The Story of Nations - Holland/Chapter 6

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Charles succeeded his father Philip as Count of Flanders in 1506. His father, Philip the Handsome, was at Burgos in Castile, where he was attacked by fever, and died when only twenty-eight years of age. Ten years afterwards Charles became King of Spain (1516). When he was nineteen years of age (1519) he was elected emperor. The three nations over whom he was destined to rule hated each other cordially. There was antipathy from the beginning between Flemings and Spaniards. The Netherlands nobles were detested in Spain, the Spaniards in the Low Countries were equally abhorred. Again the Spaniards entreated Charles not to accept his election to the German throne. Charles had employed his Flemish nobles in Spain, and they had disgusted the Spaniards by their ambition and rapacity. The Spaniards feared that they would become a mere outlying province of the German Empire, and be plundered by German adventurers.

Charles was born in Flanders, and during his whole career was much more a Fleming than a Spaniard. This did not, however, prevent him from considering his Flemish subjects as mainly destined to supply his wants, and submit to his exactions. He was always hard pressed for money. The Germans were poor and turbulent. The conquest and subjection of the Moorish population in Spain had seriously injured the industrial wealth of that country. But the Flemings were increasing in riches, particularly the inhabitants of Ghent. They had to supply the funds which Charles required in order to carry out the operations which his necessities or his policy rendered urgent. He had been taught, and he readily believed, that his subjects’ money was his own.

Now just as Charles had come to the empire, two circumstances had occurred which have had a lasting influence over the affairs of Western Europe. The first of these was the conquest of Egypt by the Turks under Selim I. (1512-20). The second was the revolt from the authority of the Papacy in Germany.

Egypt had for nearly two centuries been the only route by which Eastern produce, so much valued by European nations, could reach the consumer. The road through Russia had been blocked by the conquest of Russia by the Tartars. The roads through Central Asia had been similarly obstructed by the savages who had overrun and destroyed the ancient civilization of that region. There remained only the sea passage from India to the Red Sea, a short caravan journey from the western shore of that sea to the Nile, and the transit thence to the Mediterranean. But the trade, of which the Nile was the carrier, was not the only important fact in the trade of Egypt. There were flourishing manufactures in Alexandria and Cairo. In particular, sugar was cultivated, extracted, and refined in the former town, with such success and abundance that its price fell, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, to less than an eighth of what it stood at in the beginning of the fifteenth.

Now this trade, trifling to be sure to our present experience, was of the highest importance to the trading towns of Italy, the Rhine, and the Netherlands. It was the source of nearly all their wealth to Venice, Genoa, and Florence, to Nuremberg, Coblentz, Cologne, and Bruges, and a hundred other towns. The decay of the Italian cities immediately commenced, and that of the German towns followed. The Presence of the Turk in Egypt immediately caused the ruin of all its manufactures and trade. The risk of their invasion was the principal stimulant of the voyages which were undertaken by Columbus and Vasco di Gama.

The destruction of the Egyptian trade produced serious effects in Southern Germany. The German nobles, infinite in number, for titles descended to all the offspring of ennobled persons, had improved their incomes by entering into the guilds and sharing the profits of the burghers. When the profits fell off, because the trade dried up, they strove to compensate themselves by taxing their peasants. This led to the peasants’ war, its frightful excesses, and its relentless suppression. The German peasant was thereafter as much oppressed as the French roturier was.

So the Flemish towns which had engaged in the Eastern trade suffered. But the Netherlands had two industries which saved them from the losses which affected the Germans and Italians. They were still the weavers of the world. They still had the most successful fisheries. The policy which led Henry the Seventh of England to grant the commercial treaty, known as the Great Intercourse, to the Flemish towns was maintained by his successor. It was at first undertaken in order to rid England of the perpetual plots which were hatched in Flanders by the Yorkist exiles; it was continued, because it redounded to the manifest benefit of both the nations.

The other cause was the revolt against the papacy. In the fifteenth century the power of the papacy was greatly weakened, and the sovereign of Europe, who, a few generations before, had trembled at the Pope’s threats, now undertook to set his house in order by, means of general councils. But, as soon as they had established external decency and unity in the Church, they saw that the Pope might become the invaluable ally of despotism. They wished to strengthen their own authority over nobles and people, and they obtained in this effort the assistance of Rome. But they had no mind to dissent from the doctrine of the Church, or to allow their subjects to do so either. They formulated the doctrine that the subject should be of the religion of his ruler, and they acted on the theory for generations. This was the principal reason why the European sovereigns insisted on conformity, and visited those whom they were pleased to call heretics with severer punishments than they inflicted on traitors.

It cannot be by accident that the most successfully industrious parts of Europe have been, with but one notable exception, hostile to the established religion. The heresies of Toulouse, the most prosperous part of Europe in the twelfth century, were the first occasion of the Inquisition, and were rooted out with fire and sword. In England the Norfolk weavers were the principal disciples of Wiklif, and more men and women perished in that county by the stake, than in all the others put together. Before the days of Luther and Calvin the Flemish spinners and weavers were constantly at war with the Church, and were constantly exposed to its wrath. The exception is Italy. But Italy, though it constantly quarrelled with the Pope, was notably enriched by his presence and by the contributions which the faithful poured into his treasury.

When the Reformation was an accomplished fact, it took two forms—that of Luther in Germany; that of Calvin in the Netherlands and France. These stects agreed in hostility to Rome, but differed in nearly everything else, till at last Lutheran and Calvinist came to be as bitter foes to each other as Rome was to both. The cause of this is not far to seek.

Luther threw off the yoke of Rome, but practically transferred the authority of the spiritual to the temporal prince. All that the Pope lost the Prince gained. The interests of rulers and the doctrine of the divine right of kings were served by the acceptance of Lutheranism. The subject’s allegiance was not divided between Pope and King, but transferred as a whole to the latter. When Henry the Eighth made himself supreme head of the Church, he carried out to a logical conclusion Luther’s doctrine in State and Church. Hence, though there was no compromise between Rome and Luther possible, it was very possible for temporal sovereigns to accept Lutheranism, and to profit thereby. Lutheranism became the State religion of Northern Germany of Scandinavia, and of Denmark. It powerfully affected England, though it was not accepted there in its entirety.

But the teaching and discipline of Calvin was essentially democratic, even republican. The minister of religion was a preacher, but much more a tribune of the people. The Calvinist hated the Pope, but he was no friend to king or noble. Hence, from the very first, there was war between King and Calvinist. “No bishop no king,” said James the First of England, himself bred under a Calvinist discipline. The French Calvinists, often noble, were suspected, and with reason, of designs against the monarchy. The burghers of the Netherlands and the peasants of Scotland were persecuted, not only because they disavowed the divine right of priests, but because they were believed to discredit the divine right of kings. The Calvinist enemy of the Church was held to be the Calvinist advocate of a democratic republic. This was proved in Holland, in England, and finally in the United States. Philip the Second saw, and avowed that he saw it, that the success of the Calvinist preachers would not only be the destruction of the Church which he clung to, but of his own power, which he still more passionately loved. With similar objects, his great-grand father, Maximilian, wished to unite the Papacy and the Empire in the same person, that person being himself.

If Erasmus of Rotterdam had possessed the courage of Luther, or the opinions and constructive genius of Calvin, the Reformation would have begun in Holland. But the learned man was too timid. He fled from the storm into Switzerland, and died there.

Charles was not slow to persecute the Reformers in the Netherlands, though he had to temporise with them in Germany. But the former country was his patrimony; in the latter he was only an elective sovereign, with rights limited by the powers of the independent princes of the empire, and he therefore could not do as he pleased. Under the rule of his sister, the Dowager of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands, the persecution of the sectaries was organized in that country. There was no part of the world in which so many persons were put to death for their religion as in the Netherlands.

When he was fifteen years of age, Charles limited the franchises of Ghent by the document known as the Calfskin. The Great Privilege of Mary of Burgundy had been already abrogated by Maximilian. Now Charles, being in straits in 1539, demanded a subsidy Of 1,200,000 florins from the Netherlands, 400,000 of which was to be subscribed by the citizens of Ghent. The burghers claimed that the grant could be made only by the unanimous consent of the Estates. The Emperor was carrying on war in France, in Sicily, and in Milan at once, and the Netherlanders were unwilling to contribute to a war in the conduct of which they had no interests whatever. Even the Spaniards resented the Emperor’s appeals for money.

But the men of Ghent broke out into insurrection. They offered themselves to Francis of France, who betrayed their correspondence to Charles. So Charles resolved on chastising them. They did not resist him on his approach. He entered the city, kept his intentions secret for a month, and then solemnly annulled all the charters, privileges, and laws of the city, and confiscated all the property of the guilds and corporations. He exacted the subsidy which he demanded, added 150,000 more to it, and imposed a fine of 6,000 florins a year on the city for ever. Of course, a number of persons were executed. Finally, he sat in judgment on the famous Bell Roland, the tolling of which summoned the burghers to their assemblies, and ordered it to be immediately taken down. Having destroyed the constitution, having fined all the citizens and executed many, he forgave Ghent because he was born there.