CHAPTER VI. THE BEGINNINGS OF THE DUTCH REPUBLIC

At the moment of the assassination of William the Silent it might well have seemed to an impartial observer that the restoration of the authority of the Spanish king over the whole of the Netherlands was only a question of time. The military skill and the statecraft of Alexander Farnese were making slow but sure progress in the reconquest of Flanders and Brabant. Despite the miserable inadequacy of the financial support he received from Spain, the governor-general, at the head of a numerically small but thoroughly efficient and well-disciplined army, was capturing town after town. In 1583 Dunkirk, Nieuport, Lindhoven, Steenbergen, Zutphen and Sas-van-Gent fell; in the spring of 1584 Ypres and Bruges were already in Spanish hands, and on the very day of William's death the fort of Liefkenshoek on the Scheldt, one of the outlying defences of Antwerp, was taken by assault. In August Dendermonde, in September Ghent, surrendered. All West Flanders, except the sea-ports of Ostend and Sluis, had in the early autumn of 1584 been reduced to the obedience of the king. The campaign of the following year was to be even more successful. Brussels, the seat of government, was compelled by starvation to capitulate, March 10; Mechlin was taken, July 19; and finally Antwerp, after a memorable siege, in which Parma displayed masterly skill and resource, passed once more into the possession of the Spaniards. The fall of this great town was a very heavy blow to the patriot cause, and it was likewise the ruin of Antwerp itself. A very large part of its most enterprising inhabitants left their homes rather than abjure their religious faith and took refuge in Holland and Zeeland, or fled across the Rhine into Germany. Access to the sea down the Scheldt was closed by the fleets of the Sea Beggars, and the commerce and industry of the first commercial port of western Europe passed to Amsterdam and Middelburg. Meanwhile there had been no signs of weakness or of yielding on the part of the sturdy burghers of Holland and Zeeland. On the fatal July 10, 1584, the Estates of Holland were in session at Delft. They at once took energetic action under the able leadership of Paul Buys, Advocate of Holland, and John van Oldenbarneveldt, Pensionary of Rotterdam. They passed a resolution "to uphold the good cause with God's help without sparing gold or blood." Despatches were at once sent to the Estates of the other provinces, to the town councils and to the military and naval commanders, affirming their own determined attitude and exhorting all those who had accepted the leadership of the murdered Prince of Orange "to bear themselves manfully and piously without abatement of zeal on account of the aforesaid misfortune." Their calm courage at such a moment of crisis reassured men's minds. There was no panic. Steps were at once taken for carrying on the government in Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Stimulated by the example of Holland, the States-General likewise took prompt action. On August 18 a Council of State was appointed to exercise provisionally the executive powers of sovereignty, consisting of eighteen members, four from Holland, three each from Zeeland and Friesland, two from Utrecht and six from Brabant and Flanders. Of this body Maurice of Nassau, William's seventeen year-old son, was nominated first Councillor, and a pension of 30,000 guilders per annum was granted him. At the same time Louise de Coligny was invited to take up her residence in Holland and suitable provision was made for her. William Lewis, son of Count John of Nassau, was elected Stadholder of Friesland. Count Nieuwenaar was Stadholder of Gelderland and shortly afterwards also of Utrecht and Overyssel. Owing to the youth of Maurice the question as to whether he should become Count of Holland and Zeeland or be elected Stadholder was left in abeyance until it should be settled to which of two foreign rulers the sovereignty of the provinces, now that Anjou was dead, should be offered.

In the revolted provinces the responsible leaders were at this time practically unanimous in their opinion that any attempt on their part to carry on the struggle against the power of Spain without foreign assistance was hopeless; and it was held that such assistance could only be obtained by following in the footsteps of William and offering to confer the overlordship of the provinces on another sovereign in the place of Philip II. There were but two possible candidates, Henry III of France and Elizabeth of England.