Causes of the Dutch Revolt

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The causes of the Dutch Revolt and the ensuing Eighty Years War, considered to have started in June 1568, were a number of incidents and frictions had accumulated between the Dutch provinces and their Habsburg overlord.

Causes of the war[edit]

The direct cause of this war was similar to the slogan, No taxation without representation. Under the Habsburgs, the Low Countries were formally named unceremoniously "De landen van herwaarts over" and in French "Les pays de par deça". Translated, the phrases mean "those lands around here" for the Dutch, and "those lands around there" for the French. While they were being taxed beyond what they were willing to pay, these far-away provinces were being continually admonished for seeing to their own business without permission from the throne, which at that time was indeed far away, in Spain. Each request for special permission would take at least four weeks for a response from Spain.

This unrest over taxation without representation was amplified by a strong presence of Spanish troops brought in to oversee the order in these provinces. Meanwhile, a parallel religious revolt was seen as a direct threat to the (Roman Catholic) Spanish throne, by the spread of the Anabaptism of the Dutch reformer Menno Simons and the teachings of foreign Protestant leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin, culminating with the Beeldenstorm, a country-wide outburst of iconoclasm in 1566.

The date for the formal start of hostilities is often cited as the execution of the statesmen Lamoral, Count of Egmont and Philip de Montmorency, Count of Hoorn, on the main square in Brussels on June 5, 1568. This double execution (for their protest against the Spanish Inquisition) was just the beginning of a wave of destruction, seen as a counter-attack to the Beeldenstorm, by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba across all of the provinces. This episode ended poetically, four years later, in the total destruction of Lamoral's home in the (far) north, Egmond Castle, along with the neighbouring Egmond Abbey.

Events leading to rebellion[edit]

Abdication of Charles V as Philip II becomes king[edit]

When Emperor Charles V began the gradual abdication of his several crowns in October 1555, his son Philip II took over as overlord of the conglomerate of duchies, counties and other feudal fiefs known as the Habsburg Netherlands.[1] At the time, this was a personal union of seventeen provinces with little in common beyond their overlord and a constitutional framework painfully assembled during the preceding reigns of Burgundian and Habsburg rulers. This framework divided power between city governments and local nobility, provincial States and royal stadtholders, and a central government of three collateral councils,[2] assisting (usually) a Regent, and the States-General of the Netherlands. The balance of power was heavily weighted toward the local and regional governments. Like his predecessors, Philip II had to ceremonially affirm those constitutional documents (like the Joyous Entry of Brabant) before his accession to the ducal throne. Beyond these constitutional guarantees, the balance of power between local and central government was guaranteed by the dependence of the central government on extraordinary levies (Beden) granted by the States-General when ordinary tax revenues fell short of the financing requirements of the central government (which occurred frequently, due to the many wars Charles waged).[3]

Increasing Spanish influence in the Netherlands[edit]

Though he was in the Netherlands[4] in January, 1556, Philip II did not assume the reins of government in person, as he had to divide his attentions between England (where he was king-consort of Mary I of England), the Netherlands, and Spain. He therefore appointed a governor-general Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, and subsequently from 1559 on, a Regent (his half-sister Margaret of Parma) to lead the central government on a day-to-day basis. As in the days of Charles V, these regents governed in close cooperation with Netherlandish grandees, such as William, Prince of Orange, Philip de Montmorency, Count of Hoorn, and Lamoral, Count of Egmont. But (other than Charles) he also introduced a number of Spanish councillors in the Council of State, foremost Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, a French-born cardinal. These people gained a preponderant influence in the Council, much to the chagrin of the Netherlandish old guard.

When Philip left for Spain in 1559 (as it turned out, permanently) the central government therefore already experienced political strains, and those were exacerbated by the question of religious policy. Like his father, Philip was a fervent enemy of the Protestant teachings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Anabaptists. Charles had legally defined heresy as "treason against God" (or French lèse-majesté divine) an "exceptional crime" that was outside the purview of normal legal procedures as laid down in the Netherlandish legal privileges. He therefore outlawed heresy in special placards that made it a capital offense, to be prosecuted by a Netherlandish version of the Inquisition. Between 1523 and 1566, more than 1,300 people were executed as heretics, far more relative to the overall population than, for instance, in France.[5]

These placards, and the policy of repression of heresy in general, were highly unpopular, not just with prospective adherents of the Protestant faiths, but also with the Catholic population and the local governments, who considered it an intrusion on their prerogatives. Towards the end of Charles' reign, enforcement had therefore become quite lax. Philip, however, insisted on rigorous enforcement and this caused more and more popular unrest. In the province of Holland, for instance, there were riots in the late 1550s during which the mob freed some condemned persons before their execution.[6]

To support and strengthen the attempts at Counter-Reformation, issuing from the Council of Trent, Philip launched a wholesale organizational reform of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands in 1559 (with Papal approval). This amounted to the introduction of fourteen new dioceses instead of the old three. This new hierarchy was to be headed by Granvelle as archbishop of the new archdiocese of Mechelen. The reform was especially unpopular with the old church hierarchy as the new dioceses were to be financed by transferring a number of rich abbeys that were traditionally in the gift of the high aristocracy. The new bishops were to take the lead in the enforcement of the anti-heresy placards and to intensify the Inquisition.[7]

Dutch nobility in opposition[edit]

Granvelle's perceived aggrandizement helped focus the opposition against him. The grandees under the leadership of Orange engineered his recall in 1564. Emboldened by this success Orange intensified his attempts to obtain religious toleration. He persuaded Margaret and the Council to ask for a moderation of the placards against heresy. Philip delayed his response, however, and in the meantime the opposition against his religious policies gained more widespread support. When Philip finally rejected the request for moderation in his Letters from the Segovia Woods of October, 1565, this only fanned the flames. A group of members of the lesser nobility, among whom Louis of Nassau, a younger brother of Orange, and the brothers John and Philip of St. Aldegonde, prepared a petition for the abolition of the Inquisition for Philip. This Compromise of Nobles was supported by about 400 nobles, both Catholics and Protestants. It was presented to Margaret on April 5, 1566 at an audience for about 300 members of the Compromise which Margaret found rather intimidating. (According to legend the petitioners were dismissed as gueux (beggars) by one of Margaret's courtiers; the rebels would later use that name as a rallying cry). Margaret was sufficiently impressed to order the suspension of the placards pending Philip's final decision on April 9.[8]

Unrest and Spanish military reaction[edit]

The suspension of the placards emboldened the Protestants. Many returned from exile. Calvinists started to organize open-air sermons outside the city walls of many cities. Though these meetings were peaceful, their size alone caused anxiety for the authorities, especially as some of the people attending bore arms. Then, the situation deteriorated rapidly. On August 1, 1566, 2000 armed Calvinists tried to force entry to the walled town of Veurne. Shortly thereafter Calvinist weavers from the industrial area around Ypres attacked churches and destroyed religious statuary. This iconoclastic fury (Dutch: Beeldenstorm) spread like wildfire across the Netherlands. The authorities at first did not react. The central government was especially disturbed by the fact that in many cases the civic militias refused to intervene. This seemed to portend insurrection. Margaret, and also authorities at lower levels, made further concessions to the Calvinists, like designating certain churches for Calvinist worship. However, the provincial governors, foremost Philip of Noircarmes of Hainaut, who suppressed the revolt of the Calvinists led by Guido de Bres in Valenciennes, and Orange as stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland, took decisive action to quell the disturbances. In March 1567 at the Battle of Oosterweel a motley army of Calvinists under John of St. Aldegonde was defeated by a royalist army and all rebels summarily executed, while Orange prevented the citizens of nearby Antwerp to come to the rebels' aid. In April, 1567 the situation in the country was such, that Margaret could report to Philip that order had been restored.[9]

However, news travelled slowly and the court in Madrid had received a rather exaggerated impression of the severity of the situation. In September, 1566 Philip had decided to travel himself to the Netherlands to restore order, but debate among the two factions at the Spanish court, led by the Duke of Alba and the Prince of Eboli, about the advisability of this journey grew fierce. Eventually it was decided to send an army from Italy under the command of Alba. Margaret's emissary arrived at the court on April 17, 1567, the same day when Alba departed on his mission, too late to prevent the fateful intervention[10]

Alba's army of about 10,000 Spanish and Italian mercenaries reached the Netherlands by way of the Spanish Road in August, 1567. Alba was supposed to act as military governor-general, while Margaret would remain in office as Regent. Alba acted in such a presumptuous way, however, that Margaret soon resigned in protest. Alba thereafter was in sole command. He commenced by establishing a Council of Troubles on September 5, 1567. This council soon conducted a severe campaign of repression of suspected heretics and people deemed guilty of the already extinguished insurrection. Many high-ranking officials were arrested on various pretexts, among whom the Counts of Egmont and Horne. The victims of the repression were found in all social strata. A total of about 9,000 people were eventually convicted by the council, though only 1,000 were actually executed, as many managed to go into exile. One of the latter was Orange, who forfeited his extensive possessions in the Netherlands, like most of the people being proscribed. The victims were not necessarily only Protestants. For instance, the Counts of Egmont and Horne, executed for treason on June 5, 1568, protested their Catholic orthodoxy on the scaffold.[11]

Opposition in exile[edit]

The many exiles found asylum in the few areas in neighboring countries that welcomed Calvinists, like the Huguenot areas in France, England, and Emden or Wesel in Germany. Many were ready to join an armed fight, but the fate of the rebels at Oosterweel had shown that irregular forces did not stand a chance against well-disciplined troops. A better organized effort was needed to lead such an effort, and Orange was uniquely well-placed. As a sovereign prince of the Holy Roman Empire[12] Orange was in a sense the equal of Philip, in his capacity of Count of Holland, for instance. Orange was therefore entirely within his rights to make war on Philip (or, as he for the moment preferred, on Philip's "bad advisor" Alba). This was important in a diplomatic context as it legitimized Orange's efforts to hire mercenaries in the principalities of his German "colleagues," and enabled him to issue letters of marque to the many Calvinist seamen who had embarked on a career of piracy from economic desperation. Such letters elevated the latter, the so-called Sea Beggars, to the status of privateers, which enabled the authorities in neutral countries, like the England of Elizabeth I, to accommodate them without legal embarrassment.[13] Orange's temporary abode in Dillenburg therefore became the command center for plans to invade the Netherlands from several directions at once.[14]

Louis of Nassau crossed into Groningen from East Friesland and defeated a small royalist force at Heiligerlee on May 23, 1568. The Battle of Heiligerlee is usually considered the start of the Dutch revolt as it was at this moment that the series of protests and unrest had culminated in armed conflict.


  1. ^ Technically they formed the Burgundian Circle that, under the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, was to be transferred as a unit in hereditary succession in the House of Habsburg.
  2. ^ the Council of State, Privy Council and Council of Finances
  3. ^ Cf. Koenigsberger, pp. 184-192
  4. ^ Unless otherwise indicated, "Netherlands" and "Netherlandish" refer here to the entire area of the Habsburg Netherlands and its inhabitants, whereas "Dutch Republic" and "Dutch" will refer to the country, currently known as the Netherlands, and its inhabitants.
  5. ^ Tracy, p. 66
  6. ^ Tracy, p. 68
  7. ^ Tracy, pp. 68-69
  8. ^ Tracy, pp. 69-70
  9. ^ Tracy, pp. 71-72
  10. ^ Tracy, p. 72
  11. ^ Tracy, pp. 77-78
  12. ^ The principality of Orange in present-day France at the time was an independent fief of the Empire.
  13. ^ As a matter of fact, the English probably welcomed the opportunity to obtain cargo and ships at fire-sale prices, when the privateers came to dispose of their prizes; the arrangement was mutually beneficial.
  14. ^ Tracy, p. 78


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