Thursday, May 24, 2007
Arguably, the Dutch revolt was the first modern national liberation war. It was also, quite possibly, the first time the word 'quagmire' came to be used to describe a floundering military invasion, as when (during the second wage of revolt in the 1570s), an English commentator described Holland as "The great Bog of Europe ... an universall Quag-mire ... Indeed it is the buttock of the World, full of veines and bloud, but no bones in't." (Geoffrey Parker, The Dutch Revolt, Penguin, 1990: 156). Those glib contemporary references could be construed, and in a way are intended, as a justification for writing about something so distant as a sixteenth century revolution. Perhaps another mode of justification would be to serialise it: a number of forthcoming Tomb posts about revolutions. Next, the 1525 Peasants War, then perhaps the English regicide, the overthrow of Louis XVI, and eventually, the Russian Revolution. I could offer a punning title for the series, like 'Revolting History' or some such garbage. (I'm sure there must be a blog with that title.) But I really just wanted to write about it.
I suppose it helps to know where to start, because historians don't agree on this. It could be anything from 1566 and that year's "iconoclastic furies" to 1581 and the abjuration of Philip. This depends on what one considers the overriding aim of the revolt was, since like most revolts it embraced different strata acting in different ways for different purposes. The conclusion can equally vary – perhaps it was effectively concluded with the 1579 Union of Utrecht, and all that followed merely last rites on the Habsburg claim? On the other hand, the Spanish did not relinquish their formal claim until 1648, even Dutch independence was implicit in the Twelve Year Truce reached in 1609. For my part, I am tempted to claim that it began in 1548, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Habsburg Spain, first turned the disparate, disunited provinces into a discrete entity. However, before getting into that, it is worth discussing what kind of society was being integrated.
In addition to their geographical disunity, the traditional lack of overlordship and the independence of local rulers, the ruling class was far from cohesive in comparison to elsewhere in Europe (Jan de Vries, The Dutch Rural Economy in the Golden Age: 1500-1799, Yale University Press, 1974: 35-7), its presence was geographically sporadic, and its modes of exploitation differed rather dramatically. The peasantry was "nearly independent", particularly those working in unappealing peat bogs and wildernesses where the seigniors had been obliged, in the 11th and 12th Centuries to offer freedom and low, fixed cash rents and dues, in order to attract peasant colonists. As a consequence, peasants enjoyed almost a complete ownership of their holdings, and by the late 15th Century, owned almost 50% of the land, while the nobility owned a bare tenth. Bourgeois landownership was very widespread, and it wasn’t to get into the nobility, since the nobles didn’t enjoy security or prestige. A large portion of the land directly supported the urban economy - so brewers and bakers owned peat bogs, while brickies owned claylands. (Robert S Dupleissis, Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1997: 26-7; Jan de Vries, The Dutch Rural Economy in the Golden Age: 1500-1799, Yale University Press, 1974: 43)
The nobles themselves are difficult to pin down as a class. As Van Neirop argues, the nobility cannot be reduced to the titled nobility, for they were far outnumbered by untitled nobles. By the sixteenth century, there were only twelve accredited noble families in the Netherlands. Nor were they overwhelmingly a landowning class, since most of the land was either peasant-owned or burgher-owned. Noble landholding was virtually non-existent in the central peat bogs, and the Noorderkwartier, existing only significantly in a small number of villages where seigniorial rights well-established. The regions of greatest noble strength were in areas like Namur and Hainault - both of which were to prove pro-Habsburg strongholds during the latter phases of the revolt. Instead, the nobles were defined by access to specific constitutional and social privileges – the right to hunt, bear coat of arms, be tried in special court, and represented as separate group in meetings of state. (H F K Van Neirop, The Nobility of Holland: From Knights to Regents 1500-1650, Cambridge University Press, 1993: 23; De Vries, 1974: 35-37).
Aside from the unique weakness of the lords, the juridical structure of feudalism itself was weak by the late 15th Century: towns controlled provincial representative assemblies, while peasants – perhaps without need of collective forms of defence against lordly rule – tended to operate in isolation, with the sole significant form of collective body being the waterschappen, which drained fields, worked windmills and pumps etc. In many areas, flooding was far too frequent for the peasants to make a sustainable living from the farm itself, or specialise in any direction. They had to resort to various commercial pursuits such as dairying, grain-growing, fishing and so on – which rapidly made for a heavily monetized economy. (Dupleissis, 1997: 27) The clergy were similarly positioned - owning land, but not so much as to make a living from it, so that they had to live off charges for sacraments. And in fact, they did not partake of the traditional cooperative arrangement with the nobility that churches were able to form in the rest of Europe. (De Vries, 1974: 40-44).
The creation of the Netherlands as a political unit in 1548 had fused together a rather diverse bundle of provinces. Although many of the provinces had been united previously under a single ruler, Valois of Burgundy, the previous tendency had been toward disarticulated politics and society. The Burgundian Netherlands expanded significantly until the death of Charles the Bold at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, whereupon substantial portions of the land reverted to the rule of King Louis XI of France. Another portion was ruled by Mary, stepdaughter of Charles’ widow whose husband, Maximilien, took over after her death in 1482. The tradition of independence was such that during Mary’s rule, she had been obliged to grant the ‘Great Privilege’, in its own way a Magna Charta for the Dutch. Yet, when Maximilien became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1493, and his son Philip was inaugurated in 1494, that charter was immediately abrogated. Subsequent rule by Margaret (1506-1515) proved stable, and the territories were to come under the rule of Charles Luxemburg (soon Habsburg) in 1515, who became Charles I of Spain from 1516 and then Emperor Charles V in 1519. Charles embarked on a territorial expansion – largely financed by Holland’s growing wealth – acquiring Friesland, Utrecht and Overijssel in the 1520s, annexing Groningen and Drenthe in 1536 and conquering Gelderland in 1543. This was the total territory that would be united as a polity in 1548 when Charles persuaded the Diet to grant them status as a separate entity which would pass from the emperor to his heirs in perpetuity. Formally, it remained a circle of Empire, and so should have sent representatives to its diets and paid taxes to it in return for protection from France – in reality, this never happened. (Graham Darby, The Origins and Development of the Dutch Revolt, Routledge, 2001: 4-12; George Edmundson, History of Holland, Chapter II, Project Gutenberg, 2005)
Religion, taxes and crisis
Charles V, like his son, was indifferent to the juridical status of rulers in the Low Countries. He would as soon have employed bourgeois administrators if he could. At the same time, however, he did make certain concessions to the nobility, who could be considered exempt from taxes of their fiefs if they proved they lived like nobles, i.e. by income from lands, tithes, and manors, refraining from mercantile activities; practising war, serving in Prince’s court etc. Increasingly, the nobles saw their tax exemptions eroded throughout the 16th Century, not only because of demands of Castilian treasury, but also because of resistance by towns, who had to account for larger portion of subsidy in the event of noble exemption. And, of course, the Netherlands had an unusually large urban population. (Van Nierup, 1993: 32-3)
The formal arrangement was that tax subsidies were voted for by provincial states. If money was needed, the State General would be convened to hear a general proposition from the president of the Council of State, itself appointed by the regent. Frequently the locally appointed regent would simply override or ignore these niceties. Charles needed a great deal of money from the Netherlands on account of his expansionary wars, and he had to obtain the greatest bulk of it from subsidies. The peak of taxation under Charles was during the 1540s when he was at war with France, resulting in a greater tax, but also a greater local role in the collection of it. By 1557, the Netherlands was in a deficit seven times that of 1544. (James D Tracy, A Financial Revolution in the Habsburg Netherlands, University of California Press, 1985: 29-35; Darby, 2001: 14-15)
Reacting to the Reformation movement which had spread across Germany with extraordinary energy and pace, the Pope had imposed a strong placard soon after the diet of Worms in 1521 condemning Luther and his opinions and forbidding the printing or sale of any of the reformer’s writings; and between that date and 1555 a dozen other edicts and placards were issued of increasing stringency. The most severe was the so-called “blood-placard” of 1550. This enacted the sentence of death against all convicted of heresy–the men to be executed with the sword and the women buried alive; in cases of obstinacy both men and women were to be burnt. (Edmundson, 2005). The persecution had the effect of wiping out almost any trace of evangelism in the Netherlands by the 1540s, yet exiled Calvinists helped set up churches overseas and they provided the leadership for future Calvinist congregations. The Inquisition was also an abrasive affair for the nobility, who found it careless of their property claims. (Darby, 2001: 14)
Philip, who had been introduced to the Netherlands on a 1549 tour, spent the first years of his rule in Brussels. While Charles had left administration to the Council of State, Philip I stayed and ruled without reference to the Council of State. He departed in 1559 after securing, at much length, massive tax concessions, and never returned. There were already huge problems brewing. The state was in immense debt, the States General was dissatisfied, the nobles were dissatisfied, Calvinism was brewing under the surface, the new provinces that Charles had annexed or conquered were uncooperative, and the Duke of Savoy was unwilling to be his regent. Philip duly appointed his half-sister Margaret of Parma as regent, and placed William of Orange as stadholder of Holland, Zealand and Utrecht.
Revolt still seemed unlikely, despite the problems. In 1560, number of active Protestants in Netherlands was not much greater than 5%. Calvinists were as yet a tiny minority. (J H Elliott, Europe Divided: 1559-1598, Fontana, 1968: 126) Yet, by 1563, an enormous campaign had been mounted to remove Cardinal Granvelle. His reorganisation of the Church, though planned for some years by Charles, was seen as a Habsburg incursion on local traditions of liberty and independence. Philip was obliged to get rid of him, even though he insisted that his other unpopular policies would remain: the heresy laws would persist, and there would be no increase in power for the Council of State to the detriment of the monarch. Nevertheless, by coordinating their own campaign and with the pressure of popular unrest, the local aristocrats delivered a 'Petition of Compromise' in 1565, with the signatures of 400 lesser nobles. It wasn't well-received. Its language struck Granvelle as having been drawn directly from the Huguenots. Philip, for his part, had already located what he thought was the source of his woes, since the implementation of Counter-Reformation measures decided at the Council of Trent had revealed that many Calvinists were descended from Jews. (Philip's racist theory about the Reformation has been mentioned in a previous post). The Habsburg monarchy was not in a mood to compromise, then - but it soon discovered that it had no choice. Margaret issued a document of Moderation, mitigating the heresy laws. It wasn't enough, and moderates, such as William of Orange, and the prominent nobles Egmont and Hornes, inisted on yet more concessions (including more grants of land, titles and money for the nobles). Margaret promised to take it up with Philip, but by then it was already somewhat out of control: the local administration was fractious, and Calvinist preachers were able to take advantage of breakdown of central authority in 1564, open-air meetings urging resistance to Inquisition. The atmosphere of these sermons, usually hosted outside towns or in rural areas where the burgher guards had no chance of imposing their authority, is captured in Breughels's, The Sermon of St John the Baptist (below). Throughout 1566, the economy had been in crisis and this was providing much passive and active support for the Calvinists. It was not, incidentally, a crisis as bad as previous ones, such as the terrible winter of 1556-7, but in previous cases of unrest among the peasant and labouring classes, the rebellions had been easily put down by a united ruling class backed by the armed might of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the economy had suffered since the outbreak of the Northern Seven Years War in 1563, which hurt the Baltic grain trade and the cloth-trade with English. Large numbers of wage-labourers were out of work and this time, when they rebelled, they were supported by nobles and bourgeois. Burgomasters later confessed that it was so sudden, and widespread, that they had literally no idea what to do. Many of the sheriffs proved to be crypto-Calvinists and led in the destruction, while others simply refused to fight for popes and church. (Parker, 1990: 69-70; Darby, 2001: 16-17; Elliott, 1968: 133-8).
Iconoclasm and the freedom of the seas
One of the things that tends to get glossed over a little bit in the histories, at least so far as I can see, is the reason why iconoclasm should be so appealing, beyond widespread anti-clericalism, and the Calvinists' repeated instruction that images in a Church was a form of idolatry. It seems to me that you can't understand the widespread acceptance of this, and Philip's insanely angered reaction, simply on account of theology. Many in the Castilian court at the time assumed that it must be a conspiracy (a common enough theme when conservatives are faced with rebellion - Burke believed that the French Revolution was probably the upshot of a conspiracy of Freemasons and moneymen). Other contemporary observers would either put it down to the ruthless determination of the Calvinists, exploiting the economic crisis and the hatred of people for a clergy associated with exploitative practises, or to the exemplary purity of the faith and its matchless appeal. Phyllis Mack Crew raises another possible interpretion: the destruction of religious icons was a magical act, inasmuch as it tested their supposed protection from the Almighty. One of the crucial ideological bases for class power in Catholic Europe had been the belief that the natural world worked by the operation of sacred power. It was certainly an ardently held conviction on the part of Philip II, whose dream of creating a Universal Monarchy under his rule was guided by the belief that his power was endowed to him by God. (Phyllis Mack Crew, Calvinist Preaching and Iconoclasm in the Netherlands: 1544-1569, Cambridge University Press, 1978: 20-24). Of course, there also practical considerations: having destroyed the icons in one Church, you've made it suitable for Protestant worship, thus providing a sheltered enclosure for sermons and prayer (and feckin hymns). (Parker, 1978: 75).
Taking the Duke of Alba's advice, an enraged Philip decided to resolve this with brute force - he sent an army of 10,000 Neapolitand and Spanish troops under Alba's leadership to crush the mutiny. It turned out, however, that Margaret of Parma was able in 1567 to suppress it herself with the help of some magnates who had become rather worried about the extent of the rebellion and the involvement of the lower orders. But Alba had his orders, and he embarked on a campaign of such vicious repression that Margaret resigned in protest, leaving Alba to replace her as governor-general. He established a Council of Troubles, arrested Egmont and Hornes on false charges in 1568 and had them executed, alongside over 1,000 others. He precipitated a fight with William of Orange - who had supported the bid for compromise - by confiscating his property and kidnapping his son, and easily defeated him on the battlefield. He made the taxation system rather efficient and helped sort out another of Philip's perpetual fiscal crises. But, as is so common with the Habsburg monarchy, they had to go one step too far. In 1569, Alba convened the States General, and demanded a 1% income tax, a 5% tax on land sales, and - most controversially - a 10% tax on all other sales (the 'tenth penny'). The States-General refused to grant this, but in 1571, Alba imposed it unilaterally - that, and the coercive means by which the tax was extracted, made Alba loathed, and paved the way for a resumption of the revolt. (Darby, 2001: 16-19).
In its way, the Spanish imposition offended every class, and created the basis for a national revolt. But what was really unique this time was the seaborne resistance. The first such instance of this was when the 'Sea Beggars', a motley crew of privateers, captured the port city of Brill in 1572, and triggered a wave of enthusiastic revolt across the northern regions - especially Holland and Zealand. The Spanish could easily conquer the southern and eastern territories, because the nobles there were still loyal. Yet, although these were the pronvices that had been wealthier, and more populous, they would from then on go into perpetual decline, while the economy of the north took off. The north, especially Holland and Zealand, a) had no significant catholicism remaining, and b) was protected by the extraordinary system of rivers, canals, drainage channels, streams, flooded areas and so on - in fact, the resisting forces would often break the dykes in order to flood areas about to be captured by the Spanish, thus both making their conquest more difficult and depriving them of an economy to feed off. In part, this problem had been created by Charles V who, in battle with France, had bolstered the fortifications of towns on the north sea coast. They alone could not have kept a determined enemy out, but the invading armies were running on credit, which was running out: mutinies abounded. The Spanish thus found themselves in a useless deadlock, and Alba had to be replaced by Don Luis de Requesens, a meliorative governor-general whose immediate first step was to abandon the "tenth penny", even though it increased the financial weakness of the Spanish army. It was on the heresy laws, and the political authority of the monarchy, that Philip would not and could not relent. And nor could he relent on his war with the Turks over the island of Cyprus, which was also sapping the army's finances. Royalist towns were falling one after the other, and the mutinies between 1573 and 1574 both destroyed the army's morale and raised hostility in the southern, catholic provinces. (Elliot, 1968: 260-3; Darby, 2001: 18-21).
It went from bad to worse for Philip - the Spanish had to declare bankruptcy in 1575, and the following March, Requesens died, leaving the organisation of counterinsurgency was in ruins. Brabant and Flanders, loyal provinces, were plundered by further mutinies, and by 1576, the southern elites were united under the duke of Aerschot to seek unity with Holland and Zealand. This arrangement was formalised in the Pacification of Ghent, although a) it ommitted areas like Luxemburg and Limburg, which were still loyal to the Habsburgs, and b) Protestantism was only recognised in Holland and Zealand under the agreement. Don Juan, appointed governor-general in 1577, was able to crack a deal with the States-General, known as the Perpetual Edict, by which the Spanish tercios would leave the country. Their removal in March 1577 broke down the sole basis of north-south unity - but this would be reforged months later when Don Juan returned (under orders of Philip II) with the troops. Catholic magistrates in Brabant and Flanders, meanwhile, faced a series of Calvinist-inspired revolts in 1577 and 1578. William of Orange, emerging as a significant leader of the revolt, was invited to become deputy-governor in Brussels: in September 1577, he arrived in triumph. He tended toward 'moderation'. He tried to negotiate a ‘religious peace’ in 1578, and got the prominent Huguenot writer and diplomat Philippe du Plessis-Mornay to write a treatise – which, oweing to its vacillation, was vilified by both Calvinists and Catholics. Catholic nobles in the south, increasingly opposed to Spain, turned to the Duke of Anjou, the King of France's brother, to give aid, and the States-General recognised him in August 1578 as a 'Defender of the Liberties of the Low Countries'. The Calvinist provinces were more interested in establishing Protestantism as the faith than negotiating a politique-inspired religious truce, as William of Orange wished. In January 1579, seven northern provinces formed the Union of Utrecht, which is regarded as the foundation of the United Provinces. Several southern provinces formed the Union of Arras - Hainault, Artois, Namur, Luxemburg, Limburg - and united with Philip in May 1579. The middle ground, as it were, was disappearing - Orange reluctantly took the side of the Union of Utrecht.
'Outside interference', and a Spanish 'surge'
Queen Elizabeth had been alarmed at some of the successes of Alba's earlier campaign, and was not particularly encouraged when Don Juan died of the plague and was replaced by Margaret's nephew, Alexander Farnese of Parma, an altogether more spirited military challenger. The English state was not keen on a strong Habsburg dynasty, especially given Philip's designs on the English throne and their growing competition over the colonies. (I seem to recall that 1579 was the first year in which the English attempted piracy on Spanish ships?) Until 1580, there had been - amazingly enough - a sustained pretence of loyalty on the part of rebel leaders and their nominal political masters. In March 1580, that fiction was destroyed, as Philip outlawed William of Orange and charged Farnese with the task of finally destroying this rebellion. It was at this point that on-off contacts were initiated by Elizabeth. Orange united with the Duke of Anjou, who was made prince and lord of the Netherlands in January 1581. In July of that year, the States-General passed an Act of Abjuration, formally deposing Philip II as their ruler. (Darby, 2001: 22-4; Parker, 1990: 216).
At this point, it is tempting to see the beginning of the end for Spain. Yet it was by no means certain that Philip would remain deposed. The Duke of Anjou proved inept and unpopular, and had to flee after a failed coup in 1583. Orange died the next year at the hands of assassins. And Farnese notched up a series of stunning successes - Dunkirk and Newport in 1583, Bruges and Ghent in 1584, Brussels and Antwerp in 1585. The rebels became so desperate that they offered sovereignty to both France and England - both declined, but Elizabeth signed a deal with the rebels in 1585 that would enable the Earl of Leicester to send 7,000 troops if the States-General appointed him their governor. Elizabeth did not wish for open breach with Philip, but she did want to restore the stalemate and gain leverage with the Habsburg monarchy. Those who resented the growing dominance of Holland supported Leicester, and Holland would not submit to Leicester's rule. When Leicester's troops mutinied and betrayed Deventer to the Spanish, Holland's position was strengthened, and Leicester eventually had to return to England disappointed.
Philip knew that there had been a breach between England and Spain, and he prepared for an Armada to attack the mainland. This, however, had a number of effects - it diverted resources from Farnese's military machine; resulted in suspended operations and mutines; gave Elizabeth reason to drop support for anti-Holland factions' and thus gave cohesion to the rebels under aggressive Holland leadership. Philip's intervention in the French civil war finally turned Farnese against him. Farnese, before he died in 1592, urged Philip to seek compromise with the Dutch rebels and bow out of the French war. It might have been wise counsel, but at that moment it was not clear that compromise was on the cards. Holland had been handed leadership of the rebellion, and the shift of Spanish forces to France had already given the Dutch a huge advantage. Their economy had taken off, and in 1590 the States-General had declared that they recognised no overlord except the deputies of the provincial Estates. Having launched a full-scale offensive by sea in 1591, they recaptured several republics from Farnese’s onslaught (Ijssel, Nijmegen, Groningen). Territorial gains accumulated until the entirety of provinces was under Dutch control. Philip II's death in 1598 drew the attention of the entire continent to what had been a regional conflict. It was widely understood that a microcosm of the forces revolutionising Europe had been played out here. The Dutch had been able to do something extraordinary, and here I come back to their seaborne stunts. They had blockaded the Spanish coastline, and taken control of the north sea coast of the Netherlands. They went on to make serious incursions into the Spanish colonial trade, and it was the astounding expansion of the rebels into the Far East, Carribean and West Africa that led the Spanish monarch to seek a desperate ceasfire, finally consolidated as the Twelve Year Truce. (Jonathan I Israel, Dutch Primacy in World Trade: 1585-1740, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989; Jonathan I Israel, The Dutch Republic and the Hispanic World 1606-1661, Oxford, 1982) For much of the ensuing century, Dutch society entered into a Golden Age, most known these days for tulips on its stock market and the extraordinary flowering of art. In the vanguard of European economic development and colonialism, it was in that century that they first arrived in South Africa. Hugo Grotius, born during the revolt, would go on to elaborate his legal arguments for Dutch piracy (freedom of the seas). The Dutch successes in controlling the seas transformed European colonialism and with it the whole basis of future empire.
Is this an instance of a 'bourgeois revolution' of the kind that has plagued marxist typology? Well, it involved a noble-bourgeois alliance with the support of labouring classes - but then, so did the English revolution, and so - initially - did the French revolution. Were the Dutch bourgeoisie capitalist at the time? As I say, it had a highly urbanised society, it had a monetised economy, it made extraoardinary technological advances especially in agriculture, it was a highly developed commercial society, it had extensive wage labour, and it was more reliant than usual on overseas trade. The closest comparison that obtains is the Venetian city-state, particularly Florence. Yet, like Florence, Holland did not take the leap to industrial capitalism as England did, slowly being eclipsed toward the end of the 17th Century, especially after the English state acquired a state with a thoroughly integrated ruling class in charge of its domestic and international mission. Perhaps this is because, like the Florentine economy, the essential character of surplus-extraction in the Dutch economy was pre-capitalist commerce and 'political' extraction. Like the tax/office state if pre-revolutionary France, one of the main sources of status and wealth in the Dutch Republic would come to be public office. When the European economy declined, the Dutch Republic's trading advantage declined as well. Instead of investing in productive improvement, the Republic disinvested in agriculture, and committed itself to extra-economic means of leverage, namely the invasion of London - the very venture, ironically enough, that was to be known as the 'Glorious Revolution', and which placed the capitalist class decisively in charge of the English state. The revolt, with its various layers, dimensions and stages, certainly freed an extraordinarily advanced commercial economy from a horrendous economic, political and spiritual burden. It was certainly, in its way, the first 'modern' national war of liberation - yet this merely raises the extent to which 'modernity' is a problematic ideal-type, for in so many ways, the Dutch Republic retained pre-modern forms.