‘The Great Bog of Europe’ I


Comte Lamoral d’Egmont 1522 – 1568.

‘The great Bog of Europe’, a caustic English commentator called the Netherlands in the 1600s, but he went on to describe a place where ‘gold is more plentiful than stones’. ‘What is it which there may not be found in plenty? They make by their industry all the fruits of the vast Earth their own.’ Even ‘their knaves are worth a million of ours, for they in a boisterous rudeness can work and live and toil, whereas ours will rather laze themselves to poverty; and like Cabbages left out in winter, rot away in the loathsomenesse of a nauseus sloth.’

Foreigners always marvelled at the wealth of the hard-working, easy-trading Dutch. But the Englishman scoffed at an egalitarian nation of self-satisfied arrivistes where ‘escutcheons are as plentifull as Gentry is scarce. Every man is his own Herald; and he that has but wit enough to invent a Coat, may challenge it as his own.’ His complaint would have resonated with the stereotypical Spanish hidalgo with a preference for poverty over labour, honour over trade, and an obsession with purity of blood. Worse still, the Netherlands seemed a naturally heterodox land, so flat ‘it affords the people one commodity beyond all the other Regions: if they die in perdition, they are so low, that they have a shorter cut to Hell . . . And for this cause, perhaps all strange Religions throng thither.’ The Dutchmen’s permissive attitude to faith would set them at loggerheads with the orthodox Spaniards until 1648.

Introducing the idea of the Netherlands as ‘a green Cheese pickled in brine’, our Englishman warmed to his new gastronomic theme: ‘they are the ingredients of a Black pudding, and want only stirring together’. And, pursuing the inevitable rules of alimentary progress, he described how ‘most of their dwellings stand like Privies in moated-houses, hanging still over the water’, before allowing the meandering imagery of his metaphor – perhaps inspired by Hieronymus Bosch – to conclude that Dutch ‘Soyle is all fat [and] full of veins & bloud, but no bones in’t; indeed it is the buttock of the World’.

But the Netherlands were vital to the Spanish economy: over three-quarters of Castilian wool, Spain’s only major export, was sold there. And they were of immense sentimental importance to the Habsburgs. Philip’s father was born at Ghent, his grandfather at Bruges. Philip was descended from the Burgundian dukes of the great House of Valois, who could trace their lineage back to the Capetian kings of France. From a very early age he was imbued with a deep pride in that direct descent from a legendary dynasty that embodied the virtuous and bellicose spirit of medieval princehood. It proved a poisoned inheritance.

The idea of the Netherlands as a single entity, however, was the artificial construction of imperialist policy. In 1549, Charles V had joined Flanders and Artois to the Dutch- and German-speaking provinces that had formerly been part of the Empire and assumed for himself the title of Lord of the Netherlands. Representatives of the different provinces or States met in a powerful parliament known as the States General, but there was no tradition among them of political unity under a single ruler. Disastrously, Charles isolated the intellectually and spiritually experimental Dutch from the religious tolerance forced upon him in the Empire by the German princes, thus exposing them to decades of autocratic Habsburg intolerance. He negotiated a massive restructuring of the Netherlands Church with the Papacy that was kept secret from the Dutch until it was announced. And he subjected this politically unstable collection of independently minded peoples to nearly crippling levels of taxation.

Philip continued and strengthened his father’s policies and permanently stationed garrisons of the dreaded professional Spanish troops known as the tercios in the Netherlands. As a result, in an ironic rerun of Charles’s experience with the Spanish Comuneros, when Philip returned to Spain in 1559, leaving his illegitimate half-sister Margaret of Parma as Regent in Brussels, the Dutch were incensed: they felt colonized by a haughty Spaniard, a foreigner who imposed his alien will from far away.

So, in 1565, the States General sent one of the most powerful Dutch aristocrats, the Count of Egmont, to Spain, to negotiate directly with Philip. Egmont returned convinced that the King had personally offered a more conciliatory policy towards Protestants and freedom of worship in general. He even had a signed agreement that hinted at further compromise. But within months, in an infamous document now known as the ‘Letter from the Segovia Woods’, Philip wrote instructing Margaret that no leniency was to be shown to any ‘heretic’. Far from introducing a new policy of religious tolerance, he was determined to strengthen the Inquisition in the Netherlands. To make his point, he ordered that six radical Protestant Anabaptists, whom Margaret had hoped to pardon, instead ‘be brought to justice’ by way of example.

Whatever Philip had really promised Egmont, he now appeared to have broken his word and that made him appear weak and dishonest as well as foreign. Moreover there was a wild card as well, a joker in Philip’s deck: his own son and heir, the deranged and deformed Don Carlos.

Charles V had claimed to be delighted when his grandson Don Carlos furiously rebuked him for retreating from battle against the Elector Maurice. But the Emperor privately told his sister that he did not like the boy’s ‘manners and character’ and did ‘not know what might become of him’. Don Carlos’s dangerously wilful personality was becoming the talk of European courts; a Venetian diplomat described his ‘head as out of proportion with his body’ and referred to his ‘pallid complexion’ and his ‘cruel character’. ‘When he is brought hares or other animals trapped in the hunt,’ the Venetian continued, ‘he likes to watch them being roasted alive. Once, he was given a giant turtle, which bit his finger, at which he bit off its head with his teeth.’

It was of enormous concern to Philip that this psychotic adolescent was heir to the throne. But in 1561 Don Carlos fell down a flight of stairs while chasing after a gardener’s daughter whom he was in the habit of flagellating. He smashed headlong into a door, cracking his cranium so badly that his skull was visible through the wound. Within days, he was running a high temperature and his doctors were very worried. They aggressively cleaned a build-up of pus from the wound and sent urgent word to the King, then at Madrid, who set out at once to be at his son’s bedside. The infection spread and the Prince’s face puffed up so that he could not open his eyes; it spread to his neck and chest. The great Dr Andreas Vesalius forcefully argued in favour of drilling a hole in the boy’s skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. But first they began to administer mild purges. The Prince had already been experiencing frequent bowel movements; now he began defecating up to twenty times a day, ‘to the evident satisfaction of everyone except possibly the patient himself’.6 Across Spain there were religious processions and special masses were said; in Seville, members of the religious confraternities paraded through the streets whipping themselves.

Carlos lapsed into delirium and a famous Morisco doctor was called, but his various caustic ointments only brought the patient closer to death’s door. Philip could not bear the suffering and retreated to a nearby monastery to pray. He must have wondered privately to God whether the boy’s death might not be for the best. But then the Duke of Alba suggested they bring out the mummified body of a priest, Diego de Alcalá, locally revered as a great healer of the sick both in life and now in death. The desiccated remains were laid down beside the sickbed and the semi-conscious Prince asked that his eyes be forced open that he should see. He reached over and touched the cadaver, ‘after which he drew his hands across his diseased face’. Within hours, a miraculous recovery had begun so that a week later the doctors could begin draining pus from the abscesses that had formed around Don Carlos’s eyes; five weeks later his recuperation was complete.

But the prolonged trauma made his physical and mental condition worse. Philip II appointed his lifelong friend and political confidant Ruy Gómez, the Prince of Eboli, as senior majordomo in Don Carlos’s household. He wrote that he wanted Eboli ‘near his son’, to care for him, at least until the boy married, ‘after which his wife should look after him’.

There was clearly a father’s concern behind this arrangement, but it was a politically complicated move. Eboli was the leader of the powerful peace faction at Philip’s court, a wily operator fanatically opposed to the Duke of Alba’s belligerent approach to foreign policy. Following his father’s advice to divide and rule the members of his government, Philip had fostered both parties, but as their positions became ever more entrenched and personal, the King upset the balance by favouring Alba’s robust intransigence. If he hoped to remove Eboli from the fray by appointing him to Carlos’s household, he had badly miscalculated, for the doves of peace saw an opportunity to woo the Prince as a fount of influence. A Venetian observed that while at first the Prince ‘particularly hated Ruy Gómez, such was Gómez’s skill that he has managed to win his affection’. Beguiled by Eboli’s charisma, Carlos began to believe in his ability to rule and his right to power, a self-belief that stoked his lunacy and delusions. The genie was out of the bottle, and in 1565 Eboli had to disentangle his charge’s bizarre plan to go to Aragon and exercise his right to be governor there. The boy was dreaming of insurrection.

When, as a child, Don Carlos had heard that Charles V had arranged matters so that his father’s descendants by Mary Tudor would inherit the Netherlands, he declared that ‘he would go to war before allowing such a thing’. In his psychotic adolescence, he tried to be as good as his word. When the Duke of Egmont arrived in Madrid to sue for religious concessions in the Netherlands, the Prince began to entertain his own fantastical notions about the possibilities offered by this new suitor; and, because Carlos was Eboli’s strange prince of peace, Egmont necessarily wanted to meet him. Don Carlos had gone from being a headache of the future to a very current political liability.

On 5 April 1566, some 300 armed ‘confederates’, many of them minor nobles or gentry, forced their way into the royal palace in Brussels. In the name of over 400 aristocrats and other leading subjects, they insisted that the Inquisition be suspended in the Netherlands. Margaret of Parma had little choice but to comply, for all that one of her councillors audibly advised her that she had nothing to fear from these ‘Beggars’ (Gueux, or Geuzen), who deserved a good thrashing.

Three days later, the confederates enthusiastically co-opted the insult by holding their famous ‘Beggars’ Banquet’. Once they were ‘well and truly drunk’, their leader, Hendrik of Brederode, announced that ‘as we have been called Beggars, it is reasonable that we carry begging staffs and drink from wooden bowls’. On cue, a page appeared with a vagrant’s satchel, which Brederode put over his head. He picked up a roughly hewn wooden bowl full of wine and drank it down, his voice booming: ‘I toast the good grace of the Beggars: Vive les Gueux!’ Then the whole raucous company swore ‘by the salt, by the bread, by the satchel, the Beggars will never turn coat!’

This congenially tipsy coalition created a carnival atmosphere in which all sense of hierarchy was undermined. There was a dangerous vacuum of authority, and on 7 July Margaret wrote to Philip about ‘the pitiable and miserable state of these Netherlands’ and ‘the peril we run of total ruin’. The Protestant ‘infection has grown to be a general epidemic across the country’. It seems as if everywhere Calvinist preachers were delivering resounding open-air sermons to crowds of thousands, the common people were arming themselves and, to the sound of gunfire, there were shouts of ‘Long live the Beggars!’

But the permissive egalitarianism of these clown-like rebels quickly lost ground to the ordered gravitas of Calvinist intolerance, riding high on the shoulders of newly empowered peasants and proletarians. On 3 September, Philip received an explosive letter. ‘I have told you about this evil,’ Margaret reported to her brother, ‘not only the heresy, but the sacrileges and destruction done daily to the churches, monasteries and temples, so that all divine mass has stopped.’ She added: ‘In Antwerp, they have begun to whitewash the church so as to exercise their Calvinist religion. And the Prince of Orange [and others] tell me that these sectarians want to come and murder in my presence all the priests and officers of Your Majesty’s Catholic Church.’

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