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Ghent was, in all respects, one of the most important cities in Europe. Erasmus, who, as a Hollander and a courtier, was not likely to be partial to the turbulent Flemings, asserted that there was no town in all Christendom to be compared to it for size, power, political constitution, or the culture of its inhabitants. It was, said one of its inhabitants at the epoch of the insurrection, rather a country than a city. The activity and wealth of its burghers were proverbial. The bells were rung daily, and the drawbridges over the many arms of the river intersecting the streets were raised, in order that all business might be suspended, while the armies of workmen were going to or returning from their labors. As early as the fourteenth century, the age of the Arteveldes, Froissart estimated the number of fighting men whom Ghent could bring into the field at eighty thousand. The city, by its jurisdiction over many large but subordinate towns, disposed of more than its own immediate population, which has been reckoned as high as two hundred thousand.

Placed in the midst of well cultivated plains, Ghent was surrounded by strong walls, the external circuit of which measured nine miles. Its streets and squares were spacious and elegant, its churches and other public buildings numerous and splendid. The sumptuous church of Saint John or Saint Bavon, where Charles the Fifth had been baptized, the ancient castle whither Baldwin Bras de Fer had brought the daughter of Charles the Bald, the city hall with its graceful Moorish front, the well-known belfry, where for three centuries had perched the dragon sent by the Emperor Baldwin of Flanders from Constantinople, and where swung the famous Roland, whose iron tongue had called the citizens, generation after generation, to arms, whether to win battles over foreign kings at the head of their chivalry, or to plunge their swords in each others' breasts, were all conspicuous in the city and celebrated in the land. Especially the great bell was the object of the burghers' affection, and, generally, of the sovereign's hatred; while to all it seemed, as it were, a living historical personage, endowed with the human powers and passions which it had so long directed and inflamed.

The constitution of the city was very free. It was a little republic in all but name. Its population was divided into fifty-two guilds of manufacturers and into thirty-two tribes of weavers; each fraternity electing annually or biennally its own deans and subordinate officers. The senate, which exercised functions legislative, judicial, and administrative, subject of course to the grand council of Mechlin and to the sovereign authority, consisted of twenty-six members. These were appointed partly from the upper class, or the men who lived upon their means, partly from the manufacturers in general, and partly from the weavers. They were chosen by a college of eight electors, who were appointed by the sovereign on nomination by the citizens. The whole city, in its collective capacity, constituted one of the four estates (Membra) of the province of Flanders. It is obvious that so much liberty of form and of fact, added to the stormy character by which its citizens were distinguished, would be most offensive in the eyes of Charles, and that the delinquencies of the little commonwealth would be represented in the most glaring colors by all those quiet souls, who preferred the tranquillity of despotism to the turbulence of freedom. The city claimed, moreover, the general provisions of the "Great Privilege" of the Lady Mary, the Magna Charta, which, according to the monarchical party, had been legally abrogated by Maximilian. The liberties of the town had also been nominally curtailed by the "calf-skin" (Kalf Vel). By this celebrated document, Charles the Fifth, then fifteen years of age, had been made to threaten with condign punishment all persons who should maintain that he had sworn at his inauguration to observe any privileges or charters claimed by the Ghenters before the peace of Cadsand.

The immediate cause of the discontent, the attempt to force from Flanders a subsidy of four hundred thousand caroli, as the third part of the twelve hundred thousand granted by the states of the Netherlands, and the resistance of Ghent in opposition to the other three members of the province, will, of course, be judged differently, according as the sympathies are stronger with popular rights or with prerogative. The citizens claimed that the subsidy could only be granted by the unanimous consent of the four estates of the province. Among other proofs of this their unquestionable right, they appealed to a muniment, which had never existed, save in the imagination of the credulous populace. At a certain remote epoch, one of the Counts of Flanders, it was contended, had gambled away his countship to the Earl of Holland, but had been extricated from his dilemma by the generosity of Ghent. The burghers of the town had paid the debts and redeemed the sovereignty of their lord, and had thereby gained, in return, a charter, called the Bargain of Flanders (Koop van Flandern). Among the privileges granted by this document, was an express stipulation that no subsidy should ever be granted by the province without the consent of Ghent. This charter would have been conclusive in the present emergency, had it not labored under the disadvantage of never having existed. It was supposed by many that the magistrates, some of whom were favorable to government, had hidden the document. Lieven Pyl, an ex-senator, was supposed to be privy to its concealment. He was also, with more justice, charged with an act of great baseness and effrontery. Reputed by the citizens to carry to the Queen Regent their positive refusal to grant the subsidy, he had, on the contrary, given an answer, in their name, in the affirmative. For these delinquencies, the imaginary and the real, he was inhumanly tortured and afterwards beheaded. "I know, my children," said he upon the scaffold, "that you will be grieved when you have seen my blood flow, and that you will regret me when it is too late." It does not appear, however, that there was any especial reason to regret him, however sanguinary the punishment which had requited his broken faith.

The mischief being thus afoot, the tongue of Roland, and the easily- excited spirits of the citizens, soon did the rest. Ghent broke forth into open insurrection. They had been willing to enlist and pay troops under their own banners, but they had felt outraged at the enormous contribution demanded of them for a foreign war, undertaken in the family interests of their distant master. They could not find the "Bargain of Flanders," but they got possession of the odious "calf skin," which was solemnly cut in two by the dean of the weavers. It was then torn in shreds by the angry citizens, many of whom paraded the streets with pieces of the hated document stuck in their caps, like plumes. From these demonstrations they proceeded to intrigues with Francis the First. He rejected them, and gave notice of their overtures to Charles, who now resolved to quell the insurrection, at once. Francis wrote, begging that the Emperor would honor him by coming through France; "wishing to assure you," said he, "my lord and good brother, by this letter, written and signed by my hand, upon my honor, and on the faith of a prince, and of the best brother you have, that in passing through my kingdom every possible honor and hospitality will be offered you, even as they could be to myself." Certainly, the French king, after such profuse and voluntary pledges, to confirm which he, moreover, offered his two sons and other great individuals as hostages, could not, without utterly disgracing himself, have taken any unhandsome advantage of the Emperor's presence in his dominions. The reflections often made concerning the high-minded chivalry of Francis, and the subtle knowledge of human nature displayed by Charles upon the occasion, seem, therefore, entirely superfluous. The Emperor came to Paris. "Here," says a citizen of Ghent, at the time, who has left a minute account of the transaction upon record, but whose sympathies were ludicrously with the despot and against his own townspeople, "here the Emperor was received as if the God of Paradise had descended." On the 9th of February, 1540, he left Brussels; on the 14th he came to Ghent. His entrance into the city lasted more than six hours. Four thousand lancers, one thousand archers, five thousand halberdmen and musqueteers composed his bodyguard, all armed to the teeth and ready for combat. The Emperor rode in their midst, surrounded by "cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and other great ecclesiastical lords," so that the terrors of the Church were combined with the panoply of war to affright the souls of the turbulent burghers. A brilliant train of "dukes, princes, earls, barons, grand masters, and seignors, together with most of the Knights of the Fleece," were, according to the testimony of the same eyewitness, in attendance upon his Majesty. This unworthy son of Ghent was in ecstasies with the magnificence displayed upon the occasion. There was such a number of "grand lords, members of sovereign houses, bishops, and other ecclesiastical dignitaries going about the streets, that," as the poor soul protested with delight, "there was nobody else to be met with." Especially the fine clothes of these distinguished guests excited his warmest admiration. It was wonderful to behold, he said, "the nobility and great richness of the princes and seignors, displayed as well in their beautiful furs, martins and sables, as in the great chains of fine gold which they wore twisted round their necks, and the pearls and precious stones in their bonnets and otherwise, which they displayed in great abundance. It was a very triumphant thing to see them so richly dressed and accoutred."

An idea may be formed of the size and wealth of the city at this period, from the fact that it received and accommodated sixty thousand strangers, with their fifteen thousand horses, upon the occasion of the Emperor's visit. Charles allowed a month of awful suspense to intervene between his arrival and his vengeance. Despair and hope alternated during the interval. On the 17th of March, the spell was broken by the execution of nineteen persons, who were beheaded as ringleaders. On the 29th of April, he pronounced sentence upon the city. The hall where it was rendered was open to all comers, and graced by the presence of the Emperor, the Queen Regent, and the great functionaries of Court, Church, and State. The decree, now matured, was read at length. It annulled all the charters, privileges, and laws of Ghent. It confiscated all its public property, rents, revenues, houses, artillery, munitions of war, and in general every thing which the corporation, or the traders, each and all, possessed in common. In particular, the great bell—Roland was condemned and sentenced to immediate removal. It was decreed that the four hundred thousand florins, which had caused the revolt, should forthwith be paid, together with an additional fine by Ghent of one hundred and fifty thousand, besides six thousand a year, forever after. In place of their ancient and beloved constitution, thus annihilated at a blow, was promulgated a new form of municipal government of the simplest kind, according to which all officers were in future to be appointed by himself and the guilds, to be reduced to half their number; shorn of all political power, and deprived entirely of self-government. It was, moreover, decreed, that the senators, their pensionaries, clerks and secretaries, thirty notable burghers, to be named by the Emperor, with the great dean and second dean of the weavers, all dressed in black robes, without their chains, and bareheaded, should appear upon an appointed day, in company with fifty persons from the guilds, and fifty others, to be arbitrarily named, in their shirts, with halters upon their necks. This large number of deputies, as representatives of the city, were then to fall upon their knees before the Emperor, say in a loud and intelligible voice, by the mouth of one of their clerks, that they were extremely sorry for the disloyalty, disobedience, infraction of laws, commotions, rebellion, and high treason, of which they had been guilty, promise that they would never do the like again, and humbly implore him, for the sake of the Passion of Jesus Christ, to grant them mercy and forgiveness.

The third day of May was appointed for the execution of the sentence. Charles, who was fond of imposing exhibitions and prided himself upon arranging them with skill, was determined that this occasion should be long remembered by all burghers throughout his dominions who might be disposed to insist strongly upon their municipal rights. The streets were alive with troops: cavalry and infantry in great numbers keeping strict guard at every point throughout the whole extent of the city; for it was known that the hatred produced by the sentence was most deadly, and that nothing but an array of invincible force could keep those hostile sentiments in check. The senators in their black mourning robes, the other deputies in linen shirts, bareheaded, with halters on their necks, proceeded, at the appointed hour, from the senate house to the imperial residence. High on his throne, with the Queen Regent at his side, surrounded by princes, prelates and nobles, guarded by his archers and halberdiers, his crown on his head and his sceptre in his hand, the Emperor, exalted, sat. The senators and burghers, in their robes cf humiliation, knelt in the dust at his feet. The prescribed words of contrition and of supplication for mercy were then read by the pensionary, all the deputies remaining upon their knees, and many of them crying bitterly with rage and shame. "What principally distressed them," said the honest citizen, whose admiration for the brilliant accoutrement of the princes and prelates has been recorded, "was to have the halter on their necks, which they found hard to bear, and, if they had not been compelled, they would rather have died than submit to it."

As soon as the words had been all spoken by the pensionary, the Emperor, whose cue was now to appear struggling with mingled emotions of reasonable wrath and of natural benignity, performed his part with much dramatic effect. "He held himself coyly for a little time," says the eye-witness, "without saying a word; deporting himself as though he were considering whether or not he would grant the pardon for which the culprits had prayed." Then the Queen Regent enacted her share in the show. Turning to his Majesty "with all reverence, honor and humility, she begged that he would concede forgiveness, in honor of his nativity, which had occurred in that city."

Upon this the Emperor "made a fine show of benignity," and replied "very sweetly" that in consequence of his "fraternal love for her, by reason of his being a gentle and virtuous prince, who preferred mercy to the rigor of justice, and in view of their repentance, he would accord his pardon to the citizens."

The Netherlands, after this issue to the struggle of Ghent, were reduced, practically, to a very degraded condition. The form of local self- government remained, but its spirit, when invoked, only arose to be derided. The supreme court of Mechlin, as in the days of Charles the Bold, was again placed in despotic authority above the ancient charters. Was it probable that the lethargy of provinces, which had reached so high a point of freedom only to be deprived of it at last, could endure forever? Was it to be hoped that the stern spirit of religious enthusiasm, allying itself with the—keen instinct of civil liberty, would endue the provinces with strength to throw off the Spanish yoke?

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