The Rise of the Seventeen Provinces

The great struggle which William, Prince of Orange, was maintaining for the liberty of the Netherlands, had now reached a well-defined stage. The Northern provinces were united under him as Stadtholder, or virtual monarch. In his hands he held all administrative and legislative power. He had within his power to make peace or to wage war. All government offices were by his appointment; he disposed of all affairs.

The States had unbounded trust in his wisdom, his patriotism, and his uprightness. They saw in him an inspiring example of devotion to his country, devoid of all ambitions save that of maintaining the Protestant religion and the freedom of Holland. They knew that he sought neither title, nor power, nor wealth; and so "King of Holland" appeared to them a weak title—they called him the "Father of Their Country."

The great Powers of Europe watched with wonder and amazement this gigantic struggle maintained by a handful of men on a small and half-submerged territory, against the greatest monarch and most powerful nation of his day. The heroism displayed challenged their admiration. It was no mere Dutch quarrel; the cause was a worldwide one, and yet none of the more powerful nations interfered either to bring aid to that champion who seemed ever on the point of being overborne, or to expedite the victory on the powerful side. All stood indifferent and left these two most unequal combatants to fight out the matter between them. Providence meant to teach men that Protestantism could triumph independently of the aid of the powers friendly to it. The great ones of the earth stood aloof; but William, as he told his friends, had contracted a firm alliance with a mighty Potentate, with Him who is King of kings; and seeing, this invisible but omnipotent Ally, he endured in the awful conflict till at last his faith was crowned with a glorious victory.

Many in England privately followed the banners of the Prince of Orange with their hopes and their prayers. Elizabeth, though secretly friendly to William and the cause of Dutch independence, had to shape her conduct so as to balance conflicting interests. Her throne was surrounded with intrigues, and her person with perils. These prevented her from supporting the cause of Protestantism in Holland with arms or, to any great extent, with money. But if she dared not extend it open support, neither did she openly declare against it.

France was Roman Catholic and Protestant by turns. At this moment it had made a peace with the Huguenots, which promised them everything but in reality gave them nothing and was destined to expire within the year. The Medici-Valois house that ruled France was ready to enter any alliance that would spite either Philip or Elizabeth; and in order to assume the title of King of the Netherlands, might have championed the cause of Dutch Protestantism for an hour, though in the end it would have ruined it forever. This made France an object of both hope and fear to William of Orange, as well as to Elizabeth. The fearful memory of the horror of the St. Bartholomew massacre still lingered in the mind of William, leading him to be very apprehensive of any offers of help from the Court at Louvre.

But what of Protestant Germany, with which the Prince of Orange had so close a relationship? Many of its princes seemed to be Protestant for no other reason but that it enabled them to increase their revenues by appropriations from the lands of the Roman Catholics. It could hardly be expected that Protestants of this character would feel any great interest in the struggle taking place in Holland. The chief cause of the coldness of Germany was, however, the rivalry that divided the Lutherans from the Reformed. That difference had been widening ever since the day at Marburg when Luther had barely been able to receive Zwingle and his associates as brethren. Many of the men who succeeded Luther lacked even that small measure of charity. For William of Orange to be a Calvinist was, in the eyes of many Lutherans, to be a heretic. The opinions adopted by the Church of Holland on the subject of the Sacrament were the same as those received by the churches of Switzerland and England, hence the coldness of Germany to the great battle for Protestantism taking place at its very borders.

William, seeing England indecisive, France untrustworthy, and Germany cold, withdrew his eyes from abroad in seeking for allies and aids and fixed them nearer home. Might he not make another attempt to consolidate the cause of Protestant liberty in the Netherlands themselves?

The frequent outbreaks of massacre and devastation were deepening the hatred of the Spanish rule in the minds of the Flemings, and it might be that they were prepared to join with their brethren of Holland and Zealand in an effort to throw off the yoke of Philip. The chief difficulty to such an alliance, as William saw it, was the difference of religion. In Holland and Zealand the Reformed faith was now the established religion, whereas in the other fifteen Provinces, the national faith was Roman Catholicism. Popery had experienced a marked revival in the southern provinces of the Netherlands. The vast majority of the Flemings were so attached to the Church of Rome that they would rather die than renounce their faith. This made the patriotic project which William now contemplated a matter of great delicacy, but it did not discourage him from attempting it. The Flemish Catholics, not less than the Dutch Calvinist, felt the smart of the Spanish steel and might be roused to vindicate the honor of a common country and expel the murderous hordes of a common enemy. Requesens, the former Spanish governor, was dead; and the government was, for the time, in the hands of the State Council. Fresh atrocities by the Spanish soldiers gave added weight to William’s appeal as he urged that now was the time when they might deliver themselves forever from the tyranny of Spain. He pointed out that there was nothing worse to be dreaded than what they had already suffered and nothing to deter them from resolving either to expel their grasping tyrants or to perish in the glorious attempt. To stimulate them to the effort to which he called them, he pointed to what Holland and Zealand, single-handedly, had done; and that if this handful of cities had accomplished so much, what might not the combined strength of all the provinces achieve?

His appeal was not ignored. In November, 1576, a congress composed of deputies from all the States assembled at Ghent. Aroused by the Antwerp Fury, which took place while the congress was assembled, the assembly formulated the “Pacification of Ghent.” This “Pacification” was a monument of the diplomatic genius, as well as patriotism, of William the Silent. The States agreed to bury all past differences and to unite their arms in order to effect the expulsion of the Spanish from their country. It was agreed that the Inquisition should be abolished, the Reformed faith should be the religion of the two States of Holland and Zealand, and that no Catholic should be oppressed on account of his opinion. In the other fifteen Provinces, the religion then professed, that is Roman Catholicism, was to be the established worship and no Protestant was to suffer for conscience sake. In short, the basis of the treaty was one of religious tolerance.

With this vastly strengthened alliance, one would have expected that the struggle for freedom would be waged with greater vigor and success, but such was not the case. An element of weakness had crept in. The reason for this is easily explained. The struggle on both sides was one for religion. Philip had made void all the charters of ancient freedom, abolishing all the privileges of the cities in order to force upon the Netherlands the faith and worship of Rome. On the other hand, William and the States that were of his mind strove to revive these ancient charters and privileges that they might enjoy freedom of conscience and freedom to profess the Protestant religion. In the fifteen provinces of the southern Netherlands, the Protestants who had once lived there had long since been hanged, burned, or otherwise chased away. The Pacification, in fact, created two armies by proposing two objects or ends.

To the Catholics, the yoke of Spain would in time be made easy enough; for the Inquisition, and the bishops were things that threatened no great terrors to men who did not need their persuasion to believe, or at least profess their dogma. Not feeling so severely the sting of the Spanish yoke, they could not be expected to make more than half-hearted efforts to throw it off. The Protestants, however, who felt that sting in all its force, could not stop in their great struggle until they had ridded themselves completely of Spanish tyranny. Thus, William found that the Pacification of Ghent had introduced among the Confederates, divided counsels, unhurried action, and uncertain aims.

Don Juan of Austria

Meanwhile, Don John of Austria, the newly appointed governor, arrived in the Low Countries. He brought with him the immense prestige of being the son of Charles V, brother to Philip, and the hero of Lepanto, where he had made Christianity to triumph over the Turks in the bloody battle of the Lepantine Gulf. He arrived to find that the seventeen provinces had banded together to drive out the Spanish army and to reassert their independence. Before they would allow him to enter, they demanded of him an oath to execute the Pacification of Ghent. Much as he disliked doing so, he found that he must agree to support the Pacification, or else return to Spain. Giving his promise, he entered, after dismissing all the foreign troops which now returned to Italy. With the departure of the soldiers, the brilliant and ambitious young governor seemed to have abandoned all hope of his cherished ambition of establishing the Catholic religion. There was now great rejoicing in the Provinces.

But Don John trusted to recover by intrigue what he had surrendered from necessity. No sooner was he installed at Brussels than he opened negotiations with the Prince of Orange in the hope of winning him to his side, completely underestimating the profound piety and grand aims of William. He even attempted to restore the Roman religion in exclusive dominance in Holland and Zealand. William had no difficulty in discerning John's true character and real design, and he was immovable despite all of the arts of the viceroy.

Step by step Don John advanced to his design. Soon, intercepted letters from Don John to Philip II fully unmasked the designs of the governor and completed the astonishment and alarm of the States. These letters urged the speedy return of the Spanish troops. This discovery of the viceroy's baseness raised the admiration of the Flemings for William, who had given them early warning of the deceitfulness of the governor and the cruel designs he was plotting. Thereupon the provinces, for a third time, threw off their allegiance to Philip II, declaring that Don John was no longer a legitimate governor of the Provinces. Calling the Prince of Orange to Brussels, they installed him as Governor of Brabant, a dignity which had been bestowed hitherto only on the viceroys of Spain. As the prince passed along in his barge from Antwerp to Brussels, thousands crowded to the banks of the canal to gaze on the great patriot and hero on whose single shoulder rested the weight of this struggle with the mightiest empire then in existence. Their admiration and enthusiasm knew no bounds.

This was the third and last time that liberty offered herself to the Flemings; so it was the fairest opportunity the provinces ever had of placing their independence on a firm and permanent foundation. The Spanish soldiers were withdrawn, the king’s finances were exhausted, the provinces were united in a bond in the pursuit of their common cause, and they had at their head a man of superb ability, of incorruptible patriotism, to guide the struggle to a glorious completion.

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