Opponent of Catholicism

The First Revolt was triggered by two events. The first was the grandees’ bid to change Philip’s heresy laws in 1564, which took Count Egmont to Spain to proposition the king in person. This failed, but gave the nobility the encouragement they needed to make a formal gesture of rebellion. In 1565, a group of around 400 noblemen formed an organisation called the Compromise that echoed the aims of the grandees. Their supporters, the Confederates, rode into Brussels in 1566 and demanded that Margaret soften the punishment for heresy. They made it clear that refusal would be met with violence.

Rebellion among the nobility was established. The second trigger of the Revolt catalysed rebellion among the middle and lower classes of the Netherlands. The Confederates had already found support among these social groups, but rebellion was really ignited by the surge in public preaching during the early 1560’s. The Huguenots flooding into the Netherlands from neighbouring France found that local magistrates were prepared to overlook illegal Calvinist activity. Their preaching therefore became more confident and conspicuous to the point where they began encouraging iconoclasm among their flocks.

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So began the Iconoclast Fury, a widespread attack on Catholic churches throughout the Netherlands. By this point, rebellion among the lower classes was virulent. Philip was largely to blame for the outbreak of revolt. In the short term, his response to Margaret’s requests for the softening of the heresy laws in 1565 was foolishly slow. A quick and positive reply could perhaps have stemmed the tide of revolt among the Confederates and the ordinary rebels, but his response 4 months later granting only a few minor concessions was rendered useless by the surge in rebel activity during that time.

Without the important long-term causes that weakened relations between Philip and the grandees, the first trigger would never have occurred. The grandees would not have felt enough hostility towards Philip to challenge him on the heresy laws had the relationship between the two not seriously broken down. This was largely Philip’s fault. He alienated the grandees by introducing unwanted Spanish influence into the country. Despite arranging for his sister Margaret, the Netherlands’ regent, to be advised by the Councils of State and Finance and the Privy Council, he still appointed her a group of Spanish advisers.

Her personal officials were also closely linked with officials in Madrid. The grandees felt affronted by this Spanish intrusion, as it appeared to suggest that Philip felt they were not capable of fulfilling their governmental role by themselves. Further outcry occurred as a result of Philip’ plan to create fourteen new bishoprics to replace the foreign sees under whose jurisdiction the Netherlands’ ecclesiastical affairs had been traditionally based. The country’s bishops would also be appointed abbots of the nearby monastic houses and supplied with inquisitors to monitor the orthodoxy of their flocks.

A thorough education in theology was essential. The grandees violently opposed this plan, as if theological training was required to become a bishop, then their sons could no longer adopt this traditional role. As members of the nobility, they felt theological training was beneath them. They also resented Philip for hatching this plan in such secrecy. The existing abbots feared that the scheme was an attempt to extend Spanish control of provincial parliaments and ecclesiastical affairs. They felt that their influence would be undermined by the new abbot-bishops.

Neither the grandees or the clergy were receptive to the idea of inquisitors, as this appeared to herald a revival in religious persecution and burnings. The grandees in particular were concerned that the Netherlands might descend into civil war as a result of accelerated religious persecution, as this had recently happened in France. They were also wary of the fact that the entire process of persecution suggested a disregard for the freedom of the individual. This was something that they upheld strongly, as it strengthened their own right to rule independently.

Therefore it was in their own interests to oppose Philip’s heresy laws. Philip was not only to blame for souring relations with the grandees to the point where they felt able to challenge him directly. He also alienated the ordinary citizens of the Netherlands by garrisoning 3000 Spanish troops in the Netherlands in 1560. He claimed that they were necessary to defend the Low Counties from French attack, but the Netherlanders suspected that they were a method of extending Spanish influence. They viewed these garrisons as a symbol of Philip’s distrust of the Netherlands, and deeply resented this distrust.

To worsen the Netherlanders’ resentment, he made no attempt whatsoever to learn Dutch or ingratiate himself with the culture. However, the Netherlands’ masses were not inspired to rebel by the Huguenots’ preaching in 1566 purely because Philip’s insensitivity had annoyed them. Several other long and short-term factors were much more important in encouraging them to revolt. These encouraged them so successfully that only the Huguenots’ services were necessary to catalyse total rebellion in 1566.

The most important long-term factor was that Calvinism was already popular and widespread in the Netherlands during the years preceding the revolt. Thus the Netherlanders were far more receptive to the Huguenots’ incitements to revolt against the heresy laws in the name of Calvinism. Middle-class Netherlanders absorbed Calvinist ideas at foreign universities, mainly in Geneva, Heidelberg, London and Emden. The Calvinists converted at these institutions were taught the importance of converting others and were particularly zealous in their preaching upon their return to the Netherlands.

They were less instrumental in the spread of the religion than the Huguenots, but still made a significant contribution. Some of Calvinism’s driving forces, such as Guy de Bres, were educated at these universities. By 1559, England had adopted Protestantism and was able to encourage the anti-Catholic sentiment burgeoning within the Netherlands. Protestant tracts and money to fund the cause were smuggled in with cloth exports until the trade war began in 1563. While minor in comparison to the other Calvinist influences, this additional avenue still played its part in the religion’s expansion.

The advent of humanist thought pioneered by Erasmus roughly half a century before the Revolt undeniably paved the way for Calvinism. The humanists encouraged people to question established ideas and develop their own perspectives rather than simply adopting those of others. It was this philosophy that allowed many to examine their Catholicism and discover that they were dissatisfied with it. Some had been inspired by humanist thought (and other factors) to convert to Lutheranism.

Yet the religion’s hierarchical structure required the support of princes in order to enforce it properly. However, as the Catholic Charles V was entirely unprepared to condone openly Lutheran princes, the religion struggled to establish itself. Because of this weakness, many Lutherans simply converted to Calvinism. It offered the same appealing alternative to Catholicism, but required no support from those in authority. Often people made the transition from Lutheran or humanist to Calvinist in one of the Netherlands’ chambers of rhetoric.

These were combined amateur dramatic societies and debating clubs, and were found in most important towns. They provided a forum in which Calvinist ideas could be discussed and spread freely. As these were essentially a middle-class preserve, they served mainly to convert this class to Calvinism and were not as important as those influences that also reached the lower class en masse, such as the Huguenots. Nevertheless, among the middle class the chambers of rhetoric spread the religion extremely effectively.

Their influence upon the expansion of Calvinism is evident in the fact that many prominent Protestants such as Lenaert Bouwens and David Joris were members in their early years. Many people were so keen to abandon Catholicism for Calvinism (or another religion) because of the profoundly unholy way in which many of the clergy behaved. Absenteeism was rife, leading some communities to feel they lacked spiritual guidance and leadership. Many of the clergy were also guilty of drunkenness, liaisons with prostitutes and ignorance of basic religious knowledge.