Today, August 10th, 445 years ago, the Dutch Revolt started. It started in Steenvoorde, Flanders - territory now occupied by France but historically, ethnically, and linguistically Flemish. In fact, the municipality of Steenvoorde in France literally rests just outside the current borders of West Flanders, bordering the West Flemish town of Watou.
This post will be brief. I doubt many have a chance to actually read the details of what happened that day. So I will quote, in detail, from an authoritative historian of the period: my former professor, Geoffrey Parker, in his classic, The Dutch Revolt, (pp.74-76):
"In 1566 a [Spanish] government agent was able to report by mid-July that:
'The audacity of the Calvinist preachers in this area [of Flanders] has grown so great that in their sermons they admonish the people that it is not enough to remove all idolatry from their hearts; they must also remove it from their sight. Little by little, it seems, they are trying to impress upon their hearers the need to pillage the churches and abolish all images'
Similar tidings flowed in from other quarters. The deputy bailiff of Veurne noted on 22 July that the tone of the Protestant sermons delivered in his locality was becoming more strident and 'it is to be feared that...they will soon commit some shameful pillage of the churches, monasteries and abbeys; some of them are already making boasts about it.'
On 2 August Viglius wrote to a friend in Spain:
'The town of Ieper, among others, is in turmoil on account of the daring of the populace inside and outside who go to the open-air services in their thousands, armed and defended as if they were off to perform some great exploit of war. It is to be feared that the first blow will fall on the monasteries and clergy and that the fire, once lit, will spread, and that, since trade is beginning to cease on account of these troubles, several working folk - constrained by hunger - will join in, waiting for the opportunity to acquire a share of the property of the rich.'
If any group now controlled the march of events in the Netherlands, it was the predikanten, the Calvinist pastors, who seemed to make new converts every day. The Ghent patrician and chronicler, Marcus van Vaernewijck, marvelled that four or five sermons were enough to change the beliefs ordinary people had held for thirty or forty years, but so it was. After decades of neglect from the old church and a mounting tide of anti-clerical criticism, many people appear to have become spiritually disoriented and ready to rally to any authoritative figure who could reassure them about the after-life and salvation.
Such figures were to hand in increasing numbers. A steady stream of new preachers arrived in the Netherlands, some from Geneva, more from France, England and Germany, some of them wearing (of all things) blue leggings (blaye upgherolde slapkauskens), which appear to have become, at least in Flanders, the insignia of the 'hedge preacher'.
Some of the predikanten were foreigners, like Johan Scheizhabener (the senior pastor of Maastricht, who was born in the Rhineland), or Francois du Jon or Junius (from Bourges), but most were born in the Netherlands.Many were returning from several years of exile, determined that they would never be chased out of their homeland again.
One such returned exile was Sebastian Matte, a hatmaker by trade, born at Ieper in or about 1533 and forced to flee to England in 1563 on account of his Protestant sympathies. By 26 May 1566 he was back in his native Flanders and preaching at Roesbrugge (north-west of Ieper). On 1 August he appeared before the walled town of Veurne with an entourage of 2,000 armed Calvinists from the Ieper area, hoping to force an entry and make the town a fortified base for further operations. The plan failed.
Undaunted, Matte continued to preach and on 10 August he delivered an inflammatory sermon just outside the monastery of St. Lawrence at Steenvoorde. The exact text of his sermon is unknown, but after he had finished a group of about twenty of his audience went into the convent and smashed all the images there, led by another predikant, Jacob de Buzere (a renegade Augustinian monk, also from Ieper and also an exile returned from England).
On 13 August de Buzere preached a rousing sermon himself and promptly led his hearers to the monastery of St. Anthony outside Bailleul, which they proceeded to sack. The following day [August 14] Matte preached at Poperinghe and this time his sermon was followed by a rather larger iconoclastic outburst, involving about 100 people (over half of them refugees returned from England) and from there Matte's disciples fanned out to break images in scores of towns and villages all over Flanders. The 'iconoclastic fury' had begun."
noto bene: I have re-arranged the sequence of some of the text from the original published format. However, I have not altered the text as it appears in my 1979 Penguin Books copy.
Text copyright Geoffrey Parker. Arrangement copyright 2011 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction without my express, written consent.