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Lisa Jardine, The Awful End of Prince William the Silent

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Every age has its defining conflict: Vietnam for the 1960s, Iraq for the 2000s. For the second half of the sixteenth century the The Awful End of Prince William the Silentstability of Europe hung on the outcome of the long war in the Netherlands between the Dutch and the Spanish, known to history as the ‘Dutch Revolt’. The Netherlands, which also included modern-day Belgium, constituted the Duchy of Burgundy and was ruled by King Philip II of Spain, who inherited the title from his father. The city states of Burgundy fell out with Philip when they thought he was riding rough-shod over their separate rights and privileges, which they guarded jealously. What started as a political dispute among the nobility, or ‘grandees’ as they were called, developed into a full-scale revolt when Philip despatched the Duke of Alba to the Netherlands with a huge army and authority to rule by decree. Feelings on both sides were embittered still further by religion: Philip saw himself as the protector of God’s Catholic Church, but Calvinism, a radical form of Protestantism, had taken root in the region, especially in the northern, Dutch-speaking part. Many Dutch Protestants saw the war less as a political conflict, or even a war of national liberation, but rather as a religious war against the ‘antichrist’ represented by the Pope and King Philip.

The Dutch prince who emerged as the leader of the revolt was William of Orange, known, from his cautious and reflective manner, as ‘William the Silent’. Catholics and Protestants across Europe saw the conflict in the Netherlands as a paradigm for the struggle between their different versions of Christianity, rather as people in the 1930s saw the Spanish Civil War as an international clash between fascism and communism. William of Orange became an iconic figure, a Protestant champion, taking on the might of Catholic Spain.

Lisa Jardine is a historian of the early modern period specialising on the interplay of politics and culture. She is also a prolific broadcaster. She chose the moment of William’s assassination in 1584 at the hands of a Catholic monk as the theme of a short and lively study. Monarchs had been murdered by usurpers often enough in the past, but assassination by a stranger in a crowd was a new phenomenon, though one which was becoming increasingly common; there were numerous assassination plots, for example, against William’s contemporary, Elizabeth I. William’s assassination had a profound impact on Protestant hopes across Europe; interestingly, it was also the first time a head of state had been assassinated with the new technology of the handgun.

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