The Revolt of the Spanish Netherlands led to the collapse of Spain as a major European power. By 1618 – the start of the Thirty Years War – no catholic country saw Spain as a useful ally.
The area concerned was part of the Habsburg Empire and known as the Spanish Netherlands. Up to his abdication in 1555, the area was run by Charles V and for all his faults – especially his financial burdening of the region with regards to taxes – he was a Burgundian and he spoke Flemish. His successor, Philip II did not and he was also not a Burgundian. He was seen as being cold and arrogant and after 1559 he never visited the Spanish Netherlands.
The population of the Spanish Netherlands was 3 million with about 300 cities. There was immense local patriotism in the area which was split by language. There were seventeen provinces. The fourteen northern provinces spoke Dutch dialects while the three southern ones spoke Walloon. The nobles spoke French though more so in the South than in the North.
Philip needed the region for its wealth. Antwerp was the centre from which bullion from the New World was distributed and its financiers were experts in raising loans – a point not lost on Philip.
By the mid-C16, the spread of Calvinism in the Low Countries had taken hold. The Habsburg-Valois Wars had ended in 1559 so movement throughout western Europe was easier. Calvinism found support from the lower classes, lesser nobles and town leaders. In 1566, Calvinism within the region was based in Antwerp. The religion spread rapidly. The flood of Calvinism took place after Charles V’s reign. As a strong catholic, Philip had to be seen to be taking on Calvinism. Philip determined to rid The region of heresy.
To start with the Inquisition was barely effective in the region. However, Philip believed that if Calvinism was successfully tackled it would enhance his power and put the region very much under his power. Philip was astute enough to move cautiously.
He appointed wealthy and powerful magnates as provincial governors. Technically they were responsible to Madrid. The provincial governors were known as stadtholders. William of Orange became stadtholder of Holland, Utrecht and Zeeland while the Count of Egmont took charge of Flanders and Artois. The Estates-General had power in the Spanish Netherlands and Philip had little power over them. The logic was for the stadtholders to control the Estates-General and therefore rule them on Philip’s behalf This control did not happen.
In 1558, Philip was in need of money. William of Orange persuaded the Estates-General to grant Philip a 9 year subsidy. In return, Philip had to accept a remonstrance setting out liberties required by the Spanish Netherlands. Philip agreed to pull out Spanish troops stationed there and this took place in 1561. This was an example of the magnates dictating terms to Philip when he was in need of money. But a far moreimportant example took place.
Philip’s regent in the region was Margaret of Parma – an illegitimate daughter of Charles V. She was advised by a Council of State which comprised of the great magnates and leading officials within the region. The real power lay with the Council’s president. At the time, this was held by an Erasmian-influenced Burgundian called Anthony Perrenot, Lord of Granvelle. He was seen by the nobles of the Spanish Netherlands to be the mouth-piece of Philip II and the magnates believed that their power was being diminished by him. The magnates called for his dismissal. The three leading were William of Orange, the Count of Egmont and the Duke of Aerschot. All three men were very wealthy but they were conservative. They were not consciously revolutionary but they saw Philip as being a damaging influence to the Spanish Netherlands “liberties which they identified with their own interests” (Lockyer).
In 1559 it was decided to appoint three new archbishops and fourteen new bishops for the Spanish Netherlands. This would include new Low Countries sees and if pushed through would create an autonomous ecclesiastical organisation for the region. There was nothing wrong with this but the magnates real fear was that it might lead to a government shake-up which would result in a more centralised administration which would take power away from the stadtholders. The bishops were also to be appointed by the crown and as they sat on the Estates-General they would increase royal power there. The town leaders were not keen on this as they wielded much power in the Estates-General. The ordinary people were also fearful that the appointments would lead to greater religious persecution and that the Inquisition would start to asset itself All three sectors of society were angered – the rich, the merchants and the general population. The new bishops had to travel with an armed guard for their own protection. How did this affect Granvelle ? He was appointed a cardinal and became the first primate of the Netherlands.
There was general unrest throughout the region. Margaret of Parma was prompted to call the Assembly of the Knights of the Golden Fleece n June 1562. This was made up of magnates who enjoyed freedom of speech while the assembly was in session. They sent a magnate to Spain to see Philip II criticised Granvelle and called for Margaret to call the Estates-General. Philip did nothing and in March 1563, William of Orange (effectively leading the Estates-General) demanded Granvelle’s dismissal. This did not happen and William resigned from the Council of State along with other magnates. Margaret was powerless to maintain law and order as she had no Spanish troops in the region and relied on the magnates to ensure law and order was maintained. Philip was too concerned in the Mediterranean to get involved and ordered that Margaret should make concessions. In 1564, Granvelle was dismissed. Egmont and William of Orange rejoined the Council of State and all seemed stable. But the issue of the new bishops showed to the population of the Spanish Netherlands six things:
1) Philip was incapable of asserting his authority.
2) The magnates could get what they wanted with apparent ease.
3) The magnates were associated with the maintenance of law and order.
4) There was a natural dislike in the region for the Spanish.
5) Philip became even more unpopular.
6) The Catholic Church highlighted its apparent absolute nature – which had major implications for Calvinists.
The religious problem
Most of the nobility were catholic with Erasmian sympathies. They objected to religious persecution as it lead to disorder in a society dominated by them. That disorder could threaten their dominance.
Calvinism was strong among the lesser nobles who had developed a hated of the privileges that the Catholic Church had. Their later influence in the struggle against the Spanish was strong. France had already experienced the powerful impact a noble/Calvinist movement could have on the government.
Free from trouble in the Mediterranean, Philip decided to bring the region into line. A catholic university was established at Douai, Jesuits were encouraged to go to the Low Countries and the instructions of the Council of Trent were to be put into operation. That Philip acted as an absolute monarch was to be expected and he did not ask the magnates for their thoughts on these issues. In 1564, the Council of State asked Philip to reconsider his policies.
Count Egmont was sent to Spain where he was warmly received by Philip. But the king would not change his policies towards the Netherlands. William of Orange, Egmont and Admiral Horn, the Admiral of the Netherlands, all withdrew from the Council of State in protest but both Egmont and Horn were known to be loyal to the crown so they were not expected to do anything too extreme. William of Orange was less loyal to Philip but he was not an extremist. He was in a difficult position as the lesser nobles were embracing religious radicalism and becoming more extreme in their talk. These men had lost a lot of money as a result of price rises – money which they could not recover. William could not be seen to be openly supportive of men who were becoming radical and potentially de-stabilising. These men turned to Louis of Nassau – the brother of William of Orange. In 1565 they formed the Compromise. It had two main aims:
1) to end the power of the Inquisition in the Netherlands
2) to get Philip to withdraw his orders to enforce the findings of the Council of Trent.
In April 1565, Louis and the Count Brederode presented a petition to Margaret of Parma in Brussels. The support from the magnates had been patchy. William offered his brother support but Egmont and Horn did not. Less than 50% of those who had signed the petition turned up to support Brederode. When Brederode presented the petition to Margaret an advisors to her said allowed “What, madam ! Afraid of these beggars?” The word “beggars” stuck and Brederode rode round Antwerp in triumph. Antwerp was a city in turmoil as there was high unemployment and religious radicalism was common. Such a combination could be volatile.
In response to this threat, Margaret suspended all religious decrees. The magnates were invited back to the Council of State who were still absent after Egmont’s rebuttal in Spain. In 1566, Calvinists were holding open-air meetings guarded by armed sympathisers. In July 1566, the radical section of the Compromise agreed to co-operate with the Calvinists. They both had the same objective – to pressurise Philip II into relaxing his oppressive rule. They were curious bed-fellows as the Compromise were lesser nobility who wanted to recover their social and economic status while the Calvinists wanted religious toleration to be followed by the establishment of Calvinism throughout the Netherlands.
How did William view the Compromise? He did not welcome social disorder or the cause of it. He did not want the Netherlands to be broken up into camps. He viewed many of the lesser nobles and the Calvinists as dangerous hot-heads who could destroy any chance of increased political liberty. He tried to settle the discontent that was rife in Antwerp. He went to Mass to re-assure the Catholics and he introduced public works schemes to give employment. By doing this he tried to satisfy both sides. But there were problems elsewhere.
1565 saw a bad harvest. Prices greatly increased. The urban workers were hit the hardest. War in the Baltic severely affected sea trade and in August 1566 the Iconoclastic Riots took place. Churches – seen as the bastion of the rich – were wrecked, as were churches and monasteries. The riots spread quickly and much religious property was damaged. The magnates and the lesser nobility feared that property in general would be attacked and they were appalled at the fury of the mob.
In August 1566, Margaret came to an agreement with the leaders of the Compromise which lead to the Accord. The Compromise had to lay down its weapons and not interfere with catholic worship while Protestant preachers were allowed to continue work where they had already established a foothold. The violence quickly ended as grain prices fell but many property owners reacted to it in that they would not be drawn into religious or political movements or anything that hinted at dissent. Margaret exploited this weakness. She asked Philip II for troops and tried to hire mercenaries from Germany. She believed that the Accord had been forced on her and she was not willing to keep it. William of Orange’s apparent dabbling with rebellion had failed primarily because Egmont had remained loyal to Philip.
Why did not William ally himself with Calvinism? First, he was a catholic and he was also very aware that the Calvinism did not have sufficient money, arms or supplies for a successful rebellion. The princes in northern Germany were Lutheran and were not willing to help the Calvinism. Also by joining the Calvinism, William would have lost the support of the catholic majority in the Netherlands and his relatives in Germany.
The leadership of the Calvinism went to Brederode. In March 1567, he gathered an army and marched into Zeeland. Margaret immediately called on the magnates to swear an oath of loyalty to Philip II. They all did except William of Orange. However, he would not commit himself to the Calvinism. Brederode’s force was easily beaten by mercenaries just outside of Antwerp. Brederode fled to Germany. So did William and many lesser nobility as they expected severe repression. Up to 1567, there had been four separate levels of resistance:
1) The magnates who wanted greater liberty.
2) The lesser nobles who wanted to regain their social and political status.
3) The Calvinism who wanted religious freedom
4) Poor urban workers who wanted to alleviate their poverty.
These four separate groups had four separate aims and there was no obvious link between them all. Not all of them wanted independence from Spain. The magnates had demonstrated their loyalty with their oath of allegiance while the lesser nobles were now less openly rebellious after the shock of the Iconoclastic Riots. The Calvinism had no love of the catholic church while the poor urban workers had no love of the church or Spain. Each group had reasons to distrust the others so the chances of independence in 1567 looked very remote – even if the groups were calling for it which most were not. With William of Orange in Germany, the rebels looked weak.
With the problems that he had at home as well as in the Netherlands, Philip’s best policy would have been one of tolerance and reconciliation. On Philip’s orders, the Duke of Alva marched 9,000 men from Milan to the Netherlands. They arrived in August 1567. Alva had four secret orders:
1) to make all areas loyal to Brussels – this would end the power of the magnates.
2) all town rights were to end which would end the power of the merchants
3) there was to be religious uniformity
4) the Netherlands was to pay its full share to finance Philip’s policies.
Alva started a reign of terror. The nobles were arrested (despite being convinced that they were free from such problems) and sent to the Council of Troubles which was nick-named the ‘Council of Blood’ by the locals. Most were released after signing a form of submission. All leaders or potential leaders of resistance were arrested. Town leaders were shown no mercy. In January 1568, 80 leading citizens were executed in Brussels. Philip wrote to Alva that:
A further blow for the resistance movement came in February 1568, when Brederode died. William of Orange was now the obvious leader. In 1568 he published his “Justification” which claimed loyalty to Philip, called for a united front against Alva and blamed all problems in the Netherlands on “evil counsellors”. William planned a three-pronged attack on Alva using Louis of Nassau and the French Huguenots. Louis made some progress in Groningen but the two other prongs failed. It was left for Louis to feel the full force of Alva and the force of Louis fell back into Germany. On his way to meet Louis in battle, Alva had arrested and executed Horn and Egmont as an example to others.
In October 1568, William tried again this time using German mercenaries. He marched into Brabant but found that there was no general popular support for him in the region. This was a sign that Alva’s reign of terror was paying off. William retreated into France. Alva wrote to Philip that
“We may regard the Prince of Orange as a dead man.”
The terror continued to 1573. 9,000 were condemned by the Council of Blood and 1,000 were executed or exiled. Thousands were made into refugees. Alva needed the royal government to be financially secure so in March 1569, he forced the Estates-General to approve a 10% sales tax which was to be outside of their control. The whole country reacted against the “Tenth Penny“. The Council of Utrecht refused to implement it. It was summoned to the Council of Blood which ended its privileges. However, this did not stop the opposition to the tax and Alva realised that he simply did not have the force to brutalise the population into paying it. Alva postponed its introduction and it probably never came into operation.
At the time of the tax, William and Louis were fighting with the Huguenots in France. Refugees from the north of the Netherlands had formed a piratical force known as the “Sea Beggars”, and Coligny, the leader of the French Huguenots, suggested that William should offer protection to them. He, as a sovereign prince, authorised them to prey on Spanish shipping. The Sea Beggars were from the north where William was a stadtholder. However, he had concentrated on cities in the south such as Ypres, Ghent and Antwerp where religious dissent was strongest. However, these cities were easily policed. This was not true with the northern region with its many inlets and harbours. The region had a very complicated coast line with many islands just off-shore. Only those knowledgeable about the area could sail there with a degree of safety. William shifted his emphasis to the north and allied himself to the Sea Beggars. This did not lead to the independence of the Netherlands but to the creation of a new state.
The Sea Beggars had for a number of years used ports in south-east England for shelter and safety. In 1572, Elizabeth kicked them out fearing that their presence might antagonise Philip II. As they sailed, a storm forced the fleet into Brill in Holland. The Sea Beggars found it undefended as Spanish troops were in Utrecht putting down riots. The Sea Beggars claimed the city for William of Orange. News of this success was sent to William at La Rochelle and Louis of Nassau immediately sailed with the rest of the Sea Beggars force and took Flushing in Zeeland. Many northern cities went over to the Sea Beggars. The Sea Beggars had sparked off a major rebellion in the north.
Curiously, William tried to raise a rebellion in the south once again. Louis and the Huguenots occupied Mons while William struck into Brabant and Flanders. Once again, he found that there was no enthusiasm for rebellion and he had to retreat after disbanding his army. After this rebuttal in the south, William decided to concentrate in the north and he put himself at the head of resistance there. He had no love for the Sea Beggars as they were mostly Calvinism and iconoclasts. Most were fanatics which meant that they were difficult to predict. Most town leaders feared what the Sea Beggars would do to their towns as they seemed as ruthless as the Spanish. Both Amsterdam and Middelburg refused to admit the Sea Beggars. The Catholics in the region feared their approach for obvious reasons. But the lower social classes felt that they had nothing to lose from change and they possibly stood to make from change. When they combined with the Sea Beggars they could force the hand of the town leaders.
Some Catholics did support the Sea Beggars such was the hatred caused by the Tenth Penny. The Sea Beggars played on this patriotism and promised to let the Catholics worship in peace. But as the Sea Beggars got stronger, they started to persecute Catholics, Anabaptists and Lutherans. They believed that freedom of worship should apply only to Calvinism. Non-Calvinist churches were destroyed and clergy were killed by the Sea Beggars. Non-Calvinist religions were forced underground and Calvinism was imposed on the people of the Northern Provinces. But even by 1587, only about 10% of Holland’s population were Calvinism. William still wanted a united Netherlands based on religious toleration and he tried to restrain the activities of the Sea Beggars by dismissing their leader in 1573. But their single-mindedness of purpose and their total commitment made them the only successful rebels and in April 1573, William of Orange joined the Calvinist Church.
For many months, Alva had been pressurised by the Huguenots on the Netherlands southern border. But in August 1572, the Huguenots had been badly weakened by the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Alva was left free to move north. Haarlem (Holland) was besieged early in 1573 for seven months. Magistrates wanted to negotiate with Alva but a popular uprising had them replaced. William could do nothing to help and Haarlem fell. This could have proved a decisive blow to the rebels. They were saved by the Turks. Philip was involved in an expensive war with the Turks in the Mediterranean and his stretched finances meant that Spanish soldiers in the Netherlands were not paid. They mutinied and refused to fight. They rampaged through Antwerp thus making the Spanish even more hated. By 1574, Philip had the money to pay his soldiers but William had been given the necessary breathing space and there was no love for the Spanish after Antwerp. Alva besieged Leyden in Holland. He was attacked by Louis of Nassau (who was killed doing this) but this was not enough to relieve Leyden. Submissive magistrates were dismissed and William took the decision to cut the dykes and deliberately flood the area surrounding Leyden. The plan worked and Alva had to retreat. William’s prestige soared and popular opinion once again swung behind the resistance movement.
In November 1573, Alva was replaced by Don Luis de Requesens. He had been ordered to reverse the policy of repression. He issued a general pardon to all those involved in rebellion and he officially withdrew the “Tenth Penny”. But he had nothing to offer on religion as Philip refused to compromise:
The northern provinces were now firmly Calvinism and they could not accept this as at the least they wanted freedom of worship. To impose royal will, Requesen had to use force. However, in 1575, Philip announced his effective bankruptcy. His army in the Netherlands was composed of his own soldiers and many mercenaries. Without being paid they turned to pillaging. Requesen died in 1576. There was a time delay before his successor was appointed and the Council of State took charge. They purged the council of pro-Spanish members and summoned the Estates-General. This decided to establish an army of self-defence under the Duke of Aerschot. In 1576, it appeared as if the unity of the magnates had been achieved.
However, the unity was deceptive in appearance. William offered to put his army under the control of the Estates-General. But the northern army was mostly made up of Calvinism who were socially radical. The southern army was made up a aristocrats who were Catholic and conservative.
The Spanish army succeeded in uniting the two. In 1576, Spanish soldiers devastated Antwerp. 7,000 of the city’s population were killed and a third of the city was destroyed by troops who were there to save the city from northern rebels!! The north and southern armies united in the ‘Pacification of Ghent” which suspended all religious issues until a time that the Estates-General could agree on a religious settlement.
Early in 1577 a new governor-general arrived – Don John of Austria. In February 1577 he issued the ‘Perpetual Edict” which agreed to withdraw Spanish troops from the Netherlands and agreed with the Pacification of Ghent. This was good enough for the southern magnates but not for William and Zeeland and Holland. The Perpetual Edict wanted to restore Catholicism throughout the Netherlands. Both Holland and Zeeland promised to continue the fight. Don John took Namur, declared that William was a traitor and wanted to purge the Estates-General of those who had expressed anti-Spanish sentiment. Rather than cultivate a relationship with the southern magnates, Don John pushed them into an alliance with William. This unity proved to be short-lived as popular revolts broke out in the south and the magnates feared for their property. A “Council of Eighteen” took over Brussels and called on William to take control.
Aerschot was suspicious of William’s intentions and he withdrew to Ghent to rally catholic nobles – the Malcontents. Ghent had a radical Calvinism council and they arrested Aerschot and sent him to Germany. Ghent set up a council based on the model of Brussels. The south was not prepared to accept this spread ofCalvinism and in January 1579, Artois, parts of Flanders (the Walloon area) and Hainault signed the Union of Arras which bluntly stated that it would uphold the catholic faith. Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Gelderland signed the Union of Utrecht. However, William still hoped for unity by subordinating religious issues to political ones. Reconciliation looked doubtful though.
In October 1578, Don John died. He was replaced by Alex Farnese, Duke of Parma. He was known to be a great soldier, of great integrity and of high birth. This made him very acceptable to the southern aristocrats. He promised no punishments to towns or men who swore allegiance to Philip. In May 1579, the Treaty of Arras was signed which upheld the privileges of provinces in Walloon and withdrew Spanish troops from provinces that signed the treaty. The nobles did not recover their political power but their social position was maintained. The southern aristocracy had now become very fearful of the north’s social radicalism.
William realised that he was a major factor in the failure to unite the provinces. He therefore needed to find someone as leader who was acceptable to both north and south. The brother of the king of France was chosen – the Duke of Anjou. This was a logical appointment as France had always been an enemy of Spain and Anjou was a strong catholic. Therefore he should have appealed to both sides. In 1581, thirteen provinces out of seventeen offered their allegiance to Anjou. This was done at a meeting of the Estates-General in the Hague. Unfortunately, Anjou proved a poor choice as he was arrogant and unprincipled. He disliked the power of the provincial Estates and wanted their power transferred to him. In January 1583, he marched to Antwerp to assert his authority but his attack was beaten off. This clearly alienated himself from the people. However, William remained convinced that the rebels needed foreign support. Anjou’s death in January 1584 took him out of the picture. In February 1584, William of Orange was assassinated. His death was a very heavy blow to the resistance movement.
The revolt after the death of William
William’s death might have destroyed the resistance movement if it had happened earlier in the campaign. But by 1584, the hatred of Spain had become so entrenched in the northern regions and the rebels were so well organised that they continued the struggle. Despite, Parma continued his advance and in August 1584 Ghent fell. Brussels fell in March 1585 and Antwerp in August 1585. The only main areas not to fall were Zeeland and Holland. These two areas were protected by the sea and rivers. The rebels were in need of overseas aid. France was not a possibility and the only possibility was England.
The rebels came to an agreement with Elizabeth that she would provide an army of 4,000 men under the Earl of Leicester. However, Leicester was out of his depth and he failed to understand the complexities of the issues being fought over. In the two regions not yet taken by Parma, the old style town leaders were swept out of power by more extreme and committed men from the Sea Beggars.
It was at this critical time that the Calvinism split into two camps: there were the moderate and socially conservative Libertists and the rigid and more radical Precisians. The revolt which originally had but one target was now complicated by what was essentially a class struggle. Leicester became identified with the Precisians who wanted a total ban on trade with Spain. Even at this time there was trade going on between the two as Spain needed the Dutch mercantile knowledge and fleet to send supplies to the region and the Dutch used the revenues from this service to finance their campaign. Amsterdam – a city with Libertists leanings – flourished during this time. In 1586, Leicester used his power to ban all Dutch trade with the Spanish.
This decision was supported by Holland. They found a new spokesman in Johan van Oldenbarneveld who was the Advocate of Holland. He was also supported by the son of William of Orange, Maurice of Nassau. Leicester was caught between the two and in November 1586 he returned to England. In 1587, Leicester returned to make one more attempt to impose his authority but he failed once again. He left in 1588 though his troops remained there financed by Elizabeth.
By 1588, the rebels were badly divided. Parma had the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this. But Philip needed his force for the Armada and this Spanish disaster gave the rebels the space they needed to re-organise themselves. In 1589 Henry III of France was assassinated and Parma was ordered by Philip to invade France to impose a pro-Spanish monarchy or even Philip as king of Spain. The legal heir to the French throne was Henry of Navarre – a Calvinist. This removal of the skilled Parma gave the rebels two years to re-build themselves as Parma was kept in France from 1590 to 1592.
In fact, he died in 1592 and the Spanish lost one of their most accomplished military commanders. In this time Maurice managed to re-organise the Dutch resistance and he had a series of successes from which the Spanish never recovered. In 1590, Breda was re-taken by the rebels. In 1591, Zutphen, Deventer and Nymegan were all re-taken. In 1600 the important ports of Ostend and Sluys were re-taken.
The death of Philip in 1598 should have brought the war to an end. However, his son, Philip III saw himself as a great leader and appointed Ambrosio Spinola to lead the drive to bring the Dutch to heel. Spinola was a capable general and in 1604 he recaptured Ostend. By this time Spain was all but financially exhausted and war weary. Philip III was in the difficult position of having to recognise the existence of what were now called the United Provinces. This he refused to do. The southern areas were given a form of self-government under Albert of Austria who had married the Infanta Isabella (Philip II’s daughter). He governed under the title of governor-general. Spanish troops remained in the southern regions and Albert and Isabella had to respect Spanish wishes. The two were popular with the people of the south.
Their attempts at reconciliation with the northern regions failed mainly due to religious problems as the north was not prepared to tolerate Catholicism there. To all intents, the area had split into two distinct camps by from 1598 on. In 1606, Albert agreed to treat the north as an independent state which would be called the United Provinces. In March 1609, a twelve year truce was agreed between the catholic south and the Protestant north. This truce allowed the United Provinces to trade with Spain and the West Indies and the state did not have to guarantee freedom of worship for Catholics. The truce also gave the United Provinces international recognition. This was not a de facto peace treaty as Spain wanted better treatment for the Catholics in the United Provinces. The truce was due to end in 1621 and when it did it was not re-newed and the war re-started but as part of the Thirty Years War. By 1621, the United Provinces was a rich state while Spain had never recovered from the financial chaos brought on by both Charles V and Philip II. The Treaty of Munster of 1648 confirmed the 1609 cease-fire – by which time Spain was a third-rate European power while the Dutch were one of the richest European states with a professional army to match.