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The Eighty Year’s War

Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom: Dutch ships ramming Spanish galleys off the English coast

Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom: Dutch ships ramming Spanish galleys off the English coast

Political background

The Eighty Year’s War began in 1568 when the Dutch Provinces of the Habsburgs rebelled against King Philip II of Spain. The rebellion did not come out of the blue, of course, there were several reasons why the Dutch decided to rebel against Philip. These factors included resentment of a distant foreign monarch, religious tensions and unpopular taxation.

Europe was going through fundamental changes in the 16th century, and one of the main reasons for this was religion. The Reformation swapped through the continent in the middle decades of the century and created many conflicts between the supporters of the Catholic Church and the supporters of the reformers. The reformers were not united among themselves either, as many different creeds emerged, such as Lutherans, Calvinists and Anabaptists, just to name a few.

The Netherlands was as disunited as any part of Europe in terms of religion. The Habsburg rulers of the provinces were staunch Catholics, and Emperor Charles ordered a persecution of the Protestants in 1523. However, despite his devout stand by Rome, it is believed that the imposition of Charles's unifying decrees became lax with time. Charles was born and brought up in a more tolerant and relaxed Europe during the 1500s and 1510s, his Erasmian upbringing was incompatible with the harsh persecutions that his son Philip, who succeeded his father in 1555, was prepared to unleash.

Unlike Emperor Charles, Philip was not a native of his Burgundian provinces, he was a Spaniard through and through, and apart from his Castilian subjects, he was a foreigner to the rest. Unlike his father, who kept a moving court and travelled through his empire, Philip preferred to reside in Madrid and control his empire through governors, viceroys and councils. This was a sound strategy on the one hand, as he could put people he trusted in power, but if these people were unpopular among the locals, everyone knew who named the unpopular official in the first place.

Religious tensions and unpopular crown officials, primarily the cardinal Granvelle, led to resentment building in the first decade of Philip’s rule, which reached a boiling point in the mid-1560s.

Cornelis Kruseman: Philip II, King of Spain, Reproaches William I, Prince of Orange, in Vlissingen upon his Departure from the Netherlands in 1559

Cornelis Kruseman: Philip II, King of Spain, Reproaches William I, Prince of Orange, in Vlissingen upon his Departure from the Netherlands in 1559

Revolt began

A group of noblemen under the leadership of William of Orange united and petitioned their resentments to the governor of the provinces,

Margaret of Parma. A part of the reformers also turned on the Catholic Churches, and in what became known as the Iconoclastic Fury, they ransacked and destroyed many Catholic Churches throughout the Netherlands. Margaret made many concessions to the Protestants, especially the Calvinists, and in 1567 the royal army of the Netherlands crushed the rebels at the Battle of Oosterweel. The leading rebels were defeated and executed. Margaret wrote to Philip that order has been reestablished, but by the time the letter arrived in Madrid, Philip has already dispatched an elite force of Spanish veterans, under the command of the Duke of Alba, to take control over the Netherlands.

The harsh and cruel Alba took over, leaving Margaret to resign in protest. Alba founded the Council of Troubles, which the Dutch renamed the Council of Blood, to restore order in the provinces. In reality, he probably did more damage than good, as his highly repressive methods lead to the execution of hundreds of people suspected of ties to the rebels. Philip was also short on funds and ordered Alba to maintain himself and his army with local taxes, which led to high taxation, and further resentment.

Exiled Dutch nobles tried to challenge Alba, but three attempts were repelled in 1568. Things turned around in 1572 when the Sea Beggars(Dutch exiles) were expelled from England and captured the port of Brill. The capture of the port served as the spark that lit the fuse, and many other towns joined the rebel cause. Alba and his son tried to restore order using their brutal methods, but their efforts failed, and eventually, Alba was replaced.

Philip’s coffers were severely overextended by his many military commitments, which often led his troops unpaid. The troops mutinied in 1576 and turned on the province that they were supposed to defend. The mutiny paralysed the Spanish army for a short time and led to the widespread devastation caused by the mutineers. It took over a year for the Spanish to reestablish control, but they eventually succeeded. The troubles led to the formation of two alliances, the Union of Utrecht on the rebel sides, which is seen today as the founding of the Dutch Republic, and the Union of Arras( the Spanish loyalists).

Dirk van Delen: Iconoclasm in a Church

Dirk van Delen: Iconoclasm in a Church

The Spanish forces were finally reorganized and capable of leading offensive actions by 1579 when the duke of Parma started a 9 year of the highly successful campaign against the rebels. The rebels tried to find foreign protectors by offering to the Duke of Anjou to become their ruler, but the cooperation failed. After the assassination of William of Orange Queen Elizabeth of England received a similar offer, but she rejected it also.

Elizabeth rejected a crown, but she was happy enough to send aid in the form of an armed force of 8,000 soldiers under the command of the Duke of Leicester. Some English garrisons proved themselves unreliable though and betrayed three fortified towns to the Spanish.

Philip overextended himself once again in 1588 when he ordered the Duke of Parma to holt his attacks against the Dutch in preparation for the invasion of England. The Spanish invasion turned into a huge fiasco, as the Armada was defeated, scattered and forced to make a trip around the islands to return home to Spain decimated.

Civil war once again erupted in France also in 1589, and Philip ordered his troops in Flanders to intervene in France on the behalf of the Catholic League.

The English and French distractions gave time for the Dutch leadership to reorganize their armies. The son of William of Orange, Maurice of Nassau, proved himself to be a brilliant military mind, and in a couple of years, he turned the ragtag Dutch army made up of militias and mercenaries into a capable fighting force. He reformed his infantry formations by using much shallower lines which allowed him to utilise firepower more efficiently, he invented the counterstep and put more emphasis on the usage of artillery by increasing the size of the artillery train of his army.

Maurice reformed his armed forces and conquered many towns and fortresses from the Spanish, while the Spanish Army of Flanders was occupied with campaigning in France until 1598. By the time Spain made peace with France in 1598, they have lost over a dozen of towns and were literally kicked out of the Northern provinces.

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Philip II died in 1598 and was followed on the throne by his son Philip III. The young king and his ministers, principally the Duke of Lerma, were a lot more flexible in their approach to the Dutch questions than the rigid Philip II was, but it took another 11 years and numerous land and sea battles for the two sides to reach a temporary agreement for twelve years( the Twelve Years Truce).

Willem van de Velde the Elder: The Battle of Dunkirk

Willem van de Velde the Elder: The Battle of Dunkirk

Truce and the resumption of conflict

A truce for twelve years was signed in 1609. According to the treaty, the Spanish crown recognised the independence of the Dutch Republic, the trade embargoes over Dutch ships were lifted, and the Dutch were given access to the huge Spanish colonial empires in America and Asia.

During the years of peace, the Dutch were gaining power rapidly. The wealth of the Republic was expanding thanks to its efficient banking system and merchant marine. The expansions and growth of Dutch power were not unnoticed by the leading Spanish officials either, and a war party advocating the resumption of conflict when the truce expired gained strength year after year.

When Philip III died, he was succeeded by his young son Philip IV, whose chief minister, Count-Duke Olivares, was a firm supporter of the war party, and the resumption of the conflict was widely anticipated throughout Europe.

Before the two powers could resume their conflict, another war broke out in Central Europe, the Thirty Year’s War. Both the Dutch and Spanish subsidised the fighting participants, unsurprisingly the Dutch were financing the Protestants, while the Spanish were their Catholic cousins of Austria.

The Dutch, under the leadership of Maurice of Nassau, who succeeded in eliminating his rival Oldenbarnevelt, and the Spanish, under the leadership of the Count-Duke Olivares, resumed the conflict in 1621.

Unlike Philip II, Olivares was not counting on wiping the Dutch Republic off the map. He was far too much of a realist to entertain such ideas, but he also firmly believed that the twelve-year truce was disfavourable to the interests of Spain, so a new accommodation had to be reached with the Dutch.

Olivares and the Spanish leaders in Flanders were conducting a mixed land and sea war approach. General Spinola was making some modest headway in Flanders, most notably by capturing Breda, and privateers from Dunkirk were hunting Dutch merchant ships.

The Spanish also restarted economic warfare by kicking out Dutch ships from their empire.

Up until 1628, the Spanish probably had the better of the Dutch, but once again, Spanish forces became overextended when Spain entered a conflict in Italy, the War of the Mantuan Succession. The overextended Spanish were counterattacked by the Dutch, who under the leadership of Maurice’s half brother Frederick Henry pushed south into the Spanish Netherlands. Frederick Henry improved the Dutch military and achieved military superiority on the field until 1635, when the Cardinal-Infante arrived with reinforcements.

France also entered the conflict in 1635, and from this moment on, the Army of Flanders was waging a two-front war. Attacked from the south by the French, and from the north, by the Dutch, the Spanish resisted valiantly in the remaining years of the war.

As the war continued, a powerful peace party was emerging in the Netherlands, and the growing influence of this faction limited the ability of Frederick Henry to wage war as effectively as he hoped. Internal revolts in Portugal and Catalonia further weakened the already overextended Spanish. The entrance of France cut off the Spanish Road(reinforcements from Italy to Flanders), which forced the Spanish to send troops on the risky sea routes also. One such episode ended in disaster in 1639 when the Dutch smashed the Spanish fleet with reinforcements at the Battle of the Downs.

As the political situation of Spain deteriorated, the Spanish became more open to an end to the hostilities, while the growing peace faction forced Frederick Henry to side with them and enter negotiations with Spain.

Peace was finally concluded in 1638 when the two parties signed the Treaty of Munster, which recognised the independence of the Dutch Republic, and finally concluded the Eighty Year’s War.


Conflicts of Empires:Spain,the Low Countries and the struggle for World Supremacy by Jonathan Israel

Empires and entrepots:the Dutch,the Spanish monarchy and the Jews by Jonathan Israel

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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