The United Provinces Declare Independence from Spain

The United Provinces of the Netherlands launched a successful armed revolt against Spain, declared its independence, and assured the triumph of Protestantism in the northern Netherlands.

Summary of Event

In 1556, Philip II ascended the throne of Spain after promising Charles V, his father, that he would efface Protestantism in the Spanish empire. The effort to accomplish this design coincided with Philip’s desire to subject the Netherlands to a rigorous central government congruent with the manner in which he ruled Spain. The success of this ambition meant stripping the Netherlander nobles of their autonomy, imposing heavy taxation, Taxation;Netherlands and employing the Inquisition to destroy Protestantism. Protestantism;Netherlands Since the king regarded religious uniformity as essential to the health of his empire, he suppressed nonconformity vigorously. Dutch Wars of Independence (1568-1648)
United Provinces;independence from Spain
William the Silent
Alva, Duke of
Farnese, Alessandro
Granvelle, Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de
Margaret of Parma
Maurice of Nassau
Philip II (1527-1598)
Philip II (king of Spain)
Margaret of Parma
Granvelle, Antoine Perrenot de
Alva, duke of
William the Silent
Farnese, Alessandro (duke of Parma)
Maurice of Nassau
Elizabeth I (queen of England)
Leicester, earl of
Henry IV (king of France)

Philip’s program for the Low Countries entailed installing Spanish officials in the Church and in the state and using troops to enforce their authority. The imposed changes provoked resistance from all who saw them as threats to their rights, and, at first, Protestant and Catholic nobles joined in opposing Spanish policy. Political and economic issues incited the opposition, but religion soon became a powerful influence that encouraged armed rebellion.

In 1559, Philip made Margaret of Parma regent of the Netherlands and Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle president of the Council of State, and he ordered them to impose political union and religious uniformity. The Spanish Inquisition Inquisition;Spain was to accomplish the religious objective.

Spanish absolutism led some nobles to protest royal policy and to ask for toleration of religious diversity, but Philip responded with a declaration that he would enforce the decrees of the Council of Trent (1563) against alleged heretics. This inflamed Calvinists into action, and some sympathetic Catholics approved of the resistance. Persecution made the Protestants more zealous and increased conversions to their cause. Pastors of the Reformed Church Reformed Church;Netherlands evangelized boldly and urged the populace to defy Spain, and segments from all social classes joined the opposition. Philip reacted to riots by sending Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, the duke of Alva, to restore order by placing the country under military occupation and by systematic repression of dissenters (1567-1573). The initial success of Alva’s policy led England to aid the rebels, and Dutch pirates sailed from English ports and captured several coastal towns and blockaded others. Alva ordered the destruction of all Protestant literature and copies of the Scriptures, and he decreed death by decapitation for male heretics and burial alive for females. About eighteen hundred Protestants perished in three months. A shortage of men and money, however, prevented Alva from smashing the rebels, and Philip recalled him in 1573.

Early in the struggle against Spain, William the Silent became the leader of the Dutch rebels. Although reared in Roman Catholicism and once in the employ of Charles V, William became a Calvinist. Unlike most religious leaders of that era, however, he favored freedom of belief for everyone. Since Spanish forces were poorly financed, William urged the rebels to withhold taxes, and he became a reluctant leader of a war for independence. He defined his goal as being “to restore the entire fatherland in its old liberty and prosperity out of the clutches of the Spanish vultures.” He had no desire to impose the Reformed faith on Dutch Catholics. The official condemnation of William accused him of advocating “liberty of conscience—which we hold to be nothing else but veritable confusion in religion.” Philip II put a price on William’s head, and a bounty hunter murdered him in 1584.

The early collaboration of the Catholics and Protestants did not endure. The barbarities of the Inquisition and the intolerance of many Calvinists allowed the Spaniards to exploit disagreements about religion. Alessandro Farnese, who became governor of the Netherlands in 1578, enticed the Walloons, Catholic noblemen in the southern provinces, to support Spain in return for a promise to respect their traditional liberties. Spanish-Walloon cooperation enabled Farnese to take Flanders and Brabant, and final victory was within reach when Philip II withdrew forces for war against France. The Scheldt River became the dividing line, and the seven provinces north of that river declared independence in 1581 as the United Provinces of the Netherlands. After 1590, Spain made no further energetic moves against the Dutch Republic, but formal recognition of its independence did not occur until 1648, in the Peace of Westphalia.

Once he was in firm control of the southern provinces, Farnese methodically destroyed the remnants of Protestantism there. In the Dutch republic, contrary to the hopes of William the Silent, the Calvinists who led the revolt after his death harshly suppressed Catholicism.

When the Dutch declared they had deposed Philip as their king, they made William the Silent temporary head of state until they could choose a new governor. William obtained French aid against Spain, and his son Maurice of Nassau succeeded him at the age of seventeen, while a Council of State directed the new nation. The provinces of Holland and Zeeland dominated the government and the representative body known as the States General. When French aid faltered, the Dutch appealed to Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1585. Unfortunately, the forces she sent under Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, performed poorly, and the earl was an incompetent leader who returned to England in 1587. Young Maurice of Nassau then led the Dutch in expelling the Spaniards from the northern provinces. In 1598, King Henry IV of France, together with Elizabeth I, allied with the United Provinces, thereby extending formal recognition to the Dutch state. By 1609, Spain admitted it could not defeat the Dutch and therefore signed a truce with them. Independence had been secured in everything but name.

The United Provinces consisted of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Gelderland, and Overyssel, an ethnically homogeneous state, but one with a history of provincialism. Soon after securing their independence, the Dutch resumed their traditional ways, and assemblies in the provinces exerted decisive influence on the States General. The long war against Spain had strengthened the commercial economy, especially in Holland and Zeeland, as refugees from the south had brought their skills and money to invest. Successful seamanship enabled the Dutch to compete effectively with the Portuguese and Spaniards in overseas trade and colony planting. The Dutch East India Company, for example, was one of history’s most profitable enterprises.


It is a mistake to regard the Dutch struggle against Spain as a war of religion because political and economic factors were the first causes for resistance. Calvinism, nevertheless, provided a zeal for the defense of the Reformed faith, which infused the rebels with dynamic energy that sustained them throughout the war. Although the Dutch Reformed Church was the national religion, the republic soon relaxed the rigors of its posture toward other faiths, and the Netherlands became, perhaps, the freest, most tolerant nation in Europe, a political and economic success that made it the envy of other countries. Art and education flourished as consequences of prosperity, and, while many other nations experienced the demands of authoritarian government, genuine republicanism prevailed in the Netherlands.

Further Reading

  • Darby, Graham, ed. The Origins and Development of the Dutch Revolt. New York: Routledge, 2001. Anthology of scholarship on the causes and consequences Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Geyl, Pieter. The Revolt of the Netherlands. 2d ed. Reprint. London: Cassell, 1988. This thorough study emphasizes political and economic factors that provoked the revolt.
  • 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 United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic refernces, index.
  • Motley, John Lothrop. The Rise of the Dutch Republic. 3 vols. 1855. Reprint. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950. This reprint of the 1906 edition contains the most thorough study of the subject ever written; this classic of research and writing exaggerates the role of religion as a cause for the war against Spain.
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. An excellent narrative history with copious notes and a full bibliography.
  • Rowen, Herbert H., ed. The Low Countries in Early Modern Times. New York: Walker, 1972. A carefully selected and edited collection of primary documents from the period.
  • Swart, K. W. William of Orange and the Revolt of the Netherlands, 1572-1584. 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. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Wedgwood, C. V. William the Silent. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. First published in 1944, this work present a vivid life of the Dutch hero written by a master biographer.
  • Wilson, Charles. The Dutch Republic and the Civilization of the Seventeenth Century. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. A readable account of the Netherlands’ development in economics, politics, law, science, philosophy, and the arts made possible by the successful war for independence.

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

1482-1492: Maximilian I Takes Control of the Low Countries

c. 1500: Netherlandish School of Painting

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

Jan. 23, 1516: Charles I Ascends the Throne of Spain

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1531-1585: Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

1568-1648: Dutch Wars of Independence

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada