1572: The Martyrs of Gorkum

On this date in 1572, Dutch Calvinists fighting to break away from Spanish domination hanged 19 Catholics at Brielle.


The Martyrs of Gorkum, by Cesare Fracassini.

The heretofore abortive — and severely suppressedDutch Revolt blossomed in 1572 with the April 1 capture of Brielle by the Protestant raiders nicknamed Sea Beggars.

Dutch schoolchildren learn the occasion with the punny rhyme — bril, “glasses”, is a near-homophone for Brielle

“Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril”

On April 1st, the Duke of Alva lost his glasses

The mailed fist of imperial Spain in the Low Countries, the Duke of Alva (or Alba) would be forced by Calvinist gains this year onto the back foot; despite a vigorous counterattack that regained some lost territory in 1573, he was soon forced into retirement.

This was still just the opening saga of the Eighty Years’ War, but the Dutch Revolt would weave together theology and nationalism for Netherlands separatists. It already had.

So, small surprise that weeks after nicking the Duke of Alva’s glasses, Dutch rebels conquering other towns started making prisoners of Catholic clergy whose loyalties were suspiciously Habsburgish. Our day’s principals (here are their names; a batch of Franciscans taken are the largest contingent, to which various lay brothers, parish priests, and others were appended) were seized at and around Gorkum (Gorinchem).

The author of this intrepid iconoclastic incursion, William II de la Marck, was likewise the author of these Catholic martyrs’ doom once they had been removed back to Brielle. They were hanged without benefit of trial at an abandoned monastery.

Every sectarian propagandist of 16th century Europe made lurid heroes of his own side’s martyrs, and these were no exception to the pattern; we read in this Catholic source (perhaps while contemplating this devotional image) that

[i]t was on the 9th July 1572 when the execution of the pious sufferers began. On their side they had fully prepared themselves for it by confession and prayer. The executioner went so slowly to work that two hours had elapsed ere the last of the martyrs had taken his place on the gallows, and many of them still lived when morning broke. But the fury of the soldiers was not yet satisfied. They mutilated the dead bodies, cut off their noses and ears, and other limbs, and, alas, shame seems to touch the pen with which we write, bound them to their hats, and returned with these melancholy trophies in triumph into the city!

The location where this day’s unfortunates suffered became a pilgrimage destination, and they were formally enrolled in the minor leagues of Rome’s competitive hagiography circuit in the 19th century.

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