in England. The Duke, not to be baulked, thereupon gave orders that all intercourse with England should be strictly forbidden. The order was fatal to Flemish prosperity, and the commerce of the Netherlands received a severe blow, for which it received no compensation from the Spanish Government.

The Duke's wrath was not, however, averted from the heretics by his anger with the English Queen and the anxiety caused by the loss of Spanish gold. The gibbet and the stake still did their cruel work. Even death might not now save the victim from the tyranny of the Duke. Government spies were sent to watch over the dying, lest they should dare to breathe their last without first receiving the consolations of the Roman Catholic faith. Should no priest have administered extreme unction and the holy wafer, the estates of the dead were confiscated and their bodies dragged to the place of public execution. As for the living, death was ever close on their path.

In the north of Holland a poor Reformer, having been sentenced to death, attempted to escape by fleeing across a frozen lake. The officer of justice followed closely on his heels, unheeding of the danger of the race. It was late in winter, and a thaw had just set in. The ice cracked and strained beneath the weight of the hunter and his quarry. With desperate speed the fugitive reached the shore in safety, but as he gained the bank he heard behind him a crack of rending ice, a plunge, and then a great cry for help. There was none to hear save Dirk Willemzoon, the Reformer. Generously he turned and crossed again the perilous ice, then at the risk of his life he reached out his hand to his enemy and saved him from a terrible death. The officer would have saved his rescuer, but, being sternly reminded of his oath, he arrested Dirk, who in the following spring was burned to death under the most lingering tortures.

Almost at the same time four clergymen were executed at The Hague. Their profession was no safeguard, for, though leading blameless lives, they had ventured to favour the Reformed faith. Age could not save them, for though the eldest was seventy years of age, his grey hairs won no sympathy from the tyrant. Being men well known in the district, their execution was to take place with unwonted solemnity. On May 27, 1569, clad in the gorgeous robes of High Mass, they were brought before a bishop. The prelate, taking a pair of scissors, cut a lock of hair from the head of each prisoner. Then, scraping their crowns and the tips of their fingers with a little silver knife, he removed, so he asserted, the holy oil with which they had been consecrated. The gorgeous robes were then removed, and the four clergymen were given over to the Blood Council, with a request that they should be treated with gentleness. Three days later they were executed at the stake, having, however, by the tender mercies of their judges, been strangled before they were thrown into the flames.

It seemed to the Pope that Alva, by his untiring zeal in defence of the Church, deserved some signal token of her favour. Accordingly, a special messenger arrived from Rome, bringing to the Duke a jewelled hat and sword, gifts but rarely conferred on any son of the Church. With the gifts came an autograph letter from his Holiness the Pope, begging the Duke to remember that when he put the hat upon his head he was guarded with it as with a helmet of righteousness. On the sword was carved the inspiring motto, "Take this sacred sword, a gift from God, by which thou shalt overthrow the adversaries of my people Israel."

But neither gifts nor commendations could increase the zeal of the Duke, nor enable him to add to the horrors of his religious persecutions. It was possible, however, to make a new attack on the resources of the people, and this, though it might be a matter of indifference to the Pope, would be pleasing to his master at Madrid. Alva, therefore, on March 20, 1569, summoned the States-General and boldly proposed a new form of taxation. All property was to be taxed one per cent immediately. A tax of five per cent was to be imposed on all transfers of real estate, and a tax of ten per cent on all articles of commerce to be paid each time they were sold. The five per cent and ten per cent were thus to be perpetual.

The country received the proposal with a cry of defiance, and the cry was uttered by Reformers and Catholics alike, for none would be exempted from this new demand. Petition after petition poured in upon Government, but Government would not yield. By dint of threats the States were at last compelled to agree to pay the tax of one per cent. On the question of the other two taxes they remained firm. It was long before even a compromise was agreed to by the people, but in the summer of 1569 Alva pretended to be satisfied with a payment of 2,000,000 florins for two years, the term of payment ending in August 1571.

But Alva had at last gone too far. The hatred of the whole nation was now aroused against the tyrant. Even Vigilius, noted for his cringing ways, withstood the Duke's new measure in council, and those who had been faithful to the Spanish rule, Berlaymont, Noircarmes, and Aerschot, joined Vigilius in his condemnation of the measure. The bishops and clergy were against it, as was also Philip's council at Madrid. "Everybody turns against me," wrote the Duke to Philip, at the same time affirming that he would have his own way in the end. And the measures he took to gain it were in accordance with his character. The town and district of Utrecht refusing to pay the tax, Alva quartered a regiment upon them. And when even the insolence and brutality of the soldiers failed to subdue the citizens, their city and province were declared guilty of high treason. Their charters were abolished and all their property confiscated to the use of the King. At all costs the King's exchequer should be filled.

And now Philip, slowly, as was his wont, began to think that Alva's stern rule was no longer desirable for the Netherlands. If the time had not yet come to remove him from the country, at least the time had arrived to lift the ban from the people and proclaim a general pardon. It was true the Duke had himself written to Madrid entreating the King to let him retire from the Netherlands. His health was ruined. He was bitterly hated throughout the country, and even at Madrid, he ventured to hint, his fame was falling into disrepute. Moreover, he had now restored the Provinces to their obedience to their King, "and all this," he added, unashamed, "without violence."

But the King, while considering the plea of the Duke, felt that an amnesty must in the meanwhile be proclaimed. As early as February 1569 the subject had been broached to Alva, but it did not meet with his approval. When the matter was pressed on him he found reasons for delay, and when, towards the close of the year, four different forms of pardon were sent from Madrid, he was in no hurry to select the most suitable. In July 1570, however, the choice had of necessity been made, and the Duke was at length prepared to announce the general pardon.

On the morning of July 14 the city of Antwerp was all astir, for it was here the long-expected pardon was to be proclaimed. The Duke, accompanied by a gay staff of nobles and officers, had arrived. At the head of a procession of clergy, robed in their gorgeous gowns, Alva paraded the streets of the city and entered the Cathedral, there to offer up prayers and hear Mass. Later in the day the Duke, wearing the famous hat and sword bestowed upon him by the Pope, arrived at the great Square. Here a large platform had been erected, and on the platform stood a throne covered with cloth-of-gold. On either side of the throne stood a beautiful woman, clad in garments, emblematic, the one of Righteousness, the other of Peace. The steps leading to the platform were covered with scarlet cloth, and here the courtiers and officers were drawn up, while the Square itself was thronged with troops, and to its utmost corner with the expectant citizens. When the Duke had seated himself on the throne, the pardon was read aloud, while the hushed crowd listened eagerly, anxiously.

It proved but a sorry pardon, and the murmurs of the people told of their discontent. Six classes of offenders were excepted from forgiveness altogether, while the forgiveness offered to all others was nullified by the condition that they should within two months make their peace with the Church and receive absolution for their sins.

Such was the form of pardon Alva had chosen for the Reformers, for men and women who, he well knew, would not now forsake the doctrines for which so many of their fellows had given their lives.

Ignoring, however, the general discontent roused by a pardon which was in reality no pardon at all, the Duke wrote to the King that the people were entirely satisfied with his kindness, save only those who could tolerate no single exception to the amnesty. But neither the King nor the Duke was really deceived by the falsehood, and ere long Alva was writing again to his Sovereign to acknowledge the outcry the pretended pardon was causing, and to confess that the odium for the meagreness of the forgiveness offered was thrown upon his shoulders. "My authority in the country is weakened, and the censures passed on my actions by both the Spanish and Netherland Governments does not tend to improve it. In truth," he added bitterly, "it is not wonderful that the whole nation should be ill-disposed towards me, for I have certainly done nothing to make them love me. At the same time the language transmitted from Madrid does not increase their tenderness."

But there was yet much to be done ere Alva's work in the Netherlands was accomplished, much which, in the doing, was to bring down yet more bitter curses on the head of the dejected Duke.