VI. TRIUMPH: 1584–1648

The death of their leader broke the spirit of such followers as William still had in Flanders and Brabant. Parma took Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Mechlin, Antwerp; by the end of 1585 all the Netherlands south of the Maas—except Ostend and Sluys—had fallen to Spain. The Beggars, however, still controlled the ports and the sea.

The northern provinces had repeatedly appealed to Elizabeth for aid. Now she responded. She knew that the revolt of the Netherlands had kept Spain from declaring war upon England; she could not afford to have that blessing cease; moreover, the Dutch controlled the market for English wool. In December 1585 she sent to Holland a substantial force under Leicester and Sir Philip Sidney. Leicester, as governor general of the rebel provinces, assumed almost sovereign power. Seeing that the southern provinces imported the necessaries of life from the northern, he forbade all trade with any Spanish possession. But the Dutch merchants lived on that trade; they exported goods to Spain during their war with Spain; they refused to obey Leicester’s prohibitions. Defeated at Zutphen (September 22, 1586), Leicester left Holland in disgrace and disgust. For a year chaos reigned in the north. The little republic was saved by Parma’s absorption in Philip’s plan for the invasion of England; by Parma’s diversions against Henry of Navarre in France; by Dutch control of the waters; by the wealth and the persistence of the Dutch merchants; by the political genius of Jan van Oldenbarneveldt; and by the military genius of Maurice of Nassau, William the Silent’s son.

Soon after his father’s death, Maurice was chosen stadholder of Holland and Zeeland. In 1588, aged twenty-one, he was made captain general and admiral of the United Provinces. In 1590 Utrecht, Overijssel, and Gelderland conferred their stadholderships upon him. Profiting from the Leiden lectures of Simon Stevin on mathematics, Maurice applied the latest science to ballistics, engineering, and siege. He trained the Dutch army to new cohesion and discipline. In a series of campaigns (1590–94) remarkable for swift movement and surprising strategy, he recaptured Zutphen, Deventer, Nijmegen, and Groningen. Parma, having wasted his skill and funds in Philip’s vain sallies against England and Henry IV, died at Spa of exhaustion and wounds (February 20, 1592).

To succeed him Philip appointed Archduke Ernest of Austria, who soon died; then Cardinal Archduke Albert, who resigned his religious dignities and married the King’s daughter Isabel Clara Eugenia. Shortly before his own death (1598), Philip bestowed upon Albert and Isabel sovereign rights in the Netherlands, with the proviso that if they died childless the sovereignty was to revert to Spain. They proved to be capable and kindly rulers, unable to subdue the northern provinces, but establishing in the south a civilized regime under which ecclesiastical arts flourished in genial harmony with Rubens’ nudes.

A new figure appeared upon the scene in 1603. Albert had besieged Ostend for two years without success. An Italian banker, Ambrosio de Spinola, placed his fortune at the service of Spain, raised and equipped a force of eight thousand men, besieged and took Ostend. But even his immense riches could not offset the wealth of the Dutch merchants. They persisted in building and financing fleets that harassed Spanish shipping and threatened the line of gold between America and Spain. Tired of blockade and slaughter, Albert and Isabel urged negotiations with the Dutch, and Philip III, tired of bankruptcy, consented. Oldenbarneveldt, over the protests of Maurice, persuaded the Dutch to conciliation. A truce was signed (1609) that gave the Netherlands twelve years’ rest from war.

Internal concord varies inversely with external peace. Maurice resented the dominance of Oldenbarneveldt in the affairs of the republic. Technically the grand pensionary—chief paid official—of Holland had authority in that province alone; but since Holland had as much wealth, and paid to the States-General as much in taxes, as all the rest of the United Provinces together, he wielded in the federation a power commensurate with that wealth, and with the force of his mind and character. Moreover, the landowners who ruled the provinces and the rich merchants who ruled the communes felt drawn to Oldenbarneveldt, who, like them, rejected democracy. “Better overlorded,” he said, “than ruled by a mob.”50 Maurice, turning to the people for support, found that he could win them if he made the Calvinist ministers his friends.

The religious issue that now inflamed the republic was threefold: the growing opposition between Church and state, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and the war of doctrine within the Protestant fold. Calvinist synods sought to determine political policy and to use the government as an agent for the enforcement of their creed; the States-General distrusted the Calvinist congregations as dangerous examples and seedplots of democracy, and Oldenbarneveldt made many enemies by bidding the clergy leave government to the civil powers. Strange to say, even in the northern provinces the population in 1609 was still predominantly Catholic.51 The laws forbade Catholic worship, but were not enforced; 232 priests conducted Catholic services.52 The provincial council of Utrecht ordered the priests to marry their housekeepers, but compliance was sporadic and spiritless.

Within the Protestant communities the struggle lay between the Calvinists and a minority of “libertines.” The latter were so called not as loose livers but as favoring religious liberty, even for Catholics, and a liberal and humane interpretation of the Protestant theology. These heirs of the Erasmian tradition (to whom William of Orange had belonged) were denounced as secret “papists” by the Precisians, or orthodox Calvinists, who adhered to strict predestinarianism and felt that their faith should be made compulsory throughout the United Provinces.53 Dirck Coornhert, who had served as secretary to the Prince of Orange, argued for freedom of worship in writings that established the literary language of Holland. An Amsterdam preacher, Jacobus Arminius, was assigned to refute Coornhert’s views; he was converted to them as he studied to answer them, and when he was appointed professor of theology at Leiden he shocked the Precisians by questioning predestination and asserting, against Luther and Calvin, that man is saved by good works as well as faith. He admitted that virtuous heathen might escape hell, and surmised that in the end all men would be saved. His fellow professor Franciscus Gomarus branded him an insidious heretic.

Arminius died in 1609. By that time he had won an influential following, including Oldenbarneveldt and Hugo Grotius, the pensionary of Rotterdam. In 1610 these “libertines” drew up a Remonstrantie against the doctrines of predestination, election, and reprobation, and proposed a national synod of clergymen and laymen to redefine the Reformed faith. The Precisians formulated a Contra-Remonstrantie reaffirming the Calvinist theology:

God had, after Adam’s fall, reserved a certain number of human beings from destruction, and … destined them to salvation through Christ. … In this election God does not consider belief or conversion, but acts simply according to his pleasure. God sent his son Christ for the salvation of the elect, and of them alone.54

The Gomarists insisted that such questions could be dealt with only by clergymen; and they so successfully labeled the Remonstrants as papists, Pelagians, or Unitarians that a large majority of the Protestant population rallied to the Precisian side. Maurice of Nassau moved from a scornful disregard of theological disputes to a tentative association with the orthodox party, as offering him a popular basis for an attempt to regain national leadership.

A battle of sermons and pamphlets ensued, of more than warlike bitterness. Violent disturbances broke the peace of the truce. “Libertine” houses were raided in The Hague, orthodox Calvinist preachers were driven from Rotterdam. Holland mustered an army to defend its theology; other provinces followed suit; civil war seemed about to destroy the republic so lately born. On August 4, 1617, Oldenbarneveldt put through the council of Holland a “scherpe resolutie”—which Maurice thought sharp indeed—proclaiming the supremacy of the state in matters of religion, and directing the cities of the province to arm themselves for protection against Calvinist violence. Passing to Utrecht, he persuaded its provincial council to raise troops in support of Holland. On July 25, 1618, Maurice of Nassau, as legal head of the army, entered Utrecht at the head of an armed force, and compelled its new regiments to disband. On August 29 the States-General of the United Provinces ordered the arrest of Oldenbarneveldt, Grotius, and other Remonstrant leaders. On November 13 a synod of the Reformed Church met at Dordrecht (Dort), gave the Remonstrant theologians a hearing, condemned them as heretics, and ordered all Remonstrant ministers dismissed from ecclesiastical or educational posts. The Arminians, like the Catholics, were placed under a ban and were forbidden to hold public assemblies or services. Many of them fled to England, where they were well received by the Established Church and strongly influenced the Latitudinarian Anglicans.

Oldenbarneveldt was tried by a special court, which allowed him no legal aid. He was charged with having treasonably divided and endangered the Union, having sought to set up a state within the state. Outside the court a flurry of pamphlets advertised to the multitude the faults of his private life. He defended himself with such eloquence and force that his children raised a Maypole before his prison and confidently celebrated his coming release. On May 12, 1619, the court pronounced him guilty, and the sentence of death was carried out the next day. Grotius was condemned to life imprisonment, but through the ingenuity of his wife he escaped and lived to write a memorable book.

Despite this triumph of intolerance, religious liberty grew in the provinces. The Catholics were too numerous to be suppressed, and the doctrinal decrees of the Synod of Dort could not be enforced. In this same year 1619 the Mennonites freely founded at Rijnsburg their Quakerlike sect of Collegianten, with whom Spinoza would find safe refuge. In 1629 Descartes was to praise the intellectual freedom that he enjoyed in Amsterdam, and by the end of the century Holland was to be the haven of heretics from many lands.

On August 9, 1621, the war with Spain was resumed. The Archduke Albert having died childless, the southern Netherlands reverted to Spain. Spinola attacked the Dutch border towns. Maurice marched against him, but years of strife had worn him out, and suddenly, aged fifty-seven, he was dead (1625). Spinola captured Breda, so opening the road to Amsterdam and giving a theme to Velázquez.

The Dutch recovered obstinately. Frederick Henry, who succeeded his brother as stadholder, surprised enemies and friends by his hitherto hidden talents as statesman and general. Through the diplomacy of Francis Aerssens, he secured an annual subsidy of a million livres from Richelieu; he raised a new army; after long sieges he took’s Hertogenbosch, Maastricht, Breda; fortunately, Spinola had been recalled to Lombardy.

Meanwhile the Dutch merchants turned money into ships, for every victory on the sea expanded trade. In 1628 a Dutch flotilla under Piet Hein captured a Spanish squadron carrying gold from Mexico. Another Dutch fleet attacked a Spanish force of thirteen vessels on the River Slaak, destroyed it, and took 5,000 prisoners (1631). The most brilliant of these naval victories was won by Lieutenant Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp in the Downs—the English Channel between Dover and Deal. The Spaniards, resolved to regain control of the Netherlands ports from the Dutch, had assembled a new armada of seventy-seven ships, manned by 24,000 men. Sighting it in the Channel, Tromp sent for reinforcements; on October 21, 1639, with seventy-five vessels, he sailed in to close quarters with the enemy and sank, disabled, or captured all but seven of the Spanish ships; 15,200 of the Spanish crews were killed in battle or were drowned. This Battle of the Downs ranks in Dutch history as the defeat of the Armada does in the history of England; it ended all claim of Spain to control the seas, cut the lifeline between Spain and her colonies, and shared with the French victory over the Spanish army at Rocroi (1643) in closing the era of Spanish ascendancy in Europe.

Deeply involved in the Thirty Years’ War, Spain decided to yield everything to the Dutch in order to be free to fight the French. At Münster, January 30, 1648, the Spanish plenipotentiaries signed the Treaty of Westphalia, ending the “Eighty Years’ War” in the Netherlands. The United Provinces were declared free of all bond to Spain; their conquests were recognized; Rhine commerce was to reach the North Sea through Dutch ports alone; and freedom of trade was conceded to Dutch merchantmen in the Indies East and West. So triumphantly ended the longest, bravest, and most cruel struggle for freedom in all history.


I. “The princes who have established, protected, or changed religions have very rarely had any of their own.”—Voltaire.6

II. For these cases we have only Protestant authorities, as quoted in Motley, Rise of the Dutch Republic, I, 283–90.

III. That Gérard was encouraged by a Jesuit is affirmed by Ranke (History of the Popes, I, 472) and by Motley (Rise of the Dutch Republic); it is denied by Pastor (History of the Popes, XX, 19–20).

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