The last years of William's life were years of almost hopeless struggle to keep united the frail fabric of the seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands in presence of a mighty and relentless foe. Vast labour and address had brought them together in a time of outrageous oppression; but they were perpetually torn asunder by religious hatreds, difference of race, of language, and tradition, by personal jealousies and party cabals. Modern history presents no story more pathetic than the energy, sagacity, ingenuity, and resolution with which the Prince faced the crisis. If it were ever given to political genius to ride the storm and to weld the incompatible, it might have succeeded even now. As it was, the larger scheme failed, but had an indirect result: the smaller had a permanent and glorious success.
The elements of confusion were these. The Protestants of the Northern Provinces, in Ghent and some other Belgian cities, were seething with fanatical intolerance, and prone to rush into persecution themselves. The Catholic Provinces of the South, and especially the official and noble class, however hostile they might be to Spanish oppression, clung to the ascendency of their ancient Church. The Belgian nobles, with the Duke of Aerschot at their head, were secretly jealous of the Prince's authority; they hated his Calvinism; they feared his alliance with the people. The people were the only element where he could find support, or which he could rouse to enthusiasm. And the people of the cities, both North and South, Protestant or Catholic, were constantly a prey to unscrupulous demagogues or foreign adventurers. The Catholic nobles by a secret intrigue brought in the young Archduke Matthias, brother of the Emperor, as a rival at once of Don John and the Prince. The Southern Catholic cities again brought in the Duke of Anjou, brother of the French King, for the same purpose. And the Calvinists on their side brought in John Casimir, son of the Puritan Elector Palatine. They were all mischievous and selfish schemers, without capacity or influence—the Archduke and Anjou without courage or character of any kind. Each of these rivals in turn was courteously welcomed by the Prince, who made them his puppets, checkmated their schemes, used them for his own ends, and politely induced them to withdraw.
Down to the successes of the terrible Prince of Parma, the popularity of Orange with the burghers amounted to extravagance. "They love him, they fear him, they want to make him their master," wrote Don John to Philip. "The people believe in no god but in him," wrote Kenon de France. "They welcome him as the Jews would their Messiah," wrote another Royalist. The public entries of the Prince into Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent were triumphal processions, wherein men and women flung themselves on their knees before him, and the citizens formed voluntary guards of honour around him, and stood sentinel day and night at the door of his abode.
This popular effervescence was only a part of the general excitement. The violence of the reformers was answered by reaction amongst the Catholics. In Holland the Calvinists instituted persecution of priests and papists. In each city the local bodies, swayed from side to side by demagogues and partisans, acted independently and fell into arbitrary disorder. "There was nothing," writes the Dutch historian, "but dissensions, jealousies, heart-burnings, hatred; every one claimed to rule, no one would obey." Dutch, German, Walloon, and Fleming were in fierce antagonism. The Northern Provinces tended to a republic. Burgher juntos gave orders on military affairs to their own captains, or sullenly refused to admit garrisons to defend them from Spain. From Brussels Ste. Aldegonde writes that the cause of true religion is strangely hated and suspected everywhere, and "it seems that they would rather be ruined without us than saved with us" (qu'ils ayment mieulx se perdre sans nous, que de se sauver avecque nous). Again he writes to the Prince—"The malady is deeper than I had supposed"—"I find here dire confusion in everything"—"On our side there is neither order, nor money, nor content"—"Unless your Excellency comes, we are certainly lost."
Well might honest John write to the Landgrave: "There is gross negligence, rivalry, avarice, and stupidity (grosze negligentia, aemulatio, geitz, umd unverstand), and great hatred of our evangelical religion"; "Civil war is inevitable: I find few patriots but many priests, raw young gentlemen, and paid officials, greedy of money and advancement, and not a few of them cowardly and spiritless as well." The Landgrave, with his biting way and Ciceronian tags, might well write to John complaining of privata odia et simultates. All that had been done by Alva was but praeludia to the horrors that were to follow—omne regnum inter se divisum desolabitur, "It was all a queer olla podrida [ein seltzamb ollo putrido"]; "it was a mere confusum chaos." And the French Protestant historian writes: "Res Belgicae in immensum chaos abire videntur."
It was but too true. And around this whirlpool stood hostile and self-interested powers. The German princes hated Catholics and Calvinists alike. The Landgrave was caustic and suspicious; the Elector of Saxony was angry and contemptuous; John of Nassau was honest but wooden. Germany, France, and England would take no part themselves, but they jealously counter-intrigued against each other. Elizabeth changed her tactics from hour to hour; Anjou and the Valois dreamed of a dominion for themselves. And in front of them all stood the Prince of Parma, with his fierce veterans, his wiles, and his gold, the incarnation of Spanish chivalry and Machiavellian craft.
The revolutionary outbreak of Ghent (October 1577) was most disastrous in its results, and one of those acts of the Prince which it is most difficult to justify. Two nobles of Flanders, demagogues of unscrupulous ambition and bad character, de Ryhove and de Hembyze, at the head of their reforming partisans, seized and imprisoned the Duke of Aerschot, the Governor of Flanders, and several other men of rank and authority. The Duke was undoubtedly the leader of a cabal formed to overthrow the Prince and to suppress the democratic and Protestant movement in Flanders. There can be no doubt that the agitators had the secret sanction of the Prince, who disavowed their action at Brussels, but sent troops to their aid. He induced them to release the Duke after a few weeks' imprisonment, as being a mere weak fool; and then he went himself to Ghent and established some order, practically placing de Hembyze and de Eyhove in power, but making no real effort to have the other reactionaries released. The democratic dictators soon established in Ghent a "calvinist tyranny." They sacked churches and monasteries, suppressed religious orders, and actually burnt alive several monks in the market-place by a Calvinist auto-da-fé. They then proceeded to extend this reign of the Saints throughout Flanders. The efforts of the Prince to moderate their violence only succeeded in turning the demagogues into his own worst enemies.
For a time the energetic appeals and action of the Prince effected a temporary lull, but in the following year fresh disorders broke out. De Ryhove murdered two of the prisoners in cold blood; and, under the incitement of de Hembyze and the unfrocked monk Peter Dathenus, the Protestant mobs sacked churches, expelled Catholics, and committed excesses, "as if the whole city had gone mad." Again the Prince came to Ghent, and succeeded in establishing peace, and restoring the Catholics. A third outbreak in the next year recalled him again to Ghent, where de Hembyze and Dathenus were denouncing him as a papist, a traitor, and an atheist. In a grand message he justified himself to the citizens, and appealed to their patriotism and good sense. A third time he came to Ghent; de Hembyze and Peter, the incendiary monk, hid at his approach. Both were seized and dragged before him. He sternly rebuked them and sent them away unharmed. They fled to John Casimir; and years afterwards de Ryhove caught de Hembyze in manifest treachery, and had him executed. Such were the elements of discord with which the Prince had to deal, and such were the men with whom he was forced to work.
In the clash of these competing bigotries William of Orange strove to enforce mutual toleration by stirring appeals, by indignant rebuke, and by vigorous action. Time after time he drew up and obtained assent to a scheme of religious compromise or peace, on the basis of each party being free to exercise their own worship, subject to conditions to secure public order, and to avoid offence to their opponents. Both Catholic and Reformed communions were to have equal liberty, where either were in sufficient numbers to form a congregation, and were to have separate churches assigned to them. The rites, ornaments, and property of all religious bodies were to be held free from interference, attack, or insult by word or deed. Open-air and tumultuous preaching was forbidden, and everything which could invite strife or wound the conscience of believers in any creed. William now extended this toleration even to Anabaptists, by which his own chief agent was much scandalised. He obtained assent to a new "Union of Brussels," destined to prove so evanescent that it has almost escaped notice. By it Catholics and "Dissentients" bound themselves to protect and help each other on equal terms against the national foe. His project of A Religious Peace was formally accepted by many of the principal cities, but it soon appeared to give a new ground for discord.
In his zeal for real and complete toleration of creed William of Orange was in advance of his age by many centuries. And in this he stood absolutely alone. Some Catholics could be brought to abstain from persecuting heretics; but none could be brought to surrender the exclusive prerogatives of their own Church. Calvinists clamoured for protection and freedom, but they all used both as an engine to suppress Catholicism. Catholics could only endure Protestant worship in private, and provided it did not menace the Church; and in like manner Protestants, where they were in a clear majority, strove to get rid of the Church altogether. Not one of the best and ablest of the Prince's supporters had risen to his conception of mutual tolerance and respect for differing faiths. The good John of Nassau would not endure papistical rites in a Protestant province. Ste. Aldegonde himself protested against the breadth of the Prince's charity. The zealots of all creeds held him to be a Gallio, if not a godless man at heart. To all, his suffering false belief to exist betrayed a secret proneness to it in himself. Nay, more; the formal proclaiming of full religious freedom roused alarm in all: the Catholic saw in it the eventful triumph of heresy; the Protestant saw in it the prelude to a new persecution.
Thus the codification of a real "Religious Peace," coming on the top of the outrages at Ghent, actually conduced to fresh religious divergence. In the Walloon Provinces abutting on France, there arose a new party of "Malcontents"—a Catholic revolt against the religious compromise or "Pacification of Ghent." By the Treaty of Arras (January 1579) the Southern Provinces bound themselves "to maintain the Roman Catholic religion," and practically to submit to Philip. And in the same month the Northern Provinces—Guelderland, Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, and its districts—formed the Union of Utrecht, which bound them to promote the Protestant creed, and practically to abjure allegiance to the King. Here were shattered the Pacification of Ghent, the Perpetual Edict, and the Union of Brussels, and all the other laborious efforts to unite Catholic and Protestant in a national league. The Catholics of the South pledged themselves to the old Church; the Reformers of the North pledged themselves to the Protestant cause; and both to the exclusion of the other. Yet here too, in the dissolution of the larger confederation, lay the germs of the future history of the Netherlands, that contrast of race, religion, language, and institutions which to-day we see in Belgium and Holland.
The Union of Utrecht was essentially the work of John of Nassau, now Governor of Guelderland, and was cast in the mould of his dogged Protestantism and anti-French prejudices. In one sense it was a blow to the Prince's policy, for, professing Calvinist as he was, he never encouraged any attempt to establish a Calvinist ascendency, and for a whole year he had abstained from joining in any public worship, in order to prove his neutral position as a Moderator. He was now sincerely anxious to make use of Anjou, who for the moment had the favour of Elizabeth. For some five months he declined to assent to this new Union, which had taken a form so contrary to his own ideas; and it is difficult to accept the claim of the Apology that it was his work, except in a highly indirect and general sense. But, eager for union as he always was, and seeing how hopeless each day was becoming the broader union of all, William, with his invincible genius towards compromise and "opportunism," frankly accepted the narrower Union of Utrecht; he made it his own; and, surrendering his ideal of a great nation to be built up by North and South, by Catholic and Protestant, so as to stretch from the French frontier to the Zuider Zee, he loyally adopted the smaller Union which proved to be the germ of the State of Holland.
He still did not abandon effort to obtain a general settlement; and in this spirit he allowed himself to be informally represented in the negotiations that took place at Cologne in April 1579. The Emperor, Rudolph II., had long desired to act as mediator; Philip and the States, both now exhausted in the long struggle, were equally willing to find a tolerable issue. Accordingly, on the Emperor's invitation, high and mighty commissioners were sent to represent the Empire and the Electors, Philip, the Pope, the States, and indirectly Orange and the Duke of Parma. The Conference lasted for several months and ended in nothing. As was his practice in all such affairs, the Prince began by full and courteous attention to all the propositions made; step by step he drew the envoys on to disclose the utmost limits of concession; he gradually elicited what to them was secondary, what was sine qua non. He then, very positively and almost bluntly, laid down his own ultimatum—and it was always the same thing, just as he had told Bonte, Leoninus, Kequesens, Don John, and Parma. His terms were, identification of his own interest with that of the States, withdrawal of the Spanish soldiery, freedom of worship for all, and solid guarantees. These granted, he was willing himself to quit the Netherlands for ever, and live at peace in Nassau. His policy was subtle, hardly straightforward (if such a word exists in the lexicon of diplomacy), and it was the cause of prodigious waste of patience, paper, and oratory. But to William it was a means of exhausting every conceivable chance; it gained him time and opened to him secrets; and in final result it manifested his own indomitable consistency and constancy.
It is the more instructive and interesting because it is only in recent years that research has discovered at Simancas, in Spanish despatches and translations, the secret negotiations which the Duke of Terranova held with the Prince on behalf of the King. The Duke was quite as much convinced as were Requesens, Granvelle, or Don John, that everything depended on the Prince. He was authorised to offer Orange the release of his eldest son, de Buren, from Spain, the restoration to him of all the honours and estates of his house, and 400,000 ducats to discharge debts—the sole condition was that the Prince should quit the Netherlands.
William allowed these terms to be discussed, and sent Brunjoick, his secretary, to Cologne as his plenipotentiary. The commissioners, ducal and episcopal, were fluttered with hope; Swartzenberg, the Imperial envoy, was offered 20,000 ducats and a command worth 5000 more, if he won over the great rebel. And after months of negotiation, the Prince calmly sent a despatch (which exists only in a Spanish copy) wherein, after truly Castilian compliments, he declares that he and the States are absolutely at one; he cannot treat separately; he asks nothing for himself—nothing but to free the land from foreign tyranny; and he accepts whatever the States accept. As to the splendid offers of Philip, well, if his son were released from his prison, and he himself were restored to all his offices and estates, if he were reimbursed his outlay in Germany (calculated at 2,000,000 florins), and, all his losses and damages were made good,—and, besides this, if free worship according to the Protestant ritual were guaranteed in all places where it had been introduced,—then the Prince would withdraw. The mitred, imperial, and royal deputies broke off in wrath—which is not unnatural. Terranova abetted a plot to poison the Prince, and the Count Schwartzenberg, the main agent of the secret overtures, became his enemy for life. Such is the portion of those who trifle with their friends, even for a great patriotic end.
In the meantime the sleepless Alexander of Parma was winning his way by intrigue and by arms. The leaders of the Southern Provinces were gained by promises and gold, the masses by fear of his army and sincere devotion to their ancient Church. Soon the Walloon Provinces were almost entirely reconciled to Spain. Then swooping down the Meuse, Parma laid siege to Maestricht, below Liège, the gate into Germany. It was a strong and rich town of some 34,000 inhabitants, hardly recovered from the massacre it had suffered three years before. It was defended by about one thousand soldiers, by bodies of trained burghers, and some thousands of peasants who had taken refuge there. Parma invested it with a veteran army of 20,000 men, to which he received reinforcements of about 10,000 more. He built bridges across the Meuse, above and below the doomed city, and fortified a complete line of circumvallation with ramparts and towers. All that was heroic and horrible in the sieges and defence of Haarlem and of Leyden was repeated at Maestricht. Alexander led his men to the storm again and again, and left them repulsed and crushed under the walls. Mines, explosions, cannonades, hand-to-hand conflicts went on night and day—men, women, and children joining in the fight. For four months the townsmen held out, and slew a large part of Parma's force. At last, the weak garrison, worn out by toil, hunger, wounds, and slaughter, were overpowered in a furious night assault, and the city was given over to indiscriminate massacre. Butchery, pillage, and outrage lasted for three days; the population was exterminated; and Maestricht was reduced to a deserted ruin.
The fall of Maestricht inflicted an almost irreparable blow on the patriot cause and on the influence of the Prince. He had laboured throughout the siege to rouse the States to the defence; and for the most part he laboured in vain, for the incurable divisions of party and of provinces made them slow to succour a town in Limburg, far to the east. By desperate efforts he had raised 7000 men, whom he sent under John and Count Hohenlohe to raise the siege; but, when they reached it, they found Parma entrenched in an impregnable camp with an overwhelming force, and they were forced to retire. In the last extremity, William sent in a message promising succour, a promise which it was impossible for him to keep. Loud outcries were raised about treason, apathy, blundering, and the Landgrave's agent wrote home that "people everywhere ceased to trust him, and thought that the Prince must regret that he had ever left Holland at all. He had lost all authority in the Netherlands, after allowing so many thousands to be butchered. He cannot even withdraw with honour; he is not safe even in Antwerp, where his popularity is gone."
One after another, cities, provinces, and chiefs fell away. John wrote to Dillenburg that nearly every one but Lalain had deserted the Prince. But Lalain, Count of Rennenburg, one of his stoutest supporters, now made private terms, and was bought by Spain for money and a title. An anonymous letter was sent to the States-General accusing the Prince of treachery and personal aims. William took the letter from the hand of the clerk, who hesitated to read the libel, calmly read it aloud to them himself, as if it were an ordinary trifle, and then he proudly told them that he was ready to depart from them, if they desired it, and could believe the calumnies of which he was the butt. This was one of the darkest hours of his long agony; but he still toiled on, and henceforth he toiled on alone.
And now, the Spanish Cabinet, having finally realised that the Netherlands could not be crushed whilst Orange lived, and that no arts and no offers could bend or break his will, resorted to more systematic ways of compassing his death. Years before, Antonio Perez had written to Don John that he must "finish Orange," if he desired to satisfy the King. And now Cardinal Granvelle, whilom the Prince's mentor, friend, colleague, and rival, kept urging Philip to offer a reward of 30,000 or 40,000 crowns to deliver the Prince dead or alive. "The very fear of it," wrote the deadly prelate, "will paralyse or kill him." The King listened to his counsel, wrote to Parma, by Granvelle's hand, to offer the sum for the death of l'homme si pernitieux, and issued his famous Ban, dated Maestricht, 15th March 1580, which may be thus condensed.
Philip, by the grace of God, King of Castile, and so forth, etc., etc., to all to whom these presents shall come. Whereas, William of Nassau, a foreigner in our realms, once honoured and promoted by the late Emperor and by ourselves, has by sinister practices and arts gained over malcontents, lawless men, insolvents, innovators, and especially those who were suspected of religion; and has instigated these heretics to rebel, to destroy sacred images and churches and profane the sacraments of God; and has promoted revolt by a long series of offences, encouraging the public preaching of heresy, and persecuting priests, monks, and nuns with a view to exterminate by impieties our Holy Catholic faith; whereas he has taken a consecrated nun and abbess in the lifetime of his own lawful wife, and still lives with her in infamy; whereas he has been the head of the rebellion against our sister, the Duchess of Parma, against the Duke of Alva, and our brother Don John, and still persists in this treason, refusing all our offers of clemency and peace, and supporting the "damnable League of Utrecht"; whereas the country can have no peace whilst "this wretched hypocrite" troubles it with his insinuations (as do those whose conscience is ulcered like Cain or Judas), and, foreigner as he is, puts his whole happiness in ruining our people:Now we hereby declare this head and chief author of all the troubles to be a traitor and miscreant, an enemy of ourselves and our country. We interdict all our subjects from holding converse with him, from supplying him with lodging, food, water, or fire under pain of our royal indignation. And, in execution of this Declaration, we empower all and every to seize the person and the goods of this William of Nassau, as enemy of the human race; and hereby, on the word of a king and as minister of God, we promise to any one who has the heart to free us of this pest, and who will deliver him dead or alive, or take his life, the sum of 25,000 crowns in gold or in estates for himself and his heirs; we will pardon him any crime if he has been guilty, and give him a patent of nobility, if he be not noble, and we will do the same for all accomplices and agents. And we shall hold all who shall disobey this order as rebels, and will visit them with pains and penalties. And, lastly, we give command to all our governors to have this Declaration published in all parts of our said Provinces.
In due course the Prince caused to be drawn up and published his reply, the famous Apology, his official defence of his whole life and career. The document covers more than one hundred pages of close print. It is rhetorical and diffuse, and apparently modelled on the orations of Cicero by a learned and eloquent scholar. The hand of an ecclesiastical scribe is as evident in it as in the Ban itself. It was said to be drawn by de Villiers, an eminent Protestant divine and once an advocate, now William's chaplain. The Prince himself composed the argument throughout, and certainly is responsible for it as a whole.
I take it as a signal honour that I am the mark of the cruel and barbarous proscription hurled at me by the Spaniard for undertaking your cause and that of freedom and independence; and for this I am called traitor, heretic, hypocrite, foreigner, rebel, enemy of the human race, and I am to be killed like a wild beast, with a price offered to my assassins. I am no foreigner here, no rebel, no traitor. My princedom, which I hold in absolute sovereignty, and all my baronies, fiefs, and inheritances in Burgundy, and in the Netherlands, are mine by ancient and indisputable right, and have the sanction of my good friend the late Emperor and the public law of Europe. My ancestors were powerful Lords in the Low Countries, long before the House of Austria set foot therein, and, if need be, I will rehearse the ancient history of the House of Nassau to whom Dukes of Burgundy and the Emperors have owed so much for generations past. So far back as the year 1039 my ancestors were reigning Counts and Dukes in Guelderland for centuries, whilst the ancestors of the King were mere Counts of Hapsburg in Switzerland. King he may be in Spain or Naples, or of the Indies, but we know no King here: we know only Duke or Count—and even our Duke is limited by our ancient privileges, to maintain which Philip has pledged his oath on his accession, though he professes to have been absolved from it by the Pope.
Traitor, he calls me, against my lawful sovereign—he himself deriving his crown through Henry, the bastard, that traitor and rebel against Pedro, his liege lord, his own father's son, whom he killed with his own hand. If Don Pedro were a tyrant, what is Philip? What was Philip's own ancestor, then a Count of Hapsburg, when he turned his sword against my ancestor, his liege lord Adolphus, the Emperor? Adulterer, he calls me, who am united in holy matrimony by the ordinances of God's Church to my lawful wife—Philip who married his own niece, who murdered his wife, murdered his own son, and many more, who is notorious for his mistresses and amours, if he did not instigate Cardinal Granvelle to poison the late Emperor Maximilian!
The mischief has all arisen from the cruelty and arrogance of the Spaniard, who thinks he can make slaves of us, as if we were Indians or Italians; of us who have never been a conquered people, but have accepted a ruler under definite conditions. This is the cancer that we have sought to cauterise. I was bred up a Catholic and a worldling, but the horrible persecution that I witnessed by fire, sword, and water, and the plot to introduce a worse than Spanish Inquisition which I learned from the King of France, made me resolve in my soul to rest not till I had chased from the land these locusts of Spain. I confess that I sought to ally my friends and nobles of the land to resist these horrors, and I glory in that deed. And of the resistance to the tyranny of Spain in all its stages I take the responsibility, for I view with indignation the bloodthirsty cruelties, worse than those of any tyrant of antiquity, which they have inflicted upon the poor people of this land. Has not the King seized my son, a lad at college, and immured him in a cruel prison. Does he not delight in autos-da-fé? Did he not order me to kill worthy persons suspected of religion? Never! I say. By fire and sword no cause can be gained (par les feus et les glaives on n'advance rien). Did he not send here the monster Alva, who swore eternal hatred to this people, and boasted that he had put to death 18,000 persons innocent of everything but differing from him in religion, a man whose tyranny and cruelty surpass anything recorded in ancient or modern history?
He accuses me of being a demagogue, a flatterer of the people. I confess that I am, and whilst life remains, shall ever be on the popular side (je suis et serai toute ma vie populaire), in the sense that I shall maintain your freedom and your privileges. And all the offers that have been made to me, the release of my poor son, the restoration of all my estates and honours, and the discharge of all my debts—I have treated these with scorn, for I will never separate my cause from yours. And equally I spurn his setting a price on my head. Does he think he will frighten me by this, when I know how for years I have been surrounded by his hired assassins and poisoners? Does he think he can ennoble my assassin; when, if this be the road to nobility in Castile, there is no gentleman in the world, amongst nations who know what is true nobility, who would hold converse with so cowardly a miscreant?
As for myself—would to God that my exile or death could deliver you from the oppression of the Spaniard! How eagerly would I welcome either! For what think you have I sacrificed my whole property, my brothers who were dearer to me than life, my son who was kidnapped from his father; for what do I hold my life in my hand day and night, if it be not that I may buy your freedom with my blood? If you think that my absence or my death can serve you, I am willing. Here is my head, of which no prince or monarch can dispose, but which is yours to devote to the safety of your Republic. If you think that my poor experience and such industry as I have can serve you yet, let us all go forward with one heart and will to complete the defence of this poor people, with the grace of God, which has upheld me so often in dire perplexity and straits, and let us save your wives and your children, and all that you hold dear and sacred.
Je Le Maintiendrai.