Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Revolt of the Netherlands - William the Silent II

Charles V
An Imperial Abdication

On 25th October 1555, dressed in black and leaning on William’s arm with Prince Philip and Mary of Austria behind him, and surrounded by the knights of the Golden Fleece, Charles V a broken man at the age of fifty-five and riddled with gout, announced his abdication as ruler of the Netherlands and Charolais to the States General of the Netherlands[i]. At the same time Charles announced his intent to retire to a monastery[ii]. He claimed that it was not ambition but a sense of duty that had guided him throughout his years in charge.

‘And here he brake into a weeping, whereunto, besides the dolefulness of the matter, I think he was moche provoked by seeing the whole company to doo the like before; there being in myne opinion not one man in the whole assemblie, stranger or other, that dewring the time of a good piece of his oracion poured not oute abondantly teares.’[iii]

Finally Philip, on his knees, received his father’s blessing and was given his birthright, the Netherlands. Then Cardinal Granvelle[iv] had to read Philip’s reply as Philip only spoke Spanish, an indication of the problems ahead. Charles made a series of official appointments before his retirement and made a point of reminding Philip that William was especially fit for high office.

Charles drafted Spanish troops into the Netherlands to help the defence against the French incursions. A victory at St Quentin ended the war with France; William’s brother Louis had served with valour and was popular with the Bruxellois.

Charles’ final abdication, that of Holy Roman Emperor, came in August 1556; once again he used William as a go-between. Along with Charles’ vice Chancellor Georg Sigmund Selg, William was commissioned to persuade Charles’ younger brother Ferdinand to accept the position of Holy Roman Emperor[v].

Death of an Emperor

Emmanuele Filiberto, Duke of Savoy
The Dutch were concerned about the future; there was Philip’s religious fanaticism[vi] to take into account in a country where in the north Protestantism was taking hold. In 1566 alone over 1300 heretics had been ‘burned, hanged or drowned’ in the provinces. Philip’s focus on the affairs of Spain also concerned his new subjects. His Aunt Mary too was worried about how Philip would rule and refused his offer of a continued Regency.

In the summer of 1557 the French invaded the Netherlands as the third Italian War moved its focus to Flanders. Philip organised a counter-force of 35,000 under the command of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy. William, along with the other Dutch nobility were seconded to Savoy; while Egmont commanded the cavalry.

William’s wife Anna died on 24 March 1558. William hastened home from Frankfurt[vii], arriving at her bedside on 20th March. Shock and the hurried journey home made William ill; he responded to Philip’s awkward condolences with a brief;

‘I am the unhappiest man in the world.’[viii]

Yet even while organising Anna’s funeral, William wrote to Philip on behalf of one of his soldiers who’d killed a man in a brawl. Later William had a brief relationship with one Eva Elincx, who gave birth to a son, Justinus van Nassau[ix]. William officially recognised his only illegitimate child and took responsibility for his education[x].

On 21st September 1558 Charles died and the last fetter on Philip’s behaviour was gone. William had a key role in the funeral ceremonies. The Netherlands were now part and parcel of the Spanish crown and were to be milked for Spain’s benefit. Dutch money was being used to prosecute a war that benefitted the Spanish.

The nobility in the Low Countries regarded the Spanish grandees as nouveaux arrivées on the European scene and were unimpressed, at best, by Philip’s decision to place Spanish nobles in charge of them.

Elisabeth de Valois
The peace treaty of Câteau Cambrésis ending the war was signed on 3rd April 1559. William was one of the Empire’s delegates. It was agreed that the Hapsburgs would continue their direct control of Milan, Naples, Sicily and other key Italian states. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth would marry Philip, recently widowed for a second time.

One of the key protagonists at the peace talks was the Duke of Alba[xi], a religious fanatic like his master and a rigid authoritarian. William, a Protestant for the first half of his life and with Protestant relatives at Dillenburg, was elusive when Alba and Cardinal Granvelle discussed the vexing matter of the Protestants with the French.

William was sent to Paris as a hostage along with Alba and the Count von Egmont, arriving on June 16th. It was planned to engage Henry in the Counter-Reformation’s plan to eradicate Protestantism. During the gaiety and festivities celebrating the peace treaty William was much taken with one of the richest women in France, recently widowed. Henry was not prepared to allow her fortune to transfer out of France to a supporter of the Hapsburgs so William withdrew his suit.

 Henri II's fatal tourney
While in France, William was treated to a discourse from Henry who unburdened his heart on the matters, pertaining to treatment of heretics, discussed in William’s absence during the treaty negotiations. William was horrified by the content and felt a surge of;

‘Pity and compassion for all these good people doomed to destruction…..[and to] a country to which I had so great an obligation.’[xii]

In July Henry died following an accident at a tourney he was competing in and the involvement of France in encircling the German and Dutch Protestants had to be set aside. The new king François II was only 16 as was his young wife, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. Philip’s marriage to Elisabeth was solemnised in heavy gloom; Alba acting as proxy bridegroom as Philip was too busy planning his return to Spain to visit France.


Laying the Foundations


In the summer of 1559 Philip sent the Estates General of the Netherlands a demand for nine years’ worth of subsidies. This demand, so soon after the end of the war, raised questions about what the monies were to be used for. It also meant that the estates would be abdicating such powers as they did hold.


Philip wanted to use the genial William to help persuade the Estates to do their duty and appointed him to the Council of State. An additional bribe was the offer of a joint command with Count Egmont of the Spanish troops in the Netherlands. William was aware that the offer of membership of the council was empty as Philip listened to only one or two key ministers. While commanding the troops was akin to giving approval of their being stationed in the Netherlands.


The subsidy was granted but was accompanied by a remonstrance signed by the senior nobles in the country. The remonstrance asked for the Spanish troops to be removed and set out the constitutional rights granted to the Low Countries. Philip agreed to this condition.


Changing the Baseline


Margaret of Parma
Philip appointed his half-sister Margaret of Parma to act as governor in his absence. The post was very much nominal; Philip was determined to keep control for himself. He departed in August, more than happy to return to Spain. While waiting for a favourable wind he insisted that two heretics be tortured; claiming that their interrogation to date had been insufficiently rigorous.


Although he never directly opposed the Spanish king, William soon became one of the most prominent members of the opposition in the Council of State, together with Philip de Montmorency, Count of Hoorn, and Count Egmont. They were mainly seeking more political power for themselves against the de facto government of Count Berlaymont, Cardinal Granvelle and Viglius of Aytta, but also for the Dutch nobility and, ostensibly, for the Estates, and complained that too many Spaniards were involved in governing the Netherlands.

William was also dissatisfied with the increasing persecution of Protestants in the Netherlands. Brought up as a Lutheran and later a Catholic, William was very religious but was still a proponent of freedom of religion for all people. The activity of the Inquisition in the Netherlands, directed by Cardinal Granvelle, now prime minister to Margaret of Parma[xiii], increased opposition to Spanish rule among the then mostly Catholic population of the Netherlands.


The Age of Religious Wars – Richard S Dunn, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1971

The Revolt of the Netherlands – Pieter Geyl, Cassell History 1988

The Holy Roman Empire – Friedrich Heer, Phoenix 1995

The Spanish Inquisition – Henry Kamen, Phoenix 1998

Philip of Spain – Henry Kamen, Yale University Press 1998

Charles V – Harald Kleinschmidt, Sutton Publishing Ltd 2004

The Grand Strategy of Philip II – Geoffrey Parker, Yale University Press 1998

Emperor Charles V – James D Tracy, Cambridge University Press 2002

William the Silent – CV Wedgewood, Readers Union Ltd 1945

The Hapsburgs – Andrew Wheatcroft, Folio Society 2004

[i] Charles abdicated the thrones of Sicily and Naples, both fiefs of the Papacy, and the Duchy of Milan to Philip the previous year
[ii] Charles mother, the rightful ruler of Spain, had died in the April after nearly fifty years incarcerated at Tordesillas. It is unlikely that guilt played a part in Charles’ decision (see Juana la Loca V)
[iii] The Revolt of the Netherlands - Geyl
[iv] Brother of Jerôme Perenot de Granvelle who had been William’s tutor
[v] Officially this was not in the gift of Charles but the Electors, but no emperor had previously abdicated
[vi] In England Philip’s wife Mary Tudor was frenetically hounding Protestants to the death
[vii] Where he had been attending a meeting of German princes
[viii] William the Silent - Wedgewood
[ix] Eva later married a Burgher of Emmerich
[x] Justinus was to become an admiral in later life
[xi] Master of Philip’s Household
[xii] William the Silent - Wedgewood
[xiii] Like his father Philip used family to help govern his far-flung empire

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