William of Orange - George Upton

The Rising Storm

The tragedy anticipated by Orange began as soon as the new and severe edict of the King was promulgated in the cities and villages. A panic spread through the country, and more than thirty thousand persons abandoned their unhappy homes. The people seemed paralyzed. Business became stagnant. There were not sufficient laborers left to till the fields. There was everywhere a scarcity of the necessaries of life, which greatly added to the distress of the persecuted people.

In view of the wretched situation, the Prince of Orange wrote the Duchess Margaret of Parma, who was still the King's representative in the Netherlands, a serious and urgent letter, but couched in moderate terms, in which, among other things, he said:

"The Inquisition is now in full operation, and its severest penalties are inflicted. There can be but one result, madame, from the enforcement of the edicts. The King will involve himself in difficulties, destroy the country's peace, and alienate the affections of his loyal subjects. It will create the suspicion that His Majesty contemplates an entire change in the present established form of government, which will bring about a dangerous crisis. It is a time when the people, incited by the example of neighboring nations, are inclined to take up novelties. The harsh enforcement of the edicts, therefore, will cause many to leave the country and many more to lose confidence in the King, and this without reestablishing the religion he represents."

At the close of his letter he added:

"I can plainly see that the present policy cannot be carried out without danger of ruin to the country, as His Majesty perhaps would realize if he were here."

Such were the warnings of a true man, who loved his people and yet had not renounced his sovereign notwithstanding his errors and outrages. They were the warnings of a far-seeing statesman, whose vision was keener than that of the narrow-minded Spanish ruler.

But was it to be expected that Philip of Spain would heed the advice of a man whom he suspected and even hated and feared? Why should he concern himself about the sufferings of a people whom he had publicly declared he would rather see destroyed than living in the enjoyment of their liberties? Why should he extend forbearance to the Netherlanders when he had plenty of hangmen and their helpers, and an army long experienced in war, and composed of the best soldiers of the time, who were used to acts of cruelty, who never questioned any order, and who were led by Alva, the terrible Alva,—certainly a great soldier, but a human monster?

Poor, poor Netherlands! Even the timorous deer of the forests, when brought to bay, will turn against the hunter, and the gentle dove will resist when the cruel knife is at its throat. Can it be supposed then, that a strong and brave people, like the Netherlanders, would voluntarily submit to the death-stroke?

Up to this time the higher nobility, the so-called "seigniors," who were either stadtholders or Knights of the Golden Fleece, had firmly resisted the encroachments of the King, and now, under the leadership of Orange, they espoused the cause of the people. There were stern, fierce men among them, who cared not a whit for the taking of human life, for the days of sword-law were not far remote; but they could not look on unmoved at such cruelties, and such contempt for the rights of the people, as were exhibited every day. We can only wonder at their moderation, considering the provocations at the outset of these persecutions. The influence of Orange is clearly discernible in this matter. For his knightly brother, Count Ludwig of Nassau, and his bosom friend, the noble Marnix of Saint Aldegonde, were the leaders of the league of the nobility, and drew up the document subsequently known as the "Compromise." In this covenant they denounced the Inquisition, but protested they would do nothing to abate the royal authority. They agreed to support the King's government and to suppress all seditions, but at the same time pledged themselves to "extirpate and eradicate the Inquisition in any form it might take, as the mother of disorder and iniquity." This significant and memorable agreement was signed by four hundred of the leading men of the country.

Harmless as this proceeding was in itself, the King looked upon it as an act deserving of death. Those who signed it felt they were signing a death-warrant; but there was no hesitation on that account. Without thus intending, they had voluntarily signed the revolt of the Netherlands.

The first step taken by the league, upon the advice of Orange, was to send a letter in April of the following year (1566) to the Duchess Margaret of Parma, in which they prayed that the King might recall his recent edict and discontinue the heresy persecution. Three hundred noblemen assembled at Brussels to present the letter, and proceeded to the palace of the Duchess in a brilliant but unarmed cavalcade. The handsome but reckless Count von Brederode, who was to present the letter, and Count Ludwig of Nassau, brother of Orange, who drew it up, headed the procession.

The Duchess, who was masculine in appearance, and who was ordinarily courageous (her passion was hunting), was greatly agitated when she saw them approaching, though none of them carried arms. It was her evil conscience which alarmed her. How often had she and her brother Philip made promises, not one of which was kept, that the rights and liberties of the Netherlanders should be maintained!

Count Barlaymont, one of her most zealous followers, who was standing near her, begged her to be calm, and contemptuously said:

"It is only a pack of strolling beggars" (gueux)—a derisive epithet which subsequently was adopted by the nobles as the name of their party. Although he spoke in a whisper to the Duchess, several per sons overheard him. On the next day Brederode gave a banquet to his associates in the Culenborg mansion at which the contents of the letter were again discussed. Upon this occasion Barlaymont's insulting epithet (there were several poor persons among the nobles) was adopted as the honorable name of their party.

"All right," exclaimed Brederode, "beggars we will be. We will fight the Inquisition and remain loyal to the King, even if we are forced to wear the beggar's emblem." Suspending a leathern wallet from his neck, and lifting a beggar's wooden bowl to his mouth, he exclaimed "Vivent les Gueux"  ("Long live the Beggars ")—a famous cry, which rang through the Netherlands, on battlefields and at banquets, in cities and villages, in times of danger and of peace, a thousand times repeated in the next few years.

The first to be greeted by the new appellation were the three seigniors, Orange, Egmont, and Hoorn, who spent a short time in the Culenborg Palace, but took no part in the banquet. They were greeted with the cry, "Long live the King and the Beggars"; for the members of the league were anxious to be in accord with the three most distinguished leaders of the nation who were not members because of their positions as stadtholders and state councillors.

As time passed and no visible results followed the spectacular presentation of the letter, Orange all the more fervently and eloquently protested against the mistaken policy of the King in the sessions if the Council; but Margaret could do nothing of herself, being only a tool in her brother's hands. At last, however, she agreed to request from her brother a more moderate edict. It was called the "Moderatie," but the common people changed the term to "Murderantie," or "Murderation." The only moderation in the edict was the provision that heretics might be hanged or beheaded instead of being burned. In reality, Philip made no concession at all, for it was as easy to send heretics out of the world one way as the other. He cared so little for moderation, indeed, that he assented to the execution of the very envoys who presented Margaret's letter and who boldly urged him to carry out its suggestions. One of these envoys was the brother of Count Hoorn. His murder was one of the most shocking acts of which Philip was guilty, and helped to make the breach between him and the Netherlanders irreparable. They were no longer satisfied with lawful protests like those made by the nobles. They were roused to fury, and the resentments they had cherished so long now demanded action. Like the volcano, which, after long internal disturbance at last belches out in furious eruption, the people finally gave vent to their rage in a violent and destructive uprising. Relying upon the protection of the league and taking up the cry, "Long live the Beggars," they swept away every barrier.

Protestantism had made astonishing progress in the country in the very face of persecution. The blood which had been shed resulted in still more bloodshed. The converts to the new faith were already in a majority. They no longer lived in terror or hid away from their persecutors. They were possessed with the spirit of defiance. They held their meetings by daylight in the open fields, instead of at night in lonely places in the woods, or in caves and cellars. Instead of making no resistance to violence and allowing themselves to be seized and put to death, they went to their assemblies armed and mounted, and a pistol shot was often the signal for divine service. They gathered together by thousands. As many as twenty thousand persons often assembled in the vicinity of Antwerp, and listened for hours to the excited harangues of their preachers. These harangues were not exhortations to peace and patience. They breathed the spirit of hostility to Rome, recalled memories of wrongs endured, and warned the people of more dangers to come. Men shook their fists in rage, and wildly clamored for revenge.

At last that disgraceful mob violence known as the "image-breaking" broke loose. It began in Antwerp and spread over the country like wildfire. The mobs broke into the churches; the statues of Mary were smashed, and the pictures of the saints were torn down and burned. The altars were desecrated, pulpits were hacked to pieces, and some churches were demolished. More than four hundred of them were destroyed in one province. The loss occasioned in a few hours in Antwerp alone was four hundred thousand thalers. No blood was shed in these excesses, but the tumult became so great in the country that the Regent was alarmed and meditated flight. The real friends of the people regretted the outbreak and felt that there was now an insurmountable barrier between King and people. Philip, on the one hand, never forgave; and the multitude, on the other, was now capable of any violence. Loyal Orange sought in every way to close the breach. He went to Antwerp and suppressed the disorder by the force of his authority. He also visited the provinces and many cities, among them Utrecht, Haarlem, Leyden, and Amsterdam. It is wonderful the influence this man exercised upon the excited crowds by his personal dignity, the fascination of his speech, and his tactful powers of persuasion. Peace and quiet were restored wherever he appeared, but he was more than once in danger from fanatics when alone and unarmed. A tailor in Antwerp aimed a loaded gun at him, shouting, "Die, thou traitor, thou art guilty of the deaths of our brethren!" Orange's life hung upon the movement of a finger, when some one in the crowd pushed the would-be assassin aside. Dangers like these were of such constant occurrence that it required extraordinary courage on his part not to be dissuaded from his purposes.

While Orange was not alarmed he could have worked more effectively had his efforts been recognized, but he met with little return of gratitude from either King or Regent. In order to restore quiet he had succeeded, with the help of Margaret, in obtaining some slight concessions to the Protestants; but as soon as order was restored she pretended that the concessions were dangerous, and refused to sanction them. She even despatched troops under the fierce Noircarme against the Protestants who had trusted the assurances of Orange. Growing bolder, she persecuted them so vindictively that a contemporary writer says that there was no city so small in which fifty, one hundred, two hundred, and sometimes three hundred persons were not killed, not including those who were hanged as suspects. Orange, who was thoroughly enraged by Margaret's treacherous conduct, naturally broke with her forever and resigned his position. The crafty woman refused to accept his resignation, and wrote most flattering letters to him, while at the same time she was writing the meanest insinuations and charges against him to her brother in Spain.

Meanwhile the extremest measures were in course of preparation by Philip. He felt outraged and insulted by the vandalism of the image-breakers, and laid his plans for retribution. It had seemed to him for a long time that his sister had not been persecuting Protestants with sufficient industry. The royal fanatic was determined that only a stream of blood and the complete suppression of the slightest desire for liberty should expiate the outrage.

Now came reports which froze the very blood of the Netherlanders and transfixed them with horror. Every one turned pale at the name of Alva. It was aid he was coming with a powerful army, that his administration would be merciless, and that Orange, Egmont, and Hoorn were picked out as the first victims for the hangman.

These reports were vague rumors at first, but they gradually took real shape, and at last were verified. Orange—who used to say that as it was the duty of the scholar to use the agencies of scientific research to ascertain the secrets of nature, so he must, in the interest of the people, seek to fathom the secrets in the heart of the King—comprehended the full import of this news. He knew that his own death, as well as that of Egmont and Hoorn, the sending of Alva, and the ruin of the country had been decided upon. If the fall of the heavens had been announced, men could not have been more alarmed, or lived in more terrible suspense. But what was to be done? Were they to allow themselves to be murdered without resistance, merely to satisfy the revenge of a tyrant? Not if Orange could help it!

Orange looked the danger in the face with cool defiance and the utmost composure; while others were in a panic he deliberately formed his plan of action. He summoned his friends to an interview in Termonde and laid before them, for their discussion, two well-considered schemes which he thought would meet the exigencies of the situation. The one was to evade Alva by a general and speedy departure of all suspects from the country; and the other was to place the country under the direct sovereignty of the Emperor of Germany and make an armed resistance with the aid of the German princes.

Egmont, Hoorn, William of Orange


Both these plans were frustrated by the indiscretion and susceptibility of Egmont, who had been won over to the Spanish side by the blandishment of Margaret and a crafty letter from the King. At the close of the interview it was apparent that each was bent upon having his own plan adopted. Perceiving that there was no hope for concert of action, Orange decided to leave the country. It was with sorrowing heart he thought of the people, who seemed doomed to ruin by the obstinate folly of their leaders and the cruelty of the King. It would have been suicidal for him to remain and die, however. He chose to live, to live for the sake of the people, so that they should not be left alone in their time of greatest need, and so that he might procure help from abroad, whence alone help could he expected. It would have been a slight thing for a man of Orange's heroic mould to await death at Alva's hands and share the fate of others. It was more courageous to live for a desperate cause than it was to abandon it because of irresolution and weakness, as Egmont had done. Egmont's death later was greatly mourned, but the people did not think of it as heroic; whereas Orange, who became the country's hope in spite of Alva's power, and risked his life for the people upon the battlefield, will always be ranked as a great hero.

Orange held his final interview with Egmont in the presence of Count Mansfeld, at the village of Willebroeck, between Brussels and Antwerp. He would gladly have saved him, for he knew only too well that he was a doomed man. His keen political vision divined the future as easily as if it lay spread out before his eyes. His passionate entreaties were useless, however. He could make no impression upon the rash and fickle man; and the memorable interview was closed with Orange's parting words:

"Dear Count, your credulous nature will be your ruin. I have a presentiment—God grant I may be wrong—which tells me you will be the bridge over which Spain will invade the Netherlands."

They embraced at parting, and each was in tears. They never saw each other again. A few weeks later Orange went, with his family and brothers, from Breda, where he was residing, to his childhood's home, Dillenburg, in the principality of Nassau.

The news of Orange's departure caused general consternation. Many thousands followed him. If many more had done the same, it would have been better for the Netherlands.