January 05, 2009

William the Silent


William the Silent's leadership of the Dutch Revolution was crucial to that revolution and thus to the course of European and World history. What is more interesting though than a simple paean to the role of William is that we obtain some understanding of what his function as a leader was within that revolution. My argument, based on Professor Israel's work, is that the William of the Dutch revolution was less of a leader as we might conventionally understand it, than as a symbol and financier. He was driven by as well as driving the revolution that he created- and in certain significant ways that revolution was not what the Prince of Orange intended it to be. This is true right from the beggining- when William himself joined the revolution, to preserve his own position as the representative of the anti-Habsburg forces in the low countries through to the end when he sponsored the involvement of the Duke of Anjou in 1583 despite the Duke's unpopularity within the low countries. Strategically William's interests and the interests of his followers were different- and the interesting thing about Israel's account of the revolution is that because of the unique circumstances of the Dutch revolt, that led to William actually losing out on his interests and being forced to accept those of his followers.

This is perhaps most evident with respect to the direction of the revolution. The Revolution essentially faced two alternative paths: one was to rely on its popular centre in the north of the country and become a revolution dominated from Holland by Calvinist city elites and mobs, the other was to attempt to span the whole of the low countries and rely on the nobility. William's own interest inclined him to the latter: he had important estates in the southern Netherlands and seems not to have been too inclined to adopting a reformation policy. Toleration for Catholics was essential if you were to have a rebellion spanning the Netherlands. William's policy failed though on two important grounds- the first was that it was difficult to maintain a revolution in the south which had a different character to the revolution in the north: the mobs in northern cities that degraded Catholic churches and clergymen were not happy to see those same churches and clergyment protected in the south- even where as in Ghent there were Protestant populations. Likewise whilst to a radical Protestant, the Habsburg crown was associated with the barbaric atrocities of anti-Protestant persecution, to a nobleman the crown was associated with the pyramid of status that protected both property and ultimately society. William ultimately forced to choose- was always going to choose the successful northern rebellion over the weaker southern rebellion- but we should never forget that he wished for a compromise that would retain the vigour of the Protestant radical military strength, whilst maintaining a traditional form of society.

What is interesting about this is that we might think that this was down to William's failings as a leader- could he not have found a formula to unite these factions and led them to victory- but the evidence of the history of Holland suggests otherwise. For William was not alone in attempting to lead the Dutch rebellion and finding that he was led as much as the leader. In 1585, after the Prince of Orange was assacinated, the States concluded a treaty (the Treaty of Nonsuch) with Elizabeth of England wherein Elizabeth nominated a commander, the Earl of Leicester, to come to Holland as Governor General and command both the English forces sent in aid to the Netherlands and the Dutch forces that resisted the Spanish. Leicester found himself in a similar quandary to William- in that he too found himself up against the overmighty province of Holland and was forced, despite his efforts, to temporise with the provincial authorities and adopt in part their strategy. Leicester also attempted to ally with forces in Dutch society that were anti-Holland (in his case the smaller northern provinces) yet thanks to a variety of circumstances he failed and departed in 1587 (and died in 1588).

Leicester and William's cases might seem pretty mundane- here essentially were two leaders who learnt that in a revolution you have to pay political attention to your followers. But I think that the point is greater than that- it reminds us that the reason that early modern noblemen often rebelled against Kings was to have an effect on the rebellion that they were then leading. The point about a rebellion is that its aims are negotiated by the participants and depend on their political strength- and particularly the strength they bring to it- and sometimes not so much on their title or position within it. It is worth remembering this when thinking about rebellion in general because it is not always true that those who lead a rebellion actually control it: the case of the Dutch revolt proves that the future of a revolution can turn out to be very different from that which the leaders envisaged.

4 comments:

Crushed said...

The same could be said of the civil war- I'm reasonably sure at least one of the 'five members' ended up in exile on the side of Charles II.

James Higham said...

Wiki is wonderful. :)

Now, to this matter of William:

...to have an effect on the rebellion that they were then leading...

This has always been the problem with revolutions. Leaderless except for the instigators, the straws which break the camel's back, the wrong people get to influence it and turn it from a popular uprising to another regime.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Gracchi said...

Crushed- yes that's true. Holles by memory ended up fighting in the second civil war. But the civil war is incredibly complicated and to some extent- its not quite that simple- as probably it isn't with William the Silent.

James I wasn't questioning whether Wikipedia was wonderful- in general I think it is- but it has limitations. Personally I never accept something on Wikipedia unless I can verify it from another source or if it is not that surprising (say the population of China being over a billion).

I'm not sure either that the new boss here was the same as the old boss. The Dutch Revolution resulted in the religious reformation- which changed the nature of religion in Europe for hundreds of years afterwards. Indeed in general I don't think your argument makes sense- in that the revolutions I have studied show true changes after them. If you mean merely that humanity is flawed after and before and that utopian hopes are disappointed- that's true- but I'm not sure any wider point about a lack of change holds true.

Gracchi said...

Oh and I deleted a comment above because it was the replica of a comment left on an earlier post- linking to another website (the same website as linked to below)- consequently I judged it spam.

As a rule, I delete any comment which looks to me to be spam as soon as I get to see it. I apologise if I ever get genuine comments- but in general use a google name or an Open ID with a link and comment on the post- if you comment on what I've written you'll never get deleted, if you offer me a Chinese gambling site then you will always get deleted.