From his babyhood the clash of arms had fallen on the heedless ears of Alexander of Parma; but when he grew to be a boy he was no longer heedless of the clang of armour or the ring of steel, for ever he was foremost in all military exercises and sports. Philip had received the boy as a hostage from his parents, the Duchess of Parma and Ottavio Farnese, when he left the Netherlands for Spain. On the far-famed day of St. Quentin, when he was but a lad eleven years of age, Alexander had begged to be allowed to serve as a volunteer, and had wept bitterly when his request was refused by the astonished King. His marriage, when twenty years of age, to Maria of Portugal, had been celebrated at Brussels, and had thrown a passing gleam of brightness over the capital ere the trouble between King and nobles deepened. On the field of battle Alexander Farnese had the rare faculty of inspiring his soldiers with his own courage. And for reward there was nothing more greatly prized by his men than a feather, a ribbon, or a jewel taken from his person, and bestowed upon them by his own hand.
In the Prince of Parma Philip had at last found the very man that he needed to carry out his policy in the Netherlands, for he was prepared not only to fight in the open field, but to entrap the nobles in their own selfish aims. But for the alert brain and the vigilant care of the Prince of Orange, the whole of the Netherlands would have shared the fate reserved for the Southern Provinces.
As for religion, Alexander of Parma was a strict Catholic and was honestly horrified at the impiety of the heretics whom he massacred and persecuted. Mass he attended regularly in the dark winter morning by the light of a torch. It was an exercise as necessary to the health of his soul as his daily tennis was necessary for the health of his body.
The great nobles, more acutely jealous of the Prince of Orange than ever, since he had baffled them in their intrigue with Matthias and seemed minded to do so again in their half-formed design upon Anjou, were but too ready to listen to the persuasive words of Alexander Farnese. Uniting with the southern Catholics, the nobles now became known as Malcontents, and were but awaiting a favourable opportunity, and what was even more important, a good bargain, to make their peace with Spain.
The pressure of war being for the moment removed, the Catholics and Reformers, who had together striven to cast the foreign soldiers from their land, turned upon each other, and began anew to wrangle with and to persecute each other. In the Walloon provinces the Reformers were exposed to the persecution of the Malcontents, while in Flanders the capital was disgraced by the violent and continued attacks of Catholic on Reformer and Reformer on Catholic. John Casimir, the Duke, had come to Ghent, and was doing all he could to encourage an insurrection which he might never hope to control. A rumour had arisen and spread till it reached the ears of the Duke of Anjou. It was whispered that John Casimir was to be made Count of Flanders, which, as Anjou himself intended to be Count of Flanders as well as Count of all the other provinces besides, displeased him greatly. He wrote to the Estates expressing his grievance, to Ghent offering to arrange matters between the burghers and the Malcontents.
Casimir, meanwhile, in need of money for his troops, also wrote to the Estates, who at once supplied what he needed. Angry at what he chose to consider the favour shown to his rival, Anjou disbanded his troops and prepared to return to France. Thousands of his troops, thus carelessly disbanded, at once took service with the Malcontents, who were the enemies of the land Anjou had undertaken to protect.
In Ghent the disturbances were still unchecked. One party was led by Imbize, who was treacherous and cruel, and who was now opposed to the Prince; the other by Ryhove, who was an even more unscrupulous ruffian than Imbize, while counting himself a friend of the Prince of Orange. Ryhove was ordered to leave Ghent, to oppose a force of Malcontents in another city, but he swore he would not leave the gates as long as two prisoners, captured by him in the riot of October 1577, were still allowed to live.
Hessels and Visch, the two prisoners, sat together in their prison playing chess on October 4, 1578, when they were abruptly ordered to enter a carriage which stood at the door of their prison, a force of armed men being there to enforce the order. Before the carriage had gone far, a halt was made, and Ryhove suddenly appeared at the carriage window and told his prisoners that they were to be hanged at once on a tree by the roadside. Hessels had sworn by his grey beard that Ryhove should yet hang for his insolence, and the ruffian could not forgive nor forget the threat. He taunted Hessels with the words now, "Hast thou sworn my death by thy grey beard, sirrah?" he cried. "Such grey beard thou shalt never live to wear thyself," shouted Hessels furiously, undaunted by his doom. "There thou liest, false traitor," roared Ryhove, and, to prove the falsehood, he roughly tore out a handful of the old man's beard and arranged it as a plume on his own cap. Then, without even the pretence of a trial, the two old men were hanged on a tree.
This was no unusual act of violence, and while the Malcontents plundered and pillaged without the city under the protection of the Catholic clergy, the priests within the city were insulted and their cloisters burned by those who pretended to love the cause of liberty.
There was but one man who could restore peace to the distracted city, and Orange was entreated to visit Ghent. In spite of the danger arising from the hatred of Imbize and his crew, and in spite of the difficulty of dealing with John Casimir, whose soldiers were ruining the land, the Prince went to Ghent early in December 1578. He dined with Imbize, who found it no easy matter to look Father William in the face; he soothed the angry passions of the burghers, and at length he persuaded all the factions to consent to a religious peace, which was published on December 27. John Casimir the Prince had managed tactfully, as was his wont, but shortly afterwards the Duke, having been sharply reproved by the Queen of England for the encouragement he had given to the Malcontents in Flanders, decided to leave the country. He felt, he declared, that he was "neither too useful nor too agreeable to the Provinces," which was indeed quite true. He left behind him, however, his 30,000 soldiers. They were in a starving condition, and as there was nothing left to pillage, they presented themselves before the Prince of Parma, and asked him for the payment of their wages, at which he laughed as at a jest. He, however, promised to give them passports on condition that they should at once leave the country, which they were glad to do, having received little goodwill from its inhabitants.
Parma meanwhile had been fostering the discontent which existed among the nobles. La Motte had already been gained by a bribe. Lalain, Heze, Havré, young Egmont, all were listening to Parma's pleasant promises. Many of the nobles who commanded large bodies of the States troops were no longer faithful to the patriot cause.
On January 5, 1579, a further step was taken, a treaty being signed at Arras by the deputies of the Walloon provinces. Artois, Hainault, Lille, Douay, Orchies, all avowed their intention of seeking a reconciliation with the King.
The disunion of the Provinces was a blow, though no unexpected one, to the Prince of Orange. Already he had been preparing for it by a greater union with the other provinces on the part of Holland and Zeeland. Gelderland, Ghent, Friesland, Utrecht, Overyssel, and Groningen, after several conferences with the representatives of Holland and Zeeland, signed the important union of Utrecht on January 29, 1579. The members of this union bound themselves together, "as if they were one province, for the defence of their rights and liberties, with life blood and goods, against all foreign potentates, including the King of Spain." In each province there was to be complete freedom of worship for each individual, and no one was to be persecuted for his religious opinions.
Spurred to a decisive step by the momentous union of Utrecht, the Malcontents, on May 19, 1579, through their leaders, concluded a treaty with the Prince of Parma, submitting themselves to the authority of Philip II., and binding themselves to maintain in the Walloon provinces no worship save that of the holy Catholic Church. Thus the Northern and Southern Provinces took their separate ways.
A year later Matthias, always a mere cipher in the Government, left the country, his dream of lordship long since faded. The authority of the Prince, which formally departed with him, was recognised and reaffirmed by an express act of the States-General.