You remember how in the south of Europe the little Republic of Venice built itself up on the sand flats of the Mediterranean and made its successful stand for independence. Away up in the north of Europe there was another brave, liberty-loving people, which had undertaken to build a nation on the lowlands, or Netherlands, as they were called, at the edge of the North Sea. These were the Dutch people, one of the best branches of the old Teutonic stock from which all our nations came. They were such a little people that they had a hard time keeping clear of their German and French neighbors, who were determined to govern them; but at last, in 1477, they gained from their rulers a paper called the Groot Privilegie (the Great Privilege), which gave to the people even more rights than the Magna Charta had given to the English. But the rulers of Holland had no more intention than the kings of England of being bound by such a paper,—until they were forced to,—and that is where the "Beggars" come in!
It was in the sixteenth century that the Netherlands came to be oppressed beyond endurance. They were one of the kingdoms included by emperors of Europe in their realm, and they had endured much from these foreign rulers. The last two emperors, Maximilian and Charles V, had taken away many liberties of the Great Privilege; they had taxed the province, which was rich and prosperous, for huge sums of money to spend in their wars or on their court life.
"They are men of butter," one emperor had said. "I have tried them and they will submit to anything."
The Dutch were a slow people, but the next emperor, Charles's son, Philip II of Spain, was to find that they were not "men of butter," to be molded this way or that at the pleasure of a foreign ruler. He had been brought up in Spain, and the people of all other lands found him heartless and disagreeable. Do you remember that we said the patriots found out what were the universal rights of men by finding out what things were to them so precious that if they were taken away life became unendurable to them? Philip tried to take one of those rights away from the Dutch. He began to oppress and even to put to death every one whose religion was different from his own. The Dutch found that this was a new and very terrible danger to their liberty; for if a ruler did this, he was breaking at the same time every other law of freedom.
That was why, on an April day in 1566, the whole city of Brussels was stirred by the news that a long-expected procession was soon to enter the city. That was why the streets were thronged by eager crowds, the gates were watched, and when at last, at about six o'clock in the evening, the word was passed that the company was in sight, the crowds broke into wild huzzas.
Through the gates rode two horsemen, followed by two more, and more and more, till two hundred had entered the city; and as the long line wound through the narrow streets of Brussels, the multitude could not contain itself for joy.
Who were these men whose coming stirred the city and was to stir the nation? They were not warriors. That was plain, for their costume was of rich cloths and furs rather than the steel armor of the hated Spanish soldiers, and they wore golden chains around their necks instead of glittering breastplates. They were wealthy. That one could see by a glance at their plumed hats and jeweled swords, and at the rich trappings of their steeds. They were also handsome and young. But it was not for their youth or their beauty or their wealth that the people welcomed them. They were a band of nobles and gentlemen of rank who had come together to speak for the people's liberty. The Duchess Regent of Holland, Philip's sister Margaret, was sitting with her councilors in Brussels, and these gallant cavaliers had come to present to her a "Request."
The next day one hundred more gentlemen arrived, and on the third morning the crowds gathered once more along the road to the palace. At a little before noon they came two by two, as before. This time they were on foot, with no gay trappings of steeds and banners. At their head walked two men who were the idols of the people. On the right Count Brederode, tall and light, with handsome features and fair, curling locks, reaching, after the fashion of the day, to his shoulders. He bore in his hand the parchment on which was written the "Request," and as he walked along, acknowledging with stately bows and gracious smile the plaudits of the people, those who looked on remembered that he claimed a straight descent, unbroken through five hundred years, from the original sovereigns of Holland. With him walked Count Louis, the truest knight whom the Netherlands could boast, small of stature but well formed, and agile in his movements, with close-clipped brown hair, peaked beard, and dark eyes. The people knew him to be as gentle and generous as he was brave and steadfast, and they loved him for his ready wit and his warm heart.
These were the leaders, and behind them walked three hundred cavaliers, nearly all young, many of whom bore the most ancient names in the nobility of the nation. In the square before the palace an immense crowd welcomed them with deafening cheers and clapping of hands. They passed up the steps, through the great hall, and into the council chamber where the Duchess Regent Margaret was seated in her chair of state, surrounded by the highest officials of the land, among them several of the dark-haired Spaniards whom Philip had left to help his sister rule the land. As the long line wound into the room and took their places, the Duchess turned pale and showed much agitation.
As soon as all had entered, Count Brederode advanced, made a low obeisance, and spoke. He began by begging Duchess Margaret to consider them a loyal and honorable company, gathered be-fore her with no evil intent but humbly petitioning her, and her brother through her, in behalf of their land. They had come on foot and unarmed in proof of their sincerity. Then he read the "Request," which was, as he had said, loyal and respectful in tone, but which set forth in no uncertain terms the distress of the country and the danger of a rebellion of the common people. It pictured the sufferings of the people through the famine that was sweeping the land. It told how many had been forced by persecution to leave the land, and how great numbers of fugitives were sailing every day to England. This terrible state of affairs had come about through the edicts of the emperor that all who did not agree with him in religious faith should be killed. Fifty thousand had been put to death. The land was impoverished, the people were fleeing to escape persecution, and still the Spanish troops of Philip stayed and continued their bloody work. The petition begged that an envoy be sent to the emperor to tell him of these things and request the removal of the foreign troops, which were such an indignity to the whole Dutch people.
He finished reading, and Duchess Margaret remained silent, clasping her hands in agitation and with tears rolling down her cheeks. As soon as she could command her voice, she said that she would advise with her councilors and give the petitioners such answer as seemed fitting. Count Brederode bowed his acquiescence, and the long line of nobles began to pass from the chamber. But they did not march quickly out as they had come in. Before he went, each cavalier advanced to the Duchess and made before her the "caracole," a sweeping bow. This gave time for her to see each man, and made the departure a long and impressive ceremony.
The Duchess was left at last with her councilors to discuss this unheard-of demonstration. William of Orange, governor of three provinces, and the man who was to do more than any other man for the freedom of Holland, began the debate. He spoke reassuringly to the agitated Duchess, reminding her that it was even as the Count had said. These men were not rebels. They were loyal and honorable gentlemen, come with sincere wish for the good of the land, which was indeed on the eve of revolution. His was the only calm voice in the council. As the discussion waxed hot, one man, a high official and close adviser of the Duchess, becoming impatient that so many words should be wasted over so trifling a matter, exclaimed in a passion: "What, Madam, is it possible that your Highness can entertain fears of these beggars?"
The council broke up at noon, to return in the afternoon to consider the matter further, and as this same official stood at the window of his inn and saw some of the petitioners pass by, he repeated again the phrase which had pleased him, "Look, there go those beggars," and one of them overheard him.
That night Count Brederode gave in his mansion a fine banquet to all his colleagues. The tables were set for three hundred, the board glittered with gold and silver and was loaded with rich food, and all was merriment and glee among the cavaliers, now that the serious business of the day was done.
Amid the laughter and gayety the talk came round more than once to the cause in which they were come together, and at one of these times the contemptuous speech of the Duchess's adviser was repeated, to the great anger of those who heard it for the first time. As the talk about this insult grew more wild and violent, Count Brederode sprang to his feet: "Beggars!" he cried, "do they call us beggars? It were no shame to be beggars for our country's good. Let us accept the name!"
He beckoned to one of his pages, who brought him at his request a leather wallet, such as was worn in that day by professional beggars, and a large wooden bowl, such as they carried from house to house begging kind housewives to fill it with food. The count hung the wallet round his neck, filled the bowl with wine, and drained it.
"To the Health of the Beggars! Long live the Beggars!" he cried, and all the company took up the cry.
Brederode slipped off the wallet and threw it to his nearest neighbor, handing him at the same time the bowl. He in his turn slipped it round his neck, took the bowl, and filled it with wine, drinking to the same toast, "Long live the Beggars!" And so the wallet and the bowl passed around the table, and every man pushed aside his silver goblet to drink with his fellows out of the common wooden bowl. Each, as he held the bowl in his hand, threw a pinch of salt into the wine, for to take bread and salt together has always been in every land a symbol of friendship, and as he threw in the salt he repeated:
"By the salt, by the bread, by the wallet too, The Beggars will not change, no matter what they do."
They laughed as they did it, but there was much behind their laughter. They did not change. The name chosen that night was to spread like wildfire over the Netherlands, and to stand to every Dutch-man for a lover of liberty. There were to be "Beggars of the Sea," who would drive off the Spanish warships; "Beggars of the Land," who would defend the homes of Holland; "Beggars of Leyden," who were to say, "Better our land be ruined than be conquered," and were to open the dikes and let the sea flow in over their fields ripe with the harvest, in order to drive back by water the enemy whom they were not strong enough in numbers to turn back by the sword.
Count Brederode's guests had come to his banquet in velvets and gold laces. They went out to array themselves in doublets and hose of ashen gray, with short cloaks of the same color, all of coarsest materials. The next day they appeared in the streets carrying beggars' pouches round their necks and beggars' bowls slung at their sides.
The Netherlands were not to be delivered in a day. It took the life and death of William of Orange, "Father of the Dutch Republic," to free the land; it took the life and death of many a brave "Beggar" besides; and it took fifteen years of struggle. Englishmen came over in great numbers and helped the Dutch, seeing that these brothers across the Channel were fighting a battle not only for themselves but for all liberty-loving people. But when the war was over, the Dutch had won not only the religious freedom for which they began their fight but political freedom as well. King Philip of Spain was deposed; his authority was denounced by the Dutch nation. On the twenty-sixth of July, 1581, the seventeen provinces of United Netherlands published their Declaration of Independence, throwing off their allegiance to King Philip. "All mankind know," began this Declaration, "that a prince is appointed by God to cherish his subjects, even as a shepherd to guard his sheep. When, therefore, the prince does not fulfill his duty as protector; when he oppresses his subjects, destroys their ancient liberties, and treats them as slaves, he is to be considered, not a prince, but a tyrant." Thus they formed a republic which was the forerunner of our great republic across the seas, and adopted their motto of union, "By concord, little things become great."
To this republic of United Netherlands, with its newly won liberty, came within thirty years a company of English folk,—men, women, and children,—fleeing from persecution for their religious faith. In the earlier days, when Spain ruled the Netherlands, it had been Dutch people who had slipped away and sought shelter in tolerant England. Now a wave of persecution was sweeping England.
In one of the eastern counties of England, right in the heart of the district that had been settled in olden times by the adventurous and freedom-loving Danes, there had grown up in the minds of a little company of people a great longing for religious liberty. The church had come to be managed by the rulers of the land. They began to see that what they felt to be one of the rights of man was being taken away from them. They could not worship as they chose. The state decreed how the church should be managed, and what should be its forms of service. The leaders of these people had seen how free the people were in Holland, and they desired greatly to live in such liberty, and worship in the simplicity which was their wish.
But when these English folk attempted to do this in England, they were not allowed. When their views became known, "they could not continue in any peaceful condition," says William Bradford, their chronicler, "but were hunted and persecuted on every side,—for some were taken and clapped into prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and the most were fain to flee and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood. So, seeing themselves thus molested, by a joint consent they resolved to go into the Netherlands, where they heard was Freedom of Religion for all men." And from the time when, with many difficulties, they escaped by ship from England, these people were called Pilgrims, and so they are known to us who live in the land where they finally made their home.
But first the Pilgrims went to Holland, and were kindly received, as Bradford tells us, by the hospitable Dutch. As they came into the waterways of these lowlands, it seemed to these English folk as if they were come into a new world. "They saw many goodly cities, strongly walled. Also they heard a strange and uncouth language, and beheld the different manners and customs of the people, with their strange fashions and attire:—all differing from the plain country villages wherein they were bred, and had so long lived."
They settled first in Amsterdam and then a large number of them desired to go to the fair city of Leyden. So they sent a memorial to the magistrates, asking that one hundred of them might come to dwell in Leyden, and the Court responded that their coming "would be agreeable and welcome."
In Leyden they went to work at trades and other employments to earn their livelihood, and of their record we may well be proud. "Though many of them were poor," says the chronicler, "yet there was none so poor but if they were known to be of that congregation, the Dutch (either bakers or others) would trust them in any reasonable matter, when they wanted money. This was because they had found by experience how careful they were to keep their word, and how diligent in their callings." And the magistrates, "about the time of their coming away, gave in the public place of justice this commendable testimony. These English, said they, have lived amongst us now these twelve years, and yet we never had any suit or accusation come against any of them."
Fortunately for us they did not stay in Holland. The atmosphere of liberty was pleasant to them, but they could not remain in a land of foreign speech and customs and faith. "We live here but as men in exile, and in a poor condition," they said, and they began to long for a land which should be their own, and where they might establish themselves according to their own faith. They feared, too, that the little company would be scattered, and that the children would grow up in the Dutch ways. "Lastly (and what was not least) they had a great hope and inward zeal of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto." Therefore they took thought of "those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation," and they departed from the Netherlands and set sail in the Mayflower, in 1620; for the new land of America, where the Teuton love of independence, which had inspired Hermann and Wittekind and Hereward and all the other patriots, was to create out of all nations of the earth a new nation of liberty.