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November Books 1) William the Silent

1) William the Silent: William of Nassau, Prince of Orange 1533-1584, by C.V. Wedgwood

Bought this on impulse the other day; it is a very interesting and passionate biography of the leader of the successful Dutch revolt against Spanish rule in the mid-16th century. I had not appreciated how central present-day Belgium was to the Netherlands as a whole up until then: the capital at Brussels, the main trading port being Antwerp. And although there was always a gradient from Francophone to Dutch-speaking, and increasingly from Catholic to Protestant, as you go from south to north, it's easy to imagine how a slightly different set of historical circumstances could have led to a very different border between today's Netherlands and Belgium, or even no border at all; the military balance was always fragile, and local allegiances in the extensive boundary zone volatile.

Wedgwood's book was published in 1944, and there's clearly an implicit parallel between the Dutch fight against Spanish oppression and the second world war, with William the Silent being portrayed as an almost Churchillian figure; also, of course, his descendant Queen Wilhelmina, exiled in England and Canada during the war, would have been a well-known personality to the British reader of the time. I have to say that I felt a bit suspicious of Wedgwood's nuances on a couple of occasions, given the likely didactic intent of the book. William was possibly the first political leader to be assassinated with a handgun - apparently Lisa Jardine has a book out about that, so I've ordered it from Amazon, and maybe it will give a slightly different perspective.

The story is contemporary with a couple of other historical episodes I'm interested in as well; though Irish history is not mentioned here, the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre is a major incident, with William's last wife (of four) the daughter of Admiral de Coligny. Anyway, all very interesting and helps to build up the context.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 3rd, 2007 02:21 pm (UTC)
I have been looking for ages for a good modern history (in English) of the wars in the Netherlands, alas without much success.
Nov. 3rd, 2007 05:30 pm (UTC)
This is not a bad start, and appears to have been recently reprinted.

LibraryThing also suggests:
The Dutch revolt by Geoffrey Parker
The Revolt of the Netherlands, 1555-1609 by Pieter Geyl
The Dutch Republic: its rise, greatness and fall, 1477-1806 by Jonathan I. Israel and
The rise of the Dutch republic; a history by John Lothrop Motley.
Nov. 3rd, 2007 05:33 pm (UTC)
Nov. 3rd, 2007 06:35 pm (UTC)
Dutch historian Pieter Geyl argued that the frontiers of the Dutch Republic were contingent on the Low Countries' ecological frontiers:

"Geyl was noted for challenging the then-popular theory that the Dutch and Flemings had little common history. Geyl made the claim that there was a "Great Netherlands" history and that the Dutch and Flemings only separated during the Eighty Years' War (better known as the Dutch Revolt in the English-speaking world) against Spain in the 16th century. Geyl argued that the revolt failed in the south not because of political, cultural or religious differences, but only because the geography in the north with its lakes, bogs and rivers favored the rebels and the geography in the south with its flat plains favored the Spanish Army. Had it not been for the accident of geography, Flanders would have been part of the Dutch Republic."

As I recall, he argued in one of his English-language books that a Netherlandophone of the 16th century would have expected the Dutch Republic to include Flanders but not the modern Netherlands' eastern provinces.
Nov. 3rd, 2007 08:36 pm (UTC)
The two points are a bit contradictory, though, aren't they? It's not like the eastern provinces of today's Netherlands are particularly boggy or more blessed with lakes and rivers than Flanders is...
Nov. 4th, 2007 09:54 pm (UTC)
But, IIRC, a lot less worth fighting for. Antwerp was worth having, but there was less strategically useful bits in the NE, and they didn't have lands or lines of supply abutting it to the same extent. I think. It's been ages since I read around the subject.
Nov. 4th, 2007 12:01 am (UTC)
Have you read other CV Wedgwood books? She writes very well, though you sometimes wish she had more of a bad word to say for some of the actors. Of her books that I've read I think The King's Peace is the standout. Available for borrowing if you're interested...
Nov. 4th, 2007 08:40 am (UTC)
I felt her attempts to defend William the Silent's policy mistakes got on my nerves towards the end, so am not surprised that this is true of her other books as well. I think I read the Thirty Years' War many years ago.
Nov. 4th, 2007 09:30 am (UTC)
I read somewhere once that the Dutch reformation and Dutch revolt were initially centred on the south (in what is now Belgium), and that it was only the North that became independent because they got lucky and won some battles up there while the Spanish concentrated forces in the south. I must read more closely on this topic.
Nov. 4th, 2007 11:46 am (UTC)
Dutch history
It does frustrate me that there are so few books on the history of the Netherlands: I have yet to work my way through the large Dutch history book by Israel, which was lent to me a while ago, although I have read the Geoffrey Parker book.

Most of the European history books in the library and at the bookshop seem to be about the other major countries of Europe, with perhaps only a chapter in them relating to the history of the low countries.

Nov. 4th, 2007 09:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Dutch history
Aye—I think I'll have to dig out this book, as I found Wedgewood's Thirty Years War to be a good introduction to a period I already knew well, I know a lot less about the preceding events.

I'm currently reading Vallance's Glorious Revolution, and even that isn't really making the point that it was very much a Dutch funded project, or that we were at war with them in a significant way at various points immediately beforehand. They're those nice clog wearers without any real story of their own, right?
Nov. 5th, 2007 06:55 am (UTC)
Let me also recommend her _Thirty Years War_. Like the William book, it suffers a little from topicality -- it was written on the eve of WWII, and there's maybe a little too much reference (implicit and otherwise) to contemporary events.

But it's still good, and well worth your time.

Doug M.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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