The people of the Netherlands are unhappy in the state of their homeland. Philip II of Spain is tightening his absolute control of the Lowlands, particularly in religious matters, for Philip is the main instrument of the Inquisition. A new regent is appointed to administer his rule. The populace hoped the office would go to Count Egmont, who, after his defeat of the French at Gravelines, has become a national hero. Besides, although Egmont is a Catholic, he treats Protestants with kindness, and he even goes to Madrid to plead with Philip to lessen the strictures of Catholic repression.
The king, however, gives the office to Margaret, his half sister. She, like Philip, tolerates no dissent from the established church, yet by firmness and tact she pacifies the burghers who stubbornly resist any laws but their own. She even manages to conciliate Egmont and William of Orange, so that outwardly at least there is harmony among the nobility.
Margaret summons Machiavel, her secretary, to hear his account of new uprisings. He tells her how throughout Flanders mobs are breaking into cathedrals and despoiling the monuments of the hated foreign religion. He counsels Margaret to be firm but not cruel toward the Protestants. Margaret tells him that her efforts toward conciliation will mean little, for it is rumored that the cruel duke of Alva is on his way to assume control of the provinces. Machiavel reminds her that as regent she will hold the final power, but Margaret is wise in the ways of kings. Officially or not, Alva will rule the Netherlands, and she will be able to circumvent him only by appealing directly to her brother. She is especially fearful of what might happen to Egmont and William of Orange and of the effects of Alva’s harsh rule on the people.
In her humble house, Clärchen is happily singing, for she expects Egmont that night. Brackenburg watches her anxiously. He loves her and is certain that no good will come of the love between a count and a commoner. When Clärchen, looking out of her windows, sees a mob in the street, she asks Brackenburg to learn the cause of the disturbance. While he is gone, her mother reproaches Clärchen bitterly for having rejected Brackenburg’s suit. Even now, the mother declares, the burgher will be glad to marry Clärchen. Brackenburg returns to tell them the people are hearing of the outbreaks in Flanders and are heartened by that uprising against their oppressors.
A group of commoners argue about their rights as citizens. One, who can read, tells them of their rights under the constitution and of their forefathers’ vigilance in protecting their privileges. Egmont, arriving on the scene, advises them to be moderate in their talk but to preserve their ancient liberties. After he leaves, a keen observer remarks that Egmont’s head will make a dainty morsel for the headsman.
In his residence, Egmont attends to duties of state. One of his letters comes from Count Oliva, his old preceptor, who counsels him to be more circumspect in his behavior and less free in his talk. Egmont throws the letter aside,...
(The entire section is 1267 words.)