William the Silent

Dutch History; William the Silent. How the Prince of Orange became an outlaw.

William the Silent or more commonly known as William of Orange was the main leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs that started the Eighty Years’ War. He was born in the House of Nassau as Count of Nassau-Dillenburg. He became Prince of Orange in 1544 and is thereby the founder of the branch House of Orange-Nassau and the ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands. Within the Netherlands, he’s also known as “the father of the fatherland.”

William was born on 24 April 1533 at Dillenburg castle in the County of Nassau-Dillenburg, in the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Hesse in Germany). He was the eldest son of William, Count of Nassau by his second wife Juliana of Stolberg-Werningerode. His parents had twelve children together, of whom William was the eldest; he had four younger brothers and seven younger sisters. The family was religiously devout and William was raised a Lutheran.

William’s cousin, René of Châlon, Prince of Orange, died childless in 1544. In his testament, René of Chalon named William – who was only 11 years old, the heir to all his estates and titles, including that of Prince of Orange, on the one condition that he receive a Roman Catholic education. This was the founding of the house of Orange-Nassau. Besides the principality of Orange (located today in France) and significant lands in Germany, William also inherited vast estates in the Low Countries (the present-day Netherlands and Belgium). Because of his young age, Emperor Charles V, who was the overlord of most of these estates, served as regent until William was old enough to rule them himself.

William was sent to the Netherlands to receive the required Roman Catholic education. He was taught foreign languages and received a military and diplomatic education.

© William and Anna Wikipedia

On 6 July 1551, William married Anna van Egmond en Buren, daughter and heiress of Maximiliaan van Egmond, an important Dutch nobleman. Anna’s father had died in 1548, and therefore William became Lord of Egmond and Count of Buren upon his wedding day. The marriage was a happy one and produced three children, one of whom died in infancy. Anna died on 24 March 1558, leaving William much grieved.

In 1555, at the age of 22, William became the commander of one of Charles V armies. William was a favourite among the imperial family, due to his upbringing, education and his guardianship with Charles V. William was also made a member of the Raad van State, the highest political advisory council in the Netherlands. It was in November of the same year (1555) that the gout-afflicted Emperor Charles V abdicated his Spanish possessions in favour of his son, Philip II of Spain.

In 1559, Phillip appointed William governor of the provinces of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, thereby greatly increasing his political power. Philip also appointed his half-sister, Margaret (Duchess of Parma) the regent of the Spanish Netherlands.

From about 1561 William, together with other great lords who felt excluded from their rightful share in the country’s government, began to protest openly against the conduct of the Margarets administration, in which her prime minister, Cardinal Granvelle, was too much of a powerful figure. The Cardinal directed the Spanish Inquisition, which William had personal and conflicting issues with. Although a practising Roman Catholic, William still believed in religious freedom for all and started to complain about the increasing persecution of Protestants in the Netherlands. He also wanted fewer Spaniards in the government of the Netherlands.

According to a letter which William wrote in 1580, his resolve to expel the Spaniards from the Netherlands had originated when, in the summer of 1559, he and the Duke of Alva had been sent to France as hostages for the proper fulfilment of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis following the Hispano-French war. During his stay in Paris, on a hunting trip to the Bois de Vincennes, King Henry II of France started to discuss with William,

… a secret understanding between Philip II and himself aimed at the violent extermination of Protestantism in France, the Netherlands “and the entire Christian world.” [1]

William had decided for himself,

that he would not allow the slaughter of “so many honourable people,” especially in the Netherlands, for which he felt a strong compassion. [2]

On 25 August 1561, William married for the second time. His new wife, Anna of Saxony, was described by contemporaries as “self-absorbed, weak, assertive, and cruel”, and it is generally assumed that William married her to gain more influence in Saxony, Hesse and the Palatinate. They had five children.

With newfound confidence and power from his marriage to his second wife, who had strong Protestant alliances, William started to turn his opposition towards King Philip.



William the Silent

© Phillip of Spain berating William the Silent. Painting by Cornelis Kruseman


In 1580, King Philip put a price on William of Oranges’ head, 25,000 gold crowns and declared him an outlaw.

However, it was not until 18 March 1582 that the first attempt was made to claim Williams’ head.  An 18-year-old man, Jean Jauregay, presented William with a petition but instead fired a pistol at him within point blank range. This was the first assassination attempt in history made with a handgun. However, the gun had been loaded with too much powder and it exploded injuring both William and Jauregay.  William suffered a bullet in his jaw but he made a recovery. Jauregay was killed by Williams’ guards.

In 1584 there was another attempt on Williams’ life. The Catholic Balthasar Gérard was a subject and staunch supporter of King Philip II and regarded William of Orange as a traitor to the king and to the Catholic religion. In 1581, Gerard served in the army of the governor of Luxembourg, Peter Ernst I von Mansfeld-Vorderort, for two years, hoping to get close to William when the armies met. This never happened, and Gérard left the army in 1584. In May of the same year, he pretended to be a French nobleman and presented himself to William and gave him the seal of the Count of Mansfelt. (This seal would allow forgeries of the messages of Mansfelt to be made.) William sent Gérard back to France to pass the seal on to his French allies.

Gérard returned in July, having bought a wheel-lock pistol on his return journey. On 10 July 1584, he made an appointment with William of Orange in his home in Delft. As he waited for William to finish his lunch, Gerard loaded his pistol correctly with three bullets. Once William approached, Gerard fired his gun into Williams’ chest. His final words have been recorded,

My God, have pity on my soul; my God, have pity on this poor people. [3]

William the Silent

©Bullet holes in the house of Delft. By Juvarra – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10297655


Gérard was caught before he could escape Delft and was imprisoned. He was tortured before his trial on 13 July, where he was sentenced to an execution brutal even by the standards of that time. The reward promised by King Philip was paid to Gerard’s family.


After a series of successions and bad luck,  Frederick Henry  William’s youngest son from his fourth marriage to Louise de Coligny inherited the title of Prince of Orange. Frederick Henry continued the battle against the Spanish. Frederick Henry died on 14 March 1647 and is buried with his father William “The Silent” in Nieuwe Kerk, Delft.

The son of Frederick Henry, William II of Orange succeeded his father as stadtholder, as did his son, William III of Orange. He became king of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1689.





[1] William of Orange, Apologie contre l’édit de proscription publié en 1580 par Philippe II, Roi d’Espagne, ed. A. Lacroix (Brussels, 1858), pp. 87–89.

[2] Lacroix (1858), p. 89; Mees (1923), p. 50.

[3] Charles Vergeer, “De laatste woorden van prins Willem”, Maatstaf 28 (1981), no. 12, pp. 67–100.




Katie Joy
Follow me
Latest posts by Katie Joy (see all)