A. D. 1506-1555
PHILIP being dead, and his wife, Joanna of Spain, having become mad from grief at his loss, after nearly losing her senses from jealousy during his life, the regency of the Netherlands reverted to Maximilian, who immediately named his daughter Margaret stadtholderess of the country. This princess, scarcely twenty-seven years of age, had been, like the celebrated Jacqueline of Bavaria, already three times married, and was now again a widow. Her first husband, Charles VIII. of France, had broken from his contract of marriage before its consummation; her second, the Infante of Spain, died immediately after their union; and her third, the duke of Savoy, left her again a widow after three years of wedded life. She was a woman of talent and courage ; both proved by the couplet she composed for her own epitaph, at the very moment of a dangerous accident which happened during her journey into Spain to join her second affianced spouse.
“Ci-git Margot la gente demoiselle, Qui eut deux maris, et si mourut pucelle.”
“Here gentle Margot quietly is laid, Who had two husbands, and yet died a maid.”
She was received with the greatest joy by the people of the Netherlands; and she governed them as peaceably as circumstances allowed. Supported by England, she firmly maintained her authority against the threats of France; and she carried on in person all the negotiations between Louis XII., Maximilian, the pope Julius II., and Ferdinand of Aragon, for the famous League of Venice. These negotiations took place in 1508, at Cambray; where Margaret, if we are to credit an expression to that effect in one of her letters, was more than once on the point of having serious differences with the cardinal of Amboise, minister of Louis XII. But, besicles her attention to the interests of her father on. this important occasion, she also succeeded in repressing the rising pretensions of Charles of Egmont; and, assisted by the interference of the king of France, she obliged him to give up some places in Holland which he illegally held.
From this period the alliance between England and Spain raised the commerce and manufactures of the south-ern provinces of the Netherlands to a high degree of prosperity, while the northern parts of the country were still kept down by their various dissensions. Holland was at war with the Hanseatic towns. The Frisons continued to struggle for freedom against the heirs of Albert of Saxony. Utrecht was at variance with its bishop, and finally recognized Charles of Egmont as its protector. The consequence of all these causes was that the south took the start in a course of prosperity, which was, however, soon to become common to the whole nation.
A new rupture with France, in 1513, united Maximilian, Margaret, and Henry VIII. of England, in one common cause. An English and Belgian army, in which Maximilian figured as a spectator (taking care to be paid by England), marched for the destruction of Therouenne, and defeated and dispersed the French at the battle of Spurs. But Louis XII. soon persuaded Henry to make a separate peace; and the unconquerable duke of Guelders made Margaret and the emperor pay the penalty of their success against France. He pursued his victories in Friesland, and forced the country to recognize him as stadtholder of Groningen, its chief town; while the duke of Saxony at length renounced to another his unjust claim on a territory which engulfed both his armies and his treasure.
About the same epoch (1515), young Charles, son of Philip the Fair, having just attained his fifteenth year, was inaugurated duke of Brabant and count of Flanders and Holland, having purchased the presumed right of Saxony to the sovereignty of Friesland. In the following year he was recognized as prince of Castile, in right of his mother, who associated him with herself in the royal power a step which soon left her merely the title of queen. Charles procured the nomination of bishop of Utrecht for Philip, bastard of Burgundy, which made that province completely dependent on him. But this event was also one of general and lasting importance on another account. This Philip of Burgundy was deeply affected by the doctrines of the Reformation, which had burst forth in Germany. He held in abhorrence the superstitious observances of the Romish Church, and set his face against the celibacy of the clergy. His example soon influenced his whole diocese, and the new notions on points of religion became rapidly popular. It was chiefly, however, in Friesland that the people embraced the opinions of Luther, which were quite conformable to many of the local customs of which we have already spoken. The celebrated Edzard, count of eastern Friesland, openly adopted the Reformation. While Erasmus of Rotterdam, without actually pronouncing himself a disciple of Lutheranism, effected more than all its advocates to throw the abuses of Catholicism into discredit.
We may here remark that, during the government of the House of Burgundy, the clergy of the Netherlands had fallen into considerable disrepute. Intrigue and court favor alone had the disposal of the benefices; while the career of commerce was open to the enterprise of every spirited and independent competitor. The Reformation, therefore, in the first instance found but a slight obstacle in the opposition of a slavish and ignorant clergy, and its progress was all at once prodigious. The refusal of the dignity of emperor by Frederick “the Wise,” duke of Saxony, to whom it was offered by the electors, was also an event highly favorable to the new opinions; for Francis L of France, and Charles, already king of Spain and sovereign of the Netherlands, both claiming the succession to the empire, a sort of interregnum deprived the disputed dominions of a chief who might lay the heavy hand of power on the new-springing doctrines of Protestantism. At length the intrigues of Charles, and his pretensions as grandson of Maximilian, having caused him to be chosen emperor, a desperate rivalry resulted between him and the French king, which for a while absorbed his whole attention and occupied all his power.
From the earliest appearance of the Reformation, the young sovereign of so many states, having to establish his authority at the two extremities of Europe, could not efficiently occupy himself in resisting the doctrines which, de-spite their dishonoring epithet of heresy, were doomed so soon to become orthodox for a great part of the Continent. While Charles vigorously put down the revolted Spaniards, Luther gained new proselytes in Germany; so that the very greatness of the sovereignty was the cause of his impotency; and while Charles’s extent of dominion thus fostered the growing Reformation, his sense of honor proved the safe-guard of its apostle. The intrepid Luther, boldly venturing to appear and plead its cause before the representative power of Germany assembled at the Diet of Worms, was protected by the guarantee of the emperor; unlike the celebrated and unfortunate John Huss, who fell a victim to his own confidence and the bad faith of Sigismund, in the year 1415.
Charles was nevertheless a zealous and rigid Catholic; and in the Low Countries, where his authority was undisputed, he proscribed the heretics, and even violated the privileges of the country by appointing functionaries for the express purpose of their pursuit and punishment. This imprudent stretch of power fostered a rising spirit of opposition; for, though entertaining the best disposition to their young prince, the people deeply felt and loudly complained of the government; and thus the germs of a mighty revolution gradually began to be developed.
Charles V. and Francis I. had been rivals for dignity and power, and they now became implacable personal enemies. Young, ambitious, and sanguine, they could not, without reciprocal resentment, pursue in the same field objects essential to both. Charles, by a short but timely visit to England in 1520, had the address to gain over to his cause and secure for his purpose the powerful interest of Cardinal Wolsey, and to make a most favorable impression on Henry VIII.; and thus strengthened, he entered on the struggle against his less wily enemy with infinite advantage. War was declared on frivolous pretexts in 1521. The French sustained it for some time with great valor; but Francis being obstinately bent on the conquest of the Milanais, his reverses secured the triumph of his rival, and he fell into the hands of the imperial troops at the battle of Pavia in 1525. Charles’s dominions in the Netherlands suffered severely from the naval operations during the war; for the French cruisers having, on repeated occasions, taken, pillaged, and almost destroyed the principal resources of the herring fishery, Holland and Zealand felt considerable distress, which was still further augmented by the famine which desolated these provinces in 1524.
While such calamities afflicted the northern portion of the Netherlands, Flanders and Brabant continued to flourish, in spite of temporary embarrassments. The bishop of Utrecht having died, his successor found himself engaged in a hopeless quarrel with his new diocese, already more than half converted to Protestantism ; and to gain a triumph over these enemies, even by the sacrifice of his dignity, he ceded to the emperor in 1527 the whole of his temporal power. The duke of Guelders, who then occupied the city of Utrecht, redoubled his hostility at this intelligence; and after having ravaged the neighboring country, he did not lay down his arms till the subsequent year, having first procured an honorable and advantageous peace. One year more saw the term of this long-continued state of warfare by the Peace of Cambray, between Charles and Francis, which was signed on the 5th of August, 1529.
This peace once concluded, the industry and perseverance of the inhabitants of the Netherlands repaired in a short time the evils caused by so many wars, excited by the ambition of princes, but in scarcely any instance for the interest of the country. Little, however, was wanting to endanger this tranquillity, and to excite the people against each other on the score of religious dissension. The sect of Anabaptists, whose wild opinions were subversive of all principles of social order and every sentiment of natural decency, had its birth in Germany, and found many proselytes in the Netherlands. John Bokelszoon, a tailor of Leyden, one of the number, caused himself to be proclaimed king of Jerusalem; and making himself master of the town of Munster, sent out his disciples to preach in the neighboring countries. Mary, sister of Charles V., and queen-dowager of Hungary, the stadtholderess of the Netherlands, proposed a crusade against this fanatic; which was, however, totally discountenanced by the states. Encouraged by impunity, whole troops of these infuriate sectarians, from the very extremities of Hainault, put themselves into motion for Munster; and notwithstanding the colds of February, they marched along, quite naked, according to the system of their sect. The frenzy of these fanatics being increased by persecution, they projected attempts against several towns, and particularly against Amsterdam. They were easily defeated, and massacred without mercy; and it was only by multiplied and horrible executions that their numbers were at length diminished. John Bokelszoon held out at Munster, which was besieged by the bishop and the neighboring princes. This profligate fanatic, who had married no less than seventeen women, had gained considerable influence over the insensate multitude; but he was at length taken and imprisoned in an iron cage an event which undeceived the greater number of those whom he had persuaded of his superhuman powers.
The prosperity of the southern provinces proceeded rapidly and uninterruptedly, in consequence of the great and valuable traffic of the merchants of Flanders and Brabant, who exchanged their goods of native manufacture for the riches drawn from America and India by the Spaniards and Portuguese. Antwerp had succeeded to Bruges as the general mart of commerce, and was the most opulent town of the north of Europe. The expenses, estimated at one hundred and thirty thousand golden crowns, which this city voluntarily incurred, to do honor to the visit of Philip, son of Charles V., are cited as a proof of its wealth. The value of the wool annually imported for manufacture into the Low Countries from England and Spain was calculated at four million pieces of gold. Their herring fishery was unrivalled; for even the Scotch, on whose coasts these fish were taken, did not attempt a competition with the Zealanders. But the chief seat of prosperity was the south. Flanders alone was taxed for one-third of the general burdens of the state. Brabant paid only one-seventh less than Flanders. So that these two rich provinces contributed thirteen out of twenty-one parts of the general contribution; and all the rest combined but eight. A search for further or minuter proofs of the comparative state of the various divisions of the country would be superfluous.
The perpetual quarrels of Charles V. with Francis I. and Charles of Guelders led, as may be supposed, to a repeated state of exhaustion, which forced the princes to pause, till the people recovered strength and resources for each fresh encounter. Charles rarely appeared in the Netherlands; fixing his residence chiefly in Spain, and leaving to his sister the regulation of those distant provinces. One of his occasional visits was for the purpose of inflicting a terrible example upon them. The people of Ghent, suspecting an improper or improvident application of the funds they had furnished for a new campaign, offered themselves to march against the French, instead of being forced to pay their quota of some further subsidy. The government having rejected this proposal, a sedition was the result, at the moment when Charles and Francis already negotiated one of their temporary reconciliations. On this occasion, Charles formed the daring resolution of crossing the kingdom of France, to promptly take into his own hands the settlement of this affair trusting to the generosity of his scarcely reconciled enemy not to abuse the confidence with which he risked himself in his power. Ghent, taken by surprise, did not dare to oppose the entrance of the emperor, when he appeared before the walls; and the city was punished with extreme severity. Twenty-seven leaders of the sedition were beheaded; the principal privileges of the city were with-drawn, and a citadel built to hold it in check for the future. Charles met with neither opposition nor complaint. The province had so prospered under his sway, and was so flattered by the greatness of the sovereign, who was born in the town he so severely punished, that his acts of despotic harshness were borne without a murmur. But in the north the people did not view his measures so complacently; and a wide separation in interests and opinions became manifest in the different divisions of the nation.
Yet the Dutch and the Zealanders signalized themselves beyond all his other subjects on the occasion of two expeditions which Charles undertook against Tunis and Algiers. The two northern provinces furnished a greater number of ships than the united quotas of all the rest of his states. But though Charles’s gratitude did not lead him to do any-thing in return as peculiarly favorable to these provinces, he obtained for them, nevertheless, a great advantage in making himself master of Friesland and Guelders on the death of Charles of Egmont. His acquisition of the latter, which took place in 1543, put an end to the domestic wars of the northern provinces. From that period they might fairly look for a futurity of union and peace; and thus the latter years of Charles promised better for his country than his early ones, though he obtained less success in his new wars with France, which were not, however, signalized by any grand event on either side.
Toward the end of his career, Charles redoubled his severities against the Protestants, and even introduced a modified species of inquisition into the Netherlands, but with little effect toward the suppression of the reformed doctrines. The misunderstandings between his only son Philip and Mary of England, whom he had induced him to marry, and the unamiable disposition of this young prince, tormented him almost as much as he was humiliated by the victories of Henry II. of France, the successor of Francis L, and the successful dissimulation of Maurice, elector of Saxony, by whom he was completely outwitted, deceived; and defeated. Impelled by these motives, and others, perhaps, which are and must ever remain unknown, Charles at length decided on abdicating the whole of his immense possessions. He chose the city of Brussels as the scene of the solemnity, and the day fixed for it was the 25th of October, 1555. It took place accordingly, in the presence of the king of Bohemia, the duke of Savoy, the dowager queens of France and Hungary, the duchess of Lorraine, and an immense assemblage of nobility from various countries. Charles resigned the empire to his brother Ferdinand, already king of the Romans; and all the rest of his dominions to his son. Soon after the ceremony, Charles embarked from Zealand on his voyage to Spain. He retired to the monastery of St. Justus, near the town of Placentia, in Estremadura. He entered this retreat in February, 1556, and died there on the 21st of September, 1558, in the fifty-ninth year of his age. The last six months of his existence, contrasted with the daring vigor of his former life, formed a melancholy picture of timidity and superstition.
The whole of the provinces of the Netherlands being now for the first time united under one sovereign, such a junction marks the limits of a second epoch in their history. It would be a presumptuous and vain attempt to trace, in a compass so confined as ours, the various changes in manners and customs which arose in these countries during a period of one thousand years. The extended and profound remarks of many celebrated writers on the state of Europe from the decline of the Roman power to the epoch at which we are now arrived must be referred to, to judge of the gradual progress of civilization through the gloom of the dark ages, till the dawn of enlightenment which led to the grand system of European politics commenced during the reign of Charles V. The amazing increase of commerce was, above all other considerations, the cause of the growth of liberty in the Netherlands. The Reformation opened the minds of men to that intellectual freedom without which political enfranchisement is a worthless privilege. The invention of printing opened a thousand channels to the flow of erudition and talent, and sent them out from the reservoirs of individual possession to fertilize the whole domain of human nature. War, which seems to be an instinct of man, and which particular instances of heroism often raise to the dignity of a passion, was reduced to a science, and made subservient to those great principles of policy in which society began to perceive its only chance of durable good. Manufactures attained a state of high perfection, and went on progressively with the growth of wealth and luxury. The opulence of the towns of Brabant and Flanders was without any previous example in the state of Europe. A merchant of Bruges took upon himself alone the security for the ransom of John the Fearless, taken at the battle of Nicopolis, amounting to two hundred thousand ducats. A provost of Valenciennes repaired to Paris at one of the great fairs periodically held there, and purchased on his own account every article that was for sale. At a repast given by one of the counts of Flanders to the Flemish magistrates the seats they occupied were unfurnished with cushions. Those proud burghers folded their sumptuous cloaks and sat on them. After the feast they were retiring without retaining these important and costly articles of dress; and on a courtier reminding them of their apparent neglect, the burgomaster of Bruges replied, “We Flemings are not in the habit of carrying away the cushions after dinner!” The meetings of the different towns for the sports of archery were signalized by the most splendid display of dress and decoration. The archers were habited in silk, damask, and the finest linen, and carried chains of gold of great weight and value. Luxury was at its height among women. The queen of Philip the Fair of France, on a visit to Bruges, exclaimed, with astonishment not unmixed with envy, “I thought myself the only queen here; but I see six hundred others who appear more so than !”
The court of Philip the Good seemed to carry magnificence and splendor to their greatest possible height. The dresses of both men and women at this chivalric epoch were of almost incredible expense. Velvet, satin, gold, and precious stones seemed the ordinary materials for the dress of either sex; while the very housings of the horses sparkled with brilliants and cost immense sums. This absurd extravagance was carried so far that Charles V. found him-self forced at length to proclaim sumptuary laws for its repression.
The style of the banquets given on grand occasions was regulated on a scale of almost puerile splendor. The Banquet of Vows given at Lille, in the year 1453, and so called from the obligations entered into by some of the nobles to accompany Philip in a new crusade against the infidels, showed a succession of costly fooleries, most amusing in the detail given by an eye-witness (Olivier de la Marche), the minutest of the chroniclers, but unluckily too long to find a place in our pages.
Such excessive luxury naturally led to great corruption of manners and the commission of terrible crimes. During the reign of Philip de Male, there were committed in the city of Ghent and its outskirts, in less than a year, above fourteen hundred murders in gambling-houses and other resorts of debauchery. As early as the tenth century, the petty sovereigns established on the ruins of the empire of Charlemagne began the independent coining of money; and the various provinces were during the rest of this epoch inundated with a most embarrassing variety of gold, silver, and copper. Even in ages of comparative darkness, literature made feeble efforts to burst through the entangled weeds of superstition, ignorance, and war. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, history was greatly cultivated; and Froissart, Monstrelet, Olivier de la Marche, and Philip de Comines, gave to their chronicles and memoirs a charm of style since their days almost unrivalled. Poetry began to be followed with success in the Netherlands, in the Dutch, Flemish, and French languages; and even before the institution of the Floral Games in France, Belgium possessed its chambers of rhetoric (rederykkamers) which labored to keep alive the sacred flame of poetry with more zeal than success. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these societies were established in almost every burgh of Flanders and Brabant ; the principal towns possessing several at once.
The arts in their several branches made considerable progress in the Netherlands during this epoch. Architecture was greatly cultivated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; most of the cathedrals and town houses being constructed in that age. Their vastness, solidity, and beauty of design and execution, make them still speaking monuments of the stern magnificence and finished taste of the times. The patronage of Philip the Good, Charles the Rash, and Margaret of Austria, brought music into fashion, and led to its cultivation in a remarkable degree. The first musicians of France were drawn from Flanders; and other professors from that country acquired great celebrity in Italy for their scientific improvements in their delightful art.
Painting, which had languished before the fifteenth century, sprung at once into a new existence from the invention of John Van Eyck, known better by the name of John of Bruges. His accidental discovery of the art of painting in oil quickly spread over Europe, and served to perpetuate to all time the records of the genius which has bequeathed its vivid impressions to the world. Painting on glass, polishing diamonds, the Carillon, lace, and tapestry, were among the inventions which owed their birth to the Netherlands in these ages, when the faculties of mankind sought so many new channels for mechanical development. The discovery of a new world by Columbus and other eminent navigators gave a fresh and powerful impulse to European talent, by affording an immense reservoir for its reward. The town of Antwerp was, during the reign of Charles V., the outlet for the industry of Europe, and the receptacle for the productions of all the nations of the earth. Its port was so often crowded with vessels that each successive fleet was obliged to wait long in the Scheldt before it could obtain admission for the discharge of its cargoes. The university of Louvain, that great nursery of science, was founded in 1425, and served greatly to the spread of knowledge, although it degenerated into the hotbed of those fierce disputes which stamped on theology the degradation of bigotry, and drew down odium on a study that, if purely practiced, ought only to inspire veneration.
Charles V. was the first to establish a solid plan of government, instead of the constant fluctuations in the management of justice, police, and finance. He caused the edicts of the various sovereigns, and the municipal usages, to be embodied into a system of laws ; and thus gave stability and method to the enjoyment of the prosperity in which he left his dominions.