William the Silent
W ILLIAM THE SILENT now became more popular than ever. Untiring was his work for his country's good, unwearying his patience, unflagging his energy. But he saw more plainly than ever that the Netherlands, now split up into seventeen provinces, must be united in the face of a common foe, and to this end he worked.
"Union is important above all," he cried to his chosen people. "Act together. Separate twigs can be snapped in two easily, but no one is strong enough to break a fagot. Unite yourselves firmly. Do this and the people will be a shield and buckler of their rights, and will no longer ebb and flow like the waves of the sea. Do this and you will be an example to all free people and to all unjust oppressors."
A terrible massacre of Protestants at Antwerp soon showed how right he was in his advice. The Spaniard was yet bent on the destruction of those who had accepted the Reformed faith, and this terrible deed, known to history as the "Spanish Fury," by which 8000 people lost their lives, showed that something must be done and at once.
In 1577 a union was decided on at Ghent between the seventeen provinces, and it is known as the Pacification of Ghent. There is a curious Dutch picture representing the seventeen provinces as seventeen ladies, each holding the coat of arms of a province. They are all penned like sheep in an enclosure, the entrance of which is guarded by the Belgian lion with shield and sword. All around the peaceful enclosure stand men at arms with guns and bayonets, while three great cannons stand facing the entrance. It is typical of the strength of the union.
But the troubles of the Netherlands were not over yet. Spain now sent one of her strongest and best generals to try and quell the disturbances.
Don John of Austria was half-brother of Philip, King of Spain, and son of the late Emperor Charles V. He had already done much for Spain, and was known as the "hero of Lepanto" for a famous victory that he had gained. He now entered Brussels with a flourish of trumpets as Governor-General of the country.
Meanwhile, at the request of his people, William the Silent made a tour of the newly united provinces. His reception was simple and pathetic. There were no triumphal arches, no martial music, only the cries wrung from the hearts of the people, "Father William is come! Father William is come!" He had guided them through the storm. He would deliver them yet.
But even the Prince could not do the impossible. Don John with a large Spanish army came against him and defeated the Netherlanders near Brussels. Further union was now necessary, and in the year 1579 the famous "Union of Utrecht" was made, strengthening the union at Ghent and laying the foundation of the powerful Republic of the United Netherlands, which was to play its part in the world's history.
Out of chaos and night a new light seemed dawning—but slowly.
It was recognised that the Prince was a danger, and that he must be got rid of somehow. A price was accordingly set upon his head. It was March 15, 1580, when the famous ban was put forth by Spain declaring William of Orange to be a traitor to his country, and ordering that he be banished from the realm. He, who had already beggared himself to serve his country, was now to be an outlaw, an exile, a traitor. He answered the ban by the ever-famous document known as his "Apology."
"I am in the hand of God," he pleaded; "my worldly goods and my life have long been given to His service."
So much did he love his country, that he was willing to go into exile if his absence would help them.
"What reward can I hope after my long service and the almost total wreck of my earthly fortunes, if not the prize of having acquired your liberty?" he cried to his people. "If then, my masters, you judge that my absence or my death can serve you, behold me ready to obey. Command me—send me to the ends of the earth—I will go. But, if you judge that my life can yet be of service to you, I dedicate it afresh to you and to the country."
This was followed by a further step in the direction of liberty. The men of the Netherlands drew up a Declaration of Independence refusing any longer to be subject to Spain. William of Orange was their Prince and master—him only would they obey.
But William their Prince was not to be with them much longer. A price was already on his head. As he had lived for them, so now he was to die for them. The summer of 1584 found him living at Delft, a quiet little old-world city near Rotterdam. It was a Sunday morning when a shabby, travel-stained man begged for money wherewith to buy some shoes and stockings to attend church. The Prince, on hearing this, ordered a sum of money to be given him. Next day the poor man, whose name was Gerard, bought a pair of pistols with the Prince's own money. The following day the Prince with his wife on his arm went into the dining-room about midday. He rose to leave for his own room, when suddenly a man emerged from a dark corner and shot him. As he felt what had happened, the Prince fell back into the arms of one of his servants.
"O God, have mercy upon this poor people!" he uttered with touching pathos.
They were his last words. A few minutes later he breathed his last. Bitterly the country mourned him. "Father William" was gone from them. He had borne the load of the people's sorrows, their name had been the last word on his lips. True, indeed, were the last words of the historian who so loved him: "As long as he lived he was the guiding star of a whole brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the street."
Ever grateful have the Dutch people been to the House of Orange. Still the colours of William the Silent are their colours; still his motto, "I will maintain," is their national motto; still one of the House of Orange rules the country. And when Dutchmen have left their shores and gone to dwell in distant lands beyond the sea, still the name of Orange has marked their love of this ancient hero, and the Orange River Colony in South Africa, no less than the Orange county in New York State, America, bear testimony that William the Silent has never been forgotten.