14. Eye-witness Account of Image-breaking
at Antwerp, 21-23 August 1566
Explanatory Comment: Sir Thomas Gresham, a London Merchant Adventurer, had been appointed royal agent at Antwerp in 1551. He negotiated loans on behalf of the government. Richard Clough acted as his business manager in Antwerp. Much of the correspondence was naturally taken up with business affairs, but the political instability caused by the upheavals of 1566 deeply perturbed the foreign merchants in Antwerp, some of whom consequently withdrew.
Richard Clough to Thomas Gresham, Antwerp Wednesday 21 August 1566.
Sir, For that I have not received any letters from your Mastership of late, I have the less to write touching your affairs, all things being in good order heretofore (God be praised); but how long it shall so remain, God knows, for that we have had here this night past a marvellous stir, all the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of thing left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed, being done after such order and with so few folk that it is to be marvelled at.
And because you shall understand how this matter began, yesterday about five of the clock, the priests, thinking to have sung compline, as we call it, and here laudes1, and when they should have begun their service, there was a company [which] began to sing psalms, at the beginning being but a company of knaves, whereupon the Margrave and the other Lords came to the church and rebuked them, but all in vain, for that, as soon as they turned their backs, they [fell] to it again, and the company increased, being begun in Our Lady church, so that, about six of the clock, they broke up the choir, and went and visited all the books, whereof as it is said, some they saved, and the rest utterly destroyed and broke.
After that, they began with the image of Our Lady, which had been carried about the town on Sunday last, and utterly defaced her and her chapel, and, after, the whole church, which was the costliest church in Europe, and have so spoiled it that they have not left a place to sit in the church. And from thence, part went to the parish church, and part to the houses of religion, and made such despatch as, I think, the like was never done in one night, and not so much to be wondered at of the doing, but that so few people durst or could do so much for that, when they entered into some of the houses of religion, I could not perceive in some churches not above ten or twelve that spoiled, all being boys and rascals: but there were many in the church lookers on, as some thought: setters on.
This thing was done so quiet and so still, as if there had been much ado in the churches, all men standing before there doors in harness looking upon these fellows passing from church to church, whom, as they passed through the streets, required all men to be quiet, and cried all: Vive les Gueux! So that after I saw that all should be quiet, I, with above ten thousand more, went into the churches to see what stir was there, and coming into Our Lady church, it looked like a hell, where were above 10000 torches burning, and such a noise as if heaven and earth had got together, with falling of images and beating down of costly works, such sort that the spoil was so great that a man could not well pass through the church. So that, in fine, I cannot write you in ten sheets of paper the strange sight I saw there, organs and all destroyed; and from thence I went, as the rest of the people did, to all the houses of religion, where was like stir, breaking and spoiling all that there was. Yet, they that this did, never looked towards any spoil, but broke all in pieces and let it lie under foot. So that, to be short, they have spoiled and destroyed all the churches, so well [St.] Mary's as [the] others; but, as I do understand, they neither say, nor did anything to the nuns; but, when all was broken, left it there and so departed. So that, by estimation, they that spoiled, meddled with nothing, but let it lie; and, before it was three o'clock in the morning, they had done their work, and all home again, as if there had been nothing done, so that they spoiled this last night between 25 and 30 churches. And it is thought this day many more shall be spoiled abroad, for that, in divers places in Flanders, they have and do the like; for they that do spoil in Flanders, go by 4 and 500 in a company, and, when they come to a town or village, they call for the governor of the town, and so go into the churches, where, so much silver or gold as they do find, either chalices or crosses, they break and deface, and then delivered it to the head-officer by weight, and, for the rest, utterly destroy. And coming to a town in Flanders, where they so spoiled, one of there company did hide away the value of 4 or 5 shillings, where upon they took him, and caused a pair of gallows to be made, and hanged him on the market-place; and said they came not to steal, but to spoil that which was against God....
Richard Clough to Thomas Gresham Antwerp, Friday 23 August 1566
Right worshipful Sir. It may please you to understand that I send you my last of the 20 and 22 of this present, whereby I wrote you how things passed here, so well of the sudden destruction of the churches as otherwise, wherewith now many are offended that did favour them before, for that, according to my former letters, it was the marvellest piece of work, that ever was seen done in so short a time, and so terrible in the doing that it would make a man afraid to think upon it, being more like a dream than such a piece of work. And whereas it was well allowed in a manner of all men, the pulling down of the images, it is disliked of most men that they have made such a spoil as they have done, in stealing all the gold, silver and jewels within the church and breaking up of doors where they had nought to do. And they have spoiled not only the evidence [i.e. title-deeds] of all the churches, but the evidence of many in this town, whom had brought their evidence into the church, for fear of fire or other, as also whereas there was many fine sepulchres made in the churches, they have broken and defaced them all. So that by this means and other the preachers are come much into the derision of the people. God turn all to the best, for that presently we are here in great perplexity, at this present all men one afraid of another, and not without cause, for that the number of the poor are so much able to be master over the other. So that if there were not very good watch and ward, it were not other possible, but that all should go to ruin here, and for the avoiding thereof, the whole town hath watched, night and day, ever since this business began, and must do for a time. For that now there are many taken that have taken of the silver and jewels out of the church, whom shall be put to execution, whereabout I doubt will be much ado.
And as they did here, they have done the like in all Zeeland, having first begun at Flushing and after at Middelburg, and so throughout all the country. At Ghent they took them down themselves, and divers other towns also in Flanders, as also at Mechelen, Lier, Bergen-op-Zoom and Breda, they have done the like, and all other towns in Brabant, saving Leuven and Brussels, whom I think have done at the writing of this my letter. And all the country of Holland also. So that for these matters of religion, especially for idolatry, most men contented withal, but in a manner all men offended of the spoil that is done, whereof the Protestants are not to be blamed, for that, so far as I can learn, there was not one that was put to work of purpose, that have taken the worth of a penny; but the havoc that was done, was done by other vagabonds that followed, whereof some of our nation are blamed, and not without cause, for here are a great number in this town, that are fled out of England for robbing and suchlike, and kept such a stir in this spoil more than enough, and of such goods, as they have spoiled a great part, fetched out of their lodging, but part of them fled. So that presently here is a marvellous stir in this country, especially in this town, all kind of merchandise [is] at a stay and most men of reputation fled abroad into all places, for that, of all likelihood this matter cannot be well ended, but that this town shall be in danger to be spoiled for that all the vagabonds of the country [are] drawn to this town: God send us quietness.
Since the beginning of this my letter, they write from Brussels that the Regent hath made answer to the Geuzen [Beggars], which is to their contentment, and is that the whole matter is committed to the order of the Prince of Orange, the Count of Egmont and the Count of Hoorne, till such time as that the Great States [States General] of this country do meet, which hath not been in eighty years,2 nor cannot well be done in a year or two. So that this is that they have desired, for and if any man by the procurement of the Court shall take upon them to reform any of these matters, either by force or otherwise, these noblemen may by authority take part against them, so that there is good hope that all shall be well.
And now since this great fall of Babylon, the preachers that were wont to preach without, preach now within the town, and began as yesterday in the forenoon, being appointed by the lords, one to preach in Saint George church [St. Joriskerk], one in the borough church [Burchtkerk], and one in the Blackfriars: but when they came to the Friars, they shut the doors and would not suffer them to enter, whereupon the people would have broken down the doors, but the preacher would not at no hand that they shall do [ie did not want them to do this on any account], and so went into the new town [Nieuwstad], by the Easterling [Hanseatic] house and preached: but the other two preached in the churches, but, when they came in the afternoon to preach, they found all the churches shut. And because they would have no business, went all into the new town, and there preached; and, being at the sermon, came a letter from the Court brought by two of the nobles of the order, and delivered it to the preacher in the presence of all the people, which when he had read, he gave praise unto God and willed all the people to do the like. Whereupon he read the letter openly, whereunto was the hands of all the nobles of the order that are at the Court, willing the preachers for the more quietness of the people not to seek by force to preach in any of the churches, but to appoint them places fit for that purpose within the new town, where it should seem to them good, giving to them full authority so to do, and free license to all men whatsoever they are, to go to hear sermons, and that no man whatsoever they be, not to molest, nor trouble them, in word, nor deed, as they will answer. Whereupon there was a great noise amongst the people giving God thanks, and it seemed that the letter came before the preaching, for that, when the preachers came to make their sermons, there come with every of them two Lords of the town, and brought them to the preaching place, and when the sermon was done, went with them away, and the two noblemen also, so that this day will be a marvellous company at the preaching that durst not come before. That notwithstanding, two of the richest men in this town were there yesterday, to say Lomnoly [Daniel de Lommel] and Marcus Perez, besides many thousands of rich men, so that now there is good hope that all shall be well, and whereas in the great spoil divers pieces of altars stood, as also the twelve apostles about the church, which had cost a great sum of money, every picture at the least ten foot high, the Lords have caused them to be pulled down and broken in pieces, and all other images that remained, as also they caused all the altars to be broken in pieces and the altar stones, some of touch and some of marble, broken in pieces. So that so far as I can perceive, they will leave nothing in the church, whereof any memory should be, and all the stuff of that which is broken, the Lords have given to the masters of the poor, which is worth a great piece of money, although it be broken, for I dare say that the garnishing of Our Lady Church had cost above two hundred thousand marks, for there was divers altars that had cost 5, 6 and 7000 , but in fine all spoiled, not only there, but throughout all the town and country, and according as afore they of Mechelen took down all the principal pieces that they would have saved, before the commissioners came, as there are divers captains and these men that go about the country from place to place, and cast down and spoil all, but no man may take the value of one penny, and, before they do begin, they call the head-officer of the place, and deliver unto him all the plate and jewels, taking of a bill of his hand of the receipt thereof, and, having broken all, depart, and paying for that they do take, unless it be in abbeys. So that when they came to Mechelen, they found the principals taken down and laid up, whereupon they required to see that was taken down, which when they had seen, broke all the images in pieces, and they went into the church and spoiled the rest, and having done in all the churches saving the Grey Friars, then they went there and spoiled not only the church, but all the house, as they do the like in all places, for that they have been always suckers of blood, and, as they have done in Mechelen, so they do in all towns so that before my next, I think, all these Netherlands will be made clear. Having not else to molest Your Mastership worthy of writing, for that by my former letters I [have] written you at large, praying God to send you health and long life to your heart's desire.
Since the ending of this my letter being Sunday at 8 o'clock, the preachers of the word of God go to their sermon in the new town, whereupon the priests thinking not to give over this, opened all the churches and began to preach, whereupon divers stood up and said that the doctrine was false doctrine, whereupon was like to have come a foul piece of work, whereupon the Lords send unto them their officers, commanding them not only to leave preaching, but also to shut up their churches, or else they would. So that the priests will not leave this, till they have sought so well there own destruction as of their images; for, as I do understand, and if they be not quiet and that they do seek any further business, some of the captains have said that they will not leave one priest or friar alive in the country.
Source: Relations politiques des Pays-Bas et de L'Angleterre sous le règne de Philippe
II, IV ed. J.M.B.C. Kervyn de Lettenhove, (1885) 337-339; 341-344.
1 Compline was traditionally the last of the nine daily offices, whereas Lauds was strictly the first Office of the day. Sometimes Lauds was said overnight in anticipation in which case it might have been attached to Compline.
2 Richard Clough was mistaken. The States General had met frequently, most recently in 1558, but he may have been thinking of the crisis of 1477 or 1482 when the representative assembly had taken the initiative.