By Martijn Icks
Our Devil, who doth in Brussels dwell
Cursed be thy name in heaven and in hell
These words are not the battle cry of a zealous Brexiteer. They were written over four centuries ago in a Dutch pamphlet, denouncing a Brussels-based power with far more sinister intentions than the European Union. The name of this “devil” was Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, the third Duke of Alba. Or, as the Dutch preferred to call him, the Iron Duke.
Alba had been sent to the Low Countries by King Philip II of Spain, one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century. At the time, the Low Countries – roughly corresponding to the current-day Netherlands and Belgium – were a loosely knitted group of duchies, counties and bishoprics, collectively known as the Seventeen Provinces. Although the region lay more than 1,500 kilometres from Madrid, it was still part of the vast Spanish dominions.
King Philip expected strict obedience from his Dutch subjects. However, his absolutist style of rule and the heavy taxes he imposed on the Low Countries did not sit well with their inhabitants. To make matters worse, Philip was a devout Catholic, while much of the Low Countries was swept up in the Protestant Reformation, with many converting to Calvinism. To the king’s horror, riotous groups of Calvinists rampaged through Dutch and Flemish towns, targeting churches and monasteries. In what has become known as the Iconoclastic Fury, they pulled down, mutilated and destroyed religious statues. The results of their fierce attacks can be witnessed to this day.
As Philip’s most accomplished general, the Duke of Alba seemed the right man to bring the Seventeen Provinces to heel. As soon as he arrived, he made it clear that he meant business. In a shocking move, he arrested the Counts of Egmont and Horn, two of the foremost Dutch noblemen, on charges of heresy. They were decapitated in the Grand Place in Brussels, sending an unmistakable message to other heretics and rebels.
But that was only the start. Alba instituted the Council of Troubles, a special court set up to deal with those who had defied their sovereign and betrayed their faith. To the Dutch, it soon became known as the Council of Blood. Many citizens were condemned to death and executed, many more lost all their possessions.
Resistance against Alba was led by another Dutch nobleman, Prince William of Orange, who gathered an army and started attacking Spanish troops. It was the beginning of one of the longest conflicts in European history: the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648).
This war was not only waged on the battlefield. A new weapon was brought to bear on the Spanish with great effect: the printing press. Numerous Dutch pamphlets were spread to denounce the tyrannical oppressor and sing the praises of the Prince of Orange.
Perhaps surprisingly, these pamphlets rarely targeted King Philip directly. He was, after all, the rightful sovereign of the Low Countries, appointed by the Almighty. In the sixteenth century, that counted for a lot. Instead, most pamphleteers concentrated their efforts on the Duke of Alba, who was presented as little less than evil incarnate.
Often, the duke’s harshness and cruelty were phrased in Biblical terms. One rebel song compared him to Pharaoh and Jezebel, “your teeth dripping with blood”, and King Herod, “angry and fierce (…), [come to] hang, murder, and burn.” The Dutch identified themselves with the suppressed Israelites, God’s chosen people.
Pictures showed Alba seated on a throne, the Seventeen Provinces chained and kneeling before him, or emphasized his depravity by depicting him kissing the Biblical Whore of Babylon. One pamphlet turned him into a cannibalistic monster feasting on the flesh of an infant, with the decapitated bodies of Egmont and Horn lying at his feet.
Ultimately, the Eighty Years’ War resulted in Dutch independence and the foundation of the Dutch Republic, one of the richest and most successful states of seventeenth-century Europe. But the Iron Duke and his Council of Blood were not forgotten. In the national narrative, he is still cast as the bogeyman of Dutch history.