Tyrants, Heretics And Heroes

In 1555 Philips II, son of the legendary king Charles V, became ruler of the "Low Lands", a territory now known as The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. At the time, these were wealthy territories with important trading cities like Antwerp. Charles V, born and raised in the Belgian city of Gent, had been fond of the region and his wise rule had earned him the loyalty of the Dutch nobility. That loyalty was vital because it was the nobility that exerted real power in the cities and provinces that made up the Low Lands. Philips however, was born and raised in Spain and had no feelings for the region except a keen interest in its wealth. He was also a very devote Catholic. These two character treats would soon bring him into deep trouble with the Dutch.

Philips started out by reducing the power of local noblemen and relying more and more on Spanish counselors. This was his first vital mistake. By depriving the noblemen (and with them prominent cities) of their power he created a strong seed for rebellion under the high classes of Dutch society. Dutch nobility had always been happy to accept the protection of a sovereign king as long as it did not interfere with their own local power. Philips severely underestimated the importance of this tradition.

His second mistake was his fierce response to the emerging Protestantism in The Netherlands. The ideas of Luther and Calvin proved extremely popular among the Dutch. Since founding protestant churches was prohibited, so-called "hagenpreken"(literally "bush services") were organized attracting huge amounts of people. The movement got a more violent character in the summer of 1566 when in three weeks time hundreds of catholic churches were assaulted by Protestants. They destroyed statues and paintings and robbed the gold and silver from the churches. It would have been wise to respond to this with allowing a certain freedom of faith. This would have met the demands of the Protestants and would have restored the peace. Peace was vital to the Dutch economy that heavily relied on trade.

The Duke Of Alba: The Tyrant

Instead, Philips sent the Duke of Alba to restore order. Alba, better known to the Dutch as Alva, installed the "Raad van Beroerte" (Council of Troubles) to persecute and sentence all who had participated in the iconoclasm. About a thousand people were sentenced to death –usually by hanging–, which made the Council better known as the "Bloedraad"(Council of Blood). Another 11,000 Protestants were banished. The properties of the sentenced were confiscated and ended up in Philips' treasury. This harsh repression of the protestant faith made the duke and his king extremely unpopular among the common Dutch. And so a seed for revolution was also planted among the middle and lower classes.

Philip made his third and final mistake in 1567 introducing the so-called "Tiende Penning" (literally "tenth penny"), a 10% tax on all goods. The Dutch were furious! Philips had not only deprived them of their independence and their belief, now he wanted their money to finance the troops that oppressed them. A general strike broke out with disastrous results. The Low Lands plunged into a deep economic crisis that left Alba without tax money to finance his troops. His underpaid soldiers became pillaging herds that terrorized towns and cities. The already unpopular Spanish became now truly hated even among the Catholic population. But still a general revolt did not break out.

The Beggar Army

Until 1567, the Dutch nobility had kept themselves fairly aloof from any ideas of revolution. Instead, they formed an alliance, the "Verbond der Edelen"(Alliance of Nobles), to negotiate restoration of old privileges and more freedom of faith with Margaret of Parma, Philips' governess for the Low Lands. The negotiations were an initial success, but with the escalation of events due to the iconoclasm of 1567, it soon became apparent that negotiation would lead them nowhere.

One prominent nobleman, Willem van Oranje, and his four brothers soon became leaders of the first organized military campaigns against the Spanish. Willem's rebel troops, better known as "geuzen" (literally beggars), had their first triumph against the Spaniards on May 23, 1568 at the battle of Heiligerlee in the northern province of Groningen. However, Philips' troops proved a strong enemy and no real progress was made.

Four years later, on April 1, 1572 the rebels had their second victory over the Spaniards by taking the Flemish city of Den Briel and in the weeks thereafter several other southern Dutch cities. Unfortunately, they where soon pushed back again by Spanish troops. Willem simply lacked the political and social support to make the revolt work.

The Spanish Fury

But then, on November 3, 1576, all the simmering tension boiled over with a gruesome event that has become known as the "Spaanse Furie" (Spanish Fury) and Willem finally got the support he so desperately needed. On that date, underpaid Spanish troops sacked the city of Antwerp leaving behind a trail of murdered man, raped women and burned houses. The sacking lasted for three days and it is said that about 7000 people lost their life on the streets of Antwerp.

The result was the "Pacificatie van Gent" a coalition of all Dutch provinces to cooperate in expelling the Spanish troops and restoring old privileges and freedom of faith. They demanded more independence from Spain (although Philips was still recognized as their king) and whished to install Willem van Oranje as Chief Executive beside the Spanish Governor Don Juan. Spain agreed with the terms at the "Unie van Brussel "(Union of Brussels) but insisted that Protestantism should be repressed.

Unfortunately, Spain violated the treaty the same year by attacking the city of Namen. A second Union of Brussels was forged claiming equal rights for Catholics and Protestants. In 1579, the Southern Netherlands dropped out of the Union and formed their own pact with the Spaniards. The remaining Northern provinces formed the Union of Utrecht. They agreed to expel Spanish troops from their territory, introduced military service, and proclaimed freedom of faith.

Searching For A King

Two years later on July 26, 1581, the provinces of the Union also signed the "Plakkaat van Verlatinghe"(Act of Abjuration) by which they openly rejected Philip II as their king. In other words: they declared themselves independent from Spain. However, they had not envisioned themselves as a republic, so they had a vacancy for a king. They approached Elizabeth I of England who refused, since helping the Dutch would aggravate the war she was already fighting with Philip. Then the provinces turned to Willem van Oranje who agreed but was murdered in 1784 before he could take the position. Finally, they had a brief and disappointing experiment with the Duque of Leicester. He proved to be more interested in striking a deal with the Spaniards than keeping the independence. When the duque left in 1587 the provinces decided that they would be better off without a king and ruling themselves. And so, The Low Lands became a republic, the first of its kind in the world.

But declaring yourself independent is one thing, remaining so is another. Philip had reorganized his troops and put them under the command of the charismatic Duque of Parma. With his great negotiation tactics he had reclaimed much of the Southern, mainly Catholic Netherlands for Spain and now he was knocking on the front door of the young Republic. But then a series of events made the tide turn in favor of the Republic.

Independent At Last

First the Spanish Armada was smashed in 1588 by the English. Then, in 1590 Philip sent the Duque of Parma to France to claim the weak French throne. What should have been a swift take-over of power became a time and money consuming war between France and Spain. This gave the Republic time to reorganize and regain strength. The State Advocate Johan van Oldebarneveld proved a very talented diplomat that achieved the necessary cooperation among the provinces of the Republic, and effectively raised funds to revive the Revolution. The young governor of Zeeland, Maurits –second son of Willem van Oranje–, developed as an extremely talented military commander. Over time he did not only lead successful campaigns against the Spaniards but he also managed to become governor of many of the other provinces of the Republic.

Finally, in 1592 the Duque of Parma dies and in 1598 Philip leaves this world also. The death of these two strong leaders weakened Spain and opened the door for a final victory for the Dutch.