At this point, Alva had no choice but to intervene militarily. It is said that he preferred to see a country devoid of people than a country in rebellion. His army succeeded in driving a wedge between the rebels: from Amsterdam he marched to Haarlem, which, after a long siege, fell in 1573. It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, since the men of Haarlem had killed about ten thousand attackers and the Hollanders had come to the conclusion that the Spanish were not in the least invincible. When Alva tried to subjugate the north and the south of Holland, he met with rebels in Alkmaar and Leiden whose motivation for the fierce defense of their cities was that they were fighting for a regional government that had always treated them as equals. The towns were saved. When Alva’s reverses became known in Spain, King Philip II sent him into retirement.
In 1575, the pressure on Holland was unexpectedly reduced by the bankruptcy of the Spanish state. The once-so-disciplined Spanish army demanded their pay and vented their blind rage on the civilian population. In Antwerp alone hundreds of people were lynched. In September 1576, the southern regions, which up to now had remained on the sideline of the rebellion, called a meeting of the States-General on their own initiative. This assembly could only be called legal if a somewhat flexible interpretation of the rules were applied. In this meeting, the regions swore allegiance to the King on condition that he (a) withdrew the mutinous troops, (b) recognized William the Silent as Stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland, (c) permitted the practice of the Calvinist religion in those two regions, and (d) granted the States-General more powers. Philip, who had no money to pay his soldiers, was forced to agree and ordered Alva’s successor, John of Austria, to accept what became known as the ‘Pacification of Ghent’.
The next step was for the rebels to look for someone to take over as viceroy. Because they distrusted John of Austria, they invited Matthias of Hapsburg, the son of Emperor Rudolf and a distant relative of the king, to act as mediator, in the hope that Philip would acknowledge him as viceroy. The young man promised to respect the freedom of conscience of his subjects and to recognize the privileges of the regions. This point of departure earned him a great deal of scornful reproaches at the Spanish court, not the least being the sneer that he was behaving like an errant boy of William the Silent.
Nevertheless, Matthias’ approach might have restored peace had the Calvinists not continued with their agitation. In Ghent, Catholics were burnt at the stake and in 1578 Amsterdam was forcefully converted to Protestantism. Moreover, Philip refused to recognize what could be considered as the illegal candidacy of Matthias. In the person of Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, Philip had at last found a capable viceroy. This brilliant diplomat persuaded the southern regions to sign the Union of Arras, by which they agreed to support him. In the north, the Union of Utrecht was signed, guaranteeing Flanders, Zeeland and the regions north of the great rivers freedom of conscience. These regions also promised to support each other militarily. With these treaties the lines were drawn for a renewal of the rebellion. The Unions of Arras and Utrecht brought to an end the political union of the Netherlands, exactly thirty years after this had been enshrined in the Pragmatic Sanction, and laid the foundations for present-day Belgium and Netherland.
Parma turned out to be just as skilled a general as a diplomat. He quickly conquered the area to the south of the Rhine and to the east of the IJssel. The meeting of the States-General that embodied the regional privileges, had to flee north, where they found refuge in the Knights Hall in The Hague. There they were the guests of the Estates of Holland, an indication of just how much the Estates of Holland dominated the States-General.
Meanwhile, the rebels had a problem: after twelve years of rebellion, they could no longer keep up the pretense that they were loyal to the King and that their conflict was simply with his viceroy. However, a country without a monarch was inconceivable at that point in time. The following and most important step in the revolt of the Low Countries was the enactment of the Act of Abjuration on 26 July 1581. Legally there was no obstacle to dismissing a king, since the Great Privilege of 1477 had acknowledged their right to secede. Nevertheless, it was quite unique in world history for the population of a country to show their king the door.
>> to the next section >>