Jan de Bakker: the first person to be persecuted for heresy in Holland

Believe what you want to believe: it’s something that goes without saying in the Netherlands. But things were very different the past; when the Spanish ruled the Netherlands, you were only allowed to be Catholic. If you were not, you were viewed as a heretic and risked your life.

Death of Jan de Bakker, 1525, Reinier Vinkeles, naar Jacobus Buys, 1783 - 1795, Rijksmuseum
Death of Jan de Bakker, 1525, Frederik Böger, naar Johannes Hermanus van der Heijden, 1854 - 1856, Rijksmuseum
Jan de Bakker dies at the stake on 15 September 1525, Reinier Vinkeles, 1800, Haags Gemeentearchief
Death of Jan de Bakker, 1525, Daniël Veelwaard (I), naar Jacobus van Meurs. Collection Rijksmuseum

Emperor Charles V cracks down on the unfaithful

Jan de Bakker is seen as the first fatal victim of the persecution of heretics in Holland. In the 16th century, the Dutch lived under the rule of Emperor Charles V, who appointed himself the great protector of the Catholic faith. This faith, which was generally accepted in the Late Middle Ages, came under pressure in the early 16th century. Reformers such as Martin Luther wanted to modernise the Catholic faith. Emperor Charles V was scared that different forms of belief would lead to unrest in his empire, and he therefore decided to crack down on the unfaithful or ‘heretics’.

Why Jan de Bakker fought against the Catholic Church

Jan de Bakker was born Jan Jansz. van Woerden (1499-1525). He was a good student and could sing beautifully. During his training as a priest, he was taught by Hinne Rode, a follower of Martin Luther. After his training, he followed in his father’s footsteps as sexton of the church in Woerden. He had not been in the post long when he took up his studies again, this time in Leuven, where his teachers included the humanist Erasmus. He was then asked to become pastor in Jacobswoude, where he preached in the spirit of the Reformation (reform). He objected to some of the Catholic rituals.

He was particularly critical of the ‘indulgences’ sold by the Church, whereby you could obtain forgiveness for your sins.

Not everyone was appreciative of this. He returned to Woerden and began working as a baker, for which he earned his nickname, Jan de Bakker. He nevertheless remained a staunch advocate of reform of the Catholic faith. For the governor, Margaret of Austria, who acted on the emperor’s behalf in the Low Countries, this was reason to have him arrested.

In the Prison Gate: imprisonment and interrogation

Jan de Bakker was transferred to the Prison Gate, which was then the ‘state prison’. There, he was interrogated by members of the Inquisition that had been established by Emperor Charles V in 1522. (An infamous institution, the Inquisition was charged with investigating whether a suspect was a heretic. If he proved to be one, the Court of Holland had to pronounce the sentence and carry it out on behalf of the emperor.) Jan de Bakker was initially imprisoned in the room known as the Knight’s Chamber, a cell that was meant for more distinguished prisoners. But when the interrogations showed that he had confessed to heresy, he was treated as a criminal and shut up in a gaol; a primitive cell that he had to share with ten vagabonds and countless lice. One of the interrogations was held in what is today the Knight’s Hall at the Binnenhof, by a range of lawyers. The judges accused Jan de Bakker of rejecting Catholic rituals and ceremonies. Jan did not repent and was therefore sentenced to death.

Burned in public

The sentence was carried out on 15 September 1525. As the first public trial of a heretic in Holland, it attracted a lot of attention. The governor, Margaret of Austria, even came to The Hague for the occasion. A high stage was built in front of the Knight’s Hall. On this, Jan de Bakker was deconsecrated as a priest by a clergyman. After this, he was taken to the Groene Zoodje, a stone scaffold close to the Prison Gate, where he was bound to a stake that was surrounded by a pyre of peat and branches. A little later, his life ended in the scorching fire.

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