The Story of Nations - Holland/Chapter 7

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Charles resigned all his crowns on October 25, 1555, he being then between fifty-five and fifty-six years of age. The ceremony, carefully elaborated, took place in the great hall of the palace of Brussels, the capital of the Duchy of Brabant. Charles, Philip, and Mary, the Dowager Queen of Hungary, were present, the last-named having acted as Regent of the Netherlands and the instrument of Charles’s government for twenty-six years. The Emperor came into the hall, leaning on the arm of the Prince of Orange, who is known to all time as the ever-famous William the Silent.

It was a most brilliant assemblage. The Knights of the Golden Fleece, an order instituted by Philip the Good, were present, and among them, or with them, were those Flemish and Holland nobles who were destined to play so conspicuous a part in the coming struggle. Besides Orange, the father of Dutch freedom, and the principal personage in the long struggle which was soon to begin, were Horn and Egmont, Berghen, and Montigny, the Bishop of Arras (afterwards Cardinal Granvelle), Brederode, Noircarmes, and Viglius. Most of these men—indeed, most of those who were witnesses to the abdication—were to perish by one violent death or another in the course of a few years.

Charles was a broken man. His vigorous constitution had yielded to the excesses of his life and the labours of his long career. He was such a victim to gout that he could hardly stand without assistance. The deformity of the lower jaw, which he inherited, and which reappeared in his descendants, and was said to have been originally transmitted to the Hapsburg family from a Polish princess, had almost deprived him of the power of eating and talking. Charles, unlike his father, was never handsome, and advancing years had increased the ugliness of his visage.

His career, after all, had been a failure. In his youth he had been the great captain of his age, and had proved his military genius in numerous battles. Up to middle age he might have been called Charles the Fortunate. He had been victorious in Italy and in France. He had almost crushed the Protestants. Then the tide turned. He was humiliated before Metz. He was beaten by Maurice of Saxony and obliged to fly, disguised, from Innspruck, the cradle of the house of Hapsburg. He had been obliged to concede the Peace of Passau, and with it the establishment of the Lutheran creed in the North of Germany. The Pope had turned on him, and the son of Francis I. of France had foiled him. The Grand Turk, the Pope, and the Protestants were leagued against him. It was time that he should leave the work to younger and, as he hoped, stronger hands. He would, it is true, have gained the German crown for his son if he could, but this came to be the portion of Ferdinand, his younger brother, and the two houses of Hapsburg were severed, never to be united.

Philip the Second, to which these territories and kingdoms were to be transferred, was a slight, lean man, twenty-eight years old, below the middle height, with weak legs and a narrow chest. He did not possess in the least his father’s energy and vigour, his military and political powers. In face like his father, he had the same Austrian deformity in his lower jaw. His father could speak any language in Western Europe with fluency; Philip could not speak any other tongue than Spanish. Charles was constantly talking; Philip was habitually silent. Charles could be boisterous in his mirth; Philip was sullen and retiring, and was hardly known even to smile.

The Prince of Orange was at this time twenty-two years old. The place from which the hero of Dutch independence took his title was situated in the South of France, near Avignon, and the family were originally vassals of the Pope, who was for centuries the Lord of Avignon. But they had migrated to the Netherlands, and had filled high offices under the Burgundian princes. The Prince of Orange was a noble who not only held the highest rank in the Netherlands, but was the head of a most opulent house. He was at the time Commander-in-chief on the French frontier where he was matched against Admiral Coligny and other great generals. It is remarkable that the stadtholders of the house of Orange furnished the republic with a succession of seven eminent generals and statesmen in unbroken order for nearly two centuries, from William the First of Orange to William the Fourth.

In the oration which Charles made before his Estates, he dwelt on the labours of his life and the difficulties which his waning health put on him. He could not grapple with the situation, but must leave it to younger and more vigorous hands. He entreated Philip, his successor, to maintain the Catholic religion in all its purity, as well as law and justice. In commending the Estates to their new lord, he implored them to show due obedience to their sovereign, dwelt on their obedience and affection in time past, asked their pardon if he had committed any offence or fallen into any error during the time of his rule, and assured them that their welfare should be the object of his prayers during the remainder of his life. It is said that the audience was melted to tears.

The reign of Charles had been one long crime against his subjects. He had trampled on their liberties, wasted their resources by inordinate taxation, and had established the Spanish Inquisition among them. He had an annual revenue of five millions, two of which were extorted from the Netherlands, and squandered on objects which were of no concern to them. But the cruelties which he practised in the name of religion were incredible in their atrocity and number. Great authorities allege that the Netherlanders who were burned, strangled, beheaded, and buried alive under his orders amounted to a hundred thousand. The Venetian ambassador reckoned that ten years before his abdication Charles had put to death for their religion no less than thirty thousand persons in Holland and Friesland alone.

There is no reason to believe that Charles persecuted for any other reason than policy. He had no more morality than the rest of European sovereigns, for, with all his activity, his life was a long licentious debauch. His son Philip was, in the current sense of the word, religious, for his deference to the Pope was profound and incessant. But Charles had allowed his armies to sack Rome, to insult and imprison the pontiff. He had, it would seem, a malignant pleasure in thwarting and coercing Clement the Seventh. He needed the services of Lutheran soldiers in Germany, and he permitted his soldiers to attend the ministrations of their own preachers, even while they were under his orders, and before Maurice of Saxony compelled him to grant toleration. He was recognizing the Reformation in Germany, while he was burning thousands of the Reformers in the Netherlands.

The fact is he was fighting with political liberty. He saw that resistance to the divine right of the priest implied resistance to the divine right of the despot. He was shrewd enough to discern that if he winked at religious nonconformity, he would soon be face to face with political nonconformity. Precisely the same fact was recognized by Elizabeth and the Stuarts, by the house of Valois in France, and the house of Bourbon. The massacre of St. Bartholomew the policy of Richelieu, and the dragonnades of Louis the Fourteenth, had the same object with the policy of Charles and Philip. The Dutch Republic was the first to be tolerant; and when the English people controlled the power of their kings at the Revolution they followed up the deed with the Act of Toleration. But, even in our own day, the stimulant of religious bigotry—mild, indeed, by what it has been in the past—is constantly employed in order to defeat political justice. Even in his Spanish retreat, when Charles was deprived of the power of gratifying any of his vices, except gluttony, he still clamoured that more victims should be sacrificed to what he called his religious, but what were really his political, instincts.

In 1548, with the future of his inheritance within sight, Philip had sworn, without any reservation, to maintain all the privileges and liberties of the provinces and cities. He promised more than his father did, and probably by his father’s advice, for the emperor knew that in that age vows were binding, only on the weak. On July 25, 1554, he married Mary Tudor, of England, who was fortunately childless and not long-lived. England was freed of her in 1553, and of him a year before, for he deserted his wife when she was plainly unable to give England a Spanish king.

Philip the Second resided for four years in the Netherlands, and then left it never to revisit it. In the interval occurred his quarrel with Paul the Fourth and his war with France, the victory of St. Quentin, and the peace of Gateau Cambresis. These events have little to do with the history of the Netherlands, beyond the fact that, during their occurrence, it was necessary to keep the Flemings and Hollanders in good humour. It is true that Philip early disregarded his father’s advice. Charles had counselled him to govern the Netherlands by Netherlanders, for he knew well that the country had nobles enough who would betray its interests, and play into the king’s hands. But Philip governed entirely by Spaniards, and so gave occasion to that bitter hatred of Spain which formed the bond of union between these disjointed commonwealths.

Philip, however, re-enacted the edict of 1550, by which the Inquisition was established in the Netherlands, though the towns were not ready to accept it, and the king was forced to temporise. He tried to get a permanent revenue, but had for the time to be content with a subsidy. But the peace which he made with France and the Pope, left him time to pursue his two designs on the Netherlands, the destruction of their liberties and the uprooting of heresy. Resolved to return to Spain, he made Margaret of Parma, natural daughter of Charles V., his regent. He appointed her council. He prepared to leave the Netherlands on August 7th. But as all seemed smooth, the Estates unanimously requested of the king that all foreign troops should be withdrawn from the Netherlands. For a time Philip was furious, for he saw that an army of Spaniards was necessary in order that he might give effect to his favourite project. But he had to temporise, especially as part of his policy was the creation of a number of additional bishoprics in the Netherlands. Then he left the country at Flushing. As he was on the point of sailing there occurred the memorable scene between him and the Prince of Orange, whom he saw then for the last time. He reproached him with being the author of the opposition. William replied that the action of the Estates was unsolicited and spontaneous. On this Philip seized him violently by the wrist and, shaking it, said in Spanish, “Not the Estates, but you, you, you!” expressing himself by the most insulting pronoun he could use in Spanish. Philip reached Spain after a stormy voyage, and immediately regaled himself with an auto da fé. Soon after, for Philip had wooed Elizabeth of England in vain, he married Isabella of France, a marriage destined to cause a long war with that kingdom.