Some houses have a troubled history. Not because something happened in the house itself but because the site on which it stands is cursed by events from the past. And even though the last witness has died long ago, some experiences can attach themselves to certain locations in such a way that they can survive death as well as time.
The following text is part of a story I’ve recently been working on. I’ve already performed it several times on the Ghost Walk in an abbreviated version. But a ghost story, much as it is about the dead, is in itself a living, breathing thing. It was originally meant to be told to an audience and is therefore never finished. There’s always room for little changes that make it better. It is a work in progress. I hope you will enjoy it.
“They were heretics. Betrayed to the Spaniards for seven pennies a head. There they sat in court. Their heads bent, fearing the sword but hoping for mercy; banishment perhaps or the loss of a limb they could do without. But the Council of Blood did not forgive and the Council of Blood did not forget. Relentless as they were, the judges appointed by the Iron Duke of Alba. Every time the sentence was the same and every time they summoned the executioner.”
- Excerpt from an Amsterdam city chronicle, late 16th century
It was in the year 1567 that the Iron Duke, Don Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba, arrived in the Netherlands. He was sent here by his master Philip II, king of Spain and lord of the Netherlands, to suppress the Dutch rebellion and root out Dutch Calvinism. In every city the Iron Duke installed the so-called “Council of Troubles”, a legal organization charged with finding, judging and punishing the Dutch rebels and heretics. In Amsterdam the Council took up residence at Greyfriars, the Franciscan Monastery on the Oude Zijds Canal. The locals soon called them “the Council of Blood” for their sentences were harsh, most often ending at the scaffold.
In order to find the rebels the Council was reliant upon local informers: Amsterdammers who were willing to betray their fellow citizens. Sometimes for religious reasons, for in rooting out Calvinism they served the Holy Catholic Mother Church. Or sometimes for financial reasons because the Council paid good coin for any rebel name: seven pennies a head. These informants were called the seven-penny-men. It was told that their best spy was a man who was thin and wiry of build, with a pale complexion and a certain unassuming way about himself which made it easy for him to blend into crowds and eavesdrop on their conversations. One source mentions his name as Aloysius and with a Latin name like that he must have been a clergyman for at least part of his life. We know he was literate, for some of his handwritten lists with names have survived. Names he would give to his Catholic masters in exchange for coin (and perhaps eternal salvation in heaven). Many of these names would send their owners to the scaffold.
In the end, however, the tide would turn. The harsh measures taken by the Iron Duke did not have the desired effect. The Dutch grumbled and bowed their heads but they did not bend the knee. Nor did they return to the Catholic faith and so their rebellion simmered on. And after several military defeats by the Dutch rebels the Duke of Alba was all of a sudden terribly short of money to pay his troops. And the Duke, old and tired and plagued by gout, departed Amsterdam for Flanders on the 29th of October 1573. He left in the very early hours of the morning to evade his Amsterdam creditors. Most of his soldiers went with him. After the departure of the duke the Council of Troubles stopped giving out the death sentence and in 1576 the Council was abolished with the judges packing their bags and leaving for Flanders as well. And one night their informant, the thin man, tried to do the same. But before he could reach the town gate of Saint Anthony a crowd of Amsterdammers caught up with him for they had found out what he had done. It is unclear what they did to him that night but we know that they took his head in the morning. Not with an axe but with a rusty saw. His head was tossed in the canal but his headless corpse was buried on the grounds of Greyfriars Monastery. Two years later the city finally turned Protestant and openly joined the rebellion. Greyfriars was abandoned by the monks and its buildings were demolished. New structures were built on the site, mostly warehouses and shops and one large, opulent merchant house on the Oude Zijds Canal side. The war against Spain would drag on for another seventy years but Spanish-Catholic rule would never return to the city. However, some of the locals living on the Oude Zijds Canal would whisper amongst each other that something elemental, something evil of that time had been left behind.
To read the next part of this story, check out The Man in the Attic part two