William of Orange (1533-1584), Father of the Nation

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Princely heritage

Portrait of Prince William of Orange as a twelve-year-old on horseback. Cornelis Anthonisz, 1545

Born at Dillenburg Castle in Germany, William inherited the title of count of Nassau at birth. The Nassaus had belonged to the German nobility for centuries. They also held property in the Low Countries. The young German count’s life was transformed when in 1544, the death of a childless cousin left him in possession of extensive lands in France and the Netherlands. These included an independent principality in southern France: Orange. Henceforth, he styled himself prince of Orange (later he was also referred to as William the Silent). Wealth and power awaited him. The following year, Charles V summoned the 12-year-old to the imperial court at Brussels to complete his education. The Nassaus, who were Protestant, agreed that William would become Catholic. That was the condition the emperor had stipulated.

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Stadholder and sovereign

Portrait of Prince William of Orange. Hendrick Goltzius, 1581

Portrait of King Philip II of Spain. Frans Huys, 1559

William’s star rose rapidly at the imperial court. Philip II (Charles V’s son and heir) appointed him to the advisory council of leading nobles. He also appointed him stadholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, the principal provinces. The characters and interests of the two men conflicted however, and they developed a mutual antipathy. Deeply pious and serious, Philip tried to strengthen the monarchy’s central authority and to maintain an exclusive monopoly for the Catholic Church. To achieve this he persecuted Protestants relentlessly. By contrast, William was a cultivated man of the world. He supported freedom of religion and conscience. A centralised monarchy undermined the ancient privileges of the nobility and provinces. In 1559, Philip moved to Spain, to the relief of William and his fellow nobles. Philip and William would never meet again.

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Leader of the Revolt

Desecration of a Dutch church (detail). Dirck van Delen, 1630

Desecration of a Dutch church (detail). Dirck van Delen, 1630

Desecration of a Dutch church (detail). Dirck van Delen, 1630

Desecration of a Dutch church (detail). Dirck van Delen, 1630

When Philip II moved to Madrid, a sense of freedom was felt in the Low Countries. This was evident, for example, in the open-air sermons. Protestant preachers whipped up crowds to destroy idolatrous decorations in churches. In response, Philip II sent an army to restore order.

William of Orange’s military efforts against the Spanish army made little headway. In 1572, the capture of the port of Den Briel improved the rebels fortunes. One town after another now declared for the prince and sided with the insurgents. For four years, William led the defence of Holland and Zeeland against the Spanish army. Once the prospect of Spain reestablishing control had subsided in 1576, the provinces decided to continue as a confederation. William of Orange stood at the helm. In 1579, the seventeen provinces split into a Protestant North that supported the rebellion, and a Catholic South. The Spanish army renewed its campaign against the northern provinces. And Philip made a surprise move.

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Outlaw

Portrait of Prince William of Orange. Adriaen Thomasz Key, 1579

Portrait of Prince William of Orange. Adriaen Thomasz Key, 1579

In 1580, Philip II issued an urgent appeal to the people, an edict outlawing William. He declared the prince a walking target. Whoever delivered him to Philip, dead or alive, would receive 25,000 guilders. He portrayed the prince as a religious opportunist, bigamist and drunkard. He blamed William for all the political and military turmoil of recent years. William of Orange did not take this lying down. He responded to the edict by accusing Philip of adultery, incest and murder. Whatever the truth, clearly William now had to fear for his life. Indeed, two years later he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Antwerp.

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Fatal day

Model of Prince William of Orange’s tomb in Delft’s Nieuwe Kerk. Hendrik de Keyser, 1613-1614

On 10 July 1584, the fatal blow was struck. William of Orange was at Prinsenhof, his residence in Delft. As he was climbing the stairs, an assassin appeared and fired a pistol at him. He was killed almost instantly. Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, ayez pitié de moi et de ce pauvre peuple (My God, my God, have pity on me and my poor people), he is alleged to have said as he died. His killer, Balthasar Gerards, fled but was caught. He subsequently claimed to have murdered William of Orange to save the world from that cruel and dreadful man who though a member of the nobility had turned away from the true Catholic faith purely and exclusively out of pride and lust for power and fame. Balthasar Gerards was executed in a way that was, even for its time, exceptionally unpleasant.

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Tomb

A family visiting the tomb of Prince William of Orange in Delft’s Nieuwe Kerk. Dirck van Delen, 1645

There was little option but to bury Stadholder William I in Delft’s Nieuwe Kerk. Breda’s Grote Kerk, where the prince’s ancestors lay entombed, was in Spanish hands. The majestic monument constructed for the nation’s father was completed in 1622.

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William’s wives

 Portrait of Anna van Buren, first wife of William of Orange Heliograph, 1895-1896, after a painting made c. 1555, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts I

Portrait of Anna van Buren, first wife of William of Orange Heliograph, 1895-1896, after a painting made c. 1555, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts I

Portrait of Anna of Saxony, second wife of William of Orange. Attributed to Abraham de Bruyn, c. 1565-1568

Portrait of Anna of Saxony, second wife of William of Orange. Attributed to Abraham de Bruyn, c. 1565-1568

Charlotte of Bourbon, third wife of William of Orange, caring for the prince after the attempted assassination in 1582. Nicolaas Pieneman, 1840

Portrait of Louise de Coligny, fourth wife of William of Orange. Willem Jacobsz Delff, 1627

William of Orange married four times, three times for purely pragmatic motives. At eighteen he married Anna van Buren. She was heiress to one of the richest families in the Low Countries. Anna bore William’s first son, Philip William. She died in 1558. Half a year later, William began looking for a new candidate for marriage. He found Anna of Saxony, extremely wealthy and Protestant. Apart from money, she also provided him with the potential support of Germany’s Protestant rulers. Anna was the mother of Maurice, later stadholder. William and Anna were not happy together, and he had the marriage dissolved. He married again, before the previous union had been annulled. This time for love. Charlotte of Bourbon, once a nun, had become a Protestant. She had six daughters. When William was seriously wounded by an assassin in 1582, it was Charlotte who nursed him. The prince recovered, but Charlotte died of exhaustion. His last wife was Louise de Coligny, a French widow. Two years after their wedding, William of Orange was killed. Louise remained to care for her six stepdaughters and their son Frederick Henry, then still an infant.