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- The Revolt of The Netherlands, Book IV. - 1/25 -


BOOK IV.

THE ICONOCLASTS.

The springs of this extraordinary occurrence are plainly not to be sought for so far back as many historians affect to trace them. It is certainly possible, and very probable, that the French Protestants did industriously exert themselves to raise in the Netherlands a nursery for their religion, and to prevent by all means in their power an amicable adjustment of differences between their brethren in the faith in that quarter and the King of Spain, in order to give that implacable foe of their party enough to do in his own country. It is natural, therefore, to suppose that their agents in the provinces left nothing undone to encourage their oppressed brethren with daring hopes, to nourish their animosity against the ruling church, and by exaggerating the oppression under which they sighed to hurry them imperceptibly into illegal courses. It is possible, too, that there were many among the confederates who thought to help out their own lost cause by increasing the number of their partners in guilt; who thought they could not otherwise maintain the legal character of their league unless the unfortunate results against which they had warned the king really came to pass, and who hoped in the general guilt of all to conceal their own individual criminality. It is, however, incredible that the outbreak of the Iconoclasts was the fruit of a deliberate plan, preconcerted, as it is alleged, at the convent of St. Truyen. It does not seem likely that in a solemn assembly of so many nobles and warriors, of whom the greater part were the adherents of popery, an individual should be found insane enough to propose an act of positive infamy, which did not so much injure any religious party in particular, as rather tread under foot all respect for religion in general, and even all morality too, and which could have been conceived only in the mind of the vilest reprobate. Besides, this outrage was too sudden in its outbreak, too vehement in its execution altogether, too monstrous to have been anything more than the offspring of the moment in which it saw the light; it seemed to flow so naturally from the circumstances which preceded it that it does not require to be traced far back to remount to its origin.

A rude mob, consisting of the very dregs of the populace, made brutal by harsh treatment, by sanguinary decrees which dogged them in every town, scared from place to place and driven almost to despair, were compelled to worship their God, and to hide like a work of darkness the universal, sacred privilege of humanity. Before their eyes proudly rose the temples of the dominant church, in which their haughty brethren indulged in ease their magnificent devotion, while they themselves were driven from the walls, expelled, too, by the weaker number perhaps, and forced, here in the wild woods, under the burning heat of noon, in disgraceful secrecy to worship the same God; cast out from civil society into a state of nature, and reminded in one dread moment of the rights of that state! The greater their superiority of numbers the more unnatural did their lot appear; with wonder they perceive the truth. The free heaven, the arms lying ready, the frenzy in their brains and fury in their hearts combine to aid the suggestions of some preaching fanatic; the occasion calls; no premeditation is necessary where all eyes at once declare consent; the resolution is formed ere yet the word is scarcely uttered; ready for any unlawful act, no one yet clearly knows what, the furious band rushes onwards. The smiling prosperity of the hostile religion insults the poverty of their own; the pomp of the authorized temples casts contempt on their proscribed belief; every cross they set up upon the highway, every image of the saints that they meet, is a trophy erected over their own humiliation, and they all must be removed by their avenging hands. Fanaticism suggests these detestable proceedings, but base passions carry them into execution.

1566. The commencement of the attack on images took place in West Flanders and Artois, in the districts between Lys and the sea. A frantic herd of artisans, boatmen, and peasants, mixed with prostitutes, beggars, vagabonds, and thieves, about three hundred in number, furnished with clubs, axes, hammers, ladders, and cords (a few only were provided with swords or fire arms), cast themselves, with fanatical fury, into the villages and hamlets near St. Omer, and breaking open the gates of such churches and cloisters as they find locked, overthrow everywhere the altars, break to pieces the images of the saints, and trample them under foot. With their excitement increased by its indulgence, and reinforced by newcomers, they press on by the direct road to Ypres, where they can count on the support of a strong body of Calvinists. Unopposed, they break into the cathedral, and mounting on ladders they hammer to pieces the pictures, hew down with axes the pulpits and pews, despoil the altars of their ornaments, and steal the holy vessels. This example was quickly followed in Menin, Comines, Verrich, Lille, and Oudenard; in a few days the same fury spreads through the whole of Flanders. At the very time when the first tidings of this occurrence arrived Antwerp was swarming with a crowd of houseless people, which the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin had brought together in that city. Even the presence of the Prince of Orange was hardly sufficient to restrain the licentious mob, who burned to imitate the doings of their brethren in St. Omer; but an order from the court which summoned him to Brussels, where the regent was just assembling her council of state, in order to lay before them the royal letters, obliged him to abandon Antwerp to the outrages of this band. His departure was the signal for tumult. Apprehensive of the lawless violence of which, on the very first day of the festival, the mob had given indications in derisory allusions, the priests, after carrying about the image of the Virgin for a short time, brought it for safety to the choir, without, as formerly, setting it up in the middle of the church. This incited some mischievous boys from among the people to pay it a visit there, and jokingly inquire why she had so soon absented herself from among them? Others mounting the pulpit, mimicked the preacher, and challenged the papists to a dispute. A Roman Catholic waterman, indignant at this jest, attempted to pull them down, and blows were exchanged in the preacher's seat. Similar scenes occurred on the following evening. The numbers increased, and many came already provided with suspicious implements and secret weapons. At last it came into the head of one of them to cry, "Long live the Gueux!" immediately the whole band took up the cry, and the image of the Virgin was called upon to do the same. The few Roman Catholics who were present, and who had given up the hope of effecting anything against these desperadoes, left the church after locking all the doors except one. So soon as they found themselves alone it was proposed to sing one of the psalms in the new version, which was prohibited by the government. While they were yet singing they all, as at a given signal, rushed furiously upon the image of the Virgin, piercing it with swords and daggers, and striking off its head; thieves and prostitutes tore the great wax-lights from the altar, and lighted them to the work. The beautiful organ of the church, a masterpiece of the art of that period, was broken to pieces, all the paintings were effaced, the statues smashed to atoms. A crucifix, the size of life, which was set up between the two thieves, opposite the high altar, an ancient and highly valued piece of workmanship, was pulled to the ground with cords, and cut to pieces with axes, while the two malefactors at its side were respectfully spared. The holy wafers were strewed on the ground and trodden under foot; in the wine used for the Lord's Supper, which was accidentally found there, the health of the Gueux was drunk, while with the holy oil they rubbed their shoes. The very tombs were opened, and the half-decayed corpses torn up and trampled on. All this was done with as much wonderful regularity as if each had previously had his part assigned to him; every one worked into his neighbor's hands; no one, dangerous as the work was, met with injury; in the midst of thick darkness, which the tapers only served to render more sensible, with heavy masses falling on all sides, and though on the very topmost steps of the ladders, they scuffled with each other for the honors of demolition--yet no one suffered the least injury. In spite of the many tapers which lighted them below in their villanous work not a single individual was recognized. With incredible rapidity was the dark deed accomplished; a number of men, at most a hundred, despoiled in a few hours a temple of seventy altars--after St. Peter's at Rome, perhaps the largest and most magnificent in Christendom.

The devastation of the cathedral did not content them; with torches and tapers purloined from it they set out at midnight to perform a similar work of havoc on the remaining churches, cloisters, and chapels. The destructive hordes increased with every fresh exploit of infamy, and thieves were allured by the opportunity. They carried away whatever they found of value--the consecrated vessels, altar-cloths, money, and vestments; in the cellars of the cloisters they drank to intoxication; to escape greater indignities the monks and nuns abandoned everything to them. The confused noises of these riotous acts had startled the citizens from their first sleep; but night made the danger appear more alarming than it really was, and instead of hastening to defend their churches the citizens fortified themselves in their houses, and in terror and anxiety awaited the dawn of morning. The rising sun at length revealed the devastation which had been going on during the night; but the havoc did not terminate with the darkness. Some churches and cloisters still remained uninjured; the same fate soon overtook them also. The work of destruction lasted three whole days. Alarmed at last lest the frantic mob, when it could no longer find anything sacred to destroy, should make a similar attack on lay property and plunder their ware houses; and encouraged, too, by discovering how small was the number of the depredators, the wealthier citizens ventured to show themselves in arms at the doors of their houses. All the gates of the town were locked but one, through which the Iconoclasts broke forth to renew the same atrocities in the rural districts. On one occasion only during all this time did the municipal officers venture to exert their authority, so strongly were they held in awe by the superior power of the Calvinists, by whom, as it was believed, this mob of miscreants was hired. The injury inflicted by this work of devastation was incalculable. In the church of the Virgin it was estimated at not less than four hundred thousand gold florins. Many precious works of art were destroyed; many valuable manuscripts; many monuments of importance to history and to diplomacy were thereby lost. The city magistrate ordered the plundered articles to be restored on pain of death; in enforcing this restitution he was effectually assisted by the preachers of the Reformers, who blushed for their followers. Much was in this manner recovered, and the ringleaders of the mob, less animated, perhaps, by the desire of plunder than by fanaticism and revenge, or perhaps being ruled by some unseen head, resolved for the future to guard against these excesses, and to make their attacks in regular bands and in better order.

The town of Ghent, meanwhile, trembled for a like destiny. Immediately on the first news of the outbreak of the Iconoclasts in Antwerp the magistrate of the former town with the most eminent citizens had bound themselves to repel by force the church spoilers; when this oath was proposed to the commonalty also the voices were divided, and many declared openly that they were by no means disposed to hinder so devout a work. In this state of affairs the Roman Catholic clergy found it advisable to deposit in the citadel the most precious movables of their churches, and private families were permitted in like manner to provide for the safety of offerings which had been made by their ancestors. Meanwhile all the services were discontinued, the courts of justice were closed; and, like a town in momentary danger of being stormed by the enemy, men trembled in expectation of what was to come. At last an insane band of rioters ventured to send delegates to the governor with this impudent message: "They were ordered," they said, "by their chiefs to take the images out of the churches, as had been done in the other


The Revolt of The Netherlands, Book IV. - 1/25

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