Dutch Wars of Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Riots by Calvinists in the Low Countries and the brutal policies of the region’s Spanish Habsburg rulers led to the Eighty Years’ War and the formation of the Dutch Republic and Flanders. Independence from Spain situated the Netherlands as an economic and cultural power and led to the downfall of Spain as a major dynastic power in Europe.

Summary of Event

The marriage of Maximilian I of Austria and Mary of Burgundy attached the Netherlands, territories encompassing present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, to the Habsburg family’s domains. Crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1493, Maximilian expanded Habsburg holdings further by marriage, treaty, and conquest. His grandson and heir, Charles V, ruled a vast empire that included Austria, Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Spain, and large parts of Italy and the New World. Dutch Wars of Independence (1568-1648) William the Silent Maurice of Nassau Philip II (1527-1598) Margaret of Parma Duke of Alva Farnese, Alessandro Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) Mary of Burgundy Philip II (king of Spain) Margaret of Parma Granvelle, Antoine Perrenot de William the Silent Alva, duke of Farnese, Alessandro (duke of Parma) Albert VII Maurice of Nassau

“Beggars” before the Council of Blood, a tribunal that hunted down moderate Catholics, Protestants, and all others labeled heretics.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

From the late Middle Ages onward, the economic situation of the Low Countries was very favorable. Textile manufacturing grew rapidly. Throughout the fifteenth century, Antwerp rose as the region’s main port. Culturally, the Netherlands produced some of Europe’s greatest art. Beginning with the Antwerp firm of bookbinder Christophe Plantin, printing flourished, too. However, by the middle of the sixteenth century, multiple crises emerged, accompanied by bad harvests and a trade embargo by Protestant England, the leading source of raw wool for the Netherlands. Spawned by humanist and reformist thinkers such as Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, Humanism and Protestantism became popular. To the Habsburgs, criticizing the Catholic Church also meant rejecting the established political order. These were heretical challenges that had to be exterminated.

Charles V’s son and heir, Philip II, tried to impose absolute authority on the seventeen historically self-governing provinces of the Netherlands. Ruling from distant Spain from 1556 to 1598, he sent Spanish troops to the Low Countries and ignored the independent thinking of local townspeople and nobles and their long established parliament, the States-General. Those disagreeing were hunted down as enemies of the state. Unrest and opposition grew under the eight-year governorship of Philip’s sister, Margaret of Parma, who tried to moderate her brother’s fanatical intolerance. Believing they would get a sympathetic hearing, some nobles turned to her, but her adviser, Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, contemptuously dismissed them as “beggars” and refused to consider petitions that questioned actions taken against heretics.

Granvelle was recalled by Philip II in 1564 at the insistence of the leading Dutch noble, Prince William the Silent. Much discord had developed within the ranks of the ruling elite, however. Concluding an alliance in Breda in 1566, Dutch aristocrats, proudly calling themselves Geuzen (beggars), defied the governor. Meanwhile, fueled by high grain prices, riots marred towns in Flanders, Holland, and Zeeland. Opposing idolatry, radical purist Protestants, known as Iconoclasts Iconoclasts , destroyed decorations in hundreds of churches. Offended proponents of the church showed equal intolerance.

In 1567, Philip II replaced Margaret with a new and extremely intolerant Spanish governor, the duke of Alva. Fresh Spanish troops were sent to crush the rebellion, which had already subsided. Provocatively, Alva established the Council of Blood, Blood, Council of first called the Council of Troubles, a sham tribunal that treacherously hunted down moderate Catholics, Protestants, and all others labeled heretics. Perhaps thousands were executed. In 1568, Alva had the moderate Catholic counts of Egmont and Hoorn beheaded in Brussels. For the king’s critics, this execution was the last straw.

A friend of the executed counts and a moderate Protestant, Prince William the Silent, gathered Calvinist forces and led the fight against Spanish domination. His attempt to occupy Brabant in 1568 sparked the conflict called the Eighty Years’ War. In the North Sea, a rebel fleet, known as the Water Geuzen, or Sea Beggars, took coastal towns, beginning with Brill and Flushing in April of 1572. Racked by failure, Alva was replaced in November of 1573. Under a new commander, the Spaniards besieged Leiden for a year but were forced to withdraw when William ordered the dikes breached in 1574. Throughout most of 1576, the Pacification of Ghent ensured an armistice. However, the era’s worst atrocity thwarted all peace efforts: In November, 1576, unpaid Spanish troops mutinied in Antwerp, inflicting three days of wanton violence and plunder on the wealthy port city and murdering some seven thousand of its inhabitants.

Italian nobleman Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma, replaced the new commander. Farnese’s diplomacy, intelligence, and imagination won the loyalty of many in the southern parts of the Netherlands. Seeking out friends while pursuing enemies relentlessly, he turned the tide in favor of Spain. On January 6, 1579, the southern provinces of Artois, Hainault, Namur, Luxembourg, and Limburg founded the pro-Spanish Union of Arras, which condemned the uprising against the king. On January 23, 1579, seven northern Calvinist provinces (Friesland, Gelderland, Groningen, Holland, Overijssel, Utrecht, and Zeeland) formed a protective alliance called the Union of Utrecht. This union, which provided the constitutional basis for the Dutch political system through 1795, provided a republican form of government, presided over by the House of Orange, whose leaders, beginning with William the Silent, served as stadholders (presidents). Standing between the two unions, Brabant and Flanders became war zones. In 1581, the States-General condemned Philip’s violations of his subjects’ rights. As a result, he was no longer recognized as the sovereign. The Union of Utrecht (also known as the United Provinces United Provinces of the Netherlands or the Dutch Republic) declared its independence, and with it died any hope of preserving a unified greater Netherlands. Seeking the support of France, the arch-enemy of the Habsburgs, William offered rule over the Netherlands to the duke of Anjou in 1580. Infuriated, Philip denounced William as a traitor and set a high price on his head.

Events continued to turn in Spain’s favor. A fanatical Catholic assassinated William in Delft in 1584. The next year, Farnese reconquered Antwerp and Ghent. In retaliation, the Dutch closed the River Scheldt to shipping, thereby halting Antwerp’s development for two centuries. Amid epidemics, wars, and famines, the migration of more than 100,000 artisans, merchants, intellectuals, artists, and others from the Spanish Netherlands to the north between 1540 and 1630 led to rapid decline in the south, where support for the rebellion waned.

In 1596, two years before his death, Philip II ceded the Netherlands to his nephew, Austrian archduke Albert VII. Spanish troops and officials remained, however, and Catholicism was reintroduced forcibly. Meanwhile, Maurice of Nassau, son of William the Silent, consolidated his hold in the north. His victory at the Battle of Nieuwpoort Nieuwpoort, Battle of (1600) in 1600 forced the Spaniards to completely withdraw from the Dutch Republic. However, the last Dutch base in the southern provinces, the fortified port of Ostend, was lost to the Spanish in 1604 after a three-year siege. Reaching into Spain’s home waters, Dutch admiral Jacob van Heemskerk defeated the Spanish off Gibraltar in 1607.

The Eighty Years’ War was interrupted by a truce from 1608 to 1621. During this brief period, Dutch maritime trade flourished. Amsterdam became Europe’s most important merchant city, the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, later known as New York, and their East Indies and West Indies companies, founded in 1602 and 1621 respectively, acquired possessions in Indonesia and the Americas. New conflicts broke out, however, between provinces, between local assemblies and the House of Orange, and between competing Protestant sects.

The end of the Eighty Years’ War coincided with the last phase of the wider Thirty Years’ War. Dutch victories once again pushed back the republic’s opponents. Spain finally recognized the Dutch Republic in the Treaty of Munster (1648) Munster, Treaty of (1648) , part of the Peace of Westphalia. The partition of the Low Countries was confirmed.

The Peace of Utrecht (1713) granted the Spanish Netherlands to the Austrian Habsburgs, who ruled the area until 1794. Following brief periods of French revolutionary and Dutch royal rule, the southern (Austrian) Netherlands emerged as Belgium in 1830.


The repressive policies of King Philip II of Spain provoked a rebellion of the seven northern provinces of the Low Countries, which had been part of the vast empire of the Habsburg family since the time of Philip’s great-grandfather, Maximilian I. A long, bloody, and destructive war followed, which separated the Protestant Dutch Republic (now called the Netherlands) from the Catholic Spanish Netherlands (now called Belgium). This conflict solidified religious divisions in the region, reduced the power of the faltering Holy Roman Empire, laid out the territorial frontier between present-day Belgium and the Netherlands, and seriously disrupted the textile-based economies of Flanders and Antwerp, which had dominated northern Europe since late medieval times.

Despite its limited area and population, the Netherlands emerged as a major seagoing trading power for several decades. Belgium would eventually develop into continental Europe’s first industrialized economy, but only after numerous invasions stemming from dynastic conflicts.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blom, J. C. H., and E. Lamberts. History of the Low Countries. Translated by James C. Kennedy. New York: Berghahn Books, 1999. An excellent history of the region, including the Dutch Wars of Independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Darby, Graham, ed. The Origins and Development of the Dutch Revolt. New York: Routledge, 2001. Anthology examines the causes and consequences of the sixteenth century Dutch rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Israel, Jonathan. The Dutch Republic. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1998. A detailed history of the Netherlands from 1477 to 1806.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koenigsberger, H. G. Monarchies, States Generals, and Parliaments: The Netherlands in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. History of the States-General of the Netherlands, its internal and external strife, and its division into the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rady, Martyn. From Revolt to Independence: The Netherlands, 1550-1650. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990. A short but detailed textbook on the Wars of Independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Vintage, 1997. An insightful, already classic look at the history and culture of the Netherlands from the Dutch Wars of Independence to the 1700’.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swart, K. W. William of Orange and the Revolt of the Netherlands, 1572-84. Translated by J. C. Grayson. Edited by R. P. Fagel, M. E. H. N. Mout, and H. F. K. van Nierop. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. A major and authoritative biography, with introductory essays and commentary by noted scholars of William’s reign.

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

c. 1500: Netherlandish School of Painting

1531-1585: Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

July 26, 1581: The United Provinces Declare Independence from Spain

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