Margaret, Duchess of Parma, who for eight years had ruled with well-nigh sovereign power, now found herself a cipher in the land which she had governed. From the time of Alva's arrival she had not ceased to demand her release from this humiliating position. In October 1567 Philip at last accepted her resignation, at the same time appointing the Duke of Alva as Governor-General of the country.
The tidings of the Regent's abdication was received with dismay throughout the Provinces. If there had been evils in her administration, they were forgotten in the atrocities which they foresaw would follow on the appointment of the Duke of Alva. Addresses poured in upon Margaret from every quarter, and more than one of the Provinces showed their good-will by liberal gifts. Cheered by these signs of interest, Margaret wrote a farewell letter to the Estates in December 1567, and a few days later she left the country whose indomitable spirit she had failed to crush.
Alva was now in supreme command of the Netherlands, with authority as great as had the King himself. And this authority he was prepared to use. The disguise he had deemed necessary until the arrest of the nobles was accomplished might now be thrown aside. He would take no further trouble to hide his cruel purposes.
Already in September Alva had created a tribunal before which his prisoners might be tried without delay. Originally called "The Council of his Excellency," its name was soon changed to "The Council of Tumults," though it was popularly known throughout the country as "The Council of Blood." This tribunal, though provided with no charter by the King, exercised authority greater than that even of the Council of State. Yet it was in reality only an informal club, of which the Governor-General was perpetual president, while all the other members were appointed by himself. Two members, Vargas and Del Rio, alone had the privilege of voting. They were both Spaniards, and Alva could have found no more suitable tools than these with which to carry out his designs.
Berlaymont and Noircarmes, having given abundant proof of their loyalty, had seats on the tribunal, but they found the wholesale butchery in which the Council indulged so abhorrent that they soon absented themselves from the meetings, their example being followed by the Chancellor of Gelderland and the presidents of Flanders and Artois.
As soon as the tribunal was established, the Provinces were ransacked in search of victims, and informers were encouraged to accuse their neighbours. Information poured in, and was duly placed before the tribunal, the Council sitting regularly morning and afternoon, while the Duke himself was often present for seven hours in the day. To try each case separately was impossible, and accordingly whole batches of those accused were condemned together, till from one end of the Netherlands to the other the executioners were busy. Stake, sword, gibbet, these all did their gruesome work, until the whole land ran red with blood. Innocence was no safeguard from the charge of treason. Thus Peter de Wit of Amsterdam was beheaded because at one of the tumults in that city he had persuaded a rioter not to fire upon a magistrate. He must indeed be a man in authority among the rebels if he had power to command a rioter, and, his good deed notwithstanding, Peter de Wit was put to death.
It was now late autumn of the year 1567, but in 1566 one named Madame Juriaen had struck with her slipper a little wooden image of the Virgin, while her maidservant, who had witnessed the act, had failed to denounce her mistress to the authorities. Though months had passed since the sacrilegious act had been committed, Madame Juriaen and her little maid must be punished. Accordingly, both were drowned by the hangman in a hogshead placed on the scaffold. Merry joy-bells rang no longer from the towers and belfries of the cities, only death-bells tolled their solemn notes through the long, dreary days. The Netherlands would have been depopulated had not stringent orders closed the gates of every city. Grass began to grow in the forsaken streets. Silence reigned where formerly the busy stir of life was heard. The great manufactories failed, and the industrial centres were deserted.
One of the first acts of the Council in 1568 was, in the name of Alva, to summon Orange, Louis of Nassau, Count Hoogstraaten and other nobles to appear before their tribunal within thrice fourteen days from the date of the summons. Should they not appear, the penalty would be perpetual banishment, with confiscation of their estates.
That obedience would have been followed by death the nobles were well aware, and the summons was ignored. The Prince of Orange, however, publicly denied that either Alva or his self-constituted Council had any control over his person or his property. The defiance of the Prince cost him dear. By some strange oversight he had left his eldest son, a boy of thirteen years of age, in the country to continue his studies at the College of Louvain. Alva saw his chance of revenge, and did not hesitate to grasp it. He determined at once to seize the son as hostage for the good behaviour of the father.
On the 13th February 1568 Signor de Chassy, attended by four officers and twelve archers, presented himself at the College of Louvain and demanded to see the Prince's son. When the young nobleman appeared, De Chassy handed him a letter, in which he was told to place entire confidence in the bearer of the despatch. With a boy's excitement he read that it was the desire of the King to see him educated for the royal service. The young Count de Buren's curiosity was aroused, and he listened eagerly when De Chassy proceeded to invite him in the name of his Majesty to Spain, adding that he himself would be his escort. Should his tutor be willing, he, along with his two valets, two pages, a cook and a keeper of accounts, were to accompany the young Count.
It had been arranged that the lad should be taken to Antwerp, after which he would be escorted to Flushing, there to embark for Spain. The scheme sounded delightful to the lad. He accepted the invitation of his captors readily; he even wrote to the Duke of Alva, who had arranged the pleasant trip, to thank him for his kindness. Indeed he did all in his power to help his enemies in their attempt to kidnap him. During his short stay at Antwerp he was fêted in a way to delight his boyish tastes, and he set out for the gloomy land of Spain without reluctance.
Philip's revenge had in it a refinement of cruelty. The Count de Buren suffered neither imprisonment nor torture, but he was trained in such a way that when he grew to be a man there was left in his character no trace of the noble and self-sacrificing spirit which was the rightful inheritance of all who belonged to the House of Orange of Nassau.
Meanwhile consternation reigned at the University of Louvain. The University had statutes and privileges which even the Duke dare not infringe. The abduction of a pupil was a gross violation of these privileges, and the professors did not hesitate to assert their rights and to demand the restoration of their pupil. It was in vain. Vargas, upon whom as Alva's deputy the professors waited, treated them with but scant courtesy. They pleaded the privileges of their order. "We care nothing for your privileges," answered Vargas, as he dismissed the now fearful and downcast professors.
Meanwhile the terrible Blood Council was besieged with petitions on behalf of those who were imprisoned, but these in nowise softened the hearts of those to whom mercy was a virtue as foreign as was justice. To the magistrates of Antwerp, who came with a prayer for mercy on behalf of some of their distinguished citizens, the Duke's answer was fierce and passionate. "How dare the magistrates intercede for traitors and heretics?" he shouted angrily. "Was not Antwerp a very hotbed of treason?" "Let them look to it in the future," he continued, "or he would hang every man in the country, for his Majesty would rather the whole land should become an uninhabited wilderness than that a single Reformer should exist within its territory."
And indeed it was not long before a sentence of death was actually pronounced upon all the inhabitants of the Netherlands.
The sentence was issued by the Pope, and ten days later confirmed by the King, who ordered it to be carried into execution, without regard to age, sex, or condition. A few persons specially named were alone exempted from this awful doom. No added impetus was needed by the cruel Blood Tribunal, yet the sentence supplied one. Alva complacently wrote to Philip that as soon as Holy Week was over he hoped to execute eight hundred heads. The Duke had also determined to end the disturbances caused in the street by the speeches which the victims addressed to the onlookers as they passed to the scaffold. His invention was sufficiently brutal. A new gag was invented. The tongue of each prisoner was screwed into an iron ring, and then seared with a hot iron. It at once became so swollen and inflamed that there was no possibility of it again slipping from the ring, and speech was of course impossible.
Meanwhile nine months had passed since Egmont and Hoorn had been imprisoned in the strong citadel at Ghent. They had met with none of the indulgence usually granted to prisoners of State. They were allowed to take no exercise in the open air. They were shut off from intercourse with any members of their family, and but for the care of friends would have had to go without even the necessaries of life. Their enemies had not been idle. "Bakkerzeel," wrote the Duke to Philip, "makes disclosures every day respecting his master, Count Egmont. When he is put to torture, wonders may be expected from him in this way." But the rack extracted nothing from the unfortunate man save some obscure information as to where Egmont had hidden boxes filled with plate and some caskets of jewels, remnants of his once splendid fortune.
On the 12th November 1567 Egmont and Hoorn had been separately questioned by Vargas and Del Rio, but it was not until the 12th January in the following year that they were provided with a copy of the accusations brought against them. Care had been taken that no offence should be forgotten. Egmont's crimes, amounting to ninety in number, included the folly of the fool's cap and livery, while the complaints against the minister Granvelle were counted as treason against the monarch. The accusations were answered by both prisoners with indignant denials of any treasonable or disloyal intentions. Ceaseless efforts were made on behalf of the two unfortunate nobles, and at length, as a great concession, they were permitted to procure an advocate to aid them in their defence. Egmont's wife, who, with her eleven children, had been reduced to absolute want, wrote touching appeals to both Alva and the King. But no appeal could alter Philip's purpose. The death of the nobles had been determined before ever Alva left Madrid. Their doom was but hastened by an attempt on the part of Hoogstraaten, and a more formidable one on the part of Louis of Nassau, to bring an army to the aid of the paralysed people of the Provinces.
Alva determined to take the field in person, but before he could leave Brussels it was necessary that the case against Egmont and Hoorn should be concluded. Other matters also were despatched with speed.
On the 28th May an edict was issued, banishing, on pain of death, the Prince of Orange, Louis of Nassau, Hoogstraaten and others, and confiscating all their property. Four days later eighteen prisoners of distinction were executed in the Horse-Market at Brussels. On the 2nd June the case of Egmont and Hoorn was submitted to the Council of Blood, or, in other words, to Vargas and Del Rio, who quickly pronounced the nobles guilty of high treason and sentenced them to death.
The following day the prisoners were brought in a carriage to Brussels. Escape was rendered impossible, the carriage being guarded by ten companies of infantry and one of cavalry. On reaching Brussels they were taken to the Brood-huis, a large building still standing in the great square of the capital. The Council met on the afternoon of the 4th June, and Alva was present while the secretary read aloud that the two nobles, Egmont and Hoorn, had been found guilty of treason, and should therefore be beheaded by the sword, their heads being then set on poles and their estates confiscated. Thereafter the Duke sent for the Bishop of Ypres. The prelate arrived at dusk, when Alva informed him of the sentence which had that day been pronounced on Egmont and Hoorn, and commanded him to visit the condemned and tell them that their execution would take place on the following morning. "Moreover," added the Duke, "you shall shrive the nobles, and thus prepare their souls for death." Aghast, the Bishop fell on his knees, and with tears and earnest prayers besought Alva to avert, or at least to postpone, the doom which had been pronounced. His entreaties were vain. Roughly the Duke answered, "You will act as confessor to the criminals, not as adviser to the Governor-General." Thus rebuked, the Bishop withdrew to carry out his difficult mission.
It was nearly midnight when the prelate reached the Brood-huis. Count Egmont was fast asleep, wearied after his journey, perhaps dreaming that the change to Brussels meant a speedy release. The Bishop roused the sleeping Count, and, unable to speak, placed in his hands a copy of the terrible sentence. Egmont read it without flinching, astonishment mingling with his dismay, till, remembering his wife and little children, he exclaimed bitterly against the cruelty and injustice of the sentence. Gradually he grew calmer, and, listening to the good Bishop's words, he kneeled and confessed his sins and solemnly received the Holy Sacrament. Then, still calm, he wrote his well-known letter to the King:
Sire— I have learned this evening the sentence which your Majesty has been pleased to pronounce on me. Although I have never had a thought, and believe myself never to have done a deed, which could tend to the prejudice of your Majesty's person or service, or to the detriment of our true, ancient, and catholic religion, nevertheless I take patience to bear that which it has pleased the good God to send. If, during these troubles in the Netherlands, I have done or permitted aught which had a different appearance, it has been with the true and good intent to serve God and your Majesty and the necessity of the times. Therefore I pray your Majesty to forgive me, and to have compassion on my poor wife, my children, and my servants, having regard to my past services. In which hope I now commend myself to the mercy of God. From Brussels, ready to die this 6th June 1568.—Your Majesty's very humble and loyal vassal and servant,
At ten o'clock on June 5, 1568, a body of soldiers came to conduct Egmont to the block. They brought with them, as the custom was, cords to bind the prisoner's hands. But the Count, showing them that already he had cut the collar from his doublet and shirt, and was therefore evidently prepared to suffer without resistance, they did not force this indignity upon him.
Escorted by the soldiers, and with the Bishop by his side, the Count proceeded to the Market Square, repeating, as he walked, some verses from the Fifty-first Psalm. In the Square 3000 Spanish troops were drawn up in battle array. In the centre of the Square a scaffold had been erected. Upon the black cloth which covered it were placed two velvet cushions, two iron spikes, and a small table. On the table lay a silver crucifix. From every window and roof fearful and sorrowful faces gazed down upon the scaffold, while in the Square itself there surged and swayed a restless throng. The Count is seen approaching. His face is grave, and he quietly acknowledges the murmured greetings of the down-trodden crowd. With steady step he mounts the scaffold, and, kissing the crucifix, he kneels on one of the cushions. Drawing a silk cap, which he had brought for the purpose, over his eyes, he repeats the words, "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," and as the words are still on his lips the executioner strikes off his head. A shudder passes over the vast crowd. Tears fall even from the eyes of the Spanish soldiers, who have known and honoured Egmont as a valiant general.
In the centre of the square a scaffold had been erected.
Of Count Hoorn's last hours less is known, though we learn that the terrible sentence left him as it found him, calm and composed. He was now seen to advance through the crowd, his head uncovered, his hands unbound. Calmly greeting those whom he recognised, he spoke a few words to the people, wishing them happiness, and begging them to pray for his soul. Uttering in Latin the very words that were last on Egmont's lips, he bent his neck to the stroke of the executioner. The heads of both victims were then exposed for three hours upon the iron stakes, the bodies being thereafter delivered to their friends. In spite of the soldiers, the populace crowded about the scaffold, muttering curses and uttering vows of vengeance on the Spaniards.
If the people had hated Philip before, their hatred was now increased tenfold. The execution of the nobles was ascribed, it is true, to the jealousy of the Duke, but Philip did not fail to proclaim his satisfaction with the deed, or to state that the Governor-General had only done what justice and duty demanded.