Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The Revolt of the Netherlands - William the Silent V

Count John VI of Nassau-Dillenburg
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In May 1567 William arrived at his boyhood home in Dillenburg with his family. William’s brother John was now Count in their father’s stead, but their mother still ruled the household. Anna was furious finding herself in this provincial backwater, at her loss of prestige, the loss of her richly appointed homes and having to accept Juliana’s hospitality. 

When the King of Denmark offered William sanctuary in his kingdom Anna was eager that the invitation should be accepted. William refused the offer; Dillenburg was only three days ride from the Netherlands and Germany was prime recruiting country. Anna’s response was predictable.

William had expected support from his old friend Maximilian II[i] and from the Lutheran princes in Germany. In both hopes he was to be disappointed. Instead William turned his attention to the Calvinist Huguenots, many of whom lived along the Flemish-French border. He would have to raise his army from the French protestants.

Maximilian II
In November Philip decided to give Alba a free hand in the Low Countries. Catholics and Protestants alike were caught up in Alba’s indiscriminate net of terror; dissident Catholics and Protestant rebel leaders had fled, while the population remained passive under the weight of Alba’s rule. Philip stated that;

‘The worst corner into which princes can be driven is having to make agreements with rebel subjects.’[ii]

Maurice was born on 13th November 1567; at the baptism celebrations in mid-January 1568 a message arrived for William informing him that all his Dutch lands and possessions had been confiscated on 20th December 1567. On 4th January 1568 eighty four leading Dutch citizens were executed on the scaffold and the heralds announced that William, Prince of Orange, was summonsed to return to answer charges of treason.

Crunch Time

In February 1568 William’s eldest son Philip William, who was only 14 and studying at Louven University, was seized and taken to Spain. He was to be a hostage, but Philip also wanted the future Prince of Orange to be raised as a good Catholic and loyal subject of Spain. Philip William was never to see his father again.

On 3rd March 1,500 prominent Dutch citizens were arrested; the terror was well and truly begun. An Englishman said of the arrests;

‘Now the very Papists do perceive that the Duke of Alva doth go about to make them all slaves.’[iii]

Elizabeth I
In England Queen Elizabeth gave a friendly reception to an emissary from William in the spring. Alba himself was convinced that his policy of repression would have a salutary effect on the Dutch;

‘So that every individual has the feeling that one fine night or morning the house will fall in on him.’[iv]

William was seen as their leader by all Dutch determined to throw off the yoke of Spain, Protestant and Catholic alike[v]. He was joined at Dillenburg in the spring by Jacob Wesembeek who took charge of the dark art of propaganda. The Justification was written in conjunction with William and printed at Dillenburg in April 1568. It was circulated in the provinces by William’s agents.

Action Not Words

Battle of Heiligerlee
Forces were pouring in from France where the second religious war had just ended; William’s brother Louis was planning an invasion of the Netherlands in conjunction with their brother Adolf. They invaded Groningen and fought the Spanish at the battle of Heiligerlee[vi] on 23rd May, a battle won at the cost of Adolf’s life.

Louis’ troops were re-victualled from the sea by the Sea Beggars, who were based at Delfzijl[vii]. Louis’ French allies were defeated by a French army at St ValĂ©ry; their leader Jean de Villars yielded up all he knew about William’s plans.

Count Adolf of Nassau
On 5th June 1568 Egmont and Hoorn were beheaded in the public square in Brussels. The shockwaves were felt throughout Europe. Philip wrote to Alba;

‘I very deeply regret that the offences of the counts was so serious that they called for the punishment which has been carried out.’[viii]

The killings continued and over 1,700 people were killed during Alba’s reign of terror.

In October 1568, William responded to Alba’s provocations, by leading a large army into Brabant. The expected French allies did not materialise and Alba avoided a decisive confrontation, expecting the army to fall apart quickly. He was correct; as William advanced disorder broke out in his army, and with winter approaching and money running out, William turned back having lost 2,000 men.

William was now penniless, he’d sold what remained of his artillery to pay his troops, mercenaries in the main, and his possessions were left in pawn to the merchants of Strasbourg. He escaped down the Rhine, his supporters, reputation and credit all lost. Alba, with great satisfaction wrote;

‘We must regard the Prince of Orange as a dead man.’

But William was beaten but not broken; he was determined to fight on. Philip’s actions were isolating Spain; even Granvelle in Rome believed that until the Spanish captured William the Dutch were still in the game.

Anna’s Affair

Aemilia von Neuenahar (right)
William and Anna’s last child Emilia was born on 10th April 1569 in Cologne. She was named after Aemilia von Neuenahar[ix] who was in charge of Anna’s household at the time. Anna had fled the boredom of Dillenburg and had taken refuge in Cologne, living on credit and spending vast amounts of money.

William meantime was undergoing a painful awakening, discovering that the best way to beat narrow fanatics is to use the opposition’s narrow fanatics. In the summer of 1569 William and Louis offered their support to the Huguenots in France.

Admiral Coligny
At the peace of St Germain in August 1570, ending the third of France’s third religious wars, William’s principality of Orange was returned to him. At the suggestion of Admiral Coligny[x] the Sea Beggars were now based at La Rochelle; they flew the lion of Nassau. Upon his return to Germany William sent out begging letters to the German princes, asking for their support.

Anna refused to meet with William, even writing to Alba to find out on what terms she would be allowed to access William’s forfeited lands. Debts forced her to leave Cologne and take refuge at Siegen with the three children. It was here that Anna began an affair, which was common knowledge, with her lawyer Johannes Rubens[xi] who had a wife and child back in Cologne. One commentator, notably lacking in censoriousness, wrote;

‘If the Princess of Orange is doing what people say she is doing she is only doing as any woman would who wishes to use what God has given her.’[xii]

Rumours abounded and eventually William’s brother John took action. Anna and her lover were living within her brother-in-law’s demesnes. He arrested the pair of them and brought them back to Dillenburg.

Anna was now pregnant again, this time the child was not William’s. He accused Anna of adultery; Johannes Rubens admitted the offence and Anna wrote to William begging that he would kill her and Rubens. The divorce was heard in private at Dillenburg on 26th March 1571 where Anna pleaded guilty to adultery[xiii]. Rubens’ wife forced her way in to see William to plead for her husband’s life[xiv].

On 22nd August 1571 Anna's last child, Christine, was born. Christine received the name van Dietz. Anna remained in seclusion in Nassau as her family refused to allow her to return home. On 14th December 1571 Anna had to sign their consent to the final separation from her husband. William had the marriage legally dissolved on the grounds that Anna was insane. William was not willing to pay maintenance for Christine. The three children of the marriage, Anna, Maurice and Emilia, returned to live at Dillenburg.


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

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

Elizabeth – Anne Somerset, Phoenix Giant 1999

William the Silent – CV Wedgewood, Readers Union Ltd 1945

The Hapsburgs – Andrew Wheatcroft, Folio Society 2004

[i] Who had succeeded his father three years before; Maximilian had an uneasy relationship with his cousin Philip who was believed to have sanctioned an attempt to poison Maximilian in 1552. From henceforth the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburg interests were to diverge; something their enemies did not always appreciate
[ii] Philip of Spain - Kamen
[iii] William the Silent - Wedgewood
[iv] Philip of Spain - Kamen
[v] The northern provinces were most in earnest at rebellion, while the southern provinces were stronger in support of Spanish rule and its perceived stability
[vi] The opening shot of the Eighty Years War
[vii] On the Groningen coast
[viii] Philip of Spain - Kamen
[ix] Half-sister of one of William’s nephews, Aemilia was to marry Frederick III, Elector Palantine later in the year
[x] The Huguenots’ leader
[xi]He was to be the father of Peter Paul Rubens, born six years after this affair ended
[xii] William the Silent - Wedgewood
[xiii] Possibly under duress
[xiv] By law William had the right to demand Rubens’ death

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