Portrait of Lamoraal, Count of Egmont by Frans Pourbus the Elder
Flemish general, statesman, and Dutch nationalist hero whose execution helped spark the national uprising in the Netherlands against Spanish rule. Lamoral Egmont was born on November 18, 1522, into one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the Low Countries at the family estate of La Hamaide near Ellezelles in Hainaut. He was the second son of Graaf (Count) John IV of Egmont, who ruled the Duchy of Guelders until 1538. Educated for the military in Spain, Lamoral Egmont succeeded to his father’s countship in 1542. In 1544 Egmont married the Countess Palatine Sabine of Simmern, whose brother became Elector Palatine Frederick III. A close confidant of Holy Roman emperor Charles V, Egmont was regularly entrusted with diplomatic assignments. In 1554 he helped negotiate the marriage of King Philip II of Spain to Queen Mary of England.
Egmont played a major role while leading a light cavalry force in the Spanish victory over the French in the Battle of Saint-Quentin (August 10, 1557). In the Battle of Gravelines (July 13, 1558) near Calais, Egmont with some 12,000 Spanish and imperial troops encountered a French and German mercenary force of some 10,500 men under Marshal Paul des Thermes and, aided by English ships offshore, soundly defeated them. Half the French force were killed, and most of the remainder, including Thermes, were taken prisoner.
A popular and powerful figure in the Netherlands, Egmont in 1559, in recognition of his accomplishments, was made stadtholder of Flanders and Artois and became a member of the Council of Regency under the regent, Margaret of Austria. King Phillip II of Spain, however, was determined to end all special fiscal and political privileges in the Netherlands. Toward this end, he introduced Spanish taxes and sought to crush all heresy. Egmont joined with William of Orange (William the Silent) and Count Phillip de Montmorency of Horn in protesting the introduction in the Netherlands by Cardinal Antoine Perrenot Granvelle, bishop of Arras, of the inquisition, a major part of King Philip II’s effort to bring the Netherlands completely under Spanish control. The unpopular Granvelle departed in 1564, and Egmont traveled to Madrid to meet with Philip II in January 1565 and request a change in his policy toward the Netherlands. Egmont’s mission met rebuff, however. The moderates were removed from the Council of Regency, and Egmont retired to his estates.
Opposition to Spanish rule in the Netherlands continued to increase, but in 1566 Egmont, who was a staunch Catholic, repressed iconoclastic riots in Flanders and remained loyal to Philip II. After Philip II dispatched an army under Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, the third duke of Alba, to the Netherlands, William of Orange fled Brussels, but Egmont and Horn failed to heed William’s warning and chose to remain. Although Egmont had sworn an oath of loyalty in the spring of 1567, almost immediately upon his arrival at Brussels, on September 9, 1567, Alba ordered Egmont and Horn arrested on charges of treason. They were imprisoned at Ghent but were moved to Brussels after Louis of Nassau invaded the northern Netherlands in the spring of 1568. Pleas to Philip II from many of Europe’s reigning sovereigns, including Holy Roman emperor Maximilian II, for amnesty for the imprisoned nobles met rebuff. The infamous Council of Troubles (better known as the Council of Blood) condemned Egmont and Horn to death, and they were executed with other Netherlands nobles in the Great Square in Brussels the next day, June 5, 1568. Their deaths led to public protests throughout the Netherlands and significantly contributed to Dutch opposition to Spanish rule. The Revolt of the Netherlands (1568–1648), also known as the Eighty Years’ War, is usually dated from this event.
A talented military commander, as stadtholder Egmont was a political moderate. Had he lived, he would no doubt have been drawn into the military struggle against Spain.
Avermaete, J. Lamoral d’Egmont (1523–1568). Brussels: Ch. Dessart, 1943.
Oman, Sir Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1999.
Schiller, Friedrich, and Karl Adolf Buccheim. Historische Skizzen: Egmonts Leben und Tod, Belagerung von Antwerpen. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008.
Prince Maurice of Orange during the Battle of Nieuwpoort, 1600
THE REVOLT OF THE NETHERLANDS
The Netherlands were an anomaly among Philip’s inherited dominions. Not only did they contain a significant minority of non-Catholics, but their tradition of limited religious tolerance and the gritty independence of their municipal and provincial institutions ran counter to Castilian ideas of royal government. Philip, who knew the country well and had lived there during the 1550s, came to believe that failure to reform church and government in the Netherlands would not only undermine the legitimacy of his rule but expose his soul to mortal peril. By attempting drastic reforms with little regard for local sensibilities, he provoked a general revolt that resulted in the loss of seven northern and eastern provinces and the creation of a new nation, the Republic of the Netherlands. The refusal of Philip and his successors to accept that outcome turned the revolt into a generalized European conflict that lasted, for Spain at least, until 1657. By that time, the Spanish empire had gravely weakened itself financially and militarily. Because Spain’s policy toward the Netherlands bears an important share of responsibility for the empire’s seventeenth-century decline, the conflict must be described in detail.
When Philip became ruler of the Netherlands in 1555, his father’s alliance with the old Burgundian nobility remained strong, and a vigorous, if unpopular, persecution had brought the problem of heresy under temporary control. The cost of the emperor’s wars and widespread discomfort over his religious policies had nevertheless created serious tensions. In the four years between Philip’s succession and his return to Spain in 1559, the government’s position began to erode. In the Estates-Generals of 1556 and 1558, leading nobles had protested the presence of Spanish troops in the Netherlands and tried to limit new assessments for the French wars that resulted in the great victory at St. Quentin in 1559. When Philip appointed a government to represent him in his absence, he resolved to limit the nobles’ influence. His half-sister, Margaret, Duchess of Parma, became regent. The presidency of the Council of State went to Anton Perrenot de Granvelle, Bishop of Arras, whose arrogant manner coupled with relatively humble origins offended the nobility. Viglius, a distinguished jurist of middle-class origins assumed the presidency of the Privy Council, and Charles, Count of Berlaymont, was given the Council of Finance. It soon became obvious that these three would make most of the major decisions for the region as a whole. All were competent, but the only noble among them was both poor and outside the inner circle of grandees who had long been central to Charles V’s system of governance. The nobles, led by William, Prince of Orange and the Count of Egmont, hated Granvelle, looked down on Berlaymont, and regarded Viglius with indifference. Above all, the nobility of the Netherlands feared that their growing exclusion from government would cost them the offices and financial rewards they needed to preserve their status in an age of rising costs and declining rents.
Philip’s religious policies aroused even greater hostility. The ecclesiastical structure of the Netherlands had been created in the early middle ages when the region was still rural and relatively under-populated. There were only four bishoprics, three of which fell under the jurisdiction of Reims in France, and one under the Archbishop of Cologne. Few of the great cities had bishops of their own, and many, even in the Netherlands, regarded the clergy as corrupt and ignorant. The emperor had known that such a church could scarcely provide pastoral care much less cope with the rise of heresy, and had been tinkering with the idea of a complete reorganization since 1551–1552. In 1558 Philip brought his father’s schemes to fruition by asking the pope to create 16 new bishoprics to be grouped into three provinces along linguistic and regional lines. The king would have the right of nomination to all but one of the new prelates, and only candidates of good moral character with degrees in either theology or canon law would be accepted.
The pope responded with unusual speed on May 12, 1559. The bull Super Universalis authorized the proposed changes, and the crown appointed a commission to implement them. The commission resolved the problem of funding 16 new bishops, in part by proposing the transfer of revenues from Spanish dioceses, many of which were poor enough to begin with. The rest of the money would be found by incorporating monastic foundations and their revenues into the new dioceses. The new bishops would displace the abbots and assume their revenues. Bulls of circumscription confirming these arrangements were issued in May and August of 1561. The Bishop of Arras, who guided the process from the start, had already been named Cardinal Granvelle and Archbishop of Mechelen.
The prospect of an effective church organization in the Netherlands terrified both the Protestant minority and those in municipal government who felt that a more effective prosecution of heretics would harm their trade with England and Germany. The nobles were infuriated. Many of them had held the right of nomination to church offices that were an important source of income and patronage as well as a means of providing for younger sons. Few of the latter were noted for their piety or learning and under the new rules would be excluded from church office in any case. The nobles would also lose influence in the powerful Estates of Brabant where three abbots, all from noble families, would be replaced by three bishops appointed by the crown. The reform, in short, was not only an infringement of local autonomy, but struck directly at the wealth and power of the nobility.
In 1564, the leading nobles engineered Granvelle’s dismissal with the help of friends at Phillip’s court. Flushed with new confidence, they dispatched the Count of Egmont to demand a reorganization of the governing councils. Their goal was to restore their authority and halt the executions for heresy. Egmont’s mission, however, reinforced the king’s growing belief that heresy in the Netherlands was becoming uncontrollable. To avoid the appearance of open conflict, Philip showered Egmont with favors and sent him home thinking that his mission was a success. Nothing could have been further than the truth. After the king made his true position known in May, 1565, the nobles launched a series of dramatic protests, the most importance of which was the Compromise des nobles, a document later regarded in the Netherlands as a declaration of independence. After the loyalist Berlaymont referred to the protesters as beggars, the dissidents adopted the epithet as the name of their party and appeared in public wearing beggar’s bowls around their necks. Fearing the worst, Margaret of Parma, issued the so-called Moderation, which effectively permitted the exercise of Protestantism in areas where it was already established. When Philip repudiated this measure as well, the Protestants removed or destroyed images in churches throughout the region with the encouragement of the nobles and some of the city governments.
The Iconoclasm of 1566 outraged Philip. Margaret’s government, supported by Egmont and the Prince of Orange, soon restored order, but the king decided that this would not solve the underlying problem. In 1567 he dispatched the Duke of Alba with an army of veterans to root out those he regarded as rebels and heretics. When Alba had finished his work, the king would come to the Netherlands, dismiss the duke for exceeding his instructions, and issue a general pardon. The scheme, to which Alba was a party, shows Philip II at his most devious. Alba arrived in Brussels in August, 1567, and arrested Egmont and the relatively innocent count of Hornes. Margaret resigned in protest on September 13, and Alba became Governor-General of the Netherlands with what amounted to proconsular authority over foreign and domestic affairs. Acting on decisions already made in Spain, he executed Egmont and Hornes and established a Council of Troubles to enforce the placards against heresy and condemn the signers of the Compromise as traitors. Between 1567 and 1576, the Council of Blood, as it was known in the Netherlands, condemned 8957 individuals, most of whom had long since fled to England or Germany. More than 1000, however, were executed. William of Orange, who had wisely retired to his estates in Germany before Alba’s arrival, raised an army of mercenaries and invaded the southern Netherlands. A second army under his brother, Louis of Nassau, invaded Friesland. Alba defeated both of them, and by Christmas, 1568, the entire country was once again reduced to obedience.
At this point, Philip should have come to the Netherlands as planned, but he did not do so. His son Don Carlos, whose strange behavior had long been a problem, died on July 24, 1568, leaving Spain without an heir. Then, on Christmas Eve of that year, the Moriscos of Granada rose in a bloody revolt that would require two years to suppress. This reminder that the Reconquest was not yet complete required the monarch’s presence, and Alba, already hated for his repressions, remained in the Netherlands for four more years. The duke distrusted his new subjects, and governed through what amounted to a military government of occupation administered by Spaniards and Italians. He imposed a badly needed uniform code of criminal law and installed the bishops who had been appointed in 1561—in some cases at gunpoint—but opposition to what most Netherlanders now saw as an alien regime continued to grow. The breaking point came in 1571–1572 when Philip’s troubles converged in an improbable and nearly catastrophic sequence of events.
Alba’s regime depended upon the support of an expensive, multinational army paid for by Spain. Philip, however, was forced to divert much of his revenue to quelling the Morisco rebellion. By 1570, pacification was largely complete, but in January of that year the North African corsairs recaptured Tunis, and in June, the Turkish fleet attacked Cyprus. Spain, together with most of the Italian states, formed the Holy League to combat the Muslim threat, but the League’s forces failed to relieve the island. In October, 1571, a second and far greater Christian fleet defeated the Turks at Lepanto. Hoping for a final victory over Turkish power in the Mediterranean, the League planned an even more ambitious effort for 1572. Philip’s commitment to war against the Ottomans now came into conflict with his commitment to the Netherlands. The cost of massive operations on two widely separated fronts was more than Spain could bear. Philip ordered Alba to impose new taxes on the Netherlands to, at the very least, pay his own expenses. Spanish contributions to the army in Flanders dropped to almost nothing in 1570–1571 while taxes in the Netherlands rose dramatically. It was not enough. Alba proposed a version of the Castilian alcabala known as the Tenth Penny. The new scheme aroused intense opposition, especially among the rich. When Alba finally imposed it without the approval of the Estates General, popular outrage approached uncontrollable levels.
As opposition to Spanish rule increased, the diplomatic situation in northern Europe began to deteriorate. Elizabeth I of England saw the presence of a large Spanish army in the Netherlands as a potential threat to her rule. In 1568 she seized a Spanish fleet carrying money for Alba’s troops and offered shelter to the Sea Beggars, a ferocious group of Netherlandish exiles who, under letters of marque from William of Orange, attacked shipping in the Channel and raided the smaller coastal towns of Holland and Zeeland. Alba responded by embargoing all trade with England. The Netherlands began to sink into an economic depression. France, too, became a problem when the Huguenots, under their leader Coligny, gained ascendancy over the young king Charles IX, and began to contemplate an attack on the Netherlands in support of their fellow Protestants. To forestall them, Alba dispatched a contingent of Spanish troops to France on his own authority.
In these circumstances, Philip’s involvement in the Ridolfi Plot ranks as one of the more bizarre misjudgments of his career. The king had for a decade tried to preserve the English alliance. Elizabeth’s actions in 1568 made it apparent to him that he had failed, and that England now represented a threat to his interests in the Netherlands. Misled by the Spanish ambassador Roberto Ridolfi and by the English Catholics who had taken refuge at Madrid, he ordered Alba to invade England in 1571 if Ridolfi or the English Catholics made good on their promise to assassinate the queen. Alba, who believed throughout his career that it would be madness to invade England, protested and did nothing. The assassination plot failed, as Alba—and perhaps Philip—knew it would (the king’s reasoning in this case has never been adequately explained), but the damage was done. Elizabeth responded by signing a treaty with France which raised the specter of a joint Anglo-French effort against Spain.
The Revolt of the Netherlands began in earnest when Elizabeth expelled the Sea Beggars from English ports. Ironically, this was neither a hostile act nor a consequence of the Ridolfi Plot, but an attempt to defuse the political situation in northwest Europe. The embargo had caused great distress in England as well as in the Netherlands, and Elizabeth now hoped to reach an accommodation with Alba on trade. The Beggars had in any case worn out their welcome by seizing the ships of neutral powers. Driven from England and with nowhere else to go, the Beggars seized the fishing village of Brill near Rotterdam on April 1 and called for a general revolt in the name of William of Orange. By this time, the harsh winter of 1571–1572 and the refusal of butchers, brewers, and bakers to sell their goods as a protest against the Tenth Penny added greatly to the distress caused by the paralysis of trade. Orange’s adherents had become a majority in several town councils, especially in Holland and Zeeland. In others, council members who were themselves loyal came under intolerable public pressure to declare for the rebels. At the same time, a rebel army under Count van den Bergh successfully invaded the northeastern provinces. Within weeks, much of the country was in revolt.
A more serious threat to Spanish rule came in the south. Orange’s brother, Louis of Nassau, seized Mons on the main road between Paris and Brussels. There, an army of Huguenots was to join forces with Orange and 20,000 Germans for an attack on Brussels. Alba, however, surrounded Mons long before either army arrived, and on July 17 destroyed an advance force of 6000 Huguenots at St. Ghislain, five miles from his lines. Orange, who crossed the border at about the same time, resolved to await a French declaration of war before going further. It never came. Charles IX, already embarrassed by the fiasco at St. Ghislain, became convinced that the English, treaty or no treaty, would do nothing to support a French invasion of the Netherlands. He began to think that he could use the situation to rid himself of Coligny and the Huguenots, and in an astonishing reversal of policy ordered the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre on August 23. Catholic mobs murdered Coligny and several thousand of his followers, abruptly freeing Alba from all fear of a French invasion. When Orange failed to relieve Alba’s siege of Mons, the duke took the city and began to move against the other rebel strongholds, beginning with Mechelen.
Mechelen offered no resistance, but Alba allowed his troops to sack the city because it had been one of the few to accept the Prince of Orange without being pressured to do so by a rebel army. He then sacked Zutphen and Naarden, whose offers to surrender came too late. In each case, these actions were accompanied by the wholesale slaughter of civilians. The duke’s campaign of deliberate frightfulness succeeded in that by Christmas every city outside Holland and Zeeland had returned to its allegiance; it failed in that it convinced many in Holland and Zeeland that they would be killed even if they surrendered. Orange retreated to Holland to make his last stand, and began to create the core of a rebel government based on Holland and Zeeland. Alba’s men besieged Haarlem, a city garrisoned by 4000 professional soldiers but without modern fortifications.
The siege of Haarlem marked a turning point in the revolt. It lasted eight months with both sides committing terrible atrocities. When the city at last surrendered on terms in July, 1573, Alba violated the agreement by executing some 2000 troops and several of the city’s magistrates, imposing a fine of 200,000 florins, and imprisoning a number of the leading towns-people. There could be no further hope of compromise. At one point the citizens of Haarlem had planned to burn the town rather than surrender. Now the people of Leiden claimed that if necessary they would cut off their left arms and eat them (keeping their right arms available to fight), while Alba’s next target, Alkmaar, prepared to open its dykes and drown the countryside rather than surrender. Alba thought that his actions after Haarlem had been overly generous, and, echoing his enemies, told the king that it would be better to flood both Holland and Zeeland than to let the rebels have them.
The growing intransigence on both sides owed much to the strain of war but more to the fact that the conflict was becoming increasingly religious in character. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics may not have been the primary cause of the conflict, but it made its resolution impossible. In forming his government, Orange had relied heavily upon the Calvinist minority whose fervor overwhelmed the counsels of the uncommitted. By the time he himself converted in 1573, the Calvinists had become the driving force of the revolt. Alba and the king knew this. To them, as to their Calvinist adversaries, the struggle had become one against evil incarnate: no negotiation was possible. Unfortunately for the Spanish, this conclusion came at a time when Spain no longer possessed the resources to continue. The naval campaigns of 1570–1573 against the Turks had drained the treasury, and when the siege of Haarlem ended, Alba’s troops had not been paid in 28 months. His refusal to allow them to sack the city, which would have been permitted under contemporary rules of war, provoked the first of a long series of mutinies that would cripple the Spanish army in years to come. On this occasion his own popularity with the troops defused the situation, but when he ordered a second assault against Alkmaar in September, the men refused. Alba lifted the siege on October 8. Three days later, the rebels defeated a royal fleet in battle on the Zuider Zee and captured its commander.
The king had long known that Alba would have to be replaced. He should have done it early in 1569, but waited until 1570 to appoint the duke of Medinaceli as Alba’s successor. He did not, however, recall Alba. Medinaceli stood more or less idly in the wings until January, 1573, when Philip revoked his appointment in favor of Don Luis de Requeséns, a Catalan who had most recently served as governor of Lombardy. The king remained committed to a policy of repression by force, and felt that Medinaceli lacked the toughness and military skill to win. Requeséns arrived in November, 1573, and Alba returned to Spain in December.
The new governor-general tried to continue Alba’s policy without the necessary resources. In January, 1574 the rebels destroyed another royal fleet in the Scheldt, and took Middelburg in the following month. Their grip on Zeeland was now secure. Requeséns managed to annihilate an invading army under Louis of Nassau at the Mook on April 14. Louis was killed, but the Spanish army, which remained unpaid, mutinied once again and held the city of Antwerp to ransom for 1 million florins. Paid at last, they besieged Leiden, but the citizens forced them to withdraw by flooding the surrounding countryside. Then in November, they mutinied again, and abandoned most of the places they had taken in Holland and Zeeland to the Orangists. Meanwhile, in September while the siege of Leiden was collapsing, the Turks retook Tunis and the Spanish fortress of La Goletta that controlled the access to the city’s harbor.
As 1575 began it seemed that all of Philip’s policies had failed. In the Mediterranean, the Turks had not only reversed the verdict of Lepanto, but returned matters to where they had been in 1534. The Spanish army in the Netherlands could no longer be controlled by its commanders, and the king was out of money. He had sent more than 19 million florins to Flanders between 1572 and 1575. Because receipts from the Netherlands had, for obvious reasons, dropped to almost nothing during the same period, it was not enough. Desperate, Philip at last agreed to negotiate, but even at this, one of the lowest points of his reign, he could not accept the rebel’s demand for freedom of worship. Negotiations broke down on July 13. In September, the crown again declared bankruptcy, and in October, William of Orange renounced all allegiance to Spain and declared independence. When Requeséns died in March, 1576, Orange controlled Holland and Zeeland with the exception of Haarlem and Amsterdam. The southern provinces, still nominally loyal, were left without an effective government. Finally, after several months, a group of southern nobles led by the duke of Aerschot seized the discredited Council of State in Brussels, and illegally convoked the States-General which had met only twice since 1559. While the States-General opened negotiations with William of Orange, Requeséns’s replacement, Don Juan de Austria, arrived in Luxemburg.
Don Juan was Philip II’s illegitimate half-brother and the victor at Lepanto, but at this point he had neither troops nor money. The tercios of Spain, together with several of the more important German units, remained in a state of mutiny. In what had by this time become a formal tradition, the soldiers organized themselves into an army under an elected leader (electo), and on the day after Don Juan’s arrival sacked Antwerp, the largest and wealthiest city in the Netherlands. Over 8000 citizens lost their lives in one of the worst atrocities of the sixteenth century. Four days later, while Antwerp still smoldered, the States-General and the Orangists signed the Pacification of Ghent which recognized the unity of “the common fatherland” and demanded the expulsion of the Spanish troops. In the “Perpetual Edict” of February 12, 1577, Don Juan reluctantly accepted the Pacification on condition that Catholicism be maintained throughout the provinces. The States-General paid the mutineers, and the Spanish marched off toward Italy.
At this point, Philip’s luck began to change. In August, 2 million ducats in bullion arrived from Peru, the largest shipment to date. The king renegotiated his loans and convinced his creditors to loan him an additional 10 million florins (about 5 million ducats). Above all, his diplomats concluded a truce with the Turks in the Mediterranean, leaving him free to concentrate on the Netherlands. There, by years’ end, the Pacification of Ghent was beginning to unravel on religious lines. Calvinists, although everywhere a minority, controlled most of the towns in Holland and Zeeland and were a substantial presence in much of Flanders and Brabant. Unrestrained by Orange, they embarked on a vigorous campaign to overthrow the Catholic governments of towns whose councils remained firmly Catholic. The provinces of Hainault and Artois formed the League of Arras to protect the Catholic faith and other Catholic provinces withheld their financial support. By the time Don Juan de Austria died on October 1, 1578, the States-General was without money and its troops had mutinied in imitation of their Spanish enemy.
This time, the king wasted no time in appointing a new governor-general: his nephew Alessandro Farnese, son of Margaret of Parma. It was an inspired choice. Skilled at both war and diplomacy, Farnese lost no time in exploiting the tension between the States-General and the Orangists. Before he arrived, Walloon Flanders joined Hainaut and Artois in the league of Arras, and in January, 1579, Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht responded by forming the League of Utrecht which grew to include the northeastern provinces and the major cities of West Flanders, including Antwerp. On May 17, the Treaty of Arras reunited the Walloon provinces with Spain. Farnese, reinforced by the Spanish veterans who had by now returned from Italy, began a series of brilliant campaigns that within six years restored Spanish control over the provinces south of the three great rivers that bisected the Netherlands: the Rhine, the Maas, and the Waal. Confessional lines hardened further as southern Protestants sought refuge in Holland and Zeeland, while northern Catholics moved south.