"Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the Eternal Silence."
P HILIP was now left to gather up the reins of his mighty empire, keeping ever in view the desire of his father to crush the Protestants out of the land. Nowhere had they increased more rapidly than in the Netherlands. The first Dutch Bible had been printed some thirty years before this time, at Amsterdam, but the study of it had been forbidden by the emperor under pain of death.
"And if you will not obey me, you shall be burned," he added.
Two monks were burned at once for disobeying the royal command—the first Protestant martyrs of the Netherlands, the leaders of a great host who were afterwards burnt at the stake for conscience' sake. Still the numbers of Luther's followers increased. A further step was taken.
Men called Inquisitors were sent by the emperor to question the people about their belief, with instructions to burn alive all those who took part with Luther against the Pope. But, as in the days of the early Christians in Rome, the martyrdom of the Protestants only tended to strengthen their faith. Hundreds and thousands had been burnt in the Netherlands under the Emperor Charles. It was not likely that Philip would be more tolerant. To begin with, he had no sympathy with the Netherlands. Born and educated in Spain, he was Spanish to the backbone, and his great idea was to make Spain the capital of his empire, so that he might rule from there. So four years after his accession, he made his sister Margaret Regent of the Netherlands, and sailed away from Flushing for sunny Spain, never to return.
"I shall not rest so long as there is one man left believing in the teaching of Martin Luther," he said as he left his sister to carry out his instructions. And the Inquisition went forward more rigidly than ever before.
But no sooner had Philip turned his back than the men of the Netherlands began to show their discontent. Spanish soldiers had been left behind to enforce the Inquisition; day by day men were dragged from their homes, tortured, and killed for reading the Bible in Dutch, or for listening to Protestant teaching. In their misery many of them went to England, where they were kindly treated, and where there never was any Inquisition.
Meanwhile Margaret saw the growing frenzy of the people, and grew alarmed. She was a rigid Roman Catholic herself, but she saw that her brother was pushing things too far in the Netherlands. She wrote despairing letters to him, describing the gloomy state of the country and her fears of a rebellion. She sent the Count Egmont in person to try and alarm him as to the serious state of affairs.
But nothing was done. At last the nobles of the land determined to intercede. Some 200 of them made their way to the abode of Margaret in Brussels with a petition. An immense crowd watched them with shouts and cheers, for were they not the deliverers of the land from the tyranny of the Spanish Inquisition? They passed through the great hall where ten years before Charles had abdicated his throne, and entered the council-chamber. The document was read to Margaret. It told her what she already knew but it affected her deeply, and at the end she remained quite silent with tears raining down her cheeks.
"Is it possible that your highness is afraid of these Beggars?" cried one standing by her. "Take my advice and you will drive them faster down the steps of the palace than they came up."
Begun in a jest, the name of Beggars became the watchword of these men, the famous cry of liberty, which was to ring over land and sea, amid burning cities, on blood-stained decks, through the smoke and din of many a battlefield. They dressed themselves in the beggar's garb of coarse grey, they wore the beggar's wallet and common felt caps, while each wore a newly made badge with the words, "Faithful to the King, even to the beggar's sack." They shaved off their beards to resemble beggars yet more nearly. Hundreds of Netherlanders now became Beggars, until they became as "numerous as the sands on the sea-shore."
"Long live the Beggars!" cried the people, until Margaret grew more and more alarmed at their gathering numbers and their defiant air. And still her brother Philip was blind to the coming danger.
"You have done wrong," he wrote to her. "We will not be less cruel to the Protestants. I will not give up the Inquisition."