The Netherlands under Margaret of Parma and Philip II., 1556-1579

Expansion and Consolidation of Habsburg Rule

The Testament of Charles V. . In 1556 Emperor Charles V., worn down by having ruled his diverse accumulation of territories since 1516/1519, retired; he would die in 1558. He partitioned his territories among his son Philip, who became King of Spain (Castile-Aragon) and who also got the Habsburg possessions in Italy and the Netherlands, and his brother Ferdinand, who got the Austrian lands and the Habsburg claim to the Imperial Crown. Charles' illegitimate daughter Margaret of Parma was appointed governess general of the Low Countries, with seat in Brussels, in the service of her half-brother Philip II.

Policies on the Low Countries . Philip II., raised in Spain and, unlike his more cosmopolitan father, unfamiliar with Dutch language and customs, resented the independent-mindedness of the Burgundian administration in Brussels (which had taken decades to fully accept Habsburg rule). Already Philip's great-grandfather Maximilian, in 1506, upon creation of the office, had begun the tradition of appointing exculsively foreigners to the post of governor general.
Philip continued pursuing the policy of persecuting protestants. In 1559 he implemented a Catholic church reform within the Netherlands, i.e. the creation of Burgundian archdioceses seated in Mechelen (Malines), Cambrai and Utrecht, with suffragan dioceses in St. Omer, Arras, Tournai, Ieper (Ypres), Brugge, Gent, Namur, Antwerp, 's-Hertogenbosch, Roermond, Middelburg, Haarlem, Deventer, Leeuwarden, Groningen. This church reform had objects other than cleaning up the scandal-ridden church administration of the Netherlands in mind; while hitherto bishops were elected by the respective Cathedral chapter (and thus insured the regional nobility to determine who would become the next bishop), within the reformed church pope, Emperor and archbishop would appoint new bishops. The church reform was widely resented in the Netherlands, as it was regarded a breach of the indigenate.
Toward the end of the 1550es Calvinist preachers intensified their activity in trying to convert the masses (Hedge Sermons, Chanteries etc.), most notably in the southern Netherlands, and had considerable success; this in turn lead to an intensification of the activity of the inquisition. As King Philip resided in Spain, the Netherlands was not the center of his focus. Governess General Margaret of Parma was unable to maintain control; iconoclastic riots swept the country (1566), Tournai and Valenciennes (both in the hands of Calvinists) openly rebelled (1566), a Calvinist army was formed (Oct. 1566, defeated in March 1567). Margaret of Parma resigned her position as governess general and was succeeded by the Duke of Alva, Philip's man for tough tasks.
The Calvinist rebels of 1566-1567 did not represent the entire society of the Netherlands; most of the Dutch nobles were concerned by their violence, but they did not agree on a single policy how to address the issue either. The Duke of Alva established the Council of Troubles (also called the Council of Blood) which sentenced 1071 persons to death. While many Calvinists were sentenced, the most prominent victims were representatives of the Dutch nobility, among them Counts Egmond and Hoorn; Alva intended not only to break Calvinism in the Netherlands, but also the resistance the nobility and city administrations put up against centralized governance from Spain.
The establishment of the University of Douai (where Roman law was to be taught) marks another divisive policy; Philip II. intended to replace the traditional territorial laws by Roman law, and thus not only interfere with Dutch legal tradition, but again violate the indigenate; the Council of Blood significantly was composed of Spanish judges.

Reformation . The administration in Brussels, under Charles V., had succeeded in suppressing Lutheranism and in keeping Anabaptism in check. In the late 1550es, with the transition of power from Charles V. to Philip II. and Margaret of Parma, but perhaps more due to Philip's unwillingness to involve the Dutch nobility in the administration of the Low Countries, Calvinist agitators managed to reach the masses ' (Hedge Sermons, Chanteries). Guy de Bres formulated the Confessio Belgica (1561; he was executed in 1567). Calvinism, in the 1560es, shared a number of characteristics with Anabaptism; the Calvinists of 1566-1567 were impatient and uncompromising. For them, sculptures and paintings with religious motives were intolerable, and a wave of iconoclastic 'cleansings' of churches took place - which caused a number of influential Dutchmen to take on a rather sceptical stand toward the new confession. The inhabitants of the Low Countries were split over the issue in those who adopted Calvinism, those who expressed loyalty to the official Catholic church, and those not taking a definite stand.
This paragraph covers only a brief priod in the complex history of the Reformation in the Netherlands; click here for a narration of the history of the reformation in the Northern Netherlands .

Escalation of the Rebellion . The Low Countries were highly urbanized, by the standards of the time; Antwerp, with c. 90,000 inhabitants in 1560, was one of the largest cities in Europe, and the leading trading port on Europe's Atlantic coast. The cities of the Netherlands were rather independent-minded, a characteristic which had allowed the textile industry and trade of Flanders to flourish in the first place. Philip II. and his administration, centered on Castile (where the interests of the cities were subordinated to hose of crown and nobility) had little sympathy for the cities of the Low Countries. The heavy expenses of his royal household and policies caused him to demand heavy taxes; he treated privileges of cities and territorial estates with contempt, alienting both burghers and nobles. In 1565 Counts Egmond and Hoorn travelled to Spain, petitioning King Philip to respect the privileges of the Low Countries; Philip called them 'gueux' (French for beggars), a title which the Dutch soon would dopt as their nom de guerre.
The Count of Alva had Philip William, son of William of Orange (the Silent), a student at the University of Leuven, arrested and deported to Spain; thus provoking the father to break with Spain. William of Orange, from his basis in Nassau, undertook three raids into the Low Countries (1568, 1570, 1572) in what at first was a feud between him and the Governor General.
In 1572 Holland and Zeeland entered into open rebellion, appointing William of Orange their stadholder.
Alba was replaced in 1573 as Governor General by Luis de Requesens (-1576), who took Haarlem, the capital of Holland in 1573, and had many of her inhabitants executed (in 1572 the population of Zutphen and Naarden had been mssacred by the Spanish); the Spanish failed to take Alkmaar (1573) and Leiden (1574) by siege, and suffered defeat in the naval Battle of Zuiderzee, at the hands of the Watergeuzen (Sea Beggars). At Leiden, the Dutch terminated the Spanish siege by opening the sluices and flooding parts of their own land; Holland and Zeeland were not conquerable by the Spanish army.
Requesens was replaced in 1576 by Don Juan d'Austria, illegimitate son of Charles V. and the victor of the Battle of Lepanto; Spanish soldiers, unpaid for too long and not discriminating between rebels and residents of the Low Countries loyal to the crown, sacked Antwerp in 1576 (Spanish Fury), killing c. 6,000.
The successors of the Duke of Alva were more conciliatory; in 1576 Dutch nobles negotiated the Pacification of Ghent, which terminated the rebellion of Holland and Zeeland on a compromise basis. Yet it turned out that the Spanish administration was not serious in accepting the conditions.

The Low Countries, 17 in number, were diverse in culture and tradition; Luxemburg and Limburg were peripheral and only partially integrated. Friesland, Groningen and Drente lacked feudal tradition; the remainer was split in Dutch and French speaking areas. The coastal territories of Flanders, Brabant, Zeeland and Holland had a diverse economy centered on large cities, by the standards of their time; Utrecht long had been dominated by the church administration; Overijssel and Gelderland were more rural; here the nobility traditionally dominated.
The years 1576 to 1579 mark an important juncture in the history of the Low Countries; The diverse territories of the Netherlands were not yet united in their policies. Holland and Zeeland were suspicious of potential Spanish violations of the Pacification; a number of Dutch nobles, city councils and territories regarded the Pacification a constitution on the basis of which future relations with the Spanish administration were to be developed. On the other hand, the French-speaking provinces of the South, and Groningen with Ommelanden, had accepted Spanish rule.
The Dutch nobility, sceptical of Spanish intentions, not yet had adopted Calvinism. The latter had taken a firm hold in the cities of Holland and Zeeland; in Leiden in 1575 the (Calvinist) university was founded; a necessity as Calvinists could not show up in Catholic university cities.
When the French-speaking provinces of the South, French Flanders, Artois and Hainaut, in 1579 formed the Union of Arras, this triggered many of the nobles and cities of the north to join with Holland and Zeeland; the Union of Utrecht was formed, which marks the beginning of what the Dutch call the General Revolt.

The Economic Background . De Vries / van der Woude observe a decline in real wages in the Low Countries for the period 1500-1575 (p.666), caused by a crisis in the textile and brewing industries and by developments which raised productivity and required less workers, for instance in shipping (with smaller crews). Thus, the cities' artisans and day labourers found it harder to make a living; the difficult economic conditions were aggravated by natural disasters, political complications outside the country and increased taxation within the country. It was among these artisans and day labourers Calvinist agitators found most resonance.
Inundations in 1551 and 1555 partially destroyed the city of Reimerswaal in Zeeland; the All Saints Day flood of 1570 caused damage in Friesland, Holland and Zeeland.
During the 16th century, the Low Countries had become increasingly dependent on the import of Polish grain, shipped through the Baltic. War between Denmark and Sweden 1563-1570 temporarily disrupted this trade, causing inflation in grain prices and famine in the urbanized regions of the Low Countries (Holland, Flanders, Brabant) were the dependency on imported food was the greatest.

Dutch Republic History Site, bibliography, compiled at Univ. Leiden
Spanish Occupation, Philippe II., from Walloon Brabant
Biography of the Duke of Alva, of Alessandro Farnese, from Catholic Encyclopedia
De Vlaamse Natie op de Canarische eilanden in de 16de eeuw. (The Flemish Nation on the Canary Islands in the 16th Century), by Kevin Coornaert
De Hervorming in Friesland (the Reformation in Friesland), by Y. Bloemhof
DOCUMENTS Lopez Martin Manuscript Collection, from ukans, a collection of Spanish-language documents, 1566-1571; contains doc.s on Spain's economic policy towards the Dutch Rebels
Map Netherlands 1559-1609, from Perry Castaneda Library, UTexas
Map : Netherlands in 1580, from Museum voor Vaderlandse Geschiedenis / Mees, Historische Atlas 1865
Portraits of Philip II. : no. 1, no. 2, from Art istocracy
List of Spanish stadholders, 1506-1656, from Golden Age Web
From Hans Weigel's book of costume, 1577 : Woman from Flanders; Man from Middelburg, Zeeland; Sailor from Zeeland; Citizen of Groningen; Holland or Belgian costume posted by La Couturiere Parisienne
Vosmeer, Michiel, Principes Hollandiae et Zelandiae, Domini Frisiae. Cum genuinis ipsorum iconibus, Antwerpen: Chr. Plantin fur Ph. Galle, 1578, images of the counts of Holland from the 9th to the 16th century, including the Habsburg rulers of the Netherlands, posted by MATEO (Univ. Mannheim, comment in German, or. text in Latin)
Coins of the Southern Netherlands, by territory, 1309-1750, posted by Jean Elsen
Lists of coins minted for the Southern Netherlands under Charles V., Philip II., Philip II., Pt.2, from, in Dutch, no images
Beschrijving van deze eerste hagenpreek door de Antwerpse magistraat (brief, 25 juni 1566), from Historische Teksten, in Dutch
Willem van Oranje schrijft Margaretha van Parma (1566), from Murmelius Gymnasium Alkmaar, in Dutch
Smeekschrift aan Margaretha van Parma ter verzachting van de plakkaten (1566), from Murmelius Gymnasium Alkmaar, in Dutch
Uit een plakkaat tegen de speculatie met graan (1571), from Murmelius Gymnasium Alkmaar, in Dutch
Ooggetuigeverslag door de Engelsman Richard Clough van de beeldenstorm in Antwerpen (1566), from Murmelius Gymnasium Alkmaar, in Dutch
Marcus van Vaernewijck, katholiek edelman en ooggetuige van de Beeldenstorm in Gent, from Murmelius Gymnasium Alkmaar, in Dutch
Gents Onze Vader (1572) (anoniem), from Murmelius Gymnasium Alkmaar, in Dutch
Image Council of Blood, from Murmelius Gymnasium Alkmaar, in Dutch
REFERENCE Simon Schama, The Embarassment of Riches, Vintage Press 1997, 720 pp.
Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude, The First Modern Economy. Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500-1815, Cambridge : UP 1997, KMLA Lib.Sign. 330.9492 V982f
Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806, Oxford : Clarendon 1995, KMLA Lib.Sign. 949.2 I85t

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on May 19th 2006

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics

Impressum · Datenschutz