The Death of William the Silent

Protestantism’s progress in the Low Countries, though profoundly peaceful in the majority of cases, was attended with tumult in one or two instances. In Haarlem, the Protestants rose on a Communion Sunday, and, coming upon the priests in the cathedral while in the act of kindling their tapers and unfurling their banners, dispossessed them of their church. In the tumult, a priest was slain; but the soldier who did the deed atoned for it with his life. The other rioters were summoned by tuck of drum to restore the articles they had stolen; and by a public declaration, the Catholic party was assured of the free exercise of its religion.

Amsterdam, the capital of Protestant Holland, remained in the hands of the Catholics. It was agreed, however, that Amsterdam would ally itself with the States of Holland, swearing allegiance to the Prince of Orange as its Stadtholder, on condition that the Roman Catholic faith were the only one publicly professed in the city, with right to all Protestants to practice their own worship, without molestation, outside the walls. To this was added the concession that all who had been driven away because of religious differences should be free to return and admitted to their former rights and privileges. Because of the large number of Protestant exiles who returned, the confessors of the Reformed faith were soon a vast majority of the citizens, leaving scarcely any Catholics in Amsterdam other than the magistrates and the friars. A plan was now devised for bringing the government into harmony with the popular sentiment. On the 26th of May, 1578, the Stadthouse was surrounded by armed citizens; and the magistrates, along with the Catholic clergy, were escorted from the city. A crowd gathered and followed them shouting, "To the gallows! to the gallows with them, whither they have sent so many better men before them!"

The terrified prisoners little doubted but that they were being led to their execution. They were conducted to the river's edge and placed on board boats that carried them to St. Anthony's Dyke where they were left at liberty to go wherever they would, with one limitation. If they ever again entered Amsterdam, it would be at the cost of their lives. Thus, without the shedding of blood, Protestantism was established in Amsterdam. The liberal government that was formed allowed the Lutherans and Anabaptists to meet openly for their worship, and the Papists were allowed to practice theirs in private.

William of Orange

The first National Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church met at Dort on the 2nd of June, 1578. This body, in a petition equally distinguished for the strength of its reasoning and the liberality of its sentiments, urged the States-General to make provision for the free exercise of the Reformed religion as the foundation for the peace of the Provinces. Its general basis was the equal toleration of both religions throughout the Netherlands. In Holland and Zealand, where the Catholic worship had been suppressed, it was to be restored in all places where a hundred resident families desired it, with a similar arrangement in favor of the Protestant faith in the Catholic Provinces. Nowhere, however, was the private exercise of either faith to be obstructed. This plan was approved by the States-General, and William was overjoyed to see his most ardent hopes of a united Fatherland and the vigorous prosecution of its great battle against a common tyranny about to be crowned.

But these bright hopes were only for a moment. The Roman Catholic nobles, in their horror of Protestantism, forgot their dread of the Spaniards and, rather than tolerate that which they deemed heresy, were willing to bear the yoke of Philip. Something like a civil war raged in the Southern Netherlands, and the sword that ought to have been drawn against the common foe was turned against itself. The hour for achieving liberty had passed, and for nearly three centuries these provinces were to know nothing of independence.

Don John, young, brilliant, ambitious, and the brother of the Spanish king, had come to the Netherlands in the hope of adding to the vast renown he had already won in warring against the Moslems, and of making for himself a great place in Christendom. The scene suddenly changed, however, from one of splendor into blackness. From the moment of his arrival, he was met with one misfortune after another. Withstood and insulted by the obstinate Netherlanders, outwitted and baffled by the great William of Orange, suspected by his jealous brother, Philip II, all his hours were embittered by toil, disappointment, and chagrin. His strength exhausted and his spirit broken, he at last he succumbed to a fever, the fever being followed by delirium. He died before having reached thirty years of age.

Duke of Parma

On his death bed, Don John nominated Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, to succeed him. While his coolness in battle won the confidence of his soldiers, Parma's wisdom, cunning, and patience, won him not a few victories in the area of diplomacy. If brilliant abilities could have assured success, Parma would have quickly reestablished the dominion of Spain in the Netherlands. Setting out to quickly subdue the provinces and restore the supremacy of both Philip and Rome, he captured Maastricht, massacring all but three or four hundred of the thirty-four thousand inhabitants.

To counter the new threat, William was able to form an alliance between seven of the northern provinces; and on January 23, 1579, a treaty was signed. The primary objective of the new alliance was the defense of their common liberties, and to this end they resolved to unite as one province.

The determination of their resolve led the King of Spain to feign a desire for reconciliation; and a Congress was called to be assembled in Cologne, France. While the meetings were in progress, William was approached in behalf of Philip II, by Count Schwartzenburg. He was authorized to offer William any price that he might ask if, in turn, he would leave the cause of the Netherlands. In addition, William was promised payment of his debts, the restitution of his estates, and reimbursement for all his expenses. In short, anything that money could buy, or whatever honor it was within the power of Philip to grant, William could have on the one condition that he betray his country.

Philip's gold could not corrupt William; and at the suggestion of Cardinal Granvelle, Philip responded by placing a price of thirty thousand crowns on William's head, thus making him the mark for all the murderers in Christendom. This cowardly and bloodthirsty act fixed the eyes of all Europe on the Prince of Orange, giving him all of Europe as his audience before which to make his defense. It compelled him to bring forth facts which remain a monument to Philip's inhumanity. After detailing his own efforts for the emancipation of the down-trodden provinces, he ridiculed the idea that a people must remain bound while the monarch is released from every promise, oath, and law. He cast contempt on Philip's lying justification—namely, that the pope had released him from his obligations—branding it as adding blasphemy to tyranny and of adopting a principle that is disruptive to faith among men. He accused him of working through Alva to work in concert with the King of France to exterminate from both France and the Netherlands all who favored the Reformed religion, and named as his source of information the French king. He went on to boldly charge Philip with having killed his former wife and mother of his children in order to have an incestuous marriage relationship. With withering scorn, he spoke of the King of Spain's attempts to frighten him by seeking to raise all the outlaws and criminals in the world against him.

Until this time, Philip had remained the nominal sovereign of the Netherlands; but following the reading of William's Apology, the Confederated Estates renounced their loyalty to Spain and asked William to assume the position of sovereignty. This he agreed to do, conditionally, until the end of the war. Immediately, Philip’s seal was broken, his arms were removed, his name was forbidden to be used on any public deed, and a new oath was administered to all persons in public office and employment.

This is one of the great revolutions of history. For the first time, it demonstrated to the world representative constitutional government. Though enacted on a small scale, it furnished a precedent to be later followed by powerful kingdoms. It is important to note that this is one of the great steps in the birth of Protestantism. A mere desire for liberty could not have carried the Netherlanders through so terrible and prolonged a struggle; it was the new force awakened by religion that enabled them to struggle on, sending thousands upon thousands of martyrs to die for a free conscience and a scriptural faith, without which life was not worth having. Amid the despotisms of Christendom, Protestantism had established a constitutional State that was to foreshadow future changes. In the centuries to follow, Protestantism would, in some cases by its direct agency, in others by its influence, revolutionize all the governments of Europe.

The ban under which Philip had placed the prince eventually began to bear fruit. A short time later, Gaspar Anastro, a Spanish banker in Antwerp, finding himself on the verge of bankruptcy, thought to earn Philip's reward and retrieve his ruined fortunes, while ridding the world of a heretic. Lacking the courage to commit the crime with his own hand, he hired his servant to do so. This man, having received from a priest absolution for his sins and the assurance that the doors of Paradise stood open to him, made his way to the mansion of the prince. As Orange was leaving the dinner table, the man approached him, on the pretense of handing him a petition. As he neared the prince, he placed a loaded pistol close to the prince's head, and fired it. The ball entered a little below William's right ear; passing out through his left jaw. The wound bled profusely, and for some weeks the prince's survival was doubtful. The prayers of the nation that ascended on William's behalf were heard and he recovered to resume his burden. Though the prince survived, his wife, devoted and tenderly beloved by him, worn out with watching and anxiety fell ill of a fever and died. William sorely missed her gentle but heroic spirit, as well as her words of comfort that had so often revived him in his hours of darkness and sorrow.

The next two years witnessed the progressive disorganization of the Southern Netherlands. Under the combined influence of the Jesuits and the diplomacy and arms of the Duke of Parma, the Provinces of Brabant and Flanders began to think that the yoke of Philip was not so heavy and galling as they had once considered it to be. Divisions, distractions, and turmoil followed. In the words of the Burgomaster of Antwerp, “They confessed to a wolf, and they had a wolf's absolution.”

Death of William

It was only in the Northern Provinces that order prevailed. For twenty years William the Silent continued to judged them. Then, during the spring of 1584, a Burgundian, professing to be an ardent Calvinist, and the son of a French Protestant who died for his faith, was able to gain an introduction to William. Unbeknown to William, he was a Papist at heart whose real name was Balthazar Gerard. On July 10, 1584, professing a desire to obtain a passport, Gerard came to the home of the prince. At two o'clock, William rose from dinner and crossed the vestibule on his way to his private apartments above. His foot was already on the second step of the stairs when the assassin, rushing from his hiding place, fired a pistol three times, one shot of which passed through the prince's body, striking the opposite wall. On receiving the wound, William exclaimed: "O my God, have mercy on my soul! O my God, have mercy on this poor people!" Carried into the dining room, he was laid upon a couch, where a few minutes later he breathed his last. Mourned by his countryman as a father is mourned, William was assured a place on one of the brightest pages of history. The little State which Spain had thought to consign to eternal slavery, had under his leadership, set its feet on the road that would one day lead it to a position of respect among the mightiest nations of earth.

◄List of Articles