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 on Maurice of Nassau

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).