As we know, on April 1, 1572, the Duke of Alba lost his glasses, that is, Den Briel. The pun was made 450 years ago, just as April 1 was already the day of lame jokes. Insurgents lugged around with banners printed with glasses to harass the Spaniards. This is one of the many nice anecdotes from the book 1572 – Civil War in the Netherlands, written by Leiden historians Raymond Fagel and Judith Pollmann. With the presentation of 1572 the commemoration of the start of the uprising, 450 years ago, is kicked off. For the even more diligent rememberers, a beautifully illustrated selection of the letters from William of Orange from the same year appears almost simultaneously.
Municipalities are actively participating in commemoration. Brielle and Dordrecht kick off, next year Haarlem and Alkmaar are allowed, then it is Leiden’s turn with 450 years of relief. But what is actually being commemorated? In recent years, politicians have made an effort for the shared national past and the Plakkaat van Verlatinghe (1581) was regarded as the ‘birth paper’ of the Netherlands. Now the municipalities involved are not moving forward 1581 but 1572 as the national year of birth, with the capture of Den Briel and the States Assembly in Dordrecht as landmarks. Perhaps a pinch of municipal marketing is not strange, since the purport of the book 1572 is exactly the opposite of a clarion call with which a new state was founded.
Chaos, violence and arbitrariness
In Dordt, William of Orange was indeed confirmed as stadtholder by the States General. Conversely, Orange accepted the Assembly as the highest authority; a mutual recognition in high quality. Reality was less heroic, write Fagel and Pollmann. The Dordrecht meeting was a mixed bag of representatives without a mandate, Orange himself was conspicuous by his absence and his reappointment as stadtholder was downright illegal. Orange spent the first half of this year full of fortunes in its German ancestral castle Dillenburg. There he licked his wounds after a previously failed raid and tried to scrape together money for another attempt. More than the start of a coherent uprising, the year 1572 was a civil war. There was no plan, no idea for a new state, there was mainly chaos, violence, arbitrariness, anarchy, poverty and exhaustion.
Until well into 1572, the part of the Netherlands north of the rivers was the ‘side stage’ for the warring parties. The main prize was Brabant, with the cities of Brussels and Antwerp. Orange concentrated on the south, as did Alva, who feared a French invasion in collaboration with Lodewijk van Nassau, Orange’s brother. The only beginning of national unity was to be found in Orange’s propaganda, who pointed out the Spaniards as the enemy, as a call for resistance in the letter book also shows. Religiously, the country was deeply divided and an uprising under the banner of the Reformation would certainly have been doomed, as the vast majority were Catholic and above all wanted to be left alone.
At his first invasion in 1568, Orange still believed that he would be welcomed as a liberator. That didn’t happen; cities kept their gates shut, fearing Orange’s troops as much as the Spaniards. Mandatory quartering of soldiers was a nightmare for city officials. Looting, the ‘insolences of the military people’, was very much feared and the Orange troops stood their ground in that area too. De Meierij, the area south of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, was skilfully ‘eaten’ by his soldiers in 1572. To speak with the superior Karremans in Srebrenica: there were none here good guys and bad guys† Not ideals and thrust, but lack of money and the wheel of fortune were decisive.
The fact that the civil war would nevertheless acquire a religious dynamic was due to the former exiles who resisted. Before the arrival of Alva in 1567, thousands of Reformed had fled to England, France and especially to the German principalities where ‘religious peace’ reigned. They came back motivated, especially in the northern provinces that Alva had left aside. That was not gentle. We know the Martyrs of Gorcum, the nineteen monks who were tortured and hanged by Beggar leader Lumey. Roermond also had its martyrs, in Alkmaar five Franciscans were murdered and the same Lumey hanged the well-known priest Cornelis Musius in Leiden; the letter book shows how much Orange handled this Lumey with silk gloves. Very little came of the tolerance pursued by Orange. Churches and monasteries went up in flames, rebels paraded around in priestly robes.
The crimes against Catholics have only survived in the local memory. Nationally, the memory of the massacre by the Spaniards of Zutphen and Naarden remained. The cry of ferocity that sped the Spanish army forward led Haarlem to brace itself, where army chief Ripperda (still honored with a park and barracks) had staged a coup against the city government and had worshiped St Bavo for Protestant worship. . Haarlem fell after months of siege, after which, as the elderly know, victory began in Alkmaar. But by then it was well past 1573 and the book does not go that far.
1572 is an exemplary history book: a crystal-clear starting point, told with verve and illuminated with a multitude of sometimes blood-curdling details. In the epilogue, the authors refer to their distant predecessor Jan Romein, who introduced the concept of ‘the shattered image’ before the Revolt. The increase in knowledge and specialization had ended the grand tale of a people rushing unitedly towards national freedom. Fagel and Pollmann do not regret this shattering or shattering of the ‘image’, but consider it appropriate for a period in which arbitrariness and confusion prevailed, the loss of authority and the danger of itinerant warlords lurked everywhere. “Most didn’t know what they wanted or why they wanted it.”
That is a remarkable conclusion for historical business, since in the history of decolonization we experience exactly the opposite movement. In historiography, the last years of the Netherlands in Indonesia are no longer characterized by confusion, cruelty on all sides, arbitrariness and lack of direction. Historians who contributed to the recently presented official investigation into decolonization identified an outspoken perpetrator, the Netherlands, after which the cabinet put its stamp on it. Willem van Oranje can no longer serve as a compass to know how special we are. On the other hand, we now know very well how bad we are on the basis of decolonization.
Raymond Fagel and Judith Pollmann: 1572 – Civil War in the Netherlands ★★★★★. Prometheus; 248 pages; €22.50.
William of Orange in letters – The Revolt in 1572 ★★★☆☆. Editors Marianne Eekhout, Ineke Huysman, Henk van Nierop, Judith Pollmann, Johan Visser. waders; 256 pages; €29.95.