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National Observer Home > No. 68 -Autumn 2006 > Articles


Book Review

National Observer
(Council for the National Interest, Melbourne),
No. 68, Autumn 2006.


THE AWFUL END OF PRINCE WILLIAM THE SILENT: The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun

by Lisa Jardine

HarperCollins, London, 2005.
144 pages and index.


Reviewed by R.J. Stove


On the same day — 10 July 1584, in Delft, Holland — William the Silent, architect of Dutch independence, died as a man and was reborn as a myth. Whig historians, above all John L. Motley in The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1856), hailed William as not merely a Protestant hero, but the Protestant hero; the man who first weakened imperial Spain’s tyranny; “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”; and, better still, the de facto inventor of nationalism, which as every Whig historian (and Balkan terrorist and English soccer-hoodlum and Hutu machete-wielder) knows, is A Good Thing. The reaction against such hagiography came with a vehement Hispanophile, W. T. Walsh. In his 1937 life of William’s arch-foe Philip II, Walsh emphasised inconvenient facts about William that Whigs ignored: notably his talent for intrigue, the sustained dirtiness of his propagandistic fighting, and his refusal to abandon Catholicism until the moment when a change of religion suited his interests. Yet Walsh, while more often right than wrong, so overstated his case — 1937 was hardly the best possible year for calm thought about Spanish administration — as to make readers ask: if William had been such a soulless, blatantly two-faced creep, how did he inspire followers at all, let alone create a political movement formidable enough to threaten Habsburg sovereignty?

At any rate, later historians (Henry Kamen, Geoffrey Parker, and Sir Charles Petrie are three prominent names) have judiciously discarded both Walsh’s wilder rhetorical excess and the Whigs’ fairytale, thereby enabling us to appreciate William’s true character. To this august list can now be added Lisa Jardine, most famous for her analyses of Erasmus and Francis Bacon. Neither Sir Galahad nor Beelzebub, William is best comprehended as an impressive, crafty politician who, dealt a poor political hand, played it with more skill than several of his contemporaries (including Philip’s half-brother Don John of Austria) ever managed even after receiving every court card in the pack.

Why exactly had William’s hand been so poor, compared with the gifts that Don John dissipated? Because both temperament and early circumstance ill equipped William with the requirements for a national leader. As a wealthy, cosmopolitan, fairly feckless aristocrat — who took his main title, the Principality of Orange, from a town in southern France — he acquired his first European prominence when twenty-two years old, in 1555. The occasion: Charles V’s ceremonial abandonment of the emperor’s role. Prematurely aged, Charles trusted William enough to lean on his arm in Brussels’ palace before and during the abdication ceremony.

William earned his nickname “the Silent” through a prudence not natural but tactical. Amid doctrinal warfare he stood out during his youth, as a state councillor in The Netherlands, for his doctrinal vagueness. When he allied himself with protests against Spain’s introduction of its Inquisition into the Low Countries, he operated through regional particularism rather than through religious conviction. After all, the Low Countries already possessed an Inquisition, “more rigorous” — as Philip himself said — “than the one here”.

Maladroit overreaction by Philip, and to a lesser extent by his generalissimo the Duke of Alba, did more than any other single process to drive William into permanent political opposition, and thence into discarding the Roman faith’s observances altogether (though his marriage to a princess from anti-Habsburg Saxony also helped). Philip ordered in 1568, and Alba failed in his labours to prevent, the beheading of two Catholic nobles periodically associated with William: Count Egmont — of Beethoven overture fame — and Count Hornes. Ferocious drum-rolls thundered forth as the victims approached the block, to drown out whatever last speeches they might utter. You can still see, in Brussels’ main square, a plaque commemorating the double execution. This blunder gravely damaged centrist Catholic hopes of some confederate autonomy within either a Spanish or a Dutch Calvinist orbit. Thereafter, local Catholic moderates found themselves constituting a largely ineffectual third force caught between Spanish rule and the Calvinists, whom William alternately thwarted and defended.

The conflict’s greatest puzzle is whether Spain could have won it, had Philip (always better esteemed by commoners than by the upper classes) visited The Netherlands in person. A later Spanish sovereign, Philip V, maintained that his predecessor’s stay-at-home policy had been madness: “If I lose territories, it shall not be for that reason.” Probably Philip V’s assessment was correct. In sixteenth-century Europe, rebels who howled to the moon against a king’s advisers usually refrained from attacking the king himself. What remains certain is that the war’s first stages — William’s initial defeats, followed by cleverly improvised successes; Spain’s military revival under Don John and, more lastingly, Philip’s nephew the Duke of Parma; William’s own attempts, at times vindicated, to keep local Catholics partly on side by ruling via Catholic surrogates like France’s Duke of Anjou – not only defy epitomising in a mere article, but belong rather to the Low Countries’ history than to William’s own. Hostilities continued on and off (a fact worth remembering by modern believers in military “cakewalks”) for eighty years.

Through such hostilities, William — like most monarchs of his time — moved with amazing freedom, and amazingly few guards. The lowliest bank teller now enjoys, or endures, better security than prevailed back then for the mightiest princes: even for Elizabeth I, more cautious than most. In 1582 one Jean Jauregay, “a short, ill-dressed, unassuming individual”, fired into William a bullet that “pass[ed] through his mouth, somehow without damaging either tongue or cheek, and exiting . . . between jaw and ear.” Within months the victim had resumed governing.

Another malcontent of intellectual pretensions, Balthasar Gérard, had lost what little reason he possessed by his work as secret agent to Philip. Two years before Jauregay’s attempt on William’s life, Philip had announced a prize of 25,000 gold crowns for anyone who slew William. (This gesture utterly typified Philip’s fantastic ineptitude at public relations. Any serious tyrant in Philip’s job would, first, have realised that declaring open season on one ruler would endanger all; and secondly, have given some goon a nod and a wink in private.) Eventually Gérard, after convincing William of his bona fides as a loyal Protestant eager to spy on the Duke of Parma’s camp, fired his chic new wheel-lock pistol thrice at point-blank range into William’s chest. Miss Jardine has done splendid detective work concerning how Gérard gained access to William’s home, the fake letters of recommendation he employed, and where he acquired his lethal fashion accessory.

What Gérard’s punishment lacked in prettiness it compensated for in drama. The Dutch authorities lived too early to use the actual phrase “zero tolerance”, but they revealed to Gérard a conspicuous flair in the underlying concept. They whipped him, smeared salt into his wounds, chopped his breasts off, hung lead weights from his feet, tore away most of his flesh with pincers, and according to one account poured urine over him. Then, having removed and burnt his bowels, they quartered him. At some unspecified point, he breathed his last.

Miss Jardine’s fascinating sidelights (predictable from her subtitle) upon Renaissance gun culture indicate that Gérard could have suffered fewer indignities had he finished off William with a conventional knife. Elizabeth I might also have been less spooked by a stabbing than by a shooting. As it was, William’s murder scared her into giving Dutch Protestants the open practical support she previously withheld, having regarded them less as friends than as dangerous subversives against the flawed but indubitably royal Spanish polis. In her day, the subject of whether, and when, assassinating a head of state could be advocated on religious grounds occupied theologians’ and bureaucrats’ minds to a remarkable degree. But we cannot afford to deride such preoccupations, given the current ideological climate. Perhaps some of Miss Jardine’s allusions to fatwas, to Princess Di’s end, and to Arafat’s final years, veer a bit towards modishness. Yet her understanding of the parallels (as well as of the differences) between William’s world and our own provokes nod after nod of sympathetic assent.

At the time Gérard caught up with him, William was in partial eclipse, never having fully recovered from the 1582 assault. Possibly Gérard’s gunfire just hastened a political doom already inevitable, much as J.F.K.’s and Martin Luther King’s authority had sunk to embarrassing lows long before clamorous headlines acquainted us all with Oswald and James Earl Ray. Still, maybe a truer analogue to William’s position is that of the mid-1960s Nixon: several times defeated, but never to be counted out.

A somewhat patronising review in Britain’s Daily Telegraph called Miss Jardine’s survey “the perfect length for an evening’s read.” To the contrary, it rewards repeated pondering for weeks after being first examined, and validates the dust-jacket’s assurance: “There are moments when a single event topples the most apparently certain of outcomes, when one intervention changes the course of history.”




R.J. Stove is a writer and commentator on public affairs and has had numerous articles published in Quadrant, National Observer, Chronicles and The American Conservative. His work The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of the Secret Police and Their Victims was published by Duffy and Snellgrove.






National Observer No. 68 -Autumn 2006