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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Execution of Egmont and Hoorne

By William Hickling Prescott (1796–1859)

[From History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain. 1855.]

ON the second of June, 1568, a body of three thousand men was ordered to Ghent to escort the Counts Egmont and Hoorne to Brussels. No resistance was offered, although the presence of the Spaniards caused a great sensation among the inhabitants of the place, who too well foreboded the fate of their beloved lord.

The nobles, each accompanied by two officers, were put into separate chariots. They were guarded by twenty companies of pikemen and arquebusiers; and a detachment of lancers, among whom was a body of the duke’s own horse, rode in the van, while another of equal strength protected the rear. Under this strong escort they moved slowly towards Brussels. One night they halted at Dendermonde, and towards evening, on the fourth of the month, entered the capital. As the martial array defiled through its streets, there was no one, however stout-hearted he might be, says an eye-witness, who could behold the funeral pomp of the procession, and listen to the strains of melancholy music, without a feeling of sickness at his heart.

The prisoners were at once conducted to the Brod-huys, or “Bread-house,” usually known as the Maison du Roi,—that venerable pile in the market-place of Brussels, still visited by every traveller for its curious architecture, and yet more as the last resting-place of the Flemish lords. Here they were lodged in separate rooms, small, dark, and uncomfortable, and scantily provided with furniture. Nearly the whole of the force which had escorted them to Brussels was established in the great square, to defeat any attempt at a rescue. But none was made; and the night passed away without disturbance, except what was occasioned by the sound of busy workmen employed in constructing a scaffold for the scene of execution on the following day.

On the afternoon of the fourth, the duke of Alva had sent for Martin Rithovius, bishop of Ypres; and, communicating to him the sentence of the nobles, he requested the prelate to visit the prisoners, acquaint them with their fate, and prepare them for their execution on the following day. The bishop, an excellent man, and the personal friend of Egmont, was astounded by the tidings. He threw himself at Alva’s feet, imploring mercy for the prisoners, and, if he could not spare their lives, beseeching him at least to grant them more time for preparation. But Alva sternly rebuked the prelate, saying that he had been summoned, not to thwart the execution of the law, but to console the prisoners and enable them to die like Christians. The bishop, finding his entreaties useless, rose and addressed himself to his melancholy mission.

It was near midnight when he entered Egmont’s apartment, where he found the poor nobleman, whose strength had been already reduced by confinement, and who was wearied by the fatigue of the journey, buried in slumber. It is said that the two lords, when summoned to Brussels, had indulged the vain hope that it was to inform them of the conclusion of their trial and their acquittal! However this may be, Egmont seems to have been but ill prepared for the dreadful tidings he received. He turned deadly pale as he listened to the bishop, and exclaimed, with deep emotion, “It is a terrible sentence. Little did I imagine that any offence I had committed against God or the king could merit such punishment. It is not death that I fear. Death is the common lot of all. But I shrink from dishonor. Yet I may hope that my sufferings will so far expiate my offences that my innocent family will not be involved in my ruin by the confiscation of my property. Thus much, at least, I think I may claim in consideration of my past services.” Then, after a pause, he added, “Since my death is the will of God and his majesty, I will try to meet it with patience.” He asked the bishop if there were no hope. On being answered, “None whatever,” he resolved to devote himself at once to preparing for the solemn change.

He rose from his couch, and hastily dressed himself. He then made his confession to the prelate, and desired that mass might be said, and the sacrament administered to him. This was done with great solemnity, and Egmont received the communion in the most devout manner, manifesting the greatest contrition for his sins. He next inquired of the bishop to what prayer he could best have recourse to sustain him in this trying hour. The prelate recommended to him that prayer which our Saviour had commended to his disciples. The advice pleased the count, who earnestly engaged in his devotions. But a host of tender recollections crowded on his mind, and the images of his wife and children drew his thoughts in another direction, till the kind expostulations of the prelate again restored him to himself.

Egmont asked whether it would be well to say anything on the scaffold for the edification of the people. But the bishop discouraged him, saying that he would be imperfectly heard, and that the people, in their present excitement, would be apt to misinterpret what he said to their own prejudice.

Having attended to his spiritual concerns, Egmont called for writing materials, and wrote a letter to his wife, whom he had not seen during his long confinement; and to her he now bade a tender farewell. He then addressed another letter, written in French, in a few brief and touching sentences, to the king,—which fortunately has been preserved to us. “This morning,” he says, “I have been made acquainted with the sentence which it has pleased your majesty to pass upon me. And although it has never been my intent to do aught against the person or the service of your majesty, or against our true, ancient, and Catholic faith, yet I receive in patience what it has pleased God to send me. If during these troubles I have counselled or permitted aught which might seem otherwise, I have done so from a sincere regard for the service of God and your majesty, and from what I believed the necessity of the times. Wherefore I pray your majesty to pardon it, and for the sake of my past services to take pity on my poor wife, my children, and my servants. In this trust, I commend myself to the mercy of God.” The letter is dated Brussels, “on the point of death,” June 5th, 1568.

Having time still left, the count made a fair copy of the two letters, and gave them to the bishop, entreating him to deliver them according to their destination. He accompanied that to Philip with a ring, to be given at the same to the monarch. It was of great value, and, as it had been the gift of Philip himself during the count’s late visit to Madrid, it might soften the heart of the king by reminding him of happier days, when he had looked with an eye of favor on his unhappy vassal.

Having completed all his arrangements, Egmont became impatient for the hour of his departure; and he expressed the hope that there would be no unnecessary delay. At ten in the morning the soldiers appeared who were to conduct him to the scaffold. They brought with them cords, as usual, to bind the prisoner’s hands. But Egmont remonstrated, and showed that he had, himself, cut off the collar of his doublet and shirt, in order to facilitate the stroke of the executioner. This he did to convince them that he meditated no resistance; and on his promising that he would attempt none, they consented to his remaining with his hands unbound.

Egmont was dressed in a crimson damask robe, over which was a Spanish mantle fringed with gold. His breeches were of black silk, and his hat, of the same material, was garnished with white and sable plumes. In his hand, which, as we have seen, remained free, he held a white handkerchief. On his way to the place of execution he was accompanied by Julian de Romero, maître de camp, by the captain, Salinas, who had charge of the fortress of Ghent, and by the bishop of Ypres. As the procession moved slowly forward, the count repeated some portion of the fifty-first Psalm,—“Have mercy on me, O God!”—in which the good prelate joined with him. In the centre of the square, on the spot where so much of the best blood of the Netherlands had been shed, stood the scaffold, covered with black cloth. On it were two velvet cushions with a small table, shrouded likewise in black, and supporting a silver crucifix. At the corners of the platform were two poles, pointed at the end with steel, intimating the purpose for which they were intended.

In front of the scaffold was the provost of the court, mounted on horseback, and bearing the red wand of office in his hand. The executioner remained, as usual, below the platform, screened from view, that he might not, by his presence before it was necessary, outrage the feelings of the prisoners. The troops, who had been under arms all night, were drawn up around in order of battle; and strong bodies of arquebusiers were posted in the great avenues which led to the square. The space left open by the soldiery was speedily occupied by a crowd of eager spectators. Others thronged the roofs and windows of the buildings that surrounded the market-place, some of which, still standing at the present day, show, by their quaint and venerable architecture, that they must have looked down on the tragic scene we are now depicting.

It was indeed a gloomy day for Brussels,—so long the residence of the two nobles, where their forms were as familiar and where they were held in as much love and honor as in any of their own provinces. All business was suspended. The shops were closed. The bells tolled in all the churches. An air of gloom, as of some impending calamity, settled on the city. “It seemed,” says one residing there at the time, “as if the day of judgment were at hand!”

As the procession slowly passed through the ranks of the soldiers, Egmont saluted the officers—some of them his ancient companions—with such a sweet and dignified composure in his manner as was long remembered by those who saw it. And few even of the Spaniards could refrain from tears as they took their last look at the gallant noble who was to perish by so miserable an end.

With a steady step he mounted the scaffold, and, as he crossed it, gave utterance to the vain wish that, instead of meeting such a fate, he had been allowed to die in the service of his king and country. He quickly, however, turned to other thoughts, and, kneeling on one of the cushions, with the bishop beside him on the other, he was soon engaged earnestly in prayer. With his eyes raised towards heaven with a look of unutterable sadness, he prayed so fervently and loud as to be distinctly heard by the spectators. The prelate, much affected, put into his hands the silver crucifix, which Egmont repeatedly kissed; after which, having received absolution for the last time, he rose and made a sign to the bishop to retire. He then stripped off his mantle and robe; and, again kneeling, he drew a silk cap, which he had brought for the purpose, over his eyes, and, repeating the words, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” he calmly awaited the stroke of the executioner.

The low sounds of lamentation which from time to time had been heard among the populace were now hushed into silence, as the minister of justice, appearing on the platform, approached his victim and with a single blow of the sword severed the head from the body. A cry of horror rose from the multitude, and some, frantic with grief, broke through the ranks of the soldiers and wildly dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood that streamed from the scaffold, treasuring them up, says the chronicler, as precious memorials of love and incitements to vengeance. The head was then set on one of the poles at the end of the platform, while a mantle thrown over the mutilated trunk hid it from the public gaze.

It was near noon when orders were sent to lead forth the remaining prisoner to execution. It had been assigned to the curate of La Chapelle to acquaint Count Hoorne with his fate. That nobleman received the awful tidings with less patience than was shown by his friend. He gave way to a burst of indignation at the cruelty and injustice of the sentence. It was a poor requital, he said, for eight-and-twenty years of faithful service to his sovereign. Yet, he added, he was not sorry to be released from a life of such incessant fatigue. For some time he refused to confess, saying he had done enough in the way of confession. When urged not to throw away the few precious moments that were left to him, he at length consented.

The count was dressed in a plain suit of black, and wore a Milanese cap upon his head. He was, at this time, about fifty years of age. He was tall, with handsome features, and altogether of a commanding presence. His form was erect, and as he passed with a steady step through the files of soldiers, on his way to the place of execution, he frankly saluted those of his acquaintance whom he saw among the spectators. His look had in it less of sorrow than of indignation, like that of one conscious of enduring wrong. He was spared one pang, in his last hour, which had filled Egmont’s cup with bitterness; though, like him, he had a wife, he was to leave no orphan family to mourn him.

As he trod the scaffold, the apparatus of death seemed to have no power to move him. He still repeated the declaration that, “often as he had offended his Maker, he had never, to his knowledge, committed any offence against the king.” When his eyes fell on the bloody shroud that enveloped the remains of Egmont, he inquired if it were the body of his friend. Being answered in the affirmative, he made some remark in Castilian, not understood. He then prayed for a few moments, but in so low a tone that the words were not caught by the by-standers, and, rising, he asked pardon of those around if he had ever offended any of them, and earnestly besought their prayers. Then, without further delay, he knelt down, and, repeating the words, “In manus tuas, Domine,” he submitted himself to his fate.

His bloody head was set up opposite to that of his fellow-sufferer. For three hours these ghastly trophies remained exposed to the gaze of the multitude. They were then taken down, and, with the bodies, placed in leaden coffins, which were straightway removed,—that containing the remains of Egmont to the convent of Santa Clara, and that of Hoorne to the ancient church of Ste. Gudule. To these places, especially to Santa Clara, the people now flocked, as to the shrine of a martyr. They threw themselves on the coffin, kissing it and bedewing it with their tears, as if it had contained the relics of some murdered saint; while many of them, taking little heed of the presence of informers, breathed vows of vengeance, some even swearing not to trim either hair or beard till these vows were executed. The government seems to have thought it prudent to take no notice of this burst of popular feeling. But a funeral hatchment, blazoned with the arms of Egmont, which, as usual after the master’s death, had been fixed by his domestics on the gates of his mansion, was ordered to be instantly removed,—no doubt, as tending to keep alive the popular excitement. The bodies were not allowed to remain long in their temporary places of deposit, but were transported to the family residences of the two lords in the country, and laid in the vaults of their ancestors.

Thus by the hand of the common executioner perished these two unfortunate noblemen, who, by their rank, possessions, and personal characters, were the most illustrious victims that could have been selected in the Netherlands. Both had early enjoyed the favor of Charles the Fifth, and both had been intrusted by Philip with some of the highest offices in the state. Philip de Montmorency, Count Hoorne, the elder of the two, came of the ancient house of Montmorency in France. Besides filling the high post of Admiral of the Low Countries, he was made governor of the provinces of Gueldres and Zutphen, was a councillor of state, and was created by the emperor a knight of the Golden Fleece. His fortune was greatly inferior to that of Count Egmont; yet its confiscation afforded a supply by no means unwelcome to the needy exchequer of the duke of Alva.

However nearly on a footing they might be in many respects, Hoorne was altogether eclipsed by his friend in military renown. Lamoral, Count Egmont, inherited through his mother, the most beautiful woman of her time, the title of prince of Gavre,—a place on the Scheldt, not far from Ghent. He preferred, however, the more modest title of Count of Egmont, which came to him by the father’s side, from ancestors who had reigned over the duchy of Gueldres. The uncommon promise which he early gave served with his high position, to recommend him to the notice of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, who, in 1544, honored by his presence Egmont’s nuptials with Sabina, countess-palatine of Bavaria. In 1546, when scarcely twenty-four years of age, he was admitted to the order of the Golden Fleece,—and, by a singular coincidence, on the same day on which that dignity was bestowed on the man destined to become his mortal foe, the duke of Alva. Philip, on his accession, raised him to the dignity of a councillor of state, and made him governor of the important provinces of Artois and Flanders.

But every other title to distinction faded away before that derived from those two victories which left the deepest stain on the French arms that they had received since the defeat of Pavia. “I have seen,” said the French ambassador, who witnessed the execution of Egmont, “I have seen the head of that man fall who twice caused France to tremble.”