Prince Maurice of Orange during the Battle of Nieuwpoort, 1600
The revolt of the Netherlands, often known as the Dutch Revolt, or the Eighty Years’ War, started in 1568 and was only finally resolved by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. It began with 17 provinces in the Netherlands rising up against the rule by the Spanish royal family, the Habsburgs. The reasons for the revolt were threefold. The transformation of Spain under the Habsburgs, from a European power to a major world empire with extensive colonies in the Americas led to involvement in numerous wars, and the taxes imposed on the Netherlands to help pay for these wars were greatly resented. Many of the towns and cities in the Netherlands also resented Habsburg moves to centralize the administration of the region. By the 1560s, Protestantism had become popular in parts of the Netherlands, with the Habsburgs being keen to restore Roman Catholicism.
When friction started between Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, the French statesman whom Philip II of Spain appointed to the Netherlands, and the many burghers in the Netherlands, it rapidly led to religious tensions. In August 1566, a small Catholic church was stormed and images of Catholic saints were destroyed. It was quickly followed by similar moves elsewhere, and Philip II responded by sending in soldiers. When some of his opponents were executed, a rebellion broke out, with William of Orange, an influential Protestant politician, becoming its figurehead. The Battle of Rheindalen, on April 23, 1568, marked the start of the revolt.
Initially the Spanish were able to crush the rebellion, but when the rebels launched a naval assault in 1572 and captured the town of Brielle (Brill), the Protestants quickly rallied to support the rebels. Soon the northern provinces of the Netherlands were effectively independent of Spanish rule, and when Spanish soldiers tried to reimpose Imperial rule, the fighting escalated. There were some who wanted the younger brother of the French king—Hercule François, duke of Anjou—to become the new king of the Netherlands, but this idea fell through after two years, as did one to make Elizabeth I of England the queen of the Netherlands.
The ruthless manner in which the Spanish commander, the duke of Alba, tried to retake the Netherlands led to an intense hatred of the Spanish. The action that earned the duke his reputation came after a seven month siege of the city of Haarlem. In July 1573, Alba’s victorious soldiers massacred the entire garrison. In October 1575, the Spanish slaughtered many people in Antwerp, the largest city in the region, and large numbers of its inhabitants fled.
In 1585, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, brought 6,000 English soldiers to fight alongside the Dutch rebels. Two years later, the English withdrew, but not before many important English, including Sir Walter Raleigh, had fought against the Spanish. As the stakes rose, the Spanish gathered together their armada for a naval attack on England in 1588, but this failed. In the following year, Maurice of Orange, the son of William of Orange, took the offensive and captured Breda in 1590. By this time, the north of the Netherlands was enjoying effective independence, with fighting continuing until 1609. It was during the mid-1590s that the Englishman Guy Fawkes fought on the Spanish side, gaining some experience in the use of explosives, which resulted in his recruitment for the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. From 1609 to 1621 there was a 12-year truce, with fighting starting again in 1622 and merging with the Thirty Years’ War, which ended in 1648.
Further reading: Geyl, Pieter. The Revolt of the Netherlands 1555–1609. London: Williams & Norgate, 1932; Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977.