This lesson will focus on the Protestant Reformation and its effect on the Netherlands. It will highlight the role Protestantism, especially in the form of Calvinism, played in the Netherlands’ fight for freedom from Catholic Spain.

Definition of Reformation

Location of the Netherlands in Europe
Netherlands Map

The Protestant Reformation changed the political and religious landscape of Europe. In Germany, it saw the birth of Lutheranism, while in England, it saw separation from the Pope. Although these events were definitely real game-changers, many historians believe the Reformation had its greatest impact on the Netherlands. Before we dive into the Reformation in the Netherlands, let’s review how the Protestant Reformation began.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century began as an attempt to reform the practices of the Catholic Church. It was sparked in the year 1517 by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. In these writings, Luther objected to the abuses he perceived within the Church. Soon, others joined the call for reformation.

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Of course, these ideas didn’t sit so well with the Pope. Soon, the efforts of the reformers led to a schism in Western Christianity. On one side were those who held to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. On the other were those who protested these doctrines. Aptly so, these protesters became known as Protestants, or followers of Western Christianity separate from the Roman Catholic Church. Aided by its followers and the invention of the printing press, the Protestant message spread like fire throughout Europe, eventually making its way to the Netherlands.

Reformation Comes to the Netherlands

It’s important to note that in the mid-16th century, the Netherlands were not an independent country. Instead, they were the possessions of the very Catholic Habsburg Dynasty of Spain. Although Spain officially ruled the Netherlands, it gave the land and its many diverse provinces a good deal of autonomy. With this autonomy, the Netherlands thrived, making them one of the most prosperous regions in all of Europe. As wealth was produced in the Netherlands, Spain happily claimed its share.

However, as the Reformation made its way to the Netherlands, the Habsburg dynasty got nervous. Knowing the desire for religious freedom often gave way to the desire for political freedom, Spain began to tighten its control of the Netherlands. As Spain tried to exert more power, the people of the Netherlands, known as the Dutch, rebelled. With this rebellion, the Reformation in the Netherlands became a time of bloodshed, persecution, and war.

Anabaptism and Calvinism

Although many credit Martin Luther for sparking the Reformation, Lutheranism never had a strong presence among the Dutch. Instead, Anabaptism became very popular, especially in the areas of Holland and Friesland. These Anabaptists denied the legitimacy of infant baptism. They also held the Bible, not the Church, as the only rule for life.

As a group, Anabaptists were very radical in their beliefs, forming new communities made entirely of those who believed as they did. This social restructuring soon upset the status quo within the Netherlands and made Anabaptists a target of persecution by Catholic Spain. Surviving despite this persecution, the Amish and the Mennonites of today are descendants of these Anabaptists.

Creating even more chaos than the Anabaptist movement, Calvinism also came to the Netherlands. Calvinism, named after the 16th century reformer John Calvin, holds that only God has complete authority over humanity, salvation, and the Church. In other words, the Pope is not the end-all authority. He, like the rest of humanity, is subject to God.

Dutch Calvinists destroyed Catholic images in churches.
Church Destruction

Unlike many new ideas, Calvinism reached both the aristocratic and common populations of the Netherlands. In a rather short time period, most of the province of Flanders had converted to Calvinism. Not surprisingly, this got the attention of Catholic Spain. Philip II, King of Spain, began persecuting Calvinists throughout the Netherlands. Thousands were executed and imprisoned during this time. However, the Dutch Calvinists would not be silenced. They answered back by ransacking churches, destroying Catholic images along their way. This destruction of religious images is known as iconoclasm.

Reformation Leads to War

William of Orange led the Dutch in the 80 Years War.
William of Orange

When Philip sent even more Spanish troops to round up the unruly Calvinists, the Dutch people seemed to have had enough of outside domination. William of Orange, also known as William the Silent and a convert to Calvinism, led the Northern provinces to rebel. This began the 80 Years’ War to liberate the Dutch from Catholic Spain. By 1572, the provinces of Holland and Zeeland were firmly under Calvinist control. All churches in this area either voluntarily converted to Calvinism or they were forced to. Either way, Protestants were winning the war against Catholic Spain. When England, ruled by the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, joined the side of the Dutch, freedom was within sight.

By this time, war had taken a huge toll on the treasury of Spain. Adding to their financial woes was the Spanish Armada, King Philip’s ill-fated attempt to invade Protestant England. Battle-worn and lacking funds, Spain’s grip on the Netherlands weakened.

The Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648.
Treaty of Westphalia

In 1648, the 80 Years’ War came to an end, and the independence of the Netherlands was recognized by the Treaty of Westphalia. Now free from Spanish domination, the Netherlands were mostly Protestant in the north and Catholic in the south. The Northern provinces, which had started the rebellion, took on the name the United Provinces. Those in the south, which remained loyal to Catholicism, were known as the Obedient Provinces. Despite the differences in religious affiliation, these provinces would come to coexist peacefully. With this peace, the Netherlands became known across Europe as a land of religious tolerance. In the years following the Reformation, religious refugees from France, England, and Spain fled to the Netherlands for safety.

Lesson Summary

The Reformation, which swept over 16th-century Europe, brought great changes to the Netherlands. Before the Reformation, the Dutch were ruled by Catholic Spain. However, as Protestantism, in the form of Anabaptism and Calvinism, came to the Dutch, the desire for religious freedom grew into a desire for political freedom.

Led by William of Orange, the Netherlands engaged in a conflict with Spain, which would come to be known as the 80 Years’ War. During these wars, many lives were lost, but in the end, the Protestant reformers won the day.

With independence from Spain realized, the Protestant Netherlands of the north and the Catholic Netherlands of the south coexisted peacefully as a land of religious tolerance. In the years following the Reformation, religious refugees from all over Europe would find safety within the Dutch Netherlands.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Summarize how the Reformation began and the role the Netherlands played in it
  • Explain the impact of Calvinism and Anabaptism on the Netherlands during the Reformation
  • Describe the conflict between Spain and the Netherlands
  • Identify William of Orange’s contribution to the conflict
  • Tell how the Netherland’s role in the Reformation ultimately impacted Europe