Francis Walsingham: Life Story

Chapter 8 : The Netherlands

The situation across the Channel was deteriorating. Margaret of Parma, Philip II’s illegitimate half-sister, had been Regent of the Netherlands since 1559. She had tried to pursue a moderate policy, seeking to keep the Dutch nobles, whether Catholic or Protestant, on side, but Philip constantly interfered, and, in 1567, had sent his most successful general, the Duke of Alva, to take command.

Alva was also the lucky recipient of a decree from the Pope that he was welcome to take England after Pope Pius V had finally despaired of bringing England back into the Catholic fold, and excommunicated Elizabeth in 1571.

Alva clamped down hard in his new command, even executing the Catholic Count of Egmont, who had acted as Philip II’s proxy for his marriage to Mary I, and later led the victorious Anglo-Spanish troops at the battle of St Quentin.  By 1572, there was all out civil war, leading Elizabeth’s councillors to beg her to intervene, certain that once the Netherlands had been dealt with, Alva would attack England.

Their pleas fell on deaf ears: the cost would be too great, Philip II was the legal sovereign and Elizabeth would not be party to the overthrow of a king, and finally, what would be the point of removing the Spanish, to see the French in the saddle? She would not, however, prevent volunteers from joining the Dutch, provided she could deny all knowledge of them.

Alva was replaced by de Requesens, and Elizabeth was happy to send envoys to improve Anglo-Spanish relations. English Catholics in the Netherlands were to be expelled in return for the numerous Dutch exiles being sent home. Walsingham continued to write gloomily to Burghley that the queen was ‘slumber(ing)…in a weak security’.

By 1575 William of Orange, leader of the Dutch rebellion, formally renounced the sovereignty of Philip II. One of the first acts of the new States General of the rebelling provinces was to request England for aid. William knew that Walsingham would support the request – his older brother, Louis of Nassau, who had been killed earlier in the war, had met Walsingham in Paris, and impressed upon him the need for English help.

In return for aid, the States General would offer overlordship to Elizabeth. Of course, if she were not interested, the French (where the Duke of Anjou now ruled as Henri III) would be asked for protection.

The Privy Council was split. Walsingham and his brother-in-law, Sir Walter Mildmay, and the earls of Leicester and Bedford were strongly in favour of open public support for William. Walsingham argued that Spain had denied the Dutch freedom of conscience and the maintenance of their traditional liberties and that since a Catholic League (the Guise faction in France and Philip being the main upholders) had been created ‘for the rooting out by violence of all such as profess the gospel’, they should be resisted.

Not that Walsingham believed in freedom of conscience as a principle, such an idea was foreign to the mind of the sixteenth century. He certainly did not believe that English Catholics should be able to worship as they pleased, nor did he encourage those Protestants who wished to go further down the road to reform than Elizabeth permitted. Although he sympathised with them personally, religion was a matter for the state.

Elizabeth’s refusal to fund the Dutch led to a diplomatic incident when William of Orange detained an English merchant fleet. The queen was so angry, it was feared she would support Spain in retaliation. Walsingham wrote a hasty letter to William, advising him on the best means to placate the queen.

In early 1577, Walsingham’s young friend, Philip Sidney, known as a devoted adherent of Protestantism, was sent to the Protestant states within the Holy Roman Empire to test the waters in regard to a pan-European Protestant alliance. Walsingham rejoiced at the move, although he continued to urge Elizabeth to stronger measures. In the event, little came of the proposed alliance, as the German Protestant princes were at odds amongst themselves over their different confessions.

Throughout 1577, Elizabeth tried to remain on good terms with both sides in the Netherlands dispute, and peace looked possible when a new governor, Philip II’s illegitimate half-brother, Don Juan of Austria, already famous for his defeat of the Turks at Lepanto, arrived. He was more accommodating than his predecessor, and a peace was agreed between some of the break-away provinces. William of Orange rejected it, and Don Juan swung into action. A massive defeat for the rebels at Gembloux at the end of January 1578 split the Dutch between the southern provinces of Flanders ad Hainault, which elected to remain as a Catholic state under the sovereignty of Spain, whilst the northern states continued the struggle.