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The Duke of Alba and the Slaughter of the Dutch

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Subjugation of the Netherlands

Philip II of Spain came to power in 1556. Among his many possessions were the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, which fell into his lap through inheritance. (The area is roughly what is now Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands). The people did not care for the rule of a foreign king and rose up against Philip. Religion was also a major factor in what became an orgy of killing.

Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, III Duque de Alba, adopting a grim countenance for his portraitist to capture.

Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, III Duque de Alba, adopting a grim countenance for his portraitist to capture.

The Dutch and the Reformation

The Roman Catholic monk Martin Luther became disgusted with corruption in his church. On October 31, 1517 he posted his vision of religion and the relationship between God and humans. This was the start of the Protestant Reformation and the separation of this movement from Rome.

Luther's message that salvation came from faith and not from buying indulgences from the Vatican caught on among the Dutch.

So, when Philip inherited the Low Countries, he found himself in possession of a region in which a large number of people had accepted Protestantism as its version of Christianity.

In the summer of 1566, there was an outbreak of iconoclasm, the destruction of ornamentation in churches. The Dutch called the attacks Beeldenstorm and it was carried out mostly by Calvinist Protestants.

Paintings, statues, and decorations of all sorts were removed from churches and trashed. It was an attempt cleanse the houses of worship of what were viewed as the gaudy symbols of the Papacy.

This dissent did not sit well with the Spanish monarch who was a zealous persecutor of heretics. He demanded his Inquisition be visited upon the Dutch outcasts and to this end he sent Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba to the Netherlands to get the job done.

Martin Luther and the Reformation

The Council of Troubles

Arriving in the Low Countries in 1567, the Duke of Alba found a country already in open revolt against Spain. With an army of 10,000 at his disposal, the duke set about subduing the rebellious Dutch. His methods were crude and brutal.

To counter the rising tide of Protestantism and rebellion, the Duke of Alba set up what he called the Council of Troubles. The peoples' name for it was the Council of Blood.

People suspected of heresy, involvement in iconoclasm, or rebellion were brought before a tribunal and examined. The Council had some Dutch members but was under the control of Spaniards.

“The trials were conducted completely in writing. Written indictments were produced that had to be answered in writing by the defendants. The verdicts were in writing also. The verdicts generally had little basis in law as it was understood at the time” (Universalium).

Decisions were arbitrary and often involved execution or permanent imprisonment, along with confiscation of all property.

History professor Jonathan Israel has estimated that almost 9,000 people were tried for treason or heresy by the Council of Troubles. Most of these folk had the wisdom to flee the country before proceedings against them began but they ended up losing their possessions.

Those the Council did get its hands on were likely to be tortured until they gave the correct answers to the questions put to them; answers that sealed their guilt and punishment. An estimated 1,000 people were executed in accordance with Council rulings.

All of the Council's activities were guided by the Duke of Alba and their main purpose was to intimidate the population into accepting his edicts without complaint. It also had the side benefit of boosting the treasury's bank account through the confiscations.

Members of the Council of Troubles deliberate on the fate of an alleged heretic.

Members of the Council of Troubles deliberate on the fate of an alleged heretic.

Decapitations in Brussels

The Duke of Alba concluded that Philip's demands to put down Protestantism were being only mildly followed. Two local nobles, the Count of Egmont and the Count of Horne, were condemned by Alba for not carrying out Philip's orders with sufficient enthusiasm.

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Examples needed to be made so the two counts were arrested, tried for treason, and, of course, found guilty. On June 5, 1568, they were taken to the Grand Place in Brussels and beheaded. The duke attended the executions.

The decapitations did not have the desired effect and the two noblemen became martyrs and symbols for the Dutch demand for independence.

The Counts of Horne and Egmont meet their grisly fates.

The Counts of Horne and Egmont meet their grisly fates.

The Sack of Mechelen

Taking away the wealth of nobles still didn't balance the books, so Alba slapped taxes on the people to pay for the upkeep of his occupying army. Some communities, such as Utrecht, refused to pay and Spanish troops were dispatched to make collections. Bloodshed ensued.

William of Orange (also known as William the Silent and William the Taciturn) led the rebellion against the heavy-handed rule of the Duke of Alba. In August 1572, the town of Mechelen invited William and his soldiers into the community. Alba's forces pushed William's back and the duke decided to make an example of the citizens of Mechelen.

The city's people tried to appease Alba's forces with gestures of friendship and singing hymns as the columns of troops approached. To no avail. In Alba's words, he allowed his men “to refresh themselves a little.”

A hundred and fifty years after the event, the Protestant historian Jean Le Clerc wrote that the Spanish troops went on a three-day rampage. He noted that in Mechelen “They beat to death everything they ran into, even [those who were] unarmed; they violated the women and the young daughters, in the presence of their husbands and parents, despite them being Catholics, yes, even the clerical virgins. The city was irrevocably plundered, and the loot was estimated at four times a hundred thousand guilders.”

Eventually, the “refreshed” soldiers ended their terrorizing assaults and the Duke of Alba was able to happily report to King Philip II that in Mechelen “not a nail was left in the wall.”

The Low Countries in 1581. Below the red line was predominantly Catholic, while above was mostly Protestant.

The Low Countries in 1581. Below the red line was predominantly Catholic, while above was mostly Protestant.

The Spanish Furies

Apparently in need of more “refreshment,” Alba unleashed his soldiers on the town of Zutphen in November 1572. Other communities were sacked and their populations massacred.

What has become known as the Spanish Fury continued into 1576. The worst atrocity occurred in Antwerp in November 1576 when an estimated 17,000 people, men, women, and children, were slaughtered.

The savagery in Antwerp was largely carried out by out-of-control Spanish soldiers who had not been paid and were bent on stealing anything of value to make up for lost wages.

The violation of Antwerp had the effect of stiffening the resolve of the Dutch people to resist the Spanish occupation. Within a few days, the Pacification of Ghent unified all of the provinces of the Netherlands, whether loyal to Spain or rebellious, in opposition to the occupiers.

Conflict continued through treaties and treacheries until the Netherlands was accepted as a de facto independent nation in the 1630s. Actual independence came in 1648.

Spanish historian Julián Juderías summed up Philip II's persecution of Dutch Protestants and rebels in the title of his 1914 book, La Leyenda Negra (“The Black Legend”).

Mutineering Spanish soldiers lay waste to Antwerp.

Mutineering Spanish soldiers lay waste to Antwerp.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1573, Philip II recalled the Duke of Alba to Spain having realized his repressive measures had backfired and stirred up Dutch opposition. A less aggressive approach to the Netherlands was taken, but the damage was done—the Dutch would settle for nothing short of independence.
  • In 1585, the Dutch asked Queen Elizabeth I of England to be their monarch. She seems to have entertained the idea seriously and sent her favourite (perhaps, lover) Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester to act as Governor-General of the Netherlands. However, Dudley made rather a mess of the job and returned to England in 1587. There was no more talk of an English monarch on the throne of the Netherlands.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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