Info Articles > Categories > History > Netherlands history > The beginnings of the Dutch Republic

The beginnings of the Dutch Republic


At the moment of the assassination of William the Silent in 1584 it might well have seemed to an impartial observer that the restoration of the authority of the Spanish king over the whole of the Netherlands was only a question of time. The military skill and the statecraft of Alexander Farnese were making slow but sure progress in the reconquest of Flanders and Brabant. Despite the miserable inadequacy of the financial support he received from Spain, the governor-general, at the head of a numerically small but thoroughly efficient and well-disciplined army, was capturing town after town. In 1583 Dunkirk, Nieuport, Lindhoven, Steenbergen, Zutphen and Sas-van-Gent fell; in the spring of 1584 Ypres and Bruges were already in Spanish hands, and on the very day of William's death the fort of Liefkenshoek on the Scheldt, one of the outlying defences of Antwerp, was taken by assault.

In August Dendermonde, in September Ghent, surrendered. All West Flanders, except the sea-ports of Ostend and Sluis, had in the early autumn of 1584 been reduced to the obedience of the king. The campaign of the following year was to be even more successful. Brussels, the seat of government, was compelled by starvation to capitulate, March 10; Mechlin was taken, July 19; and finally Antwerp, after a memorable siege, in which Parma displayed masterly skill and resource, passed once more into the possession of the Spaniards. The fall of this great town was a very heavy blow to the patriot cause, and it was likewise the ruin of Antwerp itself. A very large part of its most enterprising inhabitants left their homes rather than abjure their religious faith and took refuge in Holland and Zeeland, or fled across the Rhine into Germany. Access to the sea down the Scheldt was closed by the fleets of the Sea Beggars, and the commerce and industry of the first commercial port of western Europe passed to Amsterdam and Middelburg. Meanwhile there had been no signs of weakness or of yielding on the part of the sturdy burghers of Holland and Zeeland.

On the fatal July 10, 1584, the Estates of Holland were in session at Delft. They at once took energetic action under the able leadership of Paul Buys, Advocate of Holland, and John van Oldenbarneveldt, Pensionary of Rotterdam. They passed a resolution "to uphold the good cause with God's help without sparing gold or blood." Despatches were at once sent to the Estates of the other provinces, to the town councils and to the military and naval commanders, affirming their own determined attitude and exhorting all those who had accepted the leadership of the murdered Prince of Orange "to bear themselves manfully and piously without abatement of zeal on account of the aforesaid misfortune." Their calm courage at such a moment of crisis reassured men's minds. There was no panic. Steps were at once taken for carrying on the government in Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Stimulated by the example of Holland, the States-General likewise took prompt action.

On August 18 a Council of State was appointed to exercise provisionally the executive powers of sovereignty, consisting of eighteen members, four from Holland, three each from Zeeland and Friesland, two from Utrecht and six from Brabant and Flanders. Of this body Maurice of Nassau, William's seventeen year-old son, was nominated first Councillor, and a pension of 30,000 guilders per annum was granted him. At the same time Louise de Coligny was invited to take up her residence in Holland and suitable provision was made for her. William Lewis, son of Count John of Nassau, was elected Stadholder of Friesland. Count Nieuwenaar was Stadholder of Gelderland and shortly afterwards also of Utrecht and Overyssel. Owing to the youth of Maurice the question as to whether he should become Count of Holland and Zeeland or be elected Stadholder was left in abeyance until it should be settled to which of two foreign rulers the sovereignty of the provinces, now that Anjou was dead, should be offered.

In the revolted provinces the responsible leaders were at this time practically unanimous in their opinion that any attempt on their part to carry on the struggle against the power of Spain without foreign assistance was hopeless; and it was held that such assistance could only be obtained by following in the footsteps of William and offering to confer the overlordship of the provinces on another sovereign in the place of Philip II. There were but two possible candidates, Henry III of France and Elizabeth of England.

There were objections to both, but the rapid successes of Parma made it necessary to take action. The partisans of a French alliance were in the majority, despite the efforts of a strong opposition headed by Paul Buys; and an embassy (January, 1585) was despatched to Paris to offer conditionally to the French king the Protectorship of Holland and Zeeland and sovereignty over the other provinces. The negotiations went on for a couple of months, but Henry III finally declined the offer. Another embassy was sent, July, 1585, to England, but Elizabeth refused absolutely to accept the sovereignty. She however was not averse to the proposal that she should despatch a body of troops to the armed assistance of the provinces, provided that adequate guarantees were given for the outlay. She was afraid of Philip II and, though she had no love for men who were rebels to their lawful sovereign, was quite willing to use them for her own ends.

Her motives therefore were mixed and purely self-interested; nevertheless it is doubtful if the negotiations would have led to any definite result, had not the news of the fall of Antwerp made both parties feel that this was no time for haggling or procrastination. Elizabeth therefore promised to send at once 6000 troops under the command of a "gentleman of quality," who should bear the title of governor-general. He was to co-operate with the Council of State (on which two Englishmen were to sit) in restoring order and in maintaining and defending the ancient rights and privileges of the provinces. The governor-general and all other officials were to take an oath of fealty both to the States-General and to the queen. The towns of Flushing and Brill with the fort of Rammekens were to be handed over in pledge to Elizabeth for the repayment of expenses and received English garrisons. They were known as "the cautionary towns."

At the end of October the States were informed that the choice of the queen had fallen upon her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and that he would shortly set out for the Netherlands. Holland and Zeeland, ever jealous of foreign interference with their rights and privileges, resolved now to forestall the arrival of the English governor-general by appointing Maurice of Nassau, with the title of "Excellency," to the offices of Stadholder and Admiral and Captain-General of both provinces; and the Count of Hohenlo was nominated (Maurice being still little more than a boy) to the actual command of the State's forces. Leicester set sail from Harwich accompanied by a fleet of fifty vessels and landed at Flushing (Vlissingen) on December 19. He met everywhere with an enthusiastic reception. The States-General were eager to confer large powers upon him. Practically he was invested with the same authority as the former regent, Mary of Hungary, with the reservation that the States-General and the Provincial Estates should meet at their own instance, that the present stadholders should continue in office, and that appointments to vacant offices should be made from two or three persons nominated by the Provincial Estates. A new Council of State was created which, as previously agreed, included two Englishmen. On February 4, 1586, Leicester's government was solemnly inaugurated in the presence of Maurice of Nassau and the States-General, and he accepted the title of "Excellency." Elizabeth on hearing this was very angry and even threatened to recall Leicester, and she sent Lord Heneage to express both to the States-General and the governor-general her grave displeasure at what had taken place. She bade Leicester restrict himself to the functions that she had assigned to him, and it was not until July that she was sufficiently appeased to allow him to be addressed as "Excellency."

All this was galling to Leicester's pride and ambition, and did not tend to improve his relations with the States. An English governor would in any case have had a difficult task, and Leicester had neither tact nor capacity as a statesman, and no pretensions as a military leader. He possessed no knowledge of the institutions of the country or the character of the people, and was ignorant of the Dutch language. The measures he took and the arbitrary way in which he tried to enforce them, soon brought him face to face with the stubborn resistance of the Estates of Holland under the leadership of Oldenbarneveldt.
In April, 1586, he issued a very stringent placard forbidding all traffic with the enemy's lands and more especially the supplying of the enemy with grain. He meant it well, for he had been informed that the cutting-off of this commerce, which he regarded as illicit, would deprive the Spaniards of the necessaries of life, and Parma's position would become desperate. This carrying trade had, however, for long been a source of much profit to the merchants and shipowners of Holland and Zeeland; indeed it supplied no small part of the resources by which those two provinces had equipped the fleets and troops by which they had defended themselves against the efforts of the Spanish king. Two years before this the States-General had tried to place an embargo on the traffic in grain, but the powerful town-council of Amsterdam had refused obedience and the Estates of Holland supported them in their action. The deputies of the inland provinces, which had suffered most from the Spanish armies, were jealous of the prosperity of the maritime States, and regarded this trade with the Spaniard as being carried on to their injury. But Holland and Zeeland supplied the funds without which resistance would long since have been impossible, and they claimed moreover, as sovereign provinces, the right to regulate their trade affairs. The edict remained a dead-letter, for there was no power to enforce it.

The governor made a still greater mistake when, in his annoyance at the opposition of the Hollanders, he courted the democratic anti-Holland party in Utrecht, which had as its leader the ultra-Calvinist stadholder, Nieuwenaar, and caused one of his confidants, a Brabanter, Gerard Prounick, surnamed Deventer, to be elected burgomaster of Utrecht, although as a foreigner he was disqualified from holding that office. An even more arbitrary act was his creation of a Chamber of Finance armed with inquisitorial powers, thus invading the rights of the Provincial Estates and depriving the Council of State of one of its most important functions. To make matters worse, he appointed Nieuwenaar to preside over the new Chamber, with a Brabanter, Jacques Reingoud, as treasurer-general, and a Fleming, Daniel de Burchgrave, as auditor. The Estates of Holland, under the guidance of Oldenbarneveldt, prepared themselves to resist stubbornly this attempt to thrust upon them a new tyranny.

As a military leader Leicester was quite unfitted to oppose successfully such a general as Parma. Both commanders were in truth much hampered by the preparations that were being made by Philip for the invasion of England. The king could spare Parma but little money for the pay of his troops, and his orders were that the Spanish forces in the Netherlands should be held in reserve and readiness for embarkation, as soon as the Great Armada should hold command of the Channel. England was the first objective. When its conquest was accomplished that of the rebel provinces would speedily follow. On the other hand Elizabeth, always niggardly, was little disposed in face of the threatened danger to dissipate her resources by any needless expenditure. Leicester therefore found himself at the head of far too small a force to deal any effective blows at the enemy. He succeeded in capturing Doesburg, but failed to take Zutphen. It was in a gallant effort to prevent a Spanish convoy from entering that town that Sir Philip Sidney met his death at the combat of Warnsfeld (Sept. 22, 1586). An important fort facing Zutphen was however stormed, and here Leicester left Sir Robert Yorke with a strong garrison, and at the same time sent Sir William Stanley with 1200 men to be governor of Deventer.

These appointments gave rise to much criticism that proved later to be fully justified, for both these officers were Catholics and had formerly been in the Spanish service. Leicester had also taken other steps that were ill-judged. West Friesland had for many years been united to Holland and was known as the North-Quarter. The governor-general, however, appointed Sonoy Stadholder of West Friesland, and was thus infringing the rights and jurisdiction of Maurice of Nassau. Maurice also held the post of Admiral-General of Holland and Zeeland, but Leicester took it upon himself to create three distinct Admiralty Colleges, those of Holland, Zeeland, and the North-Quarter, thus further dividing authority in a land where greater unity was the chief thing to be aimed at. Leicester was equally unwise in the part he took in regard to religious matters. Oldenbarneveldt, Paul Buys and the great majority of burgher-regents in Holland belonged to the moderate or, as it was called, the "libertine" party, to which William the Silent had adhered and whose principles of toleration he had strongly upheld. Leicester, largely influenced by spite against Oldenbarneveldt and the Hollanders for their opposition to his edict about trade with the enemy and to his appointment of Sonoy, threw himself into the arms of the extreme Calvinists, who were at heart as fanatical persecutors as the Spanish inquisitors themselves. These "precisian" zealots held, by the governor-general's permission and under his protection, a synod at Dort, June, 1586, and endeavoured to organise the Reformed Church in accordance with their strict principles of exclusiveness.

By this series of maladroit acts Leicester had made himself so unpopular and distrusted in Holland that the Estates of that predominant province lost no opportunity of inflicting rebuffs upon him. Stung by the opposition he met and weary of a thankless task, the governor determined at the end of November to pay a visit to England. The Council of State was left in charge of the administration during his absence.

His departure had the very important effect of bringing the question of State-rights acutely to the front. The dislike and distrust felt by the Hollanders towards the English governor-general was greatly increased by the treachery of Yorke and Stanley, who delivered the fort at Zutphen and the town of Deventer, with the defence of which they had been charged, into the hands of the Spaniards. The town of Gelder and the fort at Wouw were likewise betrayed, and there can be small doubt that, had Parma at this time been able to take advantage of the dissensions in the ranks of his adversaries, he would have met with little effectual resistance to his arms. His whole attention was, however, centred in preparations for the proposed invasion of England. Leicester had no sooner left the country than the Estates of Holland, under the strong leadership of Oldenbarneveldt, took measures to assert their right to regulate their own affairs, independently of the Council of State. A levy of troops was made (in the pay of the province of Holland), who were required to take an oath to the Provincial Estates and the stadholder. To Maurice the title of "Prince" was given; and Sonoy in the North-Quarter and all the commanders of fortified places were compelled to place themselves under his orders. The States-General, in which the influence of Holland and its chief representative, Oldenbarneveldt, was overpoweringly great, upheld the Provincial Estates in the measures they were taking. As a result of their action the trade restrictions were practically repealed, the Council of State was reconstituted, and a strong indictment of Leicester's conduct and administration was drawn up in the name of the States-General and forwarded to the absent governor in England.

Elizabeth was indignant at the language of this document, but at this particular time the dangers which were threatening her throne and people were too serious for her to take any steps to alienate the States. It was her obvious policy to support them in their resistance, and to keep, if possible, Parma's forces occupied in the Netherlands. Accordingly Leicester returned to his post, July 1587, but in an altogether wrong spirit. He knew that he had a strong body of partisans in Utrecht, Friesland and elsewhere, for he had posed as the friend of the people's rights against the nobles and those burgher-aristocracies in the cities in whose hands all real power rested, and by his attitude in religious matters he had won for himself the support of the Calvinist preachers. His agents, Deventer in Utrecht, Aysma in Friesland and Sonoy in the North-Quarter, were able men, who could count on the help of the democracy, whom they flattered. So Leicester came back with the determination to override the opposition of the Estates of Holland and compel their submission to his will. But he found that he only succeeded in making that opposition more resolute. His attempts to overthrow the supremacy of the "regents" in Amsterdam, Leyden, Enkhuizen and other towns were complete failures. Oldenbarneveldt and Maurice were supreme in Holland and Zeeland; and the power of the purse gave to Holland a controlling voice in the States-General. The position of Leicester was shaken also by his inability to relieve Sluis, which important seaport fell after a long siege into Parma's hands, August 5. Its capture was attributed by rumour, which in this case had no foundation, to the treachery of the English governor and garrison. Moreover it was discovered that for some months secret peace negotiations had been passing between the English government and Parma; and this aroused violent suspicions that the Netherlands were merely being used as pawns in English policy, and alienated from the governor-general the sympathy of the preachers, who had been his strongest supporters. Humiliated and broken in spirit, Leicester, after many bickerings and recriminations, finally left the Netherlands (December 10), though his formal resignation of his post did not reach the States-General until the following April. Lord Willoughby was placed in command of the English troops.

The year 1588 was the beginning of a decade full of fate for the Dutch Republic. The departure of Leicester left the seven provinces of the Union of Utrecht weak, divided, torn by factions, without allies, the country to the east of the Yssel and to the south of the Scheldt and the Waal already in the hands of the enemy. Moreover the armed forces of that enemy were far stronger than their own and under the command of a consummate general. But this was the year of the Spanish Armada, and Parma's offensive operations were, by the strictest orders from Madrid, otherwise directed. And Elizabeth on her side, though highly offended at the treatment which her favourite, Leicester, had received from the Hollanders, was too astute to quarrel at such a moment with a people whose ships kept a strict blockade in the Scheldt and before the Flemish harbours. Thus a respite was obtained for the States at this critical time, which was turned to good account and was of vital import for their constitutional development. The Leicestrian period, despite its record of incompetence and failure, had however the distinction of being the period which for good or for evil gave birth to the republic of the United Netherlands, as we know it in history. The curious, amorphous, hydra-headed system of government, which was to subsist for some two centuries, was in its origin the direct result of the confused welter of conflicting forces, which was the legacy of Leicester's rule. As a preliminary to a right understanding of the political system, which was now, more by accidental force of circumstances than by design, developing into a permanent constitution, it will be necessary to trace the events of the years which immediately followed the departure of Leicester, and which under the influence and by the co-operation of three striking personalities were to mould the future of the Dutch republic.

Those three personalities were John van Oldenbarneveldt, Maurice of Nassau and his cousin William Lewis of Nassau, the Stadholder of Friesland. Born in 1547, Oldenbarneveldt, after studying Jurisprudence at Louvain, Bourges and Heidelberg, became a devoted adherent of William the Silent and took part in the defence of Haarlem and of Leyden. His abilities, however, fitted him to take a prominent part as a politician and administrator rather than as a soldier; and his career may be said to have begun by his appointment to the post of Pensionary of Rotterdam in 1576. In this capacity his industry and his talent speedily won for him a commanding position in the Estates of Holland, and he became one of the Prince of Orange's confidential friends and advisers. In 1586 he was appointed Advocate of Holland in succession to Paul Buys. This office included the duties of legal adviser, secretary and likewise in a sense that of "Speaker" to the Provincial Estates. In addition to all this he was the mouthpiece in the States-General of the deputation representing the Provincial Estates, and exercised in that assembly all the authority attaching to the man who spoke in the name of Holland. At this time of transition, by his predominance alike in his own province of Holland and in the States-General, he was able to secure for the general policy of the Union, especially in the conduct of foreign affairs, a continuity of aim and purpose that enabled the loosely-cemented and mutually jealous confederacy of petty sovereign states to tide-over successfully the critical years which followed the departure of Leicester, and to acquire a sense of national unity.

The brain and the diplomatic skill of the great statesman would, however, have been of little avail without the aid of the military abilities of Maurice of Nassau. Maurice was twenty years of age when Leicester left Holland. He was a man very different from his father in opinions and in the character of his talents. Maurice had nothing of his father's tolerance in religious matters or his subtle skill in diplomacy. He was a born soldier, but no politician, and had no wish to interfere in affairs of State. He had the highest respect for Oldenbarneveldt and complete confidence in his capacity as a statesman, and he was at all times ready to use the executive powers, which he exercised by virtue of the numerous posts he was speedily called upon to fill, for the carrying out of Oldenbarneveldt's policy; while the Advocate on his side found in the strong arm of the successful general the instrument that he needed for the maintenance of his supremacy in the conduct of the civil government. Already in 1587 Maurice was Stadholder of Holland and Zeeland. In 1588 he became Captain-General and Admiral-General of the Union with the control and supervision of all the armed forces of the Provinces by sea and by land. The death of Nieuwenaar in the following year created a vacancy in the stadholderates of Utrecht, Gelderland and Overyssel. Maurice was in each province elected as Nieuwenaar's successor. The Advocate therefore and the Prince, through the close accord which was for many years to subsist between them, gathered thus into their hands (except in Friesland) practically the entire administrative, executive and military powers of the United Provinces and by their harmonious co-operation with William Lewis, the wise and capable Stadholder of Friesland, were able to give something of real unity to a group of states, each claiming to be a sovereign entity, and to give them the outward semblance of a federal republic. There was no "eminent head," but the sovereignty in reality, if not in name, was vested during the period with which we have now to deal in this triumvirate.

Circumstances provided a favourable field for the display of the youthful Maurice's military abilities. In 1589 the assassination of Henry III placed Henry of Navarre on the throne of France. The accession of the brilliant Huguenot leader led to civil war; and the Catholic opposition was encouraged and supported by Philip II, who regarded Henry IV as a menace and danger to the Spanish power. Parma, therefore, whose active prosecution of the war against the rebel provinces had been so long hindered by having to hold his army in readiness for the projected invasion of England, found himself, after the failure and destruction of the Armada, in no better position for a campaign in the northern Netherlands. Disappointment and false charges against him brought on a serious illness, and on his recovery he received orders to conduct an expedition into France. William Lewis of Nassau had for sometime been urging upon the States-General that the time for remaining upon the strict defensive was past, and that, when the enemy's efforts were weakened and distracted, the best defence was a vigorous offensive. At first he spoke to deaf ears, but he found now a powerful supporter in Maurice, and the two stadholders prevailed. They had now by careful and assiduous training created a strong and well-disciplined army for the service of the States. This army was made up by contingents of various nationalities, English, Scottish, French and German as well as Netherlanders. But the material was on the whole excellent, and the entire force was welded together by confidence in their leaders.

In 1590 the capture of Breda by a ruse (seventy men hidden beneath a covering of peat making their entrance into the town and opening the gates to their comrades outside) was a good omen for the campaign that was planned for 1591. For the first time Maurice had an opportunity for showing his genius for war and especially for siege warfare. By rapid movements he took first Zutphen, then Deventer and Delfzijl, and relieved the fort of Knodsenburg (near Nijmwegen). Thus successful on the eastern frontier, the stadholder hurried to Zeeland and captured Hulst, the key to the land of Waas. He then turned his steps again to the east and appearing suddenly before Nijmwegen made himself master of this important city. Such a succession of brilliant triumphs established Maurice's fame, and to a lesser degree that of William Lewis, whose co-operation and advice were of the greatest service to the younger man. This was markedly the case in the following year (1592) when the two stadholders set to work to expel the Spaniards from the two strongly fortified towns of Steenwijk and Coevorden, whose possession enabled a strong force under the veteran Verdugo to retain their hold upon Friesland. The States army was not at its full strength, for the English contingent under Sir Francis Vere had been sent to France; and Verdugo was confident that any attempt to capture these well-garrisoned fortresses was doomed to failure. He had to learn how great was the scientific skill and resource of Maurice in the art of beleaguering. Steenwijk after an obstinate defence capitulated on June 5. Coevorden was then invested and in its turn had to surrender, on September 12. During this time Parma had been campaigning with no great success in northern France. In the autumn he returned to the Netherlands suffering from the effects of a wound and broken in spirit. Never did any man fill a difficult and trying post with more success and zeal than Alexander Farnese during the sixteen years of his governor-generalship. Nevertheless Philip was afraid of his nephew's talents and ambition, and he despatched the Count of Fuentes with a letter of recall. It was never delivered. Parma set out to meet him, but fell ill and died at Spa, December 2, 1592. He appointed the Count of Mansfeld to take his place, until the Archduke Ernest of Austria, who had been appointed to succeed him, arrived in the Netherlands.

The campaign of 1593 was marked by the taking of Geertruidenberg, a fortress which barred the free access of the Hollanders and Zeelanders to the inland waters. The science which Maurice displayed in the siege of this town greatly increased his renown. In the following year the stadholders turned their attention to the north-east corner of the land, which was still in the possession of the Spaniards. After a siege of two months Groningen surrendered; and the city with the surrounding district was by the terms of the capitulation—known as "The Treaty of Reduction"—admitted as a province into the Union under the name of Stad en Landen. William Lewis was appointed stadholder, and Drente was placed under his jurisdiction. The northern Netherlands were now cleared of the enemy, and Maurice at the conclusion of the campaign made a triumphal entry into the Hague amidst general rejoicing. William Lewis lost no time in taking steps to establish Calvinism as the only recognised form of faith in his new government. His strong principles did not allow him to be tolerant, and to Catholicism he was a convinced foe. Everywhere throughout the United Provinces the reformed religion was now dominant, and its adherents alone could legally take part in public worship.