William of Orange - George Upton

Prelude—The Masters of the Sea

There was once a people freer, richer, and happier than any other. They lived in a land whose shores were washed by the waves of the North Sea. The whole country was like a vast, luxurious garden, the houses in the cities resembled palaces, and those who dwelt in them were as proud and independent as kings.

These people had but one enemy. It was the sea, and a destructive enemy certainly it was. It sometimes overflowed the land and threatened to sweep away great stretches of the country, as well as thriving cities. Sometimes its waters joined those of the rivers, and together they changed the beautiful garden landscape into a wretched swamp.

The people, however, came of a bold, strong race. German blood flowed in their veins. They stoutly resisted the mighty power of the sea waves, and were victors. They drove the sea back and protected their land with huge dykes, against which their grim old enemy, tide-driven, hissing and foaming, hurled itself in vain. These dauntless people, however, were not satisfied with this achievement; they made the sea their servant, and forced it to carry upon its broad back the ships which developed their commerce, by bringing them the produce of the South and carrying their goods all over the world. They also made the rivers their servants by transforming them into skilfully constructed canals, which drained the marshes and made the soil productive and more valuable.

In these ways the people continually grew richer and more powerful, until they became the envy of all others. Proud, impoverished, and sometimes hungry nobles and knights looked down from their castles among the rocky heights upon these prosperous people and envied them their wealth and happiness. These nobles at one time were the masters of that country, but at last it became too great to be governed by a mere duke. The people longed for a grander sovereign, and eventually their country became the richest possession of the German crown. But the new emperor did not bring them happiness. He had a son. This son was a black Giant. He hated the country because it was free, wished to seize its wealth, and swore he would make its people slaves.

The Giant had both the power and the means to carry out his purpose. He was so huge and stout that when he stretched himself out the sun did not shine upon all his bulk. Either his head or his limbs were in shadow. At one step of his broad foot he could crush a whole city. A fiery stream issued from his mouth, which burned people. All whom he did not stamp into the earth or kill by lire he strangled, or felled with his powerful sword. I le was also shrewd. He had such great ears that Ile could hear two persons whispering together fifty leagues away, and he could seize them both with his long arms. Even the darkness could not hide one from him, for he saw in the night, like the wild beasts. His unhappy victims begged in vain for mercy, for his heart was not of flesh and blood but hard as a stone.

These people, however, did not hesitate to grapple with the Giant. They had courage, for they had once wrestled with the sea; but before they could get together or arrive at a fixed plan of action the bloodthirsty Giant was in their midst, murdering and burning. Then the frightened people cried to Heaven for help.

And help came. Their rescuer was nigh at hand. He was not a giant like the Emperor's son, but a youth of ordinary stature, a German count from the heart of Germany. He was not stronger than others, but he was wise, much wiser and cleverer than the imperial Giant. His heart was not as hard as stone, but so strong and determined that one might as well expect a stream to flow backward, or a stone to roll uphill, as expect him to change a plan once made. And better than all else, he cherished high and noble ideas, and maintained a steadfast belief in divine help and in the victory of a good cause. Royal dignity shone in his face, and his eyes glistened like the sunshine, so that those who looked upon him said to themselves, "He will be the victor."

The Giant feared his adversary, and he was the only one in the world of whom he was afraid. They knew each other, the Count and the Emperor's son, and for this very reason the Giant sought to crush him by a sudden blow; but he did not succeed. Every one feared that he would, but the Count warded off his blows and dealt some in return, until at last the Giant was in a towering rage and roared horribly. It was a dreadful struggle. The Giant devastated the, afflicted country, and the blood of its persecuted people flowed in streams; but they still kept faith in their champion, whose eyes still glistened like the sunshine.

No one came to the help of the poor country. All were afraid of the Giant, and the Count could not destroy him unaided. Men had no compassion; but in the end, the sea, arch-enemy of that country, pitied the unhappy people and was their faithful ally against the Giant. At last they achieved a glorious victory. Under the inspiration of their new liberty they prospered greatly. But the heroic Count was closely beset, and the Giant in his death struggles insidiously murdered him. The costly victory was consecrated with the Count's life-blood.

All this reads like romance, but it is reality. There is such a people of German descent, who wrestled with the sea and made it their servant, and afterwards fought with a giant for their liberty. It is the people of the Netherlands, whose country lies northwest of Germany and north of France, living on the shores of the North Sea, where the Scheldt, the Meuse, and the Rhine empty. This people sprung from the pure Teutonic races of Franks and Frisians.

They had to wrestle with the sea and the rivers to save the country, which was on a level with the ocean, and in some places lower, and therefore exposed, without any protection, to high tides and overflows. They had to wage a continual struggle with the elements to keep their lands from being covered with sand and mud; to reconstruct their dykes, which were frequently broken, and to force the sea back, so as to recover them. It was a colossal undertaking, but they succeeded, and actually made the water which threatened them on every side their useful servant.

At that time the Netherlanders were the leading merchants of the world. A writer of that period calls their country "the harbor, the bazaar, and the market of all Europe." A complete canal system, fed by the rivers, permitted traffic with the interior of the country. The cities, and indeed the whole country increased in population, wealth, and general prosperity to a degree never before known in Europe. The revenues of Charles V during a part of his reign amounted to the unprecedented sum, for that time, of twenty millions. An Antwerp merchant, who had advanced two millions to the Emperor, tore up the securities because the latter honored his house with a visit. Ordinary peasants gave their daughters a hundred thousand dollars as dowry. No country was more prosperous at that time. Many privileges and exemptions which the provinces had acquired or purchased contributed to this prosperity, and they were most jealously guarded. When the German Emperor Maximilian refused to respect the rights of the city of Bruges, the burghers seized and imprisoned him. Every prince who ruled over the Netherlands had to bind himself by oath not to interfere with or disturb their rights. They were sacred to the Netherlanders.

Then came the black Giant of our story, Spain, under its fanatical king, Philip II.

Spain, rent in our days by civil strife, the weakest power in Europe and the object, as it were, of divine displeasure, was at that time the greatest and strongest of nations. The Spaniards arrogantly claimed that the sun never set on their dominions, and they were not far from right; for besides Spain itself, their possessions included the two Sicilies, Sardinia, Milan, and the Netherlands, besides a goodly part of Africa and the newly discovered America.

At an earlier period the Netherlanders were ruled by their own dukes, of whom Charles the Bold was the most famous; but by the marriage of the Emperor Maximilian I to Charles's daughter and heiress, Mary, they became subjects of Austria; and then again they became subjects of Spain by the marriage of Philip the Handsome, son of Maximilian, to Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Charles V, son of Philip and grandson of Maximilian, next came into power in the Netherlands, but abdicated later in favor of his son Philip, the tyrant and cruel enemy of the Netherlands' liberty. But the black Giant did not succeed. Goliath found his David.

It is easy to conjecture that the German count who made the heroic fight with Spain was Prince William of Orange, Count of Nassau, one of the first and noblest champions of German intellectual and religious liberty. This little book contains the story of the life and colossal struggles of this hero.