1566 was a year in which dramatic and decisive events followed in quick succession. It was the start of the Dutch Revolt against Spain.
On 5 April 1566, around two hundred nobles paraded through the streets of Brussels. To emphasise their good faith they bore no arms. Their objective was the royal court, where they intended to present a petition to governor Margaret of Parma. It was an urgent appeal for change. They demanded that the strict laws which enabled the authorities to persecute and execute Protestants be moderated. They also wanted the traditional rights of the nobility and provinces maintained, and called for a national assembly, the defunct States General, to be convened. Their protest earned the nobles the nickname beggars: gueux. Later, the rebels adopted the name and proudly called themselves ‘geuzen’.
Margaret of Parma suspended the religious decrees to gain time to consult with the Spanish king Philip II, who ruled over the Netherlands from Madrid. Protestants made use of their new-found freedom to attend public sermons. On 10 August 1566, a mob in Flanders was roused by a sermon to march to the local monastery, a much resented Catholic bulwark. They smashed the statues of saints, claiming these were idols that had to be destroyed. It was the start of a series of iconoclastic riots that spread like wildfire from the Southern to the Northern Netherlands and is remembered in Dutch as the Beeldenstorm.
In addition to the statuary, church and cloister interiors were also ransacked. Depictions of saints and biblical figures in paintings and altarpieces were defaced by angry crowds. This painting, The Seven Works of Charity, was severely damaged in one of the many incidents. The faces of the monks were scratched out with a metal object. Traces of the destruction are still visible.
These events did not come out of the blue. Tensions had been mounting as the suppression of Protestants continued. Moreover, an economic crisis was causing unemployment and poverty. And people were going hungry: these were perfect conditions for social unrest. Indeed the mobs that ransacked the churches were not just Protestants, and they represented all social classes.
Philip II sent the Duke of Alva with an army of 10,000 men to the Netherlands to restore Spain’s authority over the population. Alva began by setting up a Council of Troubles, a special tribunal to prosecute those who had attacked churches. It soon became known as the Council of Blood, because of its many death sentences. Alva himself was to become known as the Iron Duke. While he thought he would solve the problem in half a year, his fight with the rebels continued for years.