William of Orange, stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, played a key role in the Dutch Revolt – at the onset of the Eighty Years War - and the advent of the Dutch Republic. As the prince of Orange he took military and political charge of the rebellion, yet it was his ability to serve as a focus for unity in the chaos of war that proved his decisive contribution.
When Philip II, whose titles included the counties and dukedoms of the Low Countries, sent the Duke of Alva with an army to crack down on the mobs ransacking Catholic churches, William of Orange fled to Germany. The Council of Troubles which Alva set up to deal with the agitators, decided to pursue William of Orange too. He was prosecuted and all his property in the Netherlands and abroad was impounded. This was a hostile move against the prince in person. It gave the prince the excuse he needed to launch his insurrection against Alva. In Germany he looked around for support from Protestant rulers. He received only limited funding however, and found himself hiring German mercenaries at his own expense.
The prince of Orange failed to make much of a mark militarily. Yet on 25 May 1568, the Dutch army did manage to win its first victory. Led by William’s brother Louis, the army defeated the troops of the pro-Spanish stadholder of Friesland at Heiligerlee. That was however the extent of the triumph. Against Alva’s mighty army, the prince stood no chance in battle. And to be honest, William was not much of a military strategist. Moreover, he regularly failed to pay his soldiers, and morose troops win no wars. The support he anticipated from Germany’s rulers never materialised. And there was no general rising. Alva and his Council of Troubles, the Council of Blood, had instilled too much fear.
The only effect support received by the prince came from the Sea Beggars, the naval arm of the rebel camp. They were a mixed group: mainly nobles who had lost all their property when Alva took over, and so motivated both financially and ideologically to fight the Spaniards. Adventurers and criminals also found their way into the rebel ranks. When he was not campaigning with his army, William of Orange would be employing his diplomatic skills to persuade the people, cities and provinces of the Low Countries to join the revolt – although without much success. Until in 1572, when the rebel navy succeeded in capturing the port of Den Briel on 1 April and raised the rebel flag. That was the turning point in the struggle.
A despised tax introduced by Alva and the capture of Den Briel eventually ensured that the revolt gained the popular backing it needed. One town after another declared for the prince of Orange and so for the revolt. These declarations ‘for the prince’, show how he had come to symbolise the revolt as its undisputed leader. Within two months almost all of Holland and Zeeland were solidly behind the prince. More conquests followed as towns elsewhere in the country switched allegiance. Joining the prince also meant that the new Protestant religion could be worshipped in freedom. Of course that was to the disadvantage of the Catholic Church which was often treated with excessive severity.
The prince focused mainly on diplomacy in the years around 1575. He tried to unite the various provinces in the struggle against Spain; that was his dream. Eventually he succeeded in 1576 – for a short while. That year, when the Spanish soldiers had again not been paid their wages, they went on the rampage in Antwerp, killing and plundering. Even die-hard Spanish supporters withdrew their sympathy. This was the height of the prince’s diplomatic success. In the States General, all seventeen provinces combined against Spain. William I was the hero of the day, he was welcomed in triumph, even in Antwerp. Yet that unity was short-lived. Three years later, the seventeen provinces broke apart into a Catholic south and a Protestant north. The North continued under the prince of Orange, and the Spanish army launched a new campaign to subdue the secessionist provinces.
In 1580, Philip II issued an edict declaring Orange an outlaw. He put a price on his head: 25,000 guilders for anyone who delivered him to Philip, dead or alive. In the edict, the prince is described as a bigamist, a drunkard, a man who changes his wife as easily as he changes his religion. Orange is blamed for all the political and religious 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.
Eventually, the edict had its desired effect. On 10 July 1584, William of Orange was murdered in Delft. The assassin was a fanatical Catholic named Balthasar Gerards. He declared that he had killed the prince because as long as he lived he would remain in opposition to the king and would harm the Catholic Church and society in the Netherlands.
The death of William of Orange took the wind out of the rebel sails, although the prince had lost much of his power in later years and had been scouting around for foreign leaders to take up the struggle in the Netherlands
Prince William of Orange was buried at Delft’s Nieuwe Kerk, where he was placed in a rather sober tomb. After his death, power passed to Grand Pensionary Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and Prince Maurice, who took over military command.