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History of Holland By George Edmundson Characters: 31050

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


WILLIAM THE SILENT

The position of William at Brussels after his triumphant entry, September 23, 1577, was by no means an easy one. His main support was derived from a self-elected Council of Eighteen, containing representatives of the gilds and of the citizens. This Council controlled an armed municipal force and was really master in the city. In these circumstances the States-General did not venture upon any opposition to the popular wishes, in other words to William, whose influence with the masses was unbounded. The States-General, therefore, under pressure from the Eighteen, informed Don John, October 8, that they no longer recognised him as governor-general; and the Estates of Brabant appointed the prince to the office of Ruward or governor of the province. Meanwhile a fresh factor of disturbance had been introduced into the troubled scene. Certain of the Catholic nobles opposed to Spanish rule, but suspicious of Orange, had invited the twenty year old Archduke Matthias, brother of the emperor, to accept the sovereignty of the Netherlands. Matthias, who was of an adventurous spirit, after some parleying agreed. He accordingly left Vienna secretly, and at the end of October arrived in the Netherlands. Not content with this counter-stroke, Aerschot went to Ghent to stir up opposition to the appointment of William as Ruward of Brabant. The populace however in Ghent was Orangist, and, rising in revolt, seized Aerschot and a number of other Catholic leaders and threw them into prison. They were speedily released, but the breach between the Catholic nobles and the Calvinist stadholder of Holland was widened. William himself saw in the coming of Matthias a favourable opportunity for securing the erection of the Netherlands into a constitutional State under the nominal rule of a Habsburg prince. By his influence, therefore, the States-General entered into negotiations with the Archduke; and Matthias finally was recognised (December 8) as governor on condition that he accepted the Union of Brussels, He was also induced to place the real power in the hands of Orange with the title of Lieutenant-General. Matthias made his state entry into Brussels, January 18, 1578. His position appeared to be strengthened by a treaty concluded with the English queen (January 7) by which Elizabeth promised to send over a body of troops and to grant a subsidy to the States, for the repayment of which the towns of Middelburg, Bruges and Gravelines were to be pledges.

The news however of the step taken by Matthias had had more effect upon Philip II than the despairing appeals of his half-brother. A powerful army of tried Spanish and Italian troops under the command of Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma, son of the former regent Margaret, was sent to Flanders. Farnese was Don John's nephew, and they had been brought up together at Madrid, being almost of the same age. Already Philip had determined to replace Don John, whose brilliance as a leader in the field did not compensate for his lack of statesmanlike qualities. In Farnese, whether by good fortune or deliberate choice, he had at length found a consummate general who was to prove himself a match even for William the Silent in all the arts of political combination and intrigue. At Gembloux, January 31, Don John and Parma fell upon the levies of the States and gained a complete and almost bloodless victory. Had Philip supplied his governor-general with the money he asked for, Don John might now have conquered the whole of the southern Netherlands, but without funds he could achieve little.

Meanwhile all was confusion. The States-General withdrew from Brussels to Antwerp; and William, finding that Matthias was useless, began negotiations with France, England and Germany in the hope of finding in this emergency some other foreign prince ready to brave the wrath of Philip by accepting the suzerainty of the Netherlands. The Duke of Anjou, brother of the French king, was the favoured candidate of the Catholic party; and William, whose one aim was to secure the aid of a powerful protector in the struggle against Spain, was ready to accept him. Anjou at the head of an army of 15,000 men crossed the frontier at Mons, July 12; and, on the following August 13, a treaty was agreed upon between him and the States-General, by which the French duke, with the title of Defender of the Liberties of the Netherlands, undertook to help the States to expel the Spaniards from the Low Countries. But, to add to the complications of the situation, a German force under the command of John Casimir, brother of the Elector Palatine, and in the pay of Queen Elizabeth, invaded the hapless provinces from the east. The advent of John Casimir was greeted with enthusiasm by the Calvinist party; and it required all the skill and sagacity of the Prince of Orange to keep the peace and prevent the rival interests from breaking out into open strife in the face of the common enemy. But Don John was helpless, his repeated appeals for financial help remained unanswered, and, sick at heart and weary of life, he contracted a fever and died in his camp at Namur, October 1, 1578. His successor in the governor-generalship was Alexander of Parma, who had now before him a splendid field for the exercise of his great abilities.

The remainder of the year 1578 saw a violent recrudescence of religious bitterness. In vain did Orange, who throughout his later life was a genuine and earnest advocate of religious toleration, strive to the utmost of his powers and with untiring patience to allay the suspicions and fears of the zealots. John Casimir at Ghent, in the fervour of his fanatical Calvinism, committed acts of violence and oppression, which had the very worst effect in the Walloon provinces. In this part of the Netherlands Catholicism was dominant; and there had always been in the provinces of Hainault, Artois, and in the southern districts generally, a feeling of distrust towards Orange. The upholding of the principle of religious toleration by a man who had twice changed his faith was itself suspect; and Farnese left no means untried for increasing this growing anti-Orange feeling among the Catholic nobles. A party was formed, which bore the name of "The Malcontents," whose leaders were Montigny, Lalaing and La Motte. With these the governor-general entered into negotiations, with the result that an alliance was made between Hainault, Artois, Lille, Douay and Orchies (January 6, 1579), called the Union of Arras, for the maintenance of the Catholic faith, by which these Walloon provinces and towns expressed their readiness to submit to the king on condition that he were willing to agree to uphold their rights and privileges in accordance with the provisions of the Pacification of Ghent. The Union of Arras did not as yet mean a complete reconciliation with the Spanish sovereign, but it did mean the beginning of a breach between the Calvinist north and the Catholic south, which the statecraft of Parma gradually widened into an impossible chasm. Before this took place, Anjou, Matthias and John Casimir had alike withdrawn from the scene of anarchic confusion, in which for a brief time each had been trying to compass his own ambitious ends in selfish indifference to the welfare of the people they were proposing to deliver from the Spanish yoke. The opening of the year 1579 saw Orange and Parma face to face preparing to measure their strength in a grim struggle for the mastery.

In the very same month as witnessed the signing of the Union of Arras, a rival union had been formed in the northern Netherlands, which was destined to be much more permanent. The real author however of the Union of Utrecht was not Orange, but his brother, John of Nassau. In March, 1578, John had been elected Stadholder of Gelderland. He, like William, had devoted himself heart and soul to the cause of Netherland freedom, but his Calvinism was far more pronounced than his brother's. From the moment of his acceptance of the stadholdership he set to work to effect a close union between Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht with Gelderland and the adjoining districts which lay around the Zuyder Zee. It was a difficult task, since the eastern provinces were afraid (and not unjustly) that its much greater wealth would give Holland predominance in the proposed confederation. Nevertheless it was accomplished, and an Act of Union was drawn up and signed at Utrecht, January 29, 1579, by the representatives of Holland, Zeeland, the town and district (sticht) of Utrecht, Gelderland and Zutphen, by which they agreed to defend their rights and liberties and to resist all foreign intervention in their affairs by common action as if they were one province, and to establish and maintain freedom of conscience and of worship within their boundaries. William does not seem at first to have been altogether pleased with his brother's handiwork. He still hoped that a confederation on a much wider scale might have been formed, comprising the greater part of those who had appended their signatures to the Pacification of Ghent. It was not until some months had passed and he saw that his dreams of a larger union were not to be realised, that he signed, on May 3, the Act of Union drawn up at Utrecht. By this time he was well aware that Parma had succeeded in winning over the malcontent nobles to accept his terms. On May 19 the Walloon provinces, whose representatives had signed the Union of Arras, agreed to acknowledge, with certain nominal reservations, the sovereignty of Philip and to allow only Catholic worship. In fact the reconciliation was complete.

Thus, despite the efforts of Orange, the idea of the federation of all the seventeen provinces on national lines became a thing of the past, henceforth unattainable. The Netherlands were divided into two camps. Gradually in the course of 1580 Overyssel, Drente and the greater part of Friesland gave in their adherence to the Union of Utrecht, and Groningen and the Ommelanden allied themselves with their neighbours. In the rest of the Low Countries all fell away and submitted themselves to the king's authority, except Antwerp and Breda in Brabant, and Ghent, Bruges and Ypres in Flanders. William felt that Parma was constantly gaining ground. Defection after defection took place, the most serious being that of George Lalaing, Count of Renneberg, the Stadholder of Groningen. Negotiations were indeed secretly opened with William himself, and the most advantageous and flattering terms offered to him, if he would desert the patriot cause. But with him opposition to Spain and to Spanish methods of government was a matter of principle and strong conviction. He was proof alike against bribery and cajolery, even when he perceived, as the year 1580 succeeded 1579, that he had no staunch friends on whom he could absolutely rely, save in the devoted provinces of Holland and Zeeland.

For things had been going from bad to worse. The excesses and cruelties committed by the Calvinists, wherever they found themselves in a position to persecute a Catholic minority, and especially the outrages perpetrated at Ghent under the leadership of two Calvinist fanatics, De Ryhove and De Hembyze, although they were done in direct opposition to the wishes and efforts of Orange, always and at all times the champion of toleration, did much to discredit him in Flanders and Brabant and to excite bitter indignation among the Catholics, who still formed the great majority of the population of the Netherlands. William felt himself to be month by month losing power. The action he was at last compelled to take, in rescuing Ghent from the hands of the ultra-democratic Calvinist party and in expelling De Ryhove and De Hembyze, caused him to be denounced as "a papist at heart." Indeed the bigots of both creeds in that age of intolerance and persecution were utterly unable to understand his attitude, and could only attribute it to a lack of any sincere religious belief at all. Farnese, meanwhile, whose genius for Machiavellian statesmanship was as remarkable as those gifts for leadership in war which entitled him to rank as the first general of his time, was a man who never failed to take full advantage of the mistakes and weaknesses of his opponents. At the head of a veteran force he laid siege in the spring of 1579 to the important frontier town of Maestricht. He encountered a desperate resistance, worthy of the defence of Haarlem or of Leyden, and for four months the garrison held out grimly in the hope of relief. But, despite all the efforts of Orange to despatch an adequate force to raise the siege, at last (June 29) the town was carried by assault and delivered up for three days to the fury of a savage soldiery. By the possession of this key to the Meuse, Parma was now able to cut off communications between Brabant and Protestant Germany. Had he indeed been adequately supported by Philip it is probable that at this time all the provinces up to the borders of Holland might have been brought into subjection by the Spanish forces.

The position of William was beset with perils on every side. One by one his adherents were deserting him; even in the provinces of Holland and Zeeland he was losing ground. He saw clearly that without foreign help the national cause for which he had sacrificed everything was doomed. In this emergency he reopened negotiations with Anjou, not because he had any trust in the French prince's capacity or sincerity, but for the simple reason that there was no one else to whom he could turn. As heir to the throne of France and at this time the favoured suitor of Queen Elizabeth, his acceptance of the sovereignty of the Netherlands would secure, so Orange calculated, the support both of France and England. It was his hope also that the limiting conditions attached to the offer of sovereignty would enable him to exercise a strong personal control over a man of weak character like Anjou. The Duke's vanity and ambition were flattered by the proposal; and on September 19, 1580, a provisional treaty was signed at Plessis-les-Tours by which Anjou accepted the offer that was made to him, and showed himself quite ready to agree to any limitations imposed upon his authority, since he had not any intention, when once he held the reins of power, of observing them.

The first effect of William's negotiations with Anjou was to alienate the Calvinists without gaining over the Catholics. Anjou was suspect to both. The action of the Spanish government, however, at this critical juncture did much to restore the credit of the prince with all to whom the Spanish tyranny and the memory of Alva were abhorrent. Cardinal Granvelle, after fifteen years of semi-exile in Italy, had lately been summoned to Madrid to become chief adviser to the king. Granvelle spared no pains to impress upon Philip the necessity of getting rid of Orange as the chief obstacle to the pacification of the Netherlands, and advised that a price should be placed upon his life. "The very fear of it will paralyse or kill him" was the opinion of the cardinal, who ought to have had a better understanding of the temper and character of his old adversary. Accordingly at Maestricht, March 15, 1581, "a ban and edict in form of proscription" was published against the prince, who was denounced as "a traitor and miscreant, an enemy of ourselves and of our country"; and all and everywhere empowered "to seize the person and g

oods of this William of Nassau, as enemy of the human race." A solemn promise was also made "to anyone who has the heart to free us of this pest, and who will deliver him dead or alive, or take his life, the sum of 25,000 crowns in gold or in estates for himself and his heirs; and we will pardon him any crimes of which he has been guilty, and give him a patent of nobility, if he be not noble." It is a document which, however abhorrent or loathsome it may appear to us, was characteristic of the age in which it was promulgated and in accordance with the ideas of that cruel time. The ban was a declaration of war to the knife, and as such it was received and answered.

In reply to the ban the prince at the close of the year (December 13) published a very lengthy defence of his life and actions, the famous Apology. To William himself is undoubtedly due the material which the document embodies and the argument it contains, but it was almost certainly not written by him, but by his chaplain, Pierre L'Oyseleur, Seigneur de Villiers, to whom it owes its rather ponderous prolixity and redundant verbiage. Historically it is of very considerable value, though the facts are not always to be relied upon as strictly accurate. The Apology was translated into several languages and distributed to the leading personages in every neighbouring country, and made a deep impression on men's minds.

The combined effect of the Ban and the Apology was to strengthen William's position in all the provinces where the patriot party still held the upper hand; and he was not slow to take advantage of the strong anti-Spanish feeling which was aroused. Its intensity was shown by the solemn Act of Abjuration, July 26, 1581, by which the provinces of Brabant, Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Gelderland renounced their allegiance to Philip II on the ground of his tyranny and misrule. But after signing this Act it never seems to have occurred to the prince or to the representatives of the provinces, that these now derelict territories could remain without a personal sovereign. Orange used all his influence and persuasiveness to induce them to accept Anjou. Anjou, as we have seen, had already agreed to the conditions under which he should, when invited, become "prince and lord" of the Netherlands. In the autumn of 1581 the position was an ambiguous one. The States-General claimed that, after the abjuration of Philip, the sovereignty of the provinces had reverted to them, as the common representative of a group of provinces that were now sovereign in their own right, and that the conferring of that sovereignty on another overlord was their prerogative. The position of Orange was peculiar, for de facto under one title or another he exercised the chief authority in each one of the rebel provinces, but in the name of the States-General, instead of the king. His influence indeed was so great as to over-shadow that of the States-General, but great as it was, it had to be exerted to the utmost before that body could be induced to accept a man of Anjou's despicable and untrustworthy character as their new ruler. William however had committed himself to the candidature of the duke, through lack of any fitter choice; and at last both the States-General and the several provincial Estates (Holland and Zeeland excepted) agreed to confer the sovereignty upon the French prince subject to the conditions of the treaty of Plessis-les-Tours.

William himself exercised the powers with which Holland and Zeeland had invested him in the name of the king, whose stadholder he was, even when waging war against him. After the Abjuration this pretence could no longer be maintained. The Estates of Holland and Zeeland had indeed petitioned Orange to become their count, but he refused the title, fearing to give umbrage to Anjou. Finding, however, the two provinces resolute in their opposition to the Valois prince, he consented, July 24, 1581, to exercise provisionally, as if he were count, the powers of "high supremacy," which had already been conferred upon him. Meanwhile Anjou was dallying in England, but on receiving through Ste Aldegonde an intimation that the States could brook no further delay, he set sail and landed at Flushing. Lord Leicester and a brilliant English escort accompanied him; and Elizabeth asked the States to receive her suitor as "her own self." At Antwerp, where he took up his residence, Anjou was (February 19) solemnly invested with the duchy of Brabant, and received the homage of his new subjects. He was far from popular, and William remained at his side to give him support and counsel. On March 18 (Anjou's birthday) an untoward event occurred, which threatened to have most disastrous consequences. As Orange was leaving the dinner-table, a young Biscayan, Juan Jaureguy by name, attempted his assassination, by firing a pistol at him. The ball entered the head by the right ear and passed through the palate. Jaureguy was instantly killed and it was afterwards found that he had, for the sake of the reward, been instigated to the deed by his master, a merchant named Caspar Anastro. Anjou, who was at first suspected of being accessory to the crime, was thus exculpated. It was a terrible wound and William's life was for some time in great danger; but by the assiduous care of his physicians and nurses he very slowly recovered, and was strong enough, on May 2, to attend a solemn service of thanksgiving. The shock of the event and the long weeks of anxiety were however too heavy a strain upon his wife, Charlotte de Bourbon, who had recently given birth to their sixth daughter. Her death, on May 5, was deeply grieved by the prince, for Charlotte had been a most devoted helpmeet and adviser to him throughout the anxious years of their married life. During the whole of the summer and autumn William remained at Antwerp, patiently trying to smooth away the difficulties caused by the dislike and suspicion felt by the Netherlanders for the man whom they were asked to recognise as their sovereign. It was an arduous task, but William, at the cost of his own popularity, succeeded in getting the duke acknowledged in July as Lord of Friesland and Duke of Gelderland, and in August Anjou was solemnly installed at Bruges, as Count of Flanders. Meanwhile he was planning, with the help of the large French force which Anjou had undertaken to bring into the Netherlands, to take the offensive against Parma. The truth is that he and Anjou were really playing at cross-purposes. Orange wished Anjou to be the roi-fainéant of a United Netherland state of which he himself should be the real ruler, but Anjou had no intention of being treated as a second Matthias. He secretly determined to make himself master of Antwerp by a sudden attack and, this achieved, to proceed to seize by force of arms some of the other principal cities and to make himself sovereign in reality as well as in name. He resented his dependence upon Orange and was resolved to rid himself of it. With shameless treachery in the early morning of January 17, 1583, he paid a visit to the prince in Antwerp, and, with the object of gaining possession of his person, tried to persuade him to attend a review of the French regiments who were encamped outside the town. The suspicions of William had however been aroused, and he pleaded some excuse for declining the invitation. At midday some thousands of Anjou's troops rushed into the city at the dinner-hour with loud cries of "Ville gagnée! Tue! Tue!" But the citizens flew to arms; barricades were erected; and finally the French were driven out with heavy loss, leaving some 1500 prisoners in the hands of the town-guard. Many French nobles perished, and the "French Fury," as it was called, was an ignominious and ghastly failure. Indignation was wide and deep throughout the provinces; and William's efforts to calm the excitement and patch up some fresh agreement with the false Valois, though for the moment partially successful, only added to his own growing unpopularity.

The prince in fact was so wedded to the idea that the only hope for the provinces lay in securing French aid that he seemed unable to convince himself that Anjou after this act of base treachery was impossible. His continued support of the duke only served to alienate the people of Brabant and Flanders. The Protestants hated the thought of having as their sovereign a prince who was a Catholic and whose mother and brothers were looked upon by them as the authors of the massacre of St Bartholomew. The Catholics, cajoled by Parma's fair words, and alarmed by the steady progress of his arms, were already inclining to return to their old allegiance. The marriage of Orange, April 7, 1583, to Louise, daughter of the famous Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny, and widow of the Sieur de Téligny, added to the feelings of distrust and hostility he had already aroused, for the bride was a Frenchwoman and both her father and husband had perished on the fatal St Bartholomew's day.

Finding himself exposed to insult, and his life ever in danger, William, at the end of July, left Antwerp and took up his residence again at Delft in the midst of his faithful Hollanders. They, too, disliked his French proclivities, but his alliance with Louise de Téligny seemed to be an additional pledge to these strong Calvinists of his religious sincerity.

Meanwhile Anjou had already returned to France; and Parma had now a freer field for his advance northwards and, though sorely hampered by lack of funds, was rapidly taking town after town. In the spring of 1584 he took Ypres and Bruges, and a strong party in Ghent was in traitorous correspondence with him. Many nobles had fallen away from the patriot cause, among them William's brother-in-law, Count van den Berg, who had succeeded John of Nassau as Stadholder of Gelderland. The hold of Orange upon Brabant and the Scheldt was, however, still ensured by the possession of Antwerp, of which strongly fortified town the trusty Ste Aldegonde was governor.

Meanwhile the prince, who was still striving hard to persuade the provinces that were hostile to Spanish rule that their only hope lay in obtaining aid from France through Anjou, was living at the old convent of St Agatha, afterwards known as the Prinsenhof at Delft. His manner of life was of the most modest and homely kind, just like that of an ordinary Dutch burgher. He was in fact deeply in debt, terribly worried with the outward aspect of things, and his position became one of growing difficulty, for on June 10, 1584, the miserable Anjou died, and the policy on which he had for so long expended his best efforts was wrecked. Even his own recognition as Count of Holland and Zeeland had led to endless negotiations between the Estates and the various town councils which claimed to have a voice in the matter; and in July, 1584, he had, though provisionally exercising sovereign authority, not yet received formal homage. And all this time, in addition to the other cares that weighed heavily upon him, there was the continual dread of assassination. Ever since the failure of the attempt of Jaureguy, there had been a constant succession of plots against the life of the rebel leader and heretic at the instigation of the Spanish government, and with the knowledge of Parma. Religious fanaticism, loyalty to the legitimate sovereign, together with the more sordid motive of pecuniary reward, made many eager to undertake the murderous commission. It was made the easier from the fact that the prince always refused to surround himself with guards or to take any special precautions, and was always easy of access. Many schemes and proposed attempts came to nothing either through the vigilance of William's spies or through the lack of courage of the would-be assassins. A youth named Balthazar Gérard had however become obsessed with the conviction that he had a special mission to accomplish the deed in which Jaureguy had failed, and he devoted himself to the task of ridding the world of one whom he looked upon as the arch-enemy of God and the king. Under the false name of Francis Guyon he made his way to Delft, pretended to be a zealous Calvinist flying from persecution, and went about begging for alms. The prince, even in his poverty always charitable, hearing of his needy condition sent to the man a present of twelve crowns. With this gift Gérard bought a pair of pistols and on July 10, 1584, having managed on some pretext to gain admittance to the Prinsenhof, he concealed himself in a dark corner by the stairs just opposite the door of the room where William and his family were dining. As the prince, accompanied by his wife, three of his daughters and one of his sisters, came out and was approaching the staircase, the assassin darted forward and fired two bullets into his breast. The wound was mortal; William fell to the ground and speedily expired. Tradition says that, as he fell, he exclaimed in French: "My God, have pity on my soul! My God, have pity on this poor people!" But an examination of contemporary records of the murder throws considerable doubt on the statement that such words were uttered. The nature of the wound was such that the probability is that intelligible speech was impossible.

Balthazar Gérard gloried in his deed, and bore the excruciating tortures which were inflicted upon him with almost superhuman patience and courage. He looked upon himself as a martyr in a holy cause, and as such he was regarded by Catholic public opinion. His deed was praised both by Granvelle and Parma, and Philip bestowed a patent of nobility on his family, and exempted them from taxation.

In Holland there was deep and general grief at the tragic ending of the great leader, who had for so many years been the fearless and indefatigable champion of their resistance to civil and religious tyranny. He was accorded a public funeral and buried with great pomp in the Nieuwe Kerk at Delft, where a stately memorial, recording his many high qualities and services, was erected to his memory.

William of Orange was but fifty-one years of age when his life was thus prematurely ended, and though he had been much aged by the cares and anxieties of a crushing responsibility, his physicians declared that at the time of his death he was perfectly healthy and that he might have been spared to carry on his work for many years, had he escaped the bullets of the assassin. But it was not to be. It is possible that he should be reckoned in the number of those whose manner of death sets the seal to a life-work of continuous self-sacrifice. The title of "Father of his Country," which was affectionately given to him by Hollanders of every class, was never more deservedly bestowed, for it was in the Holland that his exertions had freed and that he had made the impregnable fortress of the resistance to Spain that he ever felt more at home than anywhere else. It was in the midst of his own people that he laid down the life that had been consecrated to their cause. As a general he had never been successful. As a statesman he had failed to accomplish that union of the Netherlands, north and south, which at one triumphant moment had seemed to be well-nigh realised by the Pacification of Ghent. But he had by the spirit that he had aroused in Holland and its sister province of Zeeland created a barrier against Spanish domination in the northern Netherlands which was not to be broken down.

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