Eighty Years' War

The Eighty Years' War, or Dutch Revolt from 1568 to 1648 was the secession war in which the proto-Netherlands first became an independent country and in which the region now known as Belgium became established.

During the war, the United Provinces of the Netherlands or Dutch Republic became a world power for a time (mainly through its merchant shipping) and experienced a period of unprecedented economic, scientific and cultural growth.


Background to the War

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, was born in Ghent in 1500, and raised in the Netherlands. He abdicated in 1556, in favour of his son Philip II of Spain who was mainly interested in the Spanish side of the empire. Calvinism had been becoming prevalent in the Netherlands. In 1566 many Calvinists stormed the churches to destroy statues and images of Catholic saints ('beeldenstorm' in Dutch), which they felt were heretical. As a counter measure, Philip II sent the Duke of Alva, nicknamed the Iron Duke, to the Netherlands with an army.
There were several underlying causes for the war.


During the fifteenth century, the Netherlands became an entrepreneurial and wealthy region in the Habsburg empire. Charles V and Philip II began to tax the Dutch when they needed to raise funds for military expeditions, leading to the widespread Dutch perception of Spain as an exploitative ruling power. Before Lepanto, the Habsburgs taxed the Netherlands to finance war against the Turks. After Lepanto, Philip II used the Dutch to finance new wars in the Atlantic. Dutch noblemen objected to these wars against some of their most important trading partners. These noblemen were not landed aristocrats, but had risen through trade and finance. They were alienated by Philip II's actions, putting their fortunes at risk.


The Dutch nobles were not Protestants at first. However, Dutch demands for freedom of conscience were added to their grievances. As the Habsburg empire was informed by a politicized Catholicism, Dutch demands grew increasingly repugnant to Philip II. Ruthless Count Alva was thus sent to suppress the Dutch rebellion. The Dutch resented Spanish taxation, and feared the methods of the Inquisition. The resentments fuelled Dutch protests about their rights, liberties, and religious toleration upon which their wealth from free trade relied.

The Dutch compared their Calvinist values favorably with the luxurious habits of Spains Catholic nobility. Symbolic stories from the New Testament, featuring fisherman, shipbuilders and simple occupations resonated among the Dutch. The Calvinist movement emphasized Christian virtues of modesty, cleanliness, frugality and hard work. The Protestant and Calvinist elements of the rebellion represented a moral challenge to the Spanish empire.


Dutch nobles also objected to the limiting of their powers in favor of those of civil servants in Brussels. Philip II wanted the central government to have more authority in matters like law and taxes.

The War

In 1568, William I of Orange (William the Silent), stadtholder of the provinces Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, tried to drive the highly unpopular Alva from Brussels. He did not see this as an act of treason against Philip II, and his view is reflected in the today's Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmus, in which the last lines of the first stanza read: de koning van Spanje heb ik altijd geëerd (I have always honoured the king of Spain). The Battle of Heiligerlee, commonly regarded as the beginning of the Eighty Years' War, was fought on 23 May 1568.

Despite the initial success of his brother Louis of Nassau in Heiligerlee, William received little support, and had to flee. His co-conspirators, the counts of Egmont and Horne, remained, and Alva had them beheaded. Alva also introduced an unapproved tax (tiende penning in Dutch).

Unions of Arras and Utrecht

Missing image
1645 - Siege of the city of Hulst ( situated in the Dutch province of Zeeland) by Frederick Henry

On January 6 1579, prompted by the new Spanish governor Alexander Farnese (Duke of Parma), the southern states (today mostly in France and part of Wallonia) signed the Union of Arras, expressing their loyalty to the Spanish king. Over the following ten years he reconquered the major part of Flanders and Brabant, as well as large parts of the northeastern provinces, and restored the Roman Catholic religion to much of the area.

On January 23, 1579, in response, William united the northern states of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and the province of Groningen in the Union of Utrecht. This union later (1581) led to independence from Spain, forming the United Provinces of the Netherlands (also known as the States General or sometimes as the Dutch Republic). Because of the more or less uninterrupted rule of the calvinist dominated "rebels", these provinces were to be thoroughly protestantized in the next decades.

Overseas assistance

In 1581, the Spanish sent an army to attempt to recapture the United Provinces, with some success, and on July 10 1584, William was assassinated. With the war going against them the United Provinces sought overseas help from France and England even offering them the monarchy of the Netherlands, which both declined.

England had been unofficially supporting the Dutch for years, and now decided to intervene directly. In 1585, under the Treaty of Nonsuch, Elizabeth I sent the Earl of Leicester to assist, with 5,000 to 6,000 troops and 1,000 horses. William's son, Maurice of Nassau, soon bypassed the Earl and took charge of the armies in 1587, so Leicester returned to England. The presence of the English, who were to stay until 1604, was a major reason for sending the Spanish Armada against England in 1588.

Under Maurice's leadership, the whole north-eastern part of the present day Netherlands was captured by the United Provinces. Spain was hampered by the financial cost resulting from the loss of the Armada and, in 1595, with the declaration of war against Spain by Henri IV of France, became financially bankrupt the following year, not for the first time.

The Truce

Under financial and military pressure in 1598, Philip ceded the southern states of the Netherlands to Archduke Albert of Austria and his wife Isabella, following the conclusion of the Treaty of Vervins with France. This roughly recreated the territories of the Empire of Burgundy.

In 1601, the Spanish sent a small expeditionary force to Ireland, where they were defeated by the English at the Battle of Kinsale.

In 1604, after James I became King of England, he concluded peace with Spain in the Treaty of London, 1604.

1609 saw the start of a cease-fire, afterwards called the Twelve Years' Truce, between the United Provinces and the southern states, mediated by France and England at The Hague.

War resumes

Following the death of Maurice in 1625, and in the absence of a permanent peace, his half-brother Frederick Henry resumed the conflict against the south.

In 1622, a Spanish attack on the important fortress town of Bergen op Zoom was repelled. In 1625, however, the Spanish commander Ambrosio Spinola succeeded in conquering the city of Breda (an episode immortalized by the Spanish painter Velasquez in his famous painting "Las Lanzas"). Then the tide started to change in favour of the Dutch Republic. The conquest by Frederick Henry, in 1629, of 's Hertogenbosch (Bois le Duc), the largest town in the northern part of Brabant, which had been considered to be inexpugnable, was a serious blow to the Spanish. In 1632 the Dutch Stadhouder conquered Venlo, Roermond and Maastricht during his famous "March along the Meuse". Attempts in the next years to attack Antwerpen and Brussels failed, however. The Dutch were disappointed by the lack of support they received from the local population. It was clear that by now a new generation had grown up in Flanders and Brabant, that had been thoroughly reconverted to Roman catholicism and now distrusted the Calvinist Dutch even more than they loathed the Spanish occupants.

It became increasingly clear to all parties in the conflict that the Spanish would never succeed in restoring their rule to the territories north of the Meuse-Rhine delta and that the Dutch Republic did not have the strength to reconquer the South.

To assist a last attempt to defeat the northern "rebels", in 1639 Spain sent an armada bound for Flanders, with 20,000 troops, which was defeated by Admiral Maarten Tromp in the Battle of the Downs.


On January 30, 1648, the war ended with the Treaty of Munster, which was part of the Peace of Westphalia that also ended the Thirty Years' War.

See also

cs:Osmdestilet vlka da:Firsrskrigen de:Achtzigjhriger Krieg nl:Tachtigjarige Oorlog ja:オランダ独立戦争 pt:Guerra dos Oitenta Anos simple:Eighty Years' War


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