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The assassination of Prince William of Orange by a French Catholic in 1584 had immediate political consequences and a profound effect on the course of history. It was a serious setback for Protestants in the Netherlands, who were struggling for independence from the Catholic rule of the Hapsburg Empire. But the crime's ramifications were even more earth-shattering, for it heralded the arrival of a new threat to the safety of world leaders and the security of nations: a pistol that could easily be concealed on one's person and employed to lethal effect at point-blank range.
In this provocative, fascinating, and enormously engaging work, noted author and historian Lisa Jardine brilliantly recounts the brazen act of religious terrorism that changed everything—and explores its long and bloody legacy, from the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to the slaying of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, to the plague of terror and violent zealotry that infects our world today.
How the Prince of Orange
Came to Have a Price on his Head
The Protestant prince who fell victim to a Catholic assassin's three bullets in July 1584 had not been destined from birth to lead a nation. When William of Nassau was born in the castle of Dillenburg, in Nassau in Germany, in 1533, nobody could have imagined that he would one day become the greatest of all national heroes remembered in the Netherlands--Holland's 'pater patriae', the 'father' of his adopted country, celebrated down to the present day in the rousing stanzas of the Dutch national anthem.6 The eldest son of William the Rich and Juliana of Stolberg, and a German national, William inherited from his father the comparatively modest title of Count of Nassau. But in 1544 his uncle Rene´ of Chalon, hereditary ruler of the small independent principality of Orange in southern France, died on the battlefield, leaving no direct descendants. Orange was a Habsburg possession. After delicate negotiations between the Habsburg Emperor Charles V (of whose extensive empire the Orange territory ultimately formed a part) and William's father, the eleven-year-old William unexpectedly became heir to the Chalon titles. He was immediately removed from his family home and sent to reside at the ancient seat of the Nassau family in Bredain the Low Countries. From there he could be conveniently introduced into Charles V's court at Antwerp, to be raised in a manner befitting the designated ruler of a Habsburg territory.
The suddenness of William's elevation, at such a formative moment, left its lasting mark. Throughout his life his reputation was as a man of considered actions and a steady temperament--or, according to his enemies, a man who hedged his bets and would never speak his mind. In the public arena he displayed a combination of humanity, seriousness and personal restraint derived from his early modest upbringing, coupled with an easy ability to operate smoothly in the midst of all the magnificence of European court protocol and the procedural intricacies of diplomacy and power politics. His considerable skill as a negotiator depended on a relaxed familiarity with the forms and ceremonies of international power-broking, acquired during his period in the household of Charles V. Over and over again in the course of the 'Dutch Revolt' these were the skills needed to persuade ill-assorted parties to sign up to a political alliance, to retrieve lost ground by negotiation, or to gain time or a vital truce, in the all-too-evenly balanced conflict in which William became caught up--most probably against his better judgement--and which consumed the last twenty years of his life.
If William the Silent was not the kind of candidate we might expect for political leadership in the northern Netherlands, neither was he an obvious choice as the leading European protagonist on behalf of the Protestant cause. Although his family was Protestant, he himself was by no means a settled adherent to any sect of the reformed religion by birth or upbringing. One important outcome of the circumstances of his youth was William's complicated attitude towards the religious disputes of the day. During his father's lifetime, the house of Nassau moved closer to the evangelical Protestant princes in Germany. From puberty, however, amid the magnificence of the Catholic Antwerp court of Charles, where the Prince of Orange entered the Council of State on the succession of Philip of Spain as ruler in the Low Countries in 1555, and was elected a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece by Philip in August 1559, it was assumed that William would uphold the Catholic confession of his Habsburg imperial masters. And indeed during his early tenure he showed no inclination to do otherwise.
When Charles V resigned the sovereignty of the Netherlands in 1555 in favour of his son Philip, the ageing Habsburg emperor gave his farewell address to the great assembly in Brussels leaning on the shoulder of Prince William, thereby proclaiming to the world the trust he placed in the young nobleman. Philip II in his turn appointed William governor general or 'stadholder' of the counties of Holland and Zeeland and the land of Utrecht (and other adjacent territories) in 1559, with the task of looking after Habsburg interests in the northern occupied Low Countries territories, and maintaining Philip's 'rights, highness and lordship' there.
In spite of this careful grooming, William of Orange did not live up to the Habsburgs' hopes for him as a loyal servant and administrator of their imperial rule. Instead, the care that had been taken with his upbringing, and the trust placed in him by Charles V, added emotional intensity to the later confrontations between William and Philip II. Philip considered that William had been privileged to have been succoured and supported by the Habsburgs. When the Prince of Orange subsequently became one of their most prominent and dangerous political opponents, the self-appointed defender of the Protestant faith in the Low Counties which the Habsburgs had pledged themselves to root out as a 'vile heresy', this was, for Philip, a personal betrayal.
The principality of Orange was, and is, of relatively small importance on the international scene. Then as now, its main claim to fame was its magnificent Roman amphitheatre and triumphal arch, which dominated the town. Nevertheless, it was William's tenure of that Orange title which singled him out for leadership in the struggle of the Low Countries against the Habsburgs. The Princes of Orange were sovereign princes, and thus, in theory, William was of comparable rank to Philip II--King of Spain--himself.William always maintained that his status as prince removed from him the obligation to pay allegiance to Philip as ruler of the Netherlands. Contemporary political theory maintained that those subordinate to a reigning prince might not challenge his authority unless his rule amounted to tyranny. . . .
Excerpted from The Awful End of Prince William the Silent by Lisa Jardine Copyright © 2007 by Lisa Jardine. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 30, 2010
No text was provided for this review.