Saints and Heroes Since the Middle Ages - George Hodges

William the Silent

William the Silent


Charles the Fifth, King of Spain, Emperor of Germany, "Absolute Dominator" of Asia, Africa, and America, and (incidentally) hereditary sovereign of the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands, retired from his exalted position and gave his lands and his power to his son Philip.

At the dramatic ceremony, in the Hall of the Golden Fleece at Brussels, the emperor's son stood at his right hand. Philip was twenty-eight years old; a small, slender, sickly man, with light hair, and beard thin and pointed, his lower lip protruding like the lips of all the Hapsburgs, his chest contracted, his legs spindling and unsteady.

By the emperor's left hand stood his favorite subject, upon whose shoulders the infirm sovereign leaned as he read his valedictory address. William of Orange, scion of a family so distinguished that his ancestors, as he once proudly said, had occupied illustrious positions while the Hapsburgs were obscure squires in Switzerland, had become, at fifteen, a page in the imperial court, had risen, at eighteen, to be one of the emperor's trusted counselors, at twenty-one had commanded an army, and was now the chief citizen of the Netherlands. He was six years the junior of Philip, but was taller and better looking; erect and alert, his hair and beard dark as Philip's were light, he was the embodiment of grace and dignity and strength. Thus they stood, on either side of the king, who were thenceforth to be the bitterest of enemies, and to fight each other in one of the fiercest of wars.

The two men differed, not only in appearance, but in principle. They stood for antagonistic ideas both in politics and in religion.

There are two theories in politics as to the proper residence of power. According to one theory, power should be centralized; it should be in the hands of officers whose business is to rule the people; as for the people, their duty is to do as they are told and to think as they are taught. According to the other theory, power should be distributed; it should be in the hands of officers who are the servants, not the masters, of the people; and all alike, whether sovereign or subjects, should obey the laws which the people themselves make.

These two theories came into conflict when the barbarians invaded the Roman Empire. The first had been held by the Latins and their neighbors south of the Rhine; the second by the Germans and their neighbors north of the Rhine. But the conquering nations of the north accepted in great part the political ideas of the conquered nations of the south. In the sixteenth century, the theory that power ought to be centralized was practically universal in Europe. The imposing titles of Charles the Fifth represented it. At the same time, the ancient spirit of liberty was beginning to assert itself. Thus the Reformation was, everywhere, not only a religious but a political movement. The local state and the local Church together declared their independence. In Germany the electors, each of whom ruled a community of citizens and resented the dictation of the emperor, protected Luther, who was encouraging communities of Christians to reject the authority of the pope. And in England the independence of the Church was a part of the independence of the nation. In Switzerland, where the state was weak, Calvin was able to make the Church free from all political control. In France, where the state was strong, Coligny tried in vain to give the people the right to choose their own religion without regard to the religion of the king. In the Netherlands, Philip stood for centralization, demanding that the people should obey him and the pope. William stood for national and religious independence.

The religious ideas which the two men represented were equally opposed. On one side was the principle of uniformity, on the other side the principle of liberty. The theory of Philip was that all men should behave and believe alike. They should have the same church, the same service, and the same creed. That was also the theory of Henry the Eighth, who desired, indeed, that England should be independent, but who insisted that, in England, there should be but one custom and one faith. It was the theory of Calvin, who wished to expel from Geneva all who disagreed with him. It was the general principle of the time, and was held, not only by bigots and fanatics, but by almost all good men.

On the other side was the principle of liberty. This was the idea that not only nations but individuals had the right to differ. According to this theory a man might be a Catholic or a Protestant as he preferred, following his own conscience; and in the same nation, Catholics and Protestants might live together, each going his own way, and neither persecuting his neighbor. This was the conviction of William. It is plain enough now, and prevails everywhere. But at that time, it prevailed nowhere. It was made a part of our life by the success of the long war which William fought against Philip.

Philip and William represented, not only the difference between the ideas of centralization and of representation in politics, and between the ideas of uniformity and of liberty in religion, but between Spain and Holland. In Holland, prominence was given to the people; in Spain, the prominent powers were priests and princes.

The Dutch were the most industrious people in Europe. They were, accordingly, more wealthy than their neighbors, and their wealth, having been earned by their own labors, was expended for the general good. The architects of other countries erected castles and cathedrals; they were in the employ of the princes and the priests. In the Netherlands also there were castles and cathedrals, but architecture did not stop there. Town halls, guild houses, and palaces of private citizens adorned the Dutch cities. In England, the vast walls of the cathedral of Durham looked from their green hill upon a village of mean houses, where the smoke of the hearth rose through holes in the roof, while the bell-tower of the cathedral of Antwerp stood amidst five hundred mansions of marble.

The artists of Italy and Spain painted for the court, the cloister, and the Church. Their scenes were laid in heaven, or in those dimly imagined Bible lands which seemed almost as remote; and their subjects were the symbols of theology,—the Madonna and Child, the crucifixion, the resurrection, repeated over and over,—or the supernatural adventures of the saints. But the artists of the Netherlands painted for the people also, making pictures which were meant to be hung in parlors and dining-rooms. They described the life which they saw about them, trees and flowers and running water, birds and babies, the men and women of the neighborhood in their everyday dress. Presently, the desire of the people to have pictures, even when they had but humble walls on which to hang them, led to the art of engraving; and that led to printing.

The printing-press in the Netherlands was used for the benefit of the people. The Dutch, in the sixteenth century, were the best educated nation in Europe. Art, poetry, and philosophy were at their height in Italy; but common education, the instruction of the people, flourished in the Low Countries as nowhere else. They had their public schools, supported by the state, for the training of young citizens. At a time when noblemen in other countries made their mark because they did not know how to write their names, every child in Holland owned a primer, and there were many cities in which most of the children of the age of ten could write and speak two languages. Every town had its literary society, its guild of rhetoric.

The government of the country was in keeping with this democratic spirit. The political unit was the trade-union or guild. Representatives of the guilds ruled the towns. Each town sent delegates to the legislature, where they sat with the nobles under the presidency of the stadtholder, who stood for the king. But on important matters all the nobles together had but one vote, while the towns had one apiece, and the power of the stadtholder was limited by written constitutions which secured the liberty of the people.

Into this country, the most industrious, the richest, the best educated, and the most democratic in Europe, came the Reformation. At once, it became a popular movement. In Germany, in France, in England, princes had joined the reformers for their own advantage; but in the Netherlands, it was the people themselves who welcomed the reforms. They had been reading the Bible. There were as many copies of the translated Scriptures in the Dutch provinces as in all the rest of Europe. These Bible-reading people were intelligently appreciative of the new preaching. Roman inquisitors, thinking to stamp the Reformation out, were confronted, not by the princes only, but by the greater part of the population. Before the Duke of Alva began his invasion of the country, more Dutchmen had died for their religion than in all the rest of Europe during all the persecutions of the times. Add together the victims of Bloody Mary in England, of inquisitors in Spain, and of Catherine de' Medici in France, and the sum is small compared with the hundred thousand whose blood and ashes fertilized the soil of the Netherlands. And when the inquisitors were busiest, the people, in great crowds, flocked out into the open fields beside the city gates to listen to the sermons of their preachers, and to show, as they said, how many the inquisitors would have to hang or burn.

Over against these countrymen of William stood the subjects of Philip. Spain was despotic in its government and military in its ambition. There had been a time when the Spaniards had engaged in the occupations of peace. Furnaces and machine-shops, markets and schools, had flourished amongst them. There had been Spanish universities good enough to attract students from other countries. The people had enjoyed a fair degree of freedom.

Then came the year of Spain's two fatal successes: Granada fell, and America was discovered.

Granada fell, and the Moors were expelled from Spain,—the most industrious, intelligent, law-abiding, and prosperous of its inhabitants. The purpose was to make Spain the most Christian of all nations: not a Mohammedan, not a Jew, was to be allowed to live there. Having cleared the land of Jews and Mahammedans, the next step was to clear it of heretics. The Inquisition, which had been intended for the discovery and punishment of Moors, was now turned against Christians who were suspected of sympathy with the reformers. It was a combination of questions and tortures. All the possibilities of pain were used to compel prisoners to confess, and when they confessed they were burned at the stake. This cruelty poisoned the lives of all who took part in it. It changed Spanish religion into bigotry.

Then America was discovered, a land of gold and precious stones, where a handful of adventurers could overcome an ancient nation and make a thousand fortunes. Men abandoned their mills, their merchandise, and their farms. Trade was no longer respectable. The Spanairds turned from their school-books to their swords. No citizen of Spain was ever the source of so much harm to his country as Christopher Columbus. His discovery changed the Spanish character.

Spain and Holland were thus as far apart as they could be. Yet Holland was a member of Spain's household. Philip, on the day of his father's abdication, was put in possession of the Dutch provinces, and William was to be his faithful servant and obey his orders. It was an impossible situation. Between these two men and these two nations, war was inevitable.

The situation was first made plain to William by a memorable talk which he had in a French forest, during a stag hunt, with the king of France. Henry of France and Philip of Spain had been raging a fruitless war between their kingdoms, and had come to terms of peace. William represented Philip in the making of the treaty. Henry, supposing that William was in Philip's confidence in all things, spoke to him about the agreement which the two kings had made to rid their lands of heretics. Henry said that the heretics were increasing in France, and that great men, like Coligny, were on their side, but that he intended to clear the country of the "accursed vermin." He told William how glad he was that Philip had the same intention concerning the Netherlands.

This was all news to William, but he listened without comment. "I confess," he said afterwards, "that I was deeply moved with pity for all the worthy people who were thus devoted to slaughter, and for the country, to which I owed so much, wherein they designed to introduce an inquisition worse and more cruel than that of Spain. From that hour," he said, "I resolved, with my whole soul, to do my best to drive this Spanish vermin from the land." But he said nothing. It was his self-control on this occasion which gave him his name of William the Silent.

William returned straight from this interview to Holland and began the Dutch Revolution. He persuaded the Dutch Parliament, the States-General, to vote no money to the king of Spain till all the Spanish troops were withdrawn from the country. And this was accomplished. Philip, being thus resisted, though not yet understanding how serious the situation was, went back to Spain. As he stood on the pier, ready to embark, he complained to William concerning the treatment which he had received. "It is the States," said William. "No, no!" cried Philip. "It is you, you, you!"

The main purpose of William at the beginning of the struggle was to protect the Netherlands against a persecution for religion. He was himself a Catholic, though his wife was a Lutheran. It was his desire that the new religion and the old should dwell together in the nation as peacefully as they dwelt under his own roof. "He held it to be cruelty to kill any man simply for maintaining an erroneous opinion. He used to say that in all matters of religion, punishment should be reserved to God alone, much as the rude German who said to the emperor, ‘Sire, your concern is with the bodies of your people, not with their souls.'" When the king determined to set up the Inquisition in the Netherlands, William sent him word that he would resist him. "As for myself," he said, "I shall continue to hold by the Catholic faith; but I will never give any color to the tyrannical claim of kings to dictate to the consciences of their people."

Then, one day in Antwerp, there was a religious procession through the streets, and a jeering mob followed it, and fighting began, and the churches were attacked, and before the disorder could be stopped all the images of Antwerp had been broken, and all the stained-glass shattered in the windows. When Philip heard of it, his anger was so great that it made him sick of a fever. "By the soul of my father," he cried, "it shall cost them dear!"

The army which Philip sent against the Netherlands was commanded by the Duke of Alva. He was the foremost soldier in Spain. He had been a man of war from his youth. When he was but four years old, his father was killed by the Moors, and his grandfather taught him to hate heretics. He fought with distinction in an important battle at the age of sixteen. He was now nearly sixty,—tall, thin, erect, with yellow skin and bristling black hair, and a beard long and sable-silvered. He believed that he was fighting in a righteous cause, for the good of the country and the Church.

Alva's errand was to punish those who had been concerned in the disorders at Antwerp and elsewhere. For this purpose he established a Council of Troubles, which was soon called by the people of the Council of Blood. Thousands of men and women, guilty and innocent, were put to death. They were hanged on scaffolds, on trees, at the door-posts of private house. Many of them were poor; but some were the chief citizens and nobles of the country. The whole business of the land was stopped; grass grew in the markets. Every family was in mourning. And against these cruelties the people could do nothing. They had had no experience in war. They were shopkeepers and schoolmasters. The Spanish soldiers had them at their mercy, and they showed no mercy.

Meanwhile, William was trying to hire an army. He was spending his fortune, even to the pledging of his plate and jewels, to assemble soldiers. But when they were assembled Alva and his Spanairds cut them to pieces. William's son, a student in the University of Louvain, was seized and carried off to Spain. William's wife went crazy. Philip pronounced him an outlaw, under the ban of the empire. His neighbors begged him to put down his arms. "Our friends and allies have all turned cold," he said. Yet, "we must have patience and not lose heart, submitting to the will of God, and striving incessantly, as I have resolved to do, come what may. With God's help, I am determined to push onward."

William gathered another army. The soldiers came from Germany, and there were to be reinforcements from France: Coligny was managing that. Then came the tragedy of St. Bartholomew, and the German army was defeated. And the defeat was followed by the massacre of cities. At last, the Dutch began to fight with their own hands. They began to defend their besieged cities. The Spanish soldiers declared that the towns were garrisoned with devils. The women fought, and the children. Battles were waged in the water, and on the ice, and in tunnels under the earth.

Finding that there was no hope of help from France or Germany or England, the Dutch made an alliance with the ocean. Holland lay below the level of the sea, which was kept back by great banks of earth called dikes. When Leyden was besieged, and Spanish camps surrounded the city so that no food could be brought in, and plague and famine were within the walls, William cut the dikes. In came the ocean upon the land, and with it came the relieving ships, floating for six miles over the farms. The besiegers were downed out, and the city was saved.

The war lasted forty years, till the treat of peace in 1609. William did not see the end of it. He had been in constant peril of assassins. Again and again, men had been hired by Philip to kill him. Once he was saved by the barking of his little dog. Once he was shot in the face, but not fatally. At last, a man named Gerard Balthazar pretended to be a Protestant, begged money from William to relieve his poverty, bought two pistols with the money, hid himself in William's house in Delft, and murdered him one day as he came out from dinner. This he did, believing that he was doing God service.

But the victory of Holland was the work of William. He had established the independence of his country. He had done even more than that, for he had secured in Holland the supremacy of a new idea. He had not only made the land independent, but he had made it the home of religious liberty. Becoming himself a Calvinist, he protected the Roman Catholics against whom he had fought. He protected the Lutherans and the Baptists, whom the Calvinists hated. He made Holland a place of refuge for all persecuted people. In Amsterdam there were pictures painted on the walls of houses showing a dove escaping from an eagle. The dove represented a Lutheran, a Baptist, a Huguenot, a Puritan, seeking refuge in the only land on earth where men were free to follow their own religion in peace.

When the men who afterwards founded New England were driven out of their own country, they fled to Holland, where they learned lessons which they afterwards put in practice in their colony at Plymouth. The idea of the separation of Church and state, the principle of the freedom of conscience, and the right of honest men to differ in religion, came into this land from the example of William the Silent.