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Remarkable Stories: The Forest Beggars from Heuvelland

by W Willems, J L Putman, & M Soenen

It was in the run-up to the Eighty Years War (1568) that the beggars made their mark.

During the first phase of this war, they took part in raids into the northern Dutch provinces of Zeeland and Holland. By the end of 1573 they managed not only to largely take over these provinces, but also to convert their inhabitants to Calvinism.

The beggars were originally lower nobles from the Low Countries - Calvinists and Lutherans as well as moderate Catholics - who had joined together in the 'Confederation of the Nobles' to form a united front against religious persecution (under the Inquisition) by the Catholic Spanish king, Philip II, and the Spanish occupiers of the Southern Netherlands and their supporters, especially French-speaking higher nobles.

About two hundred of them set out on foot for Brussels, in April 1566. There they ask in vain of Margaret of Parma - who ruled the 'Spanish Netherlands' in the name of the Spanish king - to stop the brutal persecution of Protestants.

In August 1566, the Iconoclasm dispute broke out in the Habsburg Low Countries, specifically in Steenvoorde (now in French Flanders), just twenty kilometres from the Kemmelberg as the crow flies. The cruel duke of Alba was sent to the Netherlands.

From the rebellious provinces of Holland and Zeeland in the north, the west of Flanders, Brabant, and the vicinity of Tournai, the beggars spread all over the Low Countries.

More and more ordinary citizens banded together and headed the resistance movement.

The French-speaking nobles gave them the nickname 'gueux' (French for 'poor man, thief'), but the word took on a positive meaning for all non-Spaniards. The resistance fighters adopted 'beggars' as their group name, with the beggar's bag as their symbol.

Large numbers of Calvinists voluntarily or forcibly left the Habsburg Netherlands and fled abroad, especially to English cities on the east coast, but many remain at sea as successful pirates, called sea beggars.

The forest beggars were also Calvinists, people who had been driven out of their homes and who now had to hide in inaccessible places in forests and swamps in order to keep themselves safe from government forces. Their numbers were replenished by former land workers and marauders, and robberies were committed.

In the villages of the Westhoek - then called Westkwartier, in the south-western corner of the then county of Flanders - hardcore groups of Calvinists arose involving people who wanted to live their faith freely and openly, which was strictly forbidden in Roman Catholic Flanders.

In addition, there was also an economic cause as the origin of the conflict. Up to that point, cities such as Ypres had held a monopoly on the cloth industry, but in some villages such as Belle (now Bailleul in French Flanders), Dranouter, and Nieuwkerke - all of which had much lower wages - a cloth industry had also developed which had combined with a flourishing export market. Nieuwkerke, now the southernmost borough of the municipality of Heuvelland and on the border with France and Wallonia, competed with Ypres as an industrial agglomeration. Nieuwkerke was then also a focal point of radical Calvinism.

The towns sought a means of regaining their lost authority over the villages, resorting gratefully to the religious motif.

For those villages which are now part of the municipality of Heuvelland - especially in Nieuwkerke - these were going to be turbulent times.

From here, itinerant groups of forest beggars destroyed several churches in the Westhoek.

Radical Calvinists took up arms and occupied cities such as Tournai and Valenciennes (now in French Flanders). From here the revolt spread further along the Scheldt to the north and north-east. Antwerp, 's-Hertogenbosch, Maastricht, and Amsterdam were also occupied.

Municipality of Heuvelland today
Image © Prov W-Vlaanderen, 'De Bergen' & W Willems

The municipality of Heuvelland and its eight sub-municipalities today.

During a synod in Nieuwkerke in December 1566, Calvinist preachers decided to proceed with armed resistance against the government and to relieve Valenciennes, which was being besieged by the government army. In the vicinity of Lille, a beggar army gathered of 3,000 Flemish Calvinists and two hundred beggars. They were massacred by the Spaniards during the Battle of Wattrelos (near Lille).

In January 1568 a small number of protestant emigrants - led by the preacher, Jan Michiels - returned from England and committed robberies in West Flanders before being dispersed. The survivors joined the forest beggars to loot churches and monasteries, destroy religious goods, and murder Catholic authorities.

At the beginning of January 1568, the churches of Reningelst, Dranouter, Kemmel, and Nieuwkerke, among others, were looted and the furniture destroyed or set on fire. The pastor, chaplain, and clerical sacristan of Reningelst were captured, mutilated, tortured, and horribly murdered by a group of forest beggars. A few days later their frozen bodies were found in what was then the middle of the woods, probably in the same place at which they had been killed. They were buried in Nieuwkerke's church.

It was not until April 1923 that the mortal remains of the murdered were rediscovered under the church floor and, in 1928, the then pastor, Gustaaf Lamerant, built the monumental tomb on the cross at which their remains had first been found.

Crosstomb in the Eikelstraat at Nieuwkerke
Photo © William Willems

Crosstomb in the Eikelstraat at Nieuwkerke.

The gruesome murder is also visually recorded on two stained glass windows in the Our Lady's Church in Nieuwkerke, and on an impressive painting in St John's Baptist Church in Dranouter. The painting was created in 1947 by Peter Soenen, a Scheut missionary (photo below).

Painting of the clerical murder in 1568, Dranouter
Photo © William Willems

Painting of the clerical murder in 1568, Dranouter.

Stained glass window, Nieuwkerke, by Camille Wybo, 1924
Photo © Philippe Vercouter

Stained glass window, Nieuwkerke, by Camille Wybo, 1924.

Jan Camerlynck, one of the captains of the forest beggars in the Flemish Westkwartier, landed in Ostend in September 1568 with sixteen companions, with the intention of taking up the earlier plan of spreading terror and carrying out an invasion.

Following a secret appointment in the cemetery at Kaaster (Caestre, now northern France), they went into hiding on the spot in their native region. But an imprisoned ally was tortured into revealing their hiding place. Camerlynck and twelve forest beggars were surprised in Kaaster and were arrested after a fierce fight.

At the beginning of October, Camerlynck's trial before the Ypres 'Vierschaar' (tribunal) started with extensive interrogations and torture.

At the end of November 1568, Camerlynck heard his gruesome death sentence. His ears were cut off on the Grand Place in Ypres, following which he was flogged and branded with red-hot tongs. He was then tied to the scaffold with a cauldron of burning pitch being placed over his head which dripped onto his body, creating a fire which burned him alive.

His execution put to an end the activities of the forest beggars in the Westhoek after two years of violence.

Remarkable Stories: The Versatile Petrus Plancius of Dranouter



Text copyright © Archeo Kemmelberg. An original feature for the History Files: Kemmelberg.