The Revolt of the Netherlands

The Dutch revolt

In medieval times, the Netherlands were part of the larger Duchy of Burgundy. With the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, the Duchy passed to Maria of Burgundy. She married with Maximilian of Austria, thus combining the Duchy of Burgundy with the Habsburger assets. Their grandson, Charles V, became the ruler of the Netherlands in 1515. One year later, he succeeded his grandfather as king of Spain and the Spanish Americas, and in 1519 he inherited the German Empire from his other grandfather. Charles extended the Burgundian territory with the annexation of Tournai, Artois, Utrecht, Groningen and Guelders Thus Charles V became the ruler of a vast realm, the Holy Roman Empire, witch contained all of the modern-day Netherlands. In 1548, Charles issued a Pragmatic Sanction, declaring the Low Countries to be a unified entity, called the Burgundian Circle.1

In order to manage his extensive lands, Charles was forced to install a strongly centralized government, carried out by trusted representatives, Stadtholders. For the Netherlands he installed the Governess Margaret of Austria. She was assisted by three councils, Conseil d'Etat (Council of States) which had an advisory task, Conseil Secret (Secret Council) which handled justice and home affairs and the Conseil des Finances(Financial Council). At the head of every province, Charles placed a stadtholder. All the provinces got a seigniorial court and he re-established a supreme court in Mechelen.2 The Dutch were not enthusiastic about these reforms. Every province used to have their own rights and privileges. It was not easy for Charles V to submit them all to one centralized rule.3 One of the first problems Charles encountered in the Netherlands was the Reformation that started in Germany. While Charles was a convinced Catholic, the Reformation impressed many of his subjects. Charles fought the spread of Lutheranism and Calvinism as best as he could.4 Through ordinances Charles made it known that there were severe penalties for heresy. However, his strict policy did not prevent the spread of the reformation in his realm. Especially Calvinism became very popular in the Netherlands.5

In 1555 Charles V, tired of ruling, abdicated his throne. His realm was divided between his son, Philip II of Habsburg, King of Spain, and his brother, Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor. The seventeen provinces of the Netherlands went to his son, the king of Spain. He installed his half-sister Margaret of Parma as Governess of the Netherlands.6 The first agitation created by Philips II was the church reforms. The Netherlands did heretofore not have an Archdiocese of their own. The Netherlands were under the rule of the archbishops of Cologne, Reims and Trier. Now Philip divided the Netherlands in three Archdioceses, Utrecht, Mechelen and Cambrai, and fourteen dioceses. He also determined that only theologians could qualify for the position as bishop. This vexed the noble families, who were used to provide their younger sons with this function.7 He also resumed the hard line his father drew against the Protestants in his realm.

Philips did accommodate the noble families somewhat, by giving them functions in the Council of States. He also appointed some nobles as stadtholder. For instance William of Orange, who became stadtholder of the provinces Holland, Utrecht and Zeeland. However, this was not enough. The nobles wanted a more prominent role in the government. Led by William of Orange, they managed to sway Margaret of Parma in dispelling the much disliked archbishop Granvelle in 1564. On the other hand they were most unsuccessful in persuading the king in adapting a milder policy in his actions against Lutherans and Calvinists. In 1565 some lower noblemen became public when they entered into a covenant. They offered Margaret a petition, asking her for more leniencies against Protestants. One of the councilmen of Margaret called them les gueux, beggars.8 They adopted this name as an honorary title for their group and later for everyone who resisted against Spain. Margaret promised that the prosecution of heretics would end for the time being, hoping peace would settle again. This resulted rather in a more open practice of faith by the Protestants.9

In the summer of 1566, Protestants in Flanders destroyed the statues of saints in many catholic churches. In many places this example was followed, resulting in the Beeldenstorm (Statue storm). Philips was much angered by these events and decided on a very harsh approach. He sends his general the Duke of Alva with an army to the Netherlands. When her arrived in 1567, he replaced the governess and installed a special court to judge the offenders of the Beeldenstorm, later called the Blood council. Markedly, the peace was mostly returned to the Netherlands by the time Alva arrived. His untimely arrival was seen as another provocation.10 William of Orange, who had also disliked the Beeldenstorm, had largely succeeded in ending it. He did not wait for the arrival of Alva and fled the country among thousands of others. His fellow high noblemen Egmond and Hoorne were not so fortunate. They thought they would be treated respectfully because of their high status and remained in court. They were both executed in 1568 in Brussels.11 The Blood council proclaimed thousand seventy-one death sentences and eleven thousand hundred and thirty-three banishments, accompanied with confiscation of lands and assets.12


Willem of Orange (1533-1584),
leader of the Dutch revolt against Spain.
Photo: Amsterdam Historical Museum13

William of Orange meanwhile prepared himself in his ancestral land Germany to invade the Netherlands.14 He pawned all his effects in order to raise a small army. His attacks failed immensely, and Orange was bankrupt. All he could to in order to continue the resistance was to issue letters of marques. With these he gave his followers, called the Watergeuzen, permission to enter Spanish ships and to plunder them. On the first of April, 1572, they attacked the city Den Briel. This incursion was the beginning of the Dutch revolt. Some cities in the provinces Holland and Zeeland sided with the rebels en pledged their allegiance to William of Orange. This happened either trough pressure of the armies outside the city walls or when inside supporters of Orange took over the power inside the cities. In 1573 Alva’s forces headed north to recapture the revolting cities. He took the cities Mechelen, Zutphen and Naarden and massacred the population. Later that year he conquered Haarlem. However, at Alkmaar Alva’s siege failed. At sea the Watergeuzen had a great victory over the Spanish ships. In October 1574, the Spanish also had to end the siege of the city Leiden. Meanwhile, William of Orange managed to unite al the provinces of the Netherlands in one cause. The rebelling provinces made an agreement with the States General, the Pacification of Gent. The principles of this treaty were that the Dutch would accept Philips II as their liege, if he would remove all his forces from the Netherlands. On the matter of religion they could not agree.15


The Duke of Alva (1507-1582),
Leader of the Spanish forces against William of Orange.
Photo: Amsterdam Historical Museum16

The treaty did not last. The new governor of the Netherlands, the duke of Parma, made an agreement in 1579 with the southern provinces, Namur, Luxembourg, Limbourg, Hainault and Artois, to end the rebellion against the Spanish king. This treaty was called the Union of Arras. 17 In response the Northern provinces and the large Flemish and Brabant’s city joined in the Union of Utrecht, against the Spanish king. However, Parma managed to capture one Flemish city after the other, thus forcing them to join the Union of Artois.18 In 1580 Philips II declared William of Orange outlaw. Orange responded with an extensive letter of Vindication, claiming that the king himself had breached the contract between lords and vassals and that he was therefore a Tiran.19 Nobody owed their allegiance to a Tiran. Hence Orange opened negotiations to find another liege for the Netherlands.20 Possible candidates were the Duke of Anjou and Queen Elisabeth of England.

In 1581 the rebelling provinces decided to become independent. Until that time they proclaimed that they did not rebel against their liege lord, but against his corrupt advisors and his plundering forces. They still respected the king. But with the Plakkaat van Verlatinghe (Act of Abjuration) they officially denounced Philips II as their sovereign. William of Orange, still declared outlaw, survived an attack in 1582 in Antwerp, but in July 1584 in he was shot in Delft.21 For a while after this event, the States General still tried to look for a new liege. But when this search finally produced futile, the States General decided in 1587 to try and govern the Netherlands by themselves. Thus was created the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.22



  1. H. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, (Amsterdam 2003) 40.
  2. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 39.
  3. J.C.H. Blom, E. Lamberts, red. Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden (Baarn 2002) 105.
  5. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop 43.
  6. T.F.X. Noble, B.S. Strauss, ed, Western Civilisation, the continuing experiment (Boston New York 1998) 556.
  7. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 44.
  9. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 44.
  10. Blom, Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, 109.
  11. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 45.
  12. Blom, Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, 110.
  15. Noble, Western Civilisation, 558.
  17. Blom, Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, 114.
  18. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 45.
  20. Blom, Geschiedenis van de Nederlanden, 114.
  22. Beliën, De Nederlandse geschiedenis in een notendop, 51.


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