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Eighty Years War

Eighty Years War

How did the views of a French theologian contribute to a war in the Netherlands that spanned eighty years and resulted in Dutch independence from Spain?

The Eighty Years’ War was a series of battles and campaigns of Dutch independence fighters against the Spanish, who ruled there at the time. As the name suggests, it spanned eighty years, interrupted only by a couple of truces. The War resulted in the independence of the United Provinces (a predecessor to the Netherlands we know today) from Spanish rule.

Timeline of the Eighty Years’ War

Below are the major events in the Eighty Years’ War, that led to the eventual Dutch victory and subsequent independence.

1566: Angry mobs in the Low Countries rose up and destroyed Catholic art in the churches.

1567: Rebels were tried in the Tribunal de los Tumultos (named the Het Bloedraad by the Dutch, meaning blood council.) The tribunal was ruthless and thousands were killed.

1568 and 1572: William of Orange acquired three mercenary armies in Germany and used them to invade the provinces, but with little success.

1573: By this year, the Geuzen had captured the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, converted them to Calvinism, and secured them against Spanish attack.

1576: The other provinces joined the revolt.

1579: The Roman Catholic Walloon provinces defected.

1588: Alessandro Farnese (the Duke of Parma) successfully led the Spanish forces in reconquering the southern Low Countries.

1596: The Spanish government declared bankruptcy.

1609: The warring sides signed a 12-year truce.

1621: Fighting resumed.

1625: The Dutch scored several significant victories under Prince Frederick Henry of Orange.

1635: France and the Netherlands collaborated to sign the Franco-Dutch alliance. This led to France’s conquest of the Walloon provinces.

1648: Spain recognised Dutch independence.

Summary of the Eighty Years’ War

The Eighty Years’ War took place between 1568–1648 in the Netherlands and it was a Dutch fight for independence from Spain. Its longevity is attributed to the determination of the Dutch rebels and the strength of the Spanish army.

Background

When Charles I ascended the Spanish throne in 1516, the Burgundian Netherlands joined a host of countries that formed the Spanish Empire. Charles had inherited the position of Duke of Burgundy from his father Philip I in 1515, which gave him power over the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and some of Northern France). He had grown up there and spoke the language, so he was generally accepted as their monarch. His duties to the Holy Roman Empire also meant that Charles did not confine his time to Spain and spent much of his rule travelling around Europe. This helped his reign in the Netherlands because it meant that the Dutch people didn’t see him as a Spanish (and thus foreign) King ruling over them.

Eighty Years War Charles V's family tree showing inheritance StudySmarterCharles I’s family tree showing inheritance created in Canva - StudySmarter Originals.

The Burgundian/Habsburg Netherlands

Throughout this explanation, you might see the Netherlands referred to as the Burgundian or Habsburg Netherlands. This area refers to something quite different from what we would call the Netherlands today. The geo-political area covered seventeen provinces in what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of Northern France. The Habsburg Dynasty inherited these provinces in 1556, resulting in them becoming part of the Spanish Empire. These regions were very wealthy, so Spain could benefit from their heavy taxation.

Eighty Years War Map of the Habsburg Netherlands. The red line shows the border between North and Southern Netherlands StudySmarterMap of the Habsburg Netherlands. The red line shows the border between North and Southern Netherlands, Wikimedia Commons.

However, when Charles abdicated the throne in 1556, his son Philip II inherited the Spanish throne and the Burgundy title, whilst his brother received his imperial title (Holy Roman Emperor). Philip, born in Spain and having served there as Charles’ regent, was a far more ‘Spanish’ King than Charles. He ran the kingdoms from his palace El Escorial in Madrid, and the communications with the Netherlands were often poor, resulting in badly run administration. Burgundians also felt aggrieved about the high taxation Philip imposed on them to fund his foreign wars. Historian P Geyl¹ described Philip as:

Short-sighted, unbending and hated.

compared to Charles, who was:

wise, loved and popular.

The relations between the Spanish kingdom and the Netherlands were deteriorating, and the spread of a new religion was poised to weaken them even further...

Regent

A person who is appointed to fill in and rule the country whilst a monarch is absent or incapacitated.

Calvinism and the Spanish Inquisition

During the Protestant Reformation, Protestantism (particularly a branch called Calvinism) spread across Europe and gained popularity in the Netherlands. Many former Catholics converted to Calvinism. This concerned Philip, who viewed it as a great threat to Catholicism of which he felt the protector.

Philip introduced the Spanish Inquisition into the Netherlands with the help of cardinal Antoine de Granvelle, to root out heretics and try to quell Protestantism’s popularity. The Spanish Inquisition had been used in Spain during his predecessors’ reigns, mainly to prosecute Jews and Muslims. Now, its attention was focused on a new religion: Protestantism.

Heretic

A term used to refer to a non-Catholic person (i.e. a Protestant).

The Inquisition was not particularly successful in the Netherlands. The nobles demanded Philip to remove Antoine de Granvelle and he agreed to this. Many nobles asked Philip for religious tolerance, either as they themselves harboured Calvinist views or simply as they felt it was fairer. The most notable were:

  • William of Orange
  • Lamoral of Egmont
  • Philip de Montmorency (Count of Horn)

A petition to end religious persecution

In 1556 many nobles signed and presented a petition to the governor of the Netherlands, Margaret of Palma, which demanded Philip halt the religious persecution of Calvinists in the Netherlands. Despite their differing views, both Catholics and Protestants supported this petition. They all felt that matters should be dealt with by local lords rather than a foreign ruler in Spain. Margaret of Palma halted persecution temporarily but it wasn’t long until Philip established control again.

In 1559, Philip decided to appoint 3 new archbishops and 14 new bishops in the region in the hope to create a more autonomous church structure. This prompted fears amongst the magnates that there might be a government shake-up, which could potentially result in them losing their power, and fear amongst the common people that the Inquisition might start carrying out greater religious persecution. Throughout the next few years, Philip asserted his dominance in the region and brought in more measures to try and quell religious dissonance.

Magnate

A wealthy and influential person of rank.

In 1564, the Council of State asked Philip to revise his policies and allow religious freedom in the Netherlands. Philip refused, which added to his notoriety as a despotic ruler.

Despotic

Describes someone who has absolute power and little regard for the welfare of their subjects.

What is Calvinism and why did it pose a threat to Catholicism?

Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism (a form of Christianity) and is based on the teachings of John Calvin, a leading French Protestant reformer. Calvin believed that salvation was only achievable through the grace of God and protested against the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, which were said to reduce the amount of punishment that people would have to endure for their sins.

Calvinism spread across the Netherlands in the mid-1500s. Swathes of the population (including nobles) converted from Catholicism to Calvinism. Calvinism emphasised Christian values of modesty and frugality, which sharply contrasted with the opulence of the Spanish Catholic nobility. Philip II saw it as a threat to Catholicism, which he believed was the one true religion.

Iconoclastic riots

Riots erupted in 1566, partly in protest against Philip’s cruel policies and fueled by urban workers that had been hit hard by price increases after a bad harvest in 1565. During the riots, rioters wrecked churches associated with riches and destroyed a lot of Catholic art. The violence ended when grain prices fell again. However, the damage had been done.

Resistance came from four main groups:

  • The magnates wanted greater freedom.

  • The lesser nobles wanted to reinstate their political and social status.

  • Calvinists wanted to end religious persecution.

  • Poor urban workers protested against food prices and their poverty.

Iconoclasm

The destruction of religious images.

Tribunal de los Tumultos

Philip responded by sending in the Duke of Alba (Alva) to conduct the Tribunal de los Tumultos (council of troubles) to punish the rebels involved in the riots and establish religious uniformity. Alba dispensed punishments indiscriminately and without mercy, leading to the council being nicknamed the Council of Blood (Het Bloedraad). Thousands of people, including nobles, leaders, and potential leaders, were arrested and some were executed.

Eighty Years’ War combatants

Let’s look at the most important actors of the Eighty Years’ War.

William of Orange

William of Orange, magnate, and stadtholder of the provinces Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht, fled the Burgundian Empire for Germany after fellow stadtholder Count of Horne and Count of Egmont were executed. Whilst in Germany, he acquired three mercenary armies, which he sent into the Netherlands in 1568 to try and oust the Duke of Alba. The battles that ensued marked the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War. The rebellion initially succeeded in taking hold of some cities but was quickly suppressed after Spanish forces returned from the Mediterranean, where they had been fighting the Ottoman Empire.

Eighty Years’ War William of Orange StudySmarterPortrait of William of Orange, Wikimedia Commons.

Stadtholder

Title used for the official in charge of maintaining peace and provincial order. At times, like in William of Orange’s case, the official became a head of state.

In 1572, after Alba proposed a new tax called the tenth penny, support for William of Orange and the rebels increased. The Sea Beggars, the pirate groups of rebels William used, secured Brielle in north Burgundy (southern Netherlands). They achieved this as Spanish armies had moved southwards towards France, where there were threats from the French protestant forces, The Huguenots. This achievement encouraged Protestants to rebel again and many important cities declared loyalty to the rebels. A notable exception was Amsterdam, which remained loyal to Spain.

Tenth penny

A 10% tax on all transactions.

The Spanish Fury

Spain was struggling with financial difficulties and was facing mutinies amongst the soldiers, who were angry over not being paid. In November 1576, Spanish soldiers, angry over payment delays, brutally sacked Antwerp, destroying the city and massacring large amounts of the population over three days of terror. This and other riots across the provinces were known as the Spanish Fury and turned many Catholics and Protestants alike against the Spanish army. In 1576, Spain and the Netherlands signed the Pacification of Ghent, which promised a retreat of the Spanish armies and religious tolerance from both sides.

To sack

To attack a building or town in a way that causes a lot of destruction and the robbery of many valuables.

The peace gained from this agreement did not last long. Calvinists continued to fight for independence and captured Amsterdam in 1578. In 1579, the southern states of Burgundy pledged their allegiance to Spain. William had united the northern states of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders, and the Groningen province in the Union of Utrecht (also known as the United Provinces).

Oath of Abjuration

The 1581 Oath of Abjuration proclaimed the United Provinces independent from Spain and Philip II. In 1584 William was assassinated but his son, Maurice of Nassau (Prince of Orange), succeeded him as the rebellion leader. Fighting continued and Spain successfully recaptured parts of the north, including Antwerp. In 1609 they signed a twelve-year truce.

Dutch East India Company

The war resumed in 1621 but the Netherlands occupied a new position in the world. In 1602, the Netherlands established the Dutch East India Company and started exploration across the world. The Dutch colonised countries across the seas and engaged in wars to capture former Portuguese countries. Their power base expanded, and their wealth increased making them a formidable force when fighting resumed.

Eighty Years War Coin showing the Dutch East India Company symbol StudySmarterCoin showing the Dutch East India Company symbol, Wikimedia Commons.

It became increasingly clear that Spain was not going to be successful in reconquering the North. When, in 1639, Spain sent an armada to Flanders they were beaten decisively. Spain finally acknowledged the Dutch Republic’s independence in 1648. The Dutch won the war due to a wide range of factors. Some blame Philip’s regime, others attribute the Dutch rebels’ success to their military expertise, and some believe it was a combination of the two.

Have a look at these two historians’ differing views on why Spain lost the Eighty Years’ War. The ability to compare and contrast these views and formulate your own conclusions is a key exam skill:

M Rady²G Parker³
  • Spanish policy in the Netherlands was ‘undermined by the determination and skills of the Dutch leadership.’
  • The geography of the Netherlands helped the Dutch.
  • Dutch military engineering and the inspirational leadership of the Prince of Orange helped the Dutch win.
  • ‘The defeat of the Armada sustained the Dutch belief in their ability to defeat the Spanish.’
  • ‘King Philip II bears the greatest responsibility for the failure of Spanish policy in the Netherlands.’
  • He failed to understand the impact of his policies on the Dutch and how they would be received.
  • His religious beliefs ‘contributed significantly to the failure of Spanish policy in the Netherlands.’
  • The Wars were a result of Philip‘s ‘imperfect understanding of his authority.’

Effects of the Eighty Years’ War

The Eighty Years’ War had one main effect: the Dutch independence. However, it brought other consequences for Spain, Europe, and the rest of the world.

Dutch independence

The Dutch Republic existed from 1588–1795, and established itself as a strong European power, thanks to its trading companies that created a Dutch colonial empire. This state was the predecessor to the Netherlands that exists today.

Portuguese independence

Portugal, which was under Spanish rule under Philip I, Philip II, and Philip IV, became entangled in the Eighty Years’ War and lost many of its colonies to the Dutch in the Dutch-Portuguese War. Spain prioritised protecting its own colonies over Portugal’s, which fostered resentment and led Portugal to rebel against Spain.

The Portuguese Restoration War ensued and ended with the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668, which brought a formal end to the Iberian Union.

Humiliation for Spain

Having previously established itself as a powerful global empire, losing to the Dutch was a great embarrassment for Spain. The Dutch Revolt marked the beginning of the Spanish Empire’s decline for some.

Republicanism

One of the most profound effects of the Eighty Years’ War was the idea that a major European power could be a republic. This enlightened other countries, who realised that they did not need to have a monarchy in charge.

Eighty Years War - Key takeaways

  • The Burgundian Netherlands consisted of seventeen provinces that came under Habsburg rule with the accession of Charles I of Spain.
  • During the sixteenth century reformation, Protestantism started spreading throughout the Netherlands (in particular Calvinism).
  • Philip II followed Charles as King of Spain and Duke of Burgundy but the Dutch people didn’t like him. He was seen as far more ‘Spanish’ than Charles and fervently pursued religious policy against heretics.
  • After riots over religion led to notable magnates being executed, one magnate, William of Orange, fled to Germany.
  • William of Orange led revolts against the Spanish in the Netherlands from Germany.
  • After the Sea Beggars captured Brielle, things started to look up for William and the rebels. Many cities in the Northern areas pledged allegiance to them.
  • They called a temporary truce after Spain ran into financial difficulties and couldn’t pay their soldiers, resulting in a mutiny labelled the Spanish Fury.
  • The Oath of Abjuration in 1581 recognised the Province of Utrecht (or the United Provinces) as independent from Spain.
  • Fighting continued until 1609 when a twelve-year truce was signed.
  • Within this period of peace, the United Provinces built themselves up as a formidable force due to the wealth and power acquired by the Dutch East India Trading Company.
  • In 1648, Spain recognised the United Provinces’ independence, which was regarded as a humiliating defeat and marked, for some, the beginning of the decline of the Spanish Empire.

Sources

1. P Geyl, The Revolt of the Netherlands, 1970.

2. M Rady, Revolt to Independence. The Netherlands 1550-1650, 1995.

3. G Parker, The Grand Strategy of Philip II, 1998.

Frequently Asked Questions about Eighty Years War

The Eighty Years War was a series of battles between the Dutch and the Spanish. The Dutch wanted independence for the Burgundian Netherlands from Spain and the Spanish wanted to retain power over the region.

The Eighty Years’ War ended when the Spanish accepted their defeat and recognised the United Provinces as independent from Spain in 1648.

It’s difficult to ascertain how many people died during the Eighty Years’ War but we can be certain that it’s over a hundred thousand and possibly up to half a million.

The Eighty Years’ War happened due to several factors but most notably a will for religious freedom. Calvinism (a form of Protestantism) was spreading through the Netherlands but was suppressed by King Philip II of Spain, who regarded it as a threat to Catholicism. 


Spanish interference in internal affairs and the brutality with which they dealt with religious dissent angered the Dutch and spawned independence movements. William of Orange, a magnate, led the independence movement from Germany and invaded Spain with mercenary armies. This began the Eighty Years’ War.

Final Eighty Years War Quiz

Question

What dates did the Eighty Years' War span?

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Answer

1568-1648

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Question

When did the Burgundian Netherlands join the Spanish Empire?

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Answer

When Charles I ascended the Spanish throne in 1516. Charles had inherited the title of Duke of Burgundy from his father, Philip I, in 1515.

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Question

What modern-day areas did the seventeen provinces of the Burgundian Netherlands cover? (Choose three)

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Answer

Belgium

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Question

Why was Philip disliked by the people in the Netherlands?

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Answer

He imposed high taxes on the region.

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Question

Who were the notable nobles that asked Philip for religious tolerance?

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Answer

William of Orange

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Question

What is Calvinism?

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Answer

Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism (a form of Christianity) and is based on the teachings of John Calvin, a leading French Protestant reformer. Calvin believed that salvation was only achievable through the grace of God and protested against the Catholic Church's sale of indulgences, which were said to reduce the amount of punishment that people would have to endure for their sins.

Show question

Question

What did the Iconoclastic Riots involve?

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Answer

Rioters destroyed religious imagery and Catholic art in the churches.

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Question

Why did poor urban workers protest?

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Answer

They protested against food prices and their poverty.

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Question

Who was William of Orange and why was he important? 

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Answer

William of Orange was a magnate, and stadtholder of the provinces Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht. He fled the Burgundian Empire for Germany after fellow stadtholder Count of Horne and Count of Egmont were executed. 


Whilst in Germany, he acquired three mercenary armies, which he sent into the Netherlands in 1568 to try and oust the Duke of Alba. The battles that ensued marked the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War. 

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Question

Why was the Dutch East India Company relevant in the Dutch success?

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Answer

After the war resumed in 1621, the Netherlands occupied a new position in the world. In 1602, the Netherlands established the Dutch East India Company and started exploration across the world. The Dutch colonised countries across the seas and engaged in wars to capture former Portuguese countries. Their power base expanded, and their wealth increased, making them a formidable force when fighting resumed.

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