The name “Netherlands” now belongs to the Kingdom of Holland. In the Sixteenth Century the name denoted a number of provinces extending from the Zuyder Zee and the Dollart to the northern frontier of France, forming the tract of fertile alluvial land which now comprises the Kingdoms of both Holland and Belgium. Flanders, the southern portion of this territory, had acquired greatness in manufactures and commerce in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, the most flourishing towns being then Ghent and Bruges. Early in the Sixteenth Century the Netherlands had come under the rule of Charles V, Emperor of Germany and King of Spain. At the Reformation the new faith made much progress in the country, and a contest of sects arose amongst those who had abandoned the Catholic Church. In 1556, on the abdication of Charles V, the Netherlands had become a part of the great dominion ruled by his son, Philip II of Spain. The prosperity of the southern provinces especially was at this time great, in consequence of the valuable traffic carried on by the merchants of Flanders and Brabant, who exchanged the manufactures of the country for the riches drawn from America and India by the Spanish and Portuguese. Antwerp had now succeeded to Bruges as the general mart of commerce, and was the richest town in the north of Europe. Wool to an enormous value was annually imported from England and Spain into the Netherlands for manufacture into cloth. The Zealanders carried on a most lucrative herring fishery in the Scotch waters. The people were strongly attached to liberty and chafed against undue restraint, the citizens of the great manufacturing town of Ghent being especially unruly under slight or oppression. The inhabitants of the northern provinces, now composing Holland, included the best sailors in Europe, famous for their courage and skill, which had been signally shown in expeditions made by their Sovereign, Charles V, against the seats of heretical pirates at Tunis and Algiers.
When the reformed doctrines made their way into the Netherlands, Charles V combated the heresy with severe measures of repression, which produced little effect. The invention of printing had produced its full effect of general enlightenment in the Netherlands, and the great increase of wealth and luxury had been accompanied by a keener taste for civil and religious freedom. Literature and the arts had made great progress. In the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries Flanders had produced historical writers who won great renown by charm of style; among these we may name Froissart (flourished about 1370-1400), the chronicler of mediaeval wars, and Philip de Commines (lived 1445 to 1509), who wrote valuable memoirs on his own times, when he served Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Louis XI of France as a negotiator. Architecture had produced the cathedrals and town halls which yet form one of the principal charms of the country for tourists. The size, solidity, and beauty of design and execution in these wonderful buildings make them still speaking monuments of the stern magnificence and finished state of the age which brought them forth from the brain of the architect and the hand of the crafts-man. The musicians of Flanders were celebrated throughout Europe. John van Eyck, or John of Bruges, made great improvements in the art of painting in oil, and in linear and aerial perspective, and has left many examples of his skill. Among the inventions due to the Netherlands were painting on glass, the polishing of diamonds, the making of lace and of tapestry, and the carillon or musical arrangement and working of bells, which still, from the fair aerial towers of Antwerp and of Bruges, delight the traveler’s ear as with a song of angels singing carols in the sky. The University of Louvain was founded in 1425, and served greatly for the spread of knowledge, though it acquired afterward an evil name for fierce and useless theological disputes. The material glory of the Netherlands was the city of Antwerp, which was the great outlet for the industry of Europe, and the receptacle for the productions of all the nations of the known world. Its port was so often crowded with vessels that each successive fleet was obliged to, wait long in the River Scheldt before it could obtain admission for the discharge of its cargoes. Such was the land, such were the people industrious, enterprising, energetic, enlightened, wealthy, and aspiring who were handed over to the rule of Philip II soon after the middle of the Sixteenth Century.
Philip II (reigned 1556-1598) was a cold-blooded tyrant, remarkable for bigotry in creed and impurity in life; he was perfidious, patient, plotting, subtle, selfish, gloomy, ignorant, cunning, and cruel; history scarcely presents us with a character more revolting, more insensible to, and more incapable of rousing, any human sympathy. The Empire over which this man was called to rule in 1556 was one of the most powerful and splendid that ever existed in the world. In Europe he ruled Spain, Portugal, conquered by him in 1581, the Netherlands, parts of what is now territory in the east and south of France, Franche Comté, a part of Burgundy, and Rous-sillon, by the Pyrenees, the Milanese, and the two Sicilies.
Tuscany, Parma, and other small Italian States were completely subject to his influence. In Asia this monarch possessed the Philippine Islands and the rich settlements which had once belonged to Portugal on the coasts of Malabar and Coromandel (in India), in Malacca, and the Spice Islands. In America, Mexico and Peru enriched him with the produce of their mines. He had a revenue estimated at ten times that which England yielded to Elizabeth. He had a powerful standing army, composed of the best soldiers in the world for discipline and training, and he was possessor of a large and efficient fleet. He is the only sovereign of modern times who, has been at the same moment supreme both on land and on sea. The power and influence which Philip II for several years wielded over Europe may be even regarded as superior to those which once belonged to Napoleon I. Philip had resources which Bonaparte longed for in vain ships, colonies, and commerce the trade of America and of the Indian seas, the gold of the West and the spices of the East. His maritime power was an object of dread to the statesmen of England even after the destruction of the Armada had forever freed them from fears of a Spanish invasion. Such was the mighty ruler defied by the men of the Netherlands when they were driven to revolt by persecution and tyranny. The odds were fearful; the struggle long, arduous, bloody, and desperate; the result was that freedom issued from the fiery furnace unscathed, triumphant, and secure.
From the time of his accession to power (1556), Philip II had taken measures calculated to break down the constitutional liberties of his subjects in the Nether-lands; and he was determined, above all, to root out the religious heresy which had made progress in the country. His proceedings were cautious for the first few years, and aimed at undermining the safeguards for freedom which had been maintained under Charles V. The chief instruments of his rule at this time were Margaret, Duchess of Parma, a daughter of Charles V, and Cardinal Granvella, Bishop of Arras. As Philip’s schemes of absolutism were by degrees unveiled, popular indignation caused him to remove Granvella in 1564; but in 1566 his irrepressible bigotry led him to introduce the Inquisition into the country, and this step caused the outbreak known as the “Revolt of the Netherlands,” which had its issue in the establishment of the Dutch Republic. A confederation of nobles was formed in the southern provinces; and the patriotic league took, in defiance, the name of the Gueux, or “Beggars,” bestowed on them in derision by a supporter of the tyranny. The religious reformers of France and Germany took advantage of the occasion to pour into the Netherlands, and they made great progress in the work of proselytism, too often accompanied by outbursts of fanatical fury. The three chief Protestant sects were those of the Anabaptists, the Calvinists, and the Lutherans, the city of Antwerp being the central point of union for them all, though the only principle which they held in common was their hatred against Catholicism, the Inquisition, and Spain. Fighting soon took place between the religious enthusiasts and the authorities, and matters were put beyond the reach of reconciliation by the excesses of the fanatics called Iconoclasts. These furious persons attacked the Churches throughout Flanders, Brabant, and other provinces, plundered and ruined the interior of the splendid cathedral at Antwerp, wrought similar excesses at Tournay, Ghent, Valenciennes, Mechlin, and other towns, and pillaged in all ‘several hundreds of Catholic shrines.
William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, a small territory in the south-east of France, known as “William the Silent,” from his prudence and caution in diplomacy, and still gratefully called “Father William” by the Dutch, was the political creator of the new republic. Born in 1533, he was brought up as a Catholic, but became a Protestant in his manhood. Charles V discovered his ability, and admitted him to his councils when he was little more than a boy. Philip II had from the first regarded the Prince of Orange with a just and jealous dislike, discerning in him a dangerous antagonist. In subtlety of policy and penetration into characters and into motives of action, William was fully a match, as his career proves, for Philip himself, and he made the most energetic use of his powers of mind for the noble purpose of obtaining political and religious freedom for his fellow subjects.
The wrath of Philip was excited against the whole people of the Netherlands by the doings of the Iconoclasts and he resolved to crush by military force all resistance to his tyranny. An able Spanish general, a man of relent-less cruelty, named the Duke of Alva, arrived at Brussels with an army of veterans in August, 1567, and assumed the government of the country. The Inquisition was at once set to work, the decrees of the Council of Trent concerning the Catholic religion were promulgated, and a tribunal was appointed which soon earned, from its cruelties, the name of the “Council of Blood.” Its judgments were without appeal; its decisions were swift and informal; its sentences were exile, confiscation, hanging, beheading, quartering, and burning. Alva and his sup-porters reveled in the gold obtained by organized plunder and the blood shed in torrents by systematic murder. It was the boast of Alva himself, when he laid down his authority, after less than six years’ rule, that he had caused 18,000 inhabitants of the Netherlands to die by the hands of the executioner. William of Orange took the field against this reign of tyranny and terror in 1568, at the head of a force raised in Germany, and equipped by the help of the Huguenots of France, Elizabeth of England, and the German Protestant Princes. He was at first successful; but the patriots under his brother Louis of Nassau were severely defeated by Alva, and William’s army melted from his want of means to pay and feed them. The cruelties of Alva were redoubled, and William of Orange retired to France to watch events and wait for another chance of striking a blow.
In 1572 a gleam of success for the patriots came in the capture of the town of Brill (or Bridle), on an island at the mouth of the Maas. A general revolt at once occurred in Holland and Zealand, and the people declared for the Prince of Orange, and henceforth steadily sup-ported him in the Northern Netherlands. William marched into Brabant with a new army of French, Germans, and English, and Louvain, Mechlin, Oudenarde, and other towns were taken from the Spanish. A powerful fleet of Dutch vessels was equipped in the harbor of Flushing; and the Dutch navy, soon to acquire such fame, had begun to exist. The Spaniards retook Haarlem after a siege of seven months; but it cost them 10,000 men from the desperation of the defense, and the cause of freedom grew visibly stronger. In 1573 Alva was recalled and was succeeded by Requesens, a man of mild character. The war continued with alternations of success. The skilled and valiant Spanish soldiery, ably commanded, gained victories in the open field, but often failed in sieges. One of the most famous incidents of the war was the successful defense, in 1574, of the city of Leyden against force and famine; the place being saved at last by cutting the dykes and letting in the sea waters, which swept off the besiegers and brought up boats with pro-visions for the starving people of the town. At all points of the heroic struggle William of Orange was present either in person or in spirit, with prudent counsel, watchful care, and inflexible resolve. In 1575 the Spanish arms had more success; early in 1576 Requesens died; in November of that year occurred the awful event known as the “Spanish Fury,” at Antwerp, when a large body of Spanish mutinous troops stormed and sacked the town, burning the Town Hall and hundreds of the better houses, slaughtering thousands of the citizens, plundering in reckless madness for three days, and reducing the richest city in Europe to desolation and ruin. The representatives of the provinces of the Netherlands were at this very moment assembled at Ghent, and the treaty was drawn up known as the Pacification of Ghent, by which the provinces in the South bound themselves to aid the Prince of Orange and the provinces of Holland and Zealand to expel the Spanish forces, by any and by all means, from the territory of the Netherlands. By January, 1578, how-ever, the Spanish arms were again triumphant in the Southern Netherlands, where the population was chiefly Catholic, as in Belgium now, and those provinces finally submitted to Spain.
The Prince of Orange, in January, 1579, by the Union of Utrecht, formed the northern provinces into a close league, and thus founded the Republic of the United Netherlands. In 1580 Philip II’s hatred led him to put a price on William’s head, payable to whoever should assassinate him. The United Provinces then renounced their allegiance to Philip, and William of Orange was appointed Sovereign-Count of Holland and Zealand.
In July, 1584, the Prince of Orange was assassinated in his house at Delft by a Burgundian fanatic named Balthazar Gérard, who fired three balls into his left side from a huge pistol. The murderer was seized and executed.
William’s son, Prince Maurice of Nassau, succeeded to his power in the United Provinces, and fought bravely and ably against Spain. The famous Duke of Parma, Alexander Farnese, one of the greatest generals of mod-ern times, was now (1585) in command of the Spanish forces, and his success in his great siege of Antwerp was a grievous blow to the patriotic cause. Elizabeth of England gave some ineffectual help, and in 1586 Sir Philip Sydney died gallantly and uselessly at Zutphen. The stubbornness of the Dutch alone enabled them to resist the genius and determination of Parma, but they did succeed in wearing him out at last, and Prince Maurice captured some towns from the Spanish in 1592; at the end of the year the great Spanish leader died of disease.
In 1598, after further successes of Prince Maurice in the northern provinces, Philip II made the southern provinces, now Belgium, into an independent sovereignty under his nephew, the Archduke Albert of Austria. In September, 1598, Philip II died, and the Dutch Republic had got rid of her deadly and relentless foe. We cannot here pursue the fortunes of the rising State; it must suffice to say that in 1609 the Spanish government wade a truce with the Republic, virtually, though not formally till 1648, recognizing Holland as an independent power.
The protracted and dreadful war which had ended in establishing the Dutch Republic severely injured the southern Netherlands. Many thousands of the able artisans had fled from the tyranny of Alva into, England, Germany, and Holland. Antwerp was ruined by the shocking event above recorded, and its trade and prosperity passed to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the towns of Holland and Zealand. The growth of Dutch commerce is shown in the establishment of the India Company in 1596, and the men of the Northern Netherlands soon superseded the Portuguese and surpassed the English in the trade with India, and established themselves without dispute in the seas further east. As a maritime people they became the first in the world, owning 1,200 merchant ships in Europe, manned by 70,000 sailors, being the great ship-builders for all nations, and reaping in all quarters of the globe the reward of skill, industry, and courage. The Jews driven from Spain and Portugal took refuge in Holland and added to the prosperity of her trade. The Dutch Republic had taken her place among the Nations of Europe in legitimate pride and with undeniable resources and power.