The Dutch Revolt
Revolution the Long Way
A Note on Origins Part I
In 1566 there began one of the first of the modern revolutions and still likely the longest. The Dutch Revolt started in 1566 and didn’t end until 1648. The war also showed the usual pattern of revolution and counterrevolution in this case expressed in geographical terms. The two geographical entities that were created by the revolt were The Netherlands and Belgium.
The Netherlands were the state created by the revolution. Belgium was the state created by the counter-revolution.
The roots of the revolution in the Low Countries go back a long way before 1566. They in fact go back to the rise of the towns of Flanders and Hainaut in the 12th and 13th centuries that created the self-confident class of merchant oligarchs that governed the cities and grew rich on trade and finance.
The source of the finance was mainly the trade from Germany and the Baltic that traveled overland and by sea to the region of the Low Countries and then was processed and / or redistributed to other areas of Europe. In exchange the merchants of Flanders and related areas exported finished merchandise to eastern Europe, such as finished textiles, and luxury objects.1
The growing wealth and power of the cities of the low countries was reflected in the growth of political influence and economic and military power. Perhaps the most telling indication was the battle of Courtrai in 1302 In which a coalition of the cities of Flanders crushingly defeated the Count of Flanders and his French allies in a battle that degenerated into a massacre of nobility.2
Subsequent to that over the next century and a half the rising economic power of the cities led to them frequently forming leagues and fighting the attempts of their feudal overlords to impose control. In the end the feudal over lords, first the Dukes of Burgundy and then the Habsburgs were able to reassert control over their recalcitrant cities.3 Although in the end the cities retained considerable political and economic independence, with power in the hands of local wealthy oligarchs.
Most of this early development, economic and political came in the southern cities, located in modern day Belgium of the regions of Flanders and Hainaut. Flanders being part of the kingdom of France and Hainaut being part of the Holy Roman Empire. In the late 15th century Flanders and Artois fell out of the French kingdom and became Habsburg possessions and part of the Holy Roman Empire.4
Further in the late 15th and early 16th century the province of Holland began through its trade connections and its fishing fleet to experience significant economic growth with the rise of self-governing towns ruled by merchant oligarchs.5
The final piece in the puzzle was the long reign of Charles V, (1519-1556 C.E.) of the house of Habsburg who through his grandmother Mary of Burgundy inherited among other things much of the low countries. In the area affected by the later revolution Charles inherited Artois, Flanders, Hainaut, Namur, Brabant, Luxemburg, Holland and Zealand. Throughout his reign Charles was anxious to round out his possessions so he endeavored to add to his possessions so that they would become a geographical whole. Thus he added Utrecht, Gelderland, Drenthe / Overijssel, Friesland and Goningen & Ommelanden.6
Charles V endeavored to impose some sort of political unity on this assortment of states and among the common political institutions he created for them was the so-called States-General. A Parliament like institution that included representatives from all the constituent provinces that made up what was called the low countries.7
This bid to rationalize the political institutions was not made because of some sort of awareness of an ethnic unity of peoples. In fact the reason seemed to be administrative convenience. In fact the provinces had been in the past frequently at war with each other, they had no unity by language, ethnicity or similarity of economic development.
In terms of language In the southern part of this “unity” created by Charles V, much of the population spoke Walloonian French. This included Artois, Hainaut, Namur and most of Luxemburg. In Flanders, Brabant, Holland and Utrecht the population spoke Dutch and Dutch was the most commonly spoken language in the low countries. In Friesland the population spoke Frisian, and in most of Gelderland, Drenthe et al, and Groningen et al the population spoke Oosters. In much of Luxemburg and along the eastern boundary of the low countries much of the population spoke low German.
Only recently united in any sense, linguistically and politically divided into different provinces with different and not shared histories the provinces were further divided economically.
Holland, Flanders and Brabant were economically advanced, with well-developed trade, a market economy in agriculture produces, advanced fisheries and an advanced manufacturing and financial sector. Artois, Hainault and Friesland were fairly advanced in terms of agricultural development but not as advanced in trade and manufacturing as the provinces like Holland. Drenthe et al, Gelderland and Groningen were economically backwards in nearly all respects and quite poor. Luxemburg was above Drenthe et al but still not wealthy.8
Trying to impose unity on this diverse in so many ways conglomerate of political units would have been a challenge for the most perfect of diplomats, but then we add the ingredient of religious conflict and the whole thing becomes impossible.
In this case the added factor which made the whole thing explode into revolution and then counter-revolution was religion. In this case the Reformation. In the Netherlands all the factors making for discontent with the rule of the Habsburg’s began to coalesce around the issue of religion. The Protestant Reformation brought gave something that those discontented with the way things were in the Netherlands something to rally around and give a focus to their discontent. It also upped the level of tension and hysteria by one level of magnitude.
For aside from giving those who were discontented a focus and increasing the tension level massively it also gave those who wanted the status quo to continue something to focus against. In this case the status quo faith was Catholicism. And it added a level of religious self-righteousness and hysterical fervor to the denunciations and opposition to the revolutionaries.9
Thus the religious components had a minority on both sides propelled by self-righteous religious fanaticism.
This factor compounded and made murderously lethal the various divisions of the Netherlands and resulted in a revolution and war of quite fearful barbarity and of long duration.
Chronically disunited, only recently united politically the likelihood of a revolution being turned into a bloody stalemate between revolution and counter-revolution was very high.
In terms of proximate causes perhaps the most germane cause was that the imposition of a united central administrative structure was the signal for the central authority, i.e., the Habsburg’s to try to rationalize and streamline the political and administrative system in the low countries. What this meant was an erosion of the “privileges and immunities” i.e., “rights” enjoyed by the various provinces of the low countries. It was through these ‘rights” that the oligarchs, nobility and wealthy merchants who dominated the politics of the various provinces exercised their power and control over the political and administrative systems of the various provinces.
Any attempt to change that was perceived, by the nobles and wealthy merchants, largely correctly, as an attack on their position and powers, which were to be shifted to a centralized bureaucracy based in Brussels. Not surprisingly they resented such innovations, especially when it came in the form of taxation that by passed traditional institutions in terms of how it was collected and spent.10
Thus beginning in the 1550’s mounting religious, economic and political tensions made the situation fairly volatile with religion being the explosive force to set off revolution.
I will continue another time other aspects of the origins of the Dutch Revolt.
1. Parker, Geoffrey, The Dutch Revolt, Penguin Books, London, 1977, pp. 19-30, Elliott, J.H., Europe Divided 1559-1598, Fontana, London, 1968, pp. 125-138.
2. Holmes, George, Europe: Hierarchy and Revolt 1320-1450, Fontana, London, 1975, pp. 21, 31.
3. IBID, pp. 130-133.
4. Elliott, J.H., Imperial Spain, 1469-1716, Penguin Books, London, 1963, pp. 135-144.
5. Parker, 1977, pp. 19-30.
6. IBID, Elliott, 1968, pp. 48-50.
7. Parker, 1977, pp. 30-35.
8. IBID, Elliott, 1968, pp. 19-30.
9. Parker, 1977, pp. 40-55, Elliott, 1968, pp. 134-144.
10. IBID, Parker, 1977, 56-67, Parker, Geoffrey, The Grand Strategy of Philip II, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 1998, pp. 115-121.