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Towards the close of the fourteenth century the whole of the territory passed to the House of Burgundy, thence to Austria, and in 1548 was brought under the rule of Spain in the person of the Emperor Charles the Fifth.
Throughout the whole history of the Netherlands the people were marked by one prevailing characteristic, the love of liberty, the instinct of self-government. They raised dykes to keep out the sea; and in a similar spirit they endeavoured to erect barriers that should effectually preserve them from the inroads of despotic power; while, on the other hand, the constant effort of the oppressor was to undermine these bulwarks. The struggle between the Hollanders and the Spaniards became in
tensified when the voices of the Protestant Reformers were heard asserting religious liberty-spiritual freedom against Ecclesiastical Authority. "Let us have freedom in matters of faith," was the firm demand of the Dutchmen:-"Be so obliging, priests and prelates, to recognise the fact that our souls are our own-we will render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, but unto God the things that are God's." Ecclesiastical Authority, unaccustomed to this bold language, proceeded to argue the matter with the spiritual revolters; reasoning by flaying alive, burning, hanging, drowning, and similar infallible arguments. It thundered its anathema, cursing the Protestants, "in praying, in speaking, in silence, in eating, drinking, and sleeping;" it blew out waxen tapers with the view of showing how the
heretics would be finally extinguished; but the people still protested and would not be driven into the Church like sheep into a cattle market.
Matters became more dangerous to Ecclesiastical Authority as time went on. Big, burly Luther began to deal heavy blows against Church abuses. He was not a man to be turned from a purpose once boldly undertaken. He would march into yonder city though fiends were more plentiful than tiles on the house-roofs. Patient, bold, scholastic Erasmus, was in the purest style of phraseology showing the way to a reasonable reformation. Fanaticism had broken into ridiculous excesses, a contagious madness had spread among the common people, so that on all sides Ecclesiastical Authority found itself suspected, impugned, and even despised, with nothing to fall back upon but the sworn tormentors.
Guttenburg, by the invention of printing, had helped on the work. By the aid of printed books education had made rapid progress. Ancient learning had been revived; free thoughts circulated; the mental machinery was set in motion by the sure but silent influence of literature. Learned societies were established; the schoolmaster was verily at home in the Netherlands, the artizans and traders amused their leisure with rhetorical displays, gladiators in an intellectual arena; the prosperity of the country was unexampled, everything flourished except Ecclesiastical Authority. Against this the people protested-they demanded spiritual liberty, and were answered by the faggot and the sword.
The prosperity of the Netherlands at the period to which we allude is a remarkable fact. It was a country won from the ocean. Its canals were
as numerous as roads in England, the greater number serving to drain the land, many of them navigable by large vessels, nearly all by small craft. By this means the land had been rescued from the sea, and was protected from inundation by immense dykes. And within the circuit of this singular country were seventeen flourishing provinces, two hundred and eight walled cities, one hundred and fifty chartered towns, six thousand three hundred villages, with watch towers and steeples, the whole guarded by a belt of sixty fortresses. The people were intelligent and industrious, peaceful in their pursuits, phlegmatic in temperament, but cherishing an indomitable love of liberty.
Imagine such a people in such a country crushed by the iron heel of oppression, finding themselves exposed to indignity and outrage, and their beautiful cities turned into shambles. What should these Dutchmen do but beat their sickles into swords and do battle for the right?
In 1558, Charles the Fifth, the emperor, abdicated in favour of his son Philip of Spain, the husband of English Mary. There was a grand ceremonial observed when the old emperor retired, and two men, soon afterwards in open warfare with each other, conspicuously figured on this occasion. The one was Philip of Spain, a small meagre man, much below the middle height, with thin legs, a narrow chest, and a shrinking timid
air. His forehead was broad, and his eyes blue; his nose aquiline, mouth large, and lower jaw protruding; his complexion was fair, his hair light and thin, his beard yellow, short, and pointed. The other was Prince William of Orange, afterwards known as William the Silent. He was at the time to which we refer a tall handsome youth of two-and-twenty. His appearance was rather Spanish than German; his complexion was dark, his features were regular, his forehead was lofty and spacious, his hair dark brown, with moustache and peaked beard. He was in all points as goodly a cavalier as ever drew sword, and the physical contrast between himself and Philip was no less remarkable than was the contrast of their minds.
When Charles the Fifth retired from the throne Philip succeeded not only to the Kingdom of Spain, but to the government of the Netherlands. Thus the province received a new master. A man of foreign birth and breeding, not speaking their language nor adopting their habits, was placed in absolute authority over them. He was twenty-eight years of age; sluggish in character, deficient in all manly energy, but bitterly cruel and altogether unscrupulous. During the period of his union with Mary of England, he had shewn how deep was the hostility which he felt against the Protestants. In Spain he had been the patron and advocate of the Inquisition, in England he promoted every scheme for suppressing the Protestant faith. Queen Mary, no less bitter in her hatred to the
Protestants than warm in her love to Philip, condemned hundreds to the flames, and Smithfield Market became the scene of many a cruel martyrdom. The Hollanders knew well the man with whom they had to deal; he had shewn both in Spain and in England of what he was capable, and how foreign to his nature were justice, clemency, and mercy.
In Philip of Spain the Church found its warmest supporter. He resolved on the rooting out of heresy, and in the effort to carry out this purpose precipitated the civil war which ended in the defeat of Spain and the establishment of the Dutch Republic. Returning from the Netherlands to his own country, Philip delegated the government of the provinces to the Count of Egmont, Prince William of Orange, the Count of Meghem, and other nobles of less note. The Regency was entrusted to the Duchess of Parma, the natural daughter of Charles the Fifth.
Soon after the withdrawal of Philip from the Netherlands, the persecution of the Protestants began. Into any account of the frightful atrocities committed it is unnecessary to enter. The following anecdote, however, is too characteristic to be omitted.
The secular sheriff, familiarly called Red Rod, from the colour of his wand of office, meeting the inquisitor Titelmann one day upon the high road, thus wonderingly addressed him :
"How can you venture to go about alone, or, at most, with an attendant or two, arresting people on every side, while I dare not attempt to execute my office except at the head of a strong armed force, and then only at peril of my life?"
"Ah! Red Rod," answered Titelmann, jocosely, "you deal with bad people-I have nothing to fear, for I only seize the innocent and virtuous, who make no resistance and let themselves be taken like lambs."
"Mighty well," said the other; "but if you arrest all the good people, and I all the bad, 'tis difficult to say who should escape chastisement." All remonstrances addressed to Philip were unavailing. The persecution was carried on with fiendish cruelty—it was a war of extermination against the Protestants. In these proceedings all law and justice were overriden, and the Hollanders saw with dismay not only their religious, but their civic freedom openly attacked. There were tumultuous meetings, riotous doings here and there, but nothing that the strong hand of Spanish authority could not readily subdue. It needed that those who would successfully resist Philip should act in concert; to do so they must find a leader, and a leader, happily for them, they found in William the Silent.