02 July 2009

William I, the Silent Father of the United Republic of the Netherlands

A man ahead of his time and a ruler of unusual discretion and judgment; William I, called The Silent, and Prince of Orange, was the founding Father of the Netherlands. His influence in establishing the Low Lands as a Republic can be likened to that of George Washington in the United States. His life is one of excitement, mixed loyalties, betrayals, and passion.

William was born in the year 1553, to a noble family living in Dillenburg Germany. His parents were Lutherans and raised young William, along with his eleven younger siblings, in the reformed faith. An aunt in France owned the estates of Orange and when she died childless William inherited the lands and the title “Prince of Orange”. There was just one catch, the will stipulated that William must become Catholic to receive his inheritance. At about this time the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V took a liking to William, that is, to everything but Williams Protestantism. Probably due to purely political reasons young William renounced his faith and became a member of the Catholic Church. But he never forgot the teachings of his childhood.

Charles V depended on William for everything. It is said that when the old emperor abdicated the throne in favor of his son Phillip II in 1556, he leaned his aging frame upon Williams’s strong arm. Charles had tried to discourage Protestantism in his empire, including the Netherlands. Phillip wanted to eradicate the heretics from the face of the earth.

William lost much of his influence in court when Charles resigned. Philip was suspicious of Williams loyalties and rarely kept him informed in matters of state. In 1559 Phillip appointed William Stadholder in the Netherland provinces Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, and Burgundy. Perhaps it was here and now that Williams’s sympathies for the Protestant cause became to emerge. Phillips cruelties and the independent spirit of the Netherlanders were clashing during Williams rule. Finally William could take no more, in 1567 he retreated to his lands in Naussa France to pray and rethink his loyalties. Meanwhile Phillip raised a Spanish army to crush the heretics in the Low Lands.

Like a determined tide William returned in 1568 to take up the cause of religious freedom in the Netherlands. He raised an army and challenged Phillip, who must have felt vindicated in his former suspicions. Time after time the Netherlanders were beaten, but, the country itself was on their side.

The Netherlands is a country wrested from the sea. Patiently the Dutch people toiled to raise dikes and build farms in the low lying countryside. During the eighty year war for independence William advised the people to pull down their dikes and let the sea in. Homes and dikes could be rebuilt but the loss of their childrens future liberty could not be repaid. So the people let the sea fight their battles, and indeed, it was on the sea that the Dutch could not be bested. They were called the “Beggars of the Sea” and their navies were a threat the Spanish could not reckon with. Gradually the Spanish were driven back.

In 1579 William the Silent and the representatives of seven Northern provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, a compact which bound them together for better or worse. Despite his love for the Protestant cause William insisted that religious freedom be given to Catholics as well as Protestants within the new Republic. He was a man ahead of times, realizing that neither faith was going to go away – the problem of conscience was here to stay.

Phillip did not realize this important idea. He was stuck in the past of Christendom, believing like so many that the Catholic Church meant a church headed by the authority of Rome instead of a catholic body of believers in many countries with many beliefs but one head, Jesus Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture. In 1581 Phillip put a price on Williams head, 25,000 guilders. A Frenchman named Balthasar Gerard took up the challenge, and, in 1584, put a bullet through Williams chest. The last words of the Father of the Fatherland were “My God, have pity on my soul. My God, have pity on this poor people.” The Champion of the Netherlands was dead.

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