15. Contemporary Account of Image-breaking in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Friday 23 August 1566

Explanatory Note : The author of this anonymous account was a sister and a member of the tertiary order of St. Francis in the Brabant town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. She opened her account with the troubles of 1566 of which she was an eye-witness and she continued to record events until 1575. As a convinced Catholic she looked on the Calvinists, and especially the image-breakers, as desecrators of what was most holy, who did not scruple to ridicule the mass and the saints.

Text : In the year 1566 there was much murmuring in private among the great nobles of the country on account of the Council of Trent and the Inquisition. As Our Lord says [John 8:12]: ‘I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness’. But we have all been thoroughly corrupted, rulers and subjects alike; no one desires to acknowledge his shortcomings and, furthermore, — as there are now many secret defects and heresies — worldly pride could ill endure any such investigation into its shortcomings and unbelief. They seek thus to oppose the Catholic Church, exploiting the commotion among the commonalty, and intend on some fine pretext to introduce the Confession of Augsburg into this country. Though one should not eat cherries with great lords,1 I will say what I have decided to say.

So it happened on 21 July that a preacher arrived, claiming that he had been sent by one with higher authority, as he told the people from Den Bosch and other surrounding parts, who came to hear him preach in the fields as Christ had done. He was not exactly fearless for he had an armed escort for his protection, unlike Christ. When this had been going on for a while every Sunday and feastday, he moved from Engelen, which is half an hour’s journey from Den Bosch, to a field close by the town. There then came a second preacher whose name was Jan.2 The first one was called Cornelis [Walraven] and henceforth they preached in competition with one another. The magistrates forbade anyone in the King’s name to go out to hear the preaching on pain of forfeiting his life and property. But the more this was forbidden, the more they went, so the crowd thereafter grew larger. They [the Calvinists] set up a common purse and distributors of alms and they contributed sometimes thirty guilders or more, some indeed gave the rings from their fingers.

And after they had preached here, they entered the town in great strength with armed men, guns and halberds. He [Cornelis Walraven] first lodged on the Vughterdijk. The magistrates forbade him to enter the town in future with such a force, but he paid no heed. And when he went out of the town for the first time to preach, the schout fully intended to expel him or to arrest him, for which he required the assistance of fifty men. But no one would dare, [a failing] which they will yet rue.

He continued to preach outside in this way until 22 August. On Thursday about five or six o’clock in the evening news came that all the churches, chapels and monastic churches at Antwerp had been destroyed. They [the Calvinists] then set to work here also in St. Janskerk during the benediction [following vespers] and continued all night and they smashed the altars and gilded statues. They relieved themselves in the priests’ chests and tore up the books. We passed the whole might in great fear, for every moment we thought that they would come to our convent. But when day came, the crowd split up and they entered the monastery and then the nunnery and the others remained in occupation of the St. Janskerk.

From the Grey Friars’ church they entered our church on the Uilenburg about four o’clock in the afternoon of the Eve of St. Bartholomew, being Friday. They came in like madmen. They smashed everything to bits, namely three carved gilt reredoses and the stalls and chests and [broke] all the woodwork there in pieces. They carried on so dreadfully as if they would cast down the church; they stole whatever they fancied and took it away. And when they had nothing more to do there, they entered the nuns’ choir, where they destroyed fine altarpieces and many books and they took the habits and veils and carried off all the cloaks. Whenever they came across paintings of our dear Lord, they would destroy these more thoroughly than the other paintings. Above all they could not abide a crucifix. Alas, Jews and Turks would hardly behave as they did. And when they had sufficiently shown themselves in their true colours here, they entered the convent through the cloister alley, where they smashed the windows. They came like madmen with much hubbub and shouting of ‘Vive les gueux’, but then they saw us sisters. We sat together quite downcast; one wept, another called on God for help and some looked as though death stared them in the face. And when they saw this, they were quite taken aback and said: ‘Rest assured, we shall do nothing to you, but you must cease your worship of the little gods,3 or we shall repeat the game tomorrow.’ They wanted to appoint another superior and religious authorities for us, and [said] that we could no longer practice witchcraft. For they would not hear of masses or other services: and indeed no services were held in any churches and this continued for about fourteen days. It was then announced that the mass might again be celebrated, but the religious houses only dared to do this in private without ringing [the bell] for this purpose.

Now to continue: while this crowd were with us in the spinning-house, another great throng of people entered the church from outside to continue with the breaking and stealing of what was left. They came into the church on three occasions. And then they all entered the convent, there must have been a thousand people present in the convent and they went wherever they pleased and they stole the sheets and blankets from the beds in the dorter and they broke the lock on the door of our mother superior’s room and took what they wanted, including new sheets, wool and linen and they were given as much food and drink as they wanted, but that was still not enough because the women carried it out of the convent by the load4 as well as platters, pots, cans, whatever they could lay their hands on, indeed they have stolen more from us than we could say. About six or seven o’clock they left here for the St. Geertruiklooster and then went on to the Tolbrug and to the sisters of Orthen. About nine or ten o’clock the ruffians returned here, [saying] they would protect us during the night, but really to betray us, if they could, for they carried loaded pistols and bare knives. We would have preferred to lodge them before the gate and gave them food and drink and some of the nuns stayed there. But they said: ‘Sisters, you go to sleep together. We shall guard you well and watch over you’ — like a wolf would watch over the sheep! But the sisters were not so naive as to leave them to their own devices. Those who were inside did not dare to go to sleep, but sat together in several groups. O, how often we longed for daybreak. When it came to midnight, they [the ruffians] wanted to enter the convent, God knows what they sought, because they wanted torches and intended to come to the dorter. But the Lord spared us from dishonour, for those sisters who were with them, begged and prayed that they should not come. Instead they ran into the church and showed their nature by attacking a crucifix on the rood-loft like mad dogs. Then another three or four ruffians went behind the convent and broke down a door and wanted to join them, saying, ‘What you don’t want done now, will have to be done tomorrow, so let us come in’. They carried bare knives in their hands. O, when we saw this, we implored these fellows to put these away. They did so, but they also demanded pitchers of beer. And we had to produce these at their bidding. God alone knows what we heard that night. They ran into the kitchen and smashed the locks and wanted the meat dish, although it was Saturday [a fastday], of which they made light work. They ate and drank and made merry until it was light, when they took their leave, wanting to be thanked for what they had done. Never have we been so glad to see daybreak. We would never want to spend another night of such terror, no matter what we were paid. This was the first destruction carried out in the holy churches and religious houses.

Then on St. Bartholomew’s Day,5 for they were still in St. Janskerk, they dragged the gilded statues from there and burned them and they had supplies of beer with them in the churchyard and they sat by the fire and drank. And then a crowd ran to the Carthusian and Brigittine houses to do what they had done here.

And now these ministers no longer preached in the open, but in St. Jacobskerk, and in the chapels of St. Pieter, St. Cornelis and St. Anna. There too they baptised children without salt or chrism. But they welcomed the people, saying that they should eat joyfully. O, they taught the people day and night and brought them into great error and, further, into everlasting misery.

Source : Kroniek eener kloosterzuster van het voormalig Bossche klooster ‘Marienburg’ over de troebelen te ‘s-Hertogenbosch in de jaren 1566-76 , ed. H. van Alfen (‘s-Hertogenbosch, 1931) 1-5

1 A proverbial saying. R. Cotgrave, Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) explains s.v ‘cerise’ that the proverb ‘C’est folie de manger cerises avec son seigneur’ means ‘no wise man will be very familiar with one that is much better or mightier than himself; beside, hee that eates cherries with his master gets not many good ones’.
2 Nicknamed the ‘Ratcatcher’.
3 As the Calvinists used to call the statues of the saints and the host.
4 met scoten in sense of ‘met hopen’ i.e. in large quantities. I am indebted to Prof. dr. Marijke Spies for this explanation of the text.
5 24 August.