‘We have had here this night past a marvellous stir, – all the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of things left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed; being done after such order and with so few folks that it is to be marvelled at. And because you shall understand how this matter began, yesterday about five of the clock, the priests, thinking to have sung compline, as we call it, and here lauds; and when they should have begun their service, there was a company begun to sing psalms, at the beginning being but a company of boys, whereupon the Margrave and other [of] the Lords came to the church and rebuked them. But all in vain; for that, as soon as they turned their backs, they [fell] to it again; and the company increased, being begun in Our Lady Church: so that, about 6 of the clock, they broke up the choir, and went and visited all the books; whereof, as it is said, some they saved, and the rest utterly destroyed and broke. After that, they began with the image of Our Lady, which had been carried about the town on Sunday last, and utterly defaced her and her chapel; and, after, the whole church, which was the costliest church in Europe; and have so spoiled it, that they have not left a place to sit on in the church. And from thence, part went to the parish churches, and part to the houses of religion, and made such despatch as I think the like was never done in one night; and not so much to be wondered at of the doing, but that so few people durst or could do so much: for that when they entered into some of the houses of religion, I could not perceive in some churches not above ten or twelve that spoiled, – all being boys and rascals; but there were many in the church lookers-on, (as some thought, setters-on). This thing was done so quiet and so still, as if there had been nothing ado in the churches; and men standing before their doors in harness, looking upon these fellows passing from church to church, whom, as they passed through the streets, required all men to be quiet, and cried all: Vive les Gueux! So that, after I saw that all should be quiet, I, with above ten thousand more, went into the churches to see what stir was there; and coming into Our Lady Church, it looked like a hell: where were above 1,000 torches burning, and such a noise as if heaven and earth had gone together, with falling of images and beating down of costly works; in such sort, that the spoil was so great that a man could not well pass through the church. So that, in fine, I cannot write you in ten sheets of paper the strange sight I saw there, – organs and all, destroyed; and from thence I went, (as the rest of the people did,) to all the houses of religion, where was the like stir, – breaking and spoiling all that there was. Yet, they that this did, never looked towards any spoil, but broke all in pieces and let it lie underfoot. So that, to be short, they have spoiled and destroyed all the churches, so well nunneries as others; but, as I do understand, they neither said nor did anything to the nuns; but, when all was broken, left it there, and so departed. So that, by estimation, they that spoiled, meddled with nothing, but let it lie; and, before it was three o’clock in the morning, they had done their work, and all home again, as if there had been nothing done: so that they spoiled this night between 25 and 30 churches. And it is thought this day, many more shall be spoiled abroad; for that, in divers places in Flanders they have and do the like. For they that do spoil in Flanders, go by 4 and 500 in a company, and, when they come to a town or village, they call for the governor of the town, and so go into the church; where, so much silver or gold as they do find, either chalices or crosses, they break and deface, and then deliver it to the head-officer by weight; and, for the rest, they utterly destroy it. And coming to a town in Flanders where they so spoiled, one of their company did hide away the value of 4 or 5 shillings; whereupon they took him, and caused a pair of gallows to be made, and hanged him on the market-place: and said they came not to steal, but to spoil that was against God….’
The description which Strada, the historian of the Low Country wars, has left us of this eventful night, corresponds very nearly with Clough’s narrative : but he supplies us in addition with some graphic particulars which bring the scene fearfully before one. “The Heretics”, he says, “expecting till even-song was done, shouted with a hideous cry, Long live the Gueux: and commanded the image of the Blessed Virgin to repeat their acclamation, which if she refused to do, they madly swore they would beat and kill her. Now when they had possessed themselves of the church, hearing the clock strike the last hour of the day, and darkness adding confidence, one of them, (lest their wickedness should want formality,) began to sing a Geneva psalm; and then, as if the trumpet had sounded a charge, the spirit moving them altogether, they fell upon the effigies of the Mother of God, and upon the pictures of Christ and his Saints. Some tumbled them down, and trod upon them ; others thrust swords into their sides ; others chopped off their heads with axes ; with so much concord and forecast in their sacrilege, that you would think every one had his several work assigned him. The very harlots, those common appurtenances to thieves and drunkards, catching up the wax-candles from the altars and from the vestry, held them to light the men that were at work: part whereof, getting upon the altars, cast down the sacred plate, broke asunder the picture-frames, and defaced the painted walls: part, setting up ladders, shattered the goodly organs, and broke the windows flourished with a new kind of paint. Huge statues of saints, that stood in the walls upon pedestals, they unfastened and hurled down; among which, an ancient and great crucifix, with the two thieves hanging on each hand of our Saviour, they pulled down with ropes, and hewed in pieces; but touched not the two thieves, as if they only worshipped them, and desired them to be their good Lords. The chalices which they found in the vestry, they filled with wine prepared for the altar and drank them off in derision; greasing their shoes with the chrism, or holy oil: and after the spoil of all these things, laughed and were very merry at the matter.” Well might Stapleton in translating this passage, exclaim in the margin, “ O profane!” The historian does not fail to express astonishment at that which, it must be confessed, was the most extraordinary part of the whole business; namely, that the miscreants who occasioned so much mischief, were not more than one hundred in number. The expedition used in the work, and the success and personal safety with which it was accomplished, he roundly ascribes to the agency of the Evil Spirit and his angels.
Nor has Strada omitted to notice the spoliation of the religious houses, and the alarm of the peaceful citizens, disturbed from sleep ; the clergy waking to provide for their safety by flight, and the merchants to barricade their doors. “But the poor Nuns”, he says, “were in the greatest fright and amazement, whose cloisters were broke by these Hobgoblins.” Lastly, as if to awaken sympathies which his previous recital might have failed to reach, Strada speaks of monastic libraries invaded, and of books (by which he must mean illuminated missals) buttered and then burnt; adding, that there occurred “so great a loss of rare pieces drawn by the hands of Masters, that some writers stick not to say the great church alone was damnified to the value of 400,000 ducats” …
In a letter some 4 days later, Clough continued: ‘it was the marvel-lest piece of work, that ever was seen done in so short a time, and so terrible in the doing, that it would make a man afraid to think upon it, – being more like a dream than such a piece of work. And whereas it was well allowed, in a manner, of all men, the pulling down of the images, – it is disliked of most men that they have made such a spoil as they have done, in stealing all the gold, silver and jewels within the church; and breaking up of doors where they had nought to do. They have spoiled not only the evidence [i.e. title-deeds] of all the churches, but the evidence of many in this town, who had brought their evidence into the church, for fear of fire, or other. As also whereas there was many fair sepulchres made in the churches, they have broken and defaced them all: so that by this means and other, the preachers are come much into the derision of the people. God turn all to the best! for that presently we are here in great perplexity at this present, – all men one afraid of another, and not without cause, for that the number of the poor are so much able to be master over the other. So that if there were not very good watch and ward, it were not other [than] possible, but that all should go to ruin here. And for the avoiding thereof, the whole town hath watched, night and day, ever since this business began; and must do for a time; for that now there are many taken that have taken of the silver and jewels out of the church, who shall be put to execution; whereabout, I doubt will be much ado … in the great spoil divers pieces of altars stood, as also the twelve apostles about the church, which had cost a great sum of money, every picture at the least ten foot high, the Lords have caused them to be pulled down and broken in pieces, and all other images that remained. As also they have caused all the altars to be broken in pieces, and the altar stones, some of touch [a hard black granite] and some of marble, broken in pieces. So that so far as I can perceive, they will leave nothing in the church, whereof any memory should be; and all the stuff of that which is broken, the Lords have given to the masters of the poor, which is worth a great piece of money, although it be broken, for I dare say that the garnishing of Our Lady Church had cost above 200,000 marks; for there was divers altars that had cost 5, 6 and 7,000, but in fine all spoiled, not only there, but throughout all the town and country…’
In the words of the Royal Injunctions that accompanied the reformation of the English Church in the reign of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, Church officials were to
[…] take away, utterly extinct, and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindals, and rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition, so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass windows, or elsewhere within their churches and houses; preserving nevertheless, or repairing both the walls and glass windows; and they shall exhort all their parishioners to do the like within their several houses. And that the churchwardens, at the common charge of the parishioners, in every church shall provide a comely and honest pulpit, to be set in a convenient place within the same, and to be there seemly kept for the preaching of God’s word.