Punishment of the Anabaptists in the Low Countries

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Concerning the Netherlands and Belgium, which in the 16th century constituted the "Nether­lands" of the empire of Charles V, the following is to be said.

The question of the punishment of the Ana­baptists and the Mennonites in the Netherlands and Belgium is an extremely complicated problem, not only because the laws of the various provinces were very dissimilar, but also because at the time of the rise of Anabaptism in the Netherlands (1530) Charles had not yet gained possession of all the provinces. The present Belgium and the southern provinces of the present Netherlands, Holland and Zeeland, were hereditary lands belonging to Charles. Here persecution was most severe. In 1524 Charles conquered Friesland, in 1528 Utrecht and Overijssel (and Drenthe); in 1536 Groningen passed into his possession and finally Gelderland in 1543. In these newly conquered territories persecution was usually not severe; although the number of Anabaptists in Groningen and Friesland was very large from the beginning, the number of victims of persecution is not nearly so great here as for example, in Holland and Flanders. In the province of Friesland there was not a single martyr.

Charles V, who like his son Philip II, was firmly determined to eradicate heresy in his lands, had a number of proclamations (placcaten) issued, some of them intended for the entire empire, and some only for the Netherlands, in which a "falling away" from the Roman Catholic Church was made punish­able by death, as was also the possession or printing of heretical books. The proclamation of June 1535 was issued specifically against the Anabaptists.

In order to combat Anabaptism, Charles created a new form of the inquisition for the Netherlands. Whereas previously the bishops were responsible to keep heresy out of their territory, Charles appointed imperial inquisitors who were authorized to appoint regional inquisitors. By this act Charles made the conflict with heresy a matter of state, although the fact that the inquisitors appointed by the emperor were all members of the clergy, who also usually (but not always) received the pope's approval, gave the matter an ecclesiastical stamp. The first imperial inquisitor was Frans van der Hulst, 1522-24. The Anabaptist martyrs had to deal with the following inquisitors: Barend Gruwel of Grouwel, appointed in 1546; Pieter Titelman, who worked in Flanders; Lindanus, appointed in 1563. In addition to the inquisitors appointed by the emperor there were also inquisitors serving by papal appointment, while the bishops and their assistants also remained active. Thereby and also because the inquisitors did not receive exactly determined commissions and were not assigned to well-defined territory, the question of the inquisition became extremely involved. Some insight is given by an instruction for the inquisitors defined by the emperor and issued on 28 February 1546.

Actually there were two crimes for which the heretics were persecuted, namely, real heresy, and dis­obedience to the imperial mandates. There was also some mention of disrespect for divine and human or temporal majesty (lese majeste). This double aspect carried with it some ambiguity and haziness, in the trial as well as in the sentence. The sentence usually stated that the heretic was condemned to death because he "disregarded the doctrine [or: the sacraments] of the Holy Church, and contrary to the faith and ordinances of the same church, the written laws and proclamations of the Imperial Majesty, our gracious lord."

The course of the trials was usually as follows: whenever the inquisitors, the clergy, or anyone else noticed a heretic, he had the heretic arrested; the prisons, usually foul, dark, unwholesome dun­geons in the towers of castles, were used only to confine the heretics. (Imprisonment as punishment for a crime dates back only to the 17th century.) After a longer or shorter time the prisoner was cross-examined by the court. These were secular courts, to which usually clergymen were added, and on which also the inquisitors sometimes sat.

The Anabaptists were tried either by the city courts or by the provincial courts.

The cities had their own courts, known as the schepenbank; in addition there was in most provinces a Hof, that is, a supreme provincial court (thus Anabaptists were tried, for example, by the Hof of Holland or the Hof of Friesland). There was in principle no difference between the trial before a city court or a provincial court. Frequently the city governments did not wish to transfer the heretics to the provincial court for trial. They based this refusal on the ancient privilege that no citizen was to be sentenced outside the limits of the city (ius de non evocando). A second point of controversy between the city and the Hof, true particularly in the prov­ince of Holland, was the question of the confiscation of the property of the defendant. Usually the pos­sessions of Anabaptist martyrs were declared forfeit to the use of the emperor, while sometimes the accuser received some of this property as a reward. (The proclamation of 1535 stipulated that anyone who reported an Anabaptist should receive one third of his goods.)

However, while the Hof, which represented the affairs of the emperor, demanded the entire in­heritance, the city authorities, on the basis of the privilege noted above, simply claimed a part of the possessions of the condemned man. These privileges were abolished in 1549. There were other points of controversy between the city governments and the Hof; whereas the emperor strove for central­ization in authority as well as in courts, and to this end wanted to give the Hof greater authority, the cities opposed this policy. Finally the city of Amsterdam, especially in the beginning, refused to send Anabaptists to the Hof in The Hague, because it wanted to protect them.

We have in van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror suffi­cient accounts of trials to be able to conclude that these took a fixed course. The inquisitors apparently made use of a prepared list of questions. One fixed point in the cross-examinations of martyrs (con­cerning the questions of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church) is the question where the defendant was baptized, by whom, and who was present. If these questions were inadequately an­swered, which was usually the case, the "sharp examination" took place, that is, the victim was racked by the executioner in the torture chamber (pijnkelder) in the presence of the judges. Very often the Anabaptist martyrs, in spite of the most brutal tor­ture, refused to betray their fellow believers. Then the "sharp examination" was sometime later re­peated. If the unfortunate one then named some names, then his confessions were read to him later, with the assertion that the suspect had made these confessions "without torture or force."

Whether the trial had come to this desired result or whether the martyr remained silent, an effort was made to convert him. This end was served not only by the cross-examinations, but more especially by visits made to the prisoner in his dungeon by priests and monks, who even after the death sen­tence had been pronounced accompanied the con­demned man to the site of execution.

Finally the sentence was pronounced; in the early period, until 1536, burning at the stake was not as frequently pronounced as was beheading for men and drowning for women. Later the penalties be­came more severe. On 4 October 1540, Charles V announced as an eternal edict that those who would recant (peniteeren) and return to the Catholic Church would, in the case of men, be executed by beheading, and in the case of women, by burying alive ("executed with the sword and the women with the pit"). If, however, the victim persisted in his error, both men and women were to die at the stake ("be executed with fire"). This then became the general practice, although there were many exceptions; in Amsterdam the names are known of many persons who repented and were not put to death but exiled. In a few instances an Anabaptist was also put to death in the Netherlands without the process of the law. But this was contrary to law and order; the government wanted a regular hearing, especially since by this method it was possi­ble to obtain names and other facts concerning the leaders of the Anabaptist movement. This practice was very deliberately followed in order to be able to arrest the leaders, so that the rest, like sheep without a shepherd, would be conveniently scat­tered. But in this respect the authorities were mis­taken. Although most of the elders and preachers were executed, the movement continued. The pro­phetic words of one of the martyrs, "But know, where they kill one, a hundred shall arise," were fulfilled.

The first Anabaptist martyr in the Netherlands was Sicke Freerks Snyder, executed for his faith at Leeuwarden on 20 March 1531, and the last martyr who fell in the northern Netherlands was Reytse Aysesz, also executed at Leeuwarden, on 19 April 1574. In the southern Netherlands, now Belgium, Anneken van den Hove (Uyttenhove), executed on 19 July 1597, at Brussels, closed the long list of martyrs.


Braght, Thieleman J. van. The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs' Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus Their Saviour . . . to the Year A.D. 1660. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1951. Available online at: http://www.homecomers.org/mirror/index.htm

Dit Boec wort genoemt: Het Offer des Heeren, om het inhout van sommighe opgheofferde kinderen Godts . . . N.p., 1562, 1567, 1570, 1578, 1580, Amsterdam, 1590, n.p., 1591, Amsterdam, 1595, Harlingen, 1599. The 1570 edition is cited as reproduced in BRN II., 51-486, including Een Lietboecxken, tracterende van den Offer des Heeren (pp. 499-617). Available in full electronic text at: http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_off001offe01_01/

Hoog, I. M. J. De martelaren der Hervorming in Nederland tot 1566. Schiedam, 1885.

Author(s) Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Zijpp, Nanne van der. "Punishment of the Anabaptists in the Low Countries." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 29 Jan 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Punishment_of_the_Anabaptists_in_the_Low_Countries&oldid=162796.

APA style

Zijpp, Nanne van der. (1959). Punishment of the Anabaptists in the Low Countries. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Punishment_of_the_Anabaptists_in_the_Low_Countries&oldid=162796.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 232-234. All rights reserved.

©1996-2020 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.