January 04, 2009

The Role of the Inquisition in the Low Countries

A couple of years ago, on the Radio 4 Program, In our Time, Alexander Murray (Emeritus Fellow in History at University College, Oxford) suggested that the Spanish inquisition was part of an agenda of state formation in Spain in the early modern period. Spain a country created in the late 15th Century imposed ideological conformity and administrative unity through the instrument of the inquisition. Murray's theory is interesting and provoking- reading Jonathan Israel's account of the Early Modern Netherlands it becomes even more interesting- because whether that is what we think that the Spanish Inquisition was doing, I think we can argue based on Israel's book that that is precisely what the Low Countries inquisition was doing, and that the response to that inquisition in the Netherlands was a response both to the clerical and to the centralising agenda of the inquisition.

The transition from a medieval to a modern state might be described as the transition from a state wherein there were multiple focii of power- around several notable families- to a unitary state. One thinks for example of the Percies or the Nevilles in the North of England who were capable in the 15th Century of functioning pretty independently. This is a broadbrush approach- and there are exceptions- but stick with it for a moment. Because wherever it was not true, it was definitely true in the Netherlands that the crown governed through notable landed families in the 15th and early 16th Centuries. Phillip II for example relied upon William the Silent as Stadtholder of numerous provinces in the north. Accross the 16th Century inside the Netherlands we see the crown (at this point the Hapsburg crown) taking an interest in the development of a professional administrative class- Antoine Perrerot de Granvelle and Viglius van Aytta are notable examples of these men- who were educated by the humanists and formed an alternative cadre for appointment.

The crown though had to see inside each nobleman's provinces. We know that in the 1550s and 1560s one of the focii for conflict between the centre and the periphery in the Netherlands was religion. Several noblemen permitted religious heresy to take place on their own lands. Phillippe de Montmorency, Count of Horn, for example within the county of Horn allowed Protestants to proslytise- as did the noble leaders in communities in Gederland such as Culemborg, Broculo-Lichtenvoorde and Batenberg. Developing the powers of the inquisition would not merely enforce religious conformity but undermine the power of the nobility to interfere in their own regions and make their own choices about religion. Consequently when a more efficient structure of bishoprics was imposed- with Granvelle himself going to one bishopric- and when the inquisition was strengthened, the nobility protested. At 's-Hertogenbosch for example the local clergy (the Abbots of Meierij) and the local nobility (the States of Brabant) objected to the installation of Bishop Sonnius. But more was to follow: in 1565 Hendrik van Brederode and Floris of Culemborg set up the league of compromise which was a movement of crypto-Protestant and Protestant noblemen. In April 1566 they were able to present a petition to the regent of the Netherlands- Margerate of Parma- with a petition signed by 200 noblemen advocating the dismantlement of the inquisition.

On the one hand we should see that petition and the events I have discussed here as religious events- a Protestant faction responding to a Catholic crackdown. But also there is another part of the story- whether in the Holy Roman Empire (with Frederick the Wise), in England, Scotland, France or Spain, the reformation and counter reformation represented efforts by rulers to centralise their realms. The crown through these movements was claiming great powers, powers to inspect and verify the faith of its servants at great distances. The reaction to those claims wherever it came from was religious- but it also concerned the extent of those powers. Many within the nobility did not see that centralisation as a particularly 'good' thing- for them it represented a diminishing of their sphere of power and could be a Trojan horse for other royal claims. It is worth remembering that when the Dutch nobility objected to Phillip's inquisition what they were doing was objecting to a counter-reformation attack on Protestantism- but they were also seeking to defend their own privileges and powers against royal aggrandisment.

The dual face of the reformation cannot be ignored: we have to pay attention both to the fact that the reformation was a religious movement and that it turned confessionalisation into royal policy- the first had consequences but so did the latter and out of the fires of the reformation, the modern conception of the state evolved. Whereas where as with Phillip in the Netherlands or the Elizabeth in England, that process of state formation based on the creation of religious uniformity worked- in the sense that resistance was dealt with with ease- in the Low Countries, the process failed and consequently the Northern Netherlands split away forming the United Provinces. State formation- along with religious enthusiasm- is at the heart of the story of the Low Countries in the 16th Century.

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