You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war. — Winston Churchill

William of Orange - George Upton




Alba's Reign of Terror

As soon as Alva, the hangman of the people, invaded the Netherlands, the meaning of the "Moderation," or "Murderation," policy was revealed. He did not bring a very large army with him, but it was composed of picked soldiers, every one of whom was a thoroughly trained and experienced fighter, and a miniature Alva besides in bloodthirstiness, cruelty, and greed. The Netherlanders were absolutely at their mercy. Margaret, who, in comparison with Alva, seemed even gentle and kind-hearted, was stripped of all authority; for Philip had invested Alva with absolute power. She had no alternative left but to abdicate, which she did most indignantly.

It was not necessary for Alva to show himself personally, with his lean, yellow face circled with bristly hair and a black beard, his nose curved like the beak of a bird of prey, and his ferociously twinkling black eyes. His name was all-sufficient to inspire terror. Its effect was marvellous. At its mere mention the "League of the Beggars" was disrupted, and the nobles hastened to take a new oath of submission. The cities which had been hostile to Margaret surrendered and were garrisoned. Many Protestants renounced the new faith and returned to the old; but they would have done better if, like the other hundreds of thousands, they had become fugitives from their homes, for their cowardly renunciation and return were of little avail. Alva, who did not spare the innocent when he needed victims, had still less mercy for backsliders.

Alva's scheme contemplated three different objects: First, a dreadful revenge upon the dignitaries of the country for the recent image-breaking; second, the eradication of heresy, or Protestantism; and, third, the utter destruction of the boasted Netherlands freedom. With his native energy, stimulated by greed and fanaticism, there was little doubt of his ability to accomplish all three. His way was marked by death upon every side, and wretchedness and despair followed his steps like shadows.

Alva's first move in the development of his plans was the organization of a new tribunal, whose ostensible purpose was to pronounce sentence in accordance with forms of law, but which in reality pronounced no other than that of death. The judges became so accustomed to this that upon one occasion one of their number who had slept all through the sitting, when suddenly aroused to cast his vote, exclaimed, without stopping to think, "To the gallows with him! To the gallows with him!

Alva called his tribunal the "Council of Troubles," but the people called it the "Council of Blood." All its members were cruel in the extreme, and Vergas, the president, even surpassed Alva in bloodthirstiness and savagery.

As the groundwork for its decisions the tribunal declared that to have signed or forwarded petitions against the Inquisition, the new bishops, and the edicts; to have failed in resisting the field preachers of the new faith and the image-breakers; to have denied the right of the King to dispossess the provinces of their liberty, and to manifest the slightest disrespect for the proceedings of the Council, constituted high treason. Briefly, it made all true Netherlanders guilty of treason and punishable with death; no one could escape except through the undeserved mercy of the King. Every one was prejudged. Once, after an innocent person had been executed, Vergas said:

"It is of no consequence that he died innocent; it will be all the better for him in the other world."

Peter de Witt of Amsterdam was beheaded for restraining the leader of a mob from firing upon a magistrate. His action was considered a proof that he had an understanding with the rebels. It was deemed sufficient cause for the death of a woman that she, years before, had struck a small image of the Virgin with her slipper; and of her servant, because she saw her mistress do it and failed to reprove her. In the case of a very wealthy person, who was entirely innocent, his wealth alone was deemed sufficient reason for his execution; after which his possessions were confiscated upon the ground that they belonged to the King.

None of the estimates of the number of the thousands who fell victims to Alva's fury is absolutely exact, but the Netherlands historian, Horst, is unquestionably correct in the following statement:

"Persons of every class, age, and position were condemned and thrown into prison. . . . The whole country seemed one vast charnel-house. Every day witnessed its frequent funeral processions, and the tolling of death bells, announcing the almost countless victims, brought sorrow to the hearts of children, parents, relatives, and friends."

The first distinguished persons to fall into the pitiless hands of Alva were Counts Egmont and Hoorn. The thoughtless Egmont had entirely forgotten the warnings of his friend Orange. He even welcomed Alva enthusiastically upon his arrival, and participated in his reception ceremonies at Brussels, utterly failing to heed the cruel and sinister glances which Alva shot at him. Egmont was like a little bird, twittering and hopping about among the branches, unmindful of the hawk circling above it and preparing to swoop down upon its victim. Egmont had also persuaded Hoorn to attend the reception, and he, too, fell into the net of the clever fowler. Alva availed himself of a brilliant banquet given to the Netherlands notables by his son Frederigo to entrap Egmont and Hoorn and arrest the unsuspecting pair. Orange would have met the same fate had he not frustrated Alva's designs by flight. It was Orange, indeed, whom they were most eager to catch. When the crafty Granvella heard that he had escaped the murderous conspiracy against him, he exclaimed:

"Alva's entire haul is of little account, for he has not caught the Silent One."

Granvella was in the habit of calling Orange "The Silent"—an appellation used by him as a term of reproach, but preserved in history as a title of honor. Another of the King's advisers, when he heard of Orange's flight, said:

"Our joy will be of brief duration. Woe unto us for the wrath that will come to us from Germany!"

They well knew that by his judicious retreat to Dillenburg Orange had struck them a dangerous blow.

Proceedings were next instituted against the fugitive Prince. He was summoned by Alva to appear before the Council of Troubles and answer charges filed against him. He was arraigned in a public indictment as the originator and most zealous promoter of sedition. The worst excesses of the rebels were charged to his account, and it was further declared that he was contemplating still more extreme outrages. To have been in communication with him was also regarded as sufficient ground for the condemnation of any one. As they could not rapture him, his property was confiscated, and his palaces at Brussels and Breda were destroyed. Then they kidnapped his son, a lad of thirteen, who was studying at the University of Louvain, and kept him in captivity in Spain for many years, notwithstanding the protests of the University officials, whose rights had been wantonly violated. Orange refused to acknowledge the authority of Alva to summon him before any tribunal. He declared that as a German prince he was answerable to the German emperor alone; as a Netherlands stadtholder he could be tried only in the Netherlands courts; while as a Knight of the Golden Fleece he was answerable to the King alone. His most effective and far-reaching protest, however, was his immediate and formal declaration of war against Alva. He realized there was no other resource left. He soon issued a public manifesto, in which he said:

"I must plunge the Netherlands into war, because it cannot be avoided. My position as prince and a Netherlands dignitary makes it incumbent upon me to rescue the people from Alva's tyranny and restore their liberty. I hope that Philip, whose good intentions have been defeated by the intrigues of certain crafty Spaniards, will eventually recognize the loyalty of the people and respect his oath to maintain their liberty."

The Prince was not unmindful of the cause of the Netherlands during his stay in Dillenburg. Though absent in body he was with his people in spirit, and no labor or sacrifice appeared to him too great if it conduced in the least toward promoting their interests. Had Orange been other than he was, he might have said: "I have played my part in the Netherlands and can do no more. I must now strive to forget. I still have the possessions handed down to me and will be content. I shall be, like my ancestors, a count of Nassau, and satisfy myself by engaging in some other form of activity"; or, following the custom of his period, he might have plunged into dissolute excesses, or spent his time hunting in the great forests around Dillenburg. Had he been a man of different mould it never would have occurred to him that he, a prince comparatively powerless, and despoiled of most of his possessions, could make successful resistance to a world-power like Spain, and crush the tyrant who was trampling upon the liberties and rights of the people.

The German emperor at that time had not sufficient courage to make war against Spain, and it was long before the English queen, Elizabeth, ventured secretly to assist him. But what neither emperors nor kings dared, this man dared single-handed. He could not offer armed resistance by himself, but he accomplished the marvel of collecting an army, as it were out of nothing, with which he could begin an organized opposition to Alva.

In conference with the princes of the Palatinate, Wurttemberg, Baden, Hesse, and Nassau, he obtained promises of assistance from each by the persuasive power of his eloquence. He sold his silver plate, jewels, and costly furniture, and mortgaged his lands, in order to pay the expense of recruiting mercenaries. The army that was eventually to free the Netherlands, however, was still in the future. It was to cost much fatiguing exertion, many a persuasive appeal, many a disappointed hope, and almost incredible solicitude and labor, before it would be ready to take the field. And this man alone, so to speak, had to do everything!

In the meantime the Prince had begun to give serious attention to the religious movement of the time. He returned to the Protestantism in which he had been reared at his father's house, but which he had forsaken at the court of Charles V. The memories of his childhood, the influence of his excellent mother,—who was still living in Dillenburg,—but more than all, the cruel and fanatical persecution of the time, combined to arouse his religious convictions. From this time forward he manifested a serious and deeply religious tendency. He seemed to be inspired with sacred enthusiasm for the struggle. He regarded the cause for which he had staked his all as a divine one, and his confidence in victory was as absolute as his trust in God. His battle-cry was:

"Liberty for the fatherland, and freedom of conscience."

Preparations for the campaign were so far advanced at last that the army invaded the Netherlands; but if that army had only shared the enthusiasm of its leader or had been qualified to carry out his plans for the war, it would have been better for Orange. As it turned out, the plans were most unfortunate, though afterwards they were approved by all experts. They contemplated a simultaneous attack by four divisions at as many suitable places, so as to involve the whole country in the uprising against its oppressors. Success, therefore, depended largely upon the assistance furnished by the Netherlanders.

Unfortunately, Alva learned of the plans before they could be put in operation, so that instead of being taken by surprise, he had time to prepare his own plans to thwart them. It was also unfortunate that the four divisions did not attack simultaneously, for this gave Alva the opportunity to defeat them in detail. Worse than this, the raw, undisciplined mercenaries were no match for Alva's veterans, and could not hold their positions. Worse than all combined, the Netherlanders, paralyzed by fear of Alva's vindictiveness, were afraid to declare openly for Orange, and soon were completely cowed by the fresh cruelties which he devised after the war began.

The results of this campaign, which was initiated with such high hopes, may be briefly told: The first division, under De Coqueville, was defeated and cut to pieces by a French army, which came to Alva's assistance. In like manner, the division under Counts Villars and Lurnay were defeated and dispersed. Orange's brother, Ludwig of Nassau, with his youngest brother Adolphus entered West Friesland with ten thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry, and routed the Spaniards at the monastery of Heiliger Lee. It was a victory barren of result, however, and cost the life of Adolphus. This defeat roused the fury of Alva. The people had begun to take heart again, but Alva once more disheartened them by the execution of seventeen Netherlands dignitaries in the market-place of Brussels. He finished his vindictive work a few days later, when Egmont and Hoorn, unjustly condemned, ascended the scaffold.

A terrible panic spread among the people; for what might not be possible to a tyrant who exercised his authority like this? Alva in reality had accomplished just what he had planned. The people were disheartened and in despair. There was no danger of resistance from them. He could easily deal with Count Louis, for he greatly excelled him in the number of his troops and ill the abundance of his war material. In the end Louis was routed, and barely escaped with his life.

The Prince of Orange arrived at last with his army, but not until all the other divisions had been defeated. He had been delayed by the inexcusable conduct of his German allies, who did not favor an immediate advance, and continually urged him to remain quiet and wait a more opportune time. It was now too late for success, and the relief of the Netherlands was hopeless.

His last resource was a scheme to fortify one of the principal cities, and under its protection develop further plans. But Alva frustrated this scheme also. Orange, nevertheless, availed himself of every military resource to strengthen himself. In this connection, the passage of his army across the Meuse will always remain a masterpiece of military maneuver, worthy to rank with Caesar's crossing of the Sicoris in Catalonia. Alva could not repress his amazement when he heard of it, and exclaimed:

"Is that army a flock of wild geese, that it can fly over rivers like the Meuse?"

Orange's skill, however, was of no avail against the shrewd tactics of Alva. Although he had little doubt of his ability to defeat Orange, Alva would not give battle and risk the loss of victory. He relied upon the spirit of revolt in Orange's ranks to work his discomfiture; and with good reason, for revolt was the order of the day among mercenaries. By the prolongation of the campaign, the lack of subsistence, and the uncertainty of pay, Orange's army grew more and more discontented.

The Prince, however, made one more bold effort to provoke Alva to an engagement. With banners flying and trumpets sounding, he advanced to within a few thousand paces of Alva's encampment, but the latter fell back. At last, bitterly disappointed, Orange was forced to relinquish his hopes of battle and deliverance. Winter was approaching, and his troops grew more and more rebellious. Though unconquered, he decided to retreat, and began his march toward France.

At last open revolt broke out. Officers were killed in the presence of the Prince by the mutineers, and one shot struck Orange's saddle. There was nothing left for him but to dismiss his army; in order to accomplish this and discharge his obligations he mortgaged what remained of his own possessions, and what money he could not raise he engaged to pay when his other dominions were restored to him. Clad in the garb of a peasant he went back alone to Dillenburg. Thus, after costly sacrifices of money and life, the campaign, which began with such glowing expectations, ended.

The deliverance of the sorely harassed country appeared impossible, and yet when the last hope seemed extinguished, there was a change for the better. It was not brought about by any relenting on Philip's part, or by any abatement of Alva's cruelty, but by the blow which had been dealt to Alva's insolence. How far he carried his effrontery is shown by the fact that he had a statue erected to himself, cast from captured cannon, the inscription on the pedestal commemorating his glory as the extinguisher of heresy and sedition in the Netherlands. Now that Orange had dared to make armed resistance, his wrath was furious. Up to this time his usual victims were the nobles; now, he turned upon the wealthy trades-people. Philip, though the master of golden America, needed money, and had sent to him for it. He procured it by the radical plan of executing wealthy persons and taking their property.

The large sums secured in this way were not sufficient, however. Thereupon he enacted the "tenth-of-a-penny "law, which levied a tax of ten per cent upon every piece of merchandise sold, and as often as it was sold. This tax, which bore heavily upon trade and industry, struck at the very roots of Netherlands prosperity. The people had always been sensitive about money matters, and not even the heresy persecutions, the slaughter of the nobles, or the robbery of their rights and privileges, aroused such indignation as the "tenth penny." It has been rightly said, "The tenth penny cost the King of Spain the Netherlands."

The cities which had feared to open their gates when Orange knocked and asked admission suddenly plucked up courage when menaced by this ruinous tax. If they could have found an opportunity they would have espoused his cause, and that opportunity was at hand.

The sea, which had visited its wrath upon them and swept away thousands of lives, now became the ally of the suffering people. What could not he accomplished on land was destined to be accomplished on the water. Ever on the alert to discover means of deliverance from Spanish tyranny, Orange bethought him of the so-called "Sea Beggars"—those Netherlands fugitives who had been banished from the fatherland and found a home on the sea, where they engaged in privateering, Spanish merchantmen being their favorite victims. They were not much better than pirates; but Orange, recognizing their usefulness, restrained their freebooting excesses, laid down laws for their conduct, gave them officers, built vessels for them, and organized them into a navy for operations against Spain.

It was a little navy at the outset, but it assumed importance when, accidentally driven by the winds to the mouth of the Meuse, it captured the strongly fortified port of Brill, the key to that part of the country. This key was now in the hands of Orange, who up to this time had striven hard to secure just such a position; Count de la Marcke, the Admiral of the "Beggar Navy," having compelled the citizens of Brill to swear to preserve the city for the Prince of Orange as the royal stadtholder of Holland. Thus Brill became the centre of Netherlands liberty. Many other cities quickly followed its example, drove out the Spaniards, and declared for Orange.

Alva was alarmed when he heard this news. Several prominent citizens of Brussels who had been arrested and condemned were released. He saw that a new era was dawning in the Netherlands. The change was due to him, however, for it was his tyranny and persecution that prepared the soil for Orange's harvest of liberty.