History of the Spanish Netherlands

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Habsburg rule: 1482-1559

The Netherlands acquire a new ruling dynasty in 1482, when the Habsburgs inherit all the territories of Burgundy. For more than half a century the new regime is reasonably successful. The Habsburgs are at ease in the prosperous Netherlands; they cherish their valuable new acquisition. Charles V is born in Ghent (in 1500) and grows up in Mechelen at the court of his aunt Margaret of Austria - acting as regent on his behalf in Burgundy, after the early death of his father in 1506.  

But Charles's broader responsibilities soon remove him from his childhood home. He becomes king of Spain in 1515 and leaves the Netherlands two years later. 

Charles's personal link with the region no doubt contributes to the relative calm which prevails in the Netherlands until 1555, when he formally transfers the rule of the duchy to his son Philip in a ceremony in Brussels - the city to which the seat of government has been moved, from Mechelen, in 1531.  

Even so, during the four decades of Charles's largely absentee rule there have been significant changes of attitude in the province. 

There is an increasing sense of resentment at being on the periphery of the vast Spanish empire, with its different priorities and frequent demands for tax. And Calvinist ideas, infiltrating down the Rhine from Basel and Strasbourg, make many doubly resentful that the distant ruler of the Netherlands is Catholic as well as Spanish.  

These circumstances would lead to unrest at the best of times. Philip aggravates them. Unlike his father, he is Spanish in upbringing. His appointments to the government in Brussels take little heed of local sensitivities. To add to his difficulties, a peace of 1559 between Spain and France opens the Netherlands border to energetic French Calvinists
William of Orange and the duke of Alba: 1559-1568

Philip II's first regent in the Netherlands is his half sister, Margaret of Parma. There is local unrest under her rule, but also an assumption that compromise may be possible. William of Orange, heir to large estates in the Netherlands and known from his quiet skill in negotiation as William the Silent, emerges as one of the leaders of those demanding change.  

Religious toleration and freedom from the attentions of the Inquisition are among the demands most commonly made. But the Protestant cause is not well served by the intemperate behaviour of some of the Calvinists. Iconoclastic mobs go on the rampage in August 1566, smashing the treasures of many churches in the Netherlands. 

Hearing of such events, Philip II resolves upon severe measures. He instructs the duke of Alba, a veteran of many campaigns, to march north with an army from Italy. He is to restore order in the Netherlands regardless of what measures may be required.

Alba, arriving in August 1567, introduces a rule of terror but does so at first by stealth. He lulls two of the leading dissident nobles, the counts of Egmont and…


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