William the Silent

The Dutch statesman William the Silent (1533-1584), or William I, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau, led the revolt of the Low Countries against Spain and created the independent republic of the United Provinces.

A German nobleman by birth, William the Silent became the leader of a rebellion in the Netherlands against the king of Spain. Passionately devoted to the cause of the unity of the Netherlands, he saw the country dividing into distinct northern and southern states under the impact of military events and religious antagonisms. At various times a Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, and a Calvinist, William was most of all dedicated to Erasmian tolerance in religion; yet in the end he had to rely upon fanatical Calvinists in order to stand up to the assaults of conquering Spanish armies. A wealthy, luxury-loving noble in his younger years, he learned to live the meager life of an exile and rebel and came to love the Dutch people, high and low, for whom he gave his life and who loved him as Father of the Fatherland. Trying ceaselessly to persuade foreign princes to take over the sovereignty of the Low Countries in order to save it, he ended by becoming the founder of a free and independent Dutch republic, and only his assassination prevented Holland from making him its count.

Early Years

William was born on April 24, 1533, at Dillenburg, the ancestral castle of the Nassaus near Wiesbaden, Germany, to Count William of Nassau-Dillenburg and Juliana von Stolberg. His early life was one of simple comforts and close family affection—a rough and easy life in a castle in the countryside. His mother raised him as a Lutheran, but after he inherited the vast possessions of his cousin, René of Châlon-Nassau, in 1544 (including the principality of Orange and numerous baronies and manors in France and in the Low Countries), Emperor Charles V, as a condition of his receiving his heritage in the Netherlands, required that William come there in 1545 to be raised as a Roman Catholic.

Under the guidance of the regent, Mary of Hungary, William grew into a handsome young nobleman, elegant and well-spoken in French and Dutch as well as in his native German, and intelligent and at ease with people. He married a wealthy heiress, Anne of Egmont and Büren, in 1551, thus becoming the richest nobleman in the Netherlands. Charles V was particularly fond of him, and during his abdication at Brussels on Oct. 25, 1555, he rested his weary arms upon young Orange's shoulders.

Appointment as Stadholder

Given military commands in the war against France in 1555, William proved to have little talent as a warrior, but he clearly displayed political ability on diplomatic missions to Germany and in the peace negotiations at Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Philip II, who had inherited the Netherlands as well as Spain from Charles V, made William a member of the Council of State in 1555 and a knight of the Golden Fleece, the Burgundian chivalric order, in 1556. In 1558 Anne of Egmont and Büren, who had given him a son, Philip William, and a daughter, died. Philip II recognized William's preeminence among the nobility by making him stadholder of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht in 1559.

William's second marriage was to Anne, the daughter of Elector Maurice of Saxony; she was a Lutheran princess who was even wealthier than Anne of Egmont and Büren had been. This 1561 marriage was a sign that William was not a passive instrument of his sovereign. When he returned to Brussels from the wedding in Leipzig, William joined the counts of Egmont and Hoorn, his colleagues in the Council of State, in resistance to the centralizing absolutist policies of Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, who was Philip's principal agent in the Netherlands while Margaret of Parma, the King's half sister, acted as regent. They were able to compel the King, who depended upon them as the most influential persons in the country for effective government, to recall Granvelle in 1564. But Philip would make no concession in the matter of repression of Protestant heresy, although William, a nominal Roman Catholic at the time, strongly urged a policy of tolerance on the principle that men's consciences should not be forced. However, William was aware that his young brother, Louis of Nassau, was one of the leaders of the movement of the lower nobility to prevent enforcement of the ordinances introducing the Inquisition.

Opposition to the Duke of Alba

William was shocked by the "image-breaking" movement of fanatical Calvinists in 1566, which made Philip decide to replace Margaret of Parma with the Duke of Alba, who brought an army of Spanish regulars to the Low Countries in 1567 in order to crush all resistance to the King's will. William, forewarned of Alba's task of terror, resigned his offices and withdrew beyond the duke's reach into Germany, where from his refuge at Dillenburg he renewed efforts to thwart the suppression of the Netherlands. Military expeditions led by himself and by Louis of Nassau in 1568 failed in the face of Alba's superior generalship and the people's passivity. During the next 4 years, while Alba ruled the Netherlands without visible hindrance, William and his brother Louis spent their time, after a year in service with the French Huguenots under Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, in preparing to return to the struggle in the Low Countries.

In 1570 the secret resistance movement in Holland encouraged William to attempt another expedition against Alba, which also failed. However, in 1572, after the "Sea Beggars" had seized Brill, they attempted a second campaign in the southern Netherlands, which failed. William, whose hopes of help from the French Huguenots were dashed by their destruction in the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day, thereupon decided to join the rebels in Holland and Zeeland "to find my grave there." These provinces, which continued to recognize William as their stadholder, thus maintaining the fiction that they were fighting not Philip II but only his general, Alba, became the base of William's new strategy of resistance. William became a Calvinist, although a moderate one, in order to hold the support of the most vigorous opponents of Spain, and he reorganized the governments of Holland and Zeeland upon the basis of the authority of their States, with himself as governor and commander. William was able to relieve Leiden in 1574 after a long siege, and he established a university there as the city's reward.

Pacification of Ghent

Also in 1574, William's marriage to Anne of Saxony, who had run off with another man and was obviously mentally unbalanced, was annulled, and in 1575 he married Princess Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier, who became an affectionate stepmother to his children. Negotiations in Breda for peace the same year with Luis de Lúñiga y Requesens, the Spanish commander, shortly before Requesens' death, failed over the question of religion. After a mutiny of Spanish troops in 1576, William was able to arrange an agreement among all the provinces, north and south, called the Pacification of Ghent, which enabled him to maintain their common resistance to Don John of Austria, the new governor general from Spain. He persuaded the Austrian archduke Matthias to accept appointment as governor general from the States General, but William's attempt to preserve the unity of the provinces failed due to the intransigence of religious extremists on both sides. The northern provinces, under the urging of his oldest brother, John of Nassau, joined together in the Union of Utrecht in January 1579, a union that William accepted reluctantly at first. Meanwhile Alessandro Farnese forged the almost simultaneous Union of Arras among Roman Catholics and Walloons in the opposite camp. The civil war resumed with new fury.

Last Years and Assassination

Philip II put William under the ban of outlawry in 1580, to which he replied in a bitter Apology. The States General abjured the sovereignty of Philip in 1581, and the French Duke of Alençon and Anjou was called in to take his place as a constitutional sovereign. An attempt upon William's life by Jean Jaureguy on March 18, 1582, almost succeeded; Princess Charlotte, who nursed him through a difficult recovery, died of overstrain. In January 1583 Anjou, revealing his true purpose of becoming an absolute lord in the Netherlands, unleashed his troops on Antwerp in the so-called French Fury, but he was saved from the revenge of the populace by William. That April, William married Louise de Coligny, a French Huguenot noblewoman, at Antwerp, and then moved his residence to Holland, despairing at last of keeping the Low Countries, though divided in religion, united against Spain.

During 1584 the States of Holland and Zeeland proposed to give William the title of count with limited powers, but he was slain on July 10 by Balthasar Gérard, a Roman Catholic from Franche-Comté, at the Prinsenhof in Delft before any action was taken. The last words attributed to him, "God, have pity on me and this poor people," expressed his devotion to the cause for which he had fought so long. This cause was to triumph, although not before 6 more decades had passed, under the leadership of his sons Maurice of Nassau and Frederick Henry, and then only in the northern provinces, which became the Dutch Republic. The United Provinces, which accepted the Union of Utrecht, constituted only a fragment of the Low Countries that he had sought to hold together. But it endured, became rich and powerful, and was the direct historical origin of the modern kingdom of the Netherlands (Holland).

Further Reading on William the Silent

As readable biographies, Frederic Harrison, William the Silent (1910; repr. 1970), and Ruth Putnam, William the Silent, Prince of Orange, and the Revolt of the Netherlands (1911), have been superseded by C. V. Wedgwood's brilliant William the Silent (1944). For historical background see Pieter Geyl, The Revolt of the Netherlands, 1555-1609 (1931; trans. 1932), and B. H. M. Vlekke, Evolution of the Dutch Nation (1945).

Additional Biography Sources

Swart, K. W. (Koenraad Wolter), William the Silent and the revolt of the Netherlands, London: Historical Association, 1978.