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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Fate of John of Barneveld

By John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877)

From the ‘Life and Death of John of Barneveld’

BARNEVELD was about to enter the judges’ chamber as usual, but was informed that the sentence would be read in the great hall of judicature. They descended accordingly to the basement story, and passed down the narrow flight of steps which then as now connected the more modern structure, where the Advocate had been imprisoned and tried, with what remained of the ancient palace of the Counts of Holland. In the center of the vast hall—once the banqueting chamber of those petty sovereigns, with its high vaulted roof of cedar which had so often in ancient days rung with the sounds of mirth and revelry—was a great table at which the twenty-four judges and the three prosecuting officers were seated, in their black caps and gowns of office. The room was lined with soldiers, and crowded with a dark surging mass of spectators, who had been waiting there all night.

A chair was placed for the prisoner. He sat down, and the clerk of the commission, Pots by name, proceeded at once to read the sentence. A summary of this long, rambling, and tiresome paper has been already laid before the reader. If ever a man could have found it tedious to listen to his own death sentence, the great statesman might have been in that condition as he listened to Secretary Pots.

During the reading of the sentence the Advocate moved uneasily on his seat, and seemed about to interrupt the clerk at several passages which seemed to him especially preposterous. But he controlled himself by a strong effort, and the clerk went steadily on to the conclusion.

Then Barneveld said:—

“The judges have put down many things which they have no right to draw from my confession. Let this protest be added.”

“I thought too,” he continued, “that my lords the States-General would have had enough in my life and blood, and that my wife and children might keep what belongs to them. Is this my recompense for forty-three years’ service to these provinces?”

President de Voogd rose:—

“Your sentence has been pronounced,” he said. “Away! away!” So saying, he pointed to the door into which one of the great windows at the southeastern front of the hall had been converted.

Without another word the old man rose from his chair and strode, leaning on his staff, across the hall, accompanied by his faithful valet and the provost, and escorted by a file of soldiers. The mob of spectators flowed out after him at every door into the inner court-yard in front of the ancient palace.

IN the beautiful village-capital of the “Count’s Park,” commonly called The Hague, the most striking and picturesque spot then as now was that where the transformed remains of the old moated castle of those feudal sovereigns were still to be seen. A three-storied range of simple, substantial buildings, in brown brickwork picked out with white stone, in a style since made familiar both in England and America, and associated with a somewhat later epoch in the history of the House of Orange, surrounded three sides of a spacious inner paved quadrangle called the Inner Court, the fourth or eastern side being overshadowed by a beechen grove. A square tower flanked each angle; and on both sides of the southwestern turret extended the commodious apartments of the Stadtholder. The great gateway on the southwest opened into a wide open space called the Outer Court-yard. Along the northwest side a broad and beautiful sheet of water, in which the walls, turrets, and chapel-spires of the inclosed castle mirrored themselves, was spread between the mass of buildings and an umbrageous promenade called the Vyverberg, consisting of a sextuple alley of lime-trees, and embowering here and there a stately villa. A small island, fringed with weeping willows, and tufted all over with lilacs, laburnums, and other shrubs then in full flower, lay in the centre of the miniature lake; and the tall solid tower of the Great Church, surmounted by a light openwork spire, looked down from a little distance over the scene.

It was a bright morning in May. The white swans were sailing tranquilly to and fro over the silver basin; and the mavis, blackbird, and nightingale, which haunted the groves surrounding the castle and the town, were singing as if the daybreak were ushering in a summer festival.

But it was not to a merry-making that the soldiers were marching, and the citizens thronging so eagerly from every street and alley towards the castle. By four o’clock the Outer and Inner Courts had been lined with detachments of the Prince’s Guard, and companies of other regiments to the number of twelve hundred men. Occupying the northeastern side of the court rose the grim, time-worn front of the ancient hall, consisting of one tall pyramidal gable of ancient gray brickwork flanked with two tall slender towers; the whole with the lancet-shaped windows and severe style of the twelfth century, excepting a rose-window in the centre, with the decorated mullions of a somewhat later period.

In front of the lower window, with its Gothic archway hastily converted into a door, a shapeless platform of rough, unhewn planks had that night been rudely patched together. This was the scaffold. A slight railing around it served to protect it from the crowd, and a heap of coarse sand had been thrown upon it. A squalid, unclean box of unplaned boards, originally prepared as a coffin for a Frenchman,—who some time before had been condemned to death for murdering the son of Goswyn Meurskens, a Hague tavern-keeper, but pardoned by the Stadtholder,—lay on the scaffold. It was recognized from having been left for a long time, half forgotten, at the public execution place of The Hague.

Upon this coffin now sat two common soldiers of ruffianly aspect playing at dice, betting whether the Lord or the Devil would get the soul of Barneveld. Many a foul and ribald jest at the expense of the prisoner was exchanged between these gamblers, some of their comrades, and a few townsmen who were grouped about at that early hour. The horrible libels, caricatures, and calumnies which had been circulated, exhibited, and sung in all the streets for so many months, had at last thoroughly poisoned the minds of the vulgar against the fallen statesman.

The great mass of the spectators had forced their way by daybreak into the hall itself to hear the sentence, so that the Inner Court-yard had remained comparatively empty.

At last, at half-past nine o’clock, a shout arose, “There he comes! there he comes!” and the populace flowed out from the hall of judgment into the court-yard like a tidal wave.

In an instant the Binnenhof was filled with more than three thousand spectators.

The old statesman, leaning on his staff, walked out upon the scaffold and calmly surveyed the scene. Lifting his eyes to heaven, he was heard to murmur, “O God! what does man come to!” Then he said bitterly once more, “This, then, is the reward of forty years’ service to the State!”

La Motte, who attended him, said fervently: “It is no longer time to think of this. Let us prepare your coming before God.”

“Is there no cushion or stool to kneel upon?” said Barneveld, looking around him.

The provost said he would send for one; but the old man knelt at once on the bare planks. His servant, who waited upon him as calmly and composedly as if he had been serving him at dinner, held him by the arm. It was remarked that neither master nor man, true stoics and Hollanders both, shed a single tear upon the scaffold.

La Motte prayed for a quarter of an hour, the Advocate remaining on his knees.

He then rose and said to John Franken, “See that he does not come near me,” pointing to the executioner, who stood in the background grasping his long double-handed sword. Barneveld then rapidly unbuttoned his doublet with his own hands, and the valet helped him off with it. “Make haste! make haste!” said his master.

The statesman then came forward, and said in a loud, firm voice to the people:—

“Men, do not believe that I am a traitor to the country. I have ever acted uprightly and loyally as a good patriot, and as such I shall die.”

The crowd was perfectly silent.

He then took his cap from John Franken, drew it over his eyes, and went forward towards the sand, saying:—

“Christ shall be my guide. O Lord, my Heavenly Father, receive my spirit.”

As he was about to kneel with his face to the south, the provost said:—

“My lord will be pleased to move to the other side, not where the sun is in his face.”

He knelt accordingly with his face towards his own house. The servant took farewell of him, and Barneveld said to the executioner:—

“Be quick about it. Be quick.”

The executioner then struck his head off at a single blow.

Many persons from the crowd now sprang, in spite of all opposition, upon the scaffold, and dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood, cut wet splinters from the boards, or grubbed up the sand that was steeped in it; driving many bargains afterwards for these relics to be treasured, with various feelings of sorrow, joy, glutted or expiated vengeance.

It has been recorded, and has been constantly repeated to this day, that the Stadtholder, whose windows exactly faced the scaffold, looked out upon the execution with a spy-glass; saying as he did so:—

“See the old scoundrel, how he trembles! He is afraid of the stroke.”

But this is calumny. Colonel Hauterive declared that he was with Maurice in his cabinet during the whole period of the execution; that by order of the prince all the windows and shutters were kept closed; that no person wearing his livery was allowed to be abroad; that he anxiously received messages as to the proceedings, and heard of the final catastrophe with sorrowful emotion.