Eighty Years War

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Oudewater massacre, committed by Spanish soldiers against Dutch civilians.
I shall continue to hold by the Catholic faith; but I will never give any colour to the tyrannical claim of kings to dictate to the consciences of their people, and to prescribe the form of religion that they choose to impose.
—William of Orange, 1565.
It never changes
Icon war2.svg
A view to kill

The Eighty Years' War, also called the Dutch War of Independence, covers the long revolt of the Low Countries against the rule of the Spanish Empire between 1567 and 1648. The war had a number of causes, including resentment against Spain's high tax rates, but the most significant of them was Spain's attempt to enforce Roman Catholicism on the largely non-Catholic population of the Low Countries. The Protestant Reformation had gained a significant number of followers in the region, and Spain's religious intolerance became a serious problem.

During the initial phase of the war, the revolt was largely unsuccessful. Spain had regained control over most of the rebelling provinces. This period is known as the "Spanish Fury" due to the high number of horrific massacres, mass lootings, and total destruction of multiple cities between 1572 and 1579. Under the leadership of William of Orange, the northern provinces of the Low Countries were able to oust the Spanish in 1581 and create the Republic of the Netherlands. Dutch colonialism began at this point, as the Netherlands was able to snipe a number of Portuguese and Spanish colonies, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1609, the war seemingly ended when Spain finally consented to the independence of the Dutch Republic. However, religious tensions in the Holy Roman Empire sparked the even more devastating Thirty Years' War, which saw Spain and the Netherlands go to war once again.

The Thirty and Eighty Years' Wars ended at the same time with the Peace of Westphalia. The Netherlands was once again recognized as an independent realm, but their southern provinces (now Belgium and Luxembourg) with their higher Catholic population were kept under Spain. The eight decades of religious war came at a massive human cost, with an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 victims, of which 350,000 to 400,000 were civilians killed by disease and what would later be considered war crimes.[1]


Hapsburg acquisition of the Netherlands[edit]

The first bit of necessary background is to explain why in the hell the king of Spain was in charge of the Netherlands, a densely populated region hundreds of miles to the north with France stuck in between. The answer is monarchy. Ever notice how most maps of Medieval countries look like vomit? This is another case of that happening.

The Duchy of Burgundy was a mostly-independent part of northwestern France during the Middle Ages, and it managed to get its hands on a significant portion of the Low Countries.[2] Its last duke, Charles the Bold, died in battle in 1477 with only his daughter as his heir. Mary of Burgundy suddenly became the most desired bachelorette in Europe because whoever married her would also get her titles in the Netherlands. She rejected the French prince for being 13 years younger than her and instead chose to marry into the Austrian House of Hapsburg.[3] As a result, the Netherlands came under the rule of the Archduke of Austria. It also sparked a centuries-long feud between France and the Hapsburgs. As the Hapsburg empire expanded to include Spain, they partitioned their holdings between their heirs and passed the Netherlands off to Philip II, who also became king of Spain.[4]

Spain's finances[edit]

Hapsburg Spain's European holdings before Dutch independence (and during the Iberian UnionWikipedia).

Although it ruled over the world's first global empire, Spain began to slide into an era of decline during the early and middle 17th Century. Spain's colonies in Mexico and Peru produced as much as 70% of the world's gold and silver at the time, but this proved to be the empire's undoing.[5] At the time, every country used gold and silver as their main forms of currency, and Spain's massive imports of those valued metals effectively meant that they were injecting an amount of raw currency into their economy that could not be matched by the amount of goods it actually produced. You can guess the result. While market prices rose (by 400%!), Spain ended up having to fritter away all of that gold to buy imports of actually useful things like food from other countries.[5] Financial mismanagement meant that the empire was in serious debt despite possessing more wealth than any nation before it.

To make things worse, Spain was in a near-constant state of war throughout the century. Spain fought a devastating series of wars against France for control over Italy that involved much of Europe and lasted between 1494 and 1559.[6] Then Charles V of Spain, elected Holy Roman Emperor, had to deal with the German Peasants' War.[7] The Hapsburgs' most deadly foe by far was the Awesomeman Ottoman Empire led by Suleiman the Magnificent, which conquered its way to the gates of Vienna itself and plundered the Mediterranean with hundreds of ships.[8]

As a result of these factors, Spain was desperately searching for money. Spain levied a destructive tax called the "alcabala" on its own territory as well as its holdings in Italy and the Low Countries; it impacted just about every transaction in Spain's European empire and sparked a wave of revolts and tax evasion.[9] Spain also imposed a permanent war tax, a tax on Catholic Church tithes, tariffs, and a tax on livestock. The Low Countries found these taxes and wars especially burdensome. The area was heavily urbanized, and its economy was based on trade. This was problematic because the Low Countries did most of their trading with nations Spain had made into enemies like France, England, and the Ottomans.[10] Here's a helpful hint for you wannabe politicians out there: people don't much like being taxed to kingdom come for wars they think are stupid. Spain's history in this era also offers another nugget of wisdom: "forever wars" can humble even the most dominant of world powers.

Religious persecution[edit]

Defacing the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp, 1566.
As it appears that the aforesaid Martin Luther is not a man, but a devil under the form of a man, and clothed in the dress of a priest, the better to bring the human race to hell and damnation, therefore all his disciples and converts are to be punished with death and forfeiture of all their goods.
—Charles V of Spain, edict to the Netherlands.[11]

The leaders and followers of the Protestant Reformation had no deadlier foe than the House of Hapsburg. Things started to get bad in the Netherlands right after the Diet of Worms, in which Martin Luther was convicted of heresy. Emperor Charles V of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire infamously issued the Edict of Worms in 1521, which forbade the teaching of Protestant ideas even in private.[12] Persecution of Protestants in the region grew most severe after the 1550 "Edict of Blood," which ordered that anyone following the Protestant movement would be put to death.[13] About 1,300 people were executed over matters of religion between 1523 and 1566.[14]

Continuing religious issues combined with Spain's growing economic crisis brought things to a head in 1566. The Spanish governor of the Netherlands at the time, Margaret of Parma, temporarily loosened the thumbscrews at the request of Dutch nobles and to buy time for her to consult the new emperor, Philip II, on what to do.[15] The still-infuriated Dutch population used the respite to launch a series of iconoclastic riots aimed at destroying Catholic relics and church decorations.[16] Called the "Beeldenstorm", or the "Iconoclastic Fury", the riots enraged the Spanish government, who dispatched troops into the region.

Eight decades of war[edit]

The Duke of Alba with his hittin' stick.

The Dutch Revolt[edit]

After the Dutch iconoclastic riots of 1566, Spanish authorities were able to largely gain control of the Low Countries. The most notable event of this period was the Battle of Oosterweel, in which Spanish forces destroyed an army of Dutch Calvinists and executed the roughly 700-800 survivors.[17] Margaret of Parma reported to Philip II that the situation was under control, but this didn't stop Philip from continuing his army's deployment to the Netherlands.[18] In command of these forces was Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, the third Duke of Alba. Alba took over from Margaret as governor of the Netherlands, and he established a special court called the Council of Troubles, now nicknamed the "Council of Blood." The Blood Council's reign of terror saw it condemn thousands of people to death without due process and drive the most powerful Dutchmen (including William of Orange) into exile while seizing their property.[19] Things got even worse when Alba decided to impose a permanent 10% sales tax on the already weary Dutch public; the Council of Troubles imprisoned and tortured local officials who were reluctant to impose the new tax.[19]

William of Orange, also called William the Silent due to his initial non-partisan reaction to the revolt, helped turn the revolt into an overall war. Alba had arrested William's son in hopes that it would force the man to support the Spanish government.[20] Instead, Alba only succeeded in pissing William off and turning him into the Netherlands' greatest leader. Orange returned from exile in 1568 with his own armies and fought a series of engagements meant to drive Alba out of the Netherlands.[21][22] Dutch guerrillas were able to retake much of the northern Netherlands.[23]

The Spanish Fury[edit]

Piles of corpses in Antwerp, 1576.

The Duke of Alba decided to terrorize the rebels into submission by making examples of the cities he was able to take for Spain. This policy started in 1572 when his forces destroyed the city of Mechelen and slaughtered its residents, even though the Catholic population of the town had welcomed his forces.[24] Alba did it again to the smaller town of Zutphen and unleashed a wave of murder, looting, and rape so hideous that nearby rebel garrisons surrendered immediately.[25] He did it yet again in Naarden (boasting that "not a man born escaped") in order to intimidate William of Orange's forces in Holland and Zeeland, but this time the horror only strengthened the rebels' resolve.[25]

Despite his successes, Alba was still in political trouble due to the repeated complaints about his conduct as well as the fact that he was burning through Spain's cash like nobody's business. He lost Philip II's favor and was recalled to Spain in 1573, where he was placed under house arrest.[26] Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of the Spanish Fury. Spain had just about run out of money in 1576, and their troops near Antwerp mutinied and decided to loot and ransack the city to sustain themselves.[27] More loyal Spanish troops also committed the Oudewater Massacre in 1575.[28]

Rise of the Dutch Republic[edit]

The massacre at Antwerp finally convinced some of the Catholics to put aside their religious differences with the Protestants and unite with them against the Spanish throne. This was reflected by provinces of the Habsburg Netherlands' joint issuance of the Pacification of Ghent, a declaration which demanded the withdrawal of Spanish forces and an end to religious persecution of Protestants.[29] This development never amounted to a truly united effort against the king of Spain, as his new commander Alexander Farnese, the Duke of Parma, was able to retake the southern Netherlands and win back their allegiance.[30] Faced with the truly renewed threat from the Spanish, the northern Dutch provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Friesland, and Groningen) united themselves as a confederation in 1579.[30] The Union of Utrecht, as the declaration is called, became the legal foundation of the Dutch Republic. This finally happened in 1581, when the Dutch states collectively passed the Act of Abjuration in which they announced their secession from Spain and organized themselves as a loose republic.[31]

England and the Spanish Armada[edit]

The Spanish Armada, 1588.

Fortune turned against the Dutch rebels once again when their moral and political leader, William of Orange, was assassinated in 1584.[32] This represented a massive blow to the rebels' morale, and what followed was a series of rapid Spanish victories. The Dutch revolt was saved by Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth had done quite a bit to anger Spain, first by sending Francis Drake to raid their treasure fleets, and second by providing financial and material support to the Dutch provinces.[33] Philip II, being Philip II, decided to fix this situation by declaring war.

To accomplish this huge undertaking, Spain and its remaining European subjects set about building one of the largest war fleets of the era. The Spanish Armada comprised 123 vessels, 8,000 sailors, and 2,500 guns.[33] Spain's war effort ran into problems from the beginning, as Francis Drake was able to successfully raid the fleet and sink some of its ships, forcing Spain to spend even more money to replace the losses.[33]

Apparently God must be a Protestant, because the actual deployment of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a disaster. Spain's fleet was delayed by bad weather conditions, and when they finally met the English near Plymouth, more harsh weather gave the English the edge they needed to come out victorious.[33] The English fleet harassed the broken Spanish fleet and forced them to sail back home the long way around the northern tip of Scotland.[34] The Spanish fleet lost half of its ships and three-quarters of its sailors.[33] The nation-breaking financial burden of the undertaking and the loss finally drove Spain into bankruptcy.[33] From then on, it was effectively impossible for Spain to conquer either England or the Netherlands.

The Dutch make a comeback[edit]

Maurice of Orange at the Battle of Nieuwpoort in 1600.

Luckily for the Dutch, they managed to find three leaders capable of living up to William of Orange's example. The first was Maurice of Orange, William's son, who used his interests in mathematics and finance to modernize the Dutch Republic's armies and improve his soldiers' ability to win sieges.[35] Maurice was aided in this by his cousin, William Louis, stadtholder of Friesland.[36] Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, one of the diplomats who negotiated the Union of Utrecht, became the Republic's chief minister and negotiated the temporary alliance between the Republic, France, and England.[37]

Under their new military leadership, the Republic was able to drive the Spanish out of its territory by winning a series of victories between 1590 and 1597.[36] Their attempt to liberate the southern Netherlands, however, stalled between 1598 and 1606. During this period, the Republic founded the Dutch East India Company, which quickly set about colonizing Indonesia and building plantations to cash in on the spice trade.[38]

Things were also getting still worse for Spain. They had to deal with a separate war with France, who decided to take advantage of Spain's weakness and financial troubles to attack their old enemy.[39] Spain also tried assembling a new armada in 1596 to invade England once more in the hopes that it would stop Elizabeth I's support for the Dutch, but storms struck the fleet and destroyed it before any of their ships even reached the English Channel.[40] Apparently not getting the message, Spain tried again in 1597. This time, their ships made it to the Channel before being hit by another storm. Some of their ships actually managed to land troops in England, who milled around for a bit before going back home due to a lack of reinforcements.[41] These losses drove Spain into bankruptcy again.

The Twelve Years' Truce[edit]

The Synod of Dort.

With the Dutch having met a stalemate and Spain needing to deal with its ravaged economy, both sides opened negotiations for peace. Unfortunately, the two parties were unable to agree on certain matters. Spain demanded that the Dutch cease their colonial exploits anywhere south of the equator, which the Dutch naturally refused.[42] The Dutch also refused to allow freedom of religion for Catholics in their country, as they viewed it as a Spanish attempt to subvert them.[43] Nonetheless, the truce came into effect in 1609, allowing both sides to rebuild their forces and finances for a dozen years.

The issue of freedom of religion in the Dutch provinces helped spark religious strife there between Protestant factions. On one side were the Remonstrants, who advocated for a more liberal and tolerant theology,[44] and on the other were the Gomarists, who opposed toleration of Catholics and Jews.[45] The Reformed Church of the Netherlands held the Synod of Dort between 1618 and 1619 to discuss the theological issues. The synod rejected the Remonstrants and eventually expelled them from the Netherlands.[46] Even Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, a member of the Dutch leading triumvirate, was not immune to the purge of the Remonstrants. Oldenbarnevelt supported a more liberal church in the hopes that it would help keep the peace, and this position led him to have a falling-out with Maurice of Orange, resulting in his arrest and execution.[37]

Back at it[edit]

Dutch and Portuguese fleets battle off the coast of India, 1638.
See the main article on this topic: Thirty Years War

The truce was strained by the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War in Central Europe, which saw Hapsburg Austria and her allies face off against Bohemia and a coalition of Protestant German states. Although neither side desired a continuation of their war, negotiations to extend the truce broke down over various issues of religion and colonialism. Spain and the Netherlands were at war again in 1621. Maurice of Orange led Dutch armies into the Rhineland, where they competed against the Spanish once more. The resulting campaigns were largely inconclusive, in large part due to Maurice's failing health and low energy.[47]

Maurice finally died in 1625, and he was succeeded by his younger half-brother, Frederick Henry. Frederick based his war strategy on avoidance of pitched battles, instead focusing on sieging and capturing fortified areas.[48] He was also far more religiously tolerant than his half-brother was. Despite the new leadership, the Dutch Republic still proved too weak militarily to capture the southern Netherlands.

The Dutch saw more success overseas, where they were able to seize many colonies from Spain and Portugal such as Ceylon, Malabar, Formosa, various Caribbean islands, and a large chunk of Brazil.[49] Spain decided to try that whole "let's build a giant armada" thing again in 1639, this time being crushed in battle by the Dutch fleet.[50] This battle finally destroyed what remained of Spain's naval dominance.

End and aftermath[edit]

The war ended in 1648 alongside the other European religious conflicts. Peace between the Dutch and Spanish largely confirmed the preexisting Twelve Years Truce: the Dutch Republic would remain independent while the southern Netherlands would remain under Spain. The war had a significant impact on world history. Spain, having reigned as Europe's leading power for more than a century, began its era of decline due to the financial and military ruination of its constant wars and the loss of the Dutch provinces.[51] By the time the United States finished it off during the Spanish-American War, the Spanish Empire was a shadow of its former self. The rise and dominance of the Dutch Republic saw the influence of the southern Netherlands sharply decrease.

Perhaps the most important implication was against monarchy. For the first time in the Common Era, a population had revolted against its "rightful" king and established a republic. The acceptance of this by Europe's monarchies in 1648, combined with the Peace of Westphalia's implications for religious liberty, created a powerful example and could have likely helped lead to the Enlightenment.

See also[edit]


  1. Victimario Histórico Militar. Spanish Society of Re Militari.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Duchy of Burgundy.
  3. Mary of Burgundy. ThoughtCo.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Habsburg Netherlands.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Spanish Empire. Econtrader.
  6. Italian Wars. Britannica.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on German Peasants' War.
  8. Ottoman-Habsburg war. New World Encyclopedia.
  9. The Decline of the Spanish Empir. New World Economics.
  10. Revolt of the Netherlands. Heritage History.
  11. Religious Cruelty Marked Dutch War for Freedom. Watchtower Online Library.
  12. The Edict Of The Diet Of Worms, May 1521. Salem Community College.
  13. 1506-1555 The Netherlands under Charles V . Rijksmuseum
  14. Tracy, J.D. (2008), The Founding of the Dutch Republic: War, Finance, and Politics in Holland 1572–1588, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-920911-8 p. 66
  15. 1566 Miracle Year. Rijksmuseum
  16. Arnade, Peter J., Beggars, Iconoclasts, and Civic Patriots: the Political Culture of the Dutch Revolt, Cornell University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-8014-7496-5, ISBN 978-0-8014-7496-5
  17. The Eighty Years' War. Sutori.
  18. Tracy, J.D. (2008), The Founding of the Dutch Republic: War, Finance, and Politics in Holland 1572–1588, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-920911-8 p. 72
  19. 19.0 19.1 Council of Troubles. Britannica.
  20. 80 Years War Summary - The Dutch Revolt. The Spanish War History.
  21. See the Wikipedia article on Battle of Dahlen.
  22. See the Wikipedia article on Battle of Heiligerlee (1568).
  23. Geuzen. Britannica.
  24. See the Wikipedia article on Spanish Fury at Mechelen.
  25. 25.0 25.1 pages 232-234 of Beggars, Iconoclasts, and Civic Patriots: the Political Culture of the Dutch Revolt by Peter Arnade.
  26. Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3er duque de Alba. Britannica.
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Sack of Antwerp.
  28. See the Wikipedia article on Siege of Oudewater (1575).
  29. Pacification of Ghent. Britannica.
  30. 30.0 30.1 The Union of Utrecht. Constitution Society.
  31. Act of Abjuration, 1581.
  32. William of Orange 1533-1584. History Today.
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 33.3 33.4 33.5 The Spanish Armada. The Spanish War History.
  34. Spanish Armada. Britannica.
  35. Maurice. Britannica.
  36. 36.0 36.1 William Louis. Britannica.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Britannica.
  38. The Dutch East India Company. ThoughtCo.
  39. Knecht, Robert J. (2002). The French Religious Wars 1562-1598. Osprey Publishing. pp. 91. ISBN 9781841763958.
  40. See the Wikipedia article on 2nd Spanish Armada.
  41. See the Wikipedia article on 3rd Spanish Armada.
  42. Borschberg, Peter (2011). Hugo Grotius, the Portuguese and Free Trade in the East Indies. NUS Press and KITLV Press. ISBN 9789971695194. p. 78-81.
  43. Groenveld, Simon (2009). Het Twaalfjarig Bestand, 1609-1621, De jongelingsjaren van de Republiek der Verenigde Nederlanden. Haags Historisch Museum. ISBN 978-90-72550-05-7. p. 41-52.
  44. Remonstrant. Britannica.
  45. Gomarists. Britannica.
  46. Synod of Dort. Britannica.
  47. Chapter X: From the End of the Twelve Years’ Truce to the Peace of Muenster.
  48. Frederick Henry, prince of Orange, count of Nassau. Britannica.
  49. See the Wikipedia article on Evolution of the Dutch Empire.
  50. Battle of the Downs, (Naval battle), 21 October 1639. History of War.
  51. Eighty Years' War: Aftermath. New World Encyclopedia.