This edited article about the House of Orange originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 754 published on 26 June 1976.
It was 1542 and the proud army of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, camped in fury around the walls of St. Dizier, a tiny town which should have surrendered to its might many days before. The emperor had confidently invaded France but had been thwarted by the defiant spirit of St. Dizier’s garrison.
During a particularly heavy shower of missiles from the trebuchets on the walls, a knot of imperial officers crouched in a trench. They were joined there by one of the imperial commanders, Prince Rene de Nassau-Chalon. As they made room for him and offered him a seat, a great stone struck him upon the temple. He died three days later, bequeathing the lands which he ruled in southern France and the Low Countries to his cousin, William of Nassau, a mere child. Among these lands was the principality of Orange.
The child thus became the first of the line of Nassaus of Orange, a dynasty whose destiny it was to rule the Netherlands and Britain.
The young heir became known as William the Silent and was one of the most important figures in European history, loved by his subjects and respected by his enemies. He was a melancholy figure – not surprisingly, since in his childhood an astrologer had forecast that he would die young at the hand of the King of Spain. And so it was to be.
After struggling to keep his lands free from the Wars of Religion ahich ravaged Europe in the 16th century. William found himself the stadtholder (leader) of the Protestant Low Countries, or, as they were later called, the United Provinces, in their struggle against the overlordship of the Roman Catholic King of Spain. Often it seemed that the Spanish might must crush the ill-armed rebels but, aided by money from England and by a group of semi-pirates called the ‘sea-beggars’, the Dutch held the Spaniards at bay. Then, in 1584, when victory was in sight, an assassin was despatched from Spain and William was murdered at his house in Delft.
William the Silent was succeeded by his three sons who ruled consecutively for the next 63 years. The first, Philip William, began under a grave handicap, for he had been kidnapped as a child and raised as a Catholic in Spain. When he attempted to win toleration for his fellow-Catholics, he swiftly lost the favour of the Dutch but eventually he had his way. Spain, badly mauled by the United Provinces, made peace in 1609 and for a few years the Dutch could concentrate on trade and industry.
Philip William was succeeded by his brother, Maurice. When war broke out in Europe once more, it was he who revived the languishing Protestant cause. He was followed by the youngest brother, Frederick Henry, who continued the fight against Spain until his death in 1647. One year later, by the Treaty of Munster, the United Provinces were granted their independence.
But no sooner had the misery of foreign war ended, than trouble broke out within the newly-independent provinces. Each of the seven states had its own government, formed from hard-headed merchants who worshipped twin gods of liberty and prosperity.
“If it were necessary to sail through hell to make a profit,” said one typical burgher, “I’d risk burning my sails any time.”
When the new stadtholder – William II – started to tell the provinces how to manage their affairs, they turned against him.
The trouble his tactless behaviour had caused was made worse after his death by his widow and his mother who hated each other and squabbled continually.
Eventually the provinces found they could manage very well without a stadtholder and flourished under the guidance of wise burghers like John de Witt. Not only were they prosperous – this period saw a sudden upsurge of intellectual and artistic activity.
In the 1660s such tranquillity was overshadowed once more by war – not with Spain this time, but with France. For the French monarch Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, married the daughter of the King of Spain and claimed the Netherlands in her name. Louis invaded the provinces and quickly overran them. But the Dutch reacted swiftly, destroying their dykes and flooding their land.
Once more the Dutch needed a leader. The office of stadtholder was resurrected and William, now 22 and a fanatical Protestant, was given the powers of a dictator. Just as William the Silent had united the Dutch in his day, so his great-grandson, William III welded together Dutch resistance; and although the French held on to some of their conquests, when fighting was replaced by hard bargaining around a conference table the United Provinces retained their independence.
William was rewarded not only by the praise of his grateful subjects but in a more practical way as well. For it was as the champion of Protestantism in Europe that he was invited to come to England when his father-in-law James II flaunted his Catholic sympathies openly in the palace of Whitehall. William accepted and with the support of John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, accomplished the Bloodless Revolution. When he landed at Torbay, the House of Orange was at the peak of its fortune. Thereafter, it remained the ruling house of Holland, surviving the revolutions of the 19th century which separated Holland and Belgium and World War Two in the twentieth century which wrought as much havoc in the country in a few days as the might of Spain in a decade.
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