William of Orange - George Upton

The Dawning Career

The beautiful city of Dillenburg is situated some miles above Wetzlar, the well known seat of the Imperial Chamber, and a mile above the old university town of Herborn, in the richest and most fertile of the side valleys of the Lahn. In a castle there, whose ruins still look down from their towering height upon the busy city spread out beneath it, and upon distant meadows and forests skirting the cliff's of the Westerwald, Prince William of Orange, surnamed "the Silent," was born April 14, 1533. He was first called William, Count of Nassau, for his father was Count William of Nassau-Dillenburg. He was descended from a numerous family of Nassau counts, having many branches, which had occupied the region between the Sieg, the Lahn, the Main, and the Rhine for eight centuries and had gradually risen from humble beginnings to great power and authority.

This family of counts, as gallant as they were intellectually gifted, had furnished Germany with accomplished soldiers and statesmen, as well as with several powerful electors, for nearly five hundred years. One count of Nassau, the ambitious and unfortunate Adolphus, who lost both crown and life at the fatal battle of Gollheim, was elected Emperor.

To ascertain the origin and characteristics of a plant one must study it growing in the soil. So the bare description of one life is of little value in ascertaining the peculiar characteristics and qualities of the family to which it belongs. Family excellencies and defects exercise more enduring and far-reaching influences than is generally imagined, even though they may not always display themselves prominently or significantly.

In the case of William of Orange, however, it can be positively stated that he possessed in the highest degree the ambitious spirit and statesman-like qualities of the old Nassau counts, and that in the exercise of them he became the most distinguished representative of the family. We know nothing of his early training except the little that can be gathered from the statements of a contemporary writer, who says that his parents availed themselves of every opportunity to develop the boy's unmistakably superior talents.

At the age of eleven the youth unexpectedly inherited rich estates, which had been acquired by his uncle principally by marriage. They included large possessions in the Netherlands, where the family had been wealthy for centuries. They owned the princely Nassau palace in Brussels, and the city of Breda had been held by them since 1404. Besides these Netherlands estates, the young prince inherited the principality of Orange, lying between Languedoc, Provence, Dauphine, and Avignon, in southern France, from which he derived his title "Prince of Orange." In his eleventh year William was the richest nobleman of his time, and as such he attracted the attention of Charles V, who was well acquainted with the Nassau family, many members of it having been in his service as soldiers and statesmen. He besought the parents to entrust the talented youth to him so that he might have a better training than it was possible for him to obtain in the secluded valley of the Westerwald, where educational advantages were very meagre: The mother, a most excellent woman, at first declined the offer. It was hard for her to give up her boy, but the honor which she knew would be conferred upon her family, and the certainty that her ambitious son would have a brilliant career, at last dried the mother's tears. The boy, on the other hand, was eager to go. He was sorry to leave his native mountains and forests, and many a time afterwards, in the stormy periods of his life, he longed for the peace and quiet of his loved valley; but all else was for the time forgotten amid the attractions of his new home.

The Emperor consigned the young count to the special care of his own sister, Marie of Austria, at that time the principal stadtholder of the Nether lands at the court of Brussels, and afterwards Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. It was the most magnificent court of that time, and the most distinguished men of western and southern Europe met there. It is not remarkable that this sharp-eyed, quick-witted lad, with the assistance of his devoted patron, soon acquired large acquaintance with the world and that insight into state and court affairs which he was eager to acquire. The Emperor also appointed as his tutor the finely educated Hieronymus von Granvella, brother of the Cardinal Granvella, who afterwards became such a famous and notorious statesman. Although the tutor was entirely satisfactory, the Emperor himself also supervised the boy's education, and took great pleasure in instructing him in foreign affairs, the business of government, and the conduct of war. He was soon recognized as the favorite of this mightiest of sovereigns, and enjoyed his intimate confidence, though, as was well known, it was not the custom of Charles V to trust many persons. It was the lad's chivalrous bearing and his extraordinary acquirements (William of Orange spoke six languages), but, above all, his mature wisdom and sensible judgment, that commended the young man to the old monarch. Charles, indeed, placed such reliance upon his advice that he availed himself of it many a time in critical situations. He also admitted him to his private councils and kept him in attendance when messengers from foreign courts made their reports, so that he might have the advantage of his invariably excellent criticisms and opinions after the sessions were over. By favor of the Emperor he also rose from the position of page to that of Imperial Chamberlain. Not satisfied with this, the Emperor married the young prince, then hardly eighteen years of age, to the wealthiest heiress in the Netherlands, the lovely Anne of Egmont, daughter of Maximilian of Buren. The Emperor, who had for some time contemplated abdication, desired to make the position of his protégé as elevated as possible while he still had the power to do so.

General astonishment was expressed when at last the Emperor placed Orange at the head of his army in the war with France; so young a leader had never been known before. The army must meet the French force, led by its most experienced and famous generals. But the Emperor knew what he was doing. He was not placing his trust thoughtlessly in this young man, who already displayed the maturity and good judgment of age. The event proved he was not in error. The young hero justified his choice as the head of the army, notwithstanding his youth. The enemy was driven back in spite of its stubborn resistance and the skill of its commanders. Orange strengthened the weak fortresses of Charlemont and Philippeville under their very eyes, and in this way cut off the main line of the French. He accomplished these operations under many disadvantages. A malignant disease broke out in his army, and this, added to the scanty and uncertain pay, produced serious disaffection; but the young Orange, notwithstanding these drawbacks, pressed on to victory. At the period when most young men are about entering upon the active duties of life, he had earned the highest honors and was crowned with the laurels of fame. His young life had risen like a brightly beaming star, and promised an exceptionally brilliant career.

About this time Charles V suddenly carried out the purpose he had contemplated so long, by voluntarily abdicating. After exercising the highest authority on earth,—for the sun never went down on his dominions, as they said,—after enjoying the highest earthly wealth and glory,—for he controlled the treasures of three divisions of the earth,—he decided to spend the evening of his days in a dark and solitary monastery cell, poor, powerless, humble, far from the glitter of the throne and the splendor of courts.

Charles V. and Prince Philip


The Emperor summoned the distinguished men of the Empire for the last time. William of Orange, still in the field, was called from his camp at Esserein. Leaning upon the shoulder of his trusty favorite, the old emperor entered the hall of assembly. It was at Brussels, October 25, 1555, that he relinquished the sovereignty. In a long public address he affectionately commended the people of the Netherlands to his son Philip, and instructed him to defend their rights and liberties. Then turning, he presented his son to the Prince of

Orange, telling him how useful his advice and hic service would be to him and to the Empire. Did the old emperor, who was still so well acquainted with men and affairs of state, have a presentiment that his advice would pass unheeded? There never was a more momentous day for the Netherlands and for William of Orange than that day when Charles V abdicated. One more honor was conferred upon Orange. He carried the insignia of the Empire to Ferdinand I, brother of Charles V. It was his last honor at the latter's hands. No sooner had the Emperor retired to a cell in the Spanish monastery of Saint Yusto than the black storm clouds began to lower upon the Netherlands and upon the destiny of Orange.