Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Revolt of the Netherlands - William the Silent IX

Tour Salamandre, Beaumont
Conflicting Ambitions

William had hoped that Emperor Rudolf would support his brother Matthias as Governor of the Netherlands. But support from the Holy Roman Emperor was sadly lacking. The rebels were saved by a dispute in the Spanish camp which delayed an attack on Brussels sufficiently that Matthias, the Estates General and the town council of Brussels could be moved to Antwerp out of harm’s way.

The Spaniards decided to overrun the southern provinces first; Parma’s troops took Beaumont, Nivelles, Chimay, Philippeville, Limburg and Dalhem. On 29th May 1578 the Calvinist minority on the Estates General voted to accept an offer from John Casimir[i], a Calvinist freebooter and soldier of fortune, to turn around Dutch fortunes. William did not feel that the actions of the irresponsible Casimir would reconcile the Catholic majority in the country to the rebels’ ambitions.

In June 1578 the Duke of Anjou, with a train of favourites, guards and servants arrived in Mons with the offer of 10,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry and a guarantee of freedom of conscience. In contrast to the lack of help from Emperor Frederick, this looked like manna from heaven. Anjou was also considering a renewal of his courtship of the queen of England.

The English Embassy

Count of Schwartzburg-Arnstadt
Charlotte was pregnant again and on 31st July 1578 she gave birth in Antwerp to her third child, Caterina Belgica. The Estates General, John Casimir and Aunt Catherine were Caterina’s godparents. Casimir gave his goddaughter a miniature of himself while the Estates General endowed her with a dowry.

Catherine and William had very little time together; he was too busy trying to hold the provinces together and unify both Calvinists and Catholics[ii]. Charlotte visited him as often as she could, but looking after all her children and stepchildren took up most of her attention.

Charlotte also had care of John of Nassau’s son Philip, whom William called Flipchen, one of Maurice’s closest friends. John of Nassau was, in part, taking the place of Louis as William’s confidant[iii]. William’s sister Catherine and her husband the Count of Schwartzburg-Arnstadt also spent a lot of time with her brother whenever possible.

Sir Francis Walsingham
In August William met with an embassy from England which included Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham and Baron Cobham, Warden of the Cinque Ports, who had long been an advocate of intervention in the Netherlands. Amongst all his other problems, William was unable to devote much time to the English envoys, but when he unbent Walsingham wrote;

‘The more I deal with him, the more sufficient I find him.’[iv]

The embassy failed as Elizabeth’s instructions bore no resemblance to the problems on the ground, any more than those of the Estates General who wanted the English to delay intervention until Don Juan departed from the scene.

An Excess of Religion

On 1st October 1578 Don Juan died from typhoid, naming` Parma as his successor in the Netherlands. Parma continued his policy of separating the Walloon provinces from the Calvinist dominated north. His agents got a positive response from burghers and countrymen, particularly around Ghent, fearing the excesses of John Casimir. who was considering replacing William as the head of the rebels.

John Casimir
Encouraged by Casimir, Calvinist mobs attacked Catholics in Bruges, Antwerp and Brussels. William travelled to Ghent where the Calvinists had stormed the prison and hung an elderly man whose only crime was that he was a Catholic. William hoped to isolate the minority trouble makers;

‘In places where popular feeling runs high some few, relying on the natural ardour of the people, will thrust them into doing things which infringe the common duties which we owe to each other…..but experience has taught me that this number is very small.’[v]

He was able to isolate Casimir and the other troublemakers. Casimir took himself off to England where he was given a loan from Queen Elizabeth for £40,000[vi] to pay for 11,000 men. Queen Elizabeth considered Casimir;

‘A prince for all respects to be so acompted of, that that may part may think itself happy to whose succours he shall be pleased to incline.’[vii]

Elizabeth also agreed to underwrite loans for the estates general to the value of £100,000[viii]. Elizabeth’s unusual extravagance was encouraged by her advisers who fully believed that embroiling Philip in the war with the Dutch would discourage him from turning his eye on England.

Dramatic Changes

Admiral Maximilien de Henin-Lietard
On 23rd January 1579 the Union of Utrecht was signed uniting Holland, Zealand, Friesland, Utrecht and Guelderland under the leadership of the Prince of Orange. Parma had signed the Union of Arras on 6th January, whereby the southern provinces of Hainault and Artois, the towns of Orchies, Douai and Lille and the bishopric of Cambrai committed their loyalties to Spain. The provinces were now split down lines of religious influence for the foreseeable future.

Early 1579 saw changes in the military line-up; one of William’s strongest supporters, Admiral Maximilian de Hénin-Liétard, Count of Boussu, commander of the Sea Beggars and William’s chief of staff, died in late December 1578. The English volunteers were also causing problems, their insubordination likely to infect the whole army.

William appointed one of the French volunteers François de la Noue[ix] to replace Hénin-Liétard. La Noue did his best to root out the problems; soldiers were pillaging the countryside for food, drunkenness was common and prostitutes were thick on the ground. He did his best but without the subsidies from the Estates General, was unable to stop the rot.

Francois de la Noue
February 1579 saw Parma’s troops outside Antwerp’s walls. Parma opened the attack on 1st March; the defenders, including the foreign volunteers, fought ferociously and eventually Parma withdrew, unable to operate on extended supply lines. March brought more Calvinist influenced riots in Ghent and Haarlem. Hendrik Laurenzoon Spiegel, a writer and poet from Amsterdam wrote bitterly;

‘They who at first asked no more than to live in freedom, Now have their liberty but will not give it to others.’[x]

To cap it all the Estates General refused to vote more monies to William to continue the fight.

Spanish Triumph

Parma marched to Maastricht and laid siege to the town. He had 20,000 men as opposed to the garrison of 1,200. William begged the Estates for monies to go to the relief of Maastricht, monies which were refused but came with the offer of the Antwerp town guard. An exhausted William informed them;

‘Do as you will, but do not blame me when Maestricht falls.’[xi]

Siege of Maastricht
The Spaniards entered the town on 29th June, while the exhausted defenders were asleep; they looted the town for three days with extreme violence while Parma was in bed suffering from a fever.

Despite the many obstacles in his path William managed to firm up the front line and the Spanish were stopped from entering Brabant and Flanders. William also had to overcome Parma’s propaganda, claiming that William alone was stopping a peaceful resolution to the discord between peoples and sovereign.

On 28th July the Estates General heard an anonymous petition denouncing William. William, whose refusal to defend himself against calumnies had slowly been winning the PR war, told the Estates that they could either have his resignation or they would have to back him. The entire Estates General protested their devotion to the cause and backed William, if not to the hilt, then enough for his purposes.

It was now that William decided to throw his political weight behind the Duke of Anjou. The Archduke Matthias was a lightweight, hiding in William’s shadow. He brought no support, no monies and no soldiers. Anjou on the other hand had his brother’s support, he had money and he was prepared to pay for military prowess to carve out a principality of his own.


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 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] Younger brother of the Elector Palatine
[ii] William’s toleration of Catholicism was looked on askance not only by the Calvinists but also his own family
[iii] Most of the male Nassau family of both generations became heavily involved in the revolt
[iv] Walsingham – Haynes
[v] William the Silent - Wedgewood
[vi] In 2014 the relative: historic opportunity cost of that project is £10,410,000.00 labour cost of that project is £134,400,000.00 economic cost of that project is £3,608,000,000.00 www.measuringworth.com
[vii] Elizabeth - Somerset
[viii] In 2014 the relative: historic opportunity cost of that project is £26,030,000.00 labour cost of that project is £336,000,000.00 economic cost of that project is £9,020,000,000.00 www.measuringworth.com
[ix] Later to write in captivity his Discours Politiques et Militaires, published in 1587
[x] The Revolt of the Netherlands - Geyl
[xi] William the Silent - Wedgewood

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