Why Did Philip II Not Succeed In Suppressing The Dutch Revolt?
Traditionally revolts correlated with the seasons but the Dutch Revolt resulted not from famine but from the want for religious and political freedom which Philip would not allow. Philip refused to let Protestantism survive in his territory, he envisioned himself as the last Catholic crusader in a Europe falling to the Protestant domino effect, however, suppression became unattainable igniting the Eighty Years War. There were many reasons suppressing the revolt failed, Philip’s political alienated the government and nobility meant the rebels would not back down and Philip failed to capitalise on Dutch weaknesses in their command structure. The Spanish military made mistakes and the Dutch rebels had several advantages, but natural European changes like the Reformation and the ‘military revolution’ as did unforeseen circumstances in Dutch trade influenced its outcome. These natural changes create the question of whether Philip’s failure was caused by himself or if defeat was imminent as it seems the Dutch Revolt through Philip’s stubbornness became a revolution.
Philip alienated the powerful social and political groups which turned the revolt into a war. Philip’s refusing to stop the Inquisition and the duke of Alva had started a rebellion in the name of ‘His Majesty without his knowledge’ but a lengthy ignorance of Dutch pleas ultimately cost him his sovereignty. Alva’s policies unlike those of Charles V did not rule with the nobilities interests at heart and instead used the Netherlands for Spanish interests. High taxation and strict governmental control brought outcry from the nobility and merchants, his religious reforms however, brought greater resistance by alienating Protestants but counter-productively Catholics who suffered through abuse and high taxes. Before 1572 William of Orange had wanted to rule the Netherlands under Philip as their sovereign ruler, but Philip inadvertently ‘created a situation of theatrical extremes in which all elements of Netherlands society could feel unified against the malevolent foreigners’. Alva’s ruthlessness troubled and hurt almost every social group causing tensions to build up like a flammable gas which did not have to explode, but Philip’s stubbornness was the spark that lit the fuse for war. However, if Alva’s rule and reforms had been stronger perhaps it might have caused the rebels to centralise their power faster.
Although united the rebels for a long time lacked a secure command structure. Historically and geographically different provinces had been ruled by different rulers and had never been united before and often different leaders were indecisive and lacked control over their armies and providences. Philip failed to attack this as the ‘Dutch virtually had no independent funds for war…[they had to] obtain the willing support of all cities and providences’. Through propaganda or kindness Philip could have subdued important cities and providences and defeated the Dutch rebels without taking to the battlefield. William of Orange did not address this issue until around the 1580’s into the conflict, the chance for Philip to end the revolt soon passed. ‘Foremost fault is that you and your masters have yet established an body or board, not even within the states, which has any power to take useful decisions’. No doubt this was a opportunity missed, yet the Spanish failed to win the hearts and minds of the people, partly because they were out competed by Calvinist propaganda.
Popular unrest to an extent stimulated Spanish failure and granted the rebels success. Support for the rebels came from two sides, from Calvinist supporters and the oppressed peasants and townsfolk. The cities remained sympathetic to the rebels, sometimes failed sieges such those in 1568 and 1572 although unsuccessful caused local alarm and friction towards the Spanish presence, it was a reminder that the rebels were fighting for them. The Spaniards themselves created a lot of friction which their commanders failed to address, as although providences under Alva’s control were ruled with an iron fist Spanish troops were indisciplined and there were ‘numerous…sources report the harassment of inhabitants by wandering bands of soldiers’. Conditions caused food shortages in rural areas and cities, Spanish soldiers plundered property, livestock and grain which kept them feed but bred pro-rebel feelings. War always brought suffering and harsh winters made food shortages worse, the Spanish controlled south suffered the worse shortages and conditions compared to those in the rebel held north made perfect propaganda for the Calvinists who knew how to use it effectively, however, Brinton notes ‘the masses do not make a revolution’. This rightfully highlighting how we must remember revolts and wars are won and lost on the battlefield, although before looking at this we must look at the role of Calvinist importance in instigating to maintaining the revolt via funding, propaganda and rebel support.
Calvinist were only a religious movement, ‘not as a radical doctrine…[but they promised] greater security within the established hierarchy’, but Philip’s counter-reformation labelled as the enemy just like the rebels, their religious freedom was one of the key reasons for the fighting. Calvinism message was influential in supporting and funding the rebels throughout the revolt and they had supporters from all walks of life. Protestant preaching had spread across the Netherlands like wild fire during the lead up to the revolt, yet it was well established fifty years before Philip’s intervened and had become a part of many people’s social fabric. Industrial workers made up a large part of their following, they resisted against Spanish occupation and if the Spanish tried to use factories for their own needs the workers would resist, protest or slow production. They also had influence within the nobility and even within former government members i.e. members of the council of Flanders. They even contributed two thousand guilders for payment of German troops and gained the Dutch public support and imagination through their propaganda and sacrifice i.e. Calvinists preachers who died as martyrs were viewed as ‘heroic, almost superhuman’, becoming inspirational and motivated people in the belief of what they were fighting for. Victories like that at Leiden in 1574 became the subject of plays by the Chamber of Rhetoric, it ‘represented as the national epic per excellence’. They rallied the people when needed and their propaganda was extremely effective even in making use of natural disasters like constant floods, to which they compared themselves to Mosses’ exiled Jews and Philip and the Spanish as Pharaoh’s men being washed away by the Red sea. Protestantism had become an unmoveable rock and helped to hold support for the revolt together. Yet to say the rebels and the Calvinists were united would be a lie and ‘it is certainly true that if Calvinists alone could not have made the Republic, the Republic would certainty not have been made without Calvinists’. However, what prolonged and halted the suppression came mainly down to the Spanish inability to defeat the Dutch on the battlefield.
Military superiority would decide who controlled the Netherlands and although at first Alva successful had conquered most of the Netherlands, the Dutch rebels forced the Spanish back and out bested their tactics through controlling the sea and using guerilla tactics. Rebels naval strength was more decisive than their armies on land, the ‘Sea Beggars’ used piracy to blockade Spanish controlled cities and through a combination of violence and intimidation scared their enemies. The lack of imports reaching these towns caused food shortages and sparked rebellion i.e. in Holland and Zealand in 1572. They also created a line of support for supplies funding the battle on land. Although the Spanish attempted to use piracy against them it was self-inflicting as its effect on the enemy was limited and it caused prices rises for commodities like butter and cheese which created more unrest and riots within their territories. While on land the ‘beggars of the woods’ used Guerilla tactics against the Spain’s structured battlefield warfare meant they could not be beaten easily. Another reason was Spanish morale was low, Hart stated it was Spanish dependence on money and their turbulent currency lead to shortages of funds and payment issues and for the Spanish caused desertion within the ranks, a problem the rebels had solved by 1588. The Spanish were psychologically defeated, morale is as much a weapon as a sword and if you cannot believe you can win then how can you? However, new circumstances benefited and helped the rebels.
The impact of the ‘military revolution’ may have influenced Dutch warfare, siege tactics became hugely influential and the rebels spent money on improving their defences and Sea Beggars proved crucial in starving port based providences causing internal rebellion, i.e. Vakenciennes. Later military drills and training united the rebel’s army making them more effective, yet these same changes also influenced the Spanish too, yet money was still a problem. Also the Dutch had an unforeseen advantage as trade with England and France prospered through the war aiding their war funds, but now we must look whether natural European changes made it impossible for the rebels to lose.
Protestantism had penetrated into half the countries in Europe, Philip’s attempts to repress it now seem impossible. The Reformation eroded the church’s position in government and over time Philip’s influence supporters within the central government had naturally been frozen out. Like Griffiths and Nadel stated ‘convincingly…the Revolt of the Netherlands shows some resemblance to the four great revolutions- the English, American, French and Russian revolution’. Schöffer likewise suggests ‘unwilledd and unexpected, the Dutch Revolt became a revolution’, natural circumstances had made Dutch victory imminent.
To conclude, although military actions usually determined how a revolt ends, the Dutch people were determined to have change and defeat would never have come as it was ‘the Spanish crown, not themselves that had imitated a radical break with tradition’, they would not be willingly suppressed. Military skills fought the war, but the religious and political wants drove it and what happened seemed a natural progression, how could Philip suppress that?
Word count (excluding title, bibliography, headers and word count itself): 1794.
P. Clark, The European Crisis of the 1590s: essays in comparative history, (London, 1985).
M. P. Crew, Calvinist Preaching and Iconoclasm in the Netherlands, 1544-1569, (Cambridge, 1978).
M. C. ‘t Hart, The Making of a Bourgeois State: war and finance during the Dutch Revolt, (Manchester, 1992).
H. H. Rowen, The Low Countries in Early Modern Times, (New York, 1972).
S. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: an interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age, (London, 1987).
I. Schöffer,, ‘The Dutch Revolt Anatomized’, Comparative Studies in Social and History, 3, no. 4, (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 470-477.
M. E.Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (Cambridge, 2006).
I. Schöffer, ‘The Dutch Revolt Anatomized’, Comparative Studies in Social and History, 3, no. 4, (Cambridge, 1961), p. 470.
P. M. Crew, Calvinist Preaching and Iconoclasm in the Netherlands, 1544-1569, (Cambridge, 1978), p.180.
M. C. ‘t Hart, The Making of a Bourgeois State: war and finance during the Dutch Revolt, (Manchester, 1992), p. 20.
H. H. Rowen, The Low Countries in Early Modern Times, (New York, 1972), p. 76.
P. Clark, The European Crisis of the 1590s: essays in comparative history, (London, 1985), p. 76.
Schöffer, ‘Dutch Revolt Anatomized’, p. 472.
Crew, Calvinist Preaching, p. 179.
S. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: an interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age, (London, 1987), p. 27.
Ibid., p. 59.
Schöffer, ‘Dutch Revolt Anatomized’, p. 470.
Ibid., p. 476.
Schama, Embarrassment of Riches, p. 64.
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