The Battle of Gibraltar, by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, c.1621 / Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 05.09.2018
1 – Origins of the Revolt
1.1 – Religion
During the 16th century, Protestantism rapidly gained ground in the Dutch Provinces. Initially the Spanish repressed the Protestants, but eventually the local officials tolerated them. At the time the Protestants only formed a minority.
1.2 – Taxation
The Dutch provinces were always a very wealthy region. Under Charles V the Habsburg empire became a worldwide empire with large American and European territories. Due to the wealth of the Dutch, they were taxed heavily, to defend the Habsburg possessions in Europe.
1.3 – Philip II
Portrait of Philip II, by Antonis Mor / Wikimedia Commons
In 1566, Philip II became the King of Spain. Charles, despite his harsh actions, had been seen as a ruler empathetic to the needs of the Netherlands. As soon as Philip became King, he began to suppress Protestantism by sending Spanish Troops, and imposing heavy taxes onto the Dutch. In an effort to build a stable and trustworthy government in the Netherlands, Philip appointed several members of the high nobility of the Netherlands to the States General, the governing body of the seventeen Netherlands. However already in 1558 the states started to contradict Philip’s wishes, by objecting to his tax proposals and demanding the withdrawal of Spanish troops. Petitions to King Philip by the high nobility went unanswered.
2 – The Revolt Begins
2.1 – Introduction
Early in August of 1566, a mob stormed the church of Hondschoote in Flanders (now in Northern France). This relatively small incident spread North and led to a massive iconoclastic movement by Calvinists, who stormed churches and other religious buildings to desecrate and destroy statues and images of Catholic saints all over the Netherlands. The Calvinists said that they were idols. As the nobles began to turn against Spain, Philip realized he had lost control of the Dutch. On August 22, 1567, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba, marched into Brussels with 10,000 troops.
Alba took terrible measures against the Dutch and quickly established his own court. Over one thousand people were executed in the following months, even nobles who tolerated Protestantism were not safe. The large number of executions led the court to be nicknamed the “Blood Court” in the Netherlands, and Alba to be called the “iron duke”. Rather than pacifying the Netherlands, these measures helped to fuel the unrest.
2.2 – William of Orange
Portrait of William of Orange, by Adriaen Thomasz Key, c.1579 / Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons
William I of Orange, also known as William the Silent, was Stadtholder of the provinces of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, and Margrave of Antwerp; and one of the most influential nobles in the States General. After the arrival of Alba he was forced to flee, and his lands were forfeited to the Spanish king.
However, he returned in 1568, and attempted to drive Alba out of Brussels. William said he remained loyal to Philip, but thought Alba was a misguided minister. Though the campaign ended in failure, it saw a Dutch Victory at Battle of Heiligerlee before William’s army ran out of money.
William would continue to be the leader of the revolt for the remainder of his life. Today, he is still remembered in the Netherlands, as “Vader des Vaderlands” which in English means “Father of the Fatherland”.
2.3 – Another Uprising
By 1570 the Spanish had more or less suppressed the rebellion throughout the Netherlands. It was also a year of disaster. On All Saints Day a big storm hit the low lieing areas of the coast of Zeeland and Holland. It wiped away most of the dykes and killed thousands. This flood stands out as one of the more severe ones in the long litany of such events in the country’s history.
There was little help from the authorities. On the contrary, in an attempt to finance the Spanish Army against the Ottoman Empire, Alba proposed the “Tenth Penny”, a 10 per cent levy on all sales other than landed property. At first it was rejected by the States, but soon after a compromise was agreed upon. in 1571, Alba decided to press forward with the collection of the Tenth Penny regardless of the States’ opposition. Catholics and Protestants protested together against this Tenth Penny, in vain. A band of Geuzen, licensed pirates, led mostly by dispossessed members of the lower gentry that had lost their welcome in English ports, attacked and captured the coastal town of Brill on April first 1572. They were welcomed as heroes, particularly by the Protestants. Members of the Catholic clergy did not fare as well. To give their exploits an aura of respectability the pirates decided to declare themselves ‘for the prince’, referring to the Prince of Orange who had tried to inspire rebellion from his exile in Dillenburg in Germany. This was the first permanent foothold for the Dutch in the War.
It would have been a relatively unimportant event if most of the important cities in the provinces of Holland and Zeeland had not declare loyalty to the prince as well, often prodded by their own population’s rallies. Notable exceptions were Amsterdam and Middelburg, which would remain loyal to the Catholic cause until 1578. William the Silent was put at the head of the revolt. He was recognized as Governor-General and Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Friesland and Utrecht. In an attempt to encourage the people to revolt against Spain, William converted to Calvinism, as the Calvinists wanted above all other religions, to revolt.
2.4 – The Response
Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, III Duque de Alba, por Antonio Moro, by Antonis Mor, 1529 / Liria Palace via Wikimedia Commons
The rebellion was still limited to what, in the Burgundian-Habsburg Netherlands, were considered provinces of lesser importance. The rich provinces of Flanders and Brabant, with their ports and textile industry, remained quiet. This allowed the Spanish to attempt to quell the new rebellion. This proved a tedious and expensive process in the marshy lowlands. Naarden fell and its population was decimated. Haarlem underwent a long and horrible siege and its fall cut the rebels’ territory in half. In 1573, Alba attempted to take the city of Alkmaar to the north, but he failed. Leyden to the south also withstood the Spanish onslaught. The Geuzen pierced the dykes to flood the Spanish troops’ positions and finished them off in flat-bottom boats.
2.5 – Bankruptcy
Alba’s failure caused him to be replaced by Luis de Requesens, because his failing policies meant a considerable strain on the Spanish finances. De Requesens, however, did not manage to broker a policy acceptable to both the Spanish king and the Netherlands when he died in early 1576. Spain was forced to declare bankruptcy and the Spanish troops, angered and unpaid, sacked Antwerp, leaving some 8,000 dead.
This pierced the heart of the body politic. The rich merchants of Antwerp who had politely refused to take any political action so far did not like marauding soldiers invading their houses. They used their influence to do what the absentee king least of all wanted: they insisted upon the convening of the parliament, the States General.
The States General convened and decided to do what they had always refused to do for the king: they raised enough money to buy off the marauding troops. Their efforts reunited the provinces in what is known as the Pacification of Ghent. This meant that the other 14 provinces besides Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht were now de facto part of the rebellion because -whether intentional or not- the mercenaries were now in their service rather than the king’s. The king was furious because losing control to the parliament was the last thing he wanted.
He sent an ultimatum to submit to his control immediately and a fresh army from Spain to underline his resolve.
3 – Independence and Partition
3.1 – Introduction
On January 6, 1579, prompted by the new Spanish governor Alexander Farnese and upset by the aggressive Calvinism of the Northern States, some of the Southern States, the so-called Walloon Flanders located in what is now France and Wallonia, signed the Union of Arras, expressing their loyalty to the Spanish king.
In response to the treaty, William united the northern states of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders and the province of Groningen in the Union of Utrecht on January 23, 1579. Other southern cities like Bruges, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp joined the Union of Utrecht. The 17 provinces of the Netherlands were now divided and this partition into what is now the Netherlands and Belgium would prove permanent, despite a brief and emphatically unsuccessful attempt at reunification from 1814-1831.
3.2 – The Leadership Question
William of Orange, was declared an outlaw by Philip II in March 1580. Four years later he was assassinated by Balthasar Gérard, a Catholic and supporter of the Spanish King, on July 10, 1584. Gérard was later tortured to death. William’s dying words were “Oh my God, have mercy on this poor people”. William would be succeeded as leader of the rebellion by his son Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, but the question about the political structure and the leadership of the rebellious Union remained unsettled for a long time
In the late 16th century, it was not conceivable that a country could be governed by anyone but high nobility, if not a king, so the States General tried to find a suitable replacement for Philip. They asked Queen Elizabeth of England, but she declined the offer. On July 26, 1581 the Oath of Abjuration was issued, in which the Netherlands proclaimed that the King of Spain had not upheld his responsibilities to the Netherlands population and would therefore no longer be accepted as rightful king. A few years later, in 1585, Elizabeth agreed to aid the Dutch, but as no one would be their king, the rebellious provinces decided for a rather unlikely option at the time: they became a republic: the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. Many nations recognized the fledgling country shortly after, including France and England.
3.3 – Spain’s Response, Capitalist Beginnings
The Oath of Abjuration – First page from “plakkaat van Verlatinghe” (Or “Oath of Abjuration” in English), by which the United Provinces formally declared their independence from the Spanish king. / Wikimedia Commons
Immediately after the oath of abjuration, Spain sent a new army to recapture the Dutch Republic and a process of reconquest began, concentrating on the ‘important’ provinces like the cities of Flanders. Ghent fell and all of its Protestants fled north. This process led to the expulsion of an estimated 10-15% of the population of the South who would flee to the North, often the more elite part of the population.
In 1585 the Spanish succeeded in capturing Antwerp. They may have believed they had won the war with that, but they allowed most of the merchants to leave, not realizing that without the people who made the trade work all they conquered were brick and stone. The merchants soon set up shop in Amsterdam. Meanwhile Spain had gained control over Portugal and what had been the major port for colonial goods: Lisbon. The merchants of the rebellious Netherlands therefore had no choice but to find ways to acquire the precious spices themselves as they were no longer welcome in Lisbon. They cooperated to raise enough capital for such a risky venture. To do so they developed instruments like shareholdership and insurance. The result was that the rebellious provinces rapidly developed into a merchant dominated oligarchy driven by colonial enterprise based on capitalist -rather than government controlled- principles. All colonies until 1795 would be strictly under control of the VOC or WIC companies. Dutch colonial enterprise was very profitable and quickly made it financially impossible for the Spanish to reconquer the lost provinces, although they would persist until 1648 in trying. However the Dutch model of colonial enterprise also had its drawbacks. Many decisions were strictly based on short-term bottom-line considerations. For example, when Mauritius -unsettled until the Dutch took it- suffered damage from a typhoon the island was simply abandoned because the leadership of the VOC did not deem it profitable to restore the damage. Few on the island speak Dutch today.
4 – International Involvement
4.1 – Introduction
Both England and France had followed the developments in the Netherlands with a keen eye. After all Spain was the sole superpower of its day, but one that seemed rather mired in Dutch peat and clay.
After finding out about English support for the Dutch in 1588, Philip ordered the Spanish Armada to invade England, the mission failed and the Spanish navy was crippled. Under financial and military pressure, in 1598, Philip ceded the Netherlands to his favorite daughter Isabella and to her husband, his nephew Archduke Albert of Austria.
Around this time, Maurice, son of William, launched a number of campaigns and over the next 12 years captured the cities of Breda (1590), Zutphen, Deventer, Delfzijl and Nijmegen (1591), Steenwijk, Coevorden (1592) Geertruidenberg (1593) Groningen (1594) Grol, Enschede, Ootmarsum, Oldenzaal (1597) and Grave (1602). It was during this time when the fighting had left the heart of the republic, that the Dutch advanced into their Golden Age.
After a decisive Dutch victory at the Battle of Gibraltar, Spain and the Dutch Republic agreed to a ceasefire. This resulted in the 12 Years Truce.
4.2 – 12 Years Truce
1609 saw the start of a ceasefire, afterwards called the Twelve Years’ Truce, between the United Provinces and the Spanish controlled southern states, mediated by France and England at The Hague. It was during this ceasefire the Dutch made great efforts to build their navy, which was later to have a crucial bearing on the course of the war.
Negotiations for a permanent peace went on throughout the truce. Two major issues could not be resolved. First, the Spanish demand for religious freedom of Catholics in the northern Netherlands was countered by a Dutch demand for a similar religious freedom for Protestants in the southern Netherlands. Second, there was a growing disagreement over the trade routes to the different colonies which could not be resolved.
4.3 – War Breaks Out Again
Piet Pieterszoon Hein, After Jan Daemen Cool (circa 1589–1660), 1629 copy after a lost original from 1625 / Wikimedia Commons
4.3.1 – Introduction
In 1622, a Spanish attack on the important fortress town of Bergen op Zoom was repelled, but the countries were at war again. This part of the war would be a part of the more extensive Thirty-Years War. In 1625 the Spanish laid siege to the city of Breda, and Maurice died during the siege. After the English failed to relieve the siege, the city was surrendered to the Spanish.
Despite this major victory, the Spanish would face a string of losses, including the Dutch capture of the cities of Groenlo, and Hertogenbosch. The Dutch, led by Piet Pieterszoon Hein, captured a Spanish treasure fleet off the coast of present day Cuba.
As more European countries began to build their empires, the war between the countries extended to colonies as well. Battles for profitable colonies were fought as far away as Macau, East Indies, Ceylon, Formosa (Taiwan), the Philippines, Brazil, and others. The most important of these conflicts would become known as the Dutch-Portuguese War. The Dutch carved out a trading empire all over the world, using their dominance at sea to great advantage.
4.3.2 – Spanish Decline at Sea
In 1639, Spain sent an armada bound for Flanders, carrying 20,000 troops in a last attempt to end what they still thought was a “Revolt”. The armada was defeated by Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp in the Battle of the Downs. This battle was so crushing to the Spanish naval power, it would never fully recover.
5 – Peace
On January 30, 1648, the war ended with the Treaty of Münster between Spain and the Dutch Republic. In the treaty, Spain agreed to recognize Dutch Independence, and finally, after an 80 year struggle, the Dutch Republic was an independent country, recognized by all.
The treaty also confirmed that the new republic was formally independent from the Holy Roman Empire. This was a mere formality because a century before Charles V, both lord of the Netherlands and Emperor, had created the Netherlands as a separate entity in what is known as the Pragmatic Sanction. The 17 provinces were to be inherited together and had their own parliament, not subservient to the German Diet. To squeeze some more money out of the provinces, Charles had insisted that they pay a yearly sum of money to ‘the emperor’ (himself) in exchange for ‘his protection’, but that summed up what little relationships left with the Empire. A century later, in 1648, the Empire was little more than a rubble heap and the Republic the richest state in Europe. The Emperor knew that he needed to drop all expensive pretenses, if even Spain needed to.
The relations between Spain and the Republic would quickly improve and a few years later they were allies, particularly against French aspirations.
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