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Habsburg rule: 1482-1559

The Netherlands acquire a new ruling dynasty in 1482, when the Habsburgs inherit all the territories of Burgundy. For more than half a century the new regime is reasonably successful. The Habsburgs are at ease in the prosperous Netherlands; they cherish their valuable new acquisition. Charles V is born in Ghent (in 1500) and grows up in Mechelen at the court of his aunt Margaret of Austria - acting as regent on his behalf in Burgundy, after the early death of his father in 1506.

But Charles's broader responsibilities soon remove him from his childhood home. He becomes king of Spain in 1515 and leaves the Netherlands two years later.

Charles's personal link with the region no doubt contributes to the relative calm which prevails in the Netherlands until 1555, when he formally transfers the rule of the duchy to his son Philip in a ceremony in Brussels - the city to which the seat of government has been moved, from Mechelen, in 1531.

Even so, during the four decades of Charles's largely absentee rule there have been significant changes of attitude in the province.

There is an increasing sense of resentment at being on the periphery of the vast Spanish empire, with its different priorities and frequent demands for tax. And Calvinist ideas, infiltrating down the Rhine from Basel and Strasbourg, make many doubly resentful that the distant ruler of the Netherlands is Catholic as well as Spanish.

These circumstances would lead to unrest at the best of times. Philip aggravates them. Unlike his father, he is Spanish in upbringing. His appointments to the government in Brussels take little heed of local sensitivities. To add to his difficulties, a peace of 1559 between Spain and France opens the Netherlands border to energetic French Calvinists.

William of Orange and the duke of Alba: 1559-1568

Philip II's first regent in the Netherlands is his half sister, Margaret of Parma. There is local unrest under her rule, but also an assumption that compromise may be possible. William of Orange, heir to large estates in the Netherlands and known from his quiet skill in negotiation as William the Silent, emerges as one of the leaders of those demanding change.

Religious toleration and freedom from the attentions of the Inquisition are among the demands most commonly made. But the Protestant cause is not well served by the intemperate behaviour of some of the Calvinists. Iconoclastic mobs go on the rampage in August 1566, smashing the treasures of many churches in the Netherlands.

Hearing of such events, Philip II resolves upon severe measures. He instructs the duke of Alba, a veteran of many campaigns, to march north with an army from Italy. He is to restore order in the Netherlands regardless of what measures may be required.

Alba, arriving in August 1567, introduces a rule of terror but does so at first by stealth. He lulls two of the leading dissident nobles, the counts of Egmont and of Horn, into accepting his hospitality. He then has them arrested, summarily tried and executed. They are merely the most distinguished victims of Alba's tribunal, which becomes known in the Netherlands as the Council of Blood.

Alba's agents act with the quiet efficiency of a modern police state. In 1568, in the early hours of Ash Wednesday (the morning after the pre-Lent carnival, when revellers are likely to be off their guard), fifteen hundred suspects are visited in their homes and taken from their beds. All, according to Alba's note on the incident, are executed.

William of Orange, wisely keeping his distance from Alba, slips into exile - and so remains available to lead the armed resistance to Spanish rule which now begins to develop.

Holland and Zeeland: 1572-1573

The first real success of the Netherlanders is almost accidental. Ships manned by savage crews, licensed by William of Orange but in practice little better than pirates, have for some time been raiding the coasts and preying on Spanish vessels. They are known as sea beggars (gueux de mer). The name gueux, or beggars, is first used dismissively of the rebels by a Spanish official but is then proudly adopted by all who are opposed to Spain.

In 1572 a fleet of sea beggars is forced by a storm to take refuge near Brill. Finding that the Spanish garrison is temporarily absent, they seize the town and raise the flag of William the Orange.

The example at Brill is eagerly followed elsewhere. The more important port of Flushing is the next to be secured. Within weeks, all along the coast of Holland and Zeeland, towns expel the Spanish and declare for William. Merchants offer funds for a war chest. A spontaneous movement of liberation gives William the base which he has so far lacked.

Until now he has been planning an invasion of the Netherlands from France. Instead he takes ship for Holland and lands, in October 1572, at Enkhuizen. The towns in this region are by now mainly Calvinist. In 1573 William formally declares himself an adherent of the reformed faith.

There are bitter battles to be fought in the years ahead, but William of Orange now has a clear identity as the leader of a cause - and a strong territory from which to conduct that cause.

Meanwhile the duke of Alba fights hard to recover what has been lost. His Spanish troops commit appalling atrocities in the campaign - as in the massacre which follows the capture of Haarlem in July 1573. Alba's next target, the town of Alkmaar, is saved when the Dutch breach the dikes and threaten the Spanish troops with death by drowning. The duke finally loses appetite for the task, together no doubt with Philip II's confidence. He asks to be relieved of his command, returning in December 1573 to Spain.

War against Spain: 1573-1588

The bitter fighting of 1572-3 is the prelude to a prolonged war between the northern provinces of the Netherlands and the Spanish monarchy. The struggle becomes part of wider European wars, and is not finally concluded until the end of the Thirty Years' War, in 1648.

Meanwhile, in the early stages, it gradually becomes clear which parts of the Netherlands are seeking independence from Spain. But it remains far from certain what type of independence they have in mind.

There are several well-defined staging posts on the way to the eventual split between north and south. In 1576, in Ghent, a peace conference is convened between Holland and Zeeland on one side and the States General of the southern provinces on the other. The result is the so-called Pacification of Ghent, uniting the entire Netherlands in opposition to Spain but leaving unresolved the problem of Calvinist and Catholic rivalry between different provinces.

Early in 1577 the same rather unspecific hope of solidarity is enshrined in the Union of Brussels. It proves the last occasion when a union of this kind represents the whole of the Netherlands.

The next two unions are specifically sectarian. Extreme Calvinist violence in Ghent in 1578 (the sacking of churches and cloisters, the burning of monks in the market place) prompts three southern provinces to form the Union of Arras, early in 1579, for the purpose of defending the Catholic faith in Hainaut, Artois and Douai. Reconciliation with the king of Spain is a natural part of their programme.

The northern provinces of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht respond a few weeks later with the Union of Utrecht, committed to the principles of religious toleration and independence from Spain.

In 1581, in the Oath of Abjuration, the States General of the northern provinces formally depose Philip II. At this stage it is assumed that they will require a replacement king - a role for which their existing leader, William of Orange, is not considered to have the necessary royal stature.

The issue has not been settled when William is assassinated, in 1584, by a Catholic fanatic. The northern provinces, now in dire need of help against the Spanish, offer the crown during 1585 to Henry III of France and then to Elizabeth I of England. Both refuse it, but both send military assistance. The Netherlands uprising acquires the status of an international conflict.

United Provinces and House of Orange: from1588

In 1588 seven northern provinces of the Netherlands begin to see themselves as a republic - the United Provinces. They are Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland and Groningen. Their political structure is a loose one, dating back to an informal arrangement made in the Union of Utrecht.

Each province is independent but has one vote in a combined States General, where decisions are supposed to be taken unanimously. Each province appoints its own chief executive or stadholder - from a Dutch word meaning 'place holder' or viceroy, deriving from the days of the Spanish monarchy and retained as an office by the republican provinces.

William of Orange has been stadholder of the two most powerful provinces, Holland and Zeeland. After his assassination they appoint his son Maurice of Nassau in his place. Maurice also becomes stadholder of three of the other provinces, enabling him to play a leading role in the formative years of the young republic.

Holland and Zeeland subsequently make a habit of appointing the prince of Orange as their stadholder, and other provinces often follow suit. Thus the House of Orange becomes effectively the royal family of a republic. Later, when the United Provinces revert in 1813 to being a kingdom, it is the prince of Orange whom the Dutch naturally select as their first monarch.

United Provinces and Spain: 1588-1648

William's son Maurice, though only twenty-one in 1588, proves an extremely able military leader of the United Provinces. With his cousin, William Louis of Nassau (stadholder of the province of Friesland), Maurice sets about creating a disciplined and sophisticated Dutch army which for the first time is the equal of the Spaniards.

Maurice achieves a series of striking successes against the Spanish, driving them steadily back until the Netherlands north of the river Meuse is in republican hands. The period of expansion and consolidation up to 1598 is so exhilarating that it becomes known in Dutch history simply as the Ten Years.

In 1596 both France and England give de facto recognition to the new republic. But another half century must pass before the independent status of the United Provinces is finally established, in the peace signed with Spain in Münster in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years' War.

This treaty finalizes the split between the Protestant republic in the north and the Catholic southern provinces, or Spanish Netherlands, which later become Belgium.

During the preceding half century, to 1648, warfare with Spain is almost continuous, frequently redrawing the boundary between north and south. The only lull is the Twelve Years' Truce, agreed to by both sides in 1609 as a way of postponing any final decision on an intractable problem. When the truce ends, in 1621, Spain resumes its campaign to recover the United Provinces. By now this local conflict is an extra sideshow in the complex Thirty Years' War convulsing Europe.

But at least the truce has given the northern republic a lull in which to develop two outstanding Dutch skills - seafaring and commerce. Holland's merchants have their sights set on the east.

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