The Prince of Parma now determined to delay his military operations no longer. On March 2, 1579, he appeared under the walls of Antwerp, and a skirmish took place. The Prince of Orange, being in the town, superintended the action, and after an hour or two of sharp fighting Parma was forced to retire with the loss of 400 men.
But the attack on Antwerp was only a feint, and ten days later the royalist army appeared unexpectedly before the walls of Maestricht. Time and again the Prince of Orange had warned the States to take measures for the proper defence of the city, but they, engrossed in peace negotiations opened with them by Parma, were in no hurry to listen to his advice. It was not urgent, they thought, as, seated in their council chambers, they discussed Parma's comfortable overtures. But Parma was not putting off the investment of Maestricht till the States had finished their wearisome arguments and discussions. Already he had thrown two bridges over the Meuse and so closely besieged the city that all communication with it was closed. The States had indeed failed to provide for the emergency.
Faithfully and bravely the citizens of Maestricht defended their city. Attack after attack was repelled. Never did these men who were fighting for their homes and for their country falter. Yet a night came when, worn out and weary, every man slept at his post. And as the citizens slept a Spanish guard found a chink in the wall which had thwarted all the enemy's brave cannonading. He stealthily enlarged the opening, until at length he could push through to the other side. The soldier did not hesitate. In a moment he was in the street of the besieged city. The sentinels were sleeping at their posts. He walked down the dusky streets. No one was to be seen, not even a watchman going his rounds. The city lay asleep, still as a city of the dead. Cautiously the soldier crept back through the crevice, and, finding his officer, told him what he had seen. Before the morning dawned, the city was surprised and taken. Before another evening fell 4000 citizens of Maestricht, men and women, were slaughtered. Through the desolate streets a procession of the Spanish conquerors wended its way to the church, where, their hands still reeking with the blood of their victims, the Spaniards offered thanks to the God of Love for this new victory.
Now that the city had fallen there were many found ready to blame the Prince of Orange for failing to relieve it, yet he had done all in his power to awaken his countrymen to the need for organising speedy relief. He had entreated the States to vote sufficient funds to enable him to go with a large force to the relief of their fellow-countrymen, but the subsidy voted was so meagre that it had been utterly impossible for the Prince to raise an adequate force, and in the face of Parma's tremendous strength he had been forced to retire. Nevertheless he was blamed, and by some the occasion was gladly seized to slander the fair fame of the Father of the country. Orange was plotting, said his enemies, to bring the Duke of Anjou back to the country, and to deliver his land into the hands of a Frenchman. And his friends, hearing the whisper, grew grave, for even among them there were those who did not understand his dealings with the Catholic Duke of Anjou, while the more jealous of the nobles did not scruple to say openly that were the Prince of Orange to withdraw from the country, peace would speedily be made with Spain.
Outwardly, William the Silent bore the blame tranquilly, the suspicions patiently, but there were not wanting signs of hidden pain. Only the tall, spare figure bent a little more wearily, only the lines on the steadfast face were graven a little more deeply.
In the assembly of the States-General the Prince did not hesitate to refer to the accusations made against him. Were an honourable peace possible, and he an obstacle in the way of its accomplishment, he was ready to leave the country and close his lips for ever. But the outcries which broke from the members, outcries of affection and devotion, and of utter confidence in his loyalty to the country, convinced him that among the faithful representatives of his country he was trusted and relied on as of old.
It was indeed true that Orange, in his anxiety for the future of the country, had never ceased negotiations with the Duke of Anjou, and to these, now that Casimir, whom he had counted his rival, had left the Netherlands, Anjou responded willingly. In September 1580 he had accepted the sovereignty of the United Netherlands, Holland and Zeeland being, however, expressly exempted from the union thus formed. These provinces had indeed refused to accept the French Prince as their Sovereign, and William had been reluctantly prevailed on to rule over them as Count. This title he accepted, on July 24, 1581, but only provisionally.
Two days later a solemn Act of Abjuration, joined in by the new Count of Holland, took place at The Hague. The representatives of Brabant, Flanders, Utrecht, Gelderland, Holland, and Zeeland declared that the King of Spain was deposed from his sovereignty over them on account of his tyranny, and that they no longer professed to owe allegiance to him.
Orange knew well that the newly proclaimed commonwealth could not stand alone. He therefore now did all in his power to hasten the coming of the Duke of Anjou, for although he had begun to fear that the Duke was both fickle and depraved, he yet hoped to be able to keep him under his personal control. With Anjou in the country as Sovereign, the goodwill of France, to whose throne the Duke was heir, would be secured; England also would champion their cause, for Elizabeth was at this time treating the Duke as a favoured suitor.
With Anjou's acceptance of the sovereignty the country was now divided into three parts: the provinces reconciled to Spain, those united under Anjou, and the northern provinces, acknowledging no lord save William of Orange. By midsummer 1581 the Duke of Anjou arrived in the western part of the Netherlands, but finding that the States, in spite of all that Orange could do, were not yet ready to render him formal recognition as Sovereign, soon left for England.
In Madrid the whole course of the transactions with the Duke of Anjou had been carefully watched. That something must be done to curb the power of the Prince of Orange, from whose brain alone were evolved the plans which thwarted Philip's policy, was determined by the Spanish Cabinet. It had been found impossible to win him by fair promises of power and pardon. Then other tactics should be tried. A ban should be launched against the Prince, and a price set upon his head. The evil suggestion came from Granvelle, whose hatred of the Prince had grown no less since the day he had been forced to retreat from the Netherlands, largely owing to the influence of Orange. Philip eagerly seized on the suggestion and wrote to Parma: "Offer thirty thousand crowns or so to any one who will deliver the Prince of Orange to us dead or alive, that thus the country may be rid of a man so pernicious, or that at any rate he may be held in perpetual fear, and not be unlikely to die of his own accord."
The famous ban was accordingly drawn up, and had been formally published in the Netherlands in June 1580. It concluded with these words, "We declare the Prince of Orange traitor and miscreant. As such we banish him perpetually from all our realms, forbidding all our subjects, of whatever quality, to communicate with him openly or privately, to administer to him victuals, drink, fire, or other necessaries. We allow all to injure him in property or life. We expose the said William Nassau as an enemy of the human race, giving his property to all who may seize it. And if any one of our subjects or any stranger should be found sufficiently generous of heart to rid us of the pest, delivering him to us alive or dead, or taking his life, we will cause to be furnished to him, immediately after the deed shall be done, the sum of twenty-five thousand crowns in gold. If he have committed any crime, however hideous, we promise to pardon him, and if he be not already a noble, we will ennoble him for his valour."
Before the end of the year the cruel words were answered by the Prince. Clear and terrible the voice of his defiance reached Philip in his distant Cabinet. Thinking to frighten the Prince or to terrify him to withdraw from the country, the King, not for the first time, had strangely mistaken the character of the man. The Prince ridiculed the attempt to terrify him, and laughed to scorn the price set upon his head. He confronted Philip undismayed with a list of his darkest crimes, adding that the ban, albeit now made public, was no new affair, for he would have the King know that he, William of Orange, was not ignorant of the "various bargains which had many times been made before with cut-throats and poisoners to take his life." "Moreover," said the Prince, "I am in the hands of God. My worldly goods and my life have been long since dedicated to His service."
To the people of the Netherlands, who were roused to fierce anger at the new danger to which their beloved "Father William" was exposed, he appealed in passionate affection. "Would to God," he cried, "that my perpetual banishment, or even my death, could bring you a true deliverance from your calamities. For you I have exposed my property, lost my three brothers, borne the theft of my eldest son, and for many years held my life day and night in my hands. Yet if you, my masters, judge that my absence or my death can serve you, behold me ready to obey. Here is my head, over which no prince, no monarch had power but yourselves. Dispose of it for your good, for the preservation of your republic, but if you judge that the moderate amount of experience and industry which is in me, if you judge that the remainder of my property and of my life can yet be a service to you, I dedicate them afresh to you and to the country." At the close of his address the Prince of Orange added his motto, "I will maintain it," a motto significant of his strenuous life and character.