Grave matters: Family strife and confessionalised dying in Antwerp’s Wonder Year (1566-1567)

A blog post by Louise Deschryver.

Louise is a research fellow of the FWO Flanders and is writing a doctoral thesis at the Research Group of Early Modern History at KU Leuven.

In November 1566, the daughter of Marcos Perez lay dying in Antwerp.[1] Chaos reigned around her deathbed: only three months before, the Iconoclastic Fury had swept across the Low Countries. In its wake, Lutheran and Reformed believers in Antwerp had for the first time ever gained limited (and heavily contested) rights of public worship. Marcos Perez himself, as a deputy of the Dutch Reformed consistory, had played a key role in negotiating those rights with the margrave William of Orange. His wife, Ursula Lopez, was a prominent member of the city’s Reformed community, too, and taught young Antwerp girls in the Reformed faith in the family home. Several other members of Marcos’ and Ursula’s respective families were influential Calvinists, too. And yet, their daughter wanted to die a Catholic death.

It is vicar-general Maximilien Morillon who wrote his absentee archbishop, the cardinal de Granvelle, with this peculiar piece of news in his letter of 16 November 1566. He himself claimed to have heard it from none other than Antwerp’s dean de Taxis.[2]  Though of course we need to be wary of taking Morillon for his gleeful word, we know the Perez family throughout the sixteenth century was torn apart by confessional differences. Marcus’ own Portuguese parents, for example, remained loyal members of Antwerp’s Catholic laity, as did his brother Luis. Ursula in the 1580s got entangled in a severe juridical conflict with the latter.

Ursula Lopez at the age of 18 on a coin by Antwerp artist Hans Simoens

Luis did not want to terminate his guardianship over Ursula’s youngest daughter Luisa, who she had been forced to leave in his care as a baby, and refused to return his niece to her mother because of Ursula’s Reformed faith.[3] In this regard, it would have been no coincidence that it was at the deathbed of one of Marcus’ and Ursula’s children that the family’s confessional conflicts came into sharp focus for the first time.


Indeed, in pre-modern times, dying well required multiple sensory rituals and sacred objects upon which the fate of the soul depended. With the arrival of the Reformation, however, confessions argued between themselves about which sensory ars moriendi rituals constituted ‘a good death’ and which were superstitious. Should there be burning candles at the deathbed and in the funeral procession? Should the parish priest administer extreme unction? Should the church bells be rung or not? Should the grave be sprinkled with holy water and scented with incense – or would all of this be sinful idolatry?

Margaret of Parma on her deathbed, surrounded by singing clergymen, candles and crucifixes

Answering these questions became of defining importance for the salvation of the soul of the deceased. The deathbed confronted both the dying and his/her loved ones with the eternal consequences of sensory choices made in one’s final moments on earth. These choices by the middle of the sixteenth century had come to signify one’s confessional identity, a final opportunity to tie one’s confessional colours to the mast.[4]

We know from the Lutheran painter and chronicler Godevaert van Haecht this caused strife in more than one Antwerp family. On December 5, 1566, he wrote the unprecedented religious freedoms had resulted in ‘extraordinary arguments’ in families during important rites de passage. When marriages were arranged, he wrote, bride and groom were asked about their religion. When a child was being baptised godparents of the same beliefs were sought. ‘Most of all’, however, ‘[it happened that] a husband wanted to be buried here, his wife there. Or when parents had died, one wanted to bury them in this way, the other in that way’.[5]

In the case of the Perez family, it was the parents who had to agree on how to bury their daughter, instead. According to Morillon, Marcos and Ursula had not been able to ‘steer her away from the ancient faith, the girl saying her parents had taught and nourished her in it’. Nevertheless, Morillon claimed Perez did bury his daughter ‘à la huguenote’. In Antwerp at this time, this meant she did not have a wake or funeral mass in one of Antwerp’s churches, or memorial masses held for the salvation of her soul. Instead, her body was taken from her parents’ house straight to the graveyard, where a Reformed preacher held a funeral sermon near the grave. We do not know if Marcos’ Catholic parents and brother attended her funeral. In their eyes, he must have put the salvation of his child’s soul at grave risk.

Six months after their daughter’s death, Marcos and Ursula fled the city. The arrival of the troops of governor-general Margaret of Parma in May 1567 ended Antwerp’s short period of multi-confessionalism. During this period, Marcus Perez had not just shaped the political frameworks for Protestant worship in Antwerp (against Parma’s wishes), but also heavily funded the militant wing of Dutch Calvinism. As such, Perez and his wife thought it best to flee to Basel, where Marcos died in 1572. Ursula would return to Antwerp after the Pacification of Ghent in 1576, and be – as mentioned above – consumed by the battle for the guardianship over her youngest daughter. The latter had been just a baby when Ursula was forced to leave her with her brother-in-law in 1567. Thus, the girl had been re-baptised a Catholic in the Our Lady Cathedral and raised in that faith as well.[6] Her mother seemed to have been determined to not let her die in that faith, too.

Whether she succeeded to do so, we do not know. The judiciary sources informing us on the litigation between Luis Perez and Ursula Lopez in the 1580s do not include the eventual judgment of the case. Nevertheless, the stories of Luisa Perez and her unnamed elder sister offer us a glimpse of the deep-cutting confessional divisions that could occur in families during the Reformation. In a time where one’s choice of death ritual was of defining importance for the salvation of the soul, these divisions could turn both the death chamber and the churchyard into powerful sites of confessional strife and identity formation.

Anoniem. Begrafenisstoet bij het Groenkerkhof, Antwerpen, 1597. 1597. Olie op doek, 66,5 x 84,2 cm. Museum Vleeshuis.


[1] I have not been able to retrace her name in any of the studies on Marcos Perez and his large family. The girl’s surviving sisters, whose names we know through their marriages, were called Luisa, Isabella, Barbara and Anna. Hanquet, Pierre. ‘Les Perez et leur groupe familial aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles’, Recueil de l’Office Généalogique et Héraldique de Belgique 7 (1958), 43–63, here p. 52 footnote 25. See also Hauben, Paul, ‘MARCUS PÉREZ AND MARRANO CALVINISM IN THE DUTCH REVOLT AND THE REFORMATION’, Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 29/1 (1967), 121–132; Prims, Floris, ‘Het dochtertje van Ursula Lopez’, Antwerpiensia 16 (1943), p. 367-376; Prims, Floris, ‘Het doopsel van Lodowica Perez – 1567’, Antwerpiensia 18 (1947), p. 66-69; Vermaseren, Bernard Antoon, ‘De Antwerpse koopman Martin Lopez en zijn familie in de zestiende en het begin van de zeventiende eeuw’, Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis, bijzonderlijk van het aloude hertogdom Brabant, 56 (1973), 3–79.

[2] Letter from Maximilien Morillon to cardinal Granvelle, 15 november 1566. Published in Gachard, Correspondance du cardinal de Granvelle, II, p. 89-90.

[3] It is very likely this name was derived from her uncle’s own name, who had the baby girl re-baptised in the Catholic faith after her parents fled Antwerp (see below).

[4] Deschryver, ‘You Only Die Once’, 35-57.

[5] ‘Maer daer waeren wonderlyckearguatien onder ‘t volck: […] den man wou hier, de vrou daer; oft daer ouders gestorven waeren, d’een wou se na die manire begraven hebben, en d’ander na dese en so voorts’. Van Haecht, De Kroniek van Godevaert van Haecht, I, p. 128.

[6] Prims, ‘Het doopsel van Lodowica Perez – 1567’, p. 69.

Cite this blog post
Anne Page (2021, December 22). Grave matters: Family strife and confessionalised dying in Antwerp’s Wonder Year (1566-1567). Britaix 17-18 - Seminar on the early-modern anglophone world (Aix-Marseille University, LERMA, UR 853) . Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Anne Page

Anne Dunan-Page is Professor of early modern British studies at Aix-Marseille University

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Anne Page

Anne Dunan-Page is Professor of early modern British studies at Aix-Marseille University

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