Holy Roman Empire

Reformation in the (Northern) Netherlands

A.) The Structure of the Netherlands

The process of the UNIFICATION OF THE NETHERLANDS, begun under the Burgundian Dukes, was completed during the rule of Emperor Charles V. - Friesland recognized him as their territorial lord in 1524, Utrecht (a former princebishopric) in 1528, Overijssel in 1528, Drente and Groningen in 1536, Gelderland (Guelders) in 1543. The only major territory in the Netherlands not under Habsburg rule was the PRINCEBISHOPRIC OF LIEGE.
The individual territories shared a ruler, but continued to be rather autonomous statelets, with parliaments (Estates, in Dutch Staten) of their own. The Burgundian Dukes had pursued a policy of introducing central institutions for the Netherlands - the residence at BRUSSELS, where they held court, the GREAT COUNCIL or council of state, a supreme court at Mechelen (Malines). The territories newly integrated into the Habsburg domain, however, had little experience with these central institutions. In 1531 Charles V. reformed the central institutions by spitting the Great Council in three, the COUNCIL OF FINANCES, the SECRET COUNCIL (chancellery, responsible for domestic affairs) and STATE COUNCIL. He established the position of GOVERNOR GENERAL (Charles V. himself was too occupied to effectively govern the Dutch territories). In 1548 the BURGUNDIAN IMPERIAL CIRCLE was established, consisting of the territories under Habsburg rule.
The social and economic structure varied from territory to territory. Flanders, Zeeland, Holland and Brabant were relatively urbanized; Friesland and Groningen for centuries had escaped the process of feudalization; here, as in Drente, rural communities enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy, Friesland and Groningen had a history of resisting central administration even at the territorial level. In the territories to the south and east, the relation between nobility, clergy and cities was more balanced.

B.) The Situation prior/during to the Reformation

Regarding church administration, the Netherlands had not been a unit of their own and thus had no archbishopric of their own. Within the Habsburg-ruled territories the most important bishopric was that of Utrecht. Until 1528, the Bishops of Utrecht ruled a territory of their own; the STIFT (princebishopric) UTRECHT included the territories of Utrecht, Overijssel and Drente. When a new bishop was to be elected in 1524, two candidates - one supported by the Duke of Guelders, the other by the Habsburg side - were disappointed when the cathedral chapter elected a compromise candidate, HENRY OF WITTELSBACH (Bavaria). However he was without a support basis within the bishopric; in 1528 he was forced to cede his secular rule over the princebishopric to Charles V. Positions in the higher church administrations were the object of dynastic policy. The church in the Netherlands suffered from many symptoms criticized by the reformers and the need for reform was evident.
In 1559 Charles V.'s son PHILIP II. actually implemented a (Catholic) church reform; three archbishoprics were established with seats at Mechelen (Malines), Cambrai and Utrecht, many new bishoprics founded. However, many of these new bishoprics existed only on paper, as the reform was resented by large circles of the population - for a range of reasons.

C.) From 1517 to 1579

While Charles V. pursued a diplomatic approach toward the Lutheran reformation within the Empire, in the territories he ruled outright he was uncompromising and ordered the persecution of protestants. In 1519 the University of Leuven (Louvain) openly condemned Luther's theses. Charles V., mistrustful of the papal and episcopal inquisition, in 1522 appointed the layman van der Hulst as INQUISITOR GENERAL. In 1523 the first two Lutherans, endrik Voes and Jan van Essen, both from Antwerp, were burnt at the stake in Brussels. In 1525 Jan de Bakker, priest in Woerden, met the same fate. In 1531 anabaptist MELCHIOR HOFMANN visited Amsterdam.
While the reformation found a considerable number of followers, severe state suppression forced many into hiding. The Netherlanders who accepted the protestant reformation fell into three groups - Lutherans (few), Sacramentarians (proto-Calvinists) and Anabaptists. Former baker JAN MATTHIJS preached anabaptism and had collected a followership, which failed to take control of Amsterdam and then had to flee the Netherlands; they were to go to MÜNSTER in Westphalia where they managed to take control of the city, until the city was retaken by the bishop and the anabaptist theocracy terminated. MENNO SIMONSZ then turned the Dutch anabaptist community into reclusive, pacifist, state-rejecting community; in Friesland, where state authority traditionally was weak, MENNONITE communities emerged and survived.
In 1545 PIERRE BRULLY, a pupil of Jean Calvin, is the first Calvinist on record in the Netherlands.
The (rather administrative) CHURCH REFORM of 1559 was met with opposition from various groups of the population, for various reasons. The regional nobility resented that the opportunity to place second-born sons on lucrative positions within the church administration was taken away, as the reform stressed professional education (which the noble candidates rarely had); the fact that bishops were chosen from out of the country was met with special criticism. Those who sympathized with the protestant reformation rejected the church reform, because it failed to touch issues of central importance to them, and it cemented the institutions used to suppress their belief.
In the south, Calvinist thought spread in the early 1560es. In 1561 CHANTERIES (the sining of protestant songs on the street) were spreading. GUIDO DE BRES wrote the CONFESSIO BELGICA (a basic Calvinist text). In 1562 HEDGE SERMONS (sermons held out in the open) were held; at Valenciennes the first iconoclastic riots appeared. In 1563 the HEIDELBERG CATECHISM was translated into Dutch.
In 1565 the decisions of the COUNCIL OF TRENT (1545-1563) were proclaimed in the Netherlands. Calvinist leaders and Netherland nobles met to discuss how to act against the suppression of Calvinism. A petition containing the demand for curtailing the inquisition was handed to the Governess General in January 1566; it was rejected by her who referred to the nobles who handed it in as beggars (Geusen). In summer 1566 hedge sermons were held covering a wide area; the situation, aggreviated to high corn prices due to the Dano-Swedish War (1563-1570), was explosive. In August a wave of iconoclastic riots swept the south. The city of TOURNAI rebelled openly; the Calvinists raised an army; Tournai fell in Jan. 1567, the Calvinist army was defeated in the BATTLE OF MOKERHEI March 13th 1567.
Governess Margaret of Parma resigned; Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the DUKE OF ALVA, succeeded her. He established the COUNCIL OF TROUBLES, also referred to as the Council of Blood, which sentenced c.3,000 persons to death, among them Counts Egmont and Hoorn. In 1573 WILLIAM THE SILENT declared to have accepted Calvinist faith.

D.) The Dutch Revolt and the Victory of Calvinism

From a Habsburg point of view, Count Alva saved Habsburg rule in the Netherlands - for the moment. By the time he left the Netherlands in 1573, he was the most hated man in the country, regarded by many the devil incarnate. The provinces of Holland and Zeeland since 1572 were in open rebellion; the most influential nobleman of the Netherlands, William of Orange-Nassau, was engaged in a feud against the Habsburg administration (since 1568). In the early fight, Dutch WATERGEUZEN (sea beggars), when taking the town of Gorcum, massacred nine Catholic priests there (the Martyrs of Gorcum.
In the course of 1578, many cities in the Netherlands saw the city council ousted, replaced by a pro-Calvinist city council.
In 1579 the French-speaking territories of the south formed the UNION OF ARRAS which confirmed Tridentine Catholicism. The same year the majority of the Dutch speaking provinces formed the UNION OF UTRECHT. The WAR OF DUTCH INDEPENDENCE (1579-1648) began. It brought the separation of the Netherlands into the southern SPANISH NETHERLANDS (present Belgium) and the northern DUTCH REPUBLIC (the present Netherlands). This chapter focusses on the religious development in the northern Netherlands.

The Union of Utrecht abolished religious persecution and left the decision regarding the confession to the territories. After the death of Archbishop Frederik van Schenck van Toutenberg in 1580, the Calvinist reformation was introduced in Utrecht As the front lines stabilized, Calvinism was established as STATE CONFESSION in the Dutch Republic; while areas long held by the Spanish, such as NOORD BRABANT, LIMBURG, eastern GELDERLAND, were subjected to the Countereformation and thus became Tridentine Catholic. When these areas came under the control of the Dutch Republic, they were treated as occupied territory (LANDS OF THE GENERALITY) and denied representation in the Estates General. Catholics could not hold public office.
The UNIVERSITY OF LEIDEN was established in 1575 as a center of Calvinist theology. Here, JACOBUS ARMINIUS and GOMARUS taught, developing different interpretations of Calvinism; the supporters of the former, ARMINIANS, are referred to as Remonstranten in the Netherlands, their opponents, the Gomarists, as Contraremonstranten. Following the death of Arminius in 1609, the Calvinist communities in the Netherlands split in two rival camps, the Arminians enjoying the support of many city councils in Holland, the Gomarists enjoying the support of the stadholder, MAURICE OF ORANGE-NASSAU. The trial and execution of JOHAN VAN OLDENBARNEVELD, Pensionary of Holland, marked not only the victory of Prince Maurice in the struggle for power, but also the victory of the Gomarist faction. At the COUNCIL OF DORDT (short for Dordrecht) 1618-1619 the Arminian view was condemned. The CANONS of the Council of Dordt are a basic text to Calvinist communities worldwide. In 1637 the STATENBIJBEL was published, the official bible translation.
While Calvinism was state confession in the Dutch republic (and Catholics were regarded suspicious elements), believers of other religions and confessions were tolerated, making the Netherlands a safe haven for many who fled religious persecution.

Hans de Valk, Nationale of pauselijke helden?. De heiligverklaring van de martelaren van Gorcum in 1867. (National or papal heroes ? the Sanctification of the Martyrs of Gorcum, 1867), from Trajecta, in English, despite Dutch language title
History, from Univ. Leiden
Resources on The Dutch Reformation and Revolt, from Eldrbarry's Reformation Class
Reformatie en Contra-Reformatie, from Digischool, in Dutch, superficial
REFERENCE H.P.H. Jansen, Kalendarium Geschiedenis van de Lage Landen in Jaartallen (History of the Low Countries Year by Year), Utrecht & Antwerpen : Prisma 1979
Mark Greengrass, The Longman Companion to the European Reformation c.1500-1618, Harlow (Essex): Longman 1998, pp.129-145, KMLA Lib.Sign. 274.06 GB 121

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on January 7th 2003, last revised on November 15th 2004

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