Dutch Revolt (1568–1648)

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DUTCH REVOLT (15681648)

DUTCH REVOLT (15681648). The revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish rule, also known as the Eighty Years' War, is traditionally said to have begun in June 1568, when the Spanish executed Counts Egmont and Horne in Brussels. The tensions that led to open revolt, however, had much earlier origins. The revolt itself is best viewed as a series of related uprisings and wars that, taken together, constitute the Dutch Revolt. The eventual outcome of the revolt was decided for the most part by 1609, when the combatants agreed to the Twelve Years' Truce, but the war between the United Provinces of the Netherlands (Dutch Republic) and the Kingdom of Spain did not officially come to an end until both parties agreed to the Peace of Münster, which was part of the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648.


The various provinces of the Low Countries (Netherlands) were never really united into a distinct country prior to the late sixteenth century. They were slowly and loosely brought under the control of the dukes of Burgundy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but were never more than a collection of counties and duchies. These territories each retained their customary laws and traditions, their so-called ancient liberties. In many respects this disunity of the provinces of the Low Countries ensured that particularist agendas would stand in the way of attempts by the rulers to create a centralized administration and unified country.

Whereas the Burgundian dukes did not move too quickly in the direction of expansion and centralization, their Habsburg successors certainly did. Probably the most important move toward centralization prior to the revolt was taken by Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556) when he succeeded in having his "seventeen provinces" of the Netherlands united as a single entity by agreement of the States-General (parliament) to his Pragmatic Sanction in 1549. The Pragmatic Sanction outlined the way the succession would be regulated and provided that the seventeen provinces must always have the same ruler. It is not clear, however, if this meant that their liberties would be compromised.


Charles V's son Philip II of Spain (ruled 15561598) continued his father's policies, in particular suppressing heresy, but whereas the Ghent-born Charles V was a fairly popular figure, the Netherlanders always viewed the Spanish-born Philip as a foreigner. The great nobles of the Low Countries and delegates to the States-General disapproved of his reliance on officials sent from Spain. Soon the nobles, including William of Orange (15331584), Lamoraal, count of Egmont (15221568), and the count of Hoorne, Filips van Montmorency (15181568), became disenchanted with Philip's increasingly absolutist-tilting government in Brussels, which was led by the unpopular Antoine Perrenot (15171586), the future Cardinal Granvelle.

The nobles' main argument was a constitutional one. They thought that government should be administered jointly by the prince (usually through his officials), the nobility, and the States-General. Thus the nobility had an important role to play in government. As Philip's chief official in the Netherlands and the champion of royal prerogative, Perrenot received the brunt of the nobility's ire. But rather than seek any kind of compromise, Philip's government insisted that the nobles swear an oath of allegiance (1567) to the king in which they would essentially be renouncing their traditional liberties. While many of the nobles accepted the change (with considerable grumbling), William of Orange and a few others refused.

These constitutional issues were being raised at a time of increasing religious tensions, due mostly to the ecclesiastical reformsPhilip II proposed to institute new bishoprics in the Low Countriesand also to an increase in the prosecution of "heretics." With papal approval, Philip's plan called for the creation of several new bishoprics with a primate of the Netherlands in the person of the archbishop of Mechelen; to fill this position Perrenot was installed as Cardinal Granvelle. But it was the Habsburg obsession with rooting out heresy that is often associated with the uprising that occurred in 1566. Late in 1565 Philip's Council of State directed Inquisition officials to enforce anti-heresy laws.

For the nobility, this was one more affront to their authority. The great nobles considered resisting the government's religious policies, but it was the lower nobility that took action. The lower nobles, led mostly by Protestants or those with Protestant leanings, came together at Culemborch to form the Compromise of the Nobility, with the express intention of forcing Philip's regent (and half-sister), Margaret of Parma (15221586), to change the heresy law. By April 1566 as many as four hundred lesser nobles, all supporters of the Compromise, assembled at Brussels to present their petition to Margaret. One minister referred to these nobles not as petitioners, but as les gueux, 'the Beggars', a name that became a badge of honor.

The Beggars promised violence if Margaret failed to take action against the heresy laws. Although she issued a decree of "moderation," the damage had been done; Calvinists had already begun flouting the laws, and preaching in the Netherlands had reached a fever pitch by late spring 1566. The nobles soon lost control as Calvinist preachers urged their listeners to destroy the numerous religious images found in the churches of the Low Countries. This iconoclasm of the summer of 1566 was widespread, hitting Antwerp on 20 August, and Ghent, Amsterdam, Leiden, and Utrecht a few days later. A terrified Margaret acquiesced to the repeated demands of the Beggars and agreed to an "Accord" permitting Protestant worship in the parts of the Low Countries where it was already being practiced. Unfortunately the Compromise of the Nobility soon collapsed, leaving no one really in control. The iconoclasm continued, and Margaret had no choice but to raise an army to bring order to the provinces.

While Margaret was hard at work bringing the towns of the provinces to heel, Philip II weighed his options. By November 1566 he had decided to send an army to the Netherlands. But the Beggars had been raising troops in opposition to the government, so Margaret had to take action. This split the nobility, many of whom sided with the government. Margaret's troops had been successfully besieging Calvinist strongholds and on 13 March 1567 defeated the rebel troops at the Battle of Oosterweel. By May 1567 the Netherlands were back under the control of the regent. The next month Philip sent his Spanish army, under the leadership of the duke of Alba, to the Netherlands.

Once in the Netherlands, the Duke of AlbaFerdinand Álvarez de Toledo (15081583)set about rooting out heresy and, through the Council of Troubles, prosecuting individuals branded as traitors to the Spanish king. Of the almost nine thousand people found guilty of participating in the troubles of 15661567, including some well-known nobles, at least one thousand were executed, including Counts Egmont and Hoorne. Only the nobles who remained loyal to Philip survived unscathed. William of Orange emerged as the de facto leader of the opposition. His attempt to invade the Netherlands from his ancestral home in Germany with a force of some 30,000 men in October 1568 was no match for the Spanish forces. William's brother, Count Louis of Nassau (15381574), sent ships out to get aid from exiled Calvinist communities in England, but it was too late and Louis's "Sea Beggars" (Watergeuzen) eventually turned to privateering. At the time William had no choice but to retreat. He spent the next year fighting for the Huguenots in France.


By 1569, it seemed that revolt in the Netherlands had been snuffed out and had little chance of reigniting. Alba set about instituting Philip's plans and policies for the Netherlands, including the ecclesiastical reforms. William of Orange and his supporters had been continuing to plan for an eventual invasion, but, perhaps because of the harshness of Alba's regime, he found few willing to rise up in the Netherlands. Help had to come from the outside. France was one obvious source of aid; the other was England. William thought he had support from both places. His plans for an invasion in 1572 included a thrust from the east with his German army and from the south by a Huguenot army with a naval assault from England by the unruly Sea Beggars. Coordination failed, and the Sea Beggars, who had been expelled from their English bases, moved too soon. They attacked Brill (Den Briel) on 1 April 1572, taking the port city without difficulty. By the end of April, Flushing was also in Beggar hands. Over the next few months the Beggars, usually aided by defectors in the towns, were able to take Gouda (21 June) and Dordrecht (25 June). By July, Haarlem (15 July), Leiden (23 July), and Rotterdam (25 July) also went over to the rebel side.

Most of the land-based forces could not take the field until July. A rebel army under Louis of Nassau managed to take Mons (Bergen) and other rebels took a few other towns, but the French force from the south was roundly defeated at St. Ghislain, and the French crown's changing attitudes toward the Huguenots meant that no more forces would be sent. William's own force stalled in the northeast. Alba succeeded in retaking the towns held by rebels, but the thought of a protracted war in Holland and Zeeland, places where William had many supporters, split the Spanish leadership, so in November 1573 Philip II replaced Alba with Don Luis de Requesens y Zúñiga (15281576).

William of Orange wasted no time in taking advantage of Spanish indecision by currying the support of the States of Holland and Zeeland. While not all of Holland and Zeeland could accept William's position (Amsterdam remained loyal to Philip), the two provinces united in the summer of 1575 with William of Orange as their leader. Meanwhile, Requesens had heeded Alba's advice and pressed into Holland and Zeeland. The Spanish successfully captured rebel cities such as Haarlem and Brill in 1573. The rebels were only able to hold out by flooding large areas in advance of the Spanish army. The floods kept the Spanish at bay, foiling their siege of Leiden in 1574.

The costs of this protracted war in the Netherlands were astronomical. It has been estimated that the war cost Spain more than the combined income from Castile and Spain's New World possessions. Due to lack of pay, the Spanish army mutinied several times, abandoning their garrisons and leaving them open to rebel forces. Philip was on the brink of bankruptcy. He ordered Requesens to open negotiations with the rebels. Requesens met with William at Breda in March 1575. The talks ended in failure, however, as neither side would back down on the religious issue. Within the year the financial crisis had become acute, Requesens had died, and despite a Spanish victory over Zierikzee in Zeeland, the Spanish could not make their payroll and the troops mutinied once again.


The Spanish troop mutinies of 1576, more than anything else, brought the various provinces of the Low Countries together in common cause. When mutinous troops sacked the royalist town of Aalst, even Catholics loyal to Philip looked for some kind of common defensive arrangement. Talks between William's supporters and Catholic loyalists began at Ghent in October 1576. The participants in the Ghent meeting agreed to set aside their own religious differences by suspending the heresy laws and uniting to expel the Spanish. This agreement, called the "Pacification of Ghent," was quickly ratified by the various Provincial States in reaction to the "Spanish Fury," the violent mutiny of the Spanish troops at Antwerp on 4 November 1576, in which about eight thousand people were killed. The Pacification of Ghent did not, however, resolve the problem of disunity in the Netherlands. What appeared to be unity of action was only temporary.

Philip appointed his half-brother, Don Juan of Austria (15471578), to replace Requesens as governor-general of the Netherlands. His charge was to find a temporary settlement with the rebels. Indeed the States-General was happy to recognize him as governor, provided he agreed to the provisions of the Pacification of Ghent. William of Orange remained mistrustful of Don Juan and urged the States-General to act cautiously. The States-General installed Don Juan as governor-general on 1 May 1577, over William's objections. William was right to be concerned about Don Juan's intentions. Don Juan attempted to neutralize the States-General and impose his own authority as soon as July 1577, when he captured Namur, unsuccessfully attacked Antwerp, and recalled the Spanish troops to the Low Countries. Because of this duplicity, the Catholic nobles from the southern Low Countries arranged for the Austrian Archduke Matthias (15571619) to replace Don Juan as governor-general, but this arrangement was never recognized by Philip II.

During all of this, Philip II had been preoccupied with the threat of the Ottoman Empire in the east. Once peace with the Turks was achieved after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Philip reacted decisively to the developments in the Netherlands. He sent his Spanish army back to the Low Countries under the leadership of Alexander Farnese (15551592), the prince and eventual duke of Parma. As soon as Parma and his army landed, they began a successful campaign, taking Gembloux on 31 January 1578, and Leuven on 13 February. Don Juan died of the plague in October, and Philip appointed Parma as governor of the Netherlands.

Despite military assistance from both France and England, infighting among the provinces precluded the possibility of united action. The division between the largely royalist Catholic provinces of the south and the independent-minded Calvinist provinces of the north tore the States-General apart. In January 1579 the northern provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Gelderland, and Ommelanden) concluded the Union of Utrecht, effectively establishing the United Provinces. The southern provinces of Hainault and Artois created the Union of Arras (later joined by Walloon Flanders), which reconciled itself to the rule of Philip II on 6 April 1579. The provinces of the Union of Arras, together with the provinces already under Spanish control (Namur, Limburg, and Luxembourg), formed the basis for continued Spanish rule.

Continuing their move toward independence, the provinces of the Union of Utrecht deposed Philip II as sovereign of the Netherlands in the Act of Abjuration (26 July 1581). Who should replace him became the problem that the States-General would need to solve. In the end they turned to François de Valois (15561584), duke of Anjou, a French prince of the blood and a Catholic. He was never particularly popular and never received the dignities he expected, so he returned to France in the summer of 1583. When a royalist assassinated William of Orange in Delft on 10 July 1584, the United Provinces were left without a strong leader.


With William of Orange out of the picture, Parma began his campaign to reconquer the Netherlands. Ghent surrendered to Parma's army on 17 September 1584 and Brussels capitulated on 10 March 1585. The search for foreign help in the face of what was amounting to a Spanish reconquest brought the States-General's gaze, once again, to focus on England. An agreement, formalized in the Treaty of Nonsuch on 20 August 1585, was forged between the English and the States-General, allowing Elizabeth I to appoint a governor-general for the Netherlands and to send a large army to halt the Spanish advance. But AntwerpParma's greatest prizehad already fallen to the Spanish on 17 August.

Elizabeth I appointed Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester (1532/331588), as governor-general, but she could not eliminate the disunity that plagued the Netherlands, and Leicester's attempts to impose his own ideas of centralized government were doomed to failure. In the end, Leicester had no choice but to return to England with his army. The Dutch then turned to one of their own to lead the revolt: Count Maurice of Nassau (15671625), the second son of William of Orange.

For Philip II the English involvement in the revolt could only be viewed as an act of war. In order to counter the English, and in part as a reaction to English "piracy" against Spanish commerce with the New World, Philip dispatched an armada of over 100 ships to invade England in 1588. The fate of the Spanish Armada is well-known, but this naval defeat did not hamper Spanish abilities on land. Nevertheless, Spanish attention to the English problem and Spanish involvement in French wars gave the Dutch some breathing space. Maurice succeeded in recapturing many of the northern towns lost to Spain at just the time that Philip II ordered Parma's army to intervene in the civil war in France, where Parma died in 1592.

Now the Spanish were left without a leader in the Netherlands. Eventually, Philip II appointed his nephew (and eventual son-in-law) Archduke Albert of Austria as governor-general in 1596. Albert had little success in consolidating Spanish power in the Netherlands, however, because of Spanish bankruptcy, troop mutinies, and desertions. The next several years witnessed an intense period of warfare that largely resulted in stalemate. By then Philip II had died and his successor Philip III (ruled 15981621) saw no way to continue financing a war that had been draining the Spanish treasury for decades. The time had come for the peace process suggested by Henry IV of France (ruled 15891610): both sides agreed to a Twelve Years' Truce in Antwerp on 9 April 1609.


The Twelve Years' Truce worked more to the advantage of the Dutch than to that of the Spanish. The Dutch, freed of the need to fight an expensive war with Spain, were able to build up a powerful economy. Politically, however, the shape the Dutch Republic would ultimately take was still a matter of much debate, particularly the role the Reformed (Calvinist) Church would play. The fortunes of the Spanish Netherlands were flagging by the end of the truce. The commerce of Spain herself met with stiff competition from the Dutch, and the Dutch and the Spanish found each other drawn to differing sides of the political developments of early-seventeenth-century Europe. The Dutch Revolt had merged into the greater European conflict of the Thirty Years' War (16181648).

By the time the Twelve Years' Truce finally expired in 1621, Philip III was dead, and pro-war factions on both sides called for renewed hostilities. But by then neither side expected to triumph over the other. Both sides were involved in the Thirty Years' War, and the Spanish in particular found it impossible to devote much attention to warfare in the Netherlands. The best course of action was to sue for peace. Negotiations were drawn out for several years, with the two combatants only slowly making concessions. Finally, on 30 January 1648, the Peace of Münster (later incorporated into the Peace of Westphalia of October 1648) ended the war between Spain and the United Provinces, making permanent the division of the Low Countries and guaranteeing the independence of the Dutch Republic.

See also Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, duke of ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Dutch Republic ; Isabel Clara Eugenia and Albert of Habsburg ; Juan de Austria, Don ; Netherlands, Southern ; Oldenbarneveldt, Johan van ; Parma, Alexander Farnese, duke of ; Philip II (Spain) ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Westphalia, Peace of (1648) ; William of Orange .


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Donald J. Harreld