Waite on van der Lem, 'Revolt in the Netherlands: The Eighty Years War, 1568-1648'

Anton van der Lem
Gary K. Waite

Anton van der Lem. Revolt in the Netherlands: The Eighty Years War, 1568-1648. Translated by Andy Brown. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2019. Illustrations, maps. 277 pp. $40.00 (e-books), ISBN 978-1-78914-088-0; $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78914-086-6.

Reviewed by Gary K. Waite (University of New Brunswick) Published on H-War (September, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53806

Originally published in Dutch in 2014, Anton van der Lem’s survey of the Netherlandic Revolt or Eighty Years War is a model of clarity and balance in its treatment of what he correctly notes was less a war against invading Spanish forces than a civil war pitting various groups of Netherlanders against each other. As Van der Lem, curator of rare books at Leiden University Library, explains, this is why the book is titled The Revolt in the Netherlands rather than of the Netherlands. This is merely one of many popular myths and misconceptions that Van der Lem corrects in his engaging analysis. His ability to provide a compelling and comprehensible account of this war for a wide audience is more remarkable given the conflict’s length and complexity. It involved not just the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries and the mighty Habsburg Spanish Empire but also a number of other European states, including England, France, and several territories of the Holy Roman Empire, not to mention the overseas colonies.

The revolt began as a noble protest against the Spanish king Philip II’s efforts to govern and tax the Netherlandic provinces directly, thus breaking the long-standing tradition of the sovereign consulting with local representatives; the infamous heresy placards merely added fuel to the fire. None of the Netherlandic opponents to Philip’s centralizing efforts saw themselves as rebels—which is how the king saw them—and throughout, the Dutch expressed their willingness to submit to their ruler should he agree to respect their traditional rights. At no time in the revolt’s first decades did the “rebels” aim for liberation from their Habsburg overlords, even though the conflict is still typically identified as the “Dutch war of independence.” Independence may have been what they eventually gained, but this was a happenstance of the shifting series of pitched battles, sieges, stalemates, and periods of temporary peace that was the revolt.

Given the complexity of the subject, Van der Lem wisely follows a chronological framework for his analysis. His captivating narrative focuses more attention on the decades before the Twelve Years Truce of 1609, with six of the eight chapters, since these encompassed the strategies and battles that could have decisively settled the campaign for or against Spain. By 1609, the lines between the United Provinces of the Netherlands and the Spanish-held South were firmly drawn and unlikely to shift. Even so, Van der Lem makes clear that, almost to the end, the outcome of the revolt was contingent on a wide variety of factors, particularly so on the character of the various actors and their decisions, the availability or lack of funds, the shifting alliances with external partners, and the willingness of townspeople to resist a siege or farmers to accede to the flooding of their pastures. Nothing was predetermined (despite the Dutch Calvinists’ fixation on the doctrine of predestination), and the conflict could have ended in a number of different ways.

At many moments, the troops loyal to the Crown could have decisively won the day, although they were severely handicapped by a lack of funds and, until the later stages, a decent navy. On the other side, the forces of opposition were not the rag-tag militias of popular imagination, but, under the princes of Orange, from William the Silent (d. 1584), to Maurice (d. 1625) and Frederick Henry (d. 1647), they proved a mostly well-disciplined and effective fighting force, often reinforced with English or German troops. The Dutch had a considerable merchant navy and, of course, the famed Sea Beggars, pirates who fought mostly with the rebels, although they often followed their own goals distinct from those pursued by the Dutch Stadholders. The Beggars controlled the coastline, so that when the famed Spanish Armada sailed into the English Channel in July 1588 to defeat England and then land an army of conquest in the Netherlands, the English harassed the glorious armada under the command of Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma, who, thanks to the Sea Beggars, could find no safe harbor. The Sea Beggars also caused considerable mayhem in their own ports and waterways and were not always greeted as liberators by townsfolk. Van der Lem similarly corrects popular perception of the makeup of the loyalist forces, for these were not primarily the vaunted Spanish troops, which Philip II and Philip III tended to reserve for other campaigns, but, apart from a professional core of Spanish commanders and troops, mostly Netherlandic soldiers. The struggles between Netherlandic commanders and their Spanish counterparts proved a frequent impediment to the troops’ effectiveness in a number of battles. Yet the major problem faced by the various Spanish commanders, from Duke Alba to Don Fadrique to the Prince of Parma, to the Archduke Albert, and to the Italian merchant Spinola, was the lack of funds to pay the troops, which led to their several mutinies and riots.

As Van der Lem also makes clear, the revolt was first and foremost a series of sieges against the cities and towns across the provinces, some of which were captured and recaptured several times. Those who suffered most were the townspeople who were often the subject of looting, rape, and murder, and not just by the Spanish forces, as both sides committed horrible atrocities against civilians. The countryfolk also suffered greatly, bearing the costs of billeting troops from both sides, having their crops and flocks stolen or destroyed, their lands flooded (and if with salt water, poisoned for years), and their persons subject to violence. Here Van der Lem maintains, overall, an excellent balance between the strategies and decisions of rulers and generals and the experience of troops and civilians on the ground. And more impressive is how he treats both sides fairly, giving the Spanish and loyalist actors their fair due, something that is not often the case in histories of the campaign by Dutch historians. His treatment of the religious differences is sensitive to the beliefs of all participants, including not just Catholics and the Reformed but also some of the dissenters, such as the Mennonites, although a brief discussion of the complex relationship of these pacifists with the revolt would have been interesting. So too would have been a bit more on the intriguing negotiations with Muslim Morocco to ally with the Dutch against Spain, negotiations mediated by members of a family of Moroccan Jews resident in the Republic, the Pallaches. And one wonders how the fear and anger caused by the revolt contributed to the very different histories of the witch hunts between the Spanish Netherlands and the republic. But then these would have added length and diverted from the Van der Lem’s straightforward account.

This is, then, a brilliant and accessible analysis of the revolt in the Netherlands, as comprehensive as can be for roughly two hundred pages of text. In Van der Lem’s skillful hands, the various rulers, statesmen, and generals are real humans with strengths and foibles and whose decisions, abilities, and problems shaped the results, often in ways they had not anticipated. To achieve his balanced overview, Van der Lem cites most of the important Dutch, Belgian, and English scholarship, along with some of the most recent Spanish literature. The volume also contains numerous color illustrations from the period; several maps, also in color; a helpful chronology of main events; and the usual endnotes, bibliography, and index. It will be hard to find a more readable and comprehensive text on the Netherlandic Revolt to place in the hands of students or of all interested readers.

Citation: Gary K. Waite. Review of van der Lem, Anton, Revolt in the Netherlands: The Eighty Years War, 1568-1648. H-War, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53806

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