“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
— His words on being chained to the stake.
Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”
The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.
An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.
So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.
But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.
When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.
Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.
Dutch artisan Sikke Freriks, beheaded on this date in 1531 in Leeuwarden‘s market, was the first Anabaptist put to death in that Friesland city.
While a minor milestone in the crowded history of Reformation martyrdoms, Freriks had a noteworthy posthumous effect: word of his heresy — adherence to adult, rather than infant, baptism — came to the ears of a Catholic priest, who later wrote that a man’s dying for this illicit doctrine led him to investigate it further.
To his amazement, the priest found no scriptural support for the established church’s practice of baptizing infants before they developed the maturity and volition to embrace Christ from the will of their own hearts. Christians are “cheated” by the loss of that opportunity of freely giving oneself in baptism, he later wrote.
This man, Menno Simons, would follow his discomfiting scrutiny of holy writ all the way out of the priesthood and into that same forbidden sect. His preeminence in the Anabaptist movement after its disastrous Münster rebellion — and particularly his pacifistic orientation — eventually ennobled him as the founder as well as the namesake of the Mennonites, a term that in Menno Simons’s own lifetime became all but synonymous for Dutch Anabaptism.
In an admittedly borderline “execution”, Louis de Bourbon, the Hugueunot Prince of Conde, was killed summarily at the end of the Battle of Jarnac on this date in 1569.
This nobleman’s conversion to Protestantism had been attended with the zeal so usual to that period. In the case of Conde (English Wikipedia link | French), that meant dipping his beak into some dramatic plotting.
Though nothing could be proved about him, the Catholic faction suspected him of being a leading spirit in the 1560 Amboise Conspiracy, a plot to kidnap King Francis II.
Nothing daunted by its failure, he spearheaded the even riskier Surprise de Meaux, a design to seize not only King Charles IX but the rest of the royal family in 1567. This time, failure triggered a whole new installment of the on-again, off-again Wars of Religion.
The Year of Our Lord 1569 found Conde at the head of the principal Huguenot army in an extremely tense country. On March 13, that army met the Catholic force of Marshal Gaspard de Saulx at the Battle of Jarnac.*
The result was a smashing victory for the Catholics. As the disaster unfolded, Conde, wounded and alone, tried to offer his surrender to an enemy guardsman. He was instead shot on the spot — and his body borne back to Catholic lines for jeering.
Niccolo Machiavelli‘s exile from Florentine politics — and subsequent entry into the intellectual canon — was cinched this date in 1513 when two of his friends (or possibly co-conspirators) were executed for a plot against the Medici.
Days after that stern friar burned to ashes on the Piazza della Signoria, Machiavelli was named the secondo segretario fiorentino,* alongside a primo segretario counterpart, the older and more cautious Marcello Virgilio Adriani.
What a moment this was to be a Florentine! The mighty Medici had been chased out of Florence and with the fall of Savonarola and his grim morals police the humanist dream of a classical republic suddenly seemed within grasp.
Machiavelli was just 29 years old when he reached this office, bursting with a patriot’s reckless exuberance — and a virile young man’s hedonism. He delighted in whores and in boozing around with his Chancery cronies Agostino Vespucci** and Biagio Buonaccorsi.
The correspondence of these indiscreet young Turks fill with profane and cutting takes on the leading citizens of Florence; Machiavelli, who was known in his own time as a playwright and not a political philosopher, was even bold enough to put such ridicule in print. The 1504 play Le Maschere is tragically lost, but by surviving accounts it lampooned “under feigned names, many citizens who were still living.”†
A few books about Niccolo Machiavelli
While not scribbling pasquinades and getting laid, the Second Secretary had matters of state to attend to. We have met him in these pages, as the Florentine ambassador to the court of Cesare Borgia; Machiavelli could not help but admire the condottiero‘s ruthlessness. Machiavelli also represented Florence in Rome, Spain and France.
Showing an equal aptitude for politics by other means, Machiavelli moved the Florentine military muscle towards a citizen militia, presciently replacing its dependence on mercenaries. In 1509 this force captured Pisa.
But Machiavelli’s excessive regard for this strategic advance married to his excessive affinity for the republic of Piero Soderini undid him in the end. While the First Secretary, Adriani, quietly cultivated contacts of various political persuasions, Machiavelli went all in against the stirring Medicean party. This became a problem when the fortunes of peninsular war drove Florence’s French allies away, leaving the city ripe for recapture by Giuliano de’ Medici, who also happened to be the brother of the pope in waiting.
In 1512, a hastily-assembled city militia of about three or four thousand infantry and 100 men-at-arms met an overwhelming Spanish-Papal-Medicean force at Prato. Scrambling to defend a lost cause, Machiavelli had mustered about a third of the militia and was trying to organize the city’s defenses. Florence’s crushing defeat in this battle and the ensuing civic massacre in Prato (with “countless murders, sacrileges and rapes”) convinced the Florentines to depose Piero Soderini and throw open the gates to Giuliano de’ Medici.
This was the end of Machiavelli the statesman … and, of course, the birth of Machiavelli the philosopher. The ensuing 15 years’ frustrating exile left him no other outlet for his political passions save his pen; needless to say, works like The Prince and Discourses on Livy retain exalted seats in the canon down to the present day. (They made little impression on Machiavelli’s contemporaries; Florentines still knew him for the plays he kept writing.)
A few books by Niccolo Machiavelli
When eveniing comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of the court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified of death. I metamorphose into them completely.
-Machiavelli, December 10, 1513
The cautious primo segretario Adriani, who could better see where the winds were blowing, survived the transition by having the wisdom not to align himself with the losing party. Whatever the verdict of posterity, the 1510s were Adriani’s time to bask in the center of events while Machiavelli did his work of ages in obscurity.
But what cinched Machiavelli’s unhappy permanent banishment from Florentine politics — notwithstanding unctuous expedients like dedicating The Prince to the Medici ruler — were the events culminating in two February 23, 1513 beheadings.
Machiavelli had been dismissed in November 1512. Four months later, a nascent (or wildly exaggerated) anti-Medici conspiracy led by a republican named Pietro Boscoli came to light. Its chief, and paltry, evidence was little more than a written list of around 20 fellow-travelers, upon which appeared the name of Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s more than likely that the “treason” comprised merely to the idle chatter of some disaffected republicans, but after a generation in exile the newly restored Medici dynasty wasn’t taking any chances.
For the onetime Second Secretary, this meant prison and torture by the strappado. Three months on, he was released to his estate with no political succor save the haunts in his head.
But the head he got to keep — and that was better than one could say for Pietro Boscoli.
Boscoli and one Agostino Capponi were beheaded early in the morning of February 23, a bare eight hours after their death sentences were announced. Their last hours were recorded as a Recitazione by a young friend named Luca della Robbia: the tender Passion scene of Boscoli in particular struggling to come to grips with his shockingly sudden fates. The full narrative can be found in translation by Alison Knowles Frazier in The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy. We excerpt a little taste below:
At about 8 o’clock, having had his supper, Boscoli was brought with his legs in irons to the chapel where … he was told that he had to die …
Pietro Paolo cried out “Oh Pietro Paolo, oh poor Pietro Paolo! What has become of you!”
Poor Pietro Paolo struggles on here for 15-odd pages in evident anguish, veering between practical considerations of the family he is leaving behind and whom to rustle up as his last-minute confessor, and his uncertain spiritual readiness for death (he was particularly upset at being told of his fate after dinner, for “I am too loaded down with food, and I have eaten salty things, so that I don’t feel able to join my spirit to God”). Della Robbia stays with him the whole time; in the latter’s introduction, he says he “noted diligently all his words, both questions and replies, and kept them in my memory … that such a great and well-formed example of strength and spiritedness would not be lost” and recorded them faithfully later on.
By the end, Boscoli has reconciled his mind to the scaffold.
He is escorted down the stairs from the chapel of the Bargello to its interior courtyard where
leaving the first step, he encountered the Confraternity’s‡ crucifix.
“What am I to do?” [Boscoli] said.
“This is your captain, who comes to arm you,” the friar responded. “Greet him, honor him, ask him to make you strong.”
Then he said, “Greetings, Lord Jesus. I adore you, hanging on the cross. Make me, I beg you, like to your Passion. True Lord, I ask you for peace.”
“Okay, yes,” the friar replied, “Your ear heard the preparations …,” and told him once again the three things.§
And he answered, and said, “‘Let your ear hear the preparation of my heart, Lord Jesus.'”
Then the execution, because he wanted to put a kerchief over his eyes, asked his forgiveness and offered to pray to God for him.
“Go ahead and do your duty,” Pietro Paolo said. “And when you have put me at the block, leave me like that for a bit and then finish me off, and that you pray God for me, I accept.”
The reason why he asked for a little time at the block, was that he had all night long always desired a great joining with God and he didn’t feel that he had achieved it as he desired, so that he hoped in that last moment to make a great effort and so to offer himself wholly to God …
Agostino Capponi, whom della Robbia has seen only glancingly over his long narrative, follows Boscoli. Although Capponi required two blows of the executioner’s blade, he perhaps went into the hereafter with a soul better at peace — for he “retained on his face a certain wry expression, perhaps not distant from true sincerity.”
† Landon says the primo segretario Adriani encouraged Machiavelli to publish this play, even though Adriani himself is one of its targets — in Landon’s view, because Adriani was playing a long game for power, and revenge: quietly encouraging Machiavelli’s excesses while positioning himself politically to profit from his consequent fall.
§ Shortly before proceeding to execution, Boscoli steeled himself for the ordeal by resolving that “In this journey I have to have three things. I have to believe the faith. I have to have firm hope that God will pardon me. And the third is that I have to suffer this death for love of Christ and not for others.”
Guillaume Jobert, one of the first Reformation martyrs in Paris, had his tongue bored through on this date in 1526,* then was burned at the stake at the Place Maubert.
Jobert, the young gentleman son of the avocat du roi of La Rochelle, incurred this ghastly punishment by making some impious cracks about the faith and in particular the devotions given St. Genevieve.
Genevieve was no one to be trifled with. She was supposed to have stopped Attila the Hun dead in his tracks with her prayerful intercession and saved Paris from the sack in 451, in remembrance of which feat she had become honored as the patron saint of Paris.
Genevieve’s cult really took off in the High Middle Ages, the period when a burgeoning Paris firmly established itself as the hub of all France. So powerful was the Parisian devotion to the saint (and the saint’s devotion to Paris) that her cult became a defining marker of the community — and when that community was ruptured by the Reformation, affinity for the cult came to mark the community’s boundaries. To the extent that Genevieve was identified with Paris, with France, with the sacraments, with the royal family — and she was identified with all these things — the Protestant skepticism of saints posing as divine intercessors with demigod-like spheres of influence positioned reformers in opposition to a good many things more than “merely” theology. There is a secular echo of this same critique from centuries later in Voltaire:
The girl that was born in the stubble fields of Nanterre,
Has become a saint that is implored by hollow and stupid people …
But a good citizen should be devout only to you.
challenged the sacrality of Paris, the identity of France, and the cult of the saints. It was therefore necessary to reaffirm the city’s Catholicity by redefining it in opposition to heresy. Sainte Genevieve was used to delineate who should be included in the sacred social body and who should be excluded from it.
Overtly blaspheming Genevieve certainly put Joubert in the “exclusion” category.
While we have little specific detail about Joubert, some sense of the gravity of his offense might be gleaned from an event that ensued a decade after his tongue-boring execution, when the Affair of the Placards sparked a furious Catholic backlash against religious dissidents. One week later, six Protestants were burned at the stake following a monumental procession through the city meant to reaffirm France’s devotion to the Catholic faith.
For the occasion, St. Genevieve’s relics were removed from her sacred abbey and marched along with all that abbot’s canons and the king himself. These 1,000-year-old remains never appeared in these sorts of ceremonies “without grette and urgent causes,” an English Protestant observer remarked. Notably, accrding to Sluhovsky, the reliquary on this occasion crossed the Seine to the Right Bank for the first time ever.
On this date in 1527, apostate Catholic priest Georg Wagner went to the stake in Munich.
Called “Carpentarius”, Wagner’s renounced a comfortable pastorship in Emmeringen, espousing the unacceptable tenets that his office was not empowered by Scripture to forgive sins, nor to transubstantiate bread and wine into Christ’s own body, nor to perform baptism on infants. He’s claimed as a martyr both by Anabaptists and Lutherans.
Wagner was a worthy enough man in his time and place that the propaganda coup of his defection drew urgent efforts at re-converting him by his former co-religionists — and even, allegedly, the Duke of Bavaria himself. He spurned them all, insisting only “that, as long as I can open my mouth” in the fires that would devour him, “I will confess the name of Jesus Christ.”
The Martyrs Mirror account of Wagner’s martyrdom credits God with, hours after the execution, smiting dead the sheriff who brought Wagner to the pyre.
On this date in 1545, the leaders of the violent Anabaptist Batenburgers were burned at the stake in Utrecht.
We know Anabaptists best as peaceniks, but the Batenburgers were the dead-end trail to a wholly different reputation. Named for a former Dutch mayor named Jan Van Batenburg, these Zwaardgeesten (“sword-minded”) Anabaptists answered the annihilation of their brethren’s Münster commune by doubling down on revolutionary struggle.
Batenburgers rejected the blandishments of David Joris to lay down the impolitic swords. Their numbers and their philosophies are hard to know with certainty owing to their secrecy, but they’re thought to have maintained the radical Munsterite teachings on polygamy and property.
Van Batenburg himself was caught and executed in 1538, and with that the Batenburgers — who had been living secretly in regular Catholic and Protestant communities — took to the wilderness under the leadership of a Leiden weaver named Cornelis Appelman. For the next ten years or so (even outlasting Appelman’s own death) this band of a couple of hundred desperate men made their way as marauders. We’d probably just call them terrorists today.
Appelman was even more extreme than his predecessor, verging right into crazy cult leader territory with his dystopian insistence on being called “The Judge” and readiness to mete out the severest penalties for any breach of obedience — to say nothing of the arsons, the church-sackings, and the summary executions dealt out to unbelievers. He was finally caught and put to death with his aide Willem Zeylmaker. Batenburger remnants, however, persisted for several more years with at least one splinter continuing until around 1580.
On this date in 1528, Anabaptist Ambrosius Spittelmayr was beheaded in Cadolzburg, Bavaria.
Baptized by Hans Hut only the year before, Spittelmayr propounded his outlaw adult-baptism creed as a wandering preacher in Upper Austria and southern Germany before his arrest.
The energetic Spittelmayr left his interrogators a 3,000-word confession of faith that has been of great value to scholars probing Hut’s own theology, which was deeply influential in southern Germany. Spittelmayr’s confession emphasizes a Godly life, including a version of primitive communism that called on the faithful to share their worldly effects — a prominent feature in much Anabaptist thought that helped certainly raised the hackles of those with property to protect.
Nobody can inherit the kingdom unless he is poor with Christ, for a Christian has nothing of his own; no place where he can lay his head. A real Christian should not even have enough property on earth to be able to stand on it with one foot. This does not mean that he should go and lie down in the woods and not have a trade, or that he should not have fields and meadows, or that he should not work, but alone that he might not think they are for his own use and be tempted to say: this house is mine, this field is mine, this dollar is mine. Rather he should say it is ours, even as we pray: Our Father. In summary, a Christian should not have anything of his own but should have all things in common with his brother, that is, not allow him to suffer need. In other words, I will not work that my house be filled, that my larder be supplied with meat, but rather I will see that my brother has enough, for a Christian looks more to his neighbor than to himself. Whoever desires to be rich in this world, who is concerned that he miss nothing when it comes to his person and property, who is honored by men and feared by them, who refuses to prostrate himself at the feet of his Lord … will be humbled. (Via)
This catastrophe hurled Anabaptism into the desert, where rival leaders pointed the way to different horizons. Would it double down on revolutionary political aspirations, along the lines of Münster? Would it become a pacificist, spiritual movement without secular aspirations?
Anna Jansz, at least as she appears in the readings others have given her, somewhat personifies these conflicting directions — and not incidentally, the also-open question of women’s role in the Anabaptist movement.
Though she appears in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a model feminine sufferer, the “Trumpet Song” she composed has in at least some versions a distinctly apocalyptic tone. One historian called it the Marseillaise of Anabaptist hymns:
Wash your feet in the godless blood
This is shocking imagery, but it’s also far from clear that it’s actually what Anna herself wrote — or if its surface interpretation is what the author intended to convey. Anabaptism’s fast-evolving strains published different versions of the “Trumpet Song” in the 16th century, whose slight alterations dramatically shade its meaning — especially so in view of the possible scriptural allusions. Here’s a version of the same line in which the verb wash (wascht) is replaced with watch, or mind (wacht), and it now advises the true Christian to leave punishment of the persecutors to God:
You true Christians be of good cheer
Mind dipping your feet in blood
Because this is the reward which those who
robbed us will receive
As Timothy Nyhof details in this paper (pdf), her image is ultimately quite elusive to us,** and filtered through the texts of interlocutors like the great Anabaptist fugitive David Joris, rumored to have been Anna’s onetime lover. Joris published the version of the “Trumpet Song” excerpted just above — the cautious one.†
In the end, a fixed conclusion as to whether Anna was a firebrand later softened for public consumption, or the reverse, or a more nuanced character entirely, is beyond the reach of posterity. In any guise, she was an exponent of the call to spiritual purity and anticipation of the Lord that fortified a proscribed faith in its wilderness sojourn.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Anna Jansz en route to her January 24, 1538 execution from the Martyrs’ Mirror.
* Anna’s husband Arendt Jansz fled to England to escape the persecution of Anabaptists, which is why he doesn’t figure in this story.
** Nyhof ultimately situates Anna Jansz among the Melchiorites. Although that philosophy’s namesake had gone down backing the Anabaptist commune, his post-Münster followers turned Melchior Hoffman’s eschatology towards personal redemption instead of political violence. (Source)
At Borsa and Edom, so the author has read
The Lord is preparing a feast
From the flesh of kings and princes.
Come all you birds,
I will feed you the flesh of princes.
As they have done, so shall be done to them.
You servants of the Lord, be of good cheer.
Wash your feet in the blood of the godless.
This shall be the reward for those who robbed us.
Be pleased therefore, rejoice and be glad.
Play a new song on your harps;
Delight in our God
All you who foresee vengeance.
The Lord comes to pay
And to revenge all our blood.
His wrath is beginning to descend.
We are awaiting the last bowl.
Oh bride, go to meet your Lord and King.
Arise, Jerusalem, prepare yourself.
Receive all your children alike.
You shall spread out your tents.
Receive your corwn, receive your kingdom.
Your King comes to deliver.
He brings his reward before him.
You shall rejoice in it.
We shall see his glory in these times.
Rejoice, Zion, with pure Jerusalem.
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.
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.
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.