Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

Don John of Austria

On the very day of the Spanish Fury a courtier, attended by a Moorish slave and six men-at-arms, rode into the city of Luxemburg. It was in this romantic disguise that the new Governor-General arrived in the Netherlands, for the Moorish slave was none other than Don John of Austria, the half-brother of Philip, and the tardily appointed successor to Requesens.

From his childhood Don John had possessed a fascination that was all his own. His father, the Emperor Charles V., had entrusted him to the care of Quixada, a member of the imperial household. The little Juan grew up full of beauty and grace. Strong, too, and agile, he could throw the javelin farther, break a lance more readily, and ride at the ring more skilfully than any of his companions. Destined by Charles V. to be a priest, it seemed that this early training might be useless.

When Juan was fourteen years of age his foster-father invited him to ride with him to see the royal hunt. Awaiting them stood two horses, one a noble charger, the other but a sorry steed, which latter the lad mounted, while Quixada leaped on to the charger, and together they rode towards the mountains. But no sooner were the bugles of the approaching huntsmen heard than Quixada halted, bidding Juan exchange horses with him. The boy obeyed, and then his foster-father seized his hand, and, kissing it respectfully, exclaimed, "Your Highness will soon be informed as to the meaning of my conduct." When the royal hunting party rode up, Quixada and the lad dismounted and kneeled before their monarch. But Philip told the youth to rise, for he, Don John, was the brother of the King and would return with him to Valladolid. Thus Juan said farewell to his foster-father and his early home, and rode to the court with Philip. Here he was educated with his nephews, Alexander Parma, the son of the Duchess Margaret, and Don Carlos, the Prince Royal of Spain.

When he was eighteen years of age Don John, fearing lest he should be made a priest against his will, ran away, but before he had succeeded in joining a military expedition to Malta he was recalled in disgrace by Philip.

Five years later Don John's wish to live a military life was granted, and he was made commander of the campaign against the rebellious Moors in Granada. Here he gained his first laurels. He next won a brilliant naval victory against the Turks in the Gulf of Lepanto, a victory which caused the name of Don John of Austria to be known throughout the world.

The victor then sailed westward, descending on the coast of Barbary, where he captured Tunis, and brought the King and his sons captive to Italy. Intoxicated with his success, Don John then demanded from the Pope a crown, which, should the young hero win, his Holiness was ready to bestow on him.

It was here in Italy, that he heard that he had been appointed Governor-General to the Netherlands. The appointment pleased him, for across his brain there flashed a brilliant vision. He saw the Netherlands easily pacified by his gracious ways, and 10,000 veteran Spanish troops thus set free to work his will. He saw, as in a mirror, his gallant rescue, by the aid of his veteran troops, of the beautiful Mary Queen of Scots, his betrothal to her, and their united rule over England and Scotland. With this vision gleaming before his eyes, he would not delay for a moment to hasten to the scene of his new appointment. Dyeing his bright locks dark, and staining his fair face to the complexion of a Moor, he started on his journey disguised as a slave.

After reaching Paris he had a short interview with the Duke of Guise, the vision still gleaming bright before his eyes, as he explained his scheme of rescue and betrothal to the kinsman of the Scottish Queen.

On November 3, 1576, Don John arrived at Luxemburg, and, throwing off his disguise, stood revealed. His appearance was as well known and as much admired as his rash and daring spirit. Blue eyes sparkled and bewitched those of sterner mould, while his curling hair was flung carelessly back from a well-shaped head. Though not much above middle height, he was well knit in every line, while his beauty seemed the greater for the fascination which, as in childhood, he still possessed.

Don John of Austria


Such was Don John, who now, on the threshold of the Netherlands, stood face to face with William of Orange.

William the Silent, gaunt and plainly clad, with kind but careworn face, and locks worn away by anxiety more than by his helmet—William the Silent, with ways that, while courteous, were yet grave and almost devout, was a hero different indeed from Don John, the curled darling of chivalry. Even as they differed in appearance, so also had their characters and fortunes led them to far different destinies. The world was ringing with the praise of Don John's brilliant victories. William the Silent, baffled and often defeated, was wringing a few painful victories from the enemy, forcing, in his extremity, the ocean to come to his aid; William the Silent was wringing triumphs out of the divisions and dissensions of the Provinces, as slowly, with strong hand and far-seeing brain, he compelled these forces to obey his will. And if the world did not yet ring with the praise that was one day to be his, in his own heart and in the heart of his people lay the consciousness that a deed was being wrought that would one day set their country free, and the glory of the future shone before them as a star. Don John came to the Netherlands with little ambition save to clutch for himself a crown. The Prince of Orange was even now waiving aside the diadem the people would fain have had him wear.

It was with a quiet determination to counteract or crush his policy that William the Silent met his antagonist, and he lost no time in imparting to the Estates his own feeling of distrust as to the policy of the young Governor. Don John had been sent to gain by fraud what Philip had failed to secure by force, and when his position was assured, the smiles and pleasantries of the Governor would be exchanged for frowns and menaces. "Make no agreement with him," he urged, "unless the Spanish and other troops have been sent away beforehand; beware meantime of disbanding your own, for that were to put the knife into his hand to cut your own throats withal." The great scheme which was revolving in Don John's brain made him, however, specially desirous of retaining the Spanish soldiers in the Netherlands.

After his arrival at Luxemburg Don John sent an envoy to the States-General to announce his arrival, and his purpose of entering Namur, attended by fifty mounted troops. But to this the Estates would not consent, nor, they added, would they receive him as Governor of the Provinces until he had consented to expel the Spaniards from the country, to approve the treaty of Ghent, nor until he had sworn to maintain the ancient charters of the Provinces, and to employ none but Netherlanders in his service. For such a reception the brilliant cavalier was unprepared, and during the winter of 1576 he chafed and fretted, while he tried in vain to evade the demands made upon him by the States and the Prince of Orange.

It was not, indeed, till the spring of the following year that Don John at length yielded and signed the Perpetual Edict, the States thereupon agreeing to receive him as Governor-General of the country.

To the Prince the Edict was but a trap, in which the Southern Provinces had been snared. Neither Don John nor Philip would, he believed, hesitate to withdraw all that they had conceded on the first favourable opportunity. Therefore it was that the Prince stood sadly aloof with his loyal Northern Provinces, while the South rejoiced in the fancied security of its new alliance.

The Prince might ignore Don John, but Don John was determined if possible to win the Prince, for he saw that it was he who "bewitched the minds of all men." "The name of your Majesty," he wrote plainly to Philip, "is as much abhorred and despised in the Netherlands as that of the Prince of Orange is loved and feared. I am negotiating with him and giving him every security, for I see that peace and the maintenance of the Catholic religion and the obedience to your Majesty depend now upon him." But the envoy sent by Don John to the Prince returned only to report his failure to induce Orange to enter into any arrangement then or in the future with the new Governor-General.

Still, however, the young lord did not despair of bending the Prince to his will. He determined himself to write to William. For "in such times as these we have no choice," said Don John, nor do I see any way to save the State from destruction, save to gain over this man, who has so much influence with the nation." Philip also recognised the need there was to gain the man he had outlawed, and, cringing as tyrants can, he offered, through his brother, pardon, advancement, power to the man he had erstwhile denounced as a rebel. "You cannot imagine," wrote Don John to the Prince, "how much it will be within my ability to do for you."

That he should seek to gain the Prince by promises of personal advantage only showed Don John's ignorance of the nobility of William's character. The Prince gravely dismissed the Governor's suggestions, telling him that he had ever preferred the welfare of his country to his own private interests, which he had placed under his foot, and was still resolved to do so, as long as his life should endure. Thus did Philip the King, through his representative Don John, vainly sue the Prince, whom he had hoped to banish from the land.

Though the formal reception of Don John as Governor was not to take place till the troops had actually left the country, he now advanced into the heart of the Provinces, trusting himself to the loyalty of the people, with a confidence he was far from feeling. The charm of his manner at once began to conquer the hearts of the populace. He mingled gaily and freely with all classes of citizens, as had his father, Charles V. He joined in the national sports, and at the annual games brought down with his crossbow the popinjay, to the great delight of the spectators, who thereupon hung a golden bird around his neck and pledged the health of the new king of the crossbow men. In their good nature the Netherlanders were ready to believe that the advent of Don John had brought peace.

Meanwhile arrangements were being hurried on for the departure of the troops, for the Governor, on this point, intended loyally to keep his promise. Towards the end of April 1577 the Spanish troops finally left the country, the vast crowds of citizens who saw them go scarcely daring to believe that their dreaded foes would not return. Their joy, too, was damped by the knowledge that 10,000 Germans still remained in the Provinces, attached to the royal service.

On the withdrawal of the troops from Antwerp, it had been decided to appoint the Duke of Aerschot to the command of this important fortress. As Commander-in-Chief under the authority of the State Council, and as the chief of the Catholic nobility, the post was his by right. Yet he was a man trusted by neither party, for he had shown himself to be arrogant when in power, and cringing and fickle when the fortunes of his party fell. Standing on the drawbridge of the town the oath was administered to the new Governor of the Citadel. "I, Philip, Duke of Aerschot," he repeated, "solemnly swear to hold this castle for the King and no others." To which came the grave response, "God help you with all His angels if you keep your oath; if not, may the devil carry you away body and soul." A few passers-by cried "Amen," and with this brief ceremony the keys were delivered to Aerschot.