The biggest, bloodiest, most implacable of all the wars which have been raged since the beginning of the world. - Fernando Giron, Spanish Councillor of State, 1627

Nearly 400 years on from Giron's observation the Dutch Revolt is still one of the longest conflicts ever. Starting with a minor protest by the Dutch nobility in 1566 the revolt resulted in the division of the Netherlands between a Catholic south and Calvinist north. Apart from the Twelve Year Truce of 1609 there was continuous conflict between Spain and the rebels for 78 years. Not only was the Dutch Revolt a prolonged war but it was also an astonishing victory for the Dutch against the World's only Super Power. The Spanish had managed to subdue the Turks in the Mediterranean and had warred against all major European powers except the Holy Roman Empire yet they were unable to defeat the Dutch, as one Dutchman put it,

"In comparison with the King of Spain we were like a mouse against an elephant."

Before reading this I strongly recommend that you look over my write up in the Netherlands. It will help you to understand many of the underlying conflicts within the Netherlands and more importantly its system of Government.

Since this is such a major topic I have noded the key events of the Revolt separately rather than include them here. These events are in bold and provide more detailed information on the event and it's implications and origins.

The Origins of Revolt

Philip II came to power in the Netherlands in 1555 following the abdication of his father, Charles V. He immediately set about attempting to gain more control over the government of the Netherlands. Charles V had grown up in the Netherlands and considered it his home but Philip II was an unequivocal product of Spain, Castilian through and through. He attempted to increase taxes in the Netherlands in March of 1556 but the Estates General, the ruling council of the Netherlands, refused to grant them. In August 1558 the Estates General granted the taxes but only on their terms. Philip II then returned to Spain in April 1559 and appointed Margaret of Parma as Governor General.

Between 1559 and 1564 Philip is distracted by the threat of the Turks in the Mediterranean and so he is forced to a grant some concessions to the discontent Dutch nobility.

These relatively minor concessions were the result of careful timing by the Dutch. They ensured they pushed Philip only when he was distracted with problems elsewhere.

Philip played a vital role in the Catholic reformation and as part of this role had agreed with the Pope to reform the ecclesiastical structure of the Netherlands. The reforms faced opposition from a number of areas:

  • Abbots resented the loss of power that the proposed new bishoprics and abbacies would cause
  • Grandees (higher nobles) were worried about the effect of the new Bishops on their position, also they would no longer be able to buy younger sons a church position as new bishops would need a theology degree under the new system
  • Protestants in the Netherlands were worried about the suggested increase in the number of Spanish Inquisitors in the Netherlands. This also affected other elements of Dutch society as they resented Spanish interference
This proposed reform became associated with Margaret of Parma's leading adviser, Cardinal Granvelle, as he would become the most senior Archbishop in the Netherlands despite his personal opposition to the scheme. This association led to calls for his resignation in March 1563 by Orange, Egmont and Hornes, the three leading intransigent Dutch nobles. Later that year the state of Brabant refused to collect Philip's taxes and Philip was forced to recall Granvelle in Match 1564 and drop the Ecclesiastical Reform programme in July.

The Dutch were still not satisfied and in February 1565 Count Egmont travelled to Madrid to petition Philip for a relaxation in the strict heresy laws in the Netherlands. Philip kept him waiting for six weeks and his eventual reply was guarded. When Egmont returned to the Netherlands the Dutch nobles were able to successfully bully Margaret of Parma into granting the Protestants some level of toleration. However later that year in October having defeated the Turks Philip sent Margaret a series of letters from his residence at Segovia Woods insisting on the continuation of the strict heresy laws. The result of these letters was revolt.

The First Revolt, 1566--1567

The First Revolt was led not by the Grandees who had been protesting against the infringement of their privileges but by the middle and lower nobility. Henrik van Brederode, the Count of Culenborg and Louis of Nassau set up the League of Compromise in November 1565 claiming to want religious peace. On 5 April 1566 the League presented Margaret with the Compromise of the Nobility demanding end of the inquisition in the Netherlands and toleration of the anti-heresy laws. Margaret gave in and mass Calvinist hedge-preaching began in May 1566. The preachers stirred up the peasants who were discontent after the failure of the harvest and this culminated in the Iconoclastic Fury in August 1566.

Margaret wrote to Philip claiming that the Netherlands was in open revolt and that 200,000 armed Calvinist rebels were rampaging throughout the country. In reality the situation was resolved by September 1566. The Fury was a spontaneous outburst fuelled by the inflammatory preaching of the Calvinists rather than an organised attempt to seize power. The League then regrouped later in 1566 and attempted to seize power by force however the Grandees were not willing to allow these lesser nobles a chance at power and so they allied with Margaret to suppress them.

Alva and the Council of Blood, 1568-171

Philip's response upon receiving the alarming letters from Margaret of Parma was to send 10,000 troops and his best General, Duke of Alva, to the Netherlands. Alva arrived in August 1567 and expected to find a country in a chaotic Calvinist uprising. Upon finding a completely calm and peaceful one he decided that his instructions were right and the rebels were most likely all hiding and waiting to jump out on him and his army at any moment, he intended to "destroy the men of butter". To root out these intransigents he set up the Council of Troubles to examine cases of heresy. The council became know as the Council of Blood - it arrested over 12,000 suspects (there weren't even this many heretics in the Netherlands in total), confiscated the goods and property of 9000 and executed 1000. Among those executed were Count Egmont and Count Hornes. In the absence of William of Orange the Council confiscated his property and land and took his son captive. Alva also undermined Margaret of Parma's authority by refusing to consult her before making decisions and so she resigned only two months after his arrival and Philip II was forced to appoint Alva as Governor General, a post he had never intended for him.

William of Orange had already fled the country to his independant principality of Orange before Alva's arrival, fearing that he would take such actions. While he remained safe in exile Philip II informed Alva in 1568 that he now required Alva's work in the Netherlands to be self financing. Alva formed a proposal for three new taxes and presented it to the States General in March 1569. The States General granted the tax although only for two years. It was following the imposition of these taxes that William of Orange decided to launch an invasion of the Netherlands. Since his property had been confiscated and his son was held captive he had little option but to resort to rebellion to regain his status. The invasion was a disastrous failure, Orange had no support from the native population or foreign allies that he had hoped to receive and Alva's superior force drove him out with ease.

Alva issued an Ordinance of the Penal Law to standardise criminal law procedure, this was a practical and important step in a country that had over 200 different penal codes. However this minor success did not outweigh his errors. He had failed to take the loyal Dutch nobles into his confidence and had ignored their advice since his arrival, believing them to be part of the rebellion. He had billeted his troops in loyal towns but the towns were becoming less loyal by the day as the rowdy troops caused trouble in the towns. By 1573 Alva had brought civil war to a peaceful country and spent 12 million ducats in failing to stop it.

The Second Revolt, 1572-1575

While Alva had been sowing disaffection and rebellion in the Netherlands William of Orange had been busy assembling an alliance with which to facilitate another invasion of the Netherlands. As Orange prepared for a summer invasion in 1572 the Sea Beggars captured the port of Brill in April of that year. This time the people welcomed the invaders, five years of repression under a foreign tyrant had left them hating their Spanish masters. As they welcomed the Sea Beggars into Brill Count Louis of Nassau led a force into Hainault and captured Mons in May. In July Van Den Bergh led another force into Gelderland. Alva was unable to deal with these invaders as he was guarding the border with France as an Admiral Coligny had persuaded Charles IX to aid Orange's invasion of the Netherlands. A French army would have proved much more dangerous to Alva than any Dutch force so he remained guarding against this eventuality.

In August 1572 the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day took place in Paris. This heralded a sudden change of fortune for the Protestant faction in France and the invasion of the Netherlands was called off. Alva was free to deal with the Northern invasion and he drove Orange back North. However rather than flee the country as in 1568 Orange retreated to Holland and Zealand, the two remaining secure rebel strongholds, declaring he would "make his grave there". Alva followed him massacring the populations of Naarden and Harlem and Orange was forced onto the defensive in Holland and Zealand. Orange showed excellent skill in his defence of Holland and Zealand using the natural bogs, dykes and marshes of the Netherlands to his advantage. Orange managed to lift the sieges of both Alkmaar and Leiden by flooding the Spanish trenches and raising the surrounding water level to such an extent that the towns could be relieved by boat.

Alva's failure was costing Spain 3.5 million Florins a year and in November 1573 he was recalled and replaced by Don Luis de Requesens y Zuniga. For a year Requesens continued Alva's warring policy and in April 1574 he scored a rare and notable victory over the rebels at Mook. However Spain's bankruptcy in 1575 led to the Spanish troops mutinying and Requesens was forced to enter peace negotiations. The rebels at this point had no wish to separate themselves from Spanish jurisdiction so long as the King was willing to permit Protestant worship and to rule in a way which upheld the rights and privileges or the provinces. Philip II would never tolerate heresy thought and the talks were doomed to failure.

"I would rather lose all my lands and a hundred lives if I had them because I do not propose to be a ruler over heretics" - Philip II, 1566

Pacification of Ghent and the Realisation of Orange's Dream, 1576-1579

Requesens died in March 1576 and Philip appointed Don John of Austria as his successor. However Don John was unwilling to go and it eventually took him nine months to arrive in the Netherlands. During this time the Spanish forces in the Netherlands remained essentially leaderless and there was no figure of Spanish authority to remind the southern Catholic nobles of their true allegiance. In October the States General signed an armistice with Holland and Zealand (the rebels) and agreed to cooperate to drive out the mutinous Spanish troops. In the early days of November Spanish troops sacked the city of Antwerp in the Spanish Fury and their brutality and barbarism persuaded any remaining doubters that Spain was the enemy, not Orange. On 8 November 1576 the Pacification of Ghent was signed. This united the Netherlands again and realised Orange's dream of a tolerant and united Netherlands.

The Pacification did not last long however. Don John arrived shortly after it's signing in November but failed to win back the Catholic nobles. However Don John died in 1578 and his deputy, Allesandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, replaced him. This time there was no delay and Parma saw that he could regain support from the Dutch by promising the return of all their traditional rights and privileges. The tense alliance between the States General and the rebels crumbled under growing religious disagreement and the machinations of Parma. Parma won over most of the Southern states and he set the ground for the next twenty years of war in the Netherlands.

The Third Revolt, 1579-1609

Parma's Success and the Act of Abjuration, 1579-1584

Realising that the Pacification had failed the Northern rebel provinces began negotiating an alliance in December/January 1578/79. In response the Southern provinces signed the Union of Arras in January 1579. This was a coming together of all the Catholic provinces in the Netherlands in an organisation pledged to protect and preserve Catholicism in the Netherlands. The Union of Arras signed a treaty with Parma in May 1579 affirming their loyalty to Spain in return for the restoration of all their aristocratic and provincial privileges. The Northern rebels responded by signing the Union of Utrecht with the states involved pledging to "act as one in matters of war and peace" but to otherwise remain independent. This included the toleration of Calvinism in Holland and Zealand but the freedom of Catholics in other provinces. However the well organised Calvinist quickly and successfully persecuted the Catholics and managed to form Calvinist administrations in all of the provinces.

Parma proved successful immediately and drove the rebel forces back into Holland and Zealand again with a series of major victories:

These victories meant that the revolt in the South was over by 1584.

The rebels were now in disarray and against this background they began to move towards a more independence based ideology for their cause. The Calvinist tract Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos had, in 1579, justified resistance to tyrannical or unjust monarchs in a religious sense. At the same time the Union of Utrecht and the formal division of the Netherlands had led the rebels to seek a legitimate figure head for their cause. In July 1581 the States General (of the rebel states) agreed the Act of Abjuration. This formally rejected the authority of Philip II and his heirs. The Act is by not as revolutionary as it may seems as the States General never intended to confer sovereignty upon themselves but merely to pass it to a more worthy recipient. This new recipient was the Duke of Anjou and he arrived in the Netherlands in August with 17,000 troops having been invited to take this position earlier that year.

However Anjou proved not to be the righteous Protestant saviour they had hoped for but a Catholic man with his own interests very much in mind. He was immediately with his lack of control. the States General maintained basic control over the rebel states, and he attempted to put pressure on them to grant him greater influence. This failed and in January 1583 he attempted a military coup to seize power. He moved on Antwerp and other key towns in Flanders hoping to force the States General into altering their position. The rebels had none of it and quickly put an end to this French Fury. Anjou returned to France and died in 1584.

The biggest blow for the rebels came on 10 July 1584 William or Orange was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic named Balthasar Gérard. Orange had led the rebel cause since 1566 and his death was a huge blow leading the rebels leaderless, especially with their lack of a sovereign. For the next 6 years the rebels would blunder forwards leaderless and reliant on foreign aid for their survival.

Foreign Intervention, 1585-1596

With Parma seemingly unstoppable and William of Orange dead things looked bleak for the rebels. However on 20 August 1585 Elizabeth I and the rebels signed the Treaty of Nonsuch by which Elizabeth promised to provide the Dutch with 1,000 horse, 6,500 foot and 600,000 florins a year. This treaty provided a vital lifeline for the rebel cause. Parma's tidal advance was stopped and siege warfare resumed but the rebels were by no means in a strong or offensive position, they were back to determined defence. A side affect of the Treaty of Nonsuch was to arouse Philip's anger in the direction of the English. He ordered plans to be drawn up for an invasion of England which culminated three years later in The Spanish Armada. The distraction that the Armada provided was extremely useful for the rebels. Philip II diverted funds to assemble the Armada and more importantly Parma was forced to rebase his forces into the Southern Netherlands where they would eventually rendez vous with the Spanish fleet. This period of respite allowed the Dutch time for vital rebuilding and repair. The Treaty of Nonsuch and the Armada proved to be key for the survival of the revolt but Philip was to give the Dutch a chance not only at survival but at victory.

Philip II had been intervening in the French Wars of Religion to aide the beleaguered Catholics. In 1589 Henry IV had begun a siege of Paris and by summer 1590 it was clear that without Spanish involvement Paris would fall to the Protestants. Philip II ordered Parma to go to the aid of the Catholic League in France and lift the siege in Paris. Parma fiercely opposed the order pointing out that it would result in the loss of much of the ground he had gained through his victories, Philip though would have none of this and so Parma duly entered France and lifted the siege of Paris. The rebels took advantage of this absence and took Breda and then continued their campaign in 1591 by taking Deventer and Zutphen. In 1592 Parma was yet again ordered into France, this time to relieve the siege of Rouen. Having completed his task he returned safely only to then be killed at the siege of Arras by the rebels. The death of Parma marked the passing of Spain's last great hope for victory. As one of the most successful Generals in Europe (he had twice defeated Henry IV, himself an able commander, in some style) Parma's military skill had kept the rebels at bay. Without him the Spanish cause looked and was a great deal bleaker.

As a great Spanish leader died a great Dutch one arose. Maurice of Nassau, the second son of William of Orange, had inherited not only the Principality of Orange and the Stadholds of Holland, Zealand, Utrecht, Franche Compté and Brabant but also his father's ability for military strategy. In many ways he surpassed his father in this area proving to be a superior offensive general. He reformed the rebel army and by 1594 he had recaptured all the land that they could hope to lay claim to. Helped by division between Fuentes, Parma's successor, and Count of Mansfelt, Parma's deputy, he had undone all Parma's good work in just four years. The rebels now controlled over half of the Netherlands and had total command in the Baltic. They were able to blockade the trading rivers of the Spanish Netherlands (those territories still loyal to Spain) and over the next fifty years the United Provinces, as they were now known since the States General's assumption of sovereignty in 1590, would become one of the most prosperous trading powers in the world.

United Provinces Commercial Success and the Archdukes, 1596-1609

Johan van Oldenbarnevelt became advocate of Holland in 1586 and as the primary representative of by far the most powerful of the United Provinces he, in combination with Maurice of Saxony, politically dominated the United Provinces for the next thirty years. With the Spanish and Dutch Netherlands now essentially divided between the states of the Unions of Arras and Utrecht a military stalemate. Both sides were tired of war and the Spanish Netherlands in particular had been devastated by thirty years of conflict. Neither side was willing to take the risk of an assault and, with Philip's distractions eventually dying down, neither side could seize the initiative. It was against this more peaceful background that Oldenbarnevelt began to rebuild the United Provinces. His successful domestic policies would pay huge dividends in only a decade but meanwhile in the Spanish Netherlands a new man was in charge.

In 1596 Philip II appointed his nephew, Archduke Albert of Austria, as Governor General in the Netherlands. Upon Philip's death in 1598 Albert was granted full sovereignty and shortly after he married the daughter of Philip II, the Infanta Isabella. The sovereign of the Netherlands was no longer the king of Spain but the Archdukes, as Albert and Isabella were known, were still beholden to Philip III for troops and money so Spain still held a great deal of influence over Dutch policy. The Archdukes, however, had a much harder time in the rejuvenation of their lands that Oldenbarnevelt. The majority of the fighting had taken place there and they key town of Antwerp had been destroyed by a blockade of its river, the Scheldt, by the rebels since 1585. The population of Antwerp had fallen by a third and many other cities had lost large numbers of people who had emigrated to the United Provinces where their Calvinist beliefs were protected. This economic devastation forced the Spanish into peace negotiations in 1599 but they failed.

The failure of the 1599 talks was followed by a Dutch offensive in 1600 but this proved to be a disaster. Its failure sapped any remaining motivation for war. The military and political stalemate continued until 1605 when Spain made some gains again under a new General, Ambrosio Spinola. With these successes under his belt the Archduke Albert concluded a ceasefire with the Dutch in March 1607 in which he conditionally recognises Dutch sovereignty. There was a fierce backlash against this recognition in Spain but Spinola recognised the need for peace as his troops were mutinying and there was simply no other alternative. The Dutch commercial expansion, best embodied by the Dutch East India Company, formed in 1602, was seriously threatening Spanish trade so Spain decided to bargain Dutch political and religious independence for an end to Dutch commercial expansion. There was division amongst the Dutch over this proposal but in 1609 the Twelve Year Truce was signed. The recognition of the United Provinces as,

"Free lands, provinces and states against who they [the Spanish] will make no claim"
Peter Geyl has described the truce as
"an astonishing victory for the United Provinces"

The Twelve Year truce was not extended upon its expiration in 1621 due primarily to unreasonable Spanish demands for the new truce. The United Provinces were by then one of the most successful commercial entities in Europe and a strong nation, they would not accept the bully tactics of a declining Spain.


The Dutch Revolt did result in a victory for the United Provinces. They were free to practise their own religion and were no longer beholden to Spain in any way. However the revolt had never begun with the aim of splitting from Spain or of dividing the Netherlands. William of Orange strived for a united Netherlands even until his death in 1584. The excellent leadership of the Dutch cause under William of Orange, Maurice of Nassau and Oldenbarnevelt had proved vital in both keeping the revolt alive but also in consolidation of the United Provinces as a political entity. Equally important though were the distractions of Philip II. His huge empire and role as the defender of Catholicism pushed him into multiple commitments on numerous fronts and he was simply unable to devote sufficient attention to the Netherlands for prolonged periods of time. Spanish success in the Netherlands is strongly associated with the pressure on Spain from the Turks, French and English. In some ways the Netherlands became a battle ground for the Protestant/Catholic battle that raged throughout 16th and 17th century Europe.

The Key Events

The Writings

The Happenings

The People

Monarchs Dutch Leaders and Nobles Spanish Leaders and Nobles

The Historians