1902 Encyclopedia > William the Silent

William the Silent
Prince of of Orange and count of Nassau
(1533-84)




WILLIAM (1533-1584), surnamed the SILENT, prince of Orange, count of Nassau, was born at the castle of Dillenburg in Nassau on 16th April 1533. He was the eldest son of William of Nassau (died 1559) and his second wife, Juliana of Stolberg, a woman of remarkable piety and discretion, who devoted much thought and care to the training of her children. In 1544 he inherited from his cousin René or Renatus the principality of Orange and the great estates belonging to his family in the Netherlands (see HOLLAND, vol. xii. p. 74 sq.). He was educated at the court of Brussels in the Roman Catholic faith. Having attracted the attention of Charles V., he was invested by the emperor at the age of twenty-two with the command of the army on the French frontier ; and it was on his shoulder that Charles V. leaned when in 1555, in the presence of a great assembly at Brussels, he transferred to his son Philip the sovereignty of the Netherlands. Orange was also selected to carry the insignia of the empire to Ferdinand, king of the Romans, when Charles resigned the imperial crown. He took part in Philip II.'s first war with France, and negotiated the preliminary arrangements for the treaty of Cateau-Cambresis (1559). He was one of the hostages sent to France for the due execution of the treaty, and during his stay in that country Henry II., who entirely misunderstood his character, revealed to him a plan for the massacre of all Protestants in France and the Netherlands. The prince was horrified by this disclosure, but said nothing; and it was on account of his extraordinary discretion on this occasion that he received the surname of "the Silent." The epithet is apt to convey a mistaken impression as to his general character. He was of a frank, open, and generous nature, without a touch of moroseness in the ordinary intercourse of life.

The persecution of the Protestants in the Netherlands, carried on with such reckless ferocity by Cardinal Granvella, led Orange, Egmont, and Horn, the most prominent of the great nobles, to protest against the violence of the Government; and in 1563 they wrote to Philip urging him to withdraw Granvella, and ceased to attend the state council. In the following year Granvella was displaced, whereupon they resumed their seats at the council; yet shortly afterwards it was decided by Philip that the canons of the Council of Trent, the edicts, and the Inquisition should be immediately promulgated in every town and village of the provinces, and that the process should be repeated every six months. At the meeting of the state council at which this was formally decided Orange disclaimed any responsibility for the consequences, and he whispered to his neighbour that now the most extraordinary tragedy the' world had ever seen was about to begin. The proceedings of the Gueux or reforming party so alarmed the regent, Margaret of Parma, that she was persuaded to sign an accord, declaring the abolition of the Inquisition and granting liberty of worship in all places where the new forms of religion had been already accepted. In consequence of these concessions the great nobles undertook to restore order, the prince of Orange especially distinguishing himself at Antwerp. But Philip, who had been longing for an excuse to crush the independent spirits of the Netherlanders, now resolved to send the duke of Alva into the country, with a Spanish force. Orange, since he could not count upon the hearty support of Egmont or Horn, had no alternative but to resign his offices and withdraw from the Netherlands (1567), taking lip his residence at Dillenburg. He was warmly attached to Egmont, and before his departure, at an interview at Willebroeck, urged him to seek refuge in some foreign land; but Egmont was not to be persuaded, and the two friends parted never to see one another again.





Orange was repeatedly summoned to Brussels; but he declined to appear before the Council of Disturbances, on the ground that it had no jurisdiction over an independent prince and a knight of the order of the Fleece. The havoc wrought by Alva filled him with grief and anger; and in 1568 he contrived to collect two forces, one of which, commanded by his brothers Louis and Adolphus, gained a victory in Groningen, where Adolphus fell. Alva, having ordered the execution of Egmont and Horn, advanced against Louis and defeated him in East Friesland. Orange then invaded Brabant, but could neither bring Alva to a decisive engagement nor induce the people to rise against him. The army had therefore to be disbanded, and its disappointed leader joined Wolfgang of Zweibriicken in an attempt to aid the Huguenots. Acting on the advice of Coligny, Orange issued letters of mark to seamen against the Spaniards ; and for years the " sea beggars" harassed the enemy along the coast, and often did no little harm to their own countrymen. In 1572 the revolt against Spain was so far successful that Orange resumed the functions of stadtholder of Holland and Zealand, a position to which he had been appointed in£ 1559 ; but he professed to rule in the name of the king,i for as yet the people had no wish to throw off their, allegiance to the Spanish crown. Orange had won their confidence not only by acting as their champion but by accepting the Protestant faith. He had never been an enthusiastic Catholic, and as a Protestant he was distinguished among the eminent men of his time by his mastery of the true principles of toleration. Meanwhile he had been using the utmost diligence in bringing together an army, and his brother Louis, by a brilliant stroke, had captured the city of Mons. On 15th July 1572 the estates of Holland met at Dort, and, recognizing Orange as the legal stadtholder of Holland, Zealand, Friesland, and Utrecht, voted the sums necessary for the prosecution of the war. In August he crossed the Meuse at the head of an army, trusting mainly to the promised co-operation of France. All his hopes, however, were shattered by the massacre of St Bartholomew. He was obliged to disband his troops, and Mons was retaken by the Spaniards. On 14th April 1574, at the village of Mook, near Nimeguen, the patriots were again routed, and Orange's brothers, Louis and Henry, slain. But many fortified places held out, and on 3d October Orange, who had ordered the country to be inundated, was able to relieve Leyden, which had for months been defended with splendid bravery and self-sacrifice. At length the brutality and despotism of the Spaniards were so fiercely and generally resented that Orange was able to enter upon a series of negotiations, which resulted on 8th November 1576 in the pacification of Ghent, signed on behalf of nearly all the provinces. By this treaty the provinces bound themselves to drive the Spaniards from the Netherlands, to convoke the states-general, and to establish freedom of worship both for Roman Catholics and for Protestants.

Don John of Austria, Spanish regent of the Netherlands (1576-78), granted all the demands of the states; but Orange was suspicious of the intentions of the Government, and in no way relaxed his vigilance. Troubles soon broke out, and Orange was called to Brussels to the aid of the states, being elected ruivaard (governor) of Brabant. When the archduke Matthias (afterwards emperor) was invited by the Catholic nobles to accept the position of governor-general, Orange prudently refrained from resisting the scheme; and he acted with equal discretion in regard to the duke of Alencon, who came nominally as the protector of the liberties of the Netherlands. Orange, however, retained in his own hands complete control over the movement in the seven northern provinces, which by the Union of LTtrecht, signed on behalf of five of the provinces on 23d January 1579, laid the foundations of the commonwealth of the United Netherlands. Orange's relation to the new federal republic was somewhat vaguely defined; but in his lifetime it was not felt that there was any very urgent need for an exact delimitation of the relative functions of the executive and the legislative authorities. Negotiations for the conclusion of peace with Spain were carried on for some time in vain; and in 1580 Philip issued a ban against the prince, and set a I price of 25,000 gold crowns upon his head. Orange published a vigorous "apology," and on 26th July 1581 the estates of the United Provinces formally renounced their allegiance to the Spanish crown. An unsuccessful attempt on the life of Orange was made in 1582. But on 10th July 1584 he was shot dead in his house at Delft by Balthazar Gerard, who seems to have been actuated in part by fanaticism, in part by the hope of gain.

William of Orange was tall and well-formed, of a dark complexion, with brown hair and eyes. He was a man of a singularly upright and noble character. He has been charged with excessive ambition ; but his ruling motive was undoubtedly a love of justice, for the sake of which he often risked his life and willingly sacrificed his wealth and leisure. He was a born statesman, capable of forming wise and far-reaching plans, and of modifying them to suit the changing circumstances in which it was necessary to execute them. In moments of difficulty he displayed splendid resource and courage, and he had a will of iron, which misfortunes were never able either to bend or to break. To him chiefly belongs the honour of having permanently crippled the tyrannical power of Spain, and of having founded the independence and greatness of the United Provinces.

He was married four times. His wives were (1) Anne of Egmont (died 1558), by whom he had a daughter and a son, Philip William, who was seized by Alva in 1567 and sent to the court at Madrid, where he was educated ; (2) Anne of Saxony (divorced in 1575, died in 1577), the mother of several daughters and of Maurice of Orange (see HOLLAND, vol. xii. p. 77) ; (3) Charlotte of Bourbon (died 1582), who had six daughters ; (4) Louisa, Coligny's daughter, the mother of Frederick Henry of Orange (loc. cit., p. 79), who represented the family after the death of his two elder brothers, and succeeded Maurice as stadtholder.

See Schiller, Geschichte des Abfalls der Vereinigten Niederlande ; Klose, Wilhelm I. von Oranien; Gachard, Correspondance de Guillaume le Taciturne and Correspondance de Philippe II sur les Affaires des Pays-Bas ; Groen van Prinsterer, Archives ou Correspondance Inédite de la Maison d'Orange-Nassau; Juste, Guillaume le Taciturne d'après sa Correspondance et les Papiers d'État ; Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic. (J. SI.)







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