6.7

William the Silent (The Hague)

William the Silent (The Hague)

The country without a ruler now went in search of a ruler without a country. Because Matthias was related to Philip of Spain, the rebels paid him off handsomely and he returned to Austria, where he eventually became Emperor. The next candidate was the Duke of Anjou in France, who was Catholic, did not want to be the puppet of William the Silent and, as it happened, was also paying court to Elisabeth I of England. Those were three good reasons to thank him for services not rendered and send him home. The Estates of Holland now considered offering the crown to William the Silent, but on 10 July 1584, on the orders of the Spanish King, an assassin ended the life of this ‘plague of all Christendom, bandit and traitor’. There was only one option left: Elisabeth of England. She, however, anxious to avoid war with Spain, refused to accept it personally. Instead, in the Treaty of Nonsuch (1585), she promised to send the Duke of Leicester as Governor General. This was the first treaty signed by the rebellious Netherlanders and it was very significant because it demonstrated that the Netherlands were now recognized as an independent state.

The treaty had been brought about by Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, a lawyer who at one time had specialized in water management law and subsequently played a role in the struggle to lift the siege of Leiden. As pensionary of Rotterdam he had been responsible for the construction of its port. Van Oldenbarnevelt had devoted himself to the cause of William the Silent and from 1586 had been landsadvocaat (Chief Minister) of the province of Holland. This meant that he was chairman of the Estates and was therefore its representative in the States-General. As such, he was the architect of the consultation structures of the new nation and a fierce opponent of the Earl of Leicester.

Oldenbarnevelt (The Hague)

Oldenbarnevelt (The Hague)

Leicester’s governorship culminated in a series of conflicts. While Parma advanced further, Leicester made a number of errors of judgment: he prohibited merchants of Holland to sell cannons to the Spanish army, which was understandable from a strategic point of view but did little to enhance his popularity. In the eyes of Dutch merchants: business is business.

Leicester forfeited even more credit when he supported the radical Calvinists against the moderate majority, abandoning the middle-of-the-road politics of William the Silent, who had advocated freedom of conscience as a basis for a healthy political society. Leicester’s actions threatened to cause a rift in the rebellious regions and so Van Oldenbarnevelt and the Estates of Holland saw themselves forced to relieve him of more and more power. They denied him the right to appoint stadtholders and chose Prince Maurice, the son of William the Silent, as stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland. Forced by these circumstances, the Estates of Holland and the States-General changed from an advisory body to a governing body.

Eventually, Leicester packed his bags and left. King Philip II, Prince Matthias of Hapsburg, the Duke of Anjou, Queen Elizabeth … no one appeared to be able to administer the rebellious provinces. No foreigner, it seemed, had the tact to get along with the Hollanders; not one of them treated their subjects with the respect that the people of Holland had become accustomed to – first from the Count of the independent province of Holland and later from stadtholder William the Silent. The Hollanders wished to govern their province with due consultation and made it very difficult for anyone who entertained any kind of autocratic ideas.

After Leicester’s departure, the States of Holland, under the chairmanship of Van Oldenbarnevelt, took the final step. They decided to assume the sovereignty of the province themselves. The Calvinists, who administered their own church congregations, served as an example: the States-General had the same relationship with the Provincial Estates assembly as the Church Synod had with its congregations. Now that the States-General had assumed the role of governor, the consensus culture took on the form it was to keep for another two centuries.

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