Born in Germany, William inherited the title of count of Nassau at birth. The young German count’s life was transformed when in 1544, when he inherited 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).
Philip II 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, 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 supported freedom of religion and conscience.
Protestant preachers whipped up crowds to destroy idolatrous decorations in churches. In response, Philip II sent an army to restore order. 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.
In 1580, Philip II issued an urgent appeal to the people, an edict outlawing William. He declared the prince a walking target. 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. His killer, Balthasar Gerards, 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.