THOSE provinces of the Netherlands lying north of the mouth of the Rhine, and now called Holland, had been swept by the Reformation. The southern provinces, Flanders and Belgium, had remained chiefly Catholic. But both Protestant and Catholic Netherlanders had a common bond in the great commercial prosperity of their land and in the vigor and independence of their own spirit. When Philip II of Spain, however, became King of the Netherlands, he made attempts to stamp out Protestantism and thereby wrecked the commerce and fraternity of that once thriving country. No longer could two hundred and fifty sails be counted on one day at Antwerp, nor could the strange habit of Russian or Levantine merchant be seen in the marts of Bruges or Leyden. Trade came to a standstill; shops were closed; and Spanish helmet and halberd took the place of the merchant's beaver hat and silvermounted staff.
The independent spirit of the Netherlands, however, could not brook such tyranny. The resistance to the Spaniards' abuse of power was not confined to the Protestant provinces, but it was stronger there. Its moving spirit was William, Prince of Orange, surnamed The Silent. William acquired it by keeping silent when the French King spoke incautiously in his presence of an agreement between Spain and France for destroying Protestantism in the Low Countries. "From that hour," William said later, "I resolved with my whole soul to do my best to drive this Spanish vermin out of the land." The union and independence of the provinces of the north was his work, though he was murdered before that work was consummated. In 1609 a twelve-year truce was signed with Spain. The Spanish would not recognize the independence of the Netherland States for many years to come ( 1648). But the hardy, stubborn Dutchmen knew that the alien yoke was broken.
During the war the Dutch had built up a navy again, chiefly for the hounding of Spanish treasure ships. These pirate ships, or "Beggars of the Sea," as they were called, were now well fitted for the task of raising Holland once more to its old position of commercial affluence. Even before the true Dutch East India Company had been formed, in 1602, Dutch armed vessels had fought their way to India, Africa, the Spice Islands, and home again with rich cargoes. Nineteen years later the Dutch West India Company came into being to operate in the western hemisphere, and more particularly about the river which Henry Hudson, sailing for the older company, had discovered in 1609. The years of Dutch trading and colonization on the Hudson were the years of Holland's greatness on the sea and in the realm of art and letters. The East India Company established a chain of forts and factories from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. The West India Company invaded the West Indies and conquered a large part of Brazil. At home, Rubens and Rembrandt painted, Grotius wrote his history, and the great Vondel laid the foundations of a national school of literature.