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William the Silent and "the Beggars"

The struggle of Catholic and Protestant led to numerous "wars of religion," of which the most impressive took place in the small country of Holland.

William, Prince of Orange, called the Silent, is famous as the national hero of Holland; he was the great liberator who freed its Protestant provinces from the Spanish yoke. During his long struggle of twenty-five years (1560-84), William never failed in his support of the reformers, yet at no time would he encourage the excesses of fanatics.

William the Silent was the eldest son of parents who had become Lutherans. When he was eleven years of age, a cousin left him great estates in the Netherlands, together with the tiny principality of Orange in the south of France. So he obtained the title of Prince of Orange. He was then brought up as a Catholic at Brussels, at the court of Charles V, who thought highly of him and showed him many marks of favour. It was on William's shoulder that the great emperor leant when he resigned (1555) the Netherlands to his son, Philip II.

Doubtless Charles V. looked to William as the future mainstay of Philip's rule, little dreaming that this youth of twenty-two was destined one day to destroy it.

During a stag-hunt in the forest of Vincennes (June 1559), the King of France, thinking that William was aware of the matter, talked with him freely about the scheme of himself and Philip to destroy all the Protestants in the joint dominions of the two kings, mainly by means of Spanish troops. Although now a Catholic, William was so "deeply moved with pity for all the worthy people who were thus devoted to slaughter," that he resolved to do all that he could to save them. He never moved a muscle of his face, however, or gave the slightest sign of his real feelings to the king; and it is from this incident that he won his title of "the Silent."

When he returned to Brussels he advised the people to demand the withdrawal of the Spanish troops from the country. The Estates (that is, the deputies) refused to vote any money for Philip unless this were done. Highly displeased, Philip left for Spain, never to return. As he was about to embark he upbraided William for their refusal. William replied that this was a decision of the Estates, not himself; but Philip knew better. Seizing William by the wrist he shook it, crying out: "Not the Estates, but You! You! You!" And this was the first conflict between the two who were destined to become deadly enemies.

The troops were withdrawn, but there was no change in Philip's attitude towards religion. He prayed aloud that he might never consent to be the master of heretics. Charles V had already introduced the Inquisition into some of the provinces -- that dread court which tried men for heresy, and handed them over to the civil authority for punishment if they were found guilty. All magistrates were ordered to carry out the sentences, but there was difficulty, in getting

them to do so. At length Philip put down his foot. The Inquisition was proclaimed in every town and village.

"Now," whispered William to a neighbour, "we shall see the beginning of a fine tragedy."

The public agitation was so intense that a League was formed and a petition drawn up to be presented to the regent (Philip's half-sister), who, in alarm, wished to flee. But William reassured her, and told the petitioners to come unarmed. So two to three hundred gentlemen marched to the council chamber with their petition, demanding that the Inquisition should be stopped.

"What, madam!" said one of her Council, "is your Highness afraid of these beggars? They should be driven out with sticks!" Three days later 300 of the League met at supper, when, after each man had hung a beggar's wallet round his neck, and thrown salt in a wooden bowl filled with wine, they drank the toast, "Long live the Beggars!" repeating the lines:

"By the salt, by the bread, by the wallet yet,

The Beggars will not change, no matter how they fret."

The party, now known as "the Beggars," at once spread all over the country; toy bowls and wallets, badges and medals, were everywhere on sale.

The Netherlands now began to fill with reformers of every kind, who banded together until, at last, mobs of fanatics wrecked and plundered the beautiful cathedral of Antwerp and hundreds of churches throughout the country. "It shall cost them dear," said Philip; "I swear it, by the soul of my father."

A force sent by the regent destroyed nearly all of 2,000 reformers who were encamped near Antwerp. But William prevented the reformers from breaking the peace in the province of Holland and elsewhere, and then he learnt that Philip was secretly collecting an army. Should they resist it?

His friends on the Council, Counts Egmont and Horn, said no. Soon it was known in Brussels that Philip was sending an army to the Netherlands under the Duke of Alva. The Council were now asked to take an oath to obey Philip absolutely, on pain of being dismissed from office. Egmont took the oath, but William at length refused (April 2, 1567).

"You will be ruined," said Egmont. "The loss of my property does not trouble me," replied William; "but you will be the bridge over which the Spaniards will enter the country." The two old friends then embraced each other sadly, to part for the last time -- William to go to his old home in Germany, where he knew he would be safe; Egmont and Horn to await the arrival of Alva, full of faith in the good intentions of the king.

Alva arrived in Brussels with a fine army of 20,000 men and 6,000 horse. The two counts were thrown into prison, while at the same time Alva formed a court, called by the people the "Council of Blood," to try heretics and traitors. Next Egmont and Horn were executed, an act of barbarity that aroused ferocious hatred against the Spaniards.

In the meantime William had been pronounced an outlaw, his immense estates had been confiscated, while he himself had been defeated in battle with the troops he had raised. Alva could proudly write: "We may regard the prince as a dead man. He has neither influence nor credit." And then, after more than 18,000 people had been burnt or slaughtered by the Council of Blood, an amnesty was proclaimed. The triumph of Alva seemed complete.

But it was not so. Defeated and friendless and penniless as William was, nothing could daunt him -- nothing could destroy his hope. When told that he could never succeed without the alliance of some great prince, he only replied, "When I took in hand to defend these oppressed Christians, I made an alliance with the mightiest of all princes -- the God of Hosts, who is able to save us if He choose." Well was it that he took for a motto, "Tranquil amid the stormy waves."

Defeated on land, his followers took to the sea, where, under the name of the "Sea Beggars," they harassed the Spanish ships,, until finally they captured the town of Brill on April 1, 1572 -- " an April fool's gift for Alva," they said in triumph. This was the turn of the tide.

Later, too, the friendly water assisted them when they destroyed their dykes and sailed over the fields in triumph to relieve the town of Leyden -- until at last, on a memorable day, the northern provinces, seven in number, agreed to form a close union, thus laying the basis of the Dutch Republic.

Three years later (July l0, 1584) William was shot by an assassin, paid by Philip II. "to deliver this pest to us, dead or alive." But in the hearts of his Hollanders he lives for ever, a hero worthy to rank with the noblest patriots in history.

Four years passed (1588), and Philip II sent his Armada against Elizabeth Of England, who had given some help to the Dutch. The final result of this northern struggle against the might of Spain was that Protestant Holland and England led the way in Europe in the great struggle for religious and political liberty.