Statues are toppled from their plinths in a church during the Iconoclastic Fury. Etching by Frans Hogenberg, 1566-1570 | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. RP-P-OB-78.784-90

Meaning & Religion
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The Iconoclastic Fury

Civil War in the Low Countries

The divisions between Protestants and Catholics led to an iconoclastic fury, which in 1566 went through the Low Countries like a shockwave. Calvinists (Protestants) caused devastation in churches and monasteries. That was the beginning of the tumultuous events that led to the disintegration of the Low Countries.

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On 10 August 1566 the hat maker Sebastiaan Matte gave a fiery field sermona clandestine address in the countryside. just outside Steenvoordeplace in the Westhoek, at present just across the French border. . Like so many Calvinist preachers, he attacked the worship of saints, but also the hypocrisy and greed of the Catholic church. His words found an eager audience among the many impoverished textile workers in the Westhoek.

When he had finished his listeners went to a nearby monastery and destroyed all the images of saints. From Steenvoorde that ‘Iconoclastic Fury’ raged through the Low Countries. On 20 August it was the turn of the Antwerp churches and monasteries. People from all levels of society participated. Generally, the destruction was well organised by local Calvinist associations and town councils did not intervene because they were well-disposed towards the new religion.


Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-78.904

Nobles ask the regent for alleviation of the harsh anti-Protestant decrees (1566). They are mockingly called geuzen (beggars). Etching by anonymous artist, made between 1619 and 1649.

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Civil War in the Low Countries

As early as the first half of the 16th century tensions had arisen in the Low Countries. The textile industry, so important in the countryside suffered serious competition from England. The Habsburg Emperor Charles V ordered the up-and-coming Protestantism to be persecuted. In 1555, when Charles’ son Philip II came to power, the situation became worse. Philip had been born and bred in Spain. His style of government and dependence on Spanish advisers did not go down well with the urban elite and the local nobility. New taxes caused discontent. Through his harsh treatment of Protestants Philip alienated even moderate Catholics.

Thus emerged the revolutionary atmosphere in which the Iconoclastic Fury could break out in 1566. The Spanish-Habsburg army was able to keep the lid temporarily on the rebellious mood, but in 1572 rebels were able to gain control of Holland and Zeeland. In 1576 the same thing happened in Flanders and Brabant. The nobleman William of Orange assumed leadership of the revolt. The rebels called themselves geuzen (beggars).

According to them Philip II, the lawful ruler, was a tyrant: he did not respect the rights and freedoms of his subjects. Because the king ignored their input, the geuzen rebelled. However, not all citizens shared that view, and so the revolt turned into a civil war. People from the same town, the same area found themselves in opposite camps.

Focal points

London, The Trustees of the British Museum

Filips van Marnix van Sint-Aldegonde (1540-1598) returned from Geneva a convinced Calvinist. William of Orange appointed him burgomaster of Antwerp for external affairs.


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Calvinist Republics in the South

In the second half of the 16th century Calvinism enjoyed wide support in the Low Countries. The followers of the French-Swiss church reformer Jean Calvin were also better organised than the supporters of Martin Luther. They formed the hard core of the revolt. In many towns the Calvinists actually took over the town councils and set up their own republics.

The most extreme of these was the Calvinist republic of Ghent. Between 1577 and 1584 Ghent operated as an independent city state. In Mechelen, Ypres, Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp too similar republics sprang up. These new forms of government were political experiments. Often ordinary people were given more power and the town councils introduced more just taxes. And naturally there was a religious component. Virtually all the town councils persecuted Catholics. In many towns a second, ‘quiet’ iconoclastic fury took place, in which the churches were thoroughly purged of images of saints.

The Calvinist town republics did not survive long. After a few years the Spanish army was able to subdue them all one by one. The last to fall was that of Antwerp in 1585.

Spaanse Furie.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, MAS

Anonymous painting of the Spanish Fury, 1585. During the so-called Spanish Fury of 1576 mutinying Spanish troops set fire to Antwerp. Thousands died. Hundreds of houses were burnt down, and the new town hall also went up in flames.

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The Fall of Antwerp and the Division of the Low Countries

During the 16th century Antwerp had grown into the commercial capital of North-West Europe. Spanish and Portuguese ships brought colonial goods from the ‘New World’ to its harbour, which was also linked by overland trade routes to German and Italian territories. The English imported wool and grain came from the Balticthe region on the Baltic Sea, present-day Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. . That grain was necessary to feed the many town-dwellers in the Low Countries.

When Antwerp became a Calvinist republic, the fate of the city became bound up with that of the revolt. In 1578 William of Orange moved to Antwerp, which hence became the effective capital of the rebels. But the Spanish commander Alexander Farnese succeeded in winning back the Southern cities for Philip II. On 17 August 1585, after a siege of fourteen months, Antwerp too surrendered. Subsequently there was an exodus of the Protestant part of the economic and cultural elite to the north.

The fall of the city tore the Low Countries in two. The south came back under the lawful rule of the Habsburg dynasty, while in the north the Spanish advance ground to a halt. The front line did not reflect the contemporary political and religious oppositions in the Low Countries. They did, though, to a large extent determine the border between present-day Belgium and the Netherlands.

Beeldenstorm Wervik.
Wikimedia Commons, Dgalle

Destruction in the Church of St Medardus in Wervik (Province of West-Flanders). It was in that region that the Iconoclastic Fury broke out in 1566.

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-78.784-10

On 25 October 1555 in the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels, Charles V (1500-1558) abdicates in favour of his son Philip II (kneeling). To the right of Charles V is his daughter and later regent Margaret of Parma. Etching by Frans Hogenberg, 1566-1572.



Hagenpreek Bruegel.
Boedapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Preaching of John the Baptist, 1566. It is possible that Bruegel gained inspiration for the work from attending a field sermon In Brabant.

Willem van Oranje.
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Wikimedia Commons

William of Orange (Willem van Oranje, 1533-1584), leader of the Revolt. Painting by Adriaen Thomasz. Key, 1580.

Plakkaat van Verlatinghe.
The Hague, National Archives

With the Act of Abjuration (1581) various territories including Brabant, Mechelen and Flanders, together with a number of Northern principalities, sent the message to King Philip II: you have violated our rights and freedoms, and we therefore reject your authority. That right of revolt against a tyrant was later incorporated in the American Declaration of Independence (1776).

Het Spaanse leger trekt Antwerpen binnen in 1585. Gravure van Frans Hogenberg.
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-80.000

The Spanish army enters Antwerp in 1585. Engraving by Frans Hogenberg.

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