Throughout Philip’s reign there were three major revolts in the Netherlands, in 1568, 1572 and 1576. These represented the interests of various social, economic and ideological groups. There is much debate as to why the rebels revolted; it has been argued that it was in response to religious oppression, whilst a different interpretation suggests the economic crisis drove the rebels to protest. Although there has been much debate amongst historians, it would seem that the primary issue throughout Philip’s reign was that of liberty.
The people of the Netherlands were oppressed by the Spaniards centralisation of their political, religious, and economic freedoms. However, it must be taken into consideration that the rebellion was not consistent throughout the Netherlands; towns such as Gouda, Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Haarlem that had remained loyal during the first revolt were instrumental in the 1572 revolt. Conversely, the towns that were the most unruly during the first revolt remained loyal thereafter.
As the uprising varied from region to region, the motive behind each revolt was similarly independent from the other. However throughout Philip’s reign ‘liberty was [broadly speaking] the central issue1’, combining the diversity present in all three revolts. The challenge from the regional governments was in defence of the Grandees liberty; once able to make their own decisions regarding the governing of their country, Spanish rule deprived them of this freedom. As a result ‘a sort of united Netherlands was thus created’2 as the provinces joined together in their mutual contempt.
However, the challenge was not just on account of the deprivation of their liberties, but as a reaction to the turmoil the Spaniards were causing by exploiting their power. In this period liberty was very important, for the government was so unreliable that the only real protection the magistrates had against unruly exercises of power was their liberty. Maximilian Morillon writes that; ‘whoever touches the privileges cuts to the quick3′. This would seem to be a reliable account, as Morillion, confidante to Cardinal Granvelle4 would have seen firsthand the reaction to the oppression Granvelle dealt out.
Not only this, but an account of this nature could get Morillion into trouble as he could appear to be speaking negatively of both his employer and a and potentially dangerous man, and was therefore, unlikely to be an account made in vain. Limm illustrates this idea of a collective challenge to Philip’s rule on account of the rebels’ liberty. Using the example of the ‘Estates of Artois, Flanders, Hainaut and Brabant’ taking part in the tax strike against the Tenth Penny tax despite Alva threatening ‘to use troops to enforce collection’.
The nobles reaction to this is clear from a document that William of Orange wrote to the states of Holland later in 1572; ‘.. power and authority and prestige of the Estates may be restored to their former state. 6’. Although these ideas are only that of Orange, they would also have appealed to the interests of all the states attending the meeting. This therefore represents the mentality of all, demonstrating regions rose up against Philip and his representatives.
While the estates of Brabant remained fairly consistent in their rebellion throughout all three revolts, this was not the case in every instance. Hainaut and Flanders although rebellious for at least the first two revolts, both assisted Philip in the fight against the United Provinces in 15797. This demonstrates the unity created by the Spanish occupation among regional governments, which resulted in open rebellion in defence of their liberties. Philip’s attempt to centralise his empire further deprived the landed nobles of their liberty to govern their territory as they saw fit.
To make matters worse, by appointing two foreigners, Granvelle and subsequently Alva, Philip implemented what could only be described as unwise policies, exacerbating an already difficult situation. As not only did he have very little idea of what was going on, he was separated from the Netherlands by 1000 miles which meant that news reached him at second-hand and about two weeks late. Philip was therefore anxious to make the Netherlands easier to govern and administer. In 1568 he instructed Alva ‘to make all the states into one kingdom with Brussels its capital10.
This would involve ‘attacking local liberties and Alva’s attempt to do so met with immediate hostility. 11 This dissatisfaction is demonstrated by the people’s reaction to Alva, seen in a pamphlet William of Orange wrote to his supporters in 1572. One of the aims he outlined was; ‘that political matters be dealt with.. by the States which are chosen in every province and not be dispatched secretly by hired foreigners’12 This source is only partially credible however, as Orange developed a personal vendetta against Alva, who in 1566 had had him excommunicated, later confiscating his property and possessions.
Despite this potential personal attack, this must have struck a cord with the towns, as later in 1572 several cities in Holland and Zealand joined the rebel forces, going on to capture Brille in the same year. Darby concludes, that ‘throughout the vast territories of the monarchy Philip pursued a cautious policy of centralisation. ’13 This states both Philip’s desire to centralise and geographically, the extent to which we intended to do so. The anti-heresy legislation, and the Inquisitors that were instigated, are evidence of the oppressive rule exercised by Philip.
These on their own could have perhaps been tolerated, but being forced on the people, made it untenable for a population who by right should have been at liberty to govern themselves. It was the absence of liberty that caused uproar in 1568 from both the towns and ruling classes. Granvelle was the initial enforcer of these methods of social control from 1559, Bonney comments ‘had the heresy laws been enforced to the letter the government would have collapsed much earlier because of its unpopularity14’.
A demonstration of this defiance came in 1566 when Henry Bredrode petitioned Margaret of Palma on behalf of the nobles objecting to ‘his Majesty’s recent refusal to mitigate the edict in any way, and his strict orders to maintain the inquisition. 15’ This source is only partly representative of the situation at the time. The nobles may have exaggerated their case in order to spur Margaret into acting on their behalf, it was however, a clear stand against overbearing laws denying them their right to rule.
Coupled with the Segovia letters16 in which Philip writes: ‘as for the inquisition, it is my intention that it should be carried out’ and then went on to request that Margaret ‘do all that is necessary and not to agree to any different policy17. ‘ The situation Bredrode described therefore became tenable. These letters resulted in the formation of the Compromise of the Nobility, a group dedicated to defending their liberty, which formed the main opposition to Philip and his armies in both the second and third revolts.
The Netherlanders resented the imposition of Philip’s rule as a foreigner. This created both a ‘definite identification of the Low Countries as a unit distinct from foreigners18’ and the stirrings of revolt; as Granvelle remarked in 1561: ‘there will be trouble here sooner or later on some other pretext19. ‘ This was significant as he was addressing Philip’s Secretary of State, and so would have had no ulterior motive or reason to diverge from the truth and needed to give an accurate account of the current situation so he could be provided for by the State.
A similar account was given by the French ambassador during the same period, he described Margaret as ‘surrounded by Spanish minds which are hated here to death.. ‘ which is because ‘nothing here is said well or done considered unless it comes in Spanish and from a Spaniard20′ While this document would have been meant for the eyes of the French alone, the Habsburg21 and the French being rivals22, any ambasador would have been quick to speak negatively of the Spanish, possibly exaggerating their unpopularity.
The “trouble” Granvelle foresaw was apparent throughout the revolts: the States of the Provinces refused to release funds until Spanish garrisons were repatriated, for example. Later the Pacification of Ghent23 in 1577 and the Perpetual, promised to remove all foreigners from important posts24. These demonstrate the peoples’ frustration at having their governance removed and the lengths to which they were willing to go in their defence. Although religious belief among the people was genuine and could have been practiced privately; the towns rose up, openly challenged the authority figures in order to freely practice their faith.
Indeed, Lotherington25 attributes the revolt to ‘fear’ that ‘anti-heresy legislation was infringing local liberties’ joined with a ‘deep suspicion of the bishoprics scheme. 36’ In 1562, some towns protested against this new scheme so strongly that Philip had to suspend it; Antwerp in particular protested that the measures were contrary to the privileges of Brabant and so should be abolished26. Later the same year the pastor of Eeklo was woken ‘by heretics assembling in front of… [his] window and singing abusive songs about the sacraments and the clergy. 7’
Although this anti-papal display was minimal, when coupled with subsequent events, namely ‘hedge-preachers’ for example, Protestant preachers attracted huge crowds, turning to ‘iconoclastic flurry’ when these mobs destroyed the contents of religious buildings, demonstrating how the people were not content with being able to practice their belief privately, but campaigned for their freedom to do so without risk of persecution – this is often regarded as the start of the first revolt.
The town magistrates could have prevented this ‘heresy’, but they were no longer prepared to proceed against heretics, Parker observes that in doing this ‘they were merely reflecting public opinion28’. Philip himself recognises the refusal of the nobles to enforce religious restrictions: ‘without informers and denunciations, all the penalties which one decrees are superfluous and illusory because they are never put into effect. 29’ Although this was no first hand account, it is significant that Philip’s advisers thought to inform him of these events from their positions in the Dutch court.
The ‘Tenth Penny’30 was arguably the cause of the revolt in 1572, as it brought local people’s business to a standstill, and due to their restricted freedom of speech, they had no say in how the extra revenue was spent, further disempowering them. Parker agrees with this, saying ‘new troubles… motivated principally by the new government’s attempt to impose illegally a 10-per-cent Value Added Tax on all sales. 31’The people’s reaction to this is evidenced in the military banners used by the rebels, in 1572 the Sea Beggar’s banner, a picture of ten coins, symbolise their campaign.
2 This tax although ‘general’ mainly affected merchants and artisans, and as three-quarters of the Sea-Beggars were nobles, clearly this was an issue by which everyone felt cheated. 33. The same dissatisfaction is seen many years later in the writings of Jesuit34 historian, Juan de Mariana: the ‘King will be permitted when circumstances require to ask for new laws, and to interpret and lessen the severity of old ones; to make adequate provisions, if any eventuality is not covered by the law35.
This document was written in 1599, the year after Philip II’s death, and was written as a guide on Kingship for Philip III. It is therefore intended as constructive criticism, void of any sycophantism. There are a number of convincing debates that seek to explain the rebel’s motives for challenging Philip’s reign. After examining different aspects of the uprisings, the defence of the people’s liberty was, broadly speaking, a concurrent theme throughout. Regional government had had their governing authority undermined, restricting the rights of magistrates.
Philip’s attempt at centralisation also limited the people’s ability to influence the governing of their own country. The manner in which Philip and his representatives, as foreigners, ruled the people was oppressive, as was his way of tackling their religious expression. Tax increases, whilst adversely affecting the economy, served to unite the rebels in defence of their liberty to trade unhindered. The theme common to all aspects of the rebels’ motivation can be shown to be that of defending their liberties.