Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Prince of Orange is Invited to Brussels

Eleven years had passed since the Prince, to save his life, had fled from Brussels. They had been years of hardship and struggle, with many defeats and few victories. Yet his influence had slowly grown, until now he was the acknowledged leader of the nation. And the people clamored for his presence in their capital.

It was with reluctance that the Estates of Holland and Zeeland gave their consent to his visit to Brussels, for they feared the city, where so many of the great and powerful had met their death. His wife shared their fears, and saw him depart with a heavy heart. Daily during his absence prayers were offered in all the churches of Holland and Zeeland for the safety of their beloved "Father William."

He arrived at Antwerp September 17, 1577, and was received with great enthusiasm. For five days he remained in the city, and then, attended by a vast crowd of citizens, he walked to the new canal, which led to Brussels, where three barges awaited him and his suite. In one a magnificent banquet was spread, while the others were draped with the banners of the seventeen provinces. Before the gates of the city were reached, half the inhabitants had poured forth to meet the Prince, and, thus escorted, he entered Brussels on September 23. The Prince of Orange knew no greater moment than this, as, surrounded by the representatives of all the provinces, and greeted by the unbounded fervour of the people, he heard their confident and joyous cries, "Father William is come, Father William, Father William!"

It is true that even amid the rejoicings the Prince was aware of the jealousy and suspicion of the Catholic nobility, at whose head was the ever fickle Duke of Aerschot, but his tact was able to avert all outward signs of hostility on this great occasion. The public welcome being ended, William's first act was to stop the negotiations which were still being carried on with Don John. This he did by adding more stringent conditions to those already offered to the youthful commander. That the terms were in reality a declaration of war William was well aware, and the soldier in Don John scented battle and leaped to the haughty challenge thus flung down to him. A suspension of hostilities for three days was forthwith agreed upon between the Estates and Don John.

William the Silent


Meanwhile the nobles, their jealousy growing with the growth of the Prince's power, sought to check his influence by entering into secret negotiations with the Archduke Matthias, brother of the Emperor Rudolph. An envoy was even sent by the nobles to Vienna to invite to Brussels the mild and easy-tempered Matthias, who was but a lad, twenty years of age. Only when the step had been taken did the nobles refer the matter to Orange and craftily ask for his advice. It was useless to offer it under the circumstances, but, should Matthias appear, Orange resolved to use him for the sake of the country, and thus thwart the plans of the nobles, which had obviously been made with a view to his own downfall. But when the populace heard of the invitation to Archduke Matthias they were furious, believing it to be a plot to get rid of the Prince whom they idolised. Henceforth if Orange had but little faith in the fidelity of the Catholic nobles, he had abundant proof of the care with which the burghers watched over his safety. Being on one occasion delayed at the State Council till a late hour, the Prince was informed that a large number of citizens had armed themselves and surrounded the palace, fearing that he was in danger. He immediately threw open a window, thanking them for their friendship and assuring them of his safety. They refused, however, to leave him alone, and remained under arms below the window till the Council broke up, when they escorted him with great devotion to his own home.

The secret envoy had now reached Vienna, and little was needed to excite the ambition of the foolish Archduke Matthias. He determined to accept the invitation of the Netherland nobles to go to Brussels. On October 3, 1577, he went to his room at an early hour, and, waiting till his brother fell asleep, Matthias slipped from the room in his sleeping suit, not waiting even to put on his slippers, for the lad was excited at the greatness of his enterprise. His companions provided him with the disguise of a servant, and thus at midnight he made his escape from Vienna, arriving at Cologne shortly afterwards, attended by only two gentlemen and a few servants.

Don John, as might be expected, lost his temper at this new insult to himself and the King, but the Prince of Orange, in nowise discomposed on hearing of his arrival, proceeded to Antwerp to receive the young Archduke at the head of 2000 cavalry and attended by a great number of citizens. The nobles looked on helpless and confused. They had felt sure that William would either ignore Matthias, and thus rouse the anger of the Emperor, and all Germany as well, or that he would allow himself to be driven from his post and supplanted by the aimless Archduke. But thus checkmated by the wisdom of the Prince, they found it impossible for the present to make a further move against him.

During this same month of October Orange was appointed Governor of Brabant, to the boundless delight of the people, and to the entire dissatisfaction of the Duke of Aerschot, who had himself straightway made Governor of Flanders by the States of that province. But in Ghent the townsfolk were not slow to show their dislike of the Duke. He had promised that their ancient charters should be restored. Then let him see to it that it were done, and done without delay, or it would go hard with him, they muttered sullenly, these rugged burghers of Ghent.

Disturbances arose in the streets, led by two nobles named Ryhove and Imbize, both of broken fortunes and rough and passionate ways. The haughty Duke, riding through the streets, encountered the fiery Imbize, who rudely demanded if he were yet ready to restore the ancient charters to the good city of Ghent. Nor could Aerschot shake off his determined questioner, who followed him, taunting him with increasing boldness to delay no longer to redeem his promise. "Charters, charters!" cried the Duke at last, losing his temper, "you shall learn soon, you that are thus howling for charters, that we have still the old means of making you dumb, with a rope on your throats. I tell you this, were you ever so much hounded on by the Prince of Orange." Imbize, furious at the public insult, only waited to find his colleague Ryhove, before rousing the burghers.

At midnight the conspirators met in the public square, whence, under the command of Ryhove, they swept to the Palace of Aerschot. The guards, seeing the approach of the furious mob, closed the gates. Brandishing their spears and waving their torches, they drew near and demanded that the gates should be opened. But when this was refused Ryhove cried, "Let us burn the birds in their nests," and the conspirators, at his command, brought pitch and wood, and the palace would soon have been in a blaze, had not Aerschot, seeing that they were in earnest, surrendered himself. As soon as he appeared the mob rushed upon him, and would have torn him to pieces, had not Ryhove resolutely interfered and twice protected his life at the risk of his own. The Duke was then made prisoner, and, under a strong guard, taken to the mansion of Ryhove, where his fate was shared by other Catholic nobles.

William, who had known of the plot, disowned any share in the act of violence, and sent an envoy to demand that the prisoners should be set free, a demand which was complied with only in the case of Aerschot.

Meanwhile on December 7, 1577, the States-General proceeded, as a preliminary to war, to disown Don John as Governor, while any showing favour to him or rendering him assistance were declared rebels and traitors. And though the war thus let loose on the land was due to the policy of the Prince of Orange, yet he did not regret it, ever being assured "that war was preferable to a doubtful peace." He had even prepared for it by an alliance with England, Queen Elizabeth lending the States money and agreeing to send troops to the Provinces under the command of an officer of rank.

Matthias, the Archduke, through the influence of Orange with the States-General, was now accepted as Governor, but without a vestige of power being conceded to him. His duties were well-nigh limited to the signing of documents, which were counter-signed by Orange. Thus the reins of government were in reality in the strong hands of William the Silent.

On January 18, 1578, Matthias made his public entry into Brussels, where he was received with every demonstration of delight. It was winter, yet the streets were strewn with flowers; it was mid-day, yet flaming torches were flashed from hand to hand. The houses, as on all great occasions, were festooned with garlands, and draped with silks and velvets, while triumphal arches adorned the streets.

Matthias at length began to enjoy the fruits of his midnight expedition as he stood, feasted and fêted, before the townsfolk and listened to long speeches and stared at stiff tableaux. Matthias the meek was too full of the glory of his position to feel weary! In the streets, when evening fell, the citizens feasted before blazing bonfires, roasting geese, pigs, partridges and chickens in abundance, while the youths and maidens danced their merriest. In the midst of the gaiety a rocket was sent off from the Square, and burst with a tremendous explosion. So frightened were the crowds at this new plaything that they all "took to their heels as if a thousand soldiers had assaulted them," and thus dispersed to their homes.

The following day Matthias took the oaths as Governor-General, the Prince of Orange being sworn in as Lieutenant-General and Governor of Brabant.