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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 Dathenus.

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 heretics."

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 the government.

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 blood."

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 today.

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,1 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 injustice2 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 infinite worth.

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.3 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 neck?

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.

Matthew 10
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.

Mark 8 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.

Romans 10
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 usurpation.
French: make us odious.

Handout in connection with the Belgic Confession Class Introduction, "Why Study the Belgic Confession?"