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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 26 — Assassination of William the silent

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What the United Provinces are to become – The Walloons Return to Philip – William's Sovereignty – Brabant and the Duke of Anjou – His Entry into the Netherlands – His Administration a Failure – Matthias Departs – The Netherlands offer their Sovereignty to William – He Declines – Defection of Flanders – Attempt on William's Life – Anastro, the Spanish Banker – The Assassin – He Wounds the Prince – Alarm of the Provinces – Recovery of William – Death of his Wife – Another Attempt on William's Life – Balthazar Gerard – His Project of Assassinating the Prince – Encouraged by the Spanish Authorities – William's Murder – His Character.

THE Seven United Provinces – the fair flower of Netherland Protestantism – had come to the birth. The clouds and tempests that overhung the cradle of the infant States were destined to roll away, the sun of prosperity and power was to shine forth upon them, and for the space of a full century the number of their inhabitants, the splendor of their cities, the beauty of their country, the vastness of their commerce, the growth of their wealth, the number of their ships, the strength of their armies, and the glory of their letters and arts, were to make them the admiration of Europe, and of the world. Not, however, till that man who had helped above all others to find for Protestantism a seat where it might expand into such a multiform magnificence, had gone to his grave, was this stupendous growth to be, beheld by the world. We have now to attend to the condition in which the dissolution of Philip's sovereignty left the Netherlands.

In the one land of the Low Countries, there were at this moment three communities or nations. The Walloons, yielding to the influence of a common faith, had returned under the yoke of Spain. The Central Provinces, also mostly Popish, had ranged themselves under the sovereignty of the Duke of Anjou, brother of Henry III. of France. The Provinces of Holland and Zealand had elected (1581), as we have just seen, the Prince of Orange as their king. [1] His acceptance of the dignity was at first provisional. His tenure of sovereignty was to last only during the war; but afterwards, at the earnest entreaty of the States, the prince consented that it should be perpetual. His lack of ambition, or his exceeding sense of honor, made him decline the sovereignty of the Central Provinces, although this dignity was also repeatedly pressed upon him; and had he accepted it, it may be that a happier destiny would have been in store for the Netherlands. His persistent refusal made these Provinces cast their eyes abroad in search of a chief, and in an evil hour their choice lighted upon a son of Catherine de Medici. The Duke of Anjou, the elect of the Provinces, inherited all the vices of the family from which he was sprung. He was treacherous in principle, cruel in disposition, profuse in his habits, and deeply superstitious in his faith; but his true character had not then been revealed; and the Prince of Orange, influenced by the hope of enlisting on the side of the Netherlands the powerful aid of France, supported his candidature. France had at that moment, with its habitual vacillation, withdrawn its hand from Philip II. and given it to the Huguenots, and this seemed to justify the prince in indulging the hope that this great State would not be unwilling to extend a little help to the feeble Protestants of Flanders. It was rumoured, moreover, that Anjou was aspiring to the hand of Elizabeth, and that the English queen favoured his suit; and to have the husband of the Queen of England as King of the Netherlands, was to have a tolerable bulwark against the excesses of the Spanish Power. But all these prudent calculations of bringing aid to Protestantism were destined to come to nothing. The duke made his entry (February, 1582) into the Netherlands amid the most joyous demonstrations of the Provinces; [2] and to gratify him, the public exercise of the Popish religion, which for some time had been prohibited in Antwerp, was restored in one of the churches. But a cloud soon overcast the fair morning of Anjou's sovereignty ill the Netherlands. He quickly showed that he had neither the principle nor the ability necessary for so difficult a task as he had undertaken. Bitter feuds sprang up between him and his subjects, and after a short administration, which neither reflected honor on himself nor conferred benefit on the Provinces, he took his departure, followed by the reproaches and accusations of the Flemings. The cause of Protestantism was destined to owe nothing to a son of Catherine de Medici. Matthias, who had dwindled in William's overshadowing presence into a nonentity, and had done neither good nor evil, had gone home some time before. Through neither of these men had the intrigues of the Romanists borne fruit, except to the prejudice of the cause they were intended to further.

The Duke of Anjou being gone, the States of Brabant and Flanders came to the Prince of Orange (August, 1583) with an offer of their crown; but no argument could induce him to accept the scepter they were so anxious to thrust into his hand. He took the opportunity, however, which his declinature offered, of tendering them some wholesome advice. They must, he said, bestir themselves, and contribute more generously, if they wished to speed in the great conflict in which they had embarked. As for himself, he had nothing now to give but his services, and his blood, should that be required. All else he had already parted with for the cause: his fortune he had given; his brothers he had given. He had seen with pleasure, as the fruit of his long struggles for the Fatherland and freedom of conscience, the fair Provinces

of Holland and Zealand redeemed from the Spanish yoke.

And to think that now these Provinces were neither oppressed by Philip, nor darkened by Rome, was a higher reward than would be ten crowns, though they could place them upon his head. He would never put it in the power of Philip of Spain to say that William of Orange had sought other recompense than that of rescuing his native land from slavery [3]

William, about this time, was deeply wounded by the defection of some friends in whom he had reposed confidence as sincere Protestants and good patriots, and he was not less mortified by the secession of Flanders, with its powerful capital, Ghent, from the cause of Netherland independence to the side of Parma. Thus one by one the Provinces of (.he Netherlands, whose hearts had grown faint in the struggle, and whose "strength was weakened: in the way," crept back under the shadow of Spain, little dreaming what a noble heritage they had forfeited, and what centuries of insignificance, stagnation, and serfdom spiritual and bodily awaited them, as the result of the step they had now taken. The rich Southern Provinces, so stocked with cities, so finely clothed, so full of men, and so replenished with commercial wealth, fell to the share of Rome: the sand-banks of Holland and Zealand were given to Protestantism, that it might convert the desert into a garden, and rear on this narrow and obscure theater an empire which, mighty in arms and resplendent in arts, should fill the world with its light.

The ban which Philip had fulminated against the prince began now to bear fruit. Wonderful it would have been if there had not been found among the malefactors and murderers of the world some one bold enough to risk the peril attendant on grasping the golden prize which the King of Spain held out to them. A year only had elapsed since the publication of the ban, and now an attempt was made to destroy the man on whose head it had set a price. Gaspar Anastro, a Spanish banker in Antwerp,: finding himself on the verge of bankruptcy, bethought him of earning Philip's reward, and doing the world a service by ridding it of so great a heretic, and helping himself, at the same time, by retrieving his ruined fortunes. But lacking courage to do the bloody deed with his own hand, he hired his servant to execute it. This man, having received from a priest absolution of his sins, and the assurance that the doors of paradise stood open to him, repaired to the mansion of the prince, and waited an opportunity to commit the horrible act. As Orange was crossing the hall, from the dinner-table, the miscreant approached him on pretence of handing him a petition, and putting his pistol, loaded with a single bullet, close to his head, discharged it at the prince. The ball, entering a little below the right ear, passed out through the left jaw, carrying with it two teeth. The wound bled profusely, and for some weeks the prince's life was despaired of, and vast crowds of grief-stricken citizens repaired to the churches to beseech, with supplications and tears, the Great Disposer to interpose his power, and save from death the Father of his Country. The prayer of the nation was heard. William recovered to resume his burden, and conduct another stage on the road to freedom the two Provinces which he had rescued from the paws of the Spanish bear. But if the husband survived, the wife fell by the murderous blow of Philip. Charlotte de Bourbon, so devoted to the prince, and so tenderly beloved by him, worn out with watching and anxiety, fell ill of a fever, and died. William sorely missed from his side that gentle but heroic spirit, whose words had so often revived him in his hours of darkness and sorrow.

The two years that now followed witnessed the progressive disorganisation of the Southern Netherlands, under the combined influence of the mismanagement of the Duke of Anjou, the intrigues of the Jesuits, and the diplomacy and arms of the Duke of Parma. Despite all warnings, and their own past bitter experience, the Provinces of Brabant and Flanders again opened their ear to the "cunning charmers" of Spain and the "sweet singers" of Rome, and began to think that the yoke of Philip was not so heavy and galling as they had accounted it, and that the pastures of "the Church" were richer and more pleasant than those of Protestantism. Many said, "Beware!" and quoted the maxim of the old Book: "They who wander out of the way of understanding shall remain in the congregation of the dead." But the Flemings turned away from these counsellors. Divisions, distractions, and perpetual broils made them fain to have peace, and, to use the forcible metaphor of the Burgomaster of Antwerp, "they confessed to a wolf, and they had a wolf's absolution."

It was in the Northern Provinces only, happily under the scepter of William, who had rescued them. from the general shipwreck of the Netherlands, that order prevailed, and that anything like steady progress could be traced. But now the time was come when these States must lose the wisdom and courage to which they owed the freedom they already enjoyed, and the yet greater degree of prosperity and power in store for them. Twenty years had William the Silent "judged" the Low Countries: now the tomb was to close over him. He had given the labors of his life for the cause of the Fatherland: he was now to give his blood for it. Not fewer than five attempts had been made to assassinate him. They had failed; but the sixth was to succeed. Like all that had preceded it, this attempt was directly instigated by Philip's proscription, In the summer of 1584, William was residing at Delft, having married Louisa de Coligny, the daughter

of the admiral, and the widow of Teligny, who perished, as we have seen, in the St. Bartholomew. A young Burgundian, who hid great duplicity and some talent under a mean and insignificant exterior, had that spring been introduced to the prince, and had been employed by him in some business, though of small moment. This stranger professed to be a zealous Calvinist, the son of a French Protestant of the name of Guion, who had died for his faith. His real name was Balthazar Gerard, and being a fanatical Papist, he had long wished to "serve God and the king" by taking off the arch-heretic. He made known his design to the celebrated Franciscan, Father Gery of Tournay, by whom he was "much comforted and strengthened in his determination." He revealed his project also to Philip's Governor of the Low Countries. The Duke of Parma, who had at that time four ruffians lurking in Delft on the same business, did not dissuade Gerard from his design, but he seems to have mistrusted his fitness for it; although afterwards, being assured on this point, he gave him some encouragement and a little money. The risk was great, but so too were the inducements – a fortune, a place in the peerage of Spain, and a crown in paradise.

It was Tuesday, the 10th of July, 1584. The prince was at dinner with his wife, his sister (the Princess of Schwartzenberg), and the gentlemen of his suite. Ill the shadow of a deep arch in the wall of the vestibule, stood a mean-looking personage with a cloak cast round him. This was Balthazar Gerard. His figure had caught the eye of Louisa de Coligny as, leaning on her husband's arm, she passed through the hall to the dining-room, and his pale, agitated, and darkly sinister countenance smote her with a presentiment of evil. "He has come for a passport," said the prince, calming her alarm, and passed into the dining-hail. At table, the prince, thinking nothing of the muffled spectre in the ante-chamber, was cheerful as usual. The Burgomaster of Leeuwarden was present at the family dinner, and William, eager to inform himself of the religious and political condition of Friesland, talked much, and with great animation, with his guest. At two o'clock William rose from table, and crossed the vestibule on his way to his private apartments above. His foot was already on the second step of the stairs, which he was ascending leisurely, when the assassin, rushing from his hiding-place, fired a pistol loaded with three balls, one of which passed through the prince's body, and struck the wall opposite. On receiving the shot, William exclaimed: "O my God, have mercy on my soul! O my God, have mercy on this poor people!" [4] He was carried into the dining-room, laid upon a couch, and in a few minutes he breathed his last. He had lived fifty-one years and sixteen days. On the 3rd of August he was laid in his tomb at Delft, mourned, not by Holland and Zealand only, but by all the Netherlands – the Walloons excepted – as a father is mourned. [5]

So closed the great career of William the Silent. It needs not that we paint his character: it has portrayed itself in the actions of his life which we have narrated. Historians have done ample justice to his talents, so various, so harmonious, and each so colossal, that the combination presents a character of surpassing intellectual and moral grandeur such as has rarely been equalled, and yet more rarely excelled. But as the ancient tree of Netherland liberty never could have borne the goodly fruit that clothed its boughs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries unless the shoot of Protestantism had been grafted upon it, and new sap infused into the old decaying charters, so the talents of William of Orange, varied, beautiful, and brilliant though they were, unless linked with something diviner, could not have evolved that noble character and done those great deeds which have made the name of William the Silent one of the brightest on the page of history. Humanity, however richly endowed with genius, is a weak thing in itself; it needs to be grafted with a higher Power in order to reach the full measure of greatness. In the case of William of Orange it was so grafted. It was his power of realising One unseen, whose will he obeyed, and on whose arm he leaned, that constituted the secret of his strength. He was the soldier, the statesman, the patriot; but before all he was the Christian. The springs of his greatness lay in his faith. Hence his lofty aims, which, rising high above fame, above power, above all the ordinary objects of ambition, aspired to the only and supreme good. Hence, too, that inflexible principle which enabled him, without turning to the right or to the left, to go straight on through all the intricacies of his path, making no compromise with falsehood, never listening to the solicitations of self-interest, and alive only to the voice of duty. Hence, too, that unfaltering perseverance and undying hope that upheld him in the darkest hour, and amid the most terrible calamities, and made him confident of ultimate victory where another would have abandoned the conflict as hopeless.

William of Orange persevered and triumphed where a Caesar or a Napoleon would have despaired and been defeated. The man and the country are alike: both are an epic. Supremely tragic outwardly is the history of both. It is defeat succeeding defeat; it is disaster heaped upon disaster, and calamity piled upon calamity, till at last there stands personified before us an Iliad of woes. But by some marvellous touch, by some transforming fiat, the whole scene is suddenly changed: the blackness kindles into glorious light, the roar of the tempest subsides into sweetest music, and defeat grows into victory. The man we had expected to see

prostrate beneath the ban of Philip, rises up greater than kings, crowned with the wreath of a deathless sovereignty; and the little State which Spain had thought to consign to an eternal slavery, rends the chain from her neck; and from her seat amid the seas, she makes her light to circulate along the shores of the islands and continents of the deep, and her power to be felt, and her name reverenced, by the mightiest kingdoms on the earth.

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Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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