A nation born out of war and lawlessness, the Netherlands

Part 1: Twenty years of hooligans, heretics and plague (1568-1588).

Many Dutch towns are celebrating the 450-year anniversary of what happened on April 1, 1572, when a motley crew of seamen (called the Sea Beggars), loyal to William of Orange, were able to capture and hold their first town (Brielle) on the Dutch mainland.

The capture of Brielle was an important turning point in the conflict known as the Dutch Revolt or Eighty-Year War. The war began in 1568 and ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. The Peace of Westphalia separated the Low Countries into two political units: the Spanish Netherlands (later Belgium), located in the south, remained loyal to the Hapsburg rulers while the United Provinces (later Netherlands), located in the north, became an independent nation.

That future, however, seemed unreachable in 1588 because things had really fallen apart during the preceding twenty years. To understand those chaotic years we will pay attention to three wellsprings of lawlessness or anarchy that merged and repeatedly destroyed all semblance of civil society in the Low Countries. (We currently call the area of the Low Countries the Netherlands and Belgium.) Those streams of lawlessness are: religious militarism, armed hooliganism and myopic territorialism.

The Religious Militarism Problem

The day that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, marks both the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and the start of a time when weapons of war were used to settle disputes within the Christian Church. Some European rulers supported the Protestant movement and others, like the Kings of Spain, not only remained firmly loyal to the traditional Roman Catholic faith, but also used all the machinery of their powerful government to impose that faith on others. The result was well over 100 years warfare between and within the nations of Europe.

Heat from the wars of religion did not directly affect the Low Countries at first. In 1566, things changed dramatically. The Reformed, or Calvinist protestant movement which had been secretly gaining strength, came into the open through a public demonstration by a group of Noblemen and through illegal religious rallies in the countryside. Those outdoor services, in turn, spawned waves of iconoclastic violence towards the churches located in Dutch, Flemish and Walloon churches. The statues, images and sacred relics in hundreds of Roman Catholic churches were removed and often destroyed.

When Philip II, the King of Spain, heard what had happened under his rule in the Low Countries, he decided to use all the power of his government to snuff out the Calvinist Protestant movement. In his own words, he did not want to be a ruler of heretics. Those who were disloyal to the Roman Catholic Church were, from his point of view, also guilty of the political crime of high treason against himself. He viewed himself as the protector of the Catholic Church. The Duke of Alva was the man of the hour, to whom Philip II gave dictatorial powers and a powerful army. Alva came to the Low Countries in 1567 and systematically hunted down all those whom he viewed as having been disloyal to Philip II and, by extension, to the Roman Church.

The Armed Hooliganism Problem

After arriving in the Low Countries, Alva swiftly accomplished his mission. Roman Catholic worship was quickly restored throughout the land. Most Protestants had left the Low Countries before Alva even arrived, and in that way escaped the deadly grip of the duke’s special tribunals. Alva enforced his will on the remaining subjects by placing his soldiers in the major cities. He introduced a cocktail of property and sales taxes to raise the money needed to pay the salaries of his soldiers. The soldiers were Alva’s terror weapon that he used to threaten towns and cities in the Low Countries where the leaders were too slow to obey him by collecting the newly imposed taxes.

Starting in 1572, however, the army had to work for its wages. Several towns in the province of Holland and Zeeland started to support the rebellious Sea Beggars and their supreme commander William of Orange. During the ensuing blood-drenched battles for cities such as Naarden, Haarlem, Alkmaar and Leiden, the soldiers in the army of the Spanish king not only had to work overtime but they also lost many comrades in deadly skirmishes. Instead of getting extra pay, Philip II stopped paying their wages altogether because he had no money. He was bankrupt because of the high war costs and because of the lack of any new funds coming from hated taxes that Alva had introduced. 

The unpaid soldiers became Alva’s Achilles heel. As skilled mercenaries they only fought for Spain if they received their paycheck. If no payment was forthcoming, then all bets were off. The soldiers felt it was their right to forcefully extract payment from the people under their control.

In a very short time, after 1575, individual units within the Spanish army began to act like untethered gangs of hooligans as they systematically robbed, raped, and murdered at will. The Flemish city of Antwerp received the lion share of that violence. That is why the term the “Spanish fury of Antwerp” has gone down in the annals of Dutch and Belgian history as a word for “uncontrolled violence.” But fear, violence and threats of violence hovered in the air of all the towns which had garrisons of soldiers hired by Philip II.

The 1580’s was a dark decade for all the provinces in the Low Countries.

The Myopic Regionalism Problem

The massacre of the citizens of Antwerp was a wakeup-call for all who lived in the Low Countries. For a short time, everyone agreed with William of Orange that it was time to get rid of the untethered soldiers of Philip II (Pacification of Ghent, 1576). But the Pacification honeymoon did not last long. It fell apart within three years because the leaders in some Walloon provinces wanted to remain loyal to Philip II (Union of Atrecht – 1579) and protect the Roman Catholic church in their region. Leaders from other provinces allied themselves with the provinces of Holland and Zeeland (Union of Utrecht – 1579) and continued the war against the Spanish king.

The 1580’s was a dark decade for all the provinces in the Low Countries because of the divisions among the different regions. The new commander that Philip II sent to the Low Countries (the Duke of Parma) was a skilled and patient leader who slowly conquered more and more of the territory that had come under rebel control after 1576. Parma’s crowning victory was the capture of the city of Antwerp (1585); he reached that milestone after laying siege to the city for a full year.

The horror of the endless wars during the decade of the 1580’s was made worse by the fact it was a time during which the bubonic plague, like an angel of death, killed people by the thousands in the Low Countries. The soldiers on both sides of the war were super spreaders of the highly contagious illness and the undernourished people throughout the land had little natural resistance to the disease.

A turning point

The first twenty years of the Eighty Year War were truly a bleak time. But the Dutch rebels, during the years after 1588, were able to put many things back together again and make it possible for the United Provinces to become a successful nation which attracted refugees from different parts of Europe. That is next week’s story.

Read part 2 of this series: “When the Dutch put things back together” and part 3: “History rhymes: the darkest decades of Dutch history hold lessons for today.”


  • Richard Reitsma

    Richard is a Dutch Historian and retired library Director (NWC, Iowa). He lives, with his wife Margie, in Rock Rapids, IA.

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