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How far was William of Orange responsible for the division of the Netherlands in 1585?

William Orange was committed to the Dutch revolt for an array of reasons. Originally he wanted the aristocracy to regain their traditional right to power. However, the Duke of Alva’s personal offence to Orange, sequestering his properties, abducting his son to Spain and executing Egmont and Hornes had a great effect. Orange became consumed with a grim determination to commit himself to a struggle against ‘Spanish tyranny’. He didn’t want “to see a man burnt for doing as he though right…for this is a matter of conscience.” This ideology of Orange morphed him and the Dutch people into a small but powerful force, one that could not be defeated by 1584. Of course there were other factors that contributed to the division; Orange’s policies were just as effective in unifying the north as they were in alienating the south. Furthermore, the persecution of Catholics by Dutch Calvinists helped push the South into the hands of the Spanish.

Orange’s success in keeping Holland and Zeeland united and not allowing their particularist differences to polarise them was crucial to the revolt. Even in 1585, when the Duke of Parma’s Reconquista has achieved much success, Holland and Zeeland were still united and free from Spanish rule. Orange had constantly persisted in saying that a Spanish victory would result in a fate worse then enslavement imposed on the American Indians. Thus, through motivation such as this, the provinces remained united. The various conflicting interests could have easily led to a state of anarchy, as seen to some extent after the Pacification of Ghent (1576). However, Orange was instrumental in prohibiting this. Nevertheless, it wasn’t just in Holland and Zeeland that he kept parts of society under control.

Orange’s ability to inspire and control all parts of society was an asset that allowed him to maintain resistance against the Spanish. He kept the control of the Urban magistrates by allowing them to arrest and dismiss Lumey along with his closest assistants. The de facto alternative to Spanish rule realised the crucial importance of retaining the support of the urban magistrates, who through their representatives in the States of Holland provided almost all the funds needed for military effort. Furthermore, Orange’s close cooperation with the urban oligarchies ensured that in Holland, in contrast to what happened later on in Flanders and Brabant, the religious and political radicals never took control of the revolt, which as a result gained in strength. Orange subscribed to the view that the revolt was fought for liberties and not for religions sake.

However, this ideology was just as effective at keeping the southern provinces from uniting with the North. Paradoxically policies which should have promoted unity, such as freedom of religion for all, alienated the conservative south. The brief unity in 1576 was the exception but not the rule and religion was not the cause of the Pacification of Ghent. In fact it was left out of the agreements. Therefore, Orange’s perseverance in campaigning for freedom of religion was not shared by other members of the Nobility, in particular Aerschot. This is partly because it became associated with the radicals who persecuted Catholics. Orange was not able to prevent these acts of terror and this further strengthened the conservatives in their resolve to make peace with Philip. Many Catholic landowners were also frightened off by the radicalism of Holland and Zeeland where Calvinism was the official religion (after the Synod of Dort) and where their God given ruler, Phillip II, was overthrown by the Act of abjuration in 1581. However, Orange is not fully responsible for the division between the North and the South by 1585.

The Duke of Parma’s military skill caused more provinces to come under the control of Spain once again, whilst Holland, Zeeland and part of Utrecht remained free. He went about his campaign with a combination of repression and negotiation. Bribery, blockade and brutality were all used in equal measure. Aast and Bruges falling in 1583 and Ghent and Brussels falling in 1584 illustrate the success of this. Parma was a master of diplomacy, unlike Alva, and therefore Ghent and Bruges were taken with minimal fighting. Consequently, division in the Netherlands was partly due to his ability to win back certain provinces.

Therefore, one has to see William of Orange as crucial to the division in 1585. He was both the catalyst in creating division and the key to keeping it. Others shared his passion but Orange was the leader with the right skills to stop anarchy and maintain unity in the North. Unfortunately, the radical Calvinists were responsible for keeping the south from unifying with the North combined with Orange who was associated with them. He even allowed them to arrest Aerschot. However, the Duke of Parma’s skill in further prohibiting the South from unifying with the Northern provinces cannot be ignored. 

Jacob S. 13 plus  Religious Studies tutor, A Level Religious Studies ...

10 months ago

Answered by Jacob, an A Level History tutor with MyTutor


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