Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

William the Silent—Father of His Country

The confusion which reigned in the Netherlands sorely troubled Margaret of Parma, who wrote to Philip for men and money that she might put down the rising. She received nothing beyond vague promises that he would come one day to visit his dominions overseas. It was still the belief of the King of Spain that he held supreme authority in a country where many a Flemish noble claimed a higher rank, declaring that the so-called sovereign was only Duke of Brabant and Count of Flanders.

In despair, the Regent called on Orange, Hoorn, and Egmont to help her in restoring order. Refugees had come back from foreign countries and were holding religious services openly, troops of Protestants marched about the streets singing Psalms and shouting "Long live the Beggars!" It seemed to Margaret of Parma, a devout Catholic, that for the people there was "neither faith nor King."

William, as Burgrave of Antwerp, was able to restore order in that city, promising the citizens that they should have the right to assemble for worship outside the walls. A change had come over this once worldly noble—henceforth he cared nothing for the pomps and vanities of life. He had decided to devote himself to the cause of the persecuted, however dear it cost him.

The Prince of Orange hoped that Egmont would join him in resistance to the Spanish tyranny. Egmont was beloved by the people of the Netherlands as a soldier who had proved his valour; his high rank and proud nature might have been expected to make him resentful of authority that would place him in subjection. But William parted from his friend, recognizing sadly that they were inspired by different motives. "Alas! Egmont," he said, embracing the noble who would not desert the cause of Philip, "the King's clemency, of which you boast, will destroy you. Would that I might be deceived, but I foresee too clearly that you are to be the bridge which the Spaniards will destroy so soon as they have passed over it to invade our country."

William found himself soon in a state of isolation. He refused to take a new oath of fidelity to the King, which bound him to "act for or against whomsoever his Majesty might order without restriction or limitation." His own wife was a Lutheran, and by such a promise it might become his duty to destroy her! An alliance with foreign princes was the only safeguard against the force which Spain was preparing. The Elector of Saxony was willing to enter into a League to defend the reformed faith of the Netherlands. Meantime, after resigning all his offices, the Prince of Orange went into exile with his entire household.

In 1567 Philip ceased his vacillation. He sent the Duke of Alva to stamp out heresy at any cost in the Low Countries.

Alva was the foremost general of his time, a soldier whose life had been one long campaign in Europe. He had a kind of fierce fanatical religion which led him to revenge his father's death at the hands of the Moors on many a hapless Christian. He was avaricious, and the lust for booty determined him to sack the rich cities of the Netherlands without regard for honour. He was in his sixtieth year, but time had not weakened his strong inflexible courage. Tall, thin, and erect, he carried himself as a Spaniard of noble blood, and yielded to none in the superb arrogance of his manners. His long beard gave him the dignity of age, and his bearing stamped him always as a conqueror who knew nothing of compassion. It was hopeless to appeal to the humanity of Toledo, Duke of Alva. A stern disciplinarian, he could control his troops better than any general Philip had, yet he did not wish to check their excesses, and seemed to look with pleasure upon the awful scenes of a war in which no quarter was given.

Alva led a picked army of 10,000 men—Italian foot soldiers for the most part, with some musketeers among them—who would astonish the simple northern people he held in such contempt. "I have trained people of iron in my day," was his boast. "Shall I not easily crush these people of butter?"

At first the people of the Netherlands seemed likely to be cowed into complete submission. Egmont came out to meet Alva, bringing him two beautiful horses as a present. The Spaniard had already doomed this man to the block, but he pretended great pleasure at the welcome gift and put his arms round the neck which he knew would not rest long on Egmont's shoulders. He spoke very graciously to the escort who led him into Brussels.

Margaret of Parma was still Regent in name, but in reality she had been superseded by the Captain-General of the Spanish forces. She was furious at the slight, and showed her displeasure by greeting the Duke of Alva coldly. After writing to Philip to expostulate, she discovered that her position would not be restored, and therefore retired to Parma.

Egmont and Hoorn were the first victims of Alva's treachery. They died on the same day, displaying such fortitude at the last that the people mourned them passionately, and a storm of indignation burst forth against Philip II and the agent he had sent to shed the noblest blood of the Low Countries.

Alva set up a "Council of Troubles" so that he could dispatch other victims with the same celerity. This became known as "the Council of Blood" from the merciless nature of its transactions. Anyone who chose to give evidence against his friends was assured that he would have a generous reward for such betrayals. The Duke of Alva was President of the Council and had the right of final decision in all cases. Few were saved from the sword or the stake, since by blood alone the rebel and the heretic were to be crushed and Philip's sovereignty established firmly in the Netherlands.

In 1568 William of Orange was ordered to appear before the court and, on his refusal, was declared an outlaw. His eldest son was captured at the University of Louvain and sent to the Spanish court that he might unlearn the principles in which he had been educated.

Orange issued a justification of his conduct, but even this was held to be an act of defiance against the authority of Philip. The once loyal subject determined to expel the King's troops from the Low Countries, believing himself chosen by God to save the reformers from the pitiless oppression of the Spanish. He had already changed his views on religion. Prudence seemed to have forsaken the astute Prince of Orange. He proceeded to raise an army, though he had not enough money to pay his mercenaries. He was preparing for a struggle against a general, second to none in Europe, a general, moreover, who had veterans at his command and the authority of Spain behind him. Yet the first disaster did not daunt either William of Orange or his brother Louis of Nassau, who was also a chivalrous leader of the people. "With God's help I am determined to go on," were the words inspired by Alva's triumph. There were Reformers in other countries ready to send help to their brethren in religion. Elizabeth of England had extended a welcome to thousands of Flemish traders. It was William's constant hope that she would send a force openly to his assistance.

Elizabeth, however, did not like rebels and was not minded to show sympathy with the enemies of Philip, who kept his troops from an attack on England. She would secretly encourage the Beggars to take Spanish ships, but she would not send an army of sufficient strength to ensure a decisive victory for the Reformers of the Netherlands.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Alva exulted in the loss of prestige which attended his enemy's flight from the Huguenot camp in the garb of a German peasant. He regarded William as a dead man, since he was driven to wander about the country, suffering from the condemnation of his allies because he had not been successful. Alva's victory would have seemed too easy if there had not been a terrible lack of funds among the Spanish, owing to the plunder which was carried off from Spain by Elizabethan seamen. The Spanish general demanded taxes suddenly from the people of the Netherlands, and expected that they would be paid without a murmur.

But he had mistaken the spirit of a trading country which was not subservient in its loyalty to any ruler. These prosperous merchants had always been accustomed to dispose of the money they earned according to their own wishes. Enemies of the Spanish sprang up among their former allies. Catholics as well as Protestants were angry at Alva's demand of a tax of the "hundredth penny" to be levied on all property. Alva's name had been detested even before he marched into the Low Countries with the army which was notorious for deeds of blood and outrage. Now it roused such violent hatred that men who had been ready to support his measures for their own interests gradually forsook him.

In July 1570, an amnesty was declared by the Duke of Alva in the great square of Antwerp. Philip's approaching marriage with Anne of Austria ought to have been celebrated with some appearance of goodwill to all men, but it was at this time that the blackest treachery stained Philip's name, already associated with stern cruelty.

Montigny, the son of the Dowager Countess of Hoorn, was one of the envoys sent to Philip's court before the war had actually opened. He had been detained in Spain and feared death, for he was a prisoner in the castle of Segovia. Philip had intended from the beginning to destroy Montigny, but he did not choose to order his execution openly. The knight had been sentenced by the Council of Blood after three years imprisonment, but still lingered on, hoping for release through the exertions of his family. The King was busied with wedding preparations, but not too busy to carry out a crafty scheme by which Montigny seemed to have died of fever, whereas he was strangled in the Castle. The hypocrisy of the Spanish monarch was so complete that he actually ordered suits of mourning for Montigny's servants.

In 1572 the Beggars, always restlessly cruising against their foes on the high seas, took Brill in the absence of a Spanish garrison. Their action was so successful that they hoisted the rebel flag over the little fort and took an oath with the inhabitants to acknowledge the Prince of Orange as their Stadtholder. Brill was an unexpected triumph which the brilliant, impetuous Louis of Nassau followed up by the seizure of Flushing, the key of Zealand, which was the approach to Antwerp. The Sea-Beggars then swarmed over the whole of Walcheren, receiving many recruits in their ranks and pillaging churches recklessly. Middelburg alone remained to the Spanish troops, while the provinces of the North began to look to the Prince of Orange as their legitimate ruler.

William looked askance at the disorderly feats of the Beggars, but the capture of important towns inspired him to fresh efforts. He corresponded with many foreign countries and had his agents everywhere. Sainte Aldgonde was one of the prime movers in these negotiations. He was a poet as well as a soldier, and wrote the stirring national anthem of Wilhelmus van Nassouwen, which is still sung in the Netherlands. Burghers now opened their purses to give money, for they felt that victories must surely follow the capture of Brill and Flushing. William took the field with hired soldiers, and was met by the news of the terrible massacre of Protestants in France in 1572 on the Eve of St Bartholomew. All his hopes of help from France were dashed to the ground at once, and for the moment he was daunted. Louis of Nassau was besieged at Mons by Alva. He tried to relieve his brother, but was ignominiously prevented by the Camisaders who made their way to his camp at night, wearing white shirts over their armour, and killed eight hundred of his soldiers.

William threw in his lot, once for all, with the Northern provinces, receiving a hearty welcome from Holland and Zealand, states both maintaining a gallant struggle. He was recognized as Stadtholder by a meeting of the States in 1572, and liberty of worship was established for Protestants and Catholics. His authority was absolute in this region of the Low Countries.

Alva revenged himself for the resistance of Mons by the brutal sack of Malines and of Zutphen. The outrages of his soldiers were almost inhuman, and immense booty was captured, to the satisfaction of the leader.

Amsterdam was loyal to Philip, but Haarlem was in the hands of Calvinists. The Spanish army advanced on this town expecting to take it at the first assault, but they met with a stubborn resistance. The citizens had in their minds the horror of the sack of Zutphen. They repulsed one assault after another and the siege, begun in December 1572, was turned into a blockade, and still the Spaniards could not enter. The heads of the leaders of relief armies which had been defeated were flung into Haarlem with insulting gibes. The reply to this was a barrel which was sent rolling out carrying eleven heads, ten in payment of the tax of one-tenth hitherto refused to Alva and the eleventh as interest on the sum which had not been paid quite promptly! It was in July 1573, when the citizens had been reduced by famine to the consumption of weeds, shoe-leather, and vermin, that the Spanish army entered Haarlem.

The loss on both sides was enormous, and William had reason to despair. Only 1600 were left of a garrison of 4000. It seemed as if the courage of Haarlem had been unavailing, for gibbets rose on all sides to exhibit the leaders of the desperate resistance.

But the fleets of the Beggars rode the sea in triumph, and the example of Haarlem had given spirit to other towns unwilling to be beaten in endurance. Alva was disappointed to find that immediate submission did not follow. He left the country in 1573, declaring that his health and strength were gone, and he was unwilling to lose his reputation.

Don Luis Requesens, his successor, would have made terms, but William of Orange adhered to certain resolutions. There must be freedom of worship throughout the Netherlands, where all the ancient charters of liberty must be restored and every Spaniard must resign his office. William then declared himself a Calvinist, probably for patriotic reasons.

The hope of assistance from France and England rose again inevitably. Louis of Nassau obtained a large sum of French money and intended to raise troops for the relief of Leyden, which was invested by the Spaniards in 1574. He gathered a force of mixed nationality and no cohesion, and was surprised and killed with his gallant brother Henry. Their loss was a great blow to William, who felt that the responsibilities of the war henceforward rested solely on his shoulders.

Leyden was relieved by the desperate device of cutting the dykes and opening the sluices to flood the land around it. A fleet was thus enabled to sail in amidst fields and farmhouses to attack the besieging Spanish. The Sea-Beggars were driven by the wind to the outskirts of Leyden, where they engaged in mortal conflict. The forts fell into their hands, some being deserted by the Spanish who fled from the rising waters. William of Orange received the news at Delft, where he had taken up his residence. He founded the University of Leyden as a memorial of the citizens' endurance. The victory, however, was modified some months later by the capture of Zierickzee, which gave the Spaniards an outlet on the sea and also cut off Walcheren from Holland.

In sheer desperation William made overtures to Queen Elizabeth, offering her the sovereignty of Holland and Zealand if she would engage in the struggle against Spain. Elizabeth dared not refuse, lest France should step into the breach, but she was unwilling to declare herself publicly on the side of rebels.

In April 1576 an Act of Federation was signed which formally united the two States of Zealand and Holland and conferred the supreme authority on the Prince of Orange, commander in war and governor in peace. Requesens was dead; a general patriotic rising was imminent. On September 26th the States-General met at Brussels to discuss the question of uniting all the provinces.

The Spanish Fury at Antwerp caused general consternation in the Netherlands. The ancient town was attacked quite suddenly, all its wealth falling into the hands of rapacious soldiers. No less than 7000 citizens met their death at the hands of men who carried the standard of Christ on the Cross and knelt to ask God's blessing before they entered on the massacre! Greed for gold had come upon the Spaniards, who hastened to secure the treasures accumulated at Antwerp. Jewels and velvets and laces were coveted as much as the contents of the strong boxes of the merchants, and torture was employed to discover the plate and money that were hidden. A wedding-party was interrupted, and the clothes of the bride stripped from her. Many palaces fell by fire and the splendid Town House perished. For two whole days the city was the scene of indescribable horrors.

The Pacification of Ghent had been signed when the news of the Spanish Fury reached the States-General. The members of this united with the Prince of Orange, as ruler of Holland and Zealand, to drive the foreigner from their country. The Union of Brussels confirmed this treaty in January 1577, for the South were anxious to rid themselves of the Spaniards though they desired to maintain the Catholic religion. Don John of Austria, Philip II's half-brother, was accepted as Governor-General after he had given a general promise to observe the wishes of the people.

Don John made a state entry into Brussels, but he soon found that the Prince of Orange had gained complete ascendancy over the Netherlands and that he was by no means free to govern as he chose. Don John soon grew weary of a position of dependence; he seized Namur and took up his residence there, afterwards defying the States-General. A universal cry for Orange was raised in the confusion that followed, and William returned in triumph to the palace of Nassau. Both North and South demanded that he should be their leader; both Protestant and Catholic promised to regard his government as legal.

In January 1578, the Archduke Matthias, brother of the Emperor, was invited by the Catholic party to enter Brussels as its governor. William welcomed the intruder, knowing that the supreme power was still vested in himself, but he was dismayed to see Alexander of Parma join Don John, realizing that their combined armies would be more than a match for his. Confusion returned after a victory of Parma, who was an able and brilliant general. The Catholic Duke of Anjou took Mons, and John Casimir, brother of the Elector-Palatine, entered the Netherlands from the east as the champion of the extreme Calvinists.

The old religious antagonism was destroying the union of the provinces. William made immense exertions and succeeded in securing the alliance of Queen Elizabeth, Henry of Navarre, and John Casimir, while the Duke of Anjou accepted the title of Defender of the Liberties of the Netherlands. His work seemed undone on the death of Don John in 1578 and the succession of Alexander, Duke of Parma. This Prince sowed the seeds of discord very skilfully, separating the Walloon provinces from the Reformers. A party of Catholic Malcontents was formed in protest against the excesses of the Calvinists. Religious tolerance was to be found nowhere, save in the heart of William of Orange. North and South separated in January 1579, and made treaties which bound them respectively to protect their own form of religion.

Attempts were made to induce Orange to leave the Netherlands that Spain might recover her lost sovereignty. He was surrounded by foes, and many plots were formed against him. In March 1581, King Philip denounced him as the enemy of the human race, a traitor and a miscreant, and offered a heavy bribe to anyone who would take the life of "this pest" or deliver him dead or alive.

William's defence, known to the authorities as his Apology, was issued in every court of Europe. In it he dwelt on the different actions of his long career, and pointed out Philip's crimes and misdemeanours. His own Imperial descent was contrasted with the King of Spain's less illustrious ancestry, and an eloquent appeal to the people for whom he had made heroic sacrifices was signed by the motto Je le maintiendrai. ("I will maintain.")

The Duke of Anjou accepted the proffered sovereignty of the United Netherlands in September 1580, but Holland and Zealand refused to acknowledge any other ruler than William of Orange, who received the title of Count, and joined with the other States in casting off their allegiance to Philip. The French Prince was invested with the ducal mantle by Orange when he entered Antwerp as Duke of Brabant, and was, in reality, subject to the idol of the Netherlands. The French protectorate came to an end with the disgraceful scenes of the French Fury, when the Duke's followers attempted to seize the chief towns, crying at Antwerp, "Long live the Mass! Long live the Duke of Anjou! Kill! Kill!"

Orange would still have held to the French in preference to the Spanish, but the people did not share his views, and were suspicious of his motives when he married a daughter of that famous Huguenot leader, Admiral de Coligny.

Orange retired to Delft, sorely troubled by the distrust of the nation, and the Catholic nobles were gradually lured back by Parma to the Spanish party. In 1584 a young Burgundian managed to elude the vigilance of William's retainers; he made his way into the Prinsenhof and fired at the Prince as he came from dinner with his family.

The Prince of Orange fell, crying "My God, have pity on my soul and on this poor people." He had now forfeited his life as well as his worldly fortunes, but the struggle he had waged for nearly twenty years had a truly glorious ending. The genius of one man had given freedom to the far-famed Dutch Republic, founded on the States acknowledging William their Father.