Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Revolt of the Netherlands - William the Silent VIII

Philip II of Spain
The Perpetual Edict

Don Juan did not learn the lesson, ignoring the power of the burghers his focus remained fixed on the nobility. He did however accept the Union of Brussels, leaving William with little to rebel against. Don Juan offered to comply with the majority of the rebel demands, but his final intention, as evidenced in his letters to Spain, was to hand back control of the Netherlands to Philip. Much to Don Juan’s dismay his letters were intercepted and used as propaganda for the rebels. The Spaniards claimed them as forgeries.

Queen Elizabeth let it be known that in her opinion William was;

‘The only man fit to be employed in so weighty a cause; without whose assistance she cannot hope that her affairs can take good success.’[i]

Even so Don Juan was able to pacify the delegates from the south and he signed the Perpetual Edict of Peace on 7th February 1577. The edict was countersigned by all the provinces apart from Holland and Zealand; Don Juan was now the accepted Governor of the Netherlands.

Don Juan’s finessing of the Estates General dealt with the two most important aspects of rebel demands; he’d agreed to the removal of the Spanish troops and had agreed that a solution to the religious question was imperative. William’s policy of building up the power of the Estates General meant that Don Juan was dependent on the Estates ratifying his decisions in a way no previous Governor had been.

English Support

Both the religious question and the removal of Spanish troops from the Low Countries were matters on which Don Juan had no intention of keeping his word. He was surreptitiously taking control of key positions in the country. Every time he did this William pointed this out to the Estates General and expressed his doubts about Spanish intentions. Eventually he moved his own men into the fortress at Gertrudenberg in the late spring of 1577.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
Don Juan immediately accused William of breaking the terms of the Pacification of Ghent. He tried and failed to trick William, who was suffering from a tertian fever, into declaring against the Perpetual Edict. Don Juan’s popularity turned out to be ephemeral as it became clear that he could not or would not fulfil his promises about removing the troops and finding a solution to the religious question. William wrote to one of Don Juan’s appointees;

‘We see now that you on your side are not keeping faith, that not one clause of the Pacification has been carried out, nay that you infringe it daily more and more as if it had never been made and sworn.’[ii]

Charlotte gave birth to her and William’s second child, Elisabeth van Nassau, on 26th April 1577. Queen Elizabeth agreed to be her namesake’s godmother and sent presents via the Earl of Leicester who was eager to play a part in supporting the rebels; a jewel encrusted golden dove for Charlotte and a golden lizard for William. Elisabeth was christened on 30th May 1577 and Philip Sidney, Leicester’s nephew, stood as proxy for his uncle. And like his uncle Sidney was an enthusiastic supporter of the rebels.

Breaking the Pacification of Ghent

Margot of Navarre
n July 1577, following a meeting at Spa with
Margot of Navarre[iii], whose brother the Duke of Anjou had his eye on the provinces for himself, Don Juan and his troops rushed the citadel at Namur, breaking the Pacification of Ghent as well as his own Perpetual Edict. Don Juan denounced William and the Estates General for committing treason against Philip. The provinces rose up against the Spanish provocation; Don Juan had failed to gauge the depth of hatred that the Dutch had for their Spanish overlords.

The Spanish troops were few and far between and the towns and villages rose up; Antwerp led the way, its citizens razing the citadel. William was called south by the Estates General and, worried about his northern provinces, he reluctantly obliged. His former estate at Breda, stripped bare by the Spanish, was returned to him and William started planning for Charlotte and all his children[iv], now at Middelburg, to join him. Charlotte wrote to him of her step-children;

‘We love each other very much and are very happy together.’[v]

On 18th September William entered Antwerp, surrounded by crowds of cheering citizens. Despite being begged to stay, William made his way on to Brussels where he was welcomed by, among others, the Duke of Aerschot and his son, both prominent supporters of Don Juan. William once again took possession of the Palace of Nassau, another of his properties gutted by the Spanish,

Provincial Splits

William's entry into Brussels
William hoped to reconcile the northern and southern provinces in the uprising against the Spanish crown. The northern provinces, where the Calvinists had taken control of the machinery of government, tended towards Protestantism and spoke Flemish, while the southern provinces remained Catholic and were Flemish or French speakers[vi]. The south was wary of William’s Calvinism.

William took his place in the Estates General and refused the offer of Governor of the Netherlands when it was offered to him. The Estates General sent the Marquis d’Havré to England to ask for aid; Elizabeth was most accommodating[vii]. On 29th September she agreed to a further loan of £100,000[viii] and offered 1,000 cavalry and 5,000 foot soldiers under Leicester’s command. The Estates General thanked her for the loan but wrote querying the wisdom of sending troops at the onset of winter when warfare stalled.

Capture of Duke of Aerschot
Aerschot and his fellow travellers were suspicious of William’s motives and, jealous of William, they invited the Holy Roman Emperor’s brother Matthias[ix] to replace Don Juan as governor. Leicester was discouraged at the splits between the rebels;

‘If they show themselves thus irresolute, for my part I [would] rather…..abide the worst at home than hazard life and hand with such unstable men abroad.’[x]

Aerschot, upon being requested to restore the ancient privileges of Ghent by two prominent citizens, immediately refused to please a crowd of ‘rascally burghers’ and claimed that he would not do it even if the Prince of Orange supported them. The citizens of Ghent were aroused to wrath and broke into Aerschot’s house and dragged him off and locked him up in the citadel.

William did not rush to have his opponent released until he’d pressured Aerschot to resign his Stadtholdership in Flanders. But the Calvinists who replaced Aerschot as rulers of Ghent went overboard and their punitive actions against Catholics raised fears in the other southern provinces of the potential problems in a joint Netherlands ruled by Calvinists.


Alessandro Farnese
Archduke Matthias arrived in the Netherlands on 8th October 1577 and found himself being played by William against Don Juan quartered in Luxembourg. Over the winter it seemed distinctly possible that Philip would hand over control of the Netherlands to his young cousin.

But William had another possibility on hand as ruler of the provinces, the Duke of Anjou, brother of the King of France. Catholic, vain and dishonest, Anjou could barely have been a worse choice to rule William’s homeland.

The autumn of 1577 saw a further 20,000 Spanish troops brought in to retaliate against the Dutch provocation towards their Spanish rulers. They were commanded by Philip’s nephew, Alessandro Farnese[xi], Prince of Parma. English spies reported back home;

‘If the King [Philip} be able to make war, there is no peace to be attended.’[xii]

In view of the threat imbued by Parma, a gifted military commander, William agreed to the easily led Matthias being made governor of the provinces.

On 9th January 1578 William escorted Matthias from Antwerp to Brussels and presented him to the Estates General. William was the first of the nobles to swear fealty. Eleven days later Parma attacked the rebels’ army camp at Gembloux while the officers were celebrating in Brussels. The resultant battle was a walkover for the Spanish and a death knell for the rebels’ unity.

The Age of Religious Wars – Richard S Dunn, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1971
The Revolt of the Netherlands – Pieter Geyl, Cassell History 1988
The Spanish Inquisition – Henry Kamen, Phoenix 1998
Philip of Spain – Henry Kamen, Yale University Press 1998
The Spanish Armada – Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, Guild Publishing 1988
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

[i] Elizabeth - Somerset
[ii] William the Silent - Wedgewood
[iii] Wife of the future Henri IV of France
[iv] Apart from Philip William still interned in Spain
[v] William the Silent - Wedgewood
[vi] Calling themselves Walloons while the southern provinces called themselves Flemings
[vii] It is believed that the Dutch had passed copies of Don Juan’s plans to invade England to the English
[viii] In 2014 the relative: historic opportunity cost of that project is £25,400,000.00 labour cost of that project is £331,900,000.00 economic cost of that project is £10,120,000,000.00 www.measuringworth.com
[ix] Future Holy Roman Emperor
[x] Elizabeth - Somerset
[xi] Son of Margaret of Parma
[xii] William the Silent - Wedgewood

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