William of Orange (Dutch: Willem van Oranje) (1533-1584), also known as William the Silent (Dutch: Willem de Zwijger), was the leader of the Dutch war of independence from Spanish rule, known as the Eighty Years War (1568-1648).
In 1544, at the age of 11, Willem succeeded his cousin René, head of the principality of Orange (France), who had died without children. This made him the head of the House of Orange-Nassau, but because of his young age a regent was sought. Emperor Charles V (ruled 1515-1555) of the Habsburgian dynasty, who was also ruler of the Netherlands (1), decided to take care of this himself. In order to erase any possible anti-Roman Catholic sentiments William was further brought up at the imperial court at Brussels.
In 1566 the 'Beeldenstorm' (literally: 'Statue assault') took place. All over the northern Dutch provinces Catholic churches were stormed by Protestant mobs and all saint's figures, which they saw as irreverent (2) of God, were destroyed. This was the immediate cause of the Eighty Years War with Spain.
In 1567, Philip II sent an army to the Netherlands to crush the rebellion. This army was led by the Duke of Alva, who established a ruthless and tyrannical regime. William decided to flee, while his friends and fellow leaders of the opposition, the counts of Egmont and Hoorne, did not. They were both invited by Alva for talks, only to be treacheously beheaded upon arrival. All this did much to bolster the rebellious spirit of the Netherlands.
In 1568, two of Williams' brothers attempted an invasion in the very north of the country, resulting in the Battle of Heiligerlee. The attempted failed, and both were killed.
William, now bankrupt, sought help from German Lutheran Protestants, but to no avail. Elizabeth I of England denied any help as well. The French calvinistic Huguenots promised support, but the slaughter of 8,000 of them on instigation of the French king, known as 'Bartholomeus night' (1572), came in between.
On April 1, 1572 a band of 'pirates' called the geuzen (3) (beggers) took the town of Brielle and declared themselves 'for the Prince'. Soon the uprising spread over much of Holland and Zeeland. In the same year William took up residence in the fortified city of Delft.
Many years of bloody flighting between Alva and William followed. City by city was besieged and conquered by Alva.
In 1576, after Philip could no longer pay his mercenaries, there was much mutiny and plunder, and the parliament (Staten-Generaal) decided to act, and proclaimed a union, through the Pacification of Ghent. Although this was an act of defiance by all Seventeen Provinces, unity did not hold. In 1579, the Union of Utrecht unified the seven Protestant northern provinces, separating from the Roman Catholic south.
In 1581 the northern Seven Provinces formally declared its independence from the Spanish throne as the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, with the post of stadtholder retained for the benefit of William. This was called the Act of Segregation (Dutch: Akte van Verlatinge).
King Philip II placed a large reward on the head of William. On July 10, 1584 William was assassinated in Delft by Balthazar Gerards. His body was laid to rest in a mausoleum at the New Church in Delft. All members of the House of Oranje-Nassau have since then been buried there.
Johan van Oldenbarnevelt led in William's place, after his death.
(1) The Netherlands at that time roughly comprised all of the Dutch speaking provinces, that is the Netherlands as it is today combined with the northern half of Belgium.
(2) Protestants claimed that the official (Roman Catholic) church in many respects had strayed from the original doctrines as were laid out in the bible. In particular in their eyes the saint's figures in the churces collided with the Ten Commandments as follows: "III: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them."
(3) The nickname 'geuzen' (French: Gueux. The origin of the term is not clear: one theory is that it originated from Alva whispering "they are only beggars" to Philip II when he was presented with a petition for more leniency in religious matters in the Netherlands), another is that it came from a statement by Charles de Berlaymont, a Lower Netherlands noble who supported the Spanish king, to Margaretha of Parma: “N'ayez pas peur madame, ce ne sont que des gueux” (Don't be afraid madam, they're just beggars). 'Gueux', distorted to 'Geuzen' in Dutch, originally meant to be derogatory, was adopted by the revolters and changed into a propaganda tool. Ever since Dutch political folklore used this scheme to reverse name calling into a way to make fun of the opposition, a practice still called 'geuzen name'.
See also: House of Orange-Nassau, Eighty Years War