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When the Dutch put things back together

The Netherlands, part 2: An impossible victory over the Spanish (1588-1648).

Last week I covered the first two decades of the Eighty Year’s War between the Low Countries and Spain. Those first two decades are when everything came unglued. The late 1580’s, however, mark a decisive turn in the fortunes of the Dutch rebels.

It happened when King Philip II of Spain was distracted. He tried to bring regime change to England by deposing the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. When that failed, with the defeat of his Grand Armada in 1588, he sent his armies into France. He wanted to depose the French king (Henry IV) who, at that time, was a Protestant supported by Protestant Huguenots.

During those ten years (1588 – 1598) when the Spanish armed forces were fighting English and French armies, the Dutch army and navy under the leadership of Maurice, Prince of Orange, drove the Spanish out of the northern part of the United Provinces and (in the words of contemporaries) enclosed the Dutch garden with a chain of strong and well-protected cities, towns and fortresses.

Set-up for a slow victory

It had seemed as if Spain, with its powerful war machine, would inevitably recapture every single inch of territory known as the Low Countries. But after those pivotal ten years, the United Provinces largely kept the armed forces of the powerful Spanish Hapsburg empire at bay.

There were three Dutch institutions that made it possible for the Dutch Rebels to grab victory from the jaws of what looked like inevitable defeat. The first institution was the States General. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt turned that flailing institution into a pivotal powerhouse of the revolt. Secondly, the Dutch army and navy underwent fundamental changes. The third institution that played an important role during those years of change was the Dutch Reformed Church which functioned as a unifying force in the background.

A New Era of Financial Management

Last week we saw that the financial problems of Philip II of Spain caused his armies in the Low Countries to disintegrate into armed bands of hooligans, which caused a popular uprising against his rule. The different representative bodies (or estates) from the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries functioned as a single organization when, as the States-General, they agreed that they would force Philip II to get rid of his unpaid and unmoored soldiers (Pacification of Ghent, 1576).

During the 1580’s the rebel States General became an increasingly smaller legislative body because Spain gained control over more and more Flemish and Walloon provinces. By the 1590’s it represented only seven provinces. At that time the States General came under the capable leadership of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, and provided the Dutch army and navy with the needed financial and material resources to turn them into an effective fighting force.

Maurice of Nassau’s army reform

Not long after the death of William of Orange in 1584, his son Maurice of Nassau was appointed to all his father’s jobs. He was made Stadhouder (governor) of most of the Dutch provinces and later was selected to be the Supreme Commander of the rebel army and navy. He knew that his life hung on a thin thread despite those formal powers. That thread would break if he was not able to achieve two very important goals: he had to restore and maintain good relations with the leaders of the States-General because they controlled the purse strings. Secondly, he had to find a way to defeat the mighty Spanish war machine with a relatively small army and navy.

1593 – 1595. The United Provinces is marked Red, the Spanish Netherlands are marked Yellow, the Prince-Bishopric of Liege is marked Gray, and territory conquered by the United Provinces from Spain is shown in soft Red.

Oldenbarnevelt helped take care of the first challenge. He took the young Maurice under his wings and saw to it that he had the money and supplies needed for the Dutch army and navy.

The second goal became the single-minded obsession of the young, austere Maurice and led him to bring about a revolution in the way wars were fought after the 1590’s. His reforms included endless hours of actual military drills and the cross-training of soldiers in the skills required for the different functions carried out by the army. In earlier armies, for example, all the digging of trenches and tunnels was outsourced to specialized workers called “pioneers.” After 1590, the soldiers in the rebel army were trained to use a shovel as well as a musket. Other reforms involved breaking the army into smaller units and making the army more mobile by using the rebel navy and the Dutch canal system to swiftly supply the army or move it to a new location.

The result of these small and incremental changes was that Maurice had the tools to capture and maintain control of most of the cities and forts adjacent to the rivers flowing through the southern part of the Netherlands. He was, as stated earlier, able to finally close most of the gates to the seven United Provinces through which the Spanish army could come.

Dutch Calvinists and Religious Militarism

At this point we’ve seen how the two sources of lawlessness we mentioned last week (myopic regionalism and armed hooliganism) were overcome by the Dutch.

But it was religious militarist thinking that sparked the outbreak of the revolt in the first place. William of Orange had hoped, from the very beginning of that uprising, that the Low Countries would be an area where people who had different faith commitments could live side-by-side. He felt that both Roman Catholic Christians and Calvinist Christians should be able to coexist in the same city and have their own church. Such a situation, he felt, would produce real religious peace. But did that really happen in the Netherlands? Did the Calvinist Christians buy into that ideal? That question cannot be answered with an unambiguous “yes” or “no.”

Before 1566, when Philip II was still the ruler of the Low Countries, Calvinists had established secret church congregations in several Dutch and Flemish towns. The tide turned against those secret Calvinists in 1567 when the Duke of Alva began to hunt for the 10,000 people who were on his list of religious criminals. In the end, the duke executed about 10% of the people on that list; most Dutch Calvinists were able to escape from his grasp and flee to either England or Germany.

While abroad, those refugees established Calvinist churches. The displaced congregations stayed in touch with each other by means of a national council (1571 Synod of Emden) that set down guidelines for the individual churches, as well as for the larger Reformed Denomination.

Some of those same refugees served in William of Orange’s army and navy during the years between 1572 and 1576, when provinces of Holland and Zeeland became the first beachhead of the Dutch Revolt. The Calvinists, as victors, had to address the religious militarism problem. Would they accept the ideal of William of Orange and promote freedom of religion for all believers, or would they oppose it?

A half-way approach

What became clear, as the months and years of the Eighty Year’s War continued to grind on, is that Dutch Calvinists created a kind of half-way island between the religious militarism of Philip II and the religious freedom ideal of William of Orange. The outline of that betwixt-and-between model became clear in the provinces of Holland and Zeeland during the early years of the revolt. The Reformed Church became, in effect, the officially established church. At the same time, those favoring other faith traditions were not to be persecuted by government agencies. As stated in the Treaty of Utrecht: “. . . each person shall remain free in his religion, and no one shall be investigated or persecuted because of his religion. . .”

That approach impacted the flow of refugees during the Eighty Year’s War. When Antwerp was captured by Spanish forces in 1585, the Protestant inhabitants were told that if they wished to stay they would need to convert to Catholicism. Of the 100,000 inhabitants of that city a total of 40,000 chose to move elsewhere. Many moved to Dutch cities like Amsterdam and helped bring new economic vitality to the young Dutch Republic.

That same kind of mass refugee flow did not happen when, under the leadership of Maurice, the Dutch recaptured Spanish towns such as Groningen or Nijmegen during the 1590’s. The Catholics were allowed, for the most part, to stay in their cities. During the 17th Century the eastern and more Catholic part of the Netherlands experienced a Roman Catholic revival which would have a long-lasting impact on the religious makeup of the Dutch nation.

This series will conclude in May 9’s print issue.

  • 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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