Revolt of the Netherlands

1566 to 1609
Protestant Netherlands — versus — Catholic Spain

Prelude — 1556-1566      Early Years of the Rebellion — 1567-78     
Division of the Provinces — 1578-1609     

The Revolt of the Netherlands against the Spanish Crown was driven by economic and political concerns as well as religious ones, but it was the religious conflict between uncompromising parties that proved intractable. The original object of the rebellion was neither to break entirely from the Hapsburg Empire, or to establish a Protestant republic. The vast majority of the population and most of the leaders of the rebellion were faithful Catholics who only wanted a halt to the oppressions of the Spanish army, a relief from burdensome taxation, and a more tolerant approach to "heretics". Had the Spanish crown relented on these demands they may well have held these territories. Instead they took a hard line, and were met with an equally fanatical opposition.

The Dutch Revolt was a long, drawn out war. The most famous portion of it, by far, was the early years when the Prince of Orange led a small band of determined rebels against the Duke of Alva, the "iron-fisted" governor of the region. But Alba only ruled for six years, and William was assassinated in 1584, yet the war continued for many years thereafter. A truce was reached in 1609, forty years since the beginning of hostilities, but the conflict simmered and was reignited by the events of the Thirty Years War A final resolution did not come until all of Europe was exhausted by the struggle at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Prelude : 1556-1566

In the years before the Netherland revolt, three things happened which led up to the crisis. First, ideas of religious independence inspired by the Protestant Reformation were becoming increasingly influential, especially among the wealthy and independent merchant classes of the region. Second, Philip II replaced his father Charles V as head of the Hapsburg empire and his authoritarian style was resented by the local nobles. The Netherlands were a cosmopolitan, commercial-based society whose major towns had long enjoyed privileges of self-rule and they resented his authoritarian style. Thirdly, Spanish soldiers, who had recently been at war with France, were stationed in the Netherlands, and the provinces were taxed to support them. This was a source of great irritation throughout the Lowlands, particularly since many of the Netherland's trading partners were enemies of Spain (i.e., France, Turkey, England).

The oppressions of Spain against the Protestants in the Netherlands began shortly after the Franco-Spanish conflict known as the Italian War of 1551-1559, came to a close. Philip II had recently come to the throne of Spain, and he appointed a controversial minister to step up the effort to root-out the Calvinist heresy. Cardinal Granvelle was unpopular, and several important Catholic nobles, including the Count of Egmont, the Count of Hoorn, and the Prince of Orange opposed his harsh measures, although they themselves were faithful Catholic aristocrats. Egmont, in particular, was a national hero and even Margaret of Parma, governor of the Netherland and half-sister to Philip II, was sympathetic to the Dutch nationals.

Instead of acquiescing to the demands of these nobles, however, Philip II withdrew Granvelle and appointed the even harsher Duke of Alva as governor, with the goal of crushing any rebellion with an iron hand.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Valenciennes   Spanish victory
Siege was laid to this place in December, 1566, by a force of Spaniards and Germans, mercenaries, under Noircarmes. The operations were somewhat indolently conducted, insomuch that he and his six lieutenants were derided as the "Seven Sleepers," but towards the end of February Noircarmes began to press on his siege works, and on March 23 his batteries opened fire, the city surrendering on the following day.
Battle of Lannoy   Spanish victory
Fought January, 1567, between 3,000 Flemish Protestants, under Pierre Cornaille, and a small force of the Duchess of Parma's troops, under Novicarmes. The Flemings, mostly half-armed peasants, were cut to pieces by the Spaniards, 2,600 being killed in one hour's fighting.
Battle of Watrelots   Spanish victory
Fought January, 1567, between 1,200 Flemish Protestants, under Teriel, and 600 Spaniards, under the Seigneur de Rassinghem. The Protestants were defeated and 600 took refuge in an old graveyard, where they held out till the last man had fallen.

Short Biography
Margaret of Parma Half-sister of Philip II of Spain who governed the Netherlands in the early years of the Dutch revolt.
Count Egmont Powerful Noble in Low Countries during Dutch Revolt. Protested Inquisition and was beheaded.
Count Hoorn Admiral of the Dutch Navy. With Egmont, protested Inquisition and was beheaded.
Cardinal Granvelle Minister appointed by Philip II, who installed the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands.

Early Years of the Rebellion—Alva, Requesens, and Don John of Austria : 1567-78

The most famous period of the Dutch Revolt was undoubtedly the early years, when the notorious Duke of Alva ruthlessly sought to root out rebellion in the Spanish Netherlands and William the Silent rose as a national hero to stand against him. During this period the character of the struggle changed considerably, from a disorganized series of minor local uprisings, to a region-wide united rebellion. The incidents of this period are often portrayed, especially by Protestant historians, as a heroic period wherein small bands of Calvinist martyrs stood bravely against oppressive Catholic tyranny in order to uphold the ideals of religious liberty. While there is much basis for this, the whole truth is somewhat more complex.

The first skirmishes of the Dutch revolt were simply Spanish attacks on minority communities which harbored Calvinist 'heretics'. The opposition was not united at this point, and national sympathies were not yet aroused in support of the rebels. The Calvinist heresy was indeed spreading in the region, but the vast majority were still Catholics with no particular sympathy for the cause of religious freedom. It was not until the Duke of Alva was appointed governor and immediately arrested and executed the Catholic noblemen Count Hoorn and Count Egmont that popular indignation became widespread. In 1568, William the Silent and his brother Louis of Nassau attempted a rebellion, but they were soon defeated—Louis killed and William exiled. In the following years Alva put down all opposition with such ferocity that open rebellions ceased, but Calvinist ideas, resentment of the Spanish, and hatred of Alva continued to spread.

Finally, in 1572, the town of Brill was taken over by Calvinist sailors and the rebels gained a permanent foothold on land. Soon after, the nearby town of Haarlem rebelled and was besieged by the Spanish. The Dutch rebels were strongest at sea, and won several important naval victories against the Spanish. On land, however, the Spanish forces were still strong, and any town that rebelled was brutally assaulted. Although hatred of the Spanish was widespread, it was primarily towns with strong Calvinist roots that openly opposed the Spanish, since it was often an act of martyrdom to do so. It was at this time that William the Silent, the acknowledged leader of the rebellion became a Protestant. Although he, himself favored religious toleration, it was mainly the most fanatical Calvinists who were willing to fight against the Spanish so the cause of Netherlands independence became increasingly Protestant in nature.

By 1574, even Philip II recognized that Alva had become such a hated figure that he was replaced with Requesens, a far more accommodating governor. Requesens attempted to negotiate peace by working to resolve the complaints of the Catholic majority, but he died soon after taking office. At this time Spain declared bankruptcy and could not pay her soldiers. This resulted in terrible abuses by the mercenary armies, most notably the sack of Antwerp, known as the "Spanish Fury". Philip now sent his half-brother, Don John of Austria to govern the region. He was very diplomatic and a popular hero among all Catholics, but he died also before successfully negotiating a permanent peace. The devoted Protestant rebels used this time of uncertainty to consolidate their power, particularly in the north. William the Silent was resettled securely in Holland and from this point on was the de facto leader of the northern provinces.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Heiliger-Zee   Patriots victory
Fought May 23, 1568, between the "'Beggars," under Louis of Nassau, and 5,000 veteran Spaniards, under Aremberg. Louis occupied a very strong position on a wooded height, near the monastery of the Holy Lion, his front being protected by a morass crossed by a narrow causeway. The Spanish infantry traversed this to the attack, but were repulsed, and Count Aremberg, leading a charge of horse, in the hope of restoring the day, fell mortally wounded. Upon this the Spaniards broke and fled, having suffered a loss of 1,600 men.
Battle of Brill   Patriots victory
This fortress was captured from the Spaniards by the Beggars of the Sea, about 400 strong, under De la Marck and Treslong, April 1, 1572. It was the first success of the Netherlands patriots in their struggle against Spanish rule, and may be said to have laid the foundation of the Dutch republic.
Siege of Tergoes   Spanish victory
This fortress was besieged, August 16, 1572, by the Dutch Patriots, 7,000 strong, under Jerome de 't Zeraerts, and was defended by a small Spanish garrison. On October 20, a force of 3,000 Spanish veterans, under Colonel Mondragon, succeeded in crossing the "Drowned Land," with a loss of only 9 men drowned, and relieved the town, 't Zeraert's troops refusing to face this unexpected attack.
Siege of Haarlem   Spanish victory
This city was invested by the Spaniards, 30,000 strong, under Don Francisco de Toledo, December If, 1572. It was held by a garrison of 4,000, under Ripperda, including a corps of Amazons, led by a widow named Kenau Hasselaer. The batteries opened on the 18th, and on the 21st an assault was repulsed, the assailants losing 400, the garrison three or four only. A second assault, on January 31, 1573, was also repulsed, while a brilliant sortie, on March 25, captured a large and welcome convoy of provisions. On May 28, however, the patriot flotilla of 150 vessels under Martin Brand, on the lake, was defeated by 100 Spanish ships, under Count Bossu. From this point the reduction of the city by famine was inevitable, and the place was surrendered, July 12, 1573. The garrison, reduced to 1,800, was massacred, with the exception of 600 Germans, and altogether 2,300 persons perished after the capitulation. The Spaniards lost 12,000 men in the course of the siege.
Siege of Alkmaar   Patriots victory
Siege was laid to this place August 21, 1573, by 16,000 Spaniards under Don Frederico de Toledo. It was defended by a garrison of 800 soldiers and 1,300 armed burghers. On September 18, an assault was delivered, which was repulsed, with a loss to the besiegers of 1,000 men, while only 37 of the garrison fell. The opening of the dykes at last rendered the position of the Spaniards most precarious, and on October 8 the siege was raised.
Battle of Zuyder Zee   Patriots victory
Fought October 11, 1573, between 30 Spanish ships, under Bossu, and 25 Dutch ships, under Admiral Dirkzoon. The Spanish fleet fled, after losing 5 ships, only Bossu standing his ground. His ship, however, was eventually captured, after losing three-fourths of her crew.
Battle of Romerswael   Patriots victory
Fought January 29, 1574, between the "Beggars of the Sea," under Admiral Boisot, and a Spanish fleet of 95 ships, under Julian Romero. The "Beggars" grappled the enemy's ships in a narrow estuary, and after a very severe encounter, in which the Spaniards Lost 15 vessels and 1,200 men, Romero retreated to Bergen-op-Zoom.
Battle of Leyden   Patriots victory
This city was invested May 26, 1574, by 8,000 Walloons and Germans under Valdez, who in the course of a few days had erected 62 batteries round the place. There was no garrison, with the exception of a few "freebooters" and a burgher guard, under Jan van der Does. The Prince of Orange, in order to save the city, determined to open the dykes, and on August 3 the gates at Schiedam and Rotterdam were opened, and the dykes broken along the course of the Yssel. Meanwhile the citizens had come to an end of their bread, but by strenuous efforts the fleet under Admiral Boisot succeeded in throwing relief into the city at the beginning of October. By this time the city was on the verge of starvation, and 8,000 of the inhabitants had perished of pestilence. The Spaniards, however, had been driven from work after work, and on October 3 the last of their redoubts was mastered, and Valdez was forced to raise the siege.
Battle of Mook   Spanish victory
Fought April 14, 1574, between the Dutch Patriots, 8,000 strong, under Count Louis of Nassau, and 5,000 Spaniards, under Don Sancho d'Avila. The village of Mook was held by the Dutch infantry, who were driven out by the Spaniards, and totally routed, with a loss of at least 4,000. Among the slain were the Counts Louis and Henry of Nassau.
Battle of Antwerp   Spanish victory
This city was sacked by the Spaniards, November 4, 1576. It was defended by 6,000 troops, mostly Walloons, who offered little resistance to the 5,600 Spaniards under Sancho d'Avila, who formed the attacking force. Having effected an entrance, the Spaniards proceeded to massacre the inhabitants, of whom 8,000 are said to have perished. This event is known as the Spanish Fury.
Battle of Gemblours   Spanish victory
Fought January 31, 1578, between the Netherlands patriots, 20,000 strong, under General Goignies, and the Spaniards, in about equal force, under Don John of Austria. The patriots, who were retiring from Namur, were followed by Don John, who sent forward a picked force of 1,600 men, under Gonzaga and Mondragon in pursuit. They attacked the rearguard, under Philip Egmont, and dispersed it, and then, falling suddenly upon the main body, utterly routed it, with a loss, it is said, of 10,000 killed and prisoners. The Spaniards lost ten or eleven at most.
Battle of Rynemants   Patriots victory
Fought August 1, 1578, between the Dutch Patriots, 20,000 strong, under Count Bossu and Francois de la None, and the Spaniards, numbering about 30,000, under Don John of Austria. Don John crossed the Demer, and attacked Bossu in his entrenchments. He was however repulsed, after severe fighting, and retired, leaving 1,000 dead on the field. He offered battle in the open on the following morning, but Bossu declined to leave his lines, and Don John was indisposed to renew the attack, and fell back upon Namur.

Short Biography
Duke of Alva Tyrannical Governor of the Spanish Netherlands who opposed Protestants during the Dutch Revolt.
Requesens Governor of the Netherlands who ruled briefly after Alva and before Don John of Austria.
Don John of Austria Illegitimate son of Charles V. Hero of the naval Battle of Lepanto. Briefly governed Spanish Netherlands.
William the Silent Hero of the Dutch Revolt. Led resistance to the Inquisition and Spanish tyranny.
Louis of Nassau Strongly Calvinist rother of William of Orange, died at the battle of Mookerheyde

Story Links
Book Links
Reign of Philip II  in  The Romance of Spanish History  by  John S.C. Abbott
The Duke of Alva  in  A Child's History of Spain  by  John Bonner
Beggars Fight for their Rights  in  The Story of Liberty  by  Charles C. Coffin
William the Silent, 1533-1584 in  Saints and Heroes Since the Middle Ages  by  George Hodges
Spain Under the Hapsburgs  in  Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain  by  Charles F. Horne
Beggars of Holland  in  Patriots and Tyrants  by  Marion Florence Lansing
Inquisition Resisted  in  The Netherlands  by  Mary Macgregor
Sea-Beggars  in  The Netherlands  by  Mary Macgregor
Capture and Surrender of Mons  in  The Netherlands  by  Mary Macgregor
Siege of Haarlem  in  The Netherlands  by  Mary Macgregor
Patriots Win by Land and Sea  in  The Netherlands  by  Mary Macgregor
Grand Commander  in  The Netherlands  by  Mary Macgregor
Siege and Relief of Leyden  in  The Netherlands  by  Mary Macgregor
Spain's Religious Wars  in  Spain: A History for Young Readers  by  Frederick A. Ober
Storm Bursts  in  The Awakening of Europe  by  M. B. Synge
Siege of Leyden  in  The Awakening of Europe  by  M. B. Synge
William the Silent  in  The Awakening of Europe  by  M. B. Synge
Troubles of Philip II, King of Spain  in  European Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Division of the Provinces : 1578 to 1609

William Silent
The first phase of the war ended well for the Protestants, mainly because the Spanish government of the region was in disarray, and Spain was fighting several other conflicts simultaneously. The next phase of the war began in 1578 when Alexander Farnese was appointed as governor. He was the son of Margaret of Parma (the governor who had preceded Alva), and was trusted by many of the nobles. He was able to make peace with the southern provinces, and after only a year induced the major states of the South to formally declare their allegiance to the Spanish crown. As a result, the Northern states signed the treaty of the Union of Utrecht, united the seven Northern provinces into an independent state. Although this treaty was not recognized by Spain for over 30 years, it is considered the foundational document of the Dutch Republic.

Farnese won back many nobles to the Spanish side and made repeated forays into the Northern territories. Meanwhile the Northern rebels sought to form diplomatic relationships and aid from the enemies of Spain. Queen Elizabeth refused their offer to become subjects of England, but she sent one of her favorites, the Earl of Leicester to fight on the Dutch side. The Rebels also offered the crown of the Netherlands to the Duke of Anjou (brother of the French King), but he also, eventually declined the offer. It was only after all offers of monarchial rule had been exhausted that the States decided to rule as a republic. The leader of the Republic was referred to as the Stadtholder.

Over the following years, Farnese won back most of Flanders and Brabant, and captured the town of Antwerp. He made significant progress in favor of Spain, but was frequently called away to deal with other crisis. Failing to conquer the North by arms, he declared William the Silent and outlaw and offered a reward for his assassination. As a result, the Dutch hero was assassinated in 1584 and the leadership of the Dutch republic feel to his son, Maurice of Nassau.

Over the following decades Spain continued making slow inroads into outlying terrritories of the Provinces but the rebels but the Dutch navy was far too powerful for Spain to reclaim the populous commercial ports of the region. The war, in fact took on more of a commercial/naval aspect as the Rebels blockaded Antwerp and Belgian pirates attacked Dutch commercial vessels. In 1602 the Dutch East Indies company was formed and the provinces set about establishing trade directly with the Far East and American colonies. By this time, Spanish naval dominance was already in decline. In 1609 a cease-fire was declared in which Spanish Empire recognized the Treaty of Utrecht, which had been signed thirty years previously.

DateBattle Summary
Siege of Maestricht   Spanish victory
This city, the German Gate of the Netherlands, was besieged by the Spaniards, under Prince Alexander of Parma, March 12, 1579. It was held by a garrison of 1,000 troops and 1,200 armed burghers, under Melchior, while the besiegers numbered 20,000. Two unsuccessful assaults were made April 8, which cost the Spaniards 670 officers and 4,000 men, but finally the place was taken by surprise, and a massacre followed, in which 6,000 of the inhabitants perished.
Battle of Hardenberg   Spanish victory
Fought June 15, 1580, between the Dutch Patriots, under Count Philip Hohenlo, and the Royalists, under Martin Schenck, fatigued by a long march, the Patriots were no match for Schenck's fresh troops, and after an hour's fighting, were broken and almost annihilated.
Siege of Tournay   Spanish victory
This place was besieged, October 1, 1581, by the Royal troops, under Alexander of Parma, and in the absence of the Governor, Prince Espinay, was gallantly defended by the Princess, who held out until November 30, when, by an honourable capitulation, she was allowed to march out at the head of the garrison, with all the honours of war.
Battle of Zutphen   Spanish victory
Fought September 22, 1586, between the Spaniards, under Prince Alexander of Parma, and the English, under the Earl of Leicester. The Spaniards endeavoured to throw a convoy of provisions into Zutphen, which Leicester was besieging. He attempted to intercept it, but without success, and was forced to retire after suffering considerable loss. Among those who fell on the English side was Sir Philip Sydney.
Siege of Middelburg   Patriots victory
This fortress, the last stronghold in Walcheren to hold out for the Spanish king, was besieged by the Patriots in the winter of 1593. It was defended by a garrison under Colonel Mondragon, who in spite of a gallant resistance and numerous attempts to relieve him, was forced by famine to surrender, February 18, 1594.
Battle of Turnhout   Patriots victory
Fought August 22, 1597, between the Dutch, under Prince Maurice of Nassau, and the Spaniards under the Archduke Albert. The Spaniards were totally defeated, and this victory may be said to have set the seal of the Independence of the Netherlands.
Battle of Nieuport   Patriots victory
Fought July 2, 1600, between the Dutch, under Maurice of Orange, and the Spaniards, under the Archduke Albert of Austria. Prince Maurice was surprised by the Archduke in a very critical position, but succeeded in holding his own, and after a long and evenly-contested engagement, ultimately defeated the Spaniards with heavy loss.
Battle of Ostend (First Rebellion ) Spanish victory
This place was besieged, July 5, 1601, by the Spaniards, under the Archduke Albert. The town made a most remarkable defense; holding out for more than three years, but Spinola having taken command of the besiegers, it was finally captured, September 14, 1604, by which time scarcely a house in the town was left standing. The Spaniards lost 70,000 men in the course of the siege.

Short Biography
Alexander Farnese Nephew of Philip III, who governed the Netherlands in the later years of the Dutch revolt.
Maurice of Nassau Son of William the Silent, who led the Dutch provinces for 20 years after the death of his father.
Robert Dudley Favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth. Granted many favors, but not much power.
Archduke Albert of Austria Nephew of Phillip II who became sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands in 1596.

Image Links

Sir Philip Sidney and the wounded soldier
 in Fifty Famous Stories Retold

Death of Sir Philip Sidney
 in Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary

Alva's Council of Blood
 in Greatest Nations - Netherlands

The Spanish Fury in Antwerp
 in Greatest Nations - Netherlands

Fiercely the battle raged and long
 in The Netherlands

The Quays were lined with famishing folk
 in The Netherlands

The Watchers on the Tower
 in Brave Men and Brave Deeds