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Archive for the tag “religious conflicts”

The Silent Man who Founded a Nation

William the silent Philip_II_of_Spain_berating_William_the_Silent_Prince_of_Orange_by_Cornelis_Kruseman

Today’s protagonist, William, to the right. Philip II to the left

It is an obvious challenge for someone as vocal as myself to approach the historical gentleman known as William the Silent. Given the times he lived in, holding his tongue was probably a wise move – not that it ultimately helped. Still, let us not get to the end before we’ve even touched upon the beginning, which is why I hereby grab you, my dear reader, by the scruff of your neck and pull you straight back to 1533.

Now, by 1533, Europe was no longer the harmonious continent it used to be (kidding: Europe has seldom been harmonious). In fact, since 1517, Europe was being rent apart for religious reasons, some countries clinging to the Old Faith, a.k.a. the Holy Roman Church, others embracing Protestantism in one of its many forms. After all, Protestants was an umbrella term encompassing various new versions of the Christian faith, from Calvinists to Lutherans and onwards.

People who convert to (or adopt) a new faith are generally very intense about their beliefs. So, as a consequence of the Reformation sparked by Luther on the last day of October 1517, religious fervour swept the European nations. Those who chose to remain Catholic experienced a resurge of devoutness as they took a stand against the heretics, and thing in general became very tense.

William the silent father Willemderijke

William Sr

William, Count of Nassau, and his wife Juliana were among those very devout, very intense Lutherans. In 1533, Juliana gave birth to the first of their twelve children, a boy named William after his father.

Our young William grew up in a big family who took their Lutheran religion very seriously. But in 1544, little William’s cousin, Rene of Chalon, Prince of Orange died. He had named William as his heir with the condition that he be raised a Catholic. Now, one would have thought that for such devout people as William Sr and his wife, the thought of having one of their children raised a papist was anathema. Not so. Taking a leaf out of Henri IV’s book (except, of course, that Henri IV had yet to appear on the French stage) William Sr obviously concluded that a principality was worth a mass or two. And it was a LOT of land, both in France and present-day Germany as well as in the Netherlands. In one fell swoop, the Nassau family became truly important, adding a hyphen and Orange to their family name. Today, the Orange-Nassau line still sits on the Dutch throne, and William remains a preferred family name.

William the silent Mary_(1505–1558),_Queen_of_Hungary

Mary of Hapsburg, Queen of Hungary

What William himself thought of all this is unknown, but being an obedient lad he did as his father wished, bid his large family farewell, and went first to Breda, then to Brussels, to be properly educated in his new faith under the supervision of Mary of Hapsburg, one of those rather impressive female relatives of Emperor Charles V (in this case she was Charles’ sister) whom he liked to place in positions of great power. In fact, Charles V can be viewed as something of a trailblazer when it comes to gender equality, but that is probably the subject for another post.

Now as William was a minor, all his new vast lands were managed by Charles V who also ensured William was properly educated. Clearly, there was a strong bond between William and Charles—I guess William saw in the Emperor a second father.

william the silent Anna_von_Egmond

Anna, wife nr 1

By the time William turned eighteen, he had become an exemplary Catholic and a much-admired up-and-coming young man. Four years later, he was made commander of one of the Emperor’s armies, which, I presume, indicates William was quite good at the martial stuff. By then, William was a married man and father, having married his first wife, Anna van Egmond in 1551. It was a happy marriage, but unfortunately Anna died already in 1558. A difficult year for William, who not only lost his wife but his mentor, Charles V.

Philip II of Spain trusted William as implicitly as his father had done, and by the end of 1559, William was not only in control of his own various lands, but also the Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Obviously, Philip expected William to be adequately grateful and toe the imperial line when it came to policies and religion, but William was having second thoughts about his Catholicism—even more so when Philip unleashed the Inquisition in Spanish Netherlands.

Even worse, in 1559 William discovered a secret. While in France as a hostage, William was invited to ride out with Henri II on a hunt. Now Henri was all chatty, sharing with William the not-so-appetizing fact that he and Philip II had a secret alliance.
“Mmm,” William said. (This is supposedly the incident which gave him his nickname, hence the monosyllabic response)
“Well, you already know, don’t you?” Henri continued.
“Mmm,” came the enigmatic reply. Henri went on to describe that the purpose of his and Philip’s collaboration was to exterminate all Protestants. Violently. That did not sit well with William—after all, most of his family were Lutherans, as were many of the people living in his domains.

According to Apology, a text William published in 1581, this was when he realised he could no longer side with the Spanish king. Soon enough, he had become the leader of the Dutch rebels, thereby instigating a period of conflicts that would last for eighty years (which is probably why it is called..ta-daa…the Eighty Years’ War).

William Avsachsen

Anna, wife nr 2

One indication of his new loyalties was his choice of a second wife. Anna of Saxony was impeccably Lutheran (and very rich) She was also not the easiest of women, prone to tantrums, depressions and an over-consumption of alcohol. But the marriage gave William valuable connections in Germany—connections he needed to take on the might of the Spanish Empire.

By 1567, William was persona non grata in the Hapsburg domains – sort of comes with the territory if you lead a rebellion. Even worse, his eldest son, Philip, had been seized by the Spanish and sent to Spain as a hostage. William would never see him again. Furthermore, his Dutch estates were confiscated which meant he depended on his wife’s wealth to tide him over. She had just given birth to their third child, having recuperated after an attempted suicide after the death of their first son. She was worried about their financial status and this resulted in quarrels and discord.

William escaped from all this by throwing himself into the religious wars, spending months away from home. In retaliation, his wife contracted a lawyer, a certain Jan Reubens, to help her claim her jointure from what little remained of William’s estates.

800px-William_I,_Prince_of_Orange_by_Adriaen_Thomasz._Key_Rijksmuseum_Amsterdam_SK-A-3148 (1)

William himself. A rather handsome man, IMO

Anna and Jan hit it off, so when William came home for a visit he was surprised to find his wife pregnant. Major scandal, although I suspect that in secret William punched the air and said “Yes!” Finally he had the means with which to push through a divorce from his difficult wife. Said and done, and as Anna’s family were utterly disgusted by her adultery poor Anna spent her last years locked up in a room reinforced with bars at the window and the door. She died in 1577, and was, sadly, not much missed.

By then, William had married for the third time. He had also had some success against the Spanish, plus he’d eschewed his Catholic faith and instead declared himself a Calvinist which could be considered opportunistic but probably reflected his true religious preferences. This didn’t exactly endear him to the Spanish, and the somewhat extreme views of the Calvinists regarding Catholics in general led to a partition of the Spanish Netherlands, where the southern provinces (more or less present-day Belgium) remained Spanish, while the northern provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, thereby laying the grounds for present-day Netherlands. William was not happy with this partition. He felt all the provinces should be ruled as one entity, but he didn’t have the resources with which to oust the Spanish, and years and years of warfare had worn him down.

William the Silent 220px-Charlottebourbon

Charlotte wife nr 3

If he was less than satisfied with what was happening with the Spanish Netherlands, he was extremely happy with his new wife. Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier had been raised by a mother who leaned towards the Reformed religion but was forcibly made a nun at the age of thirteen. Instead of accepting her fate this spirited lady escaped from the convent, declared herself a Calvinist and fled to the Electorate of the Palatinate. She and William hit it off from day one, and over the course of six years she gave him as many daughters, the eldest of whom would go on to become the ancestress of the House of Hanover.

In 1580, Philip formally outlawed William. The Spanish king was sick to death of the stubborn Dutch and especially of William. What do you do when you just need someone to disappear? Well, you put out a contract on him, which is just what Philip II did, offering a minor fortune to whoever assassinated that foul outlaw, William the Silent.

In 1581, the Northern Provinces declared that they no longer recognised Philip II as their king. Instead, the fledgling state pronounced William their stadtholder. A very determined Spanish bounty hunter ambushed William in Antwerp. His injuries were life-threatening, and for some time, his life hung in the balance. The dedicated efforts of his wife and sister kept him alive, but unfortunately this dedication came at a cost, and an exhausted Charlotte died in May of 1582. William was devastated—but had no choice but to soldier on, for the sake of his subjects and family.

William 250px-Louisecoligny

Louise, wife nr 4

I think that when Charlotte died, life lost some of its vibrancy for William. But he still had a duty to fulfil, and albeit that he had a full nursery, he only had one son at home, his eldest being held in Spain. One son was not enough—anything could happen to an adolescent boy—so in 1583 William decided to marry again. This bride was also French, a Huguenot named Louise de Coligny who’d lost her first husband and her father in the St Bartholomew massacre. Nine months after the wedding, a son was born.

Unfortunately, William was not destined to enjoy life with his new wife and son for long. A certain Balthasar Gerard had made it his mission in life to rid the world of William. Gerard was a Catholic and a most loyal subject of Philip II. According to Gerard, William was a disgusting traitor, a man best erased from the surface of the earth. His plan was simple: earn William’s trust and then kill him. So in 1584 he presented himself at William’s court, pretending to be a French noble. He also offered to travel to France on William’s behalf and deliver messages to various of William’s allies.

Some months later, Gerard reappeared in Delft and requested a meeting with William. When William entered the room, Gerard produced two wheel-lock pistols and shot William at close range. William thereby became the first head of state in history to be assassinated with a handgun, a distinction I suspect he would have preferred not to have.

There is another version of how William was murdered, whereby Gerard simply loitered in the vicinity of the Prince’s residence, armed with two wheel-lock pistols he had bought off one of William’s soldiers. When William paused to talk to one of his Welsh soldiers, Gerard took the opportunity to shoot him and then fled, pursued by the Welshman. Both versions agree on William being shot.

Gerard fled but was apprehended before he made it out of Delft. So instead of living the good life in Costa de Sol at the Spanish king’s expense, Gerard suffered through horrific torture and one of the most extended and brutal executions in history. First, he had his right hand burned off with a red-hot iron. Then he had huge pincers ripping flesh off his body in six different places after which he was quartered while still alive, disembowelled, had his heart cut out and thrown in his face before he was beheaded. The beheading was probably unnecessary—I don’t think anyone survives being quartered.

William the silent Willem.zwijger.grablege.delft

17th c depiction of William’s grave

As to William, he was buried in Nieuwe Kerk, Delft. Since then, most of his descendants have joined him there, generation after generation of Orange-Nassau men and women, including all Dutch monarchs. His original grave was a modest affair, but in the early 17th century our William was already considered some sort of Founding Father, and accordingly it was decided he needed an impressive monument. Like really impressive.

Other than liberty and all his descendants, William has bequeathed the Dutch not only an obvious connection to the colour orange but also their flag and their national anthem, the Wilhelmus, which began its days as a little ditty sung back in William’s day. This makes the Dutch national anthem the oldest in the world (with the possible exception of the Japanese anthem). It is also an anthem I know how to sing, thanks to lovely Dutch friends. But that, dear peeps, is neither here nor there.

… and then there were three.

A year ago, I had published zero books. Today, I have published 3. Gulp, gulp, gulp. By now I should be relaxed about all this, but instead I go around in a somewhat feverish state, peek at amazon to ensure my book is there (it is), stroke the cover a couple of times and soothe myself with yet another cup of tea.

This my third book holds a very special place in my heart. While it’s the third installment in the Graham Saga, it is also the book that depicts the story that first drew me to the seventeenth century, namely that of the religious conflicts that dominated the times. One could argue that religion still causes a lot of conflict – sadly – but for Europe the 17th century is something of a deluge when it comes to religious conflicts, one war after the other staining the European map red with blood.


Ultimately, wars are rarely fought for religious convictions alone. Other interests coincide, and this was the case in Europe back then, how else to explain that catholic France bankrolled protestant Sweden’s war efforts? But for the people embroiled in the conflicts, for the peasants that had to flee the invading armies, who kneeled in the mud and prayed to God for deliverance from the terrible Swedes, it was far more personal that this. Not only was it a matter of losing wives, children, men and possessions to the war, it was also about the right to hold to religious traditions and beliefs.


At the centre of the conflict lay the Reformation – or rather the outcome of the Reformation. I don’t think Martin Luther really understood what future havoc he would cause the day he nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door, but a hundred years down the line Europe was divided, with the northern parts leaning towards Protestantism and the southern holding to their ancient catholic beliefs. Not that things were that simple; Protestantism encompassed a lot of diverse opinions, ranging from the rather traditional Church of England to the somewhat more radical ideas that dominated the budding Quaker societies. (Many Quakers would, I believe, not consider themselves protestants. I use the term in its broadest sense.)

477px-Gustav_II_Adolf_by_MerianWhatever the case, in the north the young Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus flexed his muscles and saw his chance. In the name of religion he set out on a massive war of plunder and conquest, and to this day the Swedes are remembered for their brutality in various parts of Germany and Poland. Gustavus Adolphus’ real aim was to create a Swedish national state, complete with state institutions, and the wars were an adequate way of financing his substantially more peaceful efforts at home. He also wanted to put his insignificant kingdom (and himself) on the map, which he succeeded with, although perhaps not in the positive terms he had hoped for. “The Swedes are coming, the Swedes are coming! God spare us from them, God save our children!” is not the best PR slogan, is it?

In The Prodigal Son we are not on continental Europe, and we’re definitely very far from Sweden! No, Matthew Graham and his time travelling wife, Alex, experience their share of religious persecution in Scotland – to be more precise in Ayrshire and the area around Cumnock.  A hotbed of Presbyterian fervour, Ayrshire (or rather its people) did not take kindly to the laws enacted by His Restored Majesty, Charles II. Suddenly it became mandatory to accept the king as the head of the church (anathema to the more hard core members of the Scottish Kirk) and all able bodied men were called to swear an Oath of Abjuration, whereby they reneged on their previous commitments to the Solemn league and Covenant (a rather dreary document that more or less imposed Presbyterian beliefs in the Commonwealth of England & Scotland – probably as disliked by the devout Anglicans & Catholics as the oath above was by the Presbyterians, but there you are; tit for tat.)

alexander pedenSome men, of course, chose to stick with their beliefs, paying nothing but lip-service to the Oath. One such man was – duh! – Matthew Graham, because no way did he intend to have a man with hair down to his arse dictate what he should believe in or not. Matthew had fought in the Civil War, was raised a devout member of the Kirk, and when his dear minister, Sandy Peden, called for his help, Matthew gladly complied – even if it meant putting himself and his family at serious risk.
“Not that serious,” Matthew protests, “I go right canny.”
Serious. Very serious. Consequences could range from being fined to being hanged – or deported.
“They’ll not catch me,” Matthew insists. “Not me or Sandy.”
Ha. Well, ultimately Sandy ended up on Bass Rock and…
“Not me,” Matthew interrupts.
“You don’t know that, do you?” I retort, waving my quill at him (He doesn’t understand computers). “I might decide to —”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Alex hisses.
Well excuse me, but who’s the author here, huh? And if Matthew Graham is stubborn enough to cling to his beliefs, then he must be prepared to pay the price – because there is a price, there always is. Alex pales when I say this, and I feel rather sorry for her, but there you are, actions lead to consequences.

In many ways, the bloody religious conflicts of the 17th century laid the foundation for the modern European societies. The Reformation brought in its wake an upsurge in literacy, as it became important for men (and women) to read the Bible themselves. Once people can read, they can start amassing information, with information comes opinions, and with opinions come convictions – convictions that ultimately would result in the Bill of Rights, a document that for the first time stipulated that all men (not so sure about the women – they were mainly considered appendages to their men) had certain undeniable rights. Not that Matthew Graham aspired to something as lofty as that; all he wanted was to be allowed to follow his conscience in matter of faith. Still, it was men like Matthew – just as much as the formidable men like Martin Luther – who ultimately  contributed to one of the more important building blocks of democracy – the right to believe and think for yourself.

In The Prodigal Son, Matthew Graham has to choose: his family or his faith, his beloved wife or his dear minister. Not the easiest of choices – and as I said, all choices come with a price.

(Oh, BTW: At present all three books in The Graham Saga are at a special promotional price of £12:99 for all three! Visit Troubador for more info)

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