A fight for Protestantism or Privileges: The True Origin of the Dutch Revolt



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Miranda White

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A Fight for Protestantism or Privileges:

The True Origin of the Dutch Revolt

A Fight for Protestantism or Privileges: The True Origin of the Dutch Revolt

In the sixteenth century the Reformation gained many followers with the Low Countries, however, the area was ruled by the Catholic zealot and Habsburg prince, Philip II. While many see the Dutch Independence as an inevitable defense of their religious beliefs, this paper argues that more was at play. The paper begins by discussing the lowlands countries and its relationship with the Habsburg ruler Charles V. Transitioning over to the rule of Philip II, it explains how It Philip II’s reliance on the Netherlands to fund his wars created a shift in the relationship between the low country’s leaders and the Habsburg ruler. It then explains how reactions to Philip II’s Catholic initiatives and heresy trails was as rooted in concerns of money and power as much as religion. The lead up to the Eighty Years War, including the Iconoclastic Fury and the political propaganda are then discussed. They show how support for the Protestant cause was still often motivated by a concern for power. The Inquisition and the new taxation system are then shown to be means by which local power was taken away. The paper then concludes with a brief description of the war itself. The paper shows that while Protestantism may have been the rallying cause of the Dutch Revolt, local leader’s loss of privileges was the true source of the conflict.

In 1565 William of Orange wrote, “Tell the King, that whole cities are in open revolt against the prosecutions, and that it is impossible to enforce the decrees here. As for myself, I shall continue to hold by the Catholic faith; but I will never give any colour to the tyrannical claim of kings to dictate to the consciences of their people, and to prescribe the form of religion that they choose to impose.” (Israel, 223) It would take an Eighty Years War, but in 1648 the Protestant Netherlands officially became independent from the Catholic Spain. What appears as a clear cut example of a country that split over religious differences is actually a far more complicated event. Protestantism may have been the rallying cause of the Dutch Revolt but local leader’s loss of privileges was the true source of the conflict.

The area that became the Netherlands was not even considered its own separate entity before the war. Before 1557 maps of the area did not even have a standard nomenclature for cartographic expression of the region. (Israel, 10) The Duke of Burgundy had created the Burgundian Netherlands in 1433, a territory which included Belgium, Luxembourg, and part of France. His heir, Charles V, made this area independent of Germany and France and made it part of his new Spanish empire.

Charles V gave the 17 provinces of the low country a large degree of autonomy in conducting affairs, in part due to the considerable challenges of ruling a country from a great distance. The local leaders of the provinces cherished their autonomy and built their wealth and power around their privileges. And, although he did declare Protestantism a heresy, he did not give inquisitors the resources needed to widely enforce punishment for the crime. The Habsburg government was, “succeeding in uniting the Netherlands, expanding and refining the apparatus of central government, and containing, if not eliminating, Protestantism, without simultaneously provoking more opposition than it could cope with.” (Israel, 131) While there was no concern about the Netherlands becoming an independent nation, Charles V did characterize the low land population as "unappreciative and unruly people", a place of "divisions and factions, riots and uprisings." (Arnade, 11) Having been born in Ghent, Charles V did, however, have a largely congenial relationship with the local leaders.

But while tears were shed at his abdication ceremony for the provinces of the Low Countries, no such emotional attachment would be made to his son. (Arnade, 3) In 1555, beleaguered by old age and gout, Charles V handed over his title over the Low Countries provinces. Living in Spain, Philip II did not even speak the language of his subjects. And where Charles V had been relatively lenient, Phillip II was dictatorial.

Spain’s war with France had already begun to strain the relationship between the Habsburgs and the Lower Provinces. The war began in the 1540s at a time when Antwerp had become a hub of Europe’s trades. Antwerp was accumulating great wealth and its success stimulated industrial activity as well as the growth of an advanced money market. (Israel, 130) With their own resources stretched thin by war with France, the Spanish began to rely excessively on the Netherlands for resources. This created an “unhealthy financial, logistical, and strategic dependence of the Habsburg Crown on its Netherlands provinces.” (Israel, 130) It became clear to the populace that the Netherlands were being used as the chief resource for the pursuit of Habsburg goals which had nothing to do with them. The escalating fiscal pressure exacerbated deep-seated political resentments such as the Habsburgs having taken over the power to appoint rural magistrates. (Israel, 135) In the 1550s the war became larger and the demands for money, men, and supplies escalated with it. In 1556, Philip II’s first package of financial demands to the States General demanded “the unheard of sum of 3 million guilders to be raised through direct levies on assessed wealth.” (Israel, 136) The provinces flat out refused, leading to a gathering of the provincial leaders, the States General, where they spent the entire time airing their grievances. The States General ultimately gave over most of the money in the Novennial Aid of 1558 but only on their own terms. (Israel, 136) Philip won the war, gaining prestige but at the cost of having marred relations with the States General and having pushed the provinces to greater obstreperousness.

Phillip II felt that the Catholic Church was so imperiled that he told the Pope that without radical changes in the Church, ‘I cannot see how our religion can be maintained in these states.’ (Israel, 75) He believed the Catholic Church would be more successful with new ecclesiastical structure. In the entire region there were only five bishoprics, four of which were in the southernmost provinces . (Israel, 75) And even those bishops that existed often lacked interest in their responsibilities. Philip convinced the Pope to add fourteen new bishoprics in the provinces. He hoped that the placement of reliable, zealous Catholics in positions of power would engender more participation in the Catholic Church. The magnates, however, “viewed the new dioceses as a political and administrative device to erode their influence.” (Israel, 143) And even members of the clergy voiced opposition as “projected transfer of revenues and benefices threatened to upset established patronage systems.” (Israel, 143) Thus the vigorous organized campaign against the growth of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands was as much about power and money for its organizers, as it was about religion.

Leaving for Spain, Phillip II placed his inexperienced sister Margaret of Parma and the Duke of Alva in charge with Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle placed the head of the Council of magnates. This move further disaffected the lords and the, “split between the magnates and Granvelle which rapidly developed, after Philip’s departure, reflected the wider rift in Netherlands society between power structures and patronage systems.” (Israel, 139)

A fanatical Catholic, he instituted a much more aggressive crack down on Protestantism. The reformation in the Low Countries was distinctive from that Germany, Switzerland, Britian, and Scandinavia in that “it worked from the bottom upwards instead of from government circles downwards.” (Israel, 75) The Reformation had begun as early as 1519 in parts of the Low Lands. Increasing arrests and executions of Protestants provoked demonstrations and riots building up into the Iconoclastic Fury in 1566. The rioters targeted Catholic churches destroying sculptures, art, and liturgical material of forty-two churches in Antwerp alone. (Israel, 155) Although the beneficiary of their wrath were religious objects, there is debate among historians over whether the factors that provoked the rioters during the iconoclasm were actually religious or economic. Several historians believe that it was more the unleashing of the frustrations of an overtaxed populous then an expression of Protestant zealotry.

The dissent that spread with the Iconoclastic fury also led to the spread of political propaganda. Many political treatises were written which question the limits of obedience and the legitimacy of political resistance. Works by such men as Philip Marnix and Jacob van Wesmbeeke put forth the idea that the king had violated the privileges and freedom of the provinces. It was from these works that the rebel ideology that the violation of their privileges was justification to turn to armed resistance. (Gelderen, xiii) Jacob van Wesembecke and others also emphasized the intrinsic connection between the liberty and the prosperity of the Netherlands.(Gelderen, xiii)

The magnates sought to “gain control of events” by seeking a compromise with Margaret of Parma in which they would support her in restoring order if she would allow Protestants to continue worshipping in places where it had already taken root. (Israel, 152) With the assistance of these magnates and government troops, Margaret of Parma drove Protestantism underground and subdued the Netherland’s back into obedience . However, Phillip II and the Duke of Alva were not satisfied and sought to eradicate all subversion through more draconian measures.

Philip II and the Duke of Alva established Council of Troubles, now popularly known as the Council of Blood, in each province to punish heretics. It issued 1,071 death sentences and banished 11,13 persons confiscating their property. (Blom, 133) Philip saw this intimidation as simply a means to an end, believing that through reviving the Catholic Church he would win back the hearts and minds of the Dutch. (Israel, 165) His repression was not only unpopular amongst the growing number of Protestants. There was also a “large ‘centre group’ of people who, though themselves not Protestant, despised harsh persecution for legal, political, and humanitarian reasons.” (Gelderen, xi) Inquisitors were seen by townspeople as threats to their autonomy and privileges. Gelderen also points out that, “The towns also had economic reasons for opposing the inquisition, as its actions threatened commercial relations with unorthodox foreign merchants.” (vii.)

As Israel reveals, the drive to root out heresy was also used to strengthen central governments administrative and judicial grip over the provinces and towns. (Israel, 141) The Council of Troubles was used to suppress sedition as well as heresy. Thus, the magnate’s opposition to it was not only out of a desire for religious compromise but a stance against Habsburg power. Many of the men who would lead the rebellion, including William of Orange, first sought religious compromise from Philip “of which the magnates, led by himself, would be the arbiters and political beneficiaries.” (Israel, 141)

In 167, Alba also developed a new system of taxation that “gave government functionaries permanent and automatic sources of revenue; it even gave the population an even distribution of the tax burden.” (Blom, 133) However this reorganization effectively eliminated the States General’s say over tax policy and thus a major amount of their influence on government. Opposition led to the delay and ultimate repeal of the tax in 1572. (Blom, 134) As Blom states, “the hard-line posture of Alba’s government had helped to ensure that the population violently opposed its tax system, even though it had never been implemented.” (Blom, 134)

After Margaret of Parma reneged on concessions made after the Iconoclastic Fury, a synod in Antwerp made the formal decision to defend Protestantism with military means. Here twenty-six city councils declared their support for the revolt and thereby, “provided the nucleus of political and financial authority that was necessary to sustain the resistance to Spanish rule.” (Blom, 134)

In 1568 the seventeen provinces declared war against Spain, and the Eighty Years War began. As a consequence of the Dutch revolt the northern provinces, whose in-fighting had so annoyed Charles V, were driven into cooperation by Philip II. In 1579 the seven northern provinces of Utrecht, Holland, Zeeland, Gueiderland, Overijssel, Friesland, and Groninjen united into a confederation in common defense. And after the partial truce of 1609 they were free to develop into an independent nation. And the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought the Dutch Republic formal recognition and independence from the Spanish crown.

The people of the low countries had been subjected to foreign rule for centuries but had never before had so much wealth. As Gelderen points out Philip “virtually started his reign by proposing a series of new taxes.” (x) The wealth brought on by maritime trade gave the Dutch a sense of power and led to bitter frustrations of local leaders that felt there privileges were being usurped by Philip II despite their economic contributions to his empire. From the beginning, there was no real common bond to keep the Dutch people in an empire with Phillip II. A fact which was only became more apparent with his using of Netherland’s wealth to fund his pursuit of a hegemonic Europe. Phillip’s scorn of long-held customs and laws, such as the Great Privilege of 1477, led to deep-seeded resentment of his arbitrary rulings. Dissatisfied with their diminished role as leaders, the Dutch noblemen took up the Protestant cause, as much in defense of their brethren’s religious freedom as their own privileges. What is often cut off from the quote that began this essay is just as important as its beginning, “Call the King’s attention to the corruption that has crept into the administration of justice. Let the Government be reformed, the Privy Council and the Council of Finance, and increase the authority of the Council of State.” (Israel, 223)

Arnade, Peter. Beggars, Iconoclasts, and Civic Patriot : the Political Culture of the Dutch Revolt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Print.

Blom, J.C.H and E. Lamberts. History of the Low Countries. New York: Berghahn Books. 1999. Print.

Blom, J.C.H and E. Lamberts. History of the Low Countries. New York: Berghahn Books. 1999. Print.

Gelderen, Martin Van. Dutch Revolt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1993. Print.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. New York: Cornell University Press.1977. Print.

Houbraken, Arnold. Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art 1580-1620. Amsterdam : Rijksmuseum, 1993.

Israel, Jonathan. The Dutch Republic: its Rise, Greatness, and Fall. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995. Print.


Jongh, E. de. Questions of Meaning : Theme and Motif in Dutch Seventeenth-Century Painting. Leiden: Primavera Press. 2000. Print.

Ogg, David. Europe in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Collier Books. 1960. Print.

Rosenberg, Jakob and Seymour Slive, E.H.ter Kuile. Dutch Art and Architecture 1600-1800. New York: Penguin Books. 1966. Print.



Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Vintage Books. 1997. Print.

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