Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Early Struggles

Liberty! Clear as a trumpet call the word is heard echoing down through the centuries.

In no country rang the clarion voice more clear than throughout the provinces of the Netherlands. Brave and indomitable, the people of the Netherlands rose, even in the Dark Ages, to do battle for their rights.

Even thus in Friesland rose the pagan Radbod. Pagan he was, and yet well-nigh had he been forced to receive the Christian rite of baptism. "Where are my dead forefathers at present?" demanded Radbod, the Frisian chief, ere the rite could be performed. Rashly answered Bishop Wolfran: "In hell with all other unbelievers." "Mighty well," answered Radbod, "then will I rather feast with my ancestors in the halls of Woden than dwell with your little starveling band of Christians in heaven." Thereafter neither threats nor blows were of avail. Radbod would live a heathen to the day of his death. Radbod would do what he might to win freedom of thought and action for himself, and for those who would follow him. All honour to the brave Frisian chief who struggled that his beloved Friesland might be in very truth a free land.

Yet many were the times when the doughty champions of freedom were crushed by tyranny, and yet as many were the times when they rose, true to the master passion of their lives, the love of liberty. The Netherlands, lying low among swamps, inundated by rivers, exposed to the ravages of the sea, was redeemed through the energy of her people. "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further," the great dykes seemed to assert and reassert in proud defiance as the ocean dashed itself vainly against the stalwart bulwarks. Bulwarks these, reared by the prowess of the people who dwelt in the land. The destructive rivers which had overflowed the fields and destroyed the homes of the Netherlands were changed into countless canals and formed great highways for intercourse and commerce.

Thus as the years went by the morasses and the barren wastes of furze, with their miserable huts and hovels, disappeared, and villages and towns were dotted all over the country. Commerce grew strong and increased, till workmen, many thousand strong, tramped along the busy streets. Great guilds were formed for the protection of the different workers, guilds of silversmiths, armourers, silk-weavers, wool-weavers, tapestry workers, gardeners, and of many another. Centuries have passed since the defiance of Radbod, the Frisian chief. Through victories and defeats the Netherlanders have reached a time of great commercial prosperity.

In the fifteenth century Holland, Flanders, Brabant, and other leading provinces were developing the resources of their country to the uttermost. The fisheries, the agriculture, the manufactures, all were in a prosperous and thriving condition. And now in 1437 Philip, the bad Duke of Burgundy, who yet was named "Philip the Good," had become through inheritance, but in part also through treachery, the possessor of the principal provinces of the Netherlands. Philip, while taxing the Provinces heavily, yet protected their commerce and manufactures, for he knew well that his power to exact the taxes he imposed depended on the prosperity of his subjects. Yet from the time of Philip the Good to the death of the Lady Mary—that is, as long as the House of Burgundy ruled in the Netherlands—was there but little liberty given to the true owners of the soil, to those who by their struggles and perseverance had redeemed the country from a dreary waste of flood and swamp.

With Philip's death Charles the Bold became head of the House of Burgundy. A restless, ambitious duke he, who would never rest satisfied with a dukedom; a kingdom would better become him, could he but gain a crown. In this vain desire for kingship he oppressed his subjects in the Netherlands. He seized their wealth, he crushed their freedom. He forced on the country a standing army, and removed the supreme court of Holland from The Hague to Mechlin, insults hard to be borne by a people who had well-nigh won their way to liberty.

Charles the Bold did not gain the crown on which his heart was set, but he almost ruined the Netherlands in his effort to fulfill his ambition. He found them flourishing, self-ruling little republics. He left them with their trade and manufactures spoiled by his heavy exactions, and with the government of their Provinces destroyed. In 1477 he died, leaving the realms of Burgundy, an odd collection of provinces, duchies, and lordships, to his only child, the Lady Mary.

Charles dead, the Netherlanders roused themselves as from an evil dream. Where was the freedom for which they had striven long and fiercely? A great desire for liberty sprang up once more in their undaunted hearts. Holland and Flanders and many other provinces met together at Ghent. The burghers forgot all smaller differences, and united in a determined effort to secure the freedom of their country. The Lady Mary was herself in difficulties, for Louis XI., King of France, had seized her Burgundian possessions, and demanded the heiress in marriage for his son. In her strait the Lady Mary appealed to her faithful subjects in the Netherlands. They rallied round their young mistress, resolved to resist the greed, and, if necessary, the force of Louis. Yet they did not fail to tell her plainly that the Provinces had been much impoverished and oppressed by the enormous taxation imposed upon them by Duke Charles from the beginning to the end of his life. They added, these brave burghers, that "for many years past there had been a constant violation of their charters, and that they should be happy to see them restored." They conferred together, the Lady Mary and her doughty burghers. She secured their allegiance and they gained from her the "Great Privilege," the Magna Charta of Holland.

What would Charles the Bold have felt could he have seen his daughter as she undid the work of his years of tyranny and oppression, the law he had wrested from the people restored again to their hands, his standing army disbanded, his taxes remitted? Charles might well have wept tears of rage at the sight.

The Netherlanders had wrung the "Great Privilege" from the Lady Mary, but not thus readily was their country secured in its privileges. Time and again the Magna Charta was violated, it was even abolished, yet in years to come with its recognition of the ancient rights of the Provinces it became the basis of the Republic. Meanwhile, nowhere in the fifteenth century was there a country more free than the Netherlands with their "Great Privilege" formally confirmed.

The Lady Mary bethinks herself that now perchance it were well to negotiate with Louis XI., the king who had hoped to dispossess her of her Burgundian possessions, for she feels secure in her newly formed alliance with her faithful subjects of the Netherlands. The Estates or Provinces are sending envoys to Louis XI. The Lady Mary sees them before they set out and gives them secret instructions. She hopes to negotiate privately with the French king. The envoys Imbrecourt and Hugonet accept the secret commission, and thereby prove themselves traitors to their country. But Louis XI. rejects the Lady Mary's overtures, and, for purposes of his own, betrays the treachery of Imbrecourt and Hugonet to the Estates. In great wrath the members of the Estates order that the envoys be seized and conveyed to Ghent. Their trial takes place at that town without delay, and straightway they are condemned to be beheaded. And beheaded they are, for all the prayers of the Lady Mary. She dons a robe of black, and, with girdle unclasped and hair hanging loose, she goes to the Market-Place. Weeping bitterly she begs that Imbrecourt and Hugonet, who had obeyed her behest, may be pardoned.

But had the Lady Mary's negotiations proved successful it would have gone hard with the prerogative accorded to the citizens by the "Great Privilege." The possible dishonour to the Magna Charta, gained as it was after bitter oppression, steeled their hearts against all her entreaties, and punishment sharp and swift descended on the envoys. They were beheaded as traitors to their country.

On the 18th August 1477 the Lady Mary married Maximilian, the Archduke of Austria. A few years later she falls from her horse and dies, leaving her little son, Philip, who is only four years old, to succeed her. Thus, with Maximilian recognised by all the Provinces but Flanders as Governor and guardian during the little Philip's minority, the Netherlands passed from the House of Burgundy into the power of the House of Austria, and continued to be governed by that House until the Estates formed their country into the Dutch Republic.

At the age of seventeen, Philip, named the Fair, was prepared to receive the allegiance of the Provinces. Then a strange event occurred, strange in this land where liberty was loved so well. The young Philip declared that all charters and privileges granted since the death of Charles the Bold would be considered as void. He would keep faith with none of them. Resistance stern and resolute would inevitably follow? No, incredible as it may seem, Holland, Zeeland, and the other Provinces accepted Philip the Fair as Governor, even after his reckless declaration, nor is there record of any struggle to retain the "Great Privilege" or other important charters. The Provinces, not always at one amongst themselves, were now united in a bond of common servitude. Unitedly they learned to regret the rights they had forfeited.

To the Netherlands the marriage of Philip the Fair to Joanna, Princess of Castile and Aragon, was an event of great importance; for their son, Count Charles II. of Holland, better known as Charles V., was destined to attempt to unite Spain and the Netherlands, and many another great and distant kingdom, under his single sway. The union of Spain and the Netherlands was likely to prove no easy task; it was beyond the power of even the clever and versatile Charles V. to cement any real friendship between the two peoples. From the outset they hated each other, the Spanish nobles with their haughty, arrogant airs, with their bigoted belief in only one form of religion, the Netherlanders with their busy, vigorous life, their love of liberty in religion as in all else. The Provinces, with what power and wealth they still possessed, were now, under the Emperor's rule, treated as distant dependencies. Absorbed by the cares of empire, Charles V. found it necessary to appoint a Regent to govern the Netherlands. His choice fell on his sister, Queen Mary of Hungary, who for twenty-five years ruled the Provinces, her efforts being directed rather to enforce Charles's orders than to develop the interests of the country. If the sturdy burghers in the different cities of the Netherlands had any doubt as to what treatment they would receive at the hands of the Emperor, their doubts were soon resolved. As he treated Ghent, so would he treat any other city or province which ventured to claim the prerogatives of the "Great Privilege" or of any more ancient charter. And Ghent, for that she was the freest and most liberty-loving city of all the liberty-loving cities of Flanders, had dared to claim the provisions of the Magna Charta, although these had been legally disposed of by Philip the Fair when he received the homage of the States of the Netherlands.

Ghent was a great city surrounded by strongly built walls. Its citizens were amongst the most wealthy and active in the country, and they had spared neither expense nor energy to beautify their town. Round ancient castle and stronghold clustered stories of the long-ago days. Churches and other public buildings, whose stories were yet to be told, adorned the streets and squares of the town. Above all towered the well-loved belfry, topped by a dragon, wherein swung Roland, the famous bell, which from generation to generation had called their sires to arms. Roland was known, not alone in Ghent, but throughout the land. By the burghers of each generation the bell had been beloved. Its tongue vibrated with the story of the city, its struggles and its victories.

Charles V. had demanded from Flanders a subsidy of 400,000 florins. Three members of the province willingly, or more probably unwillingly, decided not to oppose the payment of this subsidy, large as it was. But Ghent, through its member, was vehemently opposed to any payment being made, and urged that if the four members of the province were not agreed no subsidy could be granted. The citizens therefore deputed one named Lievin Pyl to carry their refusal to the Queen Regent. He, however, basely betrayed his fellow-citizens, promising in the name of the burghers of Ghent that the subsidy should be paid. For this treachery Pyl was seized, tortured, and beheaded, for the burghers, when roused, did not hesitate to strike. And roused they were in very truth; it needed only the tongue of Roland, loud and clamorous, and the citizens crowded to the square in angry guise. Soon they were in open rebellion. Rather than pay the enormous subsidy which Charles V. demanded in order to carry on his foreign wars, the Ghenters determined to make overtures to France. But Francis I. had no wish to offend the powerful Emperor. He rejected the advances made by the citizens of Ghent and betrayed them to Charles. Then the Emperor decided that the insurrection must be put down and the city punished. He left Brussels with an enormous train on the 9th February 1540. Lancers, archers, halberdmen, musqueteers formed his bodyguard, a force armed to the teeth, and meant to intimidate the rebellious citizens of Ghent. Cardinals, archbishops, bishops, dukes, earls, and barons surrounded the Emperor, dressed these in their most gorgeous dress of office, that their magnificence might impress, if it could not cow, the obstinate burghers. An imposing spectacle, thought Charles, as his brilliant cavalcade moved slowly along.

On the 14th February they reached Ghent, but for a month he dallied with the fears of the inhabitants, a month in which they knew not what fate awaited them. The stroke fell on the 17th March, when nineteen burghers, believed to be ringleaders of the rebellion, were beheaded.

Yet another month passed ere the fate of the city was announced. Then in the public hall, thrown open to all who chose to come, Charles, supported by the Queen Regent and the officials of Church and State, made known his will. Nevermore need Ghent appeal to her charters or privileges. All charters, privileges, laws, were annulled. Public property was confiscated, as likewise all that the traders or corporations possessed in common. And Roland was doomed. Never again would the great bell be heard from the belfry of Ghent. It was to be removed without delay. As for the 400,000 florins which had actually caused the revolt, it would be claimed from the provinces of Flanders, while from Ghent itself would be demanded an additional sum of 150,000, and 6000 florins a year for ever after. Nor was this all, for on a day to be appointed by the Emperor, the senators, with their clerks, thirty distinguished citizens to be named by the Emperor, the great dean and second dean of the weavers, all dressed in black robes, without their chains of office, and bareheaded, were to appear at the palace. They were to be accompanied by fifty members from the different guilds and another fifty chosen at random from the multitude of rebellious citizens. These latter were to be clad only in sheets, and on their necks they were to wear halters. Thus arrayed, as representatives of their city, they were to fall upon their knees before the Emperor and confess their sorrow for their disloyal conduct. Promising never again to transgress, they were to humbly implore the Emperor's forgiveness for the sake of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

The fateful day was fixed for the 3rd May. The streets were lined with troops. Well did Charles know that nothing but force would keep the angry and humiliated city from taking vengeance. Slowly the gloomy procession, senators in their black robes, burghers in white sheets with halters round their necks, moved from the senate hall to the palace of the King. On his throne sat Charles V., the Queen Regent by his side. His safety was secured—and need was there to secure it—by his bodyguard of archers and halberdiers. The senators and burghers entered and knelt before the King, while one of their number read aloud the prescribed words of penitence. "What principally distressed them," we are told, "was to have the halter on their necks, which they found so hard to bear, and if they had not been compelled, they would rather have died than submit to it."

The Emperor was in no hurry to ease the mind of the sullen suppliants. "He held himself coyly for a little time, without saying a word, as though he were considering whether or not he would grant the pardon for which the culprits prayed." At length the Queen Regent, as the King had privately commanded, turned to him, urging him to forgive the city since it had the honour of being his birthplace. Thereupon the Emperor turned to the suppliants, who still knelt before him, saying that he was a "gentle and virtuous Prince, who loved mercy better than justice," and therefore, for the sake of their penitence, he would grant his pardon to the citizens of Ghent. The city, forgiven but despoiled, bowed its head in silence. Gloom and consternation reigned throughout the Provinces. The Netherlanders realised that they were in the hands of an oppressor.

Nor did Charles limit his oppression to the extortion of large sums of money, or to the abolition of the political privileges of the land. Himself a Roman Catholic, he had determined to crush out all those who did not conform to the religion of Rome, and to attain this end he shrank from no cruelty. He introduced the Inquisition into the Netherlands, and with it his terrible "placards" or edicts, which were in reality veiled inquisitions. Thousands were burned, strangled, beheaded, or buried alive, as the edicts of the Emperor ordained, for reading the Bible, for refusing to bow to an image, or for meeting together to preach and pray.

Yet the struggle for freedom was never extinguished. Now with the dawn of the sixteenth century it had become more keen and determined than ever, for into the struggle there had grown the bitterness wrought of religious persecution.

By the middle of the sixteenth century the little country of the Netherlands was standing at bay, defying those who, with the aid of inquisitions and edicts, were trying to stamp out all who would not subscribe to the Roman Catholic faith. The fight was long and desperate, but it was fought to the death by the Provinces, under the leadership of the hero and liberator of the Netherlands, William of Orange.