Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Revolt of the Netherlands - William the Silent IV

Emblem of the Gueux
The Gathering Storm

In April 1566 Louis and Brederode, at the head of 300 armed supporters, presented Margaret with a request demanding toleration[i]. One of Margaret’s court dismissed the petitioners as ‘beggars’ or Gueux[ii]’. On 9th April Margaret issued an order modifying the application of the heresy laws. She informed Philip that his policies could not be implemented without violence. But within the week she was to hear cries in the streets, ‘vivent les Gueux’.

The same week William, Egmont and Hoorn presented the Regent with yet another ultimatum, the Compromis des Nobles; they would resign from the Council of State if Philip did not give the council a greater voice in the affairs of the Netherlands. In the matter of the Low Countries and religion, Philip was inflexible, despite agreeing that a policy of toleration was suitable in England[iii]. Early in April Elisabeth of Valois told courtiers that;

‘She knew the king, and he had told her often that he would never permit it [toleration of religion] to his subjects, and would sooner renounce ruling over them.’[iv]

The scene was set for a showdown between king and people. The compromise attracted support from not just the Protestants but Catholics also objected to Philip’s plans for religious bigotry.

Antwerp – the Birth of the Revolt

Port of Antwerp
The trouble began in Antwerp where Calvinism had taken a strong hold. Beggars’ bowls and simulacrums thereof (earrings, brooches and other jewellery) were for sale everywhere. In retaliation the Duke of Aarschot tried to promote the wearing of medallions of the Virgin which did little to rouse the faithful. Exiles started to return to support their oppressed brethren.

In May Brederode and his companions demanded that the Antwerp town council give permission to preach freely; this permission was denied in a town which had become a powder keg, armourers suddenly sold all their stock. The Protestants held meetings outside Antwerp and attempts to prevent them failed. In desperation Margaret called on William who was in Breda where Anna was shortly due to give birth.

William set off for Antwerp in July and his arrival was a triumphant procession. Dismayed at the reaction of the masses William informed Brederode;

‘Have a care what you do or you will live to regret it.’[v]

Margaret of Parma
William was torn by his duty to his king, although he firmly believed that Philip’s position over religious toleration was wrong. He was also acutely aware that at the source of the civil disobedience was the rising price of food, shortage of jobs and declining trade; all in part, at least, the results of Philip’s policies.

William called for the meetings outside town to be given up and attended mass openly. His moderation swayed the town and as proof of his sincerity William asked Anna to join him. En route Anna removed her stepdaughter Maria from the Regent’s household, a grave insult to Margaret. It was most unwelcome to William, who worried about the effect of Anna’s behaviour on Maria. Maria was returned to the Regent’s care.

In early autumn the Knights of the Golden Fleece were summonsed to Brussels and on 19th August 1566, the day on which William rode out of the city, Antwerp erupted. The rest of the Netherlands were not far behind. For five days Protestant supporters looted and/or destroyed a number of monasteries and churches across the Netherlands; defacing or smashing Catholic statues and religious objects.

The Aftermath

Philip II
Margaret mistakenly believed the riots to be the work of both the greater and lesser nobility and lost all faith in William and his colleagues. She wrote to Philip who fell ill at the news. Always slow to come to a decision, it took until the end of October for Philip to decide that a firmer hand than Margaret’s was needed to suppress opposition to the Spanish crown. To tackle both the civil and religious rebels an army was prepared and in November Alba[vi] was chosen as its commander[vii]. By the end of December the military were ready and Alba commented;

‘In this question of Flanders the issue is not one of taking steps against their religion but simply against rebels.’[viii]

Over the winter Margaret and her officials, with the aid of William and his fellow nobles, sent troops to put down the centres of sedition. William spent much of the winter touring his three provinces and preaching peace even as Louis was deliberately compromising his brother. The Estates in Holland were so thankful for the return of law that they voted William a gift of 55,000 florins[ix]; William refused for fear that Margaret would think it a bribe, and this despite his desperate need for money.

Haunted by misinformation about William Margaret decided that all her councillors should take a new oath of loyalty to Philip, hoping the knowledge that Alba was on his way, would cow the rebels. William and Hoogstraaten refused. Rumours abounded at court that Maria van Nassau would be visiting her stepmother’s family in Germany in short order.

In March 1567, joined by William, Brederode raised the standard of revolt in Amsterdam; the revolt was doomed for lack of money and outside support. The poorly prepared rebels could never hope to take on the might of the Spanish army funded by the wealth pouring in from the New World. And William’s careful earlier pacification of the north had an unwelcome effect; the north stayed quiescent under the call to arms. Margaret’s troops were able to slaughter the rebels.

The Triumph of Alba

Breda old port
Brederode and William fled Antwerp in April; William tendered his resignation to Philip on 10th April 1567. Margaret was able to inform Philip that the army was no longer needed; her message came too late; Alba and his forces were already on the march. William was intercepted at Willebroek by Egmont who implored him to stay. Ignoring this plea from an old friend William rode on to Breda where he begged his people to submit outwardly to all that Alba might throw at them.

William was joined at Breda by Maria, Anna and the 3 ½ year old Anna. The four of them left Breda and travelled to Germany via Louvain, where William met up with his son Philip William, who was to be left there to study in an attempt to allay suspicion.

Duke of Alba
Alba arrived in Brussels on August 22, 1567, at the head of a powerful army[x]. On arrival, Alba replaced Margaret of Parma as head of the civil jurisdiction. He decided that the local nobility, supporting the Protestant heresies, was in open rebellion against the king.

On 9th September Alba ordered the arrests of Egmont, Hoorn and other members of the Flemish nobility. Neither Egmont nor Hoorn had time to destroy their personal papers. Alba set up a new council he called the Council of Troubles; the locals had their own name for it, the Council of Blood.

At the same time Philip ordered the arrest of Montigny[xi] who was visiting Spain. At court Raymond de Bequarie de Fourquevaux, the French ambassador, commented;

‘They say here that the need now is not for soft words for the Flemings but severity and the bloody sword. Never was the king more happy and content.’[xii]

The length of time it took for Alba to suppress the incipient rebellion delayed Philip’s return to the Netherlands; the visit was finally cancelled due to Philip’s concerns about his son and heir Don Carlos[xiii], who appeared to want to set up his own rebellion.

The arrival of Alba along with a large force of Spanish troops led to support for the rebels, not only from Protestant England, but also from the French who feared the rise of a militant Spain on two of France’s borders.


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

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

Walsingham – Alan Haynes, Sutton Publishing 2004

The Holy Roman Empire – Friedrich Heer, Phoenix 1995

The Spanish Inquisition – Henry Kamen, Phoenix 1998

Philip of Spain – Henry Kamen, Yale University Press 1998

The Spanish Armada – Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, Penguin Books 1992

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

Elizabeth – Anne Somerset, Harper Collins Publishers 1991

William the Silent – CV Wedgewood, Readers Union Ltd 1945

The Hapsburgs – Andrew Wheatcroft, Folio Society 2004

[i] Many of those who signed tool Louis’ name on the document as proof that William supported the demands therein
[ii] The name was taken by the rebels who called themselves the Guezen
[iii] Charles V had allowed a policy of toleration in his Interim of 1548
[iv] Philip of Spain - Kamen
[v] William the Silent - Wedgewood
[vi] An old friend of the hated Granvelle and known as the Iron Duke to the Dutch
[vii] Alba was not Philip’s first choice but the Duke of Parma and the Duke of Savoy both in good standing in the Netherlands and more importantly not Spanish) had both refused the post.
[viii] Philip of Spain - Kamen
[ix] In 2014 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £18,420,000.00 economic status value of that income or wealth is £521,000,000.00 economic power value of that income or wealth is £5,780,000,000.00 www.measuringworth.com
[x] Philip always took a long time in coming to any decision, wanting to dot every i and cross every t
[xi] He was strangled in prison
[xii] Philip of Spain - Kamen
[xiii] Who was to be murdered on his father’s orders the following year

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