For more than 40 years, with wildly fluctuating fortunes, the Dutch Revolution of 1566-1609 took the form of a protracted popular war of national defence against the Spanish Empire.
In the 16th century, there were three million people living in the Low Countries (Belgium and Holland) - the same as in the whole of England and Wales. Of these, about half lived in towns.
Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, Utrecht, Leiden, Haarlem, Amsterdam, and other Flemish and Dutch towns were among the foremost trading centres of Renaissance Europe. There were at least 25 towns with populations above 10,000.
The landscape was dominated by its waterways - rivers, estuaries, canals, and dykes. Several great river systems - those of the Rhine, the Meuse/Maas, and the Scheldt - pass from deep within the European hinterland through the Low Countries into a maze of estuaries, islands, and mud-flats on the Atlantic coast.
As the feudal order was transformed by money and the market, the geography of the Low Countries transformed them into one of most economically dynamic parts of Europe.
Flemish and Dutch society was dominated by its merchants, burghers, and artisans. The level of education, culture, and civic organisation was high. Powerful guilds dominated urban life. The defence of traditional ‘liberties and privileges’ was robust.
The Reformation swept across the Low Countries like an electric storm. Here, above all, tolerance of dynastic overlords, feudal pretensions, and Church corruption was short.
But the Low Countries were ruled by Imperial Spain, and taxes on Flemish and Dutch mercantile wealth were being ratcheted up to fund the 150,000-strong Spanish Army and support the dynastic ambitions of a distant Catholic Habsburg king.
The Flemish and Dutch nobility who ruled the Low Countries found themselves squeezed between the demands of the imperial state and resistance from Calvinist and Anabaptist urban populations. In 1564, they forced the dismissal of the Spanish viceroy Cardinal Granvelle. But this failed to quell rising opposition.
An attempted crackdown on ‘heresy’ in 1566 provoked unprecedented resistance. Mass open-air meetings of armed Protestants took place all over the Low Countries. A Ghent patrician and chronicler marvelled that four or five sermons were sufficient to overturn beliefs that people had held for 30 or 40 years.
In the August and September Days of 1566, revolutionary crowds overturned the old order in town after town. Catholic churches were attacked in an ‘iconoclastic fury’. Conservative municipal oligarchies collapsed. Ruling princes were forced to grant freedom of worship to Lutherans and Calvinists. Anabaptists took it for themselves.
A section of the Dutch nobility led by William of Orange placed itself at the head of the revolutionary movement. The majority either withdrew into passivity or supported the counter-revolutionary violence now unleashed by the King of Spain.
Determined to hold together his scattered empire by driving back the forces of reformation and revolution that threatened it, Philip II turned the Low Countries into Europe’s principal battleground. For more than 40 years, with wildly fluctuating fortunes, the Dutch Revolution took the form of a protracted popular war of national defence.
Tens of thousands of Spanish troops were deployed, and vast amounts of treasure consumed. Full-scale terror was unleashed by foreign soldiers and the Inquisition. During several days of ‘Spanish Fury’ in Antwerp after the capture of the city in November 1576, 1,000 houses were destroyed and 8,000 people killed.
Military terror defeated the Flemish revolution and restored Spanish rule in Belgium. The Dutch revolution proved far more intractable.
The approaches to Holland from the south contract into a relatively narrow corridor. The corridor is bisected by a succession of major river barriers. The land generally is low-lying, very wet, and cut up by countless drainage dykes.
The rivers and dykes provided countless natural defences. The effect of these was compounded by the density of settlement in Holland. There were many walled towns, and even villages could be turned into strong-points by improvising ramparts, barricades, and blockhouses.
The result was what military theorists call ‘complex terrain’ - a contested landscape where movement and supply are difficult, invading armies get bogged down, and all the advantages are with local defenders.
The urban militiamen who formed the core of the Dutch forces became increasingly professional. They were supported by a powerful fleet of ‘Sea Beggars’ and by foreign volunteers.
Members of Calvinist and Anabaptist congregations functioned like the cadre of a revolutionary party. The war radicalised the revolution. The United Provinces (as Holland came to be known) soon had the highest proportion of Anabaptists in Europe - up to half the population in some districts. Anabaptists were advocates of political democracy and social equality.
Meantime, Calvinist churches in Germany, France, England, and Scotland - reinforced by Dutch exiles - functioned as a revolutionary ‘international’ raising support for the resistance. The foreign contingents fighting in Holland were the most obvious result - effectively, a Protestant ‘international brigade’.
The Dutch Revolution became the front-line in the struggle against the Counter-Reformation - much as the Spanish Revolution would be the front-line in the struggle against fascism for a latter generation.
When a third Spanish counter-offensive brought the Dutch to the brink of defeat, Elizabeth I of England declared war in 1584. The safety of the English Protestant state would have been compromised by a victorious Spanish Empire in secure control of the Channel coast. It was in England’s interest to keep the Dutch fighting. And the policy was popular with the Protestant ‘middling sort’ who formed the bedrock support of the Tudor dynasty.
English intervention provoked Philip I to his greatest effort: the Spanish Armada of 1588. The defeat of this effort by Channel weather and the Elizabethan navy was the turning-point.
The Spanish Empire was overextended. It was supporting its Catholic Habsburg cousins in Germany, defending its interests in Italy, fighting the Ottomans in the Mediterranean, intervening in the French Wars of Religion, and trying to protect its vast territories in the Americas and its treasure-fleets plying the Atlantic trade-routes.
Again and again, Spanish troops mutinied and run amok on the Dutch front because they had not been paid. Again and again, despite herculean efforts by the imperial power, the Dutch held on, the Spanish fell back exhausted, and the revolution renewed itself. The Spanish finally gave up in 1609. The United Provinces of Holland became the world’s first bourgeois republic.
The English Revolution is sometimes described as the ‘first bourgeois revolution’. It was not. Even Marxist historians often miss the significance of the Dutch Revolution of 1566-1609.
The revolution was long, complex, and dominated by war. It comprised three distinct upsurges of politico-military resistance - the first (1565-1568), second (1569-1576), and the third (1576-1581) ‘revolts’. Each was followed by a Spanish counter-offensive. The last of these was thrown back with English support, and thereafter the revolution continued as a conventional military struggle.
The aristocratic leadership of the House of Orange, increasingly dominant in the later phases, distorted but did not alter the revolutionary character of the war. The mercantile bourgeoisie was the victor. The urban petty-bourgeoisie of small traders, artisans, and labourers had made victory possible. The Calvinist and Anabaptist churches had provided the essential revolutionary cadre.
In contrast to regions where the Counter-Reformation triumphed, the 17th century was a golden age for the Dutch. Their trade, their navy, and their overseas empire became pre-eminent. Their towns filled with grand buildings, and their art was the finest in Europe.
But Holland was very small. This, in the long run, proved a insuperable constraint on the new state’s economic growth and political power. It is in this crucial respect that the English Revolution was to have far greater historical significance.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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