Alessandro Farnese, now thirty-three, was the son of the former Regent, Margaret of Parma. Brought up in Spain, he swore loyalty to Philip, fought at Lepanto, and gave the last fourteen years of his life to saving the southern Netherlands for the King. In 1586 he was to inherit the duchy of Parma and its title, but he never took the ducal throne. Sharp eyes, dark features, cropped black hair, eagle nose, and bushy beard revealed only a part of his ability, courage, and subtlety. He had all the military art of Alva, less of his cruelty, immeasurably more skill in negotiation and address. The battle for the Netherlands now became a duel between the Duke of Parma’s diplomacy and arms, supported by Catholic funds and hopes, and the heroic perseverance of the Prince of Orange, financed by Dutch merchants and helped and hindered by the fanaticism of his friends.
On January 5, 1579, a group of Catholic nobles from Hainaut, Douai, Artois, and Lille, inspired by the Bishop of Arras, formed the League of Arras for the protection of their religion and property. On January 29 the provinces of Holland, Zeeland, Groningen, Utrecht, and Gelderland formed the Union of Utrecht for the defense of their faith and liberties; soon they were joined by Friesland and Overijssel; these seven “United Provinces” became the Dutch Netherlands of today. The remaining provinces became the “Spanish Netherlands” and, in the nineteenth century, Belgium. The division of the seventeen provinces into two nations was determined partly by the predominance of Catholicism in the south and of Protestantism in the north, but also by the geographical separation of the lowlands by the great inlets and rivers which, by their breadth and their controllable dykes, offered defensible ports and barriers to Spanish fleets and arms.
On May 19 the League of Arras signed an agreement with Parma by which it bound itself to tolerate no religion but the Catholic, and accepted Spanish sovereignty on condition that the privileges of the provinces and communes should be restored. By persuasion, bribery, or force, the Duke soon regained almost all the southern provinces for Spain. The Calvinist leaders at Brussels, Ghent, and Ypres abandoned their conquests and fled to the Protestant north. On March 12, 1579, Parma led a large army against Maastricht, strategically situated on the river from which it took its name. Prodigies of heroism and barbarity were performed on both sides. The attackers dug miles of subterranean passages to mine and invade the city; the defenders—women joining the men—dug passages to meet them, and battles were fought to the death in the bowels of the earth. Boiling water was poured into the tunnels, fires were lit to fill them with smoke; hundreds of besiegers were scalded or choked to death. One of Parma’s mines, exploding prematurely, killed five hundred of his men. When his soldiers tried to scale the wall they were met with firebrands, and burning pitch-hoops were quoited around their necks. After four months of effort and fury, the besiegers made a breach in the wall, entered through it silently at night, caught the exhausted defenders sleeping, and massacred 6,000 men, women and children. Of the city’s 30,000 population only 400 now survived. Parma repeopled it with Walloon Catholics.
It was a major disaster for the Protestant cause. William, who had tried in vain to succor the city, was with some reason blamed for incompetence and delay. The same extremists who had frustrated his unifying policies by their intolerance and violence now charged him with treason to their cause in his negotiations with the Catholic Duke of Anjou, and they pointed out that he had attended no religious service during the past year. Philip seized the moment to promulgate a ban (March 15, 1581) against Orange. After detailing all the ingratitude, disloyalty, marriages, and crimes of the Prince, he proceeded:
Therefore … for all his evil doings as chief disturber of the public peace, and as a public pest, we outlaw him forever, and forbid all our subjects to associate with him or communicate with him in public or in secret, or to administer to him victuals, drink, fire, or other necessaries. We declare him an enemy of the human race and give his property to all who may seize it. In order the sooner to remove our people from his tyranny and oppression, we promise, on the word of a king and as God’s servant, that if one of our subjects be found so generous of heart … that he shall find means of executing this decree and ridding us of the said pest, either by delivering him to us dead or alive, or by depriving him at once of life, we will give him and his heirs landed property or money, as he will, to the amount of 25,000 gold crowns. If he has committed any crime, of any kind whatsoever, we will pardon him. If he be not noble we will ennoble him.46
The provincial Estates replied to this ban by appointing William stadholder, or chief magistrate, of Holland and Zeeland (July 24, 1581); and two days later the representatives of Holland, Zeeland, Gelderland, Utrecht, Flanders, and Brabant signed at the Hague an “Act of Abjuration” solemnly renouncing allegiance to the King of Spain. In a document as famous in Dutch history as Parliament’s Declaration of Rights (1689) in the history of England, they proclaimed that a ruler who treats his subjects as slaves and destroys their liberties should no longer be accounted their legitimate sovereign, and may lawfully be deposed.47 William’s own reply to the ban took the form of an Apologia written for him by his chaplain and sent to the States-General and to every European court. He welcomed the ban as a distinction. He charged Philip with incest, adultery, and the murder of his own wife and son. He expressed his readiness to resign his offices, to withdraw from the Netherlands, even to surrender his life, if he might thereby benefit his country. He signed the document with his motto, Je maintiendrai—”I will hold fast.”
Soon afterward (March 18, 1582) Philip reaped the first fruits of the ban. Jean Jaureguy, spurred on by the promised reward, armed himself with a pistol, begged God’s help, promised the Virgin a portion of his spoils, made his way to William of Orange at Antwerp, and shot him through the head. The bullet entered under the right ear, passed through the palate, and emerged through the left cheek. The assassin was caught and killed at once by William’s attendants, but the mission seemed accomplished; for weeks the Prince seemed near death. Farnese invited the rebel provinces, now that their obstinate leader was dead, to make their peace with their merciful King. But William slowly recovered under the devoted care of his wife Charlotte, who died of exhaustion and fever on May 5. In July two obscure conspirators laid a plan to poison both the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Anjou; the plot was detected and the criminals were arrested; one killed himself in jail, the other was sent to Paris, was tried and found guilty, and was torn to pieces by means of four horses.
During this year 1582 Anjou collected some French soldiers about him at Antwerp. Dissatisfied with his ducal title, he dreamed of making himself a king. Suddenly, on January 17, 1583, his followers, shouting “Long live the Mass!” attempted to seize control of the city. The people resisted them; nearly two thousand lives were lost in this “French Fury”; the uprising failed, Anjou fled, and William suffered further loss of popularity for having so long supported him. In March another attempt was made upon his life. Feeling unsafe in Antwerp, he moved his headquarters to Delft. The provinces of Groningen and Gelderland now made their peace with Parma. Only two of the “united” provinces still adhered to William, but these two, Holland and Zeeland, testified their loyalty by making the stadholdership hereditary in his family (December 1583). So were laid the foundations of the house of Orange, which in 1688 would half conquer, half inherit, England.
Assassins persisted. In April 1584 Hans Hanszoon of Flushing tried to blow up the Prince; he failed and was put to death. Balthasar Gérard, of Burgundy, burned with religious zeal and the thought of twenty-five thousand crowns.IV Going to the Duke of Parma, he offered to kill the Prince of Orange. Parma judged the youth of twenty unfit for such an enterprise, refused him the modest advance requested, but promised him the full reward if he succeeded.48 Gérard went to Delft, disguised himself as a poor and pious Calvinist, received an alms of twelve crowns from William, and poured three bullets into the Prince’s body (July 10, 1584). William cried, “My God, have pity on my soul…. Have pity on this poor people.” He died within a few minutes. Gérard was caught, was tried by the city magistrates, expressed joy over his success, and was put to extreme torture and death. William was buried at Delft with the highest honors as “Father of His Country.” Having sacrificed nearly all his belongings in promotion of the revolt, he left his twelve children almost penniless—a silent testimony of the nobility into which he had matured.
The full reward was paid to Gérard’s parents. The Catholics of the Netherlands rejoiced, calling the crime God’s vengeance for the desecration of churches and the murder of priests. They sent the assassin’s head to Cologne as a precious relic, and for half a century they labored to have him declared a saint.49