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Willem I the Silent (April 24, 1533 – July 10, 1584), was the main leader of the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs that set off the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) and resulted in the formal independence of the United Provinces in 1581. Born into the House of Nassau, he became Prince of Orange in 1544 and is thereby the founder of the Orange-Nassau branch and the ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, he is also known as Father of the Fatherland.

Willem was born on April 24, 1533 at Dillenburg Castle in the County of Nassau-Dillenburg, in the Holy Roman Empire. He was the eldest son of Count Willem I of Nassau-Dillenburg and Juliana of Stolberg. Willem’s father had one surviving daughter by his previous marriage, and his mother had four surviving children by her previous marriage. His parents had twelve children together, of whom Willem was the eldest; he had four younger brothers and seven younger sisters. The family was religiously devout and Willem was raised a Lutheran.

In 1544, Willem’s agnatic first cousin, René of Châlon, Prince of Orange, died in the siege of St Dizier, childless. In his testament, René of Chalon named Willem the heir to all his estates and titles, including that of Prince of Orange, on the condition that he receive a Roman Catholic education. Willem’s father acquiesced to this condition on behalf of his 11-year-old son, and this was the founding of the House of Orange-Nassau.

On July 6, 1551, Willem married Anna, daughter and heir of Maximiliaan van Egmond, an important Dutch nobleman, a match that had been secured by Emperor Charles V. Anna’s father had died in 1548, and therefore Willem became Lord of Egmond and Count of Buren upon his wedding day. The marriage was a happy one and produced three children, one of whom died in infancy. Anna died on March 24, 1558, aged 25, leaving William much grieved.

In 1559, King Felipe II of Spain appointed Willem stadtholder (governor) of the provinces of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, thereby greatly increasing his political power. A stadtholdership over Franche-Comté followed in 1561.

On August 25, 1561, Willem of Orange married for the second time. His new wife, Anna of Saxony, was the daughter and heiress of Maurice, Elector of Saxony, and Agnes of Hesse, eldest daughter of Philipp I, Landgrave of Hesse and his first wife, Christine of Saxony.

Anna of Saxony was described by contemporaries as “self-absorbed, weak, assertive, and cruel”, and it is generally assumed that Willem married her to gain more influence in Saxony, Hesse and the Palatinate. The couple had five children. The marriage used Lutheran rites, and marked the beginning of a gradual change in his religious opinions, which was to lead Willem to revert to Lutheranism and eventually moderate Calvinism. Still, he remained tolerant of other religious opinions.

Just a few months after the wedding, in 1562 difficulties arose between her and her husband. Anna received letters from her uncle meant for Willem stating he should work more towards pleasing her. Both tried to end the rumours that they had an unhappy marriage. By 1565, it was well known in all the courts of the Holy Roman Empire and the Netherlands that the marriage was an unhappy one.

Her uncle August tried to save face by making claims that disputes arose due to his brother Ludwig antagonizing Willem. In 1566 Willem finally complained about the “contentious” nature of his wife to her Saxon uncle August and her Hessian uncle Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Cassel (1532–1592).

Anna desired to see her husband again and met with him in May 1570 in Butzbach to discuss financial matters as well as other important topics. In June 1570, Anna and Willem moved in together again in Siegen for a few weeks, where she had settled with her three children. It was there where she began an affair with her lawyer Jan Rubens.

During the Christmas holidays from December 24 to 261570 William visited his family there again. It was likely a harmonious time, because he persuaded Anna to visit him in January 1571 in Dillenburg, where she even was willing to forego, for the time, payments from her jointure. She was pregnant again, this time from her lover. Willem accused Anna of adultery at this point and made plans to separate from her.

Rubens was often with Anna because he was their counsellor, financial advisor and attorney, and thus was suspected of adultery with Anna between March 7 and 10, 1571. He was arrested outside the city of Siegen when he was on his way to see her. He was blackmailed for a suitable confession.

Anna was put under pressure too: either they must confess themselves or Rubens would be executed. Anna agreed on March 26, 1571 to plead guilty. On 22 August 22, 1571 Anna’s last child, Christine, was born.

On the basis of the allegation, Willem of Orange didn’t recognize the child as his daughter. Christine received the name van Dietz. On December 14, 1571 Anna had to sign their consent to the final separation from her husband. In addition, Willem of Orange was not willing to pay maintenance for her.

Imprisonment and death

In September 1572 Anna decided to challenge the Imperial Court’s ruling for her financial rights. At this time her Hessian and Saxon relatives had already made plans to turn Beilstein castle into a prison, to hold her captive as an adulteress. On October 1, 1572, she was brought there with her youngest daughter Christine. Three years later, her daughter was taken from her.

In March of that year, although the divorce was not finalized, the first news appeared of an impending remarriage of Willem of Orange. His chosen wife was the former Abbess of Jouarre, Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier, a daughter of Louis II of Bourbon, Duke of Montpensier, and his first wife, Jacqueline de Longwy.

Outraged at this news, some of Anna’s relatives demanded the return of large wedding gifts despite her possible infidelity. Her Uncle August also demanded of Willem, whom he now called “Head of all the rogues and rebels ” claimed one of the counties of Nassau, Hadamar and Diez.

He also insisted that the marriage of the prince was not legally ended yet, and thus he had no right to remarry or confiscate her property. Anna did not admit her adultery in court, and if she did, then she could have proven that the prince had broken his marriage agreement. He also ordered the immediate transfer of his niece from Nassau to Saxony.

When Anna learned in December 1575 of her upcoming transferral to Saxony, she attempted suicide. After a long stay in Zeitz, she was taken to Dresden in December 1576. There, the windows of her room were walled up and fitted with additional iron bars.

At the door was a square hole in the top panel that provided a narrow grid, which was closed off outside. Through this hole food and drinks were served to her. At the door there was also another iron gate, virtually guaranteeing no chance of escape.

As of May 1577, Anna was continuously hemorrhaging. She died on December 18, 1577, shortly before her 33rd birthday. Her bones reportedly lie in the cathedral of Meissen near her ancestors in a nameless tomb.