9. Calvinist Preaching in French Flanders in June 1566

Explanatory Comment: In April 1566 the lower nobility had petitioned the Habsburg government to abandon its repressive policy and to develop, in consultation with the States General, a religious policy better adapted to the circumstances of the Netherlands. Though Margaret of Parma did not, and indeed could not, consent to such a radical change of policy, she did agree to moderate (in effect to suspend) the prosecution of heretics until such time as Philip II could respond. As a result a power vacuum developed which enabled the more hot-headed Calvinists to take matters into their own hands during that summer and the practice of ‘hedge-preaching’ revived in Flanders.

The town governor of Lille here passes on intelligence recently received about several such open-air services. At one the lay preacher warned the extremists not to commit acts of violence for ‘the time was not yet ripe’. Blood-curdling rumours freely circulated during that summer: Catholics feared a massacre of the clergy, whilst Protestants continued to live in fear of ‘the Inquisition’. Rassenghien advised the Regent to put pressure on the signatories of April Request, most of whom were staunch Catholics, to declare their opposition to the ‘rabble sectaries’. The Calvinists boasted that they had the support of the nobility, a claim which in the circumstances of the day, only served to enhance their reputation in eyes of the commonalty.

Maximilien Vilain de Gand, baron de Rassenghien, governor of Lille, Douai and Orchies, to Margaret of Parma.
Lille, 30 June, 1566.

…I am bound, furthermore, to inform Your Highness that two more preachings took place last night, the chief of which, attended by some four thousand people, was held about two leagues from this town on the road to Tournai by a preacher whose name, I understand, is Cornille de La Zenne, the son of a blacksmith from Roubaix, who has long been a fugitive from this country on account of the religion. According to the report, which some reliable persons have submitted to me, whom I know to have been at the said preaching, the said preacher exhorted his auditors, among other things, not to start any trouble or [commit] any seditious act, because in such a case no one would assist them, but if anyone arrested them or examined them for no other reason than their faith, or for having gone to the preachings, they might all be assured that they would be helped before any ill befell them, and in conclusion he spoke more or less as follows: we pray to God that He may grant the destruction of this papist idolatry; be of good heart for we are quite strong, but our time has not yet come. And we pray God that He may keep the people of Tournai and Armèntieres in their convictions and likewise confirm the good start we see among the inhabitants of Lille. And when the said sermon was over, the preacher disappeared so quickly through the crowd with the help of twenty hackbutters, who escorted him, that it was impossible to know whither he had retired.

And in another preaching which took place a few days ago near the border with Tournaisis, three leagues from here, some rabble among the auditors told the preacher at the conclusion that they had decided on returning home to invade a certain house, I do not know which, in the vicinity of Tournai. He strongly warned them against this, saying that the time was not yet ripe and that he would tell them when the hour had come and that he hoped that it would be quite soon. Your Highness may judge sufficiently from these remarks that when the time and opportunity are favourable, they will be very ready somewhere to play a trick on some unsuspecting monastery in the countryside or some undefended town. We are afraid that once the corn has been harvested and gathered into the barns, which will be in two or three weeks’ time at the outside here, they will try to seize control of the countryside somewhere, before the towns have the means to obtain supplies, in order in this manner to starve the towns and to recruit by poverty a larger following, for which reason it would be expedient to give orders in good time and to find a way in advance of averting their assemblies. People when sedition first occurs to offer their services, boasting that instead of the four thousand Spanish soldiers whom the Catholic King sent to France, they could send four thousand gentlemen to Flanders and that the Constable [Anne, duc de Montmorency] must have replied a few days ago to some Catholics in Paris, grumbling about the Huguenots, that it was time to importune the King there and that they waited first to see what measures the Catholic King would take in Flanders. I hope, however, that we may place our trust in the nobility of the Low Countries and that the members of the Request [Compromise] have no understanding with the assemblies of these rabble sectaries, and that we can yet find a means to undo the schemes of the people without violence, by some declaration from the said nobility. If Your Highness would find it expedient to enter into discussions with the leading members of the Request in order to ascertain their intentions in the matter of the assemblies (which are harmful to both the consideration and the publication of any provisional edict Your Highness might think good to make), for some of the leaders of their deputation are present in each quarter [of the country], I do not doubt but that this would be most beneficial, for it would both remove the mistaken impression held by the infected people and also greatly reassure the judges and officers of the good intentions of the said nobility. Nevertheless I leave everything to the noble discretion of Your Highness, for whom I would always do everything in my power to obey.

Madame, I pray that Our Lord may give Your Highness the fulfilment of her highest and most virtuous desires, after having most humbly kissed your hands. From Lille on the last day of June 1566.

Source: S. Deyon & A. Lottin, Les “casseurs” de l’été 1566.
L’iconoclasme dans le Nord de la France
(Paris, 1981) 215-216.