After the dividing of Christendom in the 16th century, kings and princes fought over whether their realms would be Catholic or Protestant.
While we call these “Wars of Religion,” we should not forget that these kings and princes were using religion in their quest for power and control in these contested territories.
The French Wars of Religion pitted the House of Valois and the Catholic League against the Huguenots from 1562 to 1598, ending with the death of the last Valois heir and Henry of Navarre’s conversion to Catholicism.
Reigning as the first Bourbon king, Henry IV decreed the Edict of Nantes, extending toleration to Protestants in France.
Within the vast Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years’ War devastated central Europe from 1618 to 1648.
Although the Peace of Augsburg had settled Catholic and Lutheran conflicts during the reign of Charles V, because of the growth of Calvinism and other struggles between the independent states of the empire, religious conflicts flared, resolved finally by the Peace of Westphalia.
In present-day Holland and Belgium — the Low Countries then called “the Spanish Netherlands” — religious differences fueled the conflict between Calvinist Rebels and Catholic Spain. This Eighty Years’ War, from about 1566 to 1648, involved Dutch rebels aided for a time rather reluctantly by Elizabeth I of England battling Spanish rule led by Philip II of Spanish Armada fame.
In each of these religious wars, both sides committed atrocities — massacres; pillaging; destruction of cities, towns, villages and farms — leaving a path of poverty and disease in their wake.
Protestant armies wrecked great cathedrals and monasteries in iconoclastic fury against Catholic images of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angels and saints.
The 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots in Paris is an infamous episode in the French Wars of Religion. Less familiar in the same year is the story of the Gorkum martyrs, victims of religious hatred in the Eighty Years’ War.
Among the confederacy of Dutch nobles and rebels opposing Spanish rule, the first to achieve military success were the Watergeuzen, or Sea Beggars. They were pirates raiding Spanish ships and carrying their booty off to English ports from 1569 until 1572. Then Elizabeth I closed her ports to the Sea Beggars in a diplomatic effort to reduce conflict with Spain.
The Sea Beggars had to find a new port and attacked Brielle on the Netherlands’ North Sea coast.
Since the Spanish garrison had left the city undefended, the Sea Beggars easily occupied Brielle on April 1, 1572. As an April Fools’ Day joke, this event is still celebrated in Brielle with a re-enactment of the battle and “chalk night.”
On March 30, people mark windows with lime chalk and latex paint, vandalism that might recall efforts to mark the homes of those who supported the Spanish. There was even a pun in Dutch on how the Sea Beggars stole the Spanish commander’s glasses (in Dutch bril) when they captured the city (in Dutch Den Briel).
Once the Sea Beggars had a port, they also held a beachhead in the Netherlands which allowed for further incursions into Spanish-held territory. The taking of Brielle was a turning point for the rebels, sparking greater opposition to Spain as they captured Flushing (Vlissingen), an important city on the North Sea, and the Scheldt River, and then captured Gorkum, further inland.
In Gorkum, the Calvinist Sea Beggars caught and imprisoned eleven Franciscan friars and lay brothers, four parish priests, two Norbertine canons, an Augustinian canon regular and a Dominican friar (see sidebar).
John of Cologne, the Dominican pastor, came to Gorkum after hearing of the others’ arrest to offer spiritual consolation and thus was arrested.
These 19 were held in prison from June 26 until July 6 and then taken in two separate groups to Brielle to appear before the leader of the Sea Beggars, William de la Marck.
They were given the chance to renounce their allegiance to the pope and to deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist. They refused.
Throughout their imprisonment and interrogations, the 19 were brutalized, offered for public display and held in spite of orders from the leader of the Dutch rebellion, William the Silent (the Prince of Orange).
On July 9, 1572, these witnesses to Christ were hanged. Their bodies were mutilated during their executions and after, before they were dumped in a ditch.
Catholics in the Netherlands immediately started visiting the site of their execution and venerating them as martyrs and intercessors. Their relics were taken to a Franciscan friary in Brussels.
Pope Benedict XIV beatified the Franciscans and their companions in 1675.
Brad S. Gregory recounts in “Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe” (Harvard University Press, 1999) that on Dec. 9, 1688, the archbishop of Mechelen honored the Gorkum martyrs with a Mass and procession in Brussels that began at the friary and continued to the Cathedral of St. Gudule (now dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel) and back to the friary.
Gregory notes that “virtually every [person in Brussels] must have known about the Gorkum martyrs and the local repose of their relics” (pp. 300-301) after this great event.
When the friary was suppressed in 1796 during the French Revolution’s campaign of de-Christianization (Brussels was in French territory then), the relics were moved to the Church of St. Nicholas just off the Grand Place.
Pope Pius IX canonized the Gorkum martyrs in 1865 and, in 1870, a gilded bronze reliquary was created for the relics, decorated with their images on the sides of the rectangular case and events from their arrest and martyrdom on the lid. (The Church of St. Nicholas also displays a small painting of the Madonna by Peter Paul Rubens.)
More Witnesses for the Faith
The Gorkum martyrs are not the only Catholics who suffered for the faith in the course of the Dutch revolt, however. According to Gregory, from 1567 to 1591, 130 priests were martyred in the Netherlands, and 1572 was one of the worst years. For example, five Franciscan friars were hung in Alkmaar on June 24, 1572; 12 Carthusians were attacked and murdered in the chapel of the Charterhouse of Our Lady of Bethlehem in Roermond, Holland, on July 30, 1572, by the soldiers of William the Silent; and the last prior of St. Agatha’s monastery in Leiden, Cornelius Musius, was arrested, tortured and finally executed by van der Marck on William the Silent’s orders on Dec. 10, 1572.
The Dutch revolt and the Eighty Years’ War finally merged into the last years of the Thirty Years’ War, as the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons in the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and France all contended for power in the midst of the struggle over religion.
The Netherlands gained independence from Spain with the Peace of Westphalia.
The story of the Gorkum martyrs and indeed of other martyrs of that era may have been forgotten — there is an active cause for the martyrs of Alkmaar — but their witness to the Catholic faith will ever stand.
The ultimate victory of the martyrs is achieved in their conformity to their Savior, who suffered and died, and rose from the dead.