Episode 14: Dutch Independence – When Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object

Hanging with History episode 14  Dutch Independence

When Irresistible Force meets Immovable Object.

You are a resident of the richest country in Europe.  BY definition, things are going rather well, at least from a certain point of view.  You can assert your government is incompetent, and doubtless, that’s true,  monkey social hobbits, aristocrats, always are.  But worse than any other?  Weak argument.

So why rebel?  Why rebel against a really powerful ruler who really dislikes rebellions and can’t have people seceding whenever they want, like Olav Tryggvason can’t have slaves cutting off the head of nobles, even when those nobles are enemies.

Well, there were good reasons to rebel.  One was the nature of the ruler.

The Hapsburgs.  I know some of you love the Hapsburgs, and have some good stories to tell about why the Hapsburgs were great, particularly for the Balkans, protecting minority rights and keeping peace.  Fighting off and ultimately saving Europe from the Ottomans.  Well, we are talking the 16th century here.  Charles V followed by Phillip the II of Spain.  This is a super powerful realm.  Spain and the Spanish colonies in the new world with all their gold and silver, the Philippines, bits in Africa, enclaves in modern Algeria and Tunisia.  Sardinia, the southern half of Italy, Sicily, Alsace, the duchy of Milan and more.  Austria and its many territories were close dynastic allies.  Phillip II actually married Mary Tudor, bloody Mary Queen of England.  Say it 3 times in the mirror.  Or don’t, that will be the subject of another episode.

And so what’s the problem?  The problem is war.  War in France, war in Italy, war in North Africa, war with the Ottoman empire.  Where was there not war?, And Philip was paying.   And war was getting more expensive with cannons and gunpowder fortifications that could resist cannons.

The Spanish were good at war.  The best at the dawn of the 16th century.  The Spanish Tercio,  a combined arms force of musketeers, pikemen and swordsmen were able to defeat any European army, including the famed Swiss phalanx.  They came out of the Reconquista against the moors with the best, most effective warrior culture anywhere.  The conquistadors accomplished prodigies against the Aztecs and Incas.  They defeated the Ottoman navy at Lepanto, with assistance from the Venetians and even the Pope.  These western victories over the Ottomans, Lepanto in 1571 and at Vienna in 1683 for the final time after a near run in 1529.  Not sure how miserable history would have been with triumphant Ottomans.

The Spanish defeated the French over and over, who they could attack from Italy, from the Low countries and from the south.  But the problem with fighting someone over and over is that they learn all your art of war as  Napoleon would later say.  The French got to be pretty good too.  Then for a while the French were the best.

There is a lot you could say about wars, international wars spanning a continent and the high seas.  But one thing about them is they are expensive.  Very expensive.   And if you have enough big ones going on at once the expense be large relative even to a large economy, even relative to the largest economy.  And there weren’t enough Spanish tercios for everything so mostly expensive mercenaries were hired.  And the dutch were asked to pay for these wars.  Just to pay their fair share, right?  But the Dutch didn’t see it as a fair share.  And the dutch saw the wars as pointless, stupid wars which were against their best trading partners.  Remember last episode when French ports were said to be more dutch than French? The wars encouraged French pirates to prey on their trade and their herring fleets.  French pirates based in Dunkerque got rich this way.

When you are a great trading nation, like the dutch, peace is a better deal, and the Dutch knew it.

War and taxation.  That’s two good reasons.

Then there are traditional rights and privileges being taken away.  Charles V and his son Phillip II rule large empires with all kinds of local councils, local ways of doing things, local traditions and they were pretty sick of it and tried to rationalize the whole thing to make it work better.  Ha Ha smart people rationalizing inefficient ways people are used to, have adapted to, that never goes wrong.   No, go read Seeing like a state for many other examples of that going wrong.  Stupidity smart people commit.  So they tended to appoint sub rulers in places that would be directly accountable to them.  This got people angry, powerful people got angry over what they did in Utrecht, in most of the provinces the local elites were replaced in the legal system by professional jurists.  Part of the tradition involved tolerance.  And use the word tolerance more meaningfully than most do today where it tends to be empty corporate speak or political nonsense.  A trading culture tends to be one of great tolerance, you are exposed to a lot of people who do things in different ways, have different beliefs, all of which needs to be tolerated if you are going to get on with making money together, making money is something that requires voluntary cooperation.  Making money together requires voluntary cooperation.  The Catholic response to the rapid growth of Protestantism, the Counter-Reformation, was in the 1550s to put an end to tolerance.  To drive a sword through it.  To introduce the Inquisition. 

All that repression was illegal.  Or it would have been.  To make it legal the king said it was legal and gave power to his own ecclesiastical representatives and funded the whole thing by taking what would normally have been revenues that supported the local church.  It was still unjust and everyone felt that way even people loyal to the Hapsburgs.

Even though the Low countries were majority catholic in the 1550s, they didn’t like the Inquisition either.  The burnings, the trials, the executions of their neighbors.  They didn’t like it and what’s more it was bad for business.

Then there is religion, ideology and patriotism.

Protestantism was spreading everywhere.  It took hold all over France.  You know about northern Germany, but did you know Half the middle class in Austria were protestants.  The best educated, independent minded people, mainly in the cities.  And damn it we need these people.  A bit like the way Christianity spread in ancient Rome, like the way it spread in Moslem Spain…. 

The answer.  Repression.  Arrests, burning down churches, killing preachers….worked.  Kind of.  The Catholic powers felt under attack and they fought back, they kept their nerve, stayed confident and they generally won.  Naturally, this policy had to be followed in all the Hapsburg domains including the low countries.  Damned heretics.  Burn them all.  God will sort it out later.   On a per capita basis this was one of the worst repressions in Europe.

And to be fair the protestants were annoying and infuriating.  Some of them were iconoclasts, the type that would break religious paintings, carvings and statues.  Their numbers were small, but local authorities were afraid to crack down, maybe many sympathized secretly.  If you ever get into medieval philosophy, well, the damn protestants had the better arguments.  That would really piss you off.  The situation was tense, it was out of hand, the nobles, both pro and anti petitioned Phillip.  But the local authorities got things under control again and everything was cool, the worst of the iconoclasts were defeated, the cities were peaceful.  But Stupidity Smart People Commit is never far from our story is it?

Phillip sent in an army, under a spanish nobleman usually called the Duke of Alba, but whose full list of titles could fill a page.  He showed up in Brussels with 10,000 mercenaries and cracked down hard.   Why did he do it when the locals had already pacified things?  Cuz pre Miracle news travelled slow and the orders were issued, mercenaries marching, and even post miracle governments can overreact, as we’ve seen, Catholics were reacting harshly all over Europe, and it was working, so why not here too.  Alba set up a Council of Troubles, aptly named as it turned out.

He set up a court, I forget the actual name right now, but the dutch called it the Court of Blood.  Over a 1,000 people were executed including some of Phillip’s catholic supporters.  Why would he do this?  Why kill catholic supporters of the Hapsburgs?  Well, the local Catholic nobles were not repressing protestants fervently enough.   So die then.   Sounds crazy but it happened and happened very pubilcally right out in the open.  About 10,000 were able to avoid execution by fleeing the country, some over the border to Germany, but many to England where they were received sympathetically by many, but officially it was complicated.

And it’s a funny thing.  Sometimes this kind of super high handed, kill everyone type of repression works.  Just think of Stalin.  Think of Stalin and let your spirit soar- you know that used to be a real thing?  But sometimes it backfires and thank goodness or where would we be today if rulers were not at least somewhat afraid of their subjects.

In this case many merchants, their ship captains and crews, many were Calvinists, forced to flee they were reduced to poverty.  Becoming pirates.  What else could they do?  Convicted criminals at home because of their beliefs, but they had this great capital asset, and ocean going ship, so put that to work for you.  Like an Uber driver, just with more blood.

Here is where the Dutch revolt starts.  Sometimes this is called the 80 years war.   It lasts a long time.   It starts with William of Orange, known as William the Silent.  Which immediately endears him to me, a long time fan of Silent Cal.  We should seek to place more introverts in leadership, he said, talking his own book.   Seriously though after a long business career I can say that many of the most effective leaders are introverts.

William the Silent started out as a Catholic.  As ruler of Orange he was a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire so in a technical sense he was Phillip’s equal, even though Orange is barely a speck on the map.  In 1568 he made war on Phillip II, and had every right to in international eyes.  Actually, he wasn’t that bold, he made war on Phillip’s bad advisor the Duke of Alba.  He issued letters of Marque to those destitute ship captains we mentioned.  And so the pirates were now privateers and could legitimately seek port in places like England, all above board.  And like the way the Vikings used Normandy as a base against England, the Dutch could wage war at sea against Spanish shipping even when the Spanish army was occupying the whole country.   This was pretty great.  The pirates, er privateers could take Spanish ships as prizes and sell them in England, usually at low prices so it was a great arrangement for everyone.  And the English learned.

There was a lot of Spanish shipping and sometimes they carried rich cargo.

The rebellion didn’t go very well for the Dutch initially, except at sea.  English privateers started to join in on attacks on Spanish shipping from Europe to the Caribbean.  On land Silent William’s first invasion from Germany petered out as he ran out of money.  Money, money and war, it keeps coming up.  A French Huguenot invasion was beaten by Alba.  But Spain was fighting on many fronts.  Lepanto was in 1571.  France was actively anti-Spanish.  Now Alba was winning, but also desperate for money.  He tried to put in a 10th penny tax on all transactions.  Imagine that, buy or sell anything except land and he would tax 10% of the top.  The local tax authorities refused to collect.  There was negotiation, a compromise was reached.  And Alba ignored it and started collecting the tax anyway.  This was massively unpopular and support for the revolt started to grow.  Btw, we don’t think he raised much from this tax in the end, taxes people don’t want to pay, don’t get paid.

Spain put major pressure on England to stop supporting the Dutch, and remember Spain is number 1 great power, and so Elizabeth expelled the Dutch privateers, known proudly as the Sea Beggars.  Meanwhile Alba concentrated in the south against France.  The Sea Beggars found an almost undefended port town and captured it.  The rebellion flared up all over the north after this.  Except for Amsterdam most of the north declared for William and the rebellion as quick as they could.  William moved back in from Germany.  Under the pressure of war the extremists, the Calvinists, gained influence, though they were still a minority, but extremists tend to rise to the top when things are unsettled.   William converted to Calvinism in 1573.

At this point I should probably say something about how annoying the Calvinists were to Catholics.  They were not shy about expressing the superiority of their views, how advanced they were, how well educated, how backwards and superstitious the Catholics were.  You might see parallels with today, but I won’t go there.  Anyway the southerners were annoyed enough with the Calvinists to break away and say they wanted to remain loyal. 

But now Spanish financial troubles kicked in.  They went bankrupt and didn’t have bullion to pay their mercenary army in flanders.  The mercenaries wouldn’t take a check, they wanted to be paid in gold or silver.  The troops mutinied, understandably.   There was an incident, a murderous incident called the Spanish Fury where mutinous troops sacked Antwerp, if you are going to sack a town for money you might as well sack the richest.  This was a disaster.  The protestants in Flanders fled North.  The population of Antwerp fell from about 100,000 to 40,000 and the rebellion was driven by fresh energy.  Refugees appeared in England, bringing skills that boosted the English economy, but in the short term causing sympathy for the Dutch to increase so that Elizabeth was pressured to help, although she wisely shied away from war with Spain as long as she could.

The dutch formed a Republic made up of the northern provinces which were becoming more protestant, as anti-Spanish feeling began to elide into anti-Catholic feeling.  People take sides and it can change their beliefs.   Most beliefs we hold are pretty surface level.   We signal our virtue and are usually satisfied beliefs change easily when emotions change.    They formed a republic, which is key, but interestingly at  first they tried to get a king.  They brought over the brother of the King of France, that could be a good king for us, but he was a disaster, they tried to get Elizabeth as a queen ,but she refused.  So, they set up a republic as sort of an alliance of cities and regions of the northern provinces.  And they got lucky and they took advantage of their opportunities.  And they had this core of single minded fanatical Calvinists who were not going to give up.

I mentioned luck.  France was embroiled in their own Religious wars.  The Huguenots were a distraction for Alba and later the struggle between the Protestants, the French State and the Catholic league of France absorbed Philip;s spare cash as he heavily bankrolled the Catholic league.  The crisis in France was just more consequential and dramatic than the Netherlands and the Dutch revolt, or so they all believed at the time.

Spain sent Alba some more money and an another army to take command in the Netherlands.  He decided to besiege Leiden.  This is that a=same siege that inspired all the great paintings.   At first the dutch tried to break the siege, but were beaten off.  The Calvinists made the hard choice to open the dykes and flood the area, driving off the Spanish that way.  The rebels won a major victory in 1574 and their prestige soared.  And Spain went bankrupt again and couldn’t pay their soldiers again.  And the dutch had a pretty cool trick in their back pockets to play over and over, like Elrond releasing the floodwaters to protect Rivendell.

Eventually, Spain would prioritize more money for the Netherlands.  But the Dutch were lucky enough to find themselves with one of history’s great military geniuses.  He was a son of William the Silent, Maurice of Nassau.  He applied himself with Calvinist thoroughness to military affairs.  As Calvinists will he stripped the romantic illusions out of business of fighting and got down to essentials.  Soldiers and units drilled with their weapons to great proficiency, logistics were prioritized, communication improved.  Things we think of as a basic part of warfare today got their start under Maurice. Most of the great generals of the next generation from all over Europe learned their trade under Maurice.   Did help come to the dutch from all over Europe?  Yes it did.  He won a series of sieges and established a line of fortresses behind which a new nation, a republic could function, where an economic powerhouse could grow.   And that’s the lens we will turn towards the Dutch Republic, the United Provinces as they termed themselves, as they intersect our story of England.

And though the Spanish didn’t give up exactly, they essentially could not succeed against what was now a professional army of top quality and a navy that was unrivalled in the world.  There were some long truces and eventually the Dutch revolt would get rolled into the 30 years war, which left Spain exhausted, no longer a great power in 1648, when the Dutch got their formal independence de jure recognition for a fact already established by the sea beggars and Maurice.  80 years after Silent William raised the flag.

The main theatre of the Dutch revolt moved to England in 1588, at least as far as the miracle is concerned.  Phillip II finally lost patience for English support of the Dutch and he decided to gather and sail the Armada to England, where Protestantism and independence from Rome flourished.  Those Protestants, they have got to go, and I have just the army and navy to do it too.

We will leave it here until next week when we return to England

A map of the Hapsburg – Ottoman struggle.
A recreation of the Swiss Phalanx
A map displaying the spread of Protestantism across Europe
An artist’s interpretation of King William III of England (William of Orange (one of many with that name/the wrong William)
Portrait of Maurice of Nassau, military genius, and major figure in the “Revolution of Military Affairs”.  

Here is History Uncovered’s video on the Spanish Tercios.   This one is actually pretty good on content.


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