What If ... Philip II Had Gone to the Netherlands? Geoffrey Parker Considers the Far-Reaching Consequences of a Sudden Change of Plan by the King of Spain in 1567

By Parker, Geoffrey | History Today, August 2004 | Go to article overview

What If ... Philip II Had Gone to the Netherlands? Geoffrey Parker Considers the Far-Reaching Consequences of a Sudden Change of Plan by the King of Spain in 1567


Parker, Geoffrey, History Today


THE DUTCH REVOLT lasted longer than any other uprising in European history, from 1566 to 1648; and it involved more continuous fighting than any other war of early modern times, from 1572 to 1607 (with only a six months' ceasefire in 1577) and from 1621 to 1647. The rebellion arose from the combination of two separate developments: the spread of Protestant ideas--Lutheran, Anabaptist, above all Calvinist--throughout the Netherlands despite savage persecution by the central government in Brussels; and the mounting opposition of some noble members of that central government to the policies decreed by their absentee sovereign, Philip II (r.1555-1598). Until 1559 the King had ruled from Brussels, but ibn that year he departed for Spain leaving his half sister, Margaret of Parma, as his regent.

As time passed, and Philip refused to heed their political advice, a group of nobles led by Count Lamoral of Egmont and Prince William of Orange (William the Silent) searched for all issue that would broaden their local support and force the King to listen. They chose religion. Although none of the leading Netherlands nobles was Protestants at this time, they refused to enforce the laws against heresy. Nevertheless Philip remained in Spain, and the number and daring of the Protestants in the Netherlands increased until, in the summer of 1566, groups of Calvinist extremists sacked hundreds of Catholic churches, smashing all religious images. Although the perpetrators of the Iconoclastic Fury numbered less than a thousand, Margaret of Parma assured the king that 'almost half the population over here practice or sympathise with heresy' and that the number of people in arms 'now exceeds 200,000'.

Throughout the autumn of 1566 Philip and his Spanish advisors debated how best to restore royal control in the Netherlands. In the end, they resolved to mobilise some 10,000 Spanish veterans commanded by Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba (1508-82): they would assemble in Milan (a Spanish possession) and march overland to the Netherlands to crush all opposition. Then the king would return by sea to Brussels where he would pinfish the bad, reward the good and restore stability. Since snow had closed the Alpine passes, Alba did not leave Spain until the following spring and, at their last meeting, the king promised that he would set sail for Brussels no later than September. The Duke left Milan in June 1567 and, fearing the worst, many opposition leaders (including William of Orange) fled.

Then, on August 7th, 1567, just as Alba and his veterans entered the Netherlands, the King decided not to leave Spain. Anticipating that the Duke would he furious, he wrote a long letter that set out a complete alternative programme for how to restore order and stability in his absence. It is probably the most remarkable document that Philip ever wrote.

The first page, filled with his normal spidery scrawl, seems routine--although it contains the tell-tale phrase that one of Alba's recent letters raised 'matters that are not suitable to be written or deciphered by any third party'--but the seven subsequent pages include material that the King cyphered in his own hand. Yes: Philip II, ruler of the largest state in the world, toiled for several hours at his desk with the codebook used by the clerks of his Foreign Office, personally encrypting parts of his message in order to ensure complete confidentiality. 'This letter is sent to you in such secrecy', he told the Duke, 'that no one in the whole world will ever know'.

What could possibly justify such circumspection? What plans did the king fear to confide to his own ministers and cypher clerks toiling in their adjacent offices? Fortunately for us, the Duke of Alba lacked either the skill or (more likely,) the patience to decode the message himself, He therefore handed the royal letter to one of his clerks, who prepared a fair copy of the cyphered pages.

The King only got to the point on the second page, where he turned to his codebook. …

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