Scanning shelves of my favorite N.Cal used book store, one name reached out to me: C.V. Wedgwood. I’d spent decades thinking about but not quite getting around to reading her histories. Now was the time to seize the moment and pick up this perfectly preserved hardback from the Book of the Month Club and put an end to a life of procrastination. What a treat! Was it made sweeter by a long period of anticipation? Maybe, but one thing is certain, Wedgwood deserved her reputation: she synthesized the craft of storytelling with the rigor of scholarship.
William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, 1533-1584, was born in the Rhineland in a era when the “unsolved Protestant problem was tearing the political framework to shreds.” His parents abandoned the Catholic faith for Lutheranism within months of his birth, a switch in religious allegiance that was responsible for William’s unlikely inheritance at the age eleven to the Principality of Orange in the Netherlands, an elevation that made him one of the richest noblemen in Europe. An older cousin had made the child William his heir at the behest of the Emperor Charles V who did not want the principality falling into the hands of a Protestant, namely, William’s father. The religion of a child could be readily changed. And was. The now Catholic child heir became a favored ward of Charles V and his sister Mary, Regent of the Netherlands, who schooled him to be “a loyal servant of the dynasty.” What a blow he dealt that dynasty when he emerged as the leader of a rebellion against their family, their politics, their religious intolerance, and their rule.
In 1555, Charles V abdicated and retired to Spain. His son and heir, Phillip II of Spain, attempted to centralize and control by autocratic rule an unruly collection of seventeen provinces each with its own privileges, economies, constitutional charters, law courts, noblemen, rival cities, and proudly held local patriotism. By the time he removed his court to Spain, leaving his half-sister Margaret as Regent, Phillip took with him a fateful enmity towards the Prince of Orange, the one man in the Netherlands who’d had the savvy to thwart the King’s plan for military, political and religious control over the most “advanced trading and manufacturing centre of Europe.” Even though William spent the next five years trying to mediate the King’s demands, which now included a revival of the Counter-Reformation, with the constitutional rights of the Netherlanders, it was at this point that William’s biography as a leader of a rebellion dovetails with the history of what was to be known as the War of Liberation of the Netherlands.
I highly recommend this as a biography of a truly inspiring individual and as a history of a rebellion that would foreshadow the English Civil War in the 17th C as well as the American and French Revolutions of the 18th century.