William of Orange (1533–1584)

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WILLIAM OF ORANGE (15331584), Dutch statesman, leader of the Dutch Revolt, and founding father of the Dutch Republic. Also known as William the Silent, William of Orange was the oldest son of the German count of Nassau, William the Rich, and Juliana of Stolbergen. His life was changed by the cannonball that killed his childless uncle René of Chalons during the Habsburg siege of the French town of Saint-Didier in 1544. As the last representative of the house of Nassau-Breda, Chalons had appointed his young nephew as his heir. The heritage included not only large possessions in the Netherlands, but also the principality of Orange in southern France. From now on, William was no longer the son of an insignificant German count, but a prince by blood. Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556) summoned the young boy from his family's castle at Dillenburg to the Netherlands, where he became a page at the imperial court and was raised as a loyal and Catholic nobleman. The years that followed saw the remarkable transformation of the son of a Lutheran German count into a French-speaking Burgundian grand seigneur, ready to serve the Habsburgs. A brilliant career followed, with honorable military charges, an appointment in the Council of State, admittance to the Order of the Golden Fleece, and, in 1559, the office of governor or stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht. William of Orange had become one of the wealthiest and mightiest noblemen in the Netherlands. His 1558 marriage to Anna van Buren of the Egmont family confirmed his new standing.

In the 1560s, under the regime of Charles V's successor, Philip II of Spain (ruled 15561598), everything changed dramatically. From being a central pillar of royal authority, William of Orange became the leader of an armed opposition to Habsburg rule in the Low Countries. In hindsight, it is clear that the split between Orange and the regime started in 1561, with William's second marriage to Anna of Saxony, the niece of the elector of Saxony. It was a prestigious but hardly tactful marriage. Anna had many powerful relatives, but they were all Lutherans, and most of them were old enemies of the Habsburgs. In order to profit fully from his new German connections, Orange was, according to some historians, forced to become more critical of the persecutions and executions of Protestants in the Netherlands and, in the end, of Catholicism itself. Certainly, the marriage heightened the suspicions in government circles concerning the prince's religious loyalty. Lacking strong commitment to any confession, Orange himself became more and more convinced of the disastrous consequences of Philip II's stubborn religious policy. Instead, he championed a policy of religious compromise. In December 1564, in a famous speech to the members of the Council of State, Orange criticized frankly those rulers who sought to force the consciences of their subjects.

In politics William of Orange was above all an ambitious nobleman, seeking power and prestige. And as a natural advisor in military and political issues, he felt himself under the new regime more and more excluded from all-important decision making. In the figure of Philip II's new right-hand man in Brussels, Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, Orange and his noble friends found their bête noire. For a traditional nobleman such as Orange, Granvelle was nothing more than an upstart civil servant from the Franche-Comté, an example of the rising new bureaucrats of non-noble background. And as the new archbishop of Malines, he was the personification of the new bishoprics, by many falsely associated with the Spanish Inquisition.

Orange and other nobles formed an anti-Granvelle league. By the end of 1563 Granvelle had lost the game in Madrid, and on 13 March 1564 he left the Netherlands. But William of Orange and his fellow noblemen never managed either to overcome the paralysis into which the government had fallen or to moderate Philip's policy. In the end, the king's reinforced religious persecutions sparked rebellion: in 1566 the Netherlands witnessed a profound political crisis, with rebellious Protestant members of the middling and lower nobility (the League of Compromise), a wave of iconoclasm (the Beeldenstorm ), and military actions of the league of armed nobles known as the Gueux ('beggars').

As a politique, 'mediator between extremes', Orange tried to steer a middle course during the upheaval. He supported the political opposition but tried at the same time to prevent social unrest and chaos and to maintain good relations with the government. His attempt failed. Both sides mistrusted him. In April 1567, with the opposition in the Netherlands losing momentum and Don Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, third duke of Alba, at the head of ten thousand Spanish troops on the way, William of Orange fled to the Dillenburg to find rest and peace among his friends.

He was not to find it. His property was confiscated when he refused Alba's summons to appear before the Council of Blood, and his eldest son, Philips William, had been seized by the royalists at the university town of Louvain and taken to Spain. William of Orange had become a dishonorable exile. In an attempt to redeem his lost reputation, and that of the house of Nassau, Orange decided on armed opposition to Habsburg rule in the Netherlands, and in 1568 he launched a military campaign. It was accompanied by a stream of well-crafted propaganda, elaborating on "Spanish cruelty" and tyranny, and stressing the godliness and heroism of William of Orange. In military affairs, however, Orange was no match for Alba. The campaign was a failure, and in the years that followed Orange was unable to mount further large-scale invasions to save the "worthy inhabitants who enjoyed freedom in former times from unbearable slavery," as he had promised.

On 1 April 1572, however, six hundred Sea Beggars, pirates carrying letters of marque by William of Orange, seized the small port of Brill. In the months that followed, one town after another in Holland and Zeeland opened its gates for Orange and the Sea Beggars, with the notable exception of Amsterdam, which stayed in the royalist camp until 1578. Alienated by Alba's tax policy and unwilling to billet Spanish garrisons, the citizenry choose what they thought was the lesser of two evils. At least the troops of the Sea Beggars included some countrymen and exiled townsmen who had fled the Netherlands in 1567. The Estates of Holland took matters into their own hands. On 19 July the Orangist Holland towns assembled at Dordrecht and accepted William of Orange as their stadtholder, recognizing him "in the absence of His Royal Majesty" as "Protector" of the Netherlands as a whole. In exchange, Orange promised through his secretary Philips Marnix, Lord of St. Aldegonde, that he would not govern Holland without the consent of the States. In the autumn of 1572, Orange, whose own efforts to stir up the cities of Brabant and Flanders had failed, decided to withdraw to Holland, convinced that he would find his grave there.

Dark years of civil war followed, including religious cleansing, mutual atrocities, and massacres of nuns, monks, and priests. Orange was powerless to prevent the elimination of Catholicism in Holland and Zeeland as an officially tolerated church, in spite of his own tolerant attitudes in religion. In the autumn of 1573 he became a Calvinist.

As a political leader, however, William of Orange experienced his finest hour. He proved to be a charismatic leader, pragmatic, keen, unwilling to compromise, and provided with an unflagging faith in God. It was largely as a result of his leadership that the rebels overcame their differences and continued their military struggle. Seizing the opportunities caused by the large-scale mutinies of the unpaid and unsupplied Spanish troops, the rebellious provinces of Holland and Zeeland in 1576 signed a treaty with the States-General, the Pacification of Ghent. It seemed a victory for Orange, the first step toward a reunification of the Netherlands under a new constitution. In September 1577 Orange entered Brussels in triumph, as a new "messiah." But the new coalition was too fragile; Orange never managed to overcome the differences between Holland and the moderate noblemen in the south, or to moderate the demands of the radical Calvinists in Brabant and Flanders. In the end, north and south drifted apart, as was illustrated by the two "Unions" concluded in 1578: the Union of Arras, which aimed to reconcile the State of the Catholic-dominated provinces in the southern Netherlands with the king of Spain, and the Union of Utrecht, which was meant as a military alliance among the rebellious provinces "for all time."

In September 1583 William of Orange returned to Holland from Antwerp. Declared a traitor and outlawed by Philip II, who had in 1581 promised a reward for the assassination of the prince, and confronted by the steady military advance of the new governor-general, Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma, Orange faced an insecure future. He defended himself in a fierce Apologia, but his popularity had reached rock bottom, largely because of his disastrous pro-French policy. He had always been convinced that the revolt could only succeed with the help of the French and had in 1580 offered the governor-generalship of the Netherlands to Francis, the duke of Anjou and Alençon, who was the brother of the French king. The eventual result was political crisis and mutinous soldiers (the French Fury of January 1583). Orange's pro-French politics was symbolized in his private life by his marriage with Louise de Coligny in 1582. It was his fourth marriage, after Anna van Buren, the disastrous affair with Anna of Saxony, from whom he was divorced in 1575, and Charlotte de Bourbon. Louise de Coligny would give birth to Frederik Hendrik, Orange's youngest son, after Philips William from his first marriage and Maurice from his second. He had six daughters with Charlotte de Bourbon.

When on 10 July 1584 the French Catholic zealot Balthazar Gérard fired his fatal pistol shots in Delft, the realization of Orange's goals for the Netherlands seemed farther away than ever. No wonder therefore, that an English visitor, Fyne Moryson, described the original grave of the prince as "the poorest that ever I saw for such a person, being only of rough stones and mortar, with posts of wood, colored over with black, and very little erected from the ground" (quoted in Swart, forthcoming). It was only some twenty years later that the newly founded Dutch Republic erected the monument that William of Orange deserved as the founding father of a new state and the advocate of religious toleranceHendrick de Keyser's monumental tomb in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.

See also Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, duke of ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt ; Huygens Family ; Oldenbarneveldt, Johan van ; Philip II (Spain) ; Sea Beggars .


Israel, Jonathan. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 14771806. Oxford, 1995.

Motley, J. L. The Rise of the Dutch Republic: A History. 3 vols. London, 1929.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. London, 1977.

Swart, K. W. William of Orange and the Dutch Revolt, 15721584. Forthcoming.

. William the Silent and the Revolt of the Netherlands. London, 1978.

Wedgwood, C. V. William the Silent, William of Nassau, Prince of Orange 15331584. London, 1944.

Paul Knevel

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