Willem 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.
Early life and education
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 Wilhelm 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. Besides the Principality of Orange (located today in France) and significant lands in Germany, Willem also inherited vast estates in the Low Countries (present-day Netherlands and Belgium) from his cousin. Because of Willem’s young age, Emperor Charles V, who was the overlord of most of these estates, served as regent until Williem was old enough to rule them himself.
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 Holy Roman 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 Willem much grieved.
On August 25, 1561, Willem of Orange married for the second time. Willem’s second wife was Anna of Saxony, the daughter of Maurice, Elector of Saxony, and Agnes, eldest daughter of Philipp I, Landgrave of Hesse
His new wife 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. They divorced in 1571.
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.
Up to this time Willem’s life had been marked by lavish display and extravagance. He surrounded himself with a retinue of young noblemen and dependents and kept open house in his magnificent Nassau palace at Brussels.
Consequently the revenue of his vast estates was not sufficient to prevent him being crippled by debt. But after his return from France, a change began to come over Willem. King Felipe II of Spain made him councillor of state, knight of the Golden Fleece, and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, but there was a latent antagonism between the natures of the two men.
Willem married for a third time to 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.
Willem also served the Habsburgs as a member of the court of Margaret of Parma, governor of the Spanish Netherlands and natural half-sister to Felipe II.
The Dutch uprising began with the increased opposition to Spanish rule among the then mostly Catholic population of the Netherlands. Lastly, the opposition wished to see an end to the presence of Spanish troops.
Willem was unhappy with the centralisation of political power away from the local estates and with the Spanish persecution of Dutch Protestants, Willem joined the Dutch uprising and turned against his former masters. The most influential and politically capable of the rebels, he led the Dutch to several successes in the fight against the Spanish. Declared an outlaw by Felipe II of Spain in 1580, he was assassinated by Balthasar Gérard in Delft in 1584.
Willem’s eldest son, Philip Willem, by his first wife Anna van Egmont, succeeded him as Prince of Orange.