William of Orange

From rebel to “Father of the Fatherland”

William of Orange is an ambitious nobleman who develops into the leader of the Dutch Revolt and later on is revered as “Father of the Fatherland”. He is regarded as the founder of a new Dutch state. He himself, however, has never pursued such an independent state.

Prince of Orange
William is born in 1533 at Dillenburg castle (in what is now present-day Germany). In 1544, he inherits the French principality of Orange, which entitles him to the title of “Prince”. William is raised as a Lutheran, but Emperor Charles V insists, as ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and lord of the Netherlands, that from now on, the young prince will receive a Roman Catholic education. For that reason, at the age of twelve William is sent to Brussels to live at the imperial court. In those days, Brussels is a metropolis within an empire that stretches from eastern Europe to South America.

In these surroundings, William becomes well acquainted with international political relations and amasses a comprehensive network. For example, he writes some 13,000 letters to his international contacts. Many of these letters are written in French or in his mother tongue, German.

Noble opposition
From 1555 onwards, William of Orange is appointed to high positions. Philip II, the son of Charles V, delegates him to conduct important international negotiations. As a military commander in chief, member of the Dutch Council of State (the monarch’s advisory council), Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht, he becomes one of the most influential noblemen in the Low Countries. His relationship with Philip II, however, is deteriorating. William of Orange becomes the main spokesman for the noble opposition party. He urges the King to ease up on the persecution of heretics and resists the greater role of professional officials in the national government. These new officials are causing noblemen to lose their traditional positions.

Resistance against the Spanish ruler is growing. Diplomatic efforts bear little fruit, and in 1566 the Iconoclastic Fury breaks out. Philip II responds by appointing the Duke of Alva, who severely punishes the rebels. William of Orange flees to Dillenburg castle, where from 1568 onwards, he orchestrates several military invasions to end Alva’s rule in the Netherlands. In addition, he continues his battle in the Low Countries by means of propaganda such as pamphlets, militant songs, and prints. The current Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmus, was originally such a propaganda song. Initially, military success is sustained. Only when the Geuzen [Beggars], as the rebels call themselves, conquer Den Briel on 1 April 1572, does the Revolt start to garner wider support.

Against all odds, the rebels stand their ground in Holland and Zeeland, which in part can be attributed to William of Orange’s perseverance. With the Pacification of Ghent in 1576, they even manage to make peace with the other provinces. William’s ideal appears within reach: the restoration of the seventeen provinces under noble rule and ending the battle between the various groups on the basis of tolerance. However, this unity does not last.

In 1580, Philip places a bounty on William of Orange’s head. William responds by writing his Apology (defending his course of action), and the States General of the rebel provinces produce the Act of Abjuration. The argument in the two documents is the same: resistance is justified because the King is acting as a tyrant. On 10 July 1584, Catholic Balthasar Gerards shoots and kills William of Orange. William’s efforts appear to have been in vain. However, a few years after his death, the rebel provinces develop into an independent, self-confident republic. That is the reason why in retrospect, William of Orange is considered the founder of this new state, the “Father of the Fatherland”.