The Revolt of the Netherlands



ON October 25, 1555, the Emperor Charles V transferred the sovereignty of the Netherlands to his son Philip. On the twenty-sixth, before the States-General at Brussels, Philip received oaths of allegiance, and swore to maintain the rights and privileges of the seventeen provinces according to tradition, treaty, and law. Those mutual pledges set the stage for one of the great dramas in the history of freedom.

The scene was complex. The Netherlands—i.e., the lowlands—then comprised the present Belgium as well as the existing Kingdom of the Netherlands. Dutch—Low German—was the language not only of the seven northern provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Overijssel, and Gelderland) but also of four provinces (Flanders, Brabant, Mechlin, and Limburg) in northern “Belgium”; while Walloon, a dialect of French, was spoken in six southern provinces (Artois, Walloon Flanders, Cambrai, Tournai, Hainaut, and Namur). All these, and the neighboring duchy of Luxembourg, were under Hapsburg rule.

The people, in 1555, were overwhelmingly Catholic,1 but their Catholicism was of the humane humanist kind preached by Erasmus a half-century back and generally practiced in Renaissance Rome—not the somber, uncompromising type developed in Spain by centuries of war against Moslem “infidels.” After 1520 Lutheranism and Anabaptism seeped in from Germany, and then, more numerously, Calvinism from Germany, Switzerland, and France. Charles V tried to stem these inroads by importing the papal or episcopal form of the Inquisition and by proclaiming, through “placards,” the most terrible penalties for any serious deviation from Catholic orthodoxy; but after the weakening of his power by the Peace of Passau (1552) these penalties were rarely enforced. In 1558 a Rotterdam crowd forcibly rescued several Anabaptists from the stake. Alarmed by the growth of heresy, Philip renewed the placards and their penalties. Fear spread that he intended to introduce the Spanish form of the Inquisition in all its severity.

Calvinism was congenial to the mercantile element in the economy. The ports of Antwerp and Amsterdam were the central ganglia of north-European commerce, alive with importation, exportation, speculation, and every form of finance; insurance alone kept six hundred agents in affluence.2 The rivers Rhine, Maas, Ijssel, Waal, Scheldt, and Lys and a hundred canals bore in silence a dozen varieties of transport. The winds of trade fed the fires of craft and factory industry in Brussels, Ghent, Ypres, Tournai, Valenciennes, Namur, Mechlin, Leiden, Utrecht, Haarlem. The businessmen who controlled these towns respected Catholicism as a tradition-rooted pillar of political, social, and moral stability; but they had no relish for its pompous heirarchy, and they liked the role given to the educated laity in the management of Calvinist congregations and policy. More immediately they resented the taxes laid upon the Netherlands economy by the Spanish government.

The peasantry suffered most and benefited least from the revolt. The greater part of the land was owned by magnates resembling the feudal lords of Germany and France, and it was these who organized the struggle for independence. Philippe de Montmorency, Count of Horn, held vast tracts in the southern provinces. Lamoral, Count of Egmont, had spacious estates in Flanders and Luxembourg, and could afford to marry a Bavarian duchess. In several campaigns he fought with such dashing valor that he became a favorite of Charles and Philip; it was he who led Philip’s army to victory at St.-Quentin (1557). In his princely palace he displayed a generous but extravagant hospitality and slipped embarrassingly into debt. Such men, and many lesser nobles, looked hungrily upon the wealth of the Church and heard with envy of German barons who had enriched themselves by seizing ecclesiastical property.3 “They thought that the King would do well to carve a round number of handsome military commanderies out of the abbey lands,” so creating “a splendid cavalry … in place of a horde of lazy epicureans telling beads.”4

The richest and ablest of the great landowners was William of Nassau, Prince of Orange. The family owned large properties in the German province of Hesse-Nassau and in the district around Wiesbaden as well as in the Netherlands, while it derived its title from its little principality of Orange in southern France. Born in German Dillenburg (1533), William was brought up as a Lutheran till he was eleven; then, to be eligible to inherit the lands of his cousin René, he was moved to Brussels and reconditioned as a Catholic. Charles V took a fancy to him, secured for him the hand of Anne of Egmont (heiress of the Count of Buren), and chose him as chief attendant at the historic abdication in 1555. Philip sent him—still a youth of twenty-two, but already a master of Flemish, German, Spanish, French, and Italian—as one of his plenipotentiaries to negotiate the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis; there William handled himself with solid judgment and such watchful tongue that the French called him le taciturne, the Silent Philip made him a state councilor, a Knight of the Golden Fleece, and stadholder of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht. But William developed a mind of his own, and Philip never forgave him.

The young prince had graces of person as well as of purse. He was tall and athletic, carried no useless weight, and charmed all but his enemies by his eloquence and courtesy. As a military leader he was a consistent failure, but as a political strategist his flexible persistence and patient courage transmuted his defects into the establishment of a new state against the opposition of the strongest political and religious forces in Europe. He handled men better than armies, and in the long run this proved the greater gift. His foes charged him with changing his religion to suit his personal or political needs.5 It was probably so; but all the leaders of that century used religion as an instrument of policy.I Many found fault with his marriages. His first wife having died, he negotiated for the hand of another wealthy Anne, daughter of the Protestant Maurice, Elector of Saxony; he married her with Lutheran rites in 1561, but did not declare himself a Protestant till 1573. Anne went semi-insane in 1567 and was deposited with friends. While she was still alive, William secured from five Protestant ministers permission to marry Charlotte de Bourbon, of the royal house of France (1575), who had fled from a nunnery and had embraced the Reformed faith. She died in 1582. After mourning her for a year William took a fourth wife, Louise de Coligny, daughter of the admiral who had perished in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Despite—perhaps because of—these marriages, William was rich only in lands, poor in money. By 1560 he was almost a million florins in debt.7 In a flurry of economy he dismissed twenty-eight of his cooks.8

Philip fumbled ruinously in handling the Netherlands nobles. His father, reared in Brussels, knew these men, spoke their language, managed them judiciously. Philip, brought up in Spain, could speak neither French nor Dutch; he found it difficult to bend to the magnates graciously, to respect their customs and their debts; he frowned upon their extravagance, their drinking, and their easy ways with women; above all, he could not understand their claims to ‘check his power. They on their part disliked his somber pride, his penchant for the Inquisition, his appointment of Spaniards to lucrative posts in the Netherlands, his garrisoning of their towns with Spanish troops. When he asked for funds from the nobles and businessmen who constituted the States-General, they listened coldly to his plea—through interpreters—that his father and the recent wars had left the treasury with great deficits; they were alarmed by his request for 1,300,000 florins and a further tax of one per cent on realty and two percent on movable property; they refused to sanction these levies, but voted him only such sums as they deemed adequate for current needs. Three years later he summoned them again and asked for three million guilders. They yielded, but on condition that all Spanish troops be withdrawn from the Netherlands. He made this concession, but canceled its conciliatory effect by getting papal permission to establish eleven new bishoprics in the Low Countries and nominating to these sees men willing to enforce his father’s decrees against heresy. When he sailed for Spain on August 26, 1559, never to see the Netherlands again, the economic and religious outlines of the great struggle were taking form.

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