Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


William of Orange is to the citizens of the Netherlands what George Washington is to Americans. If anyone at all can claim to be the father of that country, it is William. And yet he is more than father; he is also the savior, under God, of Calvinism in the Lowlands. He occupies a crucial place in Dutch history, and he is honored in the Dutch national anthem: “Wilhelmus van Nassau; ben ik van Duitschen bloed…” (William of Nassau; I am of German blood).

That he could be both father of his country and savior of Calvinism was due to the close relation between church and state in those times; but it was also because God used him to be the savior of Calvinism that he is of interest to us. The Calvinism of Dort, of the great theologians in Dutch Reformed theology, of theAfscheiding, of a robust Calvinistic church in the Netherlands and in Reformed churches in this country is due to the courageous work of William the Silent.

Early Life and Youth

William was born in the last half of April, 1533 1 in Germany – hence the line in the national anthem. His family was of the nobility (of the House of Nassau) and lived in Dillenburg in Nassau. William was one of 12 children, and the family was brought up and educated in the principles of the Lutheran Reformation. From an early age William was prepared to take over family property of Orange in Southern France. Thus, in later years, his official title was: William I of Orange of the House of Nassau.

Charles V, a Spaniard, had been chosen shortly after the Reformation in Germany to be emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, an Empire which included Spain, Germany, parts of Italy, and the Lowlands. The Lowlands, though belonging to the Empire from earlier times, had always been granted a great deal of autonomy, and had become, under the hardworking and thrifty Lowlanders, far and away the most prosperous part of the emperor’s domain. But the Lowlanders loved their independence and would be loyal to the king and emperor only as long as he did not interfere unduly in their affairs. So it was that each province had its own “stadholder,” the principal magistrate who had effective rule in his province. The Lowlands included what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Because they were nobility, his family had contact with the emperor, and Charles V became interested in William’s career. Charles took William to court to learn the ways of imperial policy.

It was while in the court of Charles that William learned the art of ruling, but the price that had to be paid was training in and commitment to Roman Catholicism and a loss of his Reformation heritage, for Charles was a bitter enemy of the Reformation and was determined to stop the spread of Lutheranism in his realm.

The king took a special liking to William, and he became Charles’ closest intimate. William was the only one present with the king when Charles met foreign ambassadors on important official business; he became a confidant of the king in the most secret matters of the empire; he even could give advice to the king which the king acknowledged was useful to him. No one was more powerful. Although some dispute exists over the question, most historians claim that William received the name “the Silent” because of his complete discretion in matters of the realm.

God prepares His servants in ways in which they themselves are not conscious of being prepared. William’s education in the court included a study of languages which made him fluent in Flemish, German, Spanish, French, and Latin. William’s family possessions in Orange gave him entry into French political circles. William’s appointments and assignments as a servant of Charles brought him into contact with and gave him knowledge of the Lowlanders. All these were to be used at a later date in William’s important work.

Conversion to Protestantism

William was on his way to fame, fortune, honor—and a life in the Romish Church, when suddenly God intervened in a strange way.

Charles V, weary of the cares of empire and the struggles with the problems confronting Europe when the whole continent was in turmoil because of the Reformation, decided to abdicate and to spend the rest of his life wearing a hair shirt in an obscure monastery in Spain. Announcing his abdication while leaning on William’s arm, Charles turned the empire over to his son, the cold Philip, who hated the Reformation with an implacable fury.

From that time William occupied a rather anomalous position in the court. He continued to be used in various diplomatic tasks, although Philip hated him for his close association with Charles V.

It was during this time that William’s sympathies began to change to concern for and interest in the battered and beleaguered Calvinists in the Lowlands.

What events God used to bring about this change are not entirely clear, for God often works in mysterious ways, and perhaps William himself was not altogether sure of what was happening to him or of how to give account of the changes taking place in his soul. But several things, are clear. William had been brought up in Lutheranism. And one never forgets what one learns as a youth. He may forsake it, as many do, but he cannot forget it. Sometimes God is merciful and will use that early instruction for good even after a terrible period of apostasy.

William saw Roman Catholicism at its cruelest under Philip. Philip was determined to eradicate Calvinism from the Lowlands, and he used the Spanish Inquisition at its cruelest to accomplish this task. William, often in the Netherlands, saw at first hand the blood and heard the screams of thousands who died for their faith. It made an indelible impression on him.

William hated tyranny of every kind and in every land. He hated the tyranny of the Spaniards. His heart went out to those who suffered under Philip’s relentless blows.

One event brought the whole matter to a head. A diplomatic mission brought William to France while Henry LI, a dedicated Roman Catholic, ruled. Here in France William learned of the secret plot which Henry and Philip had hatched to destroy Protestantism. Henry thought William occupied the same confidential position in the court of Philip that he had occupied in the court of Charles; and so, in the woods, on a hunt, in a moment when no one else was around, Henry told William of the plan to destroy “that cursed vermin, the Protestants,” even though it would require treachery.

Appalled at such an outrage, William managed to keep an outward demeanor which did not reveal his true feelings.2 But as soon as he was able, he informed the Protestant leaders in Brussels of the foul plan. It did not take long for Philip to learn that the secret was out, but he did not suspect William.

Savior of the Calvinists

William’s work in the Lowlands increased in importance. He served as a representative of Philip; he was a member of the council of state which was to assist the Spanish regent in ruling in Philip’s name.3 He was even stadholder of the provinces of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht. In these positions he did what he could to help the Protestants, ease the horrors of persecution, and restore political power to the stadholders of the provinces in the Lowlands.

All his efforts proved unsuccessful. Philip multiplied his cruelties and continued his treacherous conduct. At last William could take it no more; he increasingly considered himself responsible for what was happening.

He retired briefly to his home in Nassau in 1568 where he evaluated his life; scrutinized his loyalties, brought his dilemma before the Lord, and decided to cast his lot, for better or for worse, with the persecuted people in the Lowlands.

The whole story of William’s long and difficult struggle for freedom in the Lowlands is too complicated to tell here. It is a story of victories and defeats, of courage and sacrifice, of suffering and grief, of losses and gains, but finally of victory which came more through stalemate than success on the battlefield.

Three different times William raised an army in Germany or France or the Lowlands themselves. Every time his efforts failed, sometimes because of changing political fortunes (such as in France), sometimes because his armies were insufficiently equipped to fight the skilled and well-equipped Spaniards, sometimes because of financial resources, sometimes because the horror of persecution overwhelmed the people.

But several events helped gradually to turn the tide. The Dutch navy, manned by men called “Beggars of the Sea,” was successful in raiding Spanish shipping, seizing Spanish armed boats, and harassing Spanish troops in lightning raids on the mainland. Noted for their skills in seamanship, their unmatched courage, their knowledge of the canals, dikes, bayous, marshes, and swamps of the Lowlands, they kept the Spaniards from overcoming the country and were the main reason why many cities in the Lowlands declared themselves independent from Spanish rule.

The siege of Leiden is a remarkable instance of the courage and skill with which the Lowlanders fought. Surrounded by Spanish forces who were unable to breach the thick walls of the city; the’ inhabitants were nearly starved into submission. Seeing their families and children dead from the famine, many spoke of capitulation until the burgomaster stirred their failing spirits with the words: “Here is my sword; plunge it,: if you will, into my heart, and divide my flesh among you to appease your hunger; but expect no surrender as long as I am alive.”

The Beggars of the Sea had breached the dikes in an effort to sail to Leiden’s rescue, but contrary winds prevented the waters from moving sufficiently far inland to sail the boats over the land. But on October 3, 1574 God turned the winds about so that the tidal waters rushed inland carrying the boats with them, and bringing supplies to the beleaguered garrison. The Spaniards were routed, the siege lifted, and the city spared.

For the courage of the citizens William proposed the establishment of a university within the city, and the University of Leiden became one of’ the great schools in subsequent Dutch history.

Although the Lowlanders never could whip the Spaniards in pitched battle, the Spaniards never got any closer to subduing the nation and overcoming the Dutch. What was to, the advantage of the Dutch was the possession of key cities which Spain could not recapture, and total supremacy at sea.

In 1576 seven Dutch provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Overijsel, and Gdlderland), under the leadership of William, signed the Union of Utrecht by’which these provinces became a republic. William became the King, and the Netherlands was formed. The Spanish were not defeated, but were gradually driven from the North and pushed to the South so that two nations emerged: Belgium, primarily Roman Catholic to this day, and the Netherlands, a strong, independent country which was Calvinistic throughout. Although fighting ceased, the war was not officially over until the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, which Peace brought to an end all the religious wars in Europe.

William was something of an enigma through it all. He suffered greatly, for he lost all his possessions in the interests of helping the persecuted people of God. His motives for coming to their rescue have never been completely clear. No doubt he hated tyranny, of all kinds and in all lands. He hated the Spanish for their persecution of the Lowlanders. He was moved by opposition to the presence of Spanish troops on Dutch soil; to the formation of new Roman Catholic bishoprics in a land in which the people had chosen for the Reformation; to the persecution of those whose only crime was a determination to worship God as they believed right.

He was a man of deep religious convictions, though he cared little for the forms of religion. He was a man of faith, resolution, and unbending tenacity of purpose. But his motives were political as well as religious. He had to be moved by love for His God and for the faith of Calvin or he would never have sacrificed all that he possessed for a cause which often seemed hopeless. Out of his untiring efforts was born not only the land of our forebears, but also a bastion of Calvinism which was to influence thousands upon thousands in that land and abroad.

Above all he was a man who, before the times were ripe for it, wanted nothing so much as freedom of religion. When he marched with his army into the Netherlands, he issued a proclamation which read in part:

My taking up of arms is because of “the security of the rights and privileges of the country, and the freedom of conscience.”

In instructions issued to his deputy he required of him:

First of all, to deliver the towns of that Province from Spanish slavery, and to restore them to their ancient liberties, rights and privileges, and to take care that the Word of God be preached and published there, but yet by no means to suffer that those of the Romish Church should be in any sort prejudiced, or that any impediment should be offered to them in the exercise of their religion.

When the Union of Utrecht was formed, William insisted absolutely that freedom of religion be practiced in the land.

His Death

Philip hated William and offered 25,000 crowns and nobility to anyone who would kill William. Many tried, lured by such promises,’ and one succeeded. He was a down-in-the-heel scoundrel by the name of Balthazar Gerard who obtained an audience with William on the pretense of having important business. Mad with covetousness, Gerard shot him through the body in Delft on July 10, 1584. William died shortly thereafter with the prayer: “My God, have mercy on my soul and on these poor people.”

The enormity of Rome’s crimes ought, even if no other reason existed, to give pause to anyone who seeks peace and union with the Roman Catholic Church. Never in all history has this apostate church breathed so much as one word of remorse for her cruelties. God delivered his people in the Netherlands from them, as God always delivers His people from their oppressors.

But more importantly, God made the Netherlands the cradle of the Reformed faith. It did not remain that; but it was such for a sufficiently long period of time to be the means for the Reformed faith to be brought to many places around the world. To that faith we are the heirs.

1 Some disagreement exists as to the exact date. 

2 Some historians claim that this silence of William in the forests of France gave him the name, William the Silent. 

3 The regent was first Margaret of Parma, who had some sympathy for the Protestants. But she was replaced with the Duke of Alva, one of history’s most cruel men. The regent was responsible to carry out Philip’s determination to destroy Calvinism.