Sixteenth-century wages rose, but not as fast as prices and taxes. Many people got into financial difficulties, were open to new religious ideas and were prepared to take up arms to advance the Reformation. In 1566, groups whose fervor had been whipped up by fanatical Calvinists, joined forces with unemployed people in the pay of instigators. They stormed the churches, smashing all the religious images – something which Calvin had never advocated.
Compared to the religious wars, this destruction of images was not in itself important; its significance lay in the fact that, up to then, this kind of action had been unheard of in the Low Countries. Unable to stop the riotous mob, the stadtholder of Holland fled to Germany. He was none other than William the Silent, Count of Nassau (in Germany), Prince of Orange (in France), and a member of the highest European nobility.
The iconoclastic fury or ‘smashing of the images’ as it was later called, would have been unacceptable to any ruler and was even more so to the conscientious Philip II. He immediately sent a new viceroy to Brussels to restore order. For this post, he chose one of the best qualified governors in his service, the Duke of Alva, a man that had earned his spurs as military commander under his father Charles V, defeating the alliance by Protestant states in the Holy Roman Empire. Alva brought with him the most experienced and disciplined army in Europe, and quickly had the instigators of the image smashing arrested.
In order to put them on trial, he set up a special court which had powers in all regions. It sentenced more than a thousand people to death. Alva’s harsh action is not the only reason he became the national bogeyman of the Low Countries: the Dutch found it unacceptable that yet another central institution – and a considerably large one at that – had been put in place without any kind of consensus. Furthermore, it was an institution that passed down sentences on people who should have been brought before regional magistrates – a situation which constituted a violation of their regional autonomy.
At this point, William the Silent, feeling it to be his duty as a nobleman to stand by his subjects, decided to intervene militarily. In the spring of 1568, a small army led by his brother Adolf defeated a Spanish military force at Heiligerlee in Groningen. The event itself was, again, not so important, but the motivation for the rebellion of the Prince of Orange was very significant. He explicitly wrote that his men were to fight in the name of liberteyt van conscientie, ‘freedom of conscience’. By using this term, William the Silent put into words the principle that formed the basis of the consensus culture he had become familiar with when he was stadtholder.
The operation of 1568 led to nothing. After the Calvinist agitation Alva guaranteed peace, whereupon the rebel prince again disturbed the peace. The population looked on. It is at this time that the Wilhelmus, the Dutch national anthem, was written. In this the ‘I’ figure explains that God has given him the task of taking up arms – not against the king, but against the tyranny of the viceroy. He goes on to hearten his subjects by promising to return like a shepherd to his flock.
Seldom has a PR campaign been as successful as this song, and it heralded a renewed tacit alliance. This time, however, the alliance was not a bond between a ruler and his subjects against the aristocracy, but between a former stadtholder and his subjects against a viceroy who had trampled on their privileges.
Another reason why the mood turned against Alva was that he was planning to put an end to the consultations with the Estates. Up to then, the viceroy had to direct his requests for large sums of money to the meeting of the States-General and then each town collected the money in whatever way suited them best. Now instead, Alva wanted to introduce the alcabala or ‘tenth penny’, a 10% tax on real estate transactions levied in many places in Spain. This would be a permanent tax and would cut out the red tape involved in a meeting of the States. There were two important advantages to its introduction: firstly, it gave the government a more regular flow of income and secondly the town elite could no longer pass on the burden of the tax to the weaker members of the community.
It is very likely that the tax would also have been advantageous for the regions, as the net amount collected would quite possibly have been less than other forms of taxation. Nevertheless, the plan was opposed because it was believed to be yet another step towards establishing a centralized state.
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