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The Naughty Netherlands

In the late fifteenth century, an area known as the Low Countries passed from Mary of Burgundy to the Habsburgs. The Low Countries consisted of 17 medieval fief- doms, or lands that belonged to a lord. Emperor Charles V united these provinces with the Pragmatic Sanction in 1549 and made the Seventeen Provinces an entity under Habsburg Rule. When Charles abdicated and split his empire, his son Philip received the Seventeen Provinces, or the Netherlands. The people of the Netherlands, or the Dutch, enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. They were masters of trade and commerce. They worked hard to stay on good terms with everyone and as a result did business with many nations. The Dutch exported finished goods made from imported raw materials, they exported herring, they built ships, and they shipped goods for other nations. The Netherlands was a highly valued commodity, especially the city of Antwerp, and quite a gift for Philip.

The Rule of Philip II

Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, inherited quite an empire when his father gave up his title in 1556. Philip enjoyed the fruits of the laborers who before him had established colonies and trading posts in the Americas and trade routes back and forth from there. About the time Philip took over in Spain, shipload after shipload of American gold and goods arrived in Europe regularly and made Spain a financial powerhouse. The Netherlands became vital to Spain’s financial success because of the many goods and services available there.

While each province of the Netherlands had its own government, the provinces recognized and paid taxes to a central government in Brussels headed by Margaret of Parma (1522-1586), Philip’s sister-in-law.

The system of government worked well for the Netherlands but Philip insisted on increasing Spain’s influence there. The Dutch were not happy. Furthermore, when Philip signed the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, the Dutch expected relief in taxes and an increased role in Philip’s administration. Neither happened. Philip couldn’t conceive of allowing the Netherlands to continue doing their own thing without his micromanagement. Philip had his hand in the government and economics of the region. Furthermore, a staunch Catholic, Philip was determined to keep the open- minded Dutch strictly Catholic, too. This inflexibility led to big problems for Philip in the Netherlands.

The Revolt of the Netherlands

The Netherlands had been impacted by a force that also had influenced France at about the same time. Calvinism spread to the Netherlands and many, including the nobility, embraced the religion. Being a staunch Catholic and believing himself to be the defender of the Catholic faith, Philip launched an attack on heresy in the Netherlands. Philip targeted many Calvinists, including some of the more prominent citizens of the Netherlands. Punishments for heresy under Philip’s inquisition included execution and confiscation of the heretic’s property. Because many in the Netherlands perceived Philip’s actions as unfair, local governments refused to uphold Philip’s laws. In 1566, townspeople stormed Catholic churches and destroyed statues and stained glass windows in what became known as the “iconoclastic fury.” Then in 1567, Calvinist rebels seized a few small towns; Philip had had enough.

Philip sent the Duke of Alba, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, into the Netherlands with 10,000 troops who established themselves in towns, arrested thousands, and executed at least 1,000 people. Additionally, Alba created new laws and imposed new taxes. He basically did everything Philip had done, only worse. In response, rebellious Protestants escaped some of the towns and began forming a military force. They gathered in the northernmost provinces and organized a resistance to the Spanish. Joining the resistance was an exiled group of pirates called the Sea Beggars who attacked Spanish ships and Spanish ports. The Sea Beggars allied with William of Orange (1533-1584) who helped finance the resistance.

The Duke of Parma, Alexander Farnese, eventually persuaded the southernmost provinces to remain loyal to Philip. It took plenty of money but they were convinced. On the contrary, the northern provinces pulled together and formed the Union of Utrecht in 1579. The Union served as a defensive alliance against Spain and against the southern provinces. Elizabeth I of England threw her support, both financial and military, behind the United Provinces, as the northern union became known. After all, Elizabeth wanted the United Provinces as a buffer between the Spanish Netherlands, or the southern provinces, and England just across the English Channel.

Finally, in 1609, an exhausted Spain signed a 12-year truce and the United Provinces, though not officially recognized as a nation, were left alone while the southern Spanish Netherlands remained under Spanish control. The economic superiority of Antwerp then shifted to Amsterdam in the north. The Netherlands issue proved to be costly for Spain and for Philip, who died in 1598 and left his son, Philip III, to carry on.

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