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Saturday, July 18, 2009

William the Silent


At the Reformation 500, I had the privilege of reenacting William I, Prince of Orange, who is also known as William the Silent. He fought against the Spanish in the War for Dutch Independence, and ultimately gave the Netherlands their freedom from Spanish and Roman Catholic tyranny. Having done a fair amount of research on him in preparation of my part, I wanted to give a brief overview of his life.

William the Silent was born in 1533, and was the oldest son of thirteen children. His father was also named William, and was the count of Nassau, a small Germanic state. After his father's death, William the Silent would also add Nassau to his long list of titles.

When William was eleven, his cousin Rene, the Prince of Orange, died upon the battlefield, and left the young boy his titles and estates. However, there was one condition. Up until this time he had been trained as a Protestant, but now in order to become the Prince of Orange he must be trained as a Roman Catholic. His parents agreed, and the lad was sent to the court of the Regent of the Netherlands to be educated.

Here the young Prince of Orange (which by the way is a small country), learned to speak fluently five languages, and was trained in the Roman Catholic Religion. He became the page of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and was accepted as a close confidant by this Protestant-hating ruler.

At the age of eighteen William entered the wars, and fought for many years against the French in the Hapsburg-Valois conflicts. He was a successful warrior, and became a general at twenty-three. Although he was not converted from Roman Catholicism to Christianity until his thirties, he was protecting the Reformed much earlier in his life. His name, William the Silent, is derived from an occasion in which by his silence he discovered a plot which would have exterminated the Huguenots in France and the Netherlands.

While William's early years were spent fighting with the Spanish, most of his life he fought against them. When King Phillip II of Spain began to disregard the rights and privileges of his people in the Netherlands, William urged them to rescind their allegiance to the king. This was a proper method of interposition, because of written documents signed by the king and the people, declaring that if the king violated the people's rights, they no longer owed him their allegiance.

King Phillip didn't take kindly to this interference. He also wanted the extermination of the Reformed in the Netherlands. Therefore, he began bloody trials and executions of all suspected of Reformed leanings in the Netherlands. The "Blood Council" was instituted, and an accusation of Reformed faith, whether true or false, was all that was needed to bring about a citizen's death.

William hired several armies of mercenaries to fight against the Spanish troops stationed in the Netherlands. These were defeated, but William was not finished. The next several decades became a Dutch bloodbath as the people, headed by a desperate band of men called the "Sea Beggars", rose up against Spanish tyranny. Through reverses and victories, triumphs and defeats, William of Orange stayed true to the people of the Netherlands.

The Dutch finally secured independence, but not until more people than any other country in Europe had been hung, burned, tortured and drowned for their faith and resistance. What about William? He was loved deeply by his people, and lived as their respected governor until a French Catholic named Balthasar Gerard assassinated him with a pistol.

William had 14 children, and four wives (at different times, of course). He was a man who showed devotion to God, and who stuck with the Dutch people through everything. He was persevering, diligent, and a splendid warrior. He was courteous and kind to all. As you can imagine, it was both great fun, and a great trepidation, to reenact such a man.

~John


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