ON the very day of the sack of Antwerp, Don John of Austria arrived at Luxemburg. This ominous commencement of his viceregal reign was not be-lied by the events which followed; and the hero of Le-panto, the victor of the Turks, the idol of Christendom, was destined to have his reputation and well-won laurels tarnished in the service of the insidious despotism to which he now became an instrument. Don John was a natural son of Charles V., and to fine talents and a good disposition united the advantages of hereditary courage and a liberal education. He was born at Ratisbon on the 24th of February, 1543. His reputed mother was a young lady of that place named Barbara Blomberg; but one historian states that the real parent was of a condition too elevated to have her rank betrayed; and that, to conceal the mystery, Barbara Blomberg had voluntarily assumed the distinction, or the dishonor, according to the different constructions put upon the case. The prince, having passed through France, disguised, for greater secrecy or in a youthful frolic, as a negro valet to Prince Octavo Gonzaga, entered on the limits of his new government, and immediately wrote to the council of state in the most condescending terms to announce his arrival.
Nothing could present a less promising aspect to the prince than the country at the head of which he was now placed. He found all its provinces, with the sole exception of Luxemburg, in the anarchy attendant on a ten years’ civil war, and apparently resolved on a total breach of their allegiance to Spain. He found his best, indeed his only, course to be that of moderation and management; and it is most probable that at the outset his intentions were really honorable and candid.
The states-general were not less embarrassed than the prince. His sudden arrival threw them into great perplexity, which was increased by the conciliatory tone of his let-ter. They had now removed from Ghent to Brussels; and first sending deputies to pay the honors of a ceremonious welcome to Don John, they wrote to the Prince of Orange, then in Holland, for his advice in this difficult conjuncture. The prince replied by a memorial of considerable length, dated Middleburg, the 30th of November, in which he gave them the most wise and prudent advice; the substance of which was to receive any propositions coming from the wily and perfidious Philip with the utmost suspicion, and to re-fuse all negotiation with his deputy, if the immediate withdrawal of the foreign troops was not at once conceded, and the acceptance of the Pacification guaranteed in its most ample extent.
This advice was implicitly followed; the states in the meantime taking the precaution of assembling a large body of troops at Wavre, between Brussels and Namur, the command of which was given to the count of Lalain. A still more important measure was the despatch of an envoy to England, to implore the assistance of Elizabeth. She acted on this occasion with frankness and intrepidity; giving a distinguished reception to the envoy, De Sweveghem, and advancing a loan of one hundred thousand pounds sterling, on condition that the states made no treaty without her knowledge or participation.
To secure still more closely the federal union that now bound the different provinces, a new compact was concluded by the deputies on the 9th of January, 1577, known by the title of The Union of Brussels, and signed by the prelates, ecclesiastics, lords, gentlemen, magistrates, and others, representing the estates of the Netherlands. A copy of this act of union was transmitted to Don John, to enable him thoroughly to understand the present state of feeling among those with whom he was now about to negotiate. He maintained a general tone of great moderation throughout the conference which immediately took place; and after some months of cautious parleying, in the latter part of which the candor of the prince seemed doubtful, and which the native historians do not hesitate to stigmatize as merely assumed, a treaty was signed at Marche-en-Famenne, a place between Namur and Luxemburg, in which every point insisted on by the states was, to the surprise and delight of the nation, fully consented to and guaranteed. This important document is called The Perpetual Edict, bears date the 12th of February, 1577, and contains nineteen articles. They were all based on the acceptance of the Pacification; but one expressly stipulated that the count of Beuren should be set at liberty as soon as the Prince of Orange, his father, had on his part ratified the treaty.
Don John made his solemn entry into Brussels on the 1st of May, and assumed the functions of his limited authority. The conditions of the treaty were promptly and regularly fulfilled. The citadels occupied by the Spanish soldiers were given up to the Flemish and Walloon troops; and the departure of these ferocious foreigners took place at once. The large sums required to facilitate this measure made it necessary to submit for a while to the presence of the German mercenaries. But Don John’s conduct soon destroyed the temporary delusion which had deceived the country. Whether his projects were hitherto only concealed, or that they were now for the first time excited by the disappointment of those hopes of authority held out to him by Philip, and which his predecessors had shared, it is certain that he very early displayed his ambition, and very imprudently attempted to put it in force. He at once demanded from the council of state the command of the troops and the disposal of the revenues. The answer was a simple reference to the Pacification of Ghent; and the prince’s rejoinder was an apparent submission, and the immediate despatch of letters in cipher to the king, demanding a supply of troops sufficient to restore his ruined authority. These letters were intercepted by the king of Navarre, afterward Henry IV. of France, who immediately transmitted them to the Prince of Orange, his old friend and fellow-soldier.
Public opinion, to the suspicions of which Don John had been from the first obnoxious, was now unanimous in attributing to design all that was unconstitutional and unfair. His impetuous character could no longer submit to the restraint of dissimulation, and he resolved to take some bold and decided measure. A very favorable opportunity was presented in the arrival of the queen of Navarre, Marguerite of Valois, at Namur, on her way to Spa. The prince, numerously attended, hastened to the former town under pretence of paying his respects to the queen. As soon as she left the place, he repaired to the glacis of the town, as if for the mere enjoyment of a walk, admired the external appearance of the citadel, and expressed a desire to be admitted inside. The young count of Berlaimont, in the absence of his father, the governor of the place, and an accomplice in the plot with Don John, freely admitted him. The prince immediately drew forth a pistol, and exclaimed that “that was the first moment of his government” ; took possession of the place with his immediate guard, and instantly formed them into a devoted garrison.
The Prince of Orange immediately made public the intercepted letters; and, at the solicitation of the states-general, repaired to Brussels; into which city he made a truly triumphant entry on the 23d of September, and was immediately nominated governor, protector or reward of Brabant a dignity which had fallen into disuse, but was revived on this occasion, and which was little inferior in power to that of the dictators of Rome. His authority, now almost unlimited, extended over every province of the Netherlands, except Namur and Luxemburg, both of which acknowledged Don John.
The first care of the liberated nation was to demolish the various citadels rendered celebrated and odious by the excesses of the Spaniards. This was done with an enthusiastic industry in which every age and sex bore a part, and which promised well for liberty. Among the ruins of that of Antwerp the statue of the duke of Alva was discovered; dragged through the filthiest streets of the town; and, with all the indignity so well merited by the original, it was finally broken into a thousand pieces.
The country, in conferring such extensive powers on the Prince of Orange, had certainly gone too far, not for his desert, but for its own tranquillity. It was impossible that such an elevation should not excite the discontent and awaken the enmity of the haughty aristocracy of Flanders and Brabant; and particularly of the House of Croi, the ancient rivals of that of Nassau. The then representative of that family seemed the person most suited to counter-balance William’s excessive power. The duke of Arschot was therefore named governor of Flanders; and he immediately put himself at the head of a confederacy of the Catholic party, which quickly decided to offer the chief government of the country, still in the name of Philip, to the archduke Mathias, brother of the emperor Rodolf II., and cousin-german to Philip of Spain, a youth but nineteen years of age. A Flemish gentleman named Maelsted was intrusted with the proposal. Mathias joyously consented; and, quitting Vienna with the greatest secrecy, he arrived at Maestricht, without any previous announcement, and expected only by the party that had invited him, at the end of October, 1577.
The Prince of Orange, instead of showing the least symptom of dissatisfaction at this underhand proceeding aimed at his personal authority, announced his perfect approval of the nomination, and was the foremost in recommending measures for the honor of the archduke and the security of the country. He drew up the basis of a treaty for Mathias’s acceptance, on terms which guaranteed to the council of state and the states-general the virtual sovereignty, and left to the young prince little beyond the fine title which had dazzled his boyish vanity. The Prince of Orange was appointed his lieutenant, in all the branches of the administration, civil, military, or financial; and the duke of Arschot, who had hoped to obtain an entire domination over the puppet he had brought upon the stage, saw himself totally foiled in his project, and left without a chance or a pretext for the least increase to his influence.
But a still greater disappointment attended this ambitious nobleman in the very stronghold of his power. The Flemings, driven by persecution to a state of fury almost unnatural, had, in their antipathy to Spain, adopted a hatred against Catholicism, which had its source only in political frenzy, while the converts imagined it to arise from reason and conviction. Two men had taken advantage of this state of the public mind and gained over it an unbounded ascendency. They were Francis de Kethulle, lord of Ryhove, and John Hembyse, who each seemed formed to realize the beau-ideal of a factious demagogue. They had acquired supreme power over the people of Ghent, and had at their command a body of twenty thousand resolute and well-armed supporters. The duke of Arschot vainly attempted to oppose his authority to that of these men; and he on one occasion imprudently exclaimed that “he would have them hanged, even though they were protected by the Prince of Orange himself.” The same night Ryhove summoned the leaders of his bands ; and quickly assembling a considerable force, they repaired to the duke’s hotel, made him prisoner, and, without allowing him time to dress, carried him away in triumph. At the same time the bishops of Bruges and Ypres, the high bailiffs of Ghent and Courtrai, the governor of Oudenarde, and other important magistrates, were arrested accused of complicity with the duke, but of what particular offence the lawless demagogues did not deign to specify. The two tribunes immediately divided the whole honors and authority of administration; Ryhove as military, and Hembyse as civil, chief.
The latter of these legislators completely changed the forms of the government; he revived the ancient privileges destroyed by Charles V., and took all preliminary measures for forcing the various provinces to join with the city of Ghent in forming a federative republic. The states-general and the Prince of Orange were alarmed, lest these troubles might lead to a renewal of the anarchy from the effects of which the country had but just obtained breathing-time. Ryhove consented, at the remonstrance of the Prince of Orange, to release the duke of Arschot ; but William was obliged to repair to Ghent in person, in the hope of establishing order. He arrived on the 29th of December, and entered on a strict inquiry with his usual calmness and decision. He could not succeed in obtaining the liberty of the other prisoners, though he pleaded for them strongly. Having severely reprimanded the factious leaders, and pointed out the dangers of their illegal course, he returned to Brussels, leaving the factious city in a temporary tranquillity which his firmness and discretion could alone have obtained.
The archduke Mathias, having visited Antwerp, and acceded to all the conditions required of him, made his public entry into Brussels on the 18th of January, 1578, and was installed in his dignity of governor-general amid the usual fetes and rejoicings. Don John of Austria was at the same time. declared an enemy to the country, with a public order to quit it without delay; and a prohibition was issued against any inhabitant acknowledging his forfeited authority.
War was now once more openly declared; some fruitless negotiations having afforded a fair pretext for hostilities. The rapid appearance of a numerous army under the orders of Don John gave strength to the suspicions of his former dissimulation. It was currently believed that large bodies of the Spanish troops had remained concealed in the forests of Luxemburg and Lorraine ; while several regiments, which had remained in France in the service of the League, immediatly reentered the Netherlands. Alexander Farnese, prince of Parma, son of the former stadtholderess, came to the aid of his uncle, Don John, at the head of a large force of Italians; and these several reinforcements, with the German auxiliaries still in the country, composed an army of twenty thousand men. The army of the states-general was still larger; but far inferior in point of discipline. It was commanded by Antoine de Goignies, a gentleman of Hainault, and an old soldier of the school of Charles V.
After a sharp affair at the village of Riminants, in which the royalists had the worst, the two armies met at Gemblours, on the 31st of January, 1578; and the prince of Parma gained a complete victory, almost with his cavalry only, taking De Goignies prisoner, with the whole of his artillery and baggage. The account of his victory is almost miraculous. The royalists, if we are to credit their most minute but not impartial historian, had only one thousand two hundred men engaged; by whom six thousand were put to the sword, with the loss of but twelve men and little more than an hour’s labor.
The news of this battle threw the states into the utmost consternation. Brussels being considered insecure, the arch-duke Mathias and his council retired to Antwerp; but the victors did not feel their forces sufficient to justify an attack upon the capital. They, however, took Louvain, Tirlemont, and several other towns; but these conquests were of little import in comparison with the loss of Amsterdam, which declared openly and unanimously for the patriot cause. The states-general recovered their courage, and prepared for a new contest. They sent deputies to the diet of Worms, to ask succor from the princes of the empire. The count palatine John Casimir repaired to their assistance with a considerable force of Germans and English, all equipped and paid by Queen Elizabeth. The duke of Alençon, brother of Henry III. of France, hovered on the frontiers of Hainault with a respectable army; and the cause of liberty seemed not quite desperate.
But all the various chiefs had separate interests and opposite views; while the fanatic violence of the people of Ghent sapped the foundations of the pacification to which the town had given its name. The Walloon provinces, deep-rooted in their attachment to religious bigotry, which they loved still better than political freedom, gradually withdrew from the common cause; and without yet openly becoming reconciled with Spain, they adopted a neutrality which was tantamount to it. Don John was, however, deprived of all chance of reaping any advantage from these unfortunate dissensions. He was suddenly taken ill in his camp at Bougy; and died, after a fortnight’s suffering, on the 1st of October, 1578, in the thirty-third year of his age.
This unlooked-for close to a career which had been so brilliant, and to a life from which so much was yet to be expected, makes us pause to consider for a moment the different opinions Of his times and of history on the fate of a personage so remarkable. The contemporary Flemish memoirs say that he died of the plague; those of Spain call his disorder the purple fever. The examination of his corpse caused an almost general belief that he was poisoned. “He lost his life,” says one author, “with great suspicion of poison.” “Acabo su vida, con gran sospecho de veneno.” Herrera. Another speaks of the suspicious state of his intestines, but without any direct opinion. An English historian states the fact of his being poisoned, without any reserve. Flemish writers do not hesitate to attribute his murder to the jealousy of Philip II., who, they assert, had discovered a secret treaty of marriage about to be concluded between Don John and Elizabeth of England, securing them the joint sovereignty of the Netherlands. An Italian historian of credit asserts that this ambitious design was attributed to the prince; and admits that his death was not considered as having arisen from natural causes. “E quindi nacque l’opinione dispersa allora, ch’egli mancasse di morte aiutata più tosto the naturale. ” Bentivoglio. It was also believed that Escovedo, his confidential secretary, being immediately called back to Spain, was secretly assassinated by Antonio Perez, Philip’s celebrated minister, and by the special orders of the king. Time has, however, covered the affair with impenetrable mystery; and the death of Don John was of little importance to the affairs of the country he governed so briefly and so ingloriously, if it be not that it added another motive to the natural hatred for his assumed murderer.
The prince of Parma, who now succeeded, by virtue of Don John’s testament, to the post of governor-general in the name of the king, remained intrenched in his camp. He expected much from the disunion of his various opponents; and what he foresaw very quickly happened. The duke of Alençon disbanded his troops and retired to France; and the prince Palatine, following his example, withdrew to Germany, having first made an unsuccessful attempt to engage the queen of England as a principal in the confederacy. In this perplexity, the Prince of Orange saw that the real hope for safety was in uniting still more closely the northern provinces of the union; for he discovered the fallacy of reckoning on the cordial and persevering fidelity of the Walloons. He therefore convoked a new assembly at Utrecht; and the deputies of Holland, Guelders, Zealand, Utrecht, and Groningen, signed, on the 29th of January, 1579, the famous act called the Union of Utrecht, the real basis or fundamental pact of the republic of the United Provinces. It makes no formal renunciation of allegiance to Spain, but this is virtually done by the omission of the king’s name. The twenty-six articles of this act consolidate the indissoluble connection of the United Provinces; each preserving its separate franchises, and following its own good pleasure on the subject of religion. The towns of Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges, and Ypres, soon after acceded to and joined the union.
The prince of Parma now assumed the offensive, and marched against Maestricht with his whole army. He took the place in the month of June, 1579, after a gallant resistance, and delivered it to sack and massacre for three entire days. About the same time Mechlin and Bois-le-duc returned to their obedience to the king. Hembyse having renewed his attempts against the public peace at Ghent, the Prince of Orange repaired to that place, re-established order, frightened the inveterate demagogue into secret flight, and Flanders was once more restored to tranquillity.
An attempt was made this year at a reconciliation between the king and the states. The emperor Rodolf II. and Pope Gregory XIII. offered their mediation; and on the 5th of April a congress assembled at Cologne, where a number of the most celebrated diplomatists in Europe were collected. But it was early seen that no settlement would result from the apparently reciprocal wish for peace. One point that of religion, the main, and indeed the only one in debate was now maintained by Philip’s ambassador in the same unchristian spirit as if torrents of blood and millions of treasure had never been sacrificed in the cause. Philip was inflexible in his resolution never to concede the exercise of the reformed worship; and after nearly a year of fruit-less consultation, and the expenditure of immense sums of money, the congress separated on the 17th of November, without having effected anything. There were several other articles intended for discussion, had the main one been adjusted, on which Philip was fully as determined to make no concession; but his obstinacy was not put to these new tests.
The time had now, arrived for the execution of the great and decisive step for independence, the means of effecting which had been so long the object of exertion and calculation on the part of the Prince of Orange. He now resolved to assemble the states of the United Provinces, solemnly abjure the dominion of Spain, and depose King Philip from the sovereignty he had so justly forfeited. Much. has been written both for and against this measure, which involved every argument of natural rights and municipal privilege. The natural rights of man may seem to comprise only those which he enjoys in a state of nature; but he carries several of those with him into society, which is based upon the very principle of their preservation. The great precedent which so many subsequent revolutions have acknowledged and confirmed is that which we now record. The states-general assembled at Antwerp early in the year 1580; and, in spite of all the opposition of the Catholic deputies, the authority of Spain was revoked forever, and the United Provinces declared a free and independent state. At the same time was debated the important question as to whether the protection of the new state should be offered to England or to France. Opinions were divided on this point; but that of the Prince of Orange being in favor of the latter country, from many motives of sound policy, it was decided to offer the sovereignty to the duke of Alençon. The archduke Mathias, who was present at the deliberations, was treated with little ceremony; but he obtained the promise of a pension when the finances were in a situation to afford it. The definite proposal to be made to the duke of Alençon was not agreed upon for some months afterward; and it was in the month of August following that St. Aldegonde and other deputies waited on the duke at the chateau of Plessis-le-Tours, when he accepted the offered sovereignty on the proposed conditions, which set narrow bounds to his authority, and gave ample security to the United Provinces. The articles were formally signed on the 29th day of September; and the duke not only promised quickly to lead a numerous army to the Netherlands, but he obtained a letter from his brother, Henry III., dated December 26th, by which the king pledged himself to give further aid, as soon as he might succeed in quieting his own disturbed and unfortunate country. The states-general, assembled at Delft, ratified the treaty on the 30th of December; and the year which was about to open seemed to promise the consolidation of freedom and internal peace.