Of appeals and oranges,… and the birth of a nation

As in William of Orange.

Willem, Prins Van Oranje

Willem, Prins Van Oranje

At the time when the Low Countries were under Spanish rule, Willem, Prins Van Oranje (pronounce oran’-yeah) led the fight against the occupier, in the name of religious freedom.

Born in 1533 in Nassau, Willem was raised a Lutheran. When his cousin René de Châlon, Prince of Orange, left the eleven year old Willem all of his property - including the title Prince of Orange - the condition was that Willem receive a Roman Catholic education. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor was to serve as regent until Willem was old enough to rule. At 22, Willem became commander of the Emperor’s armies. The same year, 1555, the Emperor abdicated and his son, Philip II of Spain came to power.

Increasingly, Protestants in the Netherlands were persecuted under the inquisition policy carried out by representatives of the Spanish crown, acting in the name of the devout Catholic king. The persecution led to growing opposition to Spanish rule.

Church Interior with Iconoclasts, Hendrick van Steenwijck II

Church Interior with Iconoclasts, Hendrick van Steenwijck II

A large group of noblemen formed the Confederacy of Noblemen and on 5 April 1565, appealed to Margaret of Austria - Philip’s natural half sister and governor to the Low Countries - for the end to the persecution of the Protestants by presenting a petition. In 1566, the Beeldenstorm - an iconoclastic movement - destroyed statues and representations of saints in churches and monasteries all over the Netherlands.

Margaret of Austria agreed to grant the wishes presented in the petition but was not allowed to make good on her promises and Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, was sent from Spain to repress the rebellion.

Having been brought up both as a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic, Willem was a strong believer in religious freedom. He soon became the leader of an armed resistance to the Spanish repression.

In 1568, war started and many battles - including naval encounters - were fought and won by both sides, until 1581, when on 22 July, through the Act of Abjuration, independence from the Spanish Crown was declared, and a new nation was born, built on the ideal of freedom of religion.

This allowed the Duke of Anjou, brother to King Henry III of France to become the new sovereign. He arrived in February 1582, but quickly became quite unpopular. Dissatisfied with the limited power he was given, he left the country in 1583, and Willem remained the stadtholder.

Bullet impact, Prinsenhof, Delft

Bullet impact, Prinsenhof, Delft

In 1580, King Philip II of Spain had declared Willem an outlaw and promised a reward of 25,000 to anyone who would kill Willem. Balthasar Gerard, a French Catholic, determined in 1581 he would try. He finally succeeded on 10 July 1584, killing Willem with two bullets shot at close range. The bullets impact can still be seen in Delft, in the Prinsenhof, the St. Agatha convent which had become the Prince’s residence since 1573.

Willem’s private life reflects the reality of 16th Century Europe where alliances were built across borders, and the choice of a religion could become a question of life and death. Born a Lutheran in then Germany, he inherited a title from a French relative, on the condition that he would convert to Catholicism.  In the fight against Spain Willem had tried to enroll the support of the French Huguenots to protect territories in the Low Countries, but the Saint Bartholomew massacre of 24 August 1572 resulted in most of the French Huguenot leaders being killed. 

Willem married four times. His first wife, the wealthy Dutch Anna van Egmond en Buren, gave him the title of Lord of Egmond and Count of Buren and three children. Three years after her death, Willem married the equally wealthy Anna of Saxony, which allowed him to increase his influence in the Saxony and Palatinate territories. After having five children with Willem, Anna started a liaison with her lawyer, Jan Rubens (later to become Peter Paul Rubens’ father), and gave him a daughter. Willem annulled the marriage claiming Anna was insane.

Louise de Coligny, Willem van Oranje's fourth and last wife

Louise de Coligny, Willem van Oranje's fourth and last wife

He then married the French aristocrat Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier, grand-daughter to an illegitimate half-sister to French king Francis I. When she was only two week old, her mother placed her in a royal convent to be raised as a nun. When Charlotte reached 25, she escaped from the convent, converted to Calvinism, and took refuge in the Palatinate. Three years later, she was married to Willem to whom she gave six daughters.

A year after Charlotte’s death, Willem married for the last time in 1583 to Louise de Coligny. Louise was the daughter of the French Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who along with Louise’s first husband had been killed during the Saint Bartholomew massacre. Following Willem’s death, Louise raised their son, Frederick Henry and Willem and Charlotte’s six daughters.

Willem, Prins van Oranje

Willem, Prins van Oranje


Henri IV of France, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism to become the king of France, and whose wedding celebration to the French king’s sister was the occasion that brought about the Saint Bartholomew massacre, suffered a fate similar to Willem. He too was killed by a Catholic fanatic, Ravaillac.   

In the midst of a 16th Century that was deeply affected by religious turmoil, Willem explained his conflict with Philip II to the Council of State as follows ”I can not approve that monarchs desire to rule over the conscience of their subjects and take away from them their freedom of belief and religion.”

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