Flemish Religious Emigration in the 16th/17th Centuries

Amy Eberlin
Friday 7 February 2014

The blog posting two weeks ago by David Dobson focused on Flemish immigration to Scotland in the late medieval to early modern period. Religiously persecuted Flemings fleeing Flanders over this period will account for some of this immigration. This week’s posting, prepared by George English, provides the historical backdrop for this phase of emigration from Flanders.


Flemish emigration in the 16th and early 17th centuries was mostly Protestants fleeing from religious persecution by the Spanish and Catholics. It is impossible to understand the time without looking at the reordering of religion and society that took place during the fast-changing world of the 16th century Reformation in Europe.

As noted in last week’s blog about defining Flanders and the Flemish, the area of northern Europe that constituted Flanders has evolved significantly under the pressure of war and politics. In the 16th century, the Low Countries were then seventeen provinces; and the province of Flanders spoke Flemish in the north but French in the southern part (see map below).

The Reformation, Flanders and the Revolt of the Spanish Netherlands

The Reformation was an age of discovery. Areas like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Britain were exploring the world. Spain, in her “Age of Expansion”, conquered large parts of South America and its wealth helped her to become the most powerful state in Europe. Advances in paper manufacture and printing technology were revolutionising communication. This would play a crucial part in the speed with which the messages of the Reformation spread.

In the early 16th century, most of Europe was adherent to the Church of Rome, that is Roman Catholic. Then, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous ninety-five theses to the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. There was a strong mood for religious reform and this “caught the imagination of central Europe as a symbol of social transformation”.[[1]]

Map of the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries in 1579
Map of the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries in 1579

In 1522, King Charles Quint instituted the Inquisition in the Low Countries for the suppression of heretics, which came to include the emerging Protestants.[[2]] An imperial edict, in 1535, condemned all heretics to death; repentant males to be executed with the sword, repentant females to be buried alive, the obstinate, of both sexes, to be burned.[[3]]

The number of people who were burned, strangled, beheaded, or buried alive for religious reasons, as a result of Charles V’s actions, has been estimated at between fifty and a hundred thousand. These were violent times. Protestant leaders such as Luther and Calvin also advocated the execution of those who did not adhere to their own doctrines.

In 1556, Philip II became sovereign of the Netherlands and Spain, as well as other countries, after his father Charles V abdicated. Charles urged his son PhilipThe to “Take all the means in your power to cut out the root of the Evil with vigour and rude handling.” The ideas of Luther and Calvin continued to take hold. The first public Protestant services were in 1562. Meanwhile, Scotland had become officially Protestant in 1560, following the lead of John Knox.

In 1566, a climax was reached with the year of the “iconoclasts”.[[4]] “Hedge-preaching” convinced people that the central government and the Catholic Church were powerless to stop the Protestant advance.[[5]] Churches at Lille, Valenciennes, Antwerp, Ghent, and many others were “purified” for Calvinist worship by destroying their icons and statues.[[6]] Philip II was warned that “if the Netherlands situation is not remedied, it will bring about the loss of Spain and all the rest.”[[7]]

In 1567, the Duke of Alba was appointed as Governor by Philip II.[[8]] The Revolt of the Spanish Netherlands, led by William of Orange, was gathering momentum in the northern provinces. It was, in part, led by Catholic nobles who valued religious freedom and were against the extreme measures of the Spanish. Alba started a reign of terror and set up the Council of Troubles. This became known as the “Council of Blood” because of the thousands of people who were executed or exiled by it. In 1568, Alba executed the Counts of Egmont and Hornes in Brussels, and the Eighty Years War between the Netherlands and Spain began.

Although Alba’s policy of selective brutality had success, “The great Revolt” was triggered by the Sea-Beggars. On 1 April 1572, six hundred Gueux,[[9]] recently expelled from the English Channel ports, on Queen Elizabeth’s orders … seized the small port of Brill, in Holland, which had been temporarily left without a Spanish garrison.”[[10]] However, in August, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots in France removed their support. The hatred of the Spanish was now intense.

In 1576, the provinces of the Netherlands signed the Pacification of Ghent with the aim of driving the Spanish from the country. Alessandro Farnese (later made Duke of Parma), was made governor by Philip II and negotiated the 1579 Treaty of Arras with southern French-speaking provinces and towns. This gave the areas autonomy, but the Catholic religion was imposed and the Calvinist leaders were banished. In response to the Treaty of Arras, the Union of Utrecht was signed by the northern provinces, and a few others, in the same year.

Parma then set about re-conquering the remaining parts of Flanders and Brabant, and his Catholic “Army of Flanders” progressively captured town after town. Maastricht was taken in March 1579 with the loss of 4,000 Spanish soldiers; as a reprisal, the Spanish slaughtered 8,000 inhabitants. At first, many Protestants fled north to cities like Brussels and Antwerp or abroad to countries such as England. In 1581, the Dutch provinces declared independence. William of Orange was assassinated in 1584, which dealt a heavy blow to the resistance movement.

From 1584 to 1585, Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp also fell, and the flow of refugees became a flood. They went further north to the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, which were the only main areas not to fall, or abroad. Between 1583 and 1589, the population of Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges halved, while that of Amsterdam, Haarlem and Leiden doubled. It was not until 1648 that the Treaty of Munster finally put an end to more than a century of religious wars across the Low Countries, France, and Germany. The Treaty recognized, among other things, the independence of the seven provinces of the Dutch Republic.

The Flemish should not be confused with the Huguenots, who were from France.[[11]]

Flemish Immigrants in the 16th/17th Centuries

In some of the countries where the Protestant refugees went, formal arrangements were made for them.

In England, Henry VIII allowed them to settle and refused all requests from Charles V that they should be forbidden to remain there. Between 1535 and 1550, about 5,000 Flemish and Walloon refugees living in the London area were granted citizenship and there were many more living in country towns.

The need was realised for them to be able to have church services in their own language, so in 1550 the first Strangers’ Church was established at Austin Friars Church in London, which was a Dutch (Flemish) Church. Other Flemish or French (Walloon) churches were established at Sandwich, Norwich (in 1565), Southampton and Canterbury. In 1568, an order was issued that all Strangers must become members of the Strangers’ Church or leave the kingdom.[[12]] The Church was important to the immigrants, with elders and deacons visiting the flock regularly. Money was collected, clothing was distributed and they maintained their own elderly and sick.[[13]] Their textile skills were much appreciated in the places where they settled.

The United Provinces of the Dutch Republic were a natural place for the Flemish to flee to, particularly after they had declared independence in 1581. They could attend services of the Dutch Reformed Church in their own language. Many Walloon Churches were also established for the immigrants from French Flanders and other French-speaking provinces.

Emigration to England fell away rapidly in the 17th century; whereas that to the Dutch Republic reached a peak in the first half of the 17th century and continued into the 18th century. The balance changed, so eventually most emigration was for economic, i.e. work, reasons rather than religious ones. Many Flemings and Walloons who had fled first from Flanders to England later returned to the Dutch Republic as the situation there improved.[[14]]

Flemish Immigrants to Scotland

The contrast with England and other countries is interesting. David Dobson’s excellent recent blog suggests that “Flemish immigration into Scotland in the early modern period was relatively small scale”. “In 1594 an Act authorising them to have their own church and minister was passed”, which was many years after the various Strangers’ Churches were established in England. Dobson states that “Some Flemings arrived directly from Flanders, others arrived via the Flemish communities in England, specifically from Norwich and London.”

George English is a director of the Family History service Research Through People (www.researchthroughpeople.com). He has undertaken extensive genealogical and historical research and published work in United Kingdom, United States and Europe. He can be reached at 9 Glebe Avenue, Mauchline, Ayrshire, KA5 6AF or by email at [email protected].


[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation, Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 (London, 2004), xxiii.
[2] Charles V was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556. He was known as ‘Quint’, a version of the French for fifth. He inherited the Kingdom of Spain from his mother. In 1556 he divided his holdings and the Spanish crown went to his son Philip II and his Austrian holdings went to his brother Ferdinand I.
[3] John Lothrop Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic: a History (London, 1856), Historical Introduction, Part 2, xii.
[4] The term “iconoclast” describes people who destroy “icons” i.e. religious images or sacred objects.
[5] “Hedge-preaching” was the practice of preachers holding meetings in the fields and woods of the countryside in order to escape the attentions of the authorities.
[6] Solange Deyon and Alain Lottin, Les casseurs de l’été 1566: l’iconoclasme dans le nord (Paris, 1981), 213.
[7] Fernando González de León and Geoffrey Parker, The Grand Strategy of Philip II and the Revolt of the Netherlands, 1559-1584 in Philip Benedict, Guido Marnef, Henk van Nierop and Marc Venard, eds., Reformation, Revolt and Civil War in France and the Netherlands 1555-1585 (Amsterdam, 1999), 222-223.
[8] Fernando de Toledo (1507-82) was the 3rd Duke of Alba in western Spain.
[9] Gueux was the French for beggars. The name arose after a Petition demanding the dismantlement of the Inquisition was presented to the then Governor, Margaret of Parma in 1566; and an advisor said aloud “What madam! Afraid of these beggars?”
[10] Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806 (Oxford, Eng., 1995), 170.
[11] In France, there were eight Wars of Religion between the Catholic government and protestant Huguenots between 1562 and 1598. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 led to many Huguenots fleeing from France. Then the Edict of Nantes in 1598 gave the Huguenots religious freedom. It was not until 1685, that Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, causing some 200,000 Huguenots to flee from France.
[12] G. B. Beeman, The Early History of the Strangers’ Church, 1550 to 1561, part of the Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London, vol. XV, no. 2 (London, 1935), 261-282.
[13] W. H. Manchée, Dutch, Walloon, and Flemish Clergy List. 1550-1874, part of the Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London, vol. XI, no. 3 (London, 1917), 402.
[14] Johanna W. Tammel, The Pilgrims and other people from the British Isles in Leiden 1576-1640, (Peel, Isle of Man, 1989).

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