1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William the Silent

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WILLIAM (1533–1584), surnamed the Silent, prince of Orange and count of Nassau, was born at the castle of Dillenburg in Nassau, on the 25th of April 1533. His grandfather, John, count of Nassau, had left his Netherland possessions to his elder son Henry, his German to his younger son William. This William of Nassau (d. 1559) had by his wife, Juliana of Stolberg, a family of five sons, of whom the subject of this notice was the eldest, and seven daughters. Henry became the trusted friend and counsellor of Charles V., and married (1515) Claude, sister of Philibert, prince of Orange. Philibert, having no issue, made Réné, the son of Henry and Claude, his heir. Réné, at the age of twenty-six, was killed at the siege of St Dizier in 1544, and left his titles and great possessions by will to his cousin William, who thus became prince of Orange. William’s parents were Lutherans, but the emperor insisted that the boy-successor to Réné’s heritage should be brought up in his court at Brussels, as a Catholic. The remembrance of his ancestors’ services and his own high qualities endeared William to Charles, who secured for him, at the age of seventeen, the hand of Anne of Egmont, heiress of the count of Buren. Anne died in 1558, leaving issue a son Philip William, prince of Orange and count of Buren, and a daughter. It was on the shoulder of the young prince of Orange that Charles V. leant when, in 1555, in the presence of a great assembly at Brussels, he abdicated, in favour of his son Philip, the sovereignty of the Netherlands. William was also selected to carry the insignia of the empire to Ferdinand, king of the Romans, when Charles resigned the imperial crown. He had, at the age of twenty-one, been placed by the emperor, before his abdication, at the head of an army of 20,000 men in the war with France, and he continued to fill that post under Philip in 1556, but without distinction. His services, as a diplomatist, were much more brilliant. He was one of the three plenipotentiaries who negotiated the treaty of Cateau-Cambresis (1559), and was largely responsible for bringing about a settlement so favourable to Spanish interests. After the conclusion of the peace, the prince spent some time at the French court, in the capacity of a state hostage for the carrying out of the treaty. It was during his sojourn in France that William by his discreetness acquired the sobriquet of le Taciturne (the Silent), which has ever since clung to his name. The appellation is in no way expressive of the character of the man, who was fond of conversation, most eloquent in speech, and a master of persuasion. His two great adversaries of the decade, which followed the peace of Cateau-Cambresis, were in 1559 closely associated with him; Granvelle as a plenipotentiary, Alva as a fellow hostage.

Up to this time the life of Orange had been marked by lavish display and extravagance. As a grand seigneur in one of the most splendid of courts, he surrounded himself with a retinue of gay young noblemen and dependents, kept open house in his magnificent Nassau palace at Brussels, and indulged in every kind of pleasure and dissipation. The revenue of his vast estates was not sufficient to prevent him being crippled by debt. But after his return from France, a change began to come over Orange. Philip made him councillor of state, knight of the Golden Fleece, and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht; but there was a latent antagonism between the natures of the two men which speedily developed into relations of coolness and then of distrust. The harshness with which the stern laws against heretics were carried out, the presence of Spanish troops, the filling up of ministerial offices by Spaniards and other foreigners had, even before the departure of Philip for Spain (August 1539), stirred the most influential Netherland noblemen—foremost among them the prince of Orange, and the counts of Egmont and Hoorn — to a policy of constitutional opposition. With the advent of Margaret of Parma the situation became more serious. All state business was carried out by the Consulla; all power virtually placed in the hands of Cardinal Granvelle; the edicts against heretics enforced with the utmost severity; the number of bishoprics increased from three to fourteen (see Netherlands). As a protest, Orange, Egmont and Hoorn withdrew from the council of state, and wrote to the king setting forth their grievances. At this time Orange was still nominally a Catholic, but his marriage in August 1561 with Anne, daughter and heiress of the elector Maurice of Saxony, with Lutheran rites, at Dresden, was significant of what was to come. It marked the beginning of that gradual change in his religious opinions, which was to lead William through Lutheranism to that moderate Calvinism which he professed after 1573. Of the sincerity of the man during this period of transformation there can be little doubt. Policy possibly played its part in dictating the particular moments at which the changes of faith were acknowledged. No student of the prince’s voluminous correspondence can fail, however, to see that he was a deeply religious man. The charges of insincerity brought against him by his enemies arise from the fact that in an age of bigotry and fanaticism the statesmanlike breadth and tolerance of William's treatment of religious questions, and his aversion to persecution for matters of opinion, were misunderstood. His point of view was in advance of that of his time.

In the spring of 1564 the constitutional opposition of the great nobles to the policy of the king appeared to be successful. Granvelle was withdrawn, the Consulta abolished, and Orange, Egmont and Hoorn took their seats once more on the Council. They speedily found, however, that things did not mend. Granvelle had gone, but the royal policy was unchanged. In August 1564 Philip issued an order for carrying out the decrees of the Council of Trent, and for the strict execution of the placards against heretics. Protests, letters, personal missions were in vain, the king's will was not to be moved from its purpose. The spirit of resistance spread first to the lesser nobles, then to the people. In the memorable year 1566 came "the Compromise," "the Request, " the banquet at the Hotel Culcmburg with its cries of " Vivcnt Ics Guettx " followed by the wild iconoclastic riots and outrages by bodies of fanatical Protestant sectaries at Antwerp and elsewhere. The effect of this last outbreak was disastrous. Philip was filled with anger and vowed vengeance. The national leaders drew back, afraid to identify themselves with revolutionary movements, or the cause of extreme Protestantism. Egmont was a good Catholic, and took active steps to suppress disorder, and Orange himself at the request of the regent betook himself to Antwerp, where the citizens in arms were on the point of engaging in civil strife. At the risk of his life the prince succeeded in bringing about an accord, and as he proclaimed its terms to a sullen and half-hostile crowd he uttered for the last time the words, " Long Uve the King!" It was his final act of loyal service to a sovereign, who from secret emissaries that he kept at Madrid, he knew to be plotting the destruction of himself and his friends. In vain he endeavoured to rouse Egmont to a sense of his danger, and to induce him and other prominent leaders to take steps, if necessary by armed resistance, to avert their doom. Finding all his efforts fruitless William, after resigning all his posts, left the country (23nd of April 1567), and took up his residence with his family at the ancestral home of the Nassaus at Dillenburg.

At that very time Alva was quitting Madrid for his terrible mission of vengeance in the Netherlands (see Alva). The story of the Council of Blood and of the executions of Egmont and Hoorn is told elsewhere. The prince of Orange was out of reach of the tyrant's arm, but by an act of imprudence he had left his eldest son, Philip William, count of Buren, studying at the university of Louvain. He was seized (February 1568) and carried off to Spain, to be brought up as an enemy to the political and religious principles of his father. He himself was outlawed, and his property confiscated. In March he published a lengthy defence of his conduct, entitled " Justification of the Prince of Orange against his Calumniators, " and meanwhile strained every nerve to enlist an armed force for the invasion of the Netherlands. To raise money his brother, John of Nassau, pledged his estates, William himself sold his plate and jewels. An attack was made in three directions, but with disastrous results. The force under Louis of Nassau indeed gained a victory at Heiligerlee in Friesland (May 23rd), but met with a crushing defeat at the hands of Alva in person (July 21st) at Jemmingen. All seemed lost, but William's indomitable spirit did not despair. " With God's help, " he wrote to his brother Louis, "I am determined to go on." In September he himself crossed the Meuse at the head of 18,000 infantry and 7000 cavalry. But Alva, while clinging to his steps, refused to fight, and William, through lack of funds, was compelled to disband his mercenaries, and withdraw over the French frontier (November 17th).

Then followed the most miserable period of Orange's life. In fear of assassination, in fear of creditors, he wandered about from place to place, and his misfortunes were aggravated by the bad conduct of his wife, Anne of Saxony, who left him. She was finally, on the ground of insanity, placed in closing confinement by her own family, and remained incarcerated until her death six years later. During the years 1569-1572 the brothers William and Louis, the one in Germany, the other in France, were, however, actively preparing for a renewal of the struggle for the freedom of the Netherlands. The barbarities of Alva had caused Spanish rule to be universally hated, and the agents of the Nassaus were busy in the provinces rousing the spirit of resistance and tr>'ing to raise funds. In 1569 eighteen vessels provided with letters of marque from the prince of Orange were preying upon Spanish commerce in the narrow seas. Stimulated by the hope of plunder their number rapidly grew, until the wild and fierce corsairs — named " Beggars of the sea " (Gtietix de mer) became a terror to their enemies. The refusal of Queen Elizabeth in 1572 to allow the Beggars to refit in English harbours led to the first success of the patriot cause. On the 1st of April a force under the command of Lumbres and Tresling, being compelled to take refuge in the Maas, seized the town of Brill by surprise. Encouraged by their success they likewise took by assault the important sea-port of Flushing. Like wildfire the revolt spread through Holland, Zecland, Utrecht and Friesland, and the principal towns, one after the other, submitted themselves to the authority of the prince of Orange as their lawful stadtholder. Louis of Nassau immediately afterwards dashed with a small force from France into Hainault, and captured Valenciennes and Mons. In Mons, however, Louis was blockaded by a superior Spanish force, and eventually forced to surrender. William crossed the Rhine with 20,000 men to relieve him, but he was out-gcncralled by Alva, nearly lost his life during a night attack on his camp at Harmignies (September nth), and retired into Holland. Delft became henceforth his home, and he cast in his lot for good and all with the brave Hollanders and Zeelanders in their struggle for freedom, "-being resolved, " as he wrote to his brother John, "to maintain the affair there as long as possible and decided to find there my grave." It was his spirit that animated the desperate resistance that was offered to the Spanish arms at Haarlem and Alkmaar, and it was through his personal and unremitting exertions that, despite an attack of fever which kept him to his bed, the relief of Leiden, on the 3rd of October 1574, was effected just as the town had been reduced to the last extremity.

In order to identify himself more closely wiih the cause for which he was fighting. Orange had, on October 23rd, 1573, made a public profession of the Calvinist religion. But he was never a bigot in religious matters. The three conditions which he laid down as the irreducible minimum on which negotiations could be based, and from which he never departed, were: (i) freedom of worship and liberty to preach the Gospel according to the word of God; (2) the restoration and maintenance of all the ancient charters, privileges and hberties of the land; (3) the withdrawal of all Spaniards and other foreigners from all posts and employments, civil and military. On these points he was inflexible, but he was a thoroughly moderate man. He hated religious tyranny whether it were exercised by Papist or Calvinist, and his political aims were not self-seeking. His object was to prevent the liberties of the Netherlands from being trampled underfoot by a foreign despotism, and he did not counsel the provinces to abjure their allegiance to Philip, until he found the Spanish monarch was intractable. But when the abjuration became a necessity he sought to find in Elizabeth of England or the duke of Anjou, a sovereign possessing suflScient resources to protect the land from the Spaniard.

William (24th of June 1575) took as his third wife, Charlotte de Bourbon, daughter of the duke of Montpensier. This marriage gave great offence to the Catholic party, for Charlotte was a renegade nun, having been abbess of Jouarre, and Anne of Saxony was still alive. In April 1576, an act of Union between Holland and Zeeland was agreed upon and signed at Delft, by which supreme authority was conferred upon the prince, as ad interim ruler. In this year (1576) the outrages of the Spanish troops in the southern Netherlands, who had mutinied for want of pay, caused a revulsion of feeUng. The horrors of the " Spanish Fury" at Antwerp (November 4th) led to a definite treaty being concluded, known as the Pacification of Ghent, by which under the leadership of the prince of Orange, the whole seventeen provinces bound themselves together to drive the foreigners out of the country. This was supplemented by the Union of Brussels Qanuary 1577) by which the Southerners pledged themselves to expel the Spaniards, but to maintain the Catholic religion and the king's authority. To these conditions William willingly assented; he desired to force no man's conscience, and as yet he professed to be acting as stadtholder under the king's commission. On September 23rd he entered Brussels in triumph as the acknowledged leader of the whole I people of the Netherlands, Catholic as w^ell as Protestant, in their resistance to foreign oppression. At this moment he touched the zenith of his career. It was, however, but a short lived position of eminence. After the entry into Brussels followed the period of tangled intrigue during which the archduke Matthias, the duke of Anjou, the palatine count John Casimir and Don John of Austria were all striving to secure for themselves a position of supremacy in the land. William had to steer a difficult course amidst shoals and quicksands, and never did his brilliant talents as diplomatist and statesman shine more brightly. But after the sudden death of Don John he found himself face to face with an opponent of abilities equal to his own in the person of Alexander Farnese, prince of Parma, appointed governor general by Philip. Farnese skilfully fomented the jealousy of the Catholic nobles of the south— the Malcontents—against the prince of Orange, and the Pacification of Ghent was henceforth doomed. The Walloon provinces bound themselves together in a defensive league, known as the league of Arras (5th of January 1579) and by the e-xertions of John of Nassau (at that time governor of Gelderland) Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Zutphen replied by signing (29th of January) the compact known as the Union of Utrecht. William still struggled to keep the larger federation together, but in vain. The die was now cast, and the Northern and Southern Netherlands from this time forward had separate histories.

On the 28th of March 1581 a ban was promulgated by King Philip against the prince of Orange, in which William was denounced as a traitor and enemy of the human race, and a reward of 25,000 crowns in gold or land with a patent of nobility was offered to any one who should deliver the world of this pest. William replied in a lengthy document, the Apology, in which he defended himself from the accusations brought against him, and on his part charged the Spanish king with a series of misdeeds and crimes. The Apology is valuable for the biographical details which it contains. William now felt that his struggle with Philip was a war a outrance, and knowing that the United Provinces were too weak to resist the Spanish armies unaided, he endeavoured to secure the powerful aid of France, by making the duke of Anjou sovereign of the Netherlands. Holland and Zeeland were averse to this project, and to conciliate their prejudices Orange, provisionally, and after some demur, accepted from those provinces the offer of the count ship (24th of July 1581). Two days later the representatives of Brabant, Flanders, Utrecht, Gelderland, Holland and Zeeland assembled at The Hague, solemnly abjured the sovereignty of Philip, and agreed to accept the French duke as their sovereign in his place. Anjou was solemnly inaugurated by the prince in person at Antwerp, as duke of Brabant, on the 19th of February 15S2. While at Antwerp an attempt was made upon WULiam's life (March 18th) by a Biscayan youth, named Juan Jaureguy. Professing to offer a petition he fired a pistol at the prince's head, the ball passing in at the right ear and out by the left jaw. After hanging for some time between life and death, William ultimately recovered and was able to attend a thanksgiving service on the 2nd of May. The shock and anxiety proved, however, fatal to his wife, Charlotte de Bourbon. She expired on the 5th of May after a very short illness.

The French sovereign soon made himself impossible to his new subjects, and the hopes that William had based upon Anjou were sorely disappointed. The duke was dissatisfied with his position, aimed at being an absolute ruler, and tried to carry his ambitious ideas into effect by the treacherous attack on Antwerp, which bears the name of the " French Fury." Its failure rendered Anjou at once ridiculous and detested, and his shameless misconduct brought no small share of opprobrium on William himself. The trusty Hollanders and Zeelanders remained, however, staunchly loyal to him, and Orange now fixed his residence permanently in their midst. On the 7th of April 15S3 he married in fourth wedlock Louise de Coligny, daughter of the famous Huguenot leader, and widow of the Seigneur de Teligny. With her, "Father William, " as he was affectionately styled, settled at the Prinsenhof at Delft, and lived like a plain, homely Dutch burgher, quietly and unostentatiously, as became a man who had spent his all in his country's cause, and whose resources'were now of the most modest description.

Ever since the promulgation of the ban and the offer Of a reward upon his life, rehgion and political fanaticism had been continually compassing his assassination, and the free access which the prince gave to his person offered facilities for such a purpose, despite the careful watch and ward kept over him by the burghers of Delft and his own household. He was shot dead by a Burgundian, Balthazar Gerard, on the 9th of July 1584, as he was leaving his dining hall. Gerard was moved by devoted loyalty to his faith and king, and endured the torments of a barbarous death with supreme courage and resignation. William was buried with great pomp at the public charges in the Neuwe Kerk at Delft amidst the tears of a mourning people.

William the Silent was tall and well formed, of a dark complexion, with brown hair and eyes. He was the foremost statesman of his time, capable of forming wise and far-reaching plans and of modifying them to suit the changing circumstances in which it was necessary to put them in execution. In moments of difficulty he displayed splendid resource and courage, and he had a will of iron, which misfortunes were never able to bend or break. To rescue the Netherlands from the tyrannical power of Spain, he sacrificed a great position, vast wealth and eventually his life. He had the satisfaction, however, of knowing before he died that the cause for which he had endured so much and striven so hard had survived many dangers, and had acquired strength to offer successful resistance to the overwhelming power of King Philip. He was the real founder of the independence and greatness of the Dutch republic.

He left a large number of children. By Anne of Egmont he had a son Philip William, who was kidnapped from Louvain (1567) and educated at Madrid, and a daughter. By Anne of Saxony, a son Maurice (see Maurice of Nassau, prince of Orange) and two daughters. By Charlotte de Bourbon, six daughters. By Louise de Coligny, one son, Frederick Henry (see Frederick Henry, prince of Orange).

See Genhard, Correspondance de Guillaume le Tacilurne; Groen von Prinsterer, Archives on correspondence inedile de la maison d'Orange-Nassau; Commelin, Wilhelm en Maurits van Nassau, prinsen van Orangien, haer leven en bedrijf; Meursius, Culielmus Auriacus; Putnam, William the Silent, Prince oj Orange, the Moderate Man of the Sixteenth Century; Harrison, William the Silent; Vorsterman van Oven, Het Vorslenhuis Orange-Nassau; Delaborde, Charlotte de Bourbon, princcsse d'Orange; Delaborde, Louise de Coligny, princess d'Orange; Blok, Geschicdenis van het Nederlandsche Volk, vol. ii.; R. Fruin, Het voorspel van den tachtigjarigen oorlog; Motley, Rise of the Dutch Republic, Cambridge Modern History, vol. iii . cc. vi., vii.

(G. E.)