William I, Prince of Orange

Early life

  • 1533  |  William was born in the castle of Dillenburg in Nassau, present-day Germany. He was the eldest son of William, Count of Nassau and Juliana of Stolberg-Werningerode, and was raised a Lutheran.
  • 1544  |  When his cousin, René of Châlon, Prince of Orange, died childless in 1544, the eleven-year-old William inherited all Châlon's property, including the title Prince of Orange and vast estates in the Netherlands.
  • 1551  |  On July 6, he married Anna van Egmond en Buren, the wealthy heir to the lands of her father, and William earned the titles Lord of Egmond and Count of Buren.
  • 1558  |  His wife Anna died on March 24. Later, William had a brief relationship with one Eva Elincx, leading to the birth of their illegitimate son, Justinus van Nassau.
  • 1559  |  Philip appointed William as the stadtholder (governor) of the provinces Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Burgundy, thereby greatly increasing his political power.

From Politician to Rebel

  • 1561  |  Married for the second time. His new wife, Anna of Saxony, is described by contemporaries as "ugly and ill-tempered", and it is generally assumed that William married her to gain more influence in Saxony, Hesse and the Palatine.
  • 1565  |  A large group of lesser noblemen, including William's younger brother Louis, formed the Confederacy of Noblemen.
  • 1566  |  A wave of iconoclasm spread through the Low Countries. Calvinists, angry with their being persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church and opposed to the Catholic images of saints, destroyed statues in hundreds of churches and monasteries throughout the Netherlands.
  • 1567  |  After his arrival in August, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba established the Council of Troubles to judge those involved with the rebellion and the iconoclasm. William was one of the 10,000 to be summoned before the Council, but he failed to appear.
  • 1568  |  He also raised an army, consisting mostly of German mercenaries to fight Alba on land. Led by his brother Louis, the army invaded the northern Netherlands. On May 23, the army won the Battle of Heiligerlee in the northern province of Groningen against a Spanish army led by the stadtholder of the northern provinces, Jean de Ligne, Duke of Aremberg. Aremberg was killed in the battle, as was William's brother Adolf.


  • 1572  |  On April 1, a band of Watergeuzen captured the city of Brielle, which had been left unattended by the Spanish garrison. Contrary to their normal "hit and run" tactics, they occupied the town and claimed it for the prince. This event was followed by other cities in opening their gates for the Watergeuzen, and soon most cities in Holland and Zeeland were in the hands of the rebels, notable exceptions being Amsterdam and Middelburg.
  • 1574  |  William's armies won several minor battles, including several naval encounters. The Spanish, now lead by Don Luis de Zúñiga y Requesens who succeeded Alba in 1573, also had their successes, and their decisive victory in the Battle of Mookerheyde in the south east, on the Meuse embankment, on April 14 cost the lives of two of William's brothers, Louis and Henry.
  • 1575  |  William married for the third time on April 24. He had his previous marriage legally disbanded in 1571, on claims of insanity of his wife Anna. Charlotte de Bourbon-Monpensier, a former Frenchnun, was also popular with the public. Together, they had six daughters.
    1575  |  After failed peace negotiations in Breda, the war lingered on. The situation improved for the rebels when Don Requesens died unexpectedly in March 1576, and a large group of Spanish soldiers, not having received their salary in months, mutinied in November of that year and unleashed the Spanish Fury on the city of Antwerp, a tremendous propaganda coup for the Dutch Revolt. While the new governor, Don John of Austria, was under way, William of Orange managed to have most of the provinces and cities sign the Pacification of Ghent, in which they declared to fight for the expulsion of Spanish troops together.
  • 1577  |  When Don John signed the Perpetual Edict in February, promising to comply with the conditions of the Pacification of Ghent, it seemed that the war had been decided in favor of the rebels. However, after Don John took the city of Namur, the uprising spread throughout the entire Netherlands. Don John attempted to negotiate peace, but the prince intentionally let the negotiations fail.
  • 1577  |  On September 24, he made his triumphal entry in the capital Brussels. At the same time, Calvinist rebels grew more radical, and attempted to forbid Catholicism in their areas of control. William was opposed to this both for personal and political reasons. He desired freedom of religion, and he also needed the support of the less radical Protestants and Catholics to reach his political goals.
  • 1579  |  On January 6, several southern provinces, unhappy with William's radical following, sealed the Treaty of Arras, in which they agreed to accept their governor, Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma.

Declaration of Independence

  • 1580  |  On September 29, the Staten Generaal (with the exception of Zeeland and Holland) signed the Treaty of Plessis-les-Tours with the Duke of Anjou. The Duke would gain the title "Protector of the Liberty of the Netherlands" and become the new sovereign. This, however, required that the Staten Generaal and William would let go of their formal support of the King of Spain, which they had maintained officially up to that moment.
  • 1581  |  On July 22, the Staten Generaal declared their decision to no longer recognise Philip II as their king, in the Oath of Abjuration. This formal declaration of independence enabled the Duke of Anjou to come to the aid of the resisters. He did not arrive until February 10, when he was officially welcomed by William in Flushing. On March 18, the Spaniard Juan de Jáuregui attempted to assassinate William in Antwerp.
  • 1583  |  The Duke of Anjou himself was displeased with his limited power, and decided to take the city of Antwerp by force on January 18. The citizens, who were warned in time, defended their city in what is known as the "French Fury". The position of Anjou after this attack became impossible to hold, and he eventually left the country in June. His leave also discredited William, who nevertheless maintained his support for Anjou.
  • 1583  |  William had married for the fourth and final time on April 12 to Louise de Coligny, a French Huguenot and daughter of Gaspard de Coligny. She would be the mother of Frederick Henry, William's fourth legitimate son.


Gérard returned in from France in July, having bought pistols on his return voyage. On 10 July, he made an appointment with William of Orange in his home in Delft, nowadays known as the Prinsenhof. When William left the dining room and climbed down the stairs, Gérard shot him in the chest from close range, and fled. According to British historian of science Lisa Jardine, he is reputed to be the first world head of state assassinated through use of a handgun.

According to official records, his last words are said to have been:

"Mon Dieu, ayez pitié de mon âme; mon Dieu, ayez pitié de ce pauvre peuple.", meaning "My God, have pity on my soul; my God, have pity on this poor people."


Members of the Nassau family were traditionally buried in Breda, but as that city was in Spanish hands when William died, he was buried in the New Church in Delft. His grave monument was originally very sober, but it was replaced in 1623 by a splendid new one, made by Hendrik de Keyser and his son Pieter. Since then, most of the members of the House of Orange-Nassau, including all Dutch monarchs have been buried in the same church. His great-grandson William the third, King of England and Scotland and Stadtholder in the Netherlands was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Gérard was caught before he could flee Delft, and imprisoned. He was tortured before his trial on 13 July, where he was sentenced to be brutally — even by the standards of that time — killed. The magistrates sentenced that the right hand of Gérard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disemboweled alive, that his heart should be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be cut off.

Liberation of Holland

The talents of William of Orange, varied, beautiful, and brilliant through they were, unless linked with something diviner, could not be evolved that noble character and done those great deeds which have made the name of William the Silent one of the brightest on the page of history. Humanity, however richly endowed with genius, is a weak thing in itself; it needs to be grafted with a higher Power in order to reach the full measure of greatness. In the case of William or Orange it was so grafted. It was his power of realizing One unseen, whose will be obeyed, and on whose arm he leaned, that constituted the secret of his strength. He was the soldier, the statesman, the patriot; but before all he was the Christian. The springs of his greatness lay in his faith. Hence his lofty aims, which rising high above fame, above power, above all the ordinary objects of ambition, aspired to the only and supreme good. Hence, too, that inflexible principle with enabled him, without turning to the right or to the left, to go straight on through all the intricacies of his path, making no compromise with falsehood, never listening to the solicitations of self-interest, and alive only to the voice of duty. Hence, too, that unfaltering perseverance and undying hope that upheld him in the darkest hour, and amid the most terrible calamities, and made him confident of ultimate victory where another would have abandoned the conflict as hopeless. William of Orange persevered and triumphed where a Caesar or a Napoleon would have despaired and been defeated. The man and the country are alike: both are epic. Supremely tragic outwardly is the history of both. It is defeat succeeding defeat; it is disaster heaped upon disaster, and calamity piled upon calamity, till at last there stands personified before us an Iliad of woes. But by some marvelous touch, by some transforming fiat, the whole scene is suddenly changed: the blackness kindles into glorious light, the roar of tempest subsides into sweetest music, and defeat grows into victory. The man we had expected to see prostrate beneath the ban of Philip, rises up greater than kings, crowned with the wreath of deathless sovereignty; and the little State which Spain had thought to consign to an eternal slavery, rends the chain from her neck; and from her seat amid the seas, she makes her light to circulate along the shores of islands and continents of the deep, and her power to be felt, and her name reverenced, by the mightiest kingdoms on the earth.


At the suggestion of Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, William's eldest son from his first marriage, to Anna of Egmond, Philip William, succeeded him as Prince of Orange. Phillip William died in Brussels on February 20, 1618 and was succeeded by his half-brother Maurice, the eldest son from William's second marriage, to Anna of Saxony, who became Prince of Orange. A strong military leader, he won several victories over the Spanish. Van Oldenbarneveldt managed to sign a very favourable twelve-year armistice in 1609, although Maurice was unhappy with this. Maurice was a heavy drinker and died on April 23, 1625 from liver disease. Maurice had several sons with Margaretha van Mechelen, but he never married her. So, Frederick Henry, Maurice's half-brother inherited the title of Prince of Orange. Frederick Henry continued the battle against the Spanish. Frederick Henry died on March 14, 1647 and is buried with his father William "The Silent" in Nieuwe Kerk, Delft. The Netherlands became formally independent after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

The son of Frederick Henry, William II of Orange succeeded his father as stadtholder, as did his son, William III of Orange. The latter also became King of England and King of Scotland. Although he was married to Mary II, Queen of Scotland and England for 17 years, he died childless in 1702. He appointed his cousin Johan Willem Friso as his successor. Because Albertine Agnes, a daughter of Frederick Henry, married William Frederik of Nassau-Dietz, the present royal house of the Netherlands descends from William the Silent through the female line. See House of Orange for a more extensive overview. As the chief financer and political and military leader of the early years of the Dutch revolt, William is considered a national hero in the Netherlands, even though he was born in Germany, and usually spoke French. Many of the Dutch national symbols can be traced back to William of Orange:

  • The flag of the Netherlands (red, white and blue) is derived from the flag of the prince, which was orange, white and blue.
  • The coat of arms of the Netherlands is based on that of William of Orange. Its motto Je maintiendrai (French, "I will maintain") was also used by William of Orange, who based it on the motto of his cousin René of Châlon, who used Je maintiendrai Châlon.
  • The national anthem of the Netherlands, Het Wilhelmus, was originally a propaganda song for William. It was probably written by Philips van Marnix, lord of Sint-Aldegonde, a supporter of William of Orange.
  • The national colour of the Netherlands is orange, and it is used, among other things, in clothing of Dutch athletes.
  • The Prussian Order of the Black Eagle was in honor of the Dutch Dynasty of William the Silent.
  • A statue of William the Silent stands at the main campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a legacy of the university's founding by ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1766.




In 2005, an online searchable archive of William's complete correspondence was made publicly accessible by Het Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis (ING), the Institute for Dutch History.

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