Historical story

The young William

The Revolt against Spanish rule started 450 years ago in the Netherlands. The National Military Museum commemorates this with an exhibition about the young Willem van Oranje Nassau. New research shows how Willem was able to become the father of the country.

The exhibition 'Willem' tells the story of the formative early years of Willem van Oranje-Nassau (1533-1584) and their consequences for the Revolt (1568-1648), which broke out 450 years ago this year. The objects that illustrate these years partly come from the National Military Museum itself, hence the suits of armour, lances and pistols, as well as many loans from, among others, the Royal Archives and from Spain.

Prince William

The exhibition space is divided by cardboard walls and is intended to represent a castle. I can't fully empathize, but that is also difficult in the National Military Museum, a hangar with a lot of concrete and steel. We start in the rooms about Willem's childhood. At the age of eleven he inherited the French principality of Orange from his uncle René van Chalon. The original war will, in which William is named as Chalon's sole heir if he dies in battle, can be seen here.

Once a prince, Willem continued his education at the Brussels court of Emperor Charles V. This prepared him for a career as a soldier, which was quite normal for a noble boy, according to the curators who conducted the research, historians Jeroen Punt and Louis Sloos. Punt:“Willem stood with one foot in the modern era of humanism and a new religion (Protestantism – ed.), but with his other foot still fully in the Middle Ages, with his noble upbringing and the etiquette at court.”

Most Courteous Knight

Everything comes along:hunting, participating in tournaments, the fashion and associated weapons of the time, song, dance and court rules. Nice is the scorecard of 'team Oranje', Willem was the captain of a tournament from 1561. Ten years earlier, at the age of seventeen, he received his first tournament prize, for the most courteous knight of the tournament.

In the so-called knight's hall there is a cardboard table with archaeological finds from the waste chute of the Nassau castle in Breda. Here we see the remains of the ultimate delicacy during celebrations and parties:swan pie. The wings were cut off from this to decorate the pie. Willem's own knife is also on the table. That is a special thought:he must have cut into that swan pie with this.

Ready for military career

When Willem turned eighteen in 1551, he could immediately start working as a soldier. Governess Maria of Hungary gave him a power of attorney to recruit and command experienced military horsemen as their captain-commander. Both this military appointment and the armor of these elite troops or lancers are part of the exhibition.

The horse does not come from the sixteenth century because we can only mount animals from the nineteenth century, but the harness, helmet and 3.5 meters long land are original. The lance is one of the few originals left from that time.

Coincidentally, soon after the start of his military career, war broke out between France and Spain. Punt:“This large-scale war would last more than seven years, during which time Willem was mainly present on the battlefield. He really gained crucial military experience here during the later Rebellion.”

Charles V appointed William commander in chief of his troops in France in 1555. He received a staff of commander-in-chief, with which he was portrayed that same year. When I look at this famous painting, I realize how young Willem was, at 22 years old. He himself also found commanding so many men scary, he wrote in a letter to his wife.

talented negotiator

The young prince was not the choice of Charlemagne's military advisers in the nomination process as commander-in-chief. The fact that Willem was given the position had to do with his caution. Sloos:“Willem had proven that he did not make reckless decisions and only wanted to fight if there was no other option. For example, our research shows that in 1555 Willem was ordered to conquer the ill-defensible city of Rocroi. He manages to convince his superiors not to do it, because he wouldn't be able to defend that city well himself."

Willem was also present at the peace talks in 1559. Charles's son and successor Philip II gave him the personal task of mediating between the two parties. This resulted in the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis, which can be seen here. In addition to his high birth and experience on the battlefield, his experience in negotiating also provided the logical leadership role that Willem was assigned during De Revolt.

Start of the Rebellion

After years of faithful service to his Spanish lord, William would turn against him. The strict Catholic Philip II persecuted the Dutch Protestants and raised taxes. William had tried to avoid weapons for as long as possible for fear of illegal actions resulting in Philip's revenge. But now, after the violence of being Spanish, he sprang into action and marched with his army to the Netherlands.

Today, we still see the Battle of Heiligerlee, on May 23, 1568, as the start of The Eighty Years' War. Here William's army won the first battle against the Spaniards. The story of the armor of Willem's brother Lodewijk, which can be seen here, is touching. Lodewijk managed to survive a battle against the Spanish superiors that year by taking off his armor and fleeing via the water. Lodewijk would subsequently die during that other famous battle, on the Mookerheide in 1574, together with brother Hendrik. Brother Adolf had already died at Heiligerlee and Willem lost three brothers in a short time for the freedom of conscience of the Netherlands.

The staff

The absolute highlight of the exhibition is the commanding staff, presented by William of Orange himself. At first I think glad it's his own staff! When Sloos sees my disappointed face, he enthusiastically says that this is also very special. “As far as we know, no other commanding staff from Willem's immediate vicinity has survived. Through our research we now know that the Spaniards took the staff with them after the Battle of Mookerheide, after which it lay in Barcelona for centuries.”

Sloos:“Willem van Oranje is not known as a great general, but we do not agree with that. His cautious actions were the result of years of military experience, which is sometimes forgotten. And once the war had started, he went for it.” Willem would just never see how it would end. Philip II had declared him an outlaw for high treason in 1580 and offered the murderer 25,000 gold crowns and a title of nobility. In 1584 Balthasar Gerards managed to kill Willem in Delft.