Maurice of Nassau

views updated May 21 2018

Maurice of Nassau


General and politician


Royal Son. Maurice of Nassau was the second son of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, who led the early stages of the Dutch Revolt against Philip II of Spain. Maurice was born in the German principality of Nassau on the border of the Netherlands. His older brother had been taken to Spain as a hostage and spent the rest of his life there. Maurice was educated at Leiden University, making him one of the first prominent military commanders in Europe to have a college education. He did not receive a degree, however, because his education ended shortly after his father was assassinated in 1584. Maurice took his place as stadtholder of the province of Holland and captain-general of the army of the seven provinces that made up the Dutch Republic, which had declared its independence from the Spanish king in 1581. Maurice had a keen interest in mathematics and military history and used both to promote new ideas in warfare. He used as his principal sources the fourth-century A.D. Roman Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s Rei militaris instituta (Military Institutions of the Romans), Italian Niccolo Machiavelli’s DelVarte della guerra (The Art of War, 1521), which was largely an updating of Vegetius’s book for the early sixteenth century, and the Flemish professor Justus Lipsius’s De militia romana (On Roman Military Service, 1595), which did the same for the late sixteenth century.

Copying the Romans. Lipsius, who was on the faculty at Leiden when Maurice was a student there, had said that whoever restored the Roman art of war in his own army would rule the world. Maurice did not come close to ruling the world, but in close cooperation with his cousin, John William of Nassau, he made a strong effort to restore the Roman military style. Since the Romans had dug their own entrenchments for fortifying their camps, Maurice insisted that his men also do their own digging instead of depending on forced labor of local civilians. Soldiers of that era regarded such manual labor as beneath them, but he ensured that his men did it by paying them extra. Not only were the field fortifications and siege trenches dug by Maurice’s troops superior to those of other armies, the work also kept his men busy, greatly reducing idle time in camp. Maurice’s key inspiration was that extensive drilling of the infantrymen as the Romans did would vastly enhance their effectiveness. In 1594 his cousin persuaded him that Roman military prowess depended as much on their use of missile weapons as the sword, and that the musketmen in his army could duplicate the continuous hail of javelins and slingshot the Romans had achieved. The long reloading time of the musket, which then was as long as two minutes, made it difficult to maintain any kind of constant fire. Maurice recognized that if his musketmen were drawn up into long ranks and each rank fired in unison and then retired to the rear of the company to reload while the next rank stepped forward, he could achieve continuous fire. He quickly discovered that when a rank had fired a volley and was retiring to reload, they bumped into the men behind them, disrupting the following volleys. When they reached the rear, the soldiers were disorganized and unable to get off an effective second volley. The solution was constant drilling in the process of reloading and stepping forward and backward with one’s rank through the company, which led to a dramatic improvement in the rate of fire. Maurice invented words of command for the sergeants to shout for each step of the process of loading and firing, and John William devised a drill book that had illustrations that showed both the steps and commands. Maurice could not dispense with the pikemen who supported the musketmen, because charging cavalry was still capable of reaching the lines of musketeers and cutting them to pieces, but he required them to drill with the musketmen so they could act more effectively together. The result of these innovations was an infantry force that produced a great deal more firepower from the same number of men, finally allowing firearms to attain their full potential.

New Ideas. The Dutch system required not only a large number of sergeants but also more and better trained officers to make the infantry companies act in close coordination on the battlefield. Another cousin, John of Nassau, worked with Maurice in creating what is regarded as the first military academy for training young officers. Maurice may also have been the first person to use the telescope for military purposes. For all of the long-term impact of his innovations, he had little opportunity to use his army in battle. The Dutch Revolt in the years after 1590 was largely a matter of fort building and sieges. Maurice in his day was best known as both the designer of excellent fortifications and a master at siegecraft, not as a general.

Determined Opponent. Politically, Maurice was a hard-liner in respect to the war with Spain. When Philip III suggested negotiations in 1607, Maurice fiercely objected, still hoping to seize the southern provinces (modern Belgium) from Spanish control. When the Twelve Year Truce was signed in 1609, over his objections, he worked to undermine it and discredit the men who had supported it. When the truce ended in 1621, Maurice prevented it from being extended, and the war was resumed. He died in 1625, well before the Dutch Republic gained recognition of its independence in 1648. He had never married, although he had many illegitimate children, so his titles passed to cousins and nephews.


Hans Delbriick, History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History, translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr., volume 4, The Modern Era (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985).

Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Marco van der Hoeven, ed., Exercise of Arms: Warfare in the Netherlands, 1568-1648 (New York: Brill, 1997).

Maurice of Nassau

views updated May 23 2018

Maurice of Nassau

The Dutch general and statesman Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange (1567-1625), was the founder with Oldenbarnevelt of the Dutch Republic, or United Provinces of the Netherlands.

Maurice of Nassau was the second son of William I, "the Silent," and the only child of his second marriage, to Anna of Saxony. Born at the Nassaus' ancestral castle of Dillenburg, Germany, on Nov. 14, 1567, he spent the first decade of his life in Germany and then went to the Netherlands, where his father was leading the revolt against Spain. Only 16 years of age when his father was murdered, he was called at once to preside over the Council of State, then the principal organ of central government in the north, the United Provinces. His career was aided by the sponsorship of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the advocate of the States of Holland and the political leader of the province.

As soon as he reached the age of 18, in 1585, Maurice was named stadholder (governor) of Holland and Zeeland at Oldenbarnevelt's initiative, as well as provincial captain and admiral general, in order to provide a Dutch political and military authority to set against the Earl of Leicester, who was coming to the United Provinces as governor general on behalf of Elizabeth I of England. Maurice was later elected stadholder of Utrecht and Overijssel (1590), Gelderland (1591), and Groningen and Drenthe (1620).

After Leicester's recall in 1587, Maurice became in effect the commander in chief of the army of the United Provinces, although legally he was in command only in the provinces where he was stadholder and in the lands under the direct authority of the States General. Maurice undertook reorganization of the Dutch military forces on the basis of the principles and methods which he drew from study of the warfare and the military writings of the Romans of antiquity. He paid special attention to siegecraft, employing the great mathematician Simon Stevin as a military engineer and introducing the use of regular soldiers in trench digging and similar operations. His success in creating the most modern army of his time was demonstrated in a series of victories beginning with the capture of Breda in 1590, followed the next year by the conquest of Zutphen and Deventer in Overijssel and Delfzijl in the north, the defense of Arnhem against Allessandro Farnese, and then the capture of Hulst in Zeeland and Nijmegen far to the east. The successful siege of Geertruidenberg in 1593 was the supreme achievement of his military science.

A period of reversals followed until 1597, when Maurice defeated the Spaniards at Turnhout and then captured a chain of towns in the eastern Netherlands which deprived the Spaniards of their last foothold north of the Rhine River: the Dutch proclaimed that he had completed fencing-in their "garden," and the United Provinces became in reality the independent republic they already claimed to be in law. Although Maurice was able to win a brilliant victory over the Spaniards at Nieuwpoort in 1600, the southern Netherlands remained under Spanish control, especially after Ambrogio de Spinola took over command of the Spanish armies in 1603.

The close political collaboration between Oldenbarnevelt and Maurice broke up, especially after peace negotiations began with the Spaniards in 1607 over the prince's objections. Maurice, himself indifferent to theological questions, aligned himself with the Contraremonstrants against Oldenbarnevelt, because, as strict Calvinists, they were adamant against peace with the papist foe. However, the Twelve Years Truce was concluded in 1609. It was not until expiration of the truce began to approach that the question of its extension or renewal of the war brought Maurice and Oldenbarnevelt into mortal enmity. When the States of Holland, led by Oldenbarnevelt, began to raise its own troops in an effort to enforce its authority upon the Contraremonstrants, Maurice saw his own powers put in jeopardy, and he arranged the arrest and trial of Oldenbarnevelt and three collaborators (among them Hugo Grotius) and the former's execution as a traitor in 1619. Meanwhile, in 1618, he had inherited the title of Prince of Orange when his elder brother, Philip William, who had remained a Catholic and loyal to Spain, died.

The war was resumed in 1621, but Maurice was now a worn old man and unable to recapture his battlefield gifts. He was the victim of an unsuccessful assassination attempt in 1623 in which two sons of Oldenbarnevelt were implicated, but he lived until 1625, dying at The Hague on April 23, only 2 months before Spinola recaptured Breda. However, he had trained his younger brother, Frederick Henry, to be a military leader after his own best principles, and the United Provinces remained intact and free.

Further Reading

Although there is no adequate biographical study of Maurice in English, he is discussed in several useful background works: Pieter Geyl, Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., 1936; rev. ed. 1961-1964); Charles Wilson, Dutch Republic and the Civilization of the Seventeenth Century (1968); and Edward Grierson, The Fatal Inheritance (1969). □

About this article

Maurice of Nassau

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic