On more than one occasion, attacks on and the destruction of sacred places occurred in the Low Countries. Andrew Spicer has illustrated how warfare and individual acts of violence desecrated church spaces before the Beeldenstorm of 1566 swept through the region. Yet both the observers who lived in the sixteenth century and the historians who later studied the Low Countries have regarded this Beeldenstorm as a unique event that changed the course of history. Indeed, the nature and spread of the violence was unusual, and its link with Protestantism and the protest against reforms, both in the ecclesiastical and in the political spheres, reinforced the special status of the iconoclastic riots of 1566.2 Its prelude can be found in diverse political and religious events; Andrew Spicer, Peter Arnade and Violet Soen have discussed in detail the political landscape both on the eve of the Beeldenstorm and during its aftermath.3 Guido Marnef studied the particular role of Protestants in higher politics and on the local level.4 Unfortunately, we know little about those who endured iconoclasm. Therefore, instead of focusing on the political and religious backgrounds that contributed to the Beeldenstorm, this article discusses the impact of the Beeldenstorm of 1566 on the local community. The city of Ghent will be used as an example to help clarify how Catholics were or were not affected by the Beeldenstorm.

Ghent experienced two important waves of iconoclasm at the end of the sixteenth century that seemed to alter the course of its history in different ways. The context of the second upwelling of iconoclasm was very different from that of the first Beeldenstorm in 1566. From 1577 to 1584 Ghent and its surroundings were ruled by a rebel regime that openly promoted Calvinism.5 This seven-year period of Calvinist rule during which a second outbreak of iconoclasm took place, impacted emotionally on the Catholics of Ghent differently than the first. This was also the case in other areas in the Southern Netherlands that had been controlled by Calvinist regimes. Judith Pollmann has claimed that in this period ordinary Catholics in the Low Countries were important agents of change. She found proof of this in the initiatives of many believers after the fall of the Calvinist Republics around 1585. These believers were at the centre of the Catholic Reforms that often preceded the top-down implementation of the decrees instituted by the Council of Trent (1545–1563). However, according to Pollmann, before 1584 Catholics seemed to react only passively in the face of rising Protestantism.6

She provides several reasons for this apparent passivity. One reason was that in the specific political climate in the Netherlands in the 1560s, overly fervent displays of Catholicism, as well as sympathy for the Tridentine reforms, were linked to the Inquisition, which was opposed by almost everyone. The Netherlands also had a long tradition of demanding reforms within the Church. As a result, Protestant ideas did not immediately seem to clash with traditional (Catholic) Christianity. At the same time however, the clergy claimed to be in charge of the fight against heresy and demanded that laypeople remain uninvolved. The clergy did not discuss or counter heretical ideas in public but rather pushed believers to show penitence as heresy was considered God’s punishment for misdemeanours committed by Christians. Thus it was believed that neither oppression nor violence could solve these problems; rather piety and the better education of the clergy were necessary. Moreover, the stress on civic peace and the fact that practically everyone had friends, neighbours and family members with heretical ideas hindered the creation of a distinct division between good Catholics and evil heretics. In addition, the imprudent policy of the Duke of Alba after the first eruption of iconoclasm pushed Catholics to sympathise with their oppressed Protestant neighbours.7

A closer look at Pollmann’s analysis however, shows that militancy was the main aspect absent from Catholicism. It is an interesting observation that there was almost no violent opposition by ordinary Catholics towards Protestantism in the Netherlands, whereas the case in France is a very different story.8 However, to believers, Catholicism, or traditional Christianity, was more than militancy. This article therefore will shift perspective and examine the actions taken by local Catholics to maintain, defend or reform their faith in the immediate aftermath of the Beeldenstorm in 1566. Instead of explaining the lack of expected actions, this contribution will focus on the dynamics within the community and the actions of ordinary believers in an attempt to illustrate the features of traditional Christianity in Ghent during this period.

In the sixteenth century, Ghent had a population of between 40,000 and 50,000 people. Since the Middle Ages the city had consisted of seven rather large parishes that were patronised by the abbeys of St. Peter and St. Bavo. The central parishes were St. Michael, St. John, St. James and St. Nicolas, whereas the parishes of St. Martin, St. Saviour and Our Lady were situated outside the city’s walls.9 Because of the favourable archival situation of St. James, this article will focus mainly on this parish. Furthermore, we have a very valuable eyewitness account by the famous chronicler Marcus Van Vaernewijck, who was a parishioner and a churchwarden at St. James during the period under study. His chronicle was consulted along with a diary written by the Ghent Catholic brothers Cornelis and Philip Van Campene. Cornelis was the elder brother and began writing from the beginning of the troubles, but he died in September 1567. Philip, a member of the Council of Flanders, took over the diary after his brother’s death and added his observations until 1571.10 Likewise, Van Vaernewijck, in his account, described what happened in Ghent from the arrival of the first hedge preachers until his death in 1568. Van Vaernewijck came from an old and wealthy Ghent family. In addition to being an active member in his parish church, he was also a playwright in the chamber of rhetoric Marien Theeren. From 1562 on he served in various political functions as well.11 His own position as a firm Catholic is obvious throughout the entire account. When he described Protestant behaviour and ideas, he countered them with Catholic theology and history, indicating that he hoped his eyewitness account would one day serve an educational purpose and reveal that the Protestants were wrong. This polemical aspect is revealing because it helps us to understand Van Vaernewijck’s position in society and provides deeper insight into Catholic attitudes during this period. As neither of the two accounts discusses the period after 1571, this article focuses primarily on the first years after iconoclasm. Studying the churchwarden accounts of St. James enables us to make some general comments on the parish community over a longer period of time and discover the biases of the more descriptive narrative sources.

The shock of iconoclasm

When iconoclasm passed through Ghent on 22 and 23 August 1566 it left the town in ruins. Seven parish churches, a collegial church, twenty-five convents, ten hospitals and seven chapels were attacked. According to the account of our eyewitness, Marcus Van Vaernewijck, St. James was one of the most severely damaged buildings.12 As a churchwarden responsible for the subsequent repairs, he might have exaggerated somewhat the extent of the damage; regardless, the repairs recorded in St. James’s churchwarden accounts note that a large part of the church interior was destroyed. Altarpieces, the tabernacle, stained-glass windows, sculptures and epitaphs were smashed. Van Vaernewijck witnessed that at the last minute, the iconoclasts decided to spare the oak choir stalls because they could be used as seats for the faithful during Calvinist sermons.13 The three stone seats and the iron seats of the priests however, were toppled with ropes and broken up.14 The shock that these attacks brought to the people of Ghent is well described in Van Vaernewijck’s chronicle15, which evokes the silence, fear and sorrow that dominated the streets of Ghent. When encountering their friends, many people neither greeted them nor initiated conversation, and the clergy was especially scared.16 Based on descriptions meant to illustrate the devastation wrought by iconoclasm, the Ghent Catholics indeed appeared passive and immobile. However, this passivity was of short duration. Some developments prove that for many of the citizens of Ghent the years before and after the Beeldenstorm were crucial moments for their Catholic faith. Furthermore, the lack of violent opposition (on the part of the Ghent Catholics) to other confessions was not necessarily the result of passivity or indifference. In Ghent, in addition to the growing number of Protestants, the emphasis on upholding civic peace and protecting the community functioned as a check on ‘religious extremism’.17

A view of the city of Ghent with its many churches, surrounded by the coat of arms of its most prominent families and guilds. Coloured illustration by Pieter de Keysere, 1524, Ghent.

University library, Ghent.

This emphasis on civic peace is illustrated by the fact that the demand by the Governess Margaret of Parma to form a militia to both protect the town and prevent the people from attending Protestant sermons was met with opposition in Ghent. Van Vaernewijck, who had a role in the organisation of this guard, reported how difficult it was to get all the men sworn in. Most people wanted to protect the King and the Law, but not the Church. Some men cried, ‘Let them protect themselves, they have persecuted us long enough. Why would we defend that scum!’18 The male citizens of Ghent felt that the magistrates demanded that they put their own lives and those of their families at risk for the ‘papists’. Furthermore, many men believed that the clergy had caused the problems themselves ‘by their bad lifestyle, avarice, pride and tyranny over simple people who only wanted to forsake the world and follow the narrow path as Christ had taught’.19 Although some Protestant influences can be read into these remarks, they primarily touch upon the notion of communal peace. The idea was that the ‘papists’ had infringed upon this peace by their support for the persecution of religious dissidents. Furthermore, the community – family and neighbours – was too high a price to pay for the protection of the church. Van Vaernewijck wrote that out of forty men, he would have trusted only four with the job of guarding the church. Based on the official reports that have survived, Marcel Delmotte calculated that approximately only eighteen percent of the men who were considered for the guard were prepared to defend the church and the clergy against a possible attack. Thus on the eve of the Beeldenstorm Ghent was extremely vulnerable; only a minority of the adult men was willing to defend the church, the gates of the city did not close, and no weapons were available as the gunnery had been removed in 1540 after the revolt of the city against Emperor Charles V.20

Considering this situation, the Beeldenstorm was not entirely unexpected. Although there had been warnings, few citizens made an effort to prevent it.21 Yet, there were also only a few people who were actively involved in carrying out the destruction.22 Based on the remarks Van Vaernewijck recorded in his manuscript, anti-clericalism and reformation ideas seemed omnipresent, but we should not go as far as Delmotte and state that Ghent was a Calvinist town. After all, anti-clericalism and the plea for reforms had been part of the long history of the Catholic Church.23 According to Arnade, the social profile of the Ghent iconoclasts resembled that of rebels in previous political and social protests, such as those who participated in the Ghent rebellion of 1539.24 The general protests in the 1560s also had a political foundation from the beginning. It was not just the Protestant groups but also many Catholics who supported opposition against the ecclesiastical policy of King Philip II, including opposition to the reforms of the bishoprics in the Netherlands. Although the agenda of the political protests and calls for reform only partially coincided with that of the iconoclasts, this might have been another reason for the difficult organisation of the guard to protect the churches.25

Nevertheless, after the Beeldenstorm, few people found it difficult to condemn the iconoclasts’ behaviour; iconoclasm had defied the communal peace. David de Boer has shown that Van Vaernewijck in fact was stricter with the iconoclasts, whom he accused of committing a capital crime, than towards heretics. Furthermore, in general, people made a distinction between the ideas of those who favoured the reformed religion, who were considered misled, and the destructive actions of the iconoclasts.26 Therefore, the stress on civic peace and the initial shock of iconoclasm functioned as a brake on Catholic militancy, but it did not render traditional Christians immobile. The more active side of the Ghent Catholics can be witnessed in three aspects of their religion: they showed interest in their church and faith through their assistance with the repairs of their parish church, their involvement in Christian rituals and celebrations, and their interest in religious knowledge.


The first aspect that reveals the activity of Ghent Catholics after the Beeldenstorm is their involvement in the restoration of their parish church.27 At first sight, Margaret of Parma, together with local officials, took the lead in stabilising the political field and initiating the more serious repairs.28 In the second half of June 1567, in response to a letter from Parma, the magistracy ordered the deans of the guilds to begin with the repairs of the altarpieces in their chapels. However, the guildsmen reacted very slowly to this demand as many considered it unjust and believed that those responsible should pay for the repairs. According to Van Vaernewijck, the minority who had had a role in the destruction and wanted to pay for the repairs did not dare do so out of fear of punishment if they confessed. Other members of the community refused to betray them as well.29 Thus, both attitudes could explain the initial reluctance on the level of the repairs. Indeed, most of the repairs of the chapels and altars of the city guilds took place only after a second ordinance of the magistracy in March 1568, instigated by the Duke of Alba. Nevertheless, other concrete measures had already been taken in September 1567 after the magistrates had ordered that an estimate of the total damages be determined.30

In any case, it is important to note that by 1568 many parishioners had offered money to the church. Van Vaernewijck was pleased to announce that major repairs had taken place and ascribed the good state of the church to the generosity of the parishioners. The highlight of that year was the inauguration of the new sacramentshuis or tabernacle.31 Although he sounded genuinely positive, generosity of course, is relative; Van Vaernewijck might have wanted to put his parish in a better light. In fact, the churchwarden accounts of St. James reveal that in or before 1568–1569, a large amount of money had been collected in the parish to pay for the repairs to the holy tabernacle and the rood screen. The records list 465 parishioners as having donated amounts of money varying between 1 denier and 240 deniers groten Vlaams32 (or 2 pounds groten Vlaams). Other parishioners were listed as having contributed unpaid work on the church building instead of money. In total, the parish collected more than 37 pounds, which means that donors gave on average slightly less than 12 deniers groten Vlaams, which was a little less than the average daily wage of a mason’s journeyman at the time.33 The diversity of the gifts (from unpaid work to a large sum of money) suggests that parishioners from different social backgrounds contributed. Yet only 465 names were listed (although the parish must have counted more than 3,000 adults), so it is obvious that only a minority of the parish had been ‘generous’.34 It is possible that parishioners refrained from donating out of anti-clerical feelings and/or a particular sense of justice (i.e., believing that only those guilty of the destruction should have to pay), but the poor economy and other financial collections (see further) might also have played a role.

Although there can be doubts about the motivations of the parishioners, the gifts still produced spectacular effects for the church. As a result of the donations, the total income of the St. James’s church fabric doubled compared to the previous year. The church’s expenditures also more than doubled due to the repairs that followed. The few accounts we have on the period before the Beeldenstorm did not register anywhere near such a large collection from parishioners. On important restoration works that took place during 1563–1564, approximately 27 pounds were spent, which was about forty percent of the total expenditures of that year. The money for these works did not come from ordinary parishioners but from the parochial institution for poor relief.35 This illustrates that the parishioners did not always directly finance the restoration of the church building, which makes the parochial collection in 1568 even more notable.36

The doubling of the usual income and expenditures of the church was not repeated in the following extant account. In 1570–1571, a lower amount of money was spent on repairs, although it still exceeded the amounts in the years preceding 1566. In addition, the repairs made a large dent in the church finances. The increasing number of repairs caused large deficits in the years following the Beeldenstorm, and only after 1571 did the expenses for the repairs finally begin to shrink. Furthermore, the income of the church raised from the parishioners only partly covered what was rapidly being spent on repairs.37 In sum, the financial contribution from the parishioners was not spectacular, but important enough to show that at least a part of them cared about the church building.

Annual income and expenditures of the church fabric of St. James between 1562 and 1578 in deniers groten Vlaams.38

Religious life after the Beeldenstorm

A second aspect that reveals the involvement of Catholics during the period under study can be found in the popularity of certain Catholic festivities and, after a period of decline, a rise in church attendance. Despite the shockwave of iconoclasm, particular Catholic traditions remained important to the citizens of Ghent. Van Vaernewijck and Cornelis Van Campene paid quite a lot of attention to the celebrations for St. Lieven on 28 and 29 June 1567. Before 1540 the focal point of these festivities was a procession with the reliquary of St. Lieven from Ghent to the village of Sint-Lievens-Houtem and back. The St. Lieven’s procession was one of the oldest but also one of the most contested rituals of Ghent. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the princes ruling the Low Countries enacted repressive measures to stop this procession because they feared it was a precursor to social and political rebellion.39 Although Emperor Charles V had abolished the procession and the translation of the reliquary in 1540 after the Ghent revolt, the devotional practices and celebration of the saint did not end.40

The Beeldenstorm had presented another threat. However, the reliquary of St. Lieven was one of the few religious valuables in Ghent that had been kept safe as it had been moved on 18 August 1566 to the Spanish Castle. For traditional Catholics, these festivities seemed to have been among the most important events of the year. Therefore, undoubtedly the survival of the reliquary was a great relief to many of the city’s inhabitants. The fact that the celebrations had been downsized earlier by the prince had only enhanced its importance as a symbol of Ghent. This peculiar background played a role in the success of the festivities in 1567. Van Vaernewijck was amazed at the huge amount of market activity during these days. With the beautiful sound of bells, the reliquary of St. Lieven was presented to the public in the church of St. Bavo on 28 June, where a few thousand people came to visit it. According to Van Campene, even miracles took place. Clearly, both chroniclers were impressed and pleased by what they saw. For Van Vaernewijck, the number of candles and wax votives offered were proof of the reverence shown to the reliquary. Many people from outside Ghent had also come to the city centre and offered money. Van Vaernewijck noted that if none of the ‘Protestants’ had criticised the religious feast, it would have seemed that there had never been any ghueserie.41 Because of its success, the reliquary was exhibited again the following week, on Sunday, 7 July.42 Based on these excited descriptions, the Beeldenstorm did not seem to have negatively affected the popularity of local traditional Christian festivities, but quite the contrary. Even though the rituals had been contested by Protestants and the official worldly and ecclesiastical governments, obviously a large group of citizens did not want to lose this aspect of Christianity.

Van Vaernewijck was less pleased about the ordinary Catholic services as they became significantly less popular in the months that followed the Beeldenstorm. In the summer of 1567 the Dominican preacher Lieven Van den Bossche declared in his sermon that the priests of the four principal parish churches in Ghent had complained that although a few years earlier every parish had four to five thousand parishioners who received the Eucharist at least once a year, since the rise of the hedge sermons, only four to five hundred now attended traditional church services. Thus, according to this view, only one in ten former church members still took communion in their church.43 Although these numbers will have been exaggerated, the general perception was that the Ghent citizens no longer cared about church practice. Earlier that year Van Vaernewijck himself had noted that attendance at mass and offerings during holy days had vastly diminished in St. James.44 During the Holy Week of 1568 Van Vaernewijck finally saw signs pointing to a reversal of the decline in church attendance and in the interest of parishioners in their church. On the Wednesday before Easter the pastors, churchwardens and masters for poor relief went throughout the parish to gather a collection to fund the sermons preached during Advent and Lent and for the Sacramental Mass (sacramentsmesse). In total, they collected approximately 5 pounds and 8 shillings groten Vlaams. This was more than they had expected as the people had already been heavily burdened by the Spanish garrison and the bad economy. Moreover, there had already been collections for the poor, and the large collection for the repairs to the church tabernacle had most likely already taken place in the same period.45

However, the people did not only give money. On Easter (18 April) 1568 approximately 500 men and women stood in line for more than an hour to receive Holy Communion in St. James. Van Vaernewijck called this a miracle but was simultaneously realistic enough to acknowledge that some people must have come out of fear, to hide the fact that they were geuzen.46 Similarly, in Antwerp, a spectacular rise in offerings to several devotional sites was witnessed over the course of the 1570s.47 A change in the behaviour of the Catholic population, considering the political climate, was not strange. The reversal made by many could only be expected after the several months of pressure by the Duke of Alba, the Council of Troubles and Alba’s army. However, we should not forget the material state of the church immediately following the Beeldenstorm. The destruction of the church interior and the devotional accoutrements necessary for the celebration of the Holy Mass could have reinforced the diminished importance of church services in the first year after the Beeldenstorm. Therefore, restoration of the church building and of church practice went hand in hand.


The Catholics of Ghent were not merely interested in maintaining their local privileges, communal ties and traditional festivities, such as the veneration of the reliquary of St. Lieven. A third form of Catholic response that surpassed the other Catholic public activities in popularity in the years following iconoclasm was sermon attendance. A direct interest in understanding religion and theological ideas, new and old, could be witnessed, beginning sometime in 1566. No one seemed indifferent towards Christian theology, even though anti-clericalism was rampant. During a heavily attended Catholic sermon in St. James on 29 September 1566, Van Vaernewijck noted that the audience consisted mainly of women because, as he claimed, they were more devout than men.48 However, from other parts of his account, we know that it was not only women who were interested in religious knowledge and piety. Many other Catholic sermons that took place in 1566 attracted huge crowds. Some people would have been intrigued by the controversies, whereas others had a genuine hunger for religious knowledge. Whether it was officially Catholic and clerical seemed less important; many people attended both the traditional Catholic sermons and those of the new religion outside the city centre.49 On the birthday of Our Lady in 1566, Protestants preached in the open air near the convent of the Carthusians while the popular Dominican preacher Jan Vanderhaghen gave a sermon in the church of St. Michael in Ghent. Both events attracted masses of people, and Van Vaernewijck stated that this caused a strange division within the citizenry of Ghent, with many undecided as to where to go.50 This confirms Pollmann’s argument that for a long time many traditional Catholics did not see Protestant ideas as opposing their faith but rather discussed them along with the other cries for reform with which they were already familiar. Although she observed this for the 1520s, the Ghent public of the 1560s seemed at least as eager to debate different religious ideas.51

This interest in theology had been visible in the Netherlands for a longer period of time. From the fourteenth century onwards, books and pamphlets in the vernacular had become increasingly important in several distinct, urbanised European regions. The important position of the Low Countries in international trade enabled easy access to new books and ideas. Antwerp even became the main centre for printed vernacular Bibles between 1523 and 1545. The Low Countries had a high level of literacy, and laymen had a particular interest in Bibles.52 Apart from books and other reading material, theatre plays were an important element in the entertainment and education of an urban audience. In particular, religious processions combined with competitions organised by the chambers of rhetoric rendered civic religion, according to Anne-Laure Van Bruaene, more open and creative compared to other European cities.53 Given this long tradition in which laymen read, listened to and discussed religious ideas, they could hardly be considered ignorant. Many had a keen interest in a wide variety of ideas and had become accustomed to listening to various viewpoints on specific religious themes. The clergymen themselves often highlighted the faults of other ecclesiastical members (often of another religious order).54 All of this added responsibility to the laity and strengthened their demand for religious knowledge. It is important to underline that both Reformed and Catholic preachers used sermons to compete for the hearts and minds of the masses.

The rise in Catholic sermons after the Beeldenstorm was an answer to the laymen’s demand for knowledge and a reaction to the hedge sermons. Furthermore, the Catholic Church finally believed that education was crucial in winning back former church members who had been ‘seduced’.55 Van Vaernewijck highlighted the popularity of the sermons before and immediately after the Beeldenstorm, but various other sources also point to the increased presence of Catholic preachers from at least 1568 onwards. The diary of Cornelis Van Campene reveals that, from 1568 onwards, in addition to Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans, St. James was frequented by the Jesuit Francis Costerus.56 Additionally, from 1568 onwards, the first bishop of Ghent, Jansenius Cornelius, regularly gave sermons in the parish churches of Ghent. From 1574 to 1577, the church fabric of St. James spent four to five times more money on preachers during Advent and Lent than in the previous years.57 The renewed focus on education and penance went hand in hand with other efforts by the bishops to restore the Catholic sacral landscape and offer a general pardon to unify the Catholic community.58

Beyond passivity and polarisation

Only for those men and women willing to go so far as to break with the church and become members of the new religion inspired by Calvin might the Beeldenstorm have served as a turning point. Calvinists in Ghent took advantage of the chaotic situation to structure themselves more efficiently, organise preachers and sermons and even build a temple at the city gates. This was their moment of radicalisation and politicisation. For the majority of the population however, community or family ties made a strict division based on religious opinions difficult. Although traditional Christians did not yet become radicalised in opposition to this new religion, they remained active in many ways and valued their faith. The moment of polarisation for the Catholics in Ghent would come with the fall of the Ghent Calvinist Republic (1577–1584). In addition to the experience of repression under a Calvinist Regime, the loss of approximately 15,000 inhabitants who migrated in the following years and the returning Catholic refugees profoundly altered the town’s Catholic identity.59 Pollmann has discerned a more militant mentality among the Catholics of many more places in the Low Countries after 1585. The experience of repression by the Calvinists had alienated these Catholics from the Revolt and had triggered polarisation and confessionalisation.60

In this contribution, I have argued that the more introspective or inward-oriented phase of Catholicism in the Netherlands before 1585 has been mistaken for passivity. The initial shock of iconoclasm and destruction of the church interiors postponed the start of the repairs and rendered the celebration of mass less attractive. However, this was of short duration and should not be understood as indifference. The same accounts for the lack of militancy. Even though many people were not willing to defend their church against possible aggression, the majority still condemned the Beeldenstorm. After the destruction the focus was on restoring the community and getting rid of the iconoclasts instead of on further polarisation. Because the secular government was responsible for punishing vandalism, there was no need for ordinary Catholics to become more militant at this stage.61

This study has shown that after the Beeldenstorm of 1566 the Catholic community showed interest in their church on various levels; after the initial shock they invested in the repairs and joined enthusiastically in important festivities. From 1568 onwards they again became more involved in Catholic rituals such as Mass and Communion. Most striking was the important role of the preachers. The Catholic Church intensified its sermon offerings and used this channel to educate the public about heresy and the Tridentine viewpoints. In doing so, it accentuated the need for reform and penance within the Church and the community and kept the doors open for reconciliation. The population of Ghent had an active interest in processing this information against the background of political difficulties and a growing Calvinist church. In fact, instead of intensifying polarisation and distancing themselves from the Protestants, Ghent Catholics used the period following the Beeldenstorm to learn more about their faith.62