All my children were born in a hospital in Asse, a substantial village about six miles from where we live. The most direct route from our house to the hospital runs partly along a street named for Petrus Ascanus, and past a chapel dedicated to his memory in 1891. Until today I had never really thought of him or his chapel except in navigational terms. Last night (at time of writing) [July 8] Janet asked if I had another saint to hand for her series, and I said that I would see what I could do, but didn’t really have any ideas. Today I noticed that it is the feast of the Martyrs of Gorcum, and that one of them is a local hero. Petrus Ascanus, born six miles from where I live, was bursar of the Franciscan house in Gorcum, Holland, when the community was massacred in 1572.
I have been running into the Martyrs of Gorcum for years, without ever seeking them out. The summer after I graduated, to keep my linguistic and historical skills honed, I started translating a 16th-century chronicle written by an anonymous Dutch nun. This translation was eventually published, in 2001, by a fly-by-night outfit called Davenant Press, so in a sense it is my first translation that would be published (although later translations had been published earlier, if that makes sense). The text can be found at this link. The chronicle is an account of the horrors that the author witnessed or heard about over a ten-year period from 1566 to 1576. This was the first decade of the Dutch Revolt, when rebels often inspired by Calvinism (and allied mercenaries from England, France and Germany) fought against loyalists who were usually Catholic (supported by Habsburg troops from Italy and Spain, and more mercenaries from Germany). It was not a religious war as such, but one of the outcomes was a divided Netherlands in which the North (the Dutch Republic, now the Kingdom of the Netherlands) was predominantly Calvinist, with Catholic worship prohibited, while the South (now Belgium) was officially Catholic, with Protestantism proscribed. The most important of the early leaders of the Revolt was William of Orange, a relatively tolerant individual who favoured freedom of conscience, but not all his lieutenants were as eirenically inclined as he was. The Lord of Lumey, in particular, was given to gratuitous cruelty and a hatred of the clergy. He was so much a law unto himself that in 1576 he was banished from the nascent republic.
One of the passages in the chronicle describes the deaths of the Martyrs of Gorcum as reported in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the summer of 1572:
About the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, the Rebels came to Gorcum, where there is a castle which is called the Blue Tower. Therein lived the constable, who was an old man and true to his baptism, and he shot at the Rebels and hoped to stop them. For many goods had been stored there from inside and outside the town. And there were many good people there, particularly priests, and at least 12 or 13 friars. And since the constable received no help or support from the citizens he could not stop them and the Rebels came on them with great fury and said, ‘Give yourselves prisoner, we shall treat you in such a way, that it will be talked about for many years.’ And then they took all the goods stored there, and they took the constable’s wife and daughter, and the friars and the chaplain, and brought them to the flying captain, who could not stand the sight or smell of religious persons. And they piteously martyred the chaplain and the friars, to wit they cut off their ears and noses and their manhood too and stuck them in their mouths. Then they hanged them by the chin on a hook and they hanged alive like that in great pain, until they died, to wit eight friars and a chaplain. The dean was ransomed by his friends at great cost, for they paid 3000 guilders, and they also took all the goods that he had. The constable was tortured and imprisoned there, but not killed. It is said that there was a poor man, who could not earn his bread because he was in such poor health, who walked under the gibbet that these new martyrs hung on, for he had heard much about their patience and endurance. For they would rather die and suffer all the torments that could be inflicted on them, than give up their faith, as they had publicly answered those who asked it of them when they were about to be killed. Item. So this man sincerely invoked them and prayed to be healthy so that he might earn his bread, which he was granted before he left there healthy and well, and thanking God and these new martyrs.
Although this was the immediate news, it was not in all respects accurate. There were in fact not nine martyrs, but nineteen. Eleven of them were Franciscans (some priests, some lay brothers), another four were secular priests (including the chaplain mentioned in the chronicle), and with them were two Norbertines, a Dominican, and a canon regular. They were killed after a fortnight in captivity, during which they had been subject to numerous insults and injuries.
For my M.A. dissertation (later the basis of a book) I studied a writer called Richard Verstegan whose many publications included an account of contemporary martyrs, first published in 1587, entitled Theatrum Crudelitatum Haereticorum Nostri Temporis (A Theatre of the Cruelties of the Heretics of Our Time). In this he too provided an account, slightly more sanitized, of the deaths of the Martyrs of Gorcum (pictured). After being given an opportunity to renounce the Faith, they were forced to walk in procession while being mocked and beaten, and were then hanged in a barn.
A few months ago I began cycling to work in Brussels, and on my usual route I pass a church dedicated to St Nicholas. Visiting it one day out of curiosity, I found myself examining the reliquary of the Martyrs of Gorcum. It is impossible to say whose bones are which. The corpses of the martyrs had been buried unceremoniously in the ruined barn in which they had been hanged. The Revolt became a war that dragged on until 1648 (this was the war in which the father of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God served), but in 1615, during a truce, a secret mission was sent north to recover their relics and smuggle them back to Brussels.
The Martyrs of Gorcum, Petrus Ascanus among them, were beatified in 1675, and canonized in 1867. Their commemoration is 9 July. The war-torn country in which they were murdered for hatred of the Faith is now stable and prosperous, but news of similar killings is all too frequent elsewhere.