Historical Introduction to
Guido de Brès’ Letter
to King Philip
II of Spain
Russell J. Dykstra
Behind the following letter is a story of
spiritual courage and faithfulness under the real threat of death for
the sake of the Reformed faith. It is the letter written by the Reformed
preacher Guido de Brès to the Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain in
1561. Philip was the sworn enemy of the Reformation in the Lowlands. The
writer was a Reformed preacher with much God-given ability and
commitment to the faith.
Guido de Brès was born in Mons, a city in the southern French-speaking
region of the Lowlands, located in the present-day Belgian province of
Hainaut. He was raised Roman Catholic, but before the age of twenty-five
he became Protestant. The Lowlands, or Netherland provinces, were ruled
by Emperor Charles V, and since the early 1520s he persecuted the
Protestants in the Netherlands, putting many of them to death. To escape
persecution, de Brès moved to England in 1548 and joined a Huguenot
refugee church in London. There de Brès met and studied under
continental reformers such as John à Lasco, Martin Bucer, and Peter
By 1552 the persecution became less severe in the Netherlands, allowing
de Brès to return to his native land, where he became a pastor. There he
wrote his first book,
The Staff of the Christian Faith,
an exposition of the faith over against the errors of Rome.
Meanwhile, Emperor Charles had decided to abdicate his throne in favour
of his son, Philip. In 1556, Philip took the throne of Spain, and became
ruler also of the Netherlands. A devoted Roman Catholic like his father,
Philip was determined to stamp out the Reformation in the Netherlands.
He wrote to the pope in 1566, "Rather than suffer the least damage to
religion and the service of God, I would lose all my states and a
hundred lives, if I had them: for I do not propose to be ruler of
Philip made good on his word. He impressed upon the pope the need for
more bishops in the Netherlands. Fourteen more were added, beginning in
1559. He appointed his half sister, Margaret of Parma, regent in the
Netherlands with the duty to exterminate the Protestants. She was aided
by Cardinal Granvelle and the dreaded Inquisition. Thousands of
Lowlanders were imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith.
In response to this increased danger, de Brès led his flock to
Frankfurt, Germany. Because he recognized the importance for a preacher
to know Greek and Hebrew, he began studying under Theodore Beza in
Lausanne. He studied for almost two years in the Reformed Academy in
Lausanne, and when Beza went to Geneva, de Brès followed him and studied
there for another year.
Returning to the Netherlands in 1559, he became a pastor to a number of
Walloon churches (French-speaking people in what is today Belgium)
before settling in Doornik. There he married Catherine Ramon, and he
began the work of writing a confession of faith for the churches in the
region. Due to the continuing persecution, de Brès was forced to work
very much undercover, and for a time his congregation maintained a low
profile and worshipped undisturbed by the authorities. This changed in
1559, when some of the more radical members decided it was necessary to
make known their growing presence in Doornik. This led to direct
persecution of the believers in Doornik. As was often the case, the
Protestants were accused of many crimes, including insurrection against
Under these circumstances, de Brès finished his confession of faith in
1561. It is quite possible that other ministers assisted him, but the
identity of the men and the extent of the help cannot be ascertained. In
November of 1561, he wrote a letter to King Philip, who was lodging in a
castle in Doornik. Shortly thereafter a bundle containing the confession
of faith and this letter was cast over the gates of the castle.
This unsigned, handwritten letter de Brès wrote on behalf of the
persecuted Protestants. The letter is a powerful and poignant petition
for relief from persecution. It informed the king that they would prefer
to speak with him face to face, but the unjust persecution prevented
this. It declared that, on the one hand, they were willing and ready to
obey the king in all lawful matters. But it added this heartfelt
confession, that rather than to deny the truth of God’s Word, they
would, as the letter stated, "offer our backs to stripes, our tongues to
knives, the mouth to the muzzle, and the whole body to the fire." And
they presented to the king their confession of faith, adding, "being
ever ready and willing, if it be necessary, to seal it with our own
These were no empty statements. All over the Netherlands believers were
being tortured and put to death. In fact, less than six years later, de
Brès and fellow minister de la Grange were arrested in Valenciennes, and
shortly thereafter publicly hanged. Guido de Brès, only 44 years old,
left a beloved wife and several children.
The confession of faith was adopted by the Reformed churches as early as
1566 in the provincial synod of Antwerp. Eventually, the great synod of
Dordrecht adopted it in 1619, and it remains one of the three major
creeds for Reformed churches in the Netherlands and around the world
Our attention is focused on the letter written to introduce the
confession of faith to Philip II and the other magistrates. This letter
was originally written in French in 1561. Both the confession and the
letter were translated into Dutch and printed in 1562.
To date, an English translation of this letter has not been readily
available. Marvin Kamps, a member of the Protestant Reformed Churches,
took it upon himself to translate this letter from the Dutch. The source
of the Dutch edition is J. N. Bakkuigen van den Brink, De
Nederlansche Belijdenis Geschriften
(Amsterdam: Uitgeversmaat-schappij, Holland, 1940). We are grateful for
the time and work that Mr. Kamps put into this translation. This is a
significant contribution to the body of Dutch documents translated into
English. It is of value to believers interested in the history and
doctrines of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.
In both the French and the Dutch printed editions, de Brès’ letter is
introduced with a poem. The documents give no indication of the poem’s
writer. The Reformers who had this letter and poem printed in the 1560s
recognized that poetry can stir powerful emotions more effectively than
prose. For the same reason, we also desired to retain
the poem. Thus, after Marvin Kamps translated the Dutch poem into
English prose, we asked Sue Looyenga, a teacher in Covenant Christian
High School in Grand Rapids, MI, to set the prose into poetic verse.
This she did, masterfully capturing the feeling that the original poem
intended. We thank her also for this contribution.
Guido De Brès’ Letter to Philip II of Spain
Appended to the Belgic Confession
translated by Marvin Kamps
Through common agreement composed by believers that are scattered about
throughout the Netherlands, who desire to live according to the
sovereignty of The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Be ready always to give
an answer to every man
that asketh you a
reason of the hope
that is in you.
I Peter 3
Published in the year of the Lord
Jesus Christ: 1562.
E’er sentence is pronounced by any man,
Whether in civil or in criminal case,
Certainly Judges wish to understand
That issue’s source on which they judgment place.
This being true, a judge in this position
Would grant both parties of examination
An equal hearing, and by this audition,
Base his decision—whether right or wrong—upon investigation.
We, then, Your Majesty, as castaways
Forbidden by our enemies e’en public speech,
Call on th’ abounding goodness that men praise
In thee, and private audience beseech.
When you, who Judges are, judge only as flesh is inclined—
With prejudice—surely wisdom to you is denied.
Only in one way can we all true justice find:
That you consider our own confession e’er you once decide.
For of a certainty you shall in this way see
That unjust condemnation oft’ has fallen on such men as we.
From the Believers that dwell in the Netherlands,
Who desire to live according to the Reformation of
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,
To the invincible King Philip, her ruling Lord:
If it were granted to us, O most gracious Lord,
to present ourselves before your Majesty, in order that we may
demonstrate our innocence concerning the crimes with which we are
charged, and to demonstrate the righteousness of our cause: we would not
seek this secret means in order to make known to you the bitter laments
of your people by means of a silent petition or a written confession. We
do so in this manner only because our enemies have filled your ears with
so many false complaints and reports that we were not only prevented to
appear before your face personally, but also chased out of your lands,
murdered, and burned in whatever place we were found. At the very least,
most gracious Lord, bestow to us in the name of God the privilege that
no man may deny even beasts, namely, to permit our cries of complaint to
reach your ears as it were from afar; so that, if having heard us, Your
Majesty should judge us guilty, let the fires then be
increased in number and let the pains and torments be multiplied in thy
kingdom. On the contrary, if our innocence is revealed to you, let our
innocence be recognized as a support and a refuge against the violence
of our enemies.
For alas, most gracious Lord, if men need only charge others with evil
and thereby every means of protection be denied the accused, who will be
found righteous? Whose innocence among all the people will be
established? We are, they say, disobedient insurrectionists desiring
nothing other than to destroy all political and civil rule and to
introduce into the world confusion and disorder. Besides they claim that
we desire not only to liberate ourselves from your rule and power but
also to rip the sceptre from your hands. O the crimes alleged, which are
unworthy of our confession, unworthy of a Christian man, unworthy of the
common name of humanity; worthy only that the ancient proverb of the
tyrants be presented anew: "The Christians to the beasts."
However, it is not enough merely to accuse; everything lies in the
proof. The prophets, the apostles, and even those of the early churches
of Jesus Christ were troubled, yea, according to the external viewpoint
and carnal judgment of men, they were oppressed with similar slanders.
But even as they had openly testified and protested in their time, so
also do we protest and testify now before God and His angels that we
desire nothing higher than to live according to the purity of our
consciences in obedience under the authorities, to serve God and to
reform ourselves according to His Word and holy commandments.
Besides these hidden testimonies of our consciences, those who hold
office and pass sentence and judgment in legal proceedings would be good
witnesses that they never observed anything in us that leaned towards
disobedience, nor did they discover in us the resolve in any way to
militate against your Majesty, nor did they find anything that would
disturb the common peace. Rather, they found that in our communal
assemblies we pray for the kings and princes of the earth and in
particular for you, O most gracious Lord, and for those whom you have
authorized in the regime and ruling offices of the regions and countries
of your domain. For we have been taught not only by God’s Word but also
through the constant instruction of our preachers that the kings,
princes, and authorities are appointed by the ordinance of God.
Besides, we have been taught that he that resists the magistrates
resists the ordinance of God and will receive damnation. We acknowledge
and maintain that by the eternal wisdom of God the kings rule and the
princes determine justice.
Briefly stated, we believe that they have their office not through
or despotism, but by God’s own appointment. In order to demonstrate that
this is not merely the word of our lips but that it is a conviction most
deeply impressed and imprinted upon our hearts, we ask: who has ever
been found among us who has refused you, most gracious Lord, the tribute
or tax required of him? On the contrary, obedience to pay was as quickly
granted as the command was given. What cache of weapons, what conspiracy
was ever uncovered, even when we had been subjected to such cruel pains
and torment by those who have clothed themselves in your name and power
to commit every cruelty against us? These torments were so excruciating
that it was enough to vex the patience of the most benevolent and
meekest persons and to change their dispositions to wrath and despair.
However, we thank our God that the blood of our brothers that was shed
for our cause—or rather, for the cause of Jesus Christ and the witness
to the truth—cries out on our behalf. For truly all the banishments,
imprisonments, racks, tortures, and other innumerable oppressions
testify clearly that our desire and conviction is not carnal, since,
according to the flesh, we could have had it much more comfortable if we
had not taken a stand for these doctrines.
However, since we had the fear of God before our eyes and thus dreading
the threat of Jesus Christ, who says that He will deny us before God His
Father, should we deny Him before men: we offer our backs to the whip’s
lash, our tongues to the knives, the mouth to the muzzle, and the whole
body to the flames. For we know that whoever will follow Christ must
take up his cross and deny himself. Never would a well-disciplined soul,
that is, one who is not spiritually blind or robbed of his senses,
contemplate the upheaval of forsaking one’s land, one’s relatives, and
one’s friends, in order to be able to live in peace and tranquillity.
Never would a spiritually sound person purpose to suffer for the
gospel’s sake by seeking to remove the king’s crown or by
resolving to oppose him by means of deceit, for in the gospel we read:
give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
Rather these believers, while offering and abandoning their bodies and
their goods to the King, humbly supplicate his Majesty that it may be
granted them to render obedience to God in what He requires. For we have
not the right nor may we refuse to obey Him, because He hath made us and
purchased us for Himself through the payment of the most dear price of
It is also not necessary that you should feel obligated to listen to the
views of our enemies. They grievously abuse your goodness and patience
by claiming that we do not openly oppose you as King only because we are
so few in number. They allege also that each one of us in his heart is
disobedient and rebellious, only waiting for the majority of the people
to bring his fanaticism into action causing him to pounce violently upon
you. For let them twist and pervert the facts as much as they will, we
assure you, most gracious Lord, that in your Netherlands there are more
than one hundred thousand men maintaining and following the religion,
the confession of which we now deliver to you. Nevertheless, in none of
these persons was ever seen any preparation for revolt. Indeed, never a
word was heard from these persons that would lead to insurrection.
We have spoken, most gracious Lord, of the great number of our brothers
not to cause your minor officers and servants any fear or terror, but
rather to refute the slanders of those who through lies could make those
who do not envy us to do so.
Besides, we have thus spoken to move you to pity. For sadly, if you
stretch forth your powerful hand to wash it in the blood of so many
people, before God, what devastation will it work in your subjects, what
wounds in your people, what weeping, what lament, what groaning by the
women, by the children, and by family and friends? Who shall be able to
behold with eyes dry and not bathed in tears, many honourable citizens,
loved by all and hated by none, delivered over to dark and dreadful
imprisonments, endure the oppressions and tortures ending in the most
shameful torments and death more cruel and barbaric than were ever
invented by the heathen and by ungodly tyrants? while their wives, if
they are able to flee, wander about in foreign countries, begging
for bread from door to door with their little children clinging to their
O most gracious Lord, may it not be that posterity describes your reign
as bloody and cruel. May no one say that the honour of your ancestors,
the greatness of your father, and your own virtues and piety were
darkened by a cruelty, a cruelty I say, natural to the beasts but
unworthy of man. It would be a cruelty contradicting what a prince and
ruler should be, whose greatness and true piety are expressed especially
by kindness and compassion—the genuine marks of distinction between a
true king and a tyrant.
As regards the persecution that we endure not only as enemies of your
crown and of the common good, but also as enemies of God and of His
church, we humbly petition you carefully to judge this matter according
to our confession of faith that we present to you being ever ready and
willing, if it be necessary, to seal it with our own blood. Through this
confession, as we hope, you will acknowledge that we are unjustly
vilified as schismatics or as disturbers of the unity of society, as
disobedient and as heretics, since we are committed to and confess not
only the most fundamental points of the Christian faith that are
contained in the symbols of the common faith but also the whole doctrine
revealed by Jesus Christ for a life of righteousness and salvation. This
doctrine was preached by the evangelists and apostles, sealed in the
blood of so many martyrs, preserved purely and wholly in the early
church; until it was corrupted through the ignorance, greed, and the
lust for praise of the preachers, through human discoveries and human
institutions contrary to the purity of the gospel.
Our opponents shamelessly deny that this gospel is the power of God unto
salvation and reject all those who believe it, when they condemn and
murder us because we do not receive what is not found in it. Nor are
they innocent of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit when they assert that
the entire treasure of the wisdom of God and the means abundantly
sufficient to our salvation are not contained and present in the Old and
New Testaments. Rather they claim that their inventions are necessary;
that we are accursed and not worthy of the natural fellowship among men,
but only worthy to be put to death in the body and pressed down in our
souls into the abyss of hell. While ignoring the truth, our
enemies hold their inventions to be of equal or even of higher esteem
and worth than the gospel.
The weakness of our flesh staggers before these words, terrified by the
threats of those who have the power to reduce our bodies to ashes. But
on the other hand, we hear what the apostle says: "Though an angel
should descend from heaven and preach to us something other than that
gospel you have received, he is accursed." We hear Saint John, who
concludes his prophecy with these words: "For I testify to everyone who
hears the words of the prophecy of this book; if anyone adds to them,
God will lay upon him the plagues that are written in this book."
Briefly stated, we see that we are commanded to follow God’s Word alone
and not whatever seems right to us; for we are forbidden to add to or to
detract from the holy commandments of the great God. Jesus Christ tells
us that He has given to us all that which He had heard from His Father;
and if He were silent (because of the weakness of the apostles) about
something that He had promised to reveal to us through the Holy Spirit
whom He would send to us, we are assured (because He is the Truth
itself) that He has kept that promise. The promised mysteries were made
known and are contained in the Gospels and the writings of the apostles,
after the aforesaid promise was made and the Holy Spirit was poured out.
It appears by this fact, that those individuals misuse this passage of
Scripture, who by this word "mysteries" understand, (something the
apostles did not and could not endure) their own ceremonies and useless
superstitions, contrary to God’s Word.
We merely present it, even though their errors would be easy to
demonstrate by means of the testimony of Scripture (but we are
admonished to use the means and brevity in a letter that is
appropriate), for we fear to be bothersome to your Majesty. We humbly
petition you, in the very Name of the one who has established and
preserved you in your kingdom, that you do not permit those in authority
who are overcome by greed, lust for honour and praise of men, and other
evil inclinations, to use your arm, authority, and power to satisfy
their lusts, satiating and filling it with the blood of your subjects
who are praised for their genuine zeal for the fear of God and His
service. For they would persecute us on the grounds of the evil charge
that we are guilty of insurrection, desertion, and other
offences, with which they inflame you against us.
However, most gracious Lord, consider, has it not always been true that
the world hated the light and opposed the truth; and that he who speaks
this word of truth faithfully is considered guilty of insurrection,
because people incite others to oppose him? On the contrary, one must
attribute the tumult and offence to the one who has been the implacable
enemy of God and men, namely the Devil, who, not willing to lose his
kingdom, which exists in idolatry, the false worship of God, whoredom,
and other innumerable errors forbidden by the gospel, raises tumult and
opposition everywhere in order to resist the progress of the gospel. Add
to that the ingratitude of the world, which, instead of thankfully
receiving the Word of her Master, her shepherds, and her God, causes her
to oppose the same because of, among other reasons that could be
mentioned, the long time that she has lived in unfaithfulness and error.
The world of unbelief wilfully resists, through prescription of the
spirit of the ages, Him who has made the world and the ages and for
which all thanks is due.
It belongs to you, most gracious Lord, it belongs to you to have
knowledge of these matters in order that you may oppose the errors, no
matter how intractable, being deeply rooted in the ages. It belongs to
you to protect the innocence of those who have been more oppressed than
heard in their just cause. In this manner, the Lord will bless and
preserve you. The Lord lift up His face and cause it to shine upon you,
protect and maintain you in all prosperity. Amen.
Of the New Testament, that admonish every believer
to confess his faith before the world.
Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also
before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before
men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
and Luke 9
Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this
adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be
ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
I Peter 3
Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason
of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.
With the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth
confession is made unto salvation.
II Timothy 2
If we deny him, he also will deny us.
In the French copy of the letter, King Philip is addressed throughout
"Sire," but the Dutch consistently has genadichste Heere.
Or wrongdoing. The French has
French: make us odious.
Handout in connection with the
Belgic Confession Class Introduction, "Why
Study the Belgic Confession?"