History of the United Netherlands: From the Death of William the Silent to the Twelve Years' Truce, 1609

By JOHN LOTHROP MOTLEY, D. C. L. In Four Volumes. Vols. III. and IV. New York: Harper and Brothers.
PHILIP II.’s invasion of France, and the war of the Huguenot Prince of Béarn against the Leaguers for the French sovereignty, with the famous battle of Ivry and siege of Paris, ending in Henry of Navarre’s conversion to the Catholic faith and accession to the throne, and thereafter his long life of good-humored treacheries, intrigues, coarse pleasures, and perils from Spanish armies and assassins,—form but one of the strands of narrative woven into this complex web of history, in which the texture of all interests and aspirations of the time appears. The history of English policy is wrought into it, from the time when Elizabeth smiled on the cause of the Netherlands till James turned his back upon the Commonwealth’s uncertain fortune to betroth his children to those of the Spanish king (whose agents were in the mean time charged to take off the Scotchman by poison or dagger), and did not heartily recollect the ancient friendship of England and Holland till he had occasion to advise the States-General against the toleration of Catholic worship. Here is also sketched the life of the Spanish nation, from the hour when Philip and his Inquisition extinguished the last vestiges of ancient liberty, till wealth, power, industry, all failed during the Duke of Lerma’s reign in the name of Philip’s imbecile son. Here, above all, is the celebration of the heroic struggle of the Dutch people, from the period when Maurice of Nassau — deeply learned in war, and with a greater genius for arms than any other captain of the age — took command of the Republican forces, and fought the battles of religious freedom and civil rights, till the truce of 1609, when the Netherlands remained victors at every contested point.
The dispute between the Dutchmen and Spaniards was a simple one enough in itself, being merely a question whether men should be saved by the Inquisition or by their own good works and the merits of Christ ; whether a people should rule themselves, or be trampled upon by an alien despot. But into the settlement of this question entered all the ambitions of the epoch; and the interests of not only every prince in Europe, but of every isle and coast accessible to navigation, were involved in results which took the dominion of the seas from Spain and Portugal and gave it to Holland and England, — took it from rapacity and gave it to commerce. Yet for all this vast complexity of motive and purpose among the many peoples and princes who took part on one side or the other, the reader of this history comes to respect at last only the Spaniard and the Dutchman, between whom his admiration is pretty equally divided as between foes each thoroughly convinced of his right and thoroughly, self-devoted and Sincere. The share of Elizabeth in the struggle was as little honorable and generous as that of Henry, and the business of the rest of Europe was chiefly to contribute mercenaries for consumption in battle. As to the sympathy of the reader, that is, like the sympathy of the historian, always and only with the people, who not merely freed, themselves from a foreign tyrant, but broke forever the yet crueller yoke of religious oppression. Persecution continued long after the triumph of the United Netherlands, but their success marked the beginning of a new era, in which men, casting off their allegiance to ecclesiastical authority, have found it possible to suffer every form of belief and worship, and to respect doubt as the beginning of the only faith worth having. This fight of the Dutchman and Spaniard was a pitched battle between men’s passions and superstitions and their reason ; and, when the Spaniard succumbed, it was fair proof, that, even in arms, the right had grown the stronger in the world.
The moral of the contest so forces itself upon the mind of the annalist at every point, that it tempts him to preach a little more than is needful; and the field of events is so vast that his reader is somewhat confused in following him. These are all but inevitable results, and the floridity of diction noticeable in some passages of the work does not generally affect the pleasant quality of the Style, In fact, we remember with very slight discomfort the homilies and the eloquence, and even the highly spiced description of the early commerce in cloves is not so hot in the mouth but we may own lasting indebtedness to Mr. Motley for a rapid and most picturesque and delightful art of narration, a graphic and agreeable touch in personal characterization, a peculiar skilfulness in all that pertains to the mise en seène of any event. We confess, too, a solid pleasure and pride in his truth to all the ideas of democracy and self-government, and in the contrast which his work offers to that of the greatest of the living English historians, in the homage paid to popular virtue.
Among princes of that time, indeed, we think it would go hard with any but Mr. Carlyle to find grandeur or generosity, and Mr. Motley does not teach us to look for it. Philip II. was alone and almost respectable in his earnest cruelty ; but we cannot heartily admire the bigotry of a narrow-minded man which condemned a whole nation to death for heresy, and which impoverished an empire and warred half a century in the attempt to execute the sentence. It had not remained for Mr. Motley to tell us how this sincere Catholic sent assassins to take the lives of the French king and the English queen; how intrigue, falsehood, and violence of every kind were accepted by his piety as just means for the maintenance and propagation of the true faith ; and how, in order to place himself on the French throne, and rescue France from heretical rule, he was ready to add incest to these means, and to continue a line of Catholic princes by marriage with his own daughter. There is greater freshness and originality (if we may apply this term to a new conception of historical facts) in the portrait of Henry of Navarre, but the picture is hardly more engaging. The white plume of the hero of Ivry does not dazzle us so much when we see Henry with his casque off, and kneeling before the Archbishop of Bourges to receive instruction in the Romish faith, that he may renounce his Huguenot error, and enter into the possession of the French crown. The historian paints him as a man of cynical goodnature, not despising resentment more than gratitude, nor honoring one form of sincerity less than another, hut loving women and wars with equal ardor. He never was so little at peace with Spain as immediately upon the conclusion of some solemn treaty of peace, never so little a friend of the Netherlands as when making them some formal promise of assistance. Nevertheless, he was good enough king for the French nobles, who had sold themselves repeatedly to him and to Philip, and among whom every man but the Huguenots had his price.
“ The king did his best by intrigue, by calumny, by tale-bearing, by inventions, to set the Huguenots against each other, and to excite the mutual jealousy of all his most trusted adherents, whether Protestant or Catholic. The most good-humored, the least vindictive, the most ungrateful, the falsest of mankind, he made it his policy, as well as his pastime, to repeat, with any amount of embroidery that his most florid fancy could devise, every idle story or calumny that could possibly create bitter feeling and make mischief among those who surrounded him. Being aware that this propensity was thoroughly understood, he only multiplied fictions, so cunningly mingled with truths, as to leave his hearers quite unable to know what to believe and what to doubt. By such arts, force being impossible, he hoped one day to sever the band which held the conventicles together, and to reduce Protestantism to insignificance. He would have cut off the head of D’Aubigné or Duplessis Mornay to gain an object, and have not only pardoned but caressed and rewarded Biron when reeking from the conspiracy against his own life and crown, had he been willing to confess and ask pardon for his stupendous crime. He hated vindictive men almost as much as he despised those who were grateful.”
Such a prince as this was not loved by the French Protestants, yet he was in his pleasant indifference to all religion at least their shield from the pitiless piety of Spain, In fact, his conversion does not seem to have afflicted them so much as it did the pedantic and self-willed old galante on the English throne, who thereupon frankly scolded him, and thereafter had nothing but treaties of alliance for him, and very sincere and practical indifference. We do not quite see the ugliness of Henry’s act, until the historian, comes to contrast it with that of a poor serving-woman in Antwerp, who, a few years later, also received instruction in the Romish faith. It seems to us it is in his best manner that Mr. Motley, reminding us of a lull in the persecutions, and their revival by the Jesuits in 1597, goes on to tell of the martyrdom of Anna van den Hove.
“ Two maiden ladies lived on the north rampart of Antwerp. They had formerly professed the Protestant religion, and had been thrown into prison for that crime ; but the fear of further persecution, human weakness, or perhaps sincere conviction, had caused them to renounce the error of their ways, and they now went to mass. But they had a maid-servant, forty years of age, Anna van den Hove by name, who was stanch in that reformed faith in which she had been born and bred. The Jesuits denounced this maid-servant to the civil authority, and claimed her condemnation and execution under the edicts of 1540,— decrees which every one had supposed as obsolete as the statutes of Draco, which they had so entirely put to shame.
“ The sentence having been obtained from the docile and priest-ridden magistrates, Anna van den Hove was brought to Brussels, and informed that she was at once to be buried alive. At the same time, the Jesuits told her, that, by converting herself to the Church, she might escape punishment.
” When King Henry IV. was summoned to renounce that same Huguenot faith, of which he was the political embodiment and the military champion, the candid man answered by the simple demand to be instructed. When the proper moment came, the instruction was accomplished by an archbishop with the rapidity of magic. Half an hour undid the work of half a lifetime. Thus expeditiousiv could religious conversion be effected when an earthly crown was its guerdon. The poor servingmaid was less open to conviction. In her simple fanaticism she too talked of a crown, and saw it descending from Heaven on her poor forlorn head as the reward, not of apostasy, but of steadfastness. She asked her tormentors how they could expect her to abandon her religion for fear of death. She had read her Bible every day, she said, and had found nothing there of the pope or purgatory, masses, invocation of saints, or the absolution of sins except through the blood of the blessed Redeemer. She interfered with no one who thought differently ; she quarrelled with no one’s religious belief. She had prayed for enlightenment from Him, if she were in error, and the result was that she felt strengthened in her simplicity, and resolved to do nothing against her conscience. Rather than add this sin to the manifold ones committed by her, she preferred, she said, to die the death. So Anna van den Hove was led, one fine midsummer morning, to the hay-field outside of Brussels, between two Jesuits, followed by a number of a peculiar kind of monks called love-brothers. Those holy men goaded her as she went, telling her that she was the devil’s carrion, and calling on her to repent at the last moment, and thus save her life, and escape eternal damnation beside. But the poor soul had no ear for them, and cried out that, like Stephen, she saw the heavens opening, and the angels stooping down to conduct her far away from the power of the evil one. When they came to the hay-field, they found the pit already dug, and the maid-servant was ordered to descend into it. The executioner then covered her with earth up to the waist, and a last summons was made to her to renounce her errors. She refused, and then the earth was piled upon her, and the hangman jumped upon the grave till it was flattened and firm.
“ Of all the religious murders done in that hideous sixteenth century in the Netherlands, the burial of the Antwerp servantmaid was the last and the worst. The worst, because it was a cynical and deliberate attempt to revive the demon whose thirst for blood had been at last allayed, and who bad sunk into repose. And it was a spasmodic revival only ; for, in the provinces at least, that demon had finished his work.”
Of Elizabeth of England Mr. Motley does not teach us to think better than of Henry. To his selfishness and looseness she added inordinate vanity, and diplomacy between them was a kind of flirtation by proxy, which is only not in the last degree amusing, because it is a little sad to remember that the happiness and prosperity of many millions of people rested in the caprice of these elderly coquettes, who were really England and France, and who believed, with whatever truth was in them, that nations were made to be ruled by such as they. Let us see with what dignity and seriousness affairs of state could be conducted by princes when governments were untainted by the interference of the mob. Henry and Elizabeth were meditating a closer alliance against Spain, and “ Sir Harry Umton, ambassador from her Majesty, was accordingly provided with especial letters on the subject from the queen’s own hand, and presented them early in the year at Coney (Feb. 13, 1596). No man in the world knew better the tone to adopt in his communications with Elizabeth than did the chivalrous king. No man knew better than he how impossible it was to invent terms of adulation too gross for her to accept as spontaneous and natural effusions of the heart. He received the letters from the hands of Sir Henry, read them with rapture, heaved a deep sigh, and exclaimed : ‘Ah, Mr. Ambassador ! what shall I say to you ? This letter of the queen, my sister, is full of sweetness and affection. I see that she loves me, while that I love her is not to be doubted. Yet your commission shows me the contrary, and this proceeds from her ministers. How else can these obliquities stand with her professions of love ? I am forced, as a king, to take a course which, as Henry, her loving brother, I could never adopt.’
“ They then walked out into the park, and the king fell into frivolous discourse, on purpose to keep the envoy from the important subject which had been discussed in the cabinet. . . . . They then met Madame de Monceaux, the beautiful Gabrielle, who was invited to join in the walk; the king saying that she was no meddler in politics, but of a tractable spirit. . . . . At last a shower forced the lady into the house, and the king soon afterwards took the ambassador to his cabinet. ‘He asked me how I liked his mistress,’ wrote Sir Henry to Burgley, ‘ and I answered sparingly in her praise, and told him that, if without offence I might speak it, I had the picture of a far more excellent mistress [Elizabeth], and yet did her picture come far from the perfection of her beauty.
“ ‘ As you love me,’ cried the king, ‘show it me, if you have it about you ! ’
“ ‘ I made Some difficulty,’ continued Sir Henry, ‘yet upon his importunity I offered it to his view very secretly, still holding it in my hand. He beheld it with passion and admiration, saying that I was in the right.’ ‘ I give in,’said the king, ‘ Je me rends.’
“ Then, protesting that he had never seen such beauty all his life, he kissed it reverently twice or thrice, Sir Henry still holding the miniature firmly in his hand.
“ The king then insisted upon seizing the picture, and there was a charming struggle between the two, ending in his Majesty’s triumph. He then told Sir Henry that he might take his leave of the portrait, for he would never give it up again for any treasure, and that to possess the favor of the original he would forsake all the world, He fell into many more such passionate and incoherent expressions of rhapsody, as of one suddenly smitten and spell-bound with hapless love, bitterly reproaching the ambassador for never having brought him any answers to the many affectionate letters which he had written to the queen, whose silence had made him so wretched. Sir Henry, perhaps somewhat confounded at being beaten at his own fantastic game, answered as well as he could ; ' But I found,’ said he, ' that the dumb picture did draw on more speech and affection from him than all my best arguments and eloquence. This was the effect of our conference, and if infiniteness of vows and outward professions be a strong argument of inward affection, there is good likelihood of the king’s continuance of amity with her Majesty; only I fear lest his necessities may inconsiderately draw him into some hazardous treaty with Spain, which I hope confidently it is yet in the power of her Majesty to prevent.’
“ The king, while performing these apish tricks about the picture of a lady with beady black eyes, a hooked nose, black teeth, and a red wig, who was now in the sixty-fourth year of her age, knew very well that the whole scene would be at once repeated to the fair object of his passion by her faithful envoy.”
The impersonal States had no flatteries to offer Elizabeth ; she gave them a grudging and insolent help, because they were her chief stay against Spain ; but there was no time when she would not have abandoned their cause, could her own safety have been assured otherwise. A few thousand Englishmen fought on the side of the Netherlanders, but, after all, their victory was mainly won by themselves ; and among them only did the virtue of leaders arid rulers seem equal to that of the people. The Dutch nobles had a chic pride of caste, and the Commonwealth was no democracy ; but its ruling oligarchs were burghers aggrandized by industry and commerce, and the great spirit of the time was John of OldenBaruevekl, a burgher. Trade was necessarily honored in a country which would have been a morass without it, and the diligent people felt that their interests were secure in the hands of merchants and manufacturers risen from among them by their own harder work, and bound to them by the ties of a dear-bought common faith, and the presence of a common danger. Olden-Barneveld guided the foreign policy of the Republic with a purity of purpose and a singleness of dealing equalled only by the science and humanity with winch Maurice of Nassau fought her battles, in an age when the maxims of Machiavelli were the highest political wisdom, and numbers arid massacre were among the first arts of warNext to Maurice, the most respectable figure in the contest is that of Spinoin, the military genius who sprang from the moneymaking aristocracy of Genoa, and to whom the Archdukes of Flanders owed the ruins of Ostend after a siege of nearly three years, and Europe at length owed peace, because he saw that it was useless for Spain to continue the war.
We have sketched with very hasty strokes some of the men and events no doubt already vividly impressed upon the minds of many of our readers by the historian himself, and have but hinted the greatness of the subject and the number of figures portrayed. We cannot hope to indicate the quality of that chapter in which the author sums up all the results of Philip’s reign, and presents the nature of the man and his work in the condition to which he had reduced his miserable Spain ; or to do justice to the pendant of this picture, formed by the concluding chapter of the history, in which the grand results of the war are presented and the well-earned prosperity of the Dutch people is celebrated; still less are we able to assemble all the incidental touches from which Alexander Farnese, Maurice of Nassau. Olden-Barneveld, the Archdukes, Jeannin (the persecuting old Leaguer who spoke at last such brave words for toleration), Sully, Cecil, and a multitude of minor figures, receive a new life.
Mr. Motley is pre-eminently artistic in the treatment of his subject, and, fortunately for his genius, it is one in which the intrigues of diplomacy and the operations of statesmanship are almost as picturesque as the battles and sieges ; the motive of the whole is dramatic, and the tragedy is full of effective situations, among which it is hard to choose any as the most skilfully employed. If we name the siege of Ostend as very conspicuous, it is not because we remember Others less distinctly, — in some respects it scarcely equals the description of the great battle of Nieuport. It is a story to which the reader clings with as feverish an interest as if it concerned imaginary events, and not merely those which involved the life and death of many thousands of men of flesh and blood. With excellent art, only the important incidents are given, while all the bloody and wasting toil and fray of the three years’ siege is suggested in such sort that the reader does not once forget it. He lives for the time with the English and Dutch of the garrison, and the Spaniards of the beleaguering camps ; and when the garrison marches out at last with the honors of war, and the small fragment of Ostend which has not been actually devoured in the siege is delivered up to the victors, it is hard for him to believe that he does not actually look upon the scene which the Archdukes behold.
“The Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella entered the place in triumph, if triumph it could be called. It would be difficult to imagine a more desolate scene. The artillery of the first years of the seventeenth century was not the terrible enginery of destruction that it has become in the last third of the nineteenth ; but a cannonade, continued so steadily and so long, had done its work. There were no churches, no houses, no redoubts, no bastions, no walls, nothing but a vague and confused mass of ruin. Spinola conducted his imperial guests along the edge of extinct volcanoes, amid upturned cemeteries, through quagmires which once were moats, over huge mounds of sand, and vast, shapeless masses of bricks and masonry which had been forts. He endeavored to point out places where mines had been exploded, where ravelins had been stormed, where the assailants had been successful and where they had been bloodily repulsed. But it was all loathsome, hideous rubbish. There were no human habitations, no hovels, no casemates. The inhabitants had burrowed at last in the earth, like the dumb creatures of the swamps and forests. In every direction the dikes had burst; and the sullen wash of the liberated waves, bearing hither and thither the floating wreck of fascines and machinery, of planks and building materials, sounded far and wide over what should have been dry land. The great ship-channel, with the unconquered Half-moon upon one side and the incomplete batteries and platforms of Bucquoy on the other, still defiantly opened its passage to the sea, and the retiring fleets of the garrison were white in the offing. All around was the gray expanse of stormy ocean, without a Cape or a headland to break its monotony, as the surges rolled mournfully in upon a desolation more dreary than their own. The atmosphere was murky and surcharged with rain, for the wild equinoctial storm which had held Maurice spell-bound had been raging over land and sea for many days. At every step the unburied skulls of brave soldiers who had died in the cause of freedom grinned their welcome to the conquerors. Isabella wept at the sight. She had cause to weep. Upon that miserable sandbank more than a hundred thousand men had laid down their lives by her decree, in order that she and her husband might at last take possession of a most barren prize. This insignificant fragment of a sovereignty which her wicked old father had presented to her on his death-bed — a sovereignty which he had no more moral right or actual power to confer than if it had been in the planet Saturn—had at last been appropriated, at the cost of all this misery. It was of no great value, although its acquisition had caused the expenditure of at least eight millions of florins, divided in nearly equal proportions between the two belligerents. It was in vain that great immunities were offered to those who would remain, or who would consent to settle in the foul Golgotha. The original population left the place in mass. No human creatures were left save the wife of a freebooter and her paramour, a journeyman blacksmith. This unsavory couple, to whom entrance into the purer atmosphere of Zeeland was denied, thenceforth shared with the carrion crows the amenities of Ostend.”
The destruction of the Spanish fleet off Gibraltar by Heemskerk is one of the finest of the fine battle-pieces in which these volumes. abound ; and it has this advantage of a battle-piece on canvas or in romance, that it can rejoice the reader’s heart as well as kindle his fancy. Heemskerk’s victory overthrew the naval supremacy of Spain, and freed the seas from a rule that was more terrible than even English and Barbary piracies. Most other effective scenes in the history have some such superior pleasure in their gift ; and we know not how any reader, jaded with the fade invention of this novel-making age, could better refresh himself than by turning to Mr. Motley’s vivid page for the splendid deeds of which we are every day reaping the benefit in political and religious freedom ; for the Pilgrim fathers sailed from Holland to our shores; and the liberty that dwelt in the English cities was but a surly and grumbling sort of slavery compared with her whoso home was among the dikes, and wherever the flag of the United Netherlands was carried.
The history of these states was a very great and noble theme ; and Mr. Motley has done it justice in the volumes which come to an end only too soon, because the war for the Dutch independence lasted no longer than a poor fifty' years. Happily for the reader, there followed the twelve years’ truce which closed it a Thirty Years’ War, and upon the history of this Mr. Motley is now engaged. I .ct us own to a secret hope that he will give us a volume for every year of it.