Friday, April 22, 2011

Royal Profile: Prince Willem the Silent of Orange

Willem I, Prince of Orange, better known as “Willem the Silent” was the founding father of what would eventually become the Dutch Royal Family. A nobleman who became a prince, he eventually led the revolt against the Spanish Hapsburgs to create the Dutch republic or the United Provinces. Because of all of that he considered the father of the Netherlands as a country, the first hero and champion of the Dutch people and eventually became a symbol of the Protestant cause in Europe. As such, he was widely celebrated in the northern nations of Europe but considered the most terrible enemy of the Catholic forces of Hapsburg Spain and Austria. Willem was born on April 24, 1533 in Nassau, Germany to the Count of Nassau and from the very start was raised as a Lutheran. In 1544, at the tender age of 11, young Willem inherited the lands and title of Prince of Orange from his cousin René of Châlon. He was acted for by none other than the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and after going to school in the Netherlands was sent to study in Brussels, Belgium under the protection of Mary of Hungary, the Emperor’s sister and governor of the Seventeen Provinces of the Hapsburg Netherlands.

Willem of Orange was given a diverse and modern education in languages, statecraft and the art of warfare while in Brussels. He married in 1551 to a wealthy heiress and was considered by all to be a young man destined for great things with considerable wealth, a good education, valuable connections and friends in the very highest of places. The Emperor appointed him to high command when he was only 22 and in 1555 he began serving in the Raad van State, a sort of early version of the Dutch parliament. He supported Emperor Charles V (who had trouble standing) during his abdication ceremony. Philip II, who succeeded his father the Emperor as King of Spain, appointed Willem stadtholder (steward) of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht in 1559. This made Willem one of the most politically powerful men in the Netherlands though King Philip would one day, perhaps, come to regret being so generous.

In time Willem of Orange became known as the leader of the most vocal opponents of Spanish policy in the Netherlands. Among their demands were more local control for the Dutch elite rather than Spanish officials, the withdrawal of Spanish troops from the Low Countries and greater tolerance for the growing Protestant community by the Catholic authorities. This was a time of deep religious divisions across Europe and Willem reflected this himself, raised a Lutheran, later becoming Catholic but then moving in a Protestant direction later still. His first wife having died in 1558, Willem married again for political reasons in 1561 to Anna of Saxony (having an affair that resulted in an illegitimate son in the intervening years) which greatly increased his wealth and influence and gave him five more children as well as new friendly contacts with powerful German Protestant princes. Willem finally came out openly in opposition to King Philip II of Spain for his efforts to stamp out Protestantism, even though Willem himself was still a Catholic as well. He advocated freedom of religion and hoped that both sides of the religious divide would support his campaign for greater independence for the Netherlands.

This came during the height of a wave of sectarian violence in the Netherlands as Protestants and Catholics lashed out against each other. The resulting slaughter moved Prince Willem deeply and he was determined to put an end to it with a free realm that would be a home of religious tolerance. By that time he had already given monetary support to a number of the rebel leaders and despite his ultimate protestations of loyalty to the King it was Prince Willem who seen as the leader of the Protestant, anti-Spanish cause. Willem was declared an outlaw by the Spanish after 1567 and he assembled an army of Dutch Protestants, anti-Spanish Catholics and German mercenaries to march on Brabant but dwindling resources and indiscipline thwarted his efforts for a military campaign and he was soon forced to withdraw without ever fighting a major battle against the Spanish. Nonetheless, he remained the most popular and prominent of the rebel forces and, regardless of his own religion, was seen by both sides as the champion of the Protestant cause. He still professed loyalty to the King while opposing his policies and his fame reached such a height that widespread uprisings broke out across the Netherlands and as city after city joined the rebel camp a new States-General was called that promptly reelected the Prince of Orange to his former office of stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland.

A vicious struggle ensued as towns were taken and lost, first by the Dutch, then by the Spanish and then back again. In 1573 Willem formally renounced Catholicism and joined the Calvinist church as the war continued to rage. His forces were often on the edge of total defeat but to the surprise of the world they held on against the armies of Spain at a time when Spain was the preeminent power in western Europe and the Spanish infantry were considered the best in the world. The Dutch rebels were able to match them through a combination of naval success and brilliant innovations in military engineering and siege warfare. In 1574 he married again (having divorced Anna of Saxony on accusations that she was insane) to a former French nun who gave him an additional six children. With Spain becoming weary of the immense cost of the war, peace talks began but broke down just as quickly and after Spanish troops mutinied and went on a rampage in Antwerp public sympathy turned dramatically in favor of the rebels and soon Prince Willem was marching into Brussels, long the heart of the Catholic Netherlands.

More efforts to negotiate were made but Willem, seeing he now had the upper-hand, let them wither on the vine. However, the success had increased the zealotry of many of his most Protestant supporters and persecution of Catholics began. The Prince opposed this but the damage was done and much of the southern Netherlands forever abandoned him and pledged their loyalty to the Hapsburg King. The situation became even worse when the King sent Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, possibly the greatest soldier of the age, to command his forces in the Netherlands and soon Willem of Orange was driven out of Belgium and backed into a corner in Holland, his previous success all but gone. With nothing else to lose, in 1581, the Dutch finally declared their independence from the Hapsburg Crown and welcomed the Duke of Anjou with his French forces to come to their aid against the Spanish. The Duke proved unpopular though but other assistance was given to the Dutch and in the end independence was secured. Although the war lingered on for some time, the Spanish would never recover the Netherlands and had to content themselves with maintaining Belgium in the Catholic camp.

Having been declared an outlaw by the King of Spain, Willem the Silent was a marked man and one attempt on his life was made in 1582. Helping him recover was such a struggle that his wife died and he married again the following year to Louise de Coligny who later gave birth to his son Prince Fredrik Hendrik. However, in 1584 his luck ran out and Willem the Silent, Prince of Orange, was assassinated by a deranged French Catholic at his home in Delft. The assassin was caught and executed in the most excruciatingly gruesome manner possible but it did not assuage the grief of the Dutch who had lost their hero, their leader and the founding father of their nation. It is from him that Dutch flag descends, the national color (Orange) and although he was the leader of a “crowned republic” his family, the House of Orange, would preside over the golden age of Dutch history, building the Netherlands into a major international power and finally founding one of the most popular and successful monarchies in the world.

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