Archive for January 4th, 2015

1568: Eighty-four Valenciennes iconoclasts

Add comment January 4th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1568 saw the mass execution of 84 people in Valenciennes for participating in the Low Countries’ Calvinist movement against Catholicism’s longstanding use of images and icons to project its cosmology.

In his In Praise of Folly, the humanist Erasmus — a Dutchman, mark — jibed at those who

attribute strange virtues to the shrines and images of saints and martyrs, and so would make their credulous proselytes believe, that if they pay their devotion to St. Christopher in the morning, they shall be guarded and secured the day following from all dangers and misfortunes: if soldiers, when they first take arms, shall come and mumble over such a set prayer before the picture of St. Barbara, they shall return safe from all engagements: or if any pray to Erasmus on such particular holidays, with the ceremony of wax candles, and other fopperies, he shall in a short time be rewarded with a plentiful increase of wealth and riches.* The Christians have now their gigantic St. George, as well as the pagans had their Hercules; they paint the saint on horseback, and drawing the horse in splendid trappings, very gloriously accoutred, they scarce refrain in a literal sense from worshipping the very beast.

Those words were published just a few years before Martin Luther nailed his earthshaking theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Erasmus’s critique of the Catholic Church never extended so far as leaving its fold, but for observers who bent more towards revolution than reform, the adoration of these graven images could easily read as simple idolatry just this side of Golden Calf territory — and in this they harkened back to a venerable strain of iconoclasm within Christianity.

This was far from Luther’s own chief concern, but many other preachers and proselytizers thundered against the statues and paintings that stood in for the divine — and arguably, came to be venerated as if they were the divine. “[These] images are not to be endured, for all that God has forbidden, there can be no compromise,” said the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli, under whose leadership icons were pulled down in Zurich churches as early as 1523.

Iconoclastic effusions followed elsewhere in Europe, tracking the spread of the various Protestant strains. John Calvin, himself driven to refuge in Switzerland, took a similar anti-icon line. It was Calvin’s theology that inspired the French Huguenots, and Huguenot iconoclastic demonstrations began occurring in the north and east of France from about 1560.

They soon spread to the neighboring Reformation-minded Habsburg possessions.

The so-called Beeldenstorm, or “Iconoclastic Fury”, broke in the town of Steenvorde near the southwestern fringe of the Low Countries. (In fact, it’s in France in the present day, as is Valenciennes, the site of our titular execution.) On St. Lawrence’s Day of 1566 — August 10 — a Calvinist mob invaded a church dedicated to that saint and stripped it of its idolatrous garnishes.

From Steenvorde, the storm raced north, gathering strength. Within days, it had deluged cities large and small throughout the Low Countries: formerly retiring heretics now bold and impious enough to assail the Catholicism’s sacred emblems. They did not only pull down icons in churches — but in rectories, hospitals, universities. “We have had this night past a marvelous stir,” the Welsh cloth-merchant Richard Clough wrote on August 21 from Antwerp, the continent’s commercial capital. “All the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of thing left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed.”

In France, Catholic enragees mobilized in response, here repulsing an iconoclast raid and there sparking a street brawl. But in the Low Countries the iconoclasts faced much scantier resistance; even the authorities practically stood down — either enervated, or sympathetic.

This storm naturally shocked faithful Catholics. Rioters “defaced the painted images, not only of Our Lady but of all others in the town. They tore the curtains, dashed in pieces the carved work of brass and stone, brake the altars, spoilt the clothes and corporesses, wrested the irons, conveyed away or brake the chalices and vestiments, pulled up the brass of the gravestones … trod [the altar] under their feet and (horrible it is to say!) shed their stinking piss upon it,” an expatriate English theologian lamented from Louvian.


Frans Hogenberg‘s etching “The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566″ depicts iconoclasts attacking the Cathedral of Our Lady at Antwerp.

According to Carlos Eire there were some 400 iconoclast incidents in Flanders alone over the summer and fall of 1566.

Every prince in Europe was put to the test by the Reformation movements of the 16th century. Few answered with less finesse than Philip II, the fervently Catholic King of Spain who counted the Low Countries among his vast patrimony and viewed altar-pissing in Catholic churches as lese-majeste stacked upon sacrilege.

The iconoclastic disturbances led Philip to dispatch his best general, the Duke of Alba (or Alva) to suppress these rebellious subjects (and eventually, to lose his glasses). He replaced Philip’s half-sister Margaret of Parma in both position and approach: in vain did Margaret warn her successor against destroying the loyalty of these provinces with excess rigor. Alba’s mission was to handle the Low Countries roughly, and he did not fail to do it.


Simon Frisius‘s engraving of the Council of Troubles.

Setting up a drumhead tribunal known as the “Council of Troubles” — very soon popularly denoted the “Council of Blood” — the Iron Duke began wreaking havoc on enemies actual, perceived, potential, and in more than a few cases, not at all.

Through all these months the frightful cruelties of the blood-judges were continued. Every day the executions took a wider sweep. “I would have every man feel that any day his house may fall about his ears,” wrote Alva to the king. Of this benevolent wish he made a fact. Men of all creeds and of none felt equally insecure. The Romanists themselves, the most sturdy and devoted of them, shuddered and rubbed their necks, to be sure that their heads still rested upon their shoulders as they glanced towards Egmont‘s prison at Ghent. “The fury of the persecution spreads such horror throughout the nation,” said Orange at the time, “that thousands, and among them some of the principal papists, have fled the country where tyranny is direct against all.”

The blood-judges flooded the land with citations; but so certainly did conviction follow an appearance at their bar, that few responded, while such as did were not were condemned to exile and to suffer the confiscation of their estates for contumacy; or if caught, they were beheaded without trial. Those who, strong in innocence, ventured to brave an examination, were inevitably doomed.

Maybe the most outrageously illustrative case was a man named Peter De Witt** in Amsterdam. His crime was persuading a rioter not to shoot a magistrate — this being held to imply a level of esteem among the amok heretics incompatible with correct devotion to God and King.

In batches of forty, fifty, and even a hundred, men, women and children were led out to indiscriminate death. On one occasion, ninety-five miscellaneous individuals, collected from various parts of Flanders, were butchered in company. At another time forty-six of the citizens of Malines were decapitated. On the 4th of January, 1568, eighty-four persons, charged with participating in the tumults, were executed together in the public square at Valenciennes.

The (helpfully dated) bloodletting we mark with this date’s post was itself no more representative of the Council of Troubles than any other, collectively amounting to uncounted thousands whose martyrdom — to creed, country, or both — would stir the Dutch Revolt and, eventually, the independence of the Netherlands from Spain.

* A wry reference to the writer’s namesake saint: Erasmus the humanist was perpetually short of cash, and at one point forced into monastic vows by his penury. (Erasmus the saint is not actually the patron of anything related to wealth.)

** No kinship that I’m aware of with the Dutch Republic’s leader a century later, Johan de Witt.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Netherlands,Public Executions,Spain


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