Pieter Bruegel’s The Massacre of the Innocents

What are you afraid of? A handful of men, a worm turning against the King of Spain? You are fifteen provinces, and we are two. What have you to fear? 

WILLIAM THE SILENT in answer to Don John of Austria’s delegates it the Conference of Geertruidenberg in 1577.

    ‘Think of God’s wrath and of the contempt of foreign peoples and princes. Think of the hateful yoke which you let rest upon you and your children.’ The appeal came from William of Orange in 1572, during the worst days of the struggle against Spain. Less than fifteen years before, William had been a Councillor of State under Philip II, a knight of the Golden Fleece, Stadholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. What had turned a loyal minister into a rebel and a peaceful country into a desert of hatred and death?

   That Spain ruled the Netherlands at all was due simply to the fact that Charles V had inherited both Flanders (from his father, Philip le Bel) and Spain (from his mother, Joan the Mad). There was nothing in this necessarily to cause friction. Charles was as much a Fleming as a Spaniard; the Netherlands were anyway not a political unit and his constitutional position varied from pro­vince to province (he was not a ‘king’ in the Netherlands at all) and he was at pains not to offend local pride. Nor had the religious division assumed hopeless proportions, though the persecution of Protestants had already begun. All this changed after 1555, when Philip II succeeded his father.

   In the Netherlands Philip was a foreigner. He spoke no Flemish and little French. His religious faith was of a more fanatical brand and he was no respecter of the constitutional rights of heretics. Spanish bureaucracy and bigoted religious persecution went hand in hand. Philip strove to impose Catholic conformity on his subjects, and as his ministers used harsher and ever more autocratic methods, even Catholics were roused to revolt. It became a national issue. 

   The Spaniards could find no solution but rule by terror, and their brutalities shocked even 16th century Europe. After 1567, the Netherlands were ruled by a series of military governors, of whom the Duke of Alba was the first and most ruthless. Public executions became daily events; whole towns were pillaged and their populations massacred. It was this policy of repression rather than any common principles which kept the northern provinces together.

   The fact that resistance hardened in the north an led to the formation of the Dutch Republic was partly a geographical accident. The dividing line was neither linguistic nor religious (there were thousands of Catholics in the north throughout the revolt). The north could be defended; it was difficult to defend the south. As conditions became intolerable, Protestants naturally fled north. Many of the personalties whom we think of as typically Dutch were immigrants from Flanders.

   The apalling agony which the Netherlands had to suffer before this could be achieved left an indelible mark on memory. The language of protest comes through even in painting with subjects remote from contemporary history. Beggars in a street will be seen to have been punished by horrible mutilations. The Crucifixion procession will be driven forward by a military escort, while a stricken populace looks helplessly. The ‘Numbering’ at Bethlehem will show the forced registration of Flemish townsmen for a new tax. In Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents the peasants pleading for mercy are the country people of Flanders, Herod’s troops are the armoured  lancers of Spain and the grim commander who leads them is Alba himself.

In: H.G. Koenigsberger. Europe and The World 1559-1660. The Age of Expantion. Edited by Hugh Trevor-Hoper. Thames and Hudson, London, 1968. p. 76.

The Triumph of Death