William of Orange was an ambitious nobleman who grew into a rebel leader and was later honoured as the “father of the country”, as the founder of a new Dutch state. He himself had never envisaged the emergence of an independent state.
William was born in 1533 at Dillenburg Castle (in Germany). His parents were Lutheran, but when he inherited the principality of Orange (in France) in 1544 and could call himself “Prince”, emperor Charles V insisted that the young prince be raised a Catholic. For this reason, from age twelve, William grew up at the royal court in Brussels. He was raised in the French language in his new surroundings in a manner that befitted his new standing.
From 1555 onwards, William of Orange acquired high positions. As a military commander, member of the Council of State, Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece and Stadholder (governor) of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht he was one of the most powerful noblemen in the Low Countries. However, his relationship with Philip II, Charles V’s successor, quickly deteriorated. William became the major spokesman of the noble opposition party. They were arguing for the persecution of heretics to be scaled down and they resisted the rise of professional civil servants in the administration of the country. The rise of the new civil servants meant that the nobility were losing their traditional positions.
After the debacle of the iconoclastic outbreak, William fled to Dillenburg. From here, from 1568 onwards, he undertook several military assaults on the Low Countries to bring to an end the rule of Duke of Alva. He also used propaganda (pamphlets, battle songs and cartoons) in this battle. One of the products of this period is the Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmus. William had little initial success. Only when the Sea Beggars took Den Briel by accident on 1 April 1572 did the Rebellion begin to receive widespread support.
Against all expectations, the rebels in Holland and Zeeland continued to hold fast due in part to the perseverance of William of Orange. With the Pacification of Ghent in 1576 the rebels even managed to make peace with the various provinces. The ideals of William of Orange seemed within reach: the restoration of the seventeen Burgundian Low Countries under the administration of the nobles, and the resolution of the prevailing religious differences, based on tolerance. However, the new unity did not last.
In 1580, Philip II placed a bounty on the head of William of Orange. William’s response was to write an Apologie (defence) and the States General of the rebelling provinces responded with a Plakkaat van verlatinghe (Oath of Abjuration). Both these documents had the same message: resistance was justified because the king was acting like a tyrant. On 10 July 1584 a Catholic, Balthasar Gerards, shot William of Orange and brought an end to his life. William appeared to have achieved nothing, but less than twenty-five years later the rebellious provinces had developed into a self-confident Republic and William of Orange was regarded as the founding father of the new state.