Wars of Religion

Wars of Religion
   Since the 1520s, religious tensions had grown in parallel with increasing numbers of Protestants. Persecutions began under Emperor Charles V, who introduced the Inquisition in 1550. The accession of Philip II (1555) brought to power a regime based in Spain that brooked no opposition to royal authority and Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The Spanish influence in Brussels was pervasive—of 1,700 courtiers, 1,300 were Spanish. Calls for religious toleration and respect for local liberties succeeded in securing the withdrawal of Spanish troops (1561) and the recall of Cardinal Granvelle (1564), the unpopular adviser to Margaret of Parma. Protestant and Catholic cooperation culminated in the Compromise of the Nobles, a document demanding abolition of the Inquisition, that was signed by hundreds of nobles (the gueux, "beggars") who had assembled at a banquet at the Culembourg town house on the rue des Petits Carmes (site of the current Prince Albert barracks). They delivered the declaration to Margaret on 5 April 1566.
   The townsfolk backed the aristocrats and tensions mounted. Margaret sought to leave Brussels in the wake of the sacking of churches by iconoclasts (August 1566) but then reluctantly agreed to requests that she respect local privileges and permit Protestant preaching. Now under pressure from moderate Catholics, uneasy with Protestant concessions, she demanded a new oath of allegiance to the king, which split the ranks of the nobility and led to civil war.
   The arrival of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the duke of Alba, in Brussels on 22 April 1567 accompanied by an army of 20,000 Spanish troops and the establishment of a Council of Troubles on 20 September 1567 put an end to lingering hopes that moderation would prevail. Mardi Gras 1568 saw large-scale police operations in Brussels in which more than 500 were arrested; approximately 36 nobles, including the counts of Egmont and Hornes, were executed. A reign of terror ensued and armed resistance led by William of Orange began.
   The proposal of the Council of Troubles, now popularly called the Council of Blood, to impose new taxes, issued on 21 March 1569, sparked resistance from the nations, whose refusal to pay the levy on goods and produce (the 10th denier) led to a revenue shortfall and the recall of Alba on 16 December 1573.
   The First Union of Brussels (9 January 1577) marked a redoubling of efforts to throw off the Spanish yoke. The new governor-general, Don John of Austria, arrived in Brussels on 1 May 1577, but, fearing for his life, he fled to Namur on 24 July. To forestall a return of Spanish troops, a committee of 17, appointed by the magistracy, took charge of improving the city's fortifications. Calvinists began rapidly to acquire positions of dominance in municipal government. William of Orange, a Calvinist, entered Brussels to popular acclaim on 23 September 1577. He was appointed governor of Brabant by the Estates and, on 7 October, he inspected the city ramparts and prescribed additional defensive preparations.
   Nervous at the growth of Protestant power, Catholic nobles turned to Archduke Matthias of Austria to counter William's influence. William together with Matthias entered Brussels on 18 January 1578 and each took the oath of office, Matthias as governor-general and William as governor of Brabant, at the Hôtel de Ville on 20 January. They faced the imminent approach of Don John's army, which briefly occupied Laeken. A committee of defense, established as early as 1576, oversaw the preparation of the city walls. The population was mobilized, large tracts of the Forêt de Soignes were cleared to furnish wood, and churches at Saint-Gilles and Molenbeek-Saint-Jean were razed to create open ground.
   Accommodation of religious differences manifested in the Second Union of Brussels (10 December 1577) and replacement of the committee of 17 by a committee of 13, the latter body more prone to compromise, were checked by the dual division of the Netherlands engendered by the Union of Arras (6 January 1579), reconciling Catholics in the southern Netherlands with Spain, and the Union of Utrecht (23 January 1579), registering the resolve of Protestants in the northern Netherlands to make a complete break.
   Although an effort by Philip of Egmont, son of the executed count, to secure the city's garrison for the Spanish king was halted (4 June 1579), the status of Brussels as a predominantly Catholic city governed largely by Protestants proved untenable. Catholics remained numerically dominant throughout the period despite the fact that, by 1579, priests feared to appear in public and processions and feast days were abolished. On 24 April 1581, the nations, now with Calvinist leaders, proposed official proscription of the Catholic faith and religious orders were declared dissolved. On 26 July 1581, a proclamation read from the Hôtel de Ville declared Philip II officially deposed. These efforts proved unavailing. Protestants, though influential, were always in the minority. The presence of a rabidly Catholic court party, the powerful hold of the ecclesiastical authorities based at the collegiate church of Saints-Michel-et-Gudule, and the lack of a local university that might have served as a source of innovative ideas retarded the spread of religious and humanistic attitudes for change among the populace, who demonstrated not overt hostility but rather indifference.
   The Spanish threat persisted throughout. The death of Don John (1 October 1578) put a halt to military operations, but they were resumed with great success by Alessandro Farnese, the duke of Parma. On 15 June 1579, Archduke Matthias had appointed Oliver Vanden Tympel as military governor of the city in the expectation that Brussels would be the chief target of an offensive. In August 1584, forces led by the duke of Parma approached the city, encircled it, and set up a blockade. Famine set in by January 1585 and the city capitulated on 10 March. The duke promised a general amnesty, pledged to respect the town's privileges, and granted a right to leave the city to those Protestants who chose not to convert. The Counter-Reformation subsequently held firm sway under Spanish overlord-ship.

Historical Dictionary of Brussels. .

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