The bloody backdrop

Prince William I, the Not-So-Silent ... of Orange

The Martyrs Mirror is not a history book. It certainly contains historical information, and it is an especially interesting original source in that it focuses on humble lower and middle class individuals and their private dramas, rather than larger than life figures and the broad brushstrokes of history.

But the Mirror skips along the surface of history, like a stone over water, briefly referencing clues to the larger political forces that crush its victims underfoot. I was noticing that the 1570s were especially brutal with luxuriously lurid accounts of the Spanish methods of torture and execution being increasingly mentioned. I finally got a clue to the context of this bloodbath with the first mention of William I, Prince of Orange in the story of Faes Dircks of Gouda, who was burned to death in 1570.

According to the Mirror, when William of Orange captured Gouda, he considered disinterring a priest who had led the persecution of the local Anabaptists, but decided against it. Instead he:

“…Hired a man for about four guilders, who took down the bones of Faes Dircks from the scaffold, and opened the grave of the aforesaid priest, who had previously died, and been interred in the church of the Franciscans, near the high altar, and then laid the bones of Faes Dircks upon the body of the priest; thus deriding this traitor…”

I kinda liked this prince guy after reading that. I saw him mentioned again in an oddly worded sentence in the story of Maeyken van Deventer, who was executed in Rotterdam in 1573, so I decided to look him up.

A quick search led me to an account of the Eighty Years War (1568–1648), an event name with which I am familiar. But, thanks to my sketchy American education on medieval European history, I had to re-learn that this was the war in which the revolting Protestants kicked the Catholic Spanish out of the Netherlands. It took a while, and the Spanish penchant for eradicating Protestants (Anabaptists included) when they regained control of Dutch towns in the late 16th Century resulted in many of the tragedies the Mirror mentions around this time. Interestingly, the Mirror’s accounts do not extend much beyond this war, and the focus of the book shifts to Switzerland before the accounts finish in the 1570s.


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