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.
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 in 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 an 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 practise 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 100,000 Spanish veterans commanded by Fernando Álvarez 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 punish 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 be 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 routinealthough 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 failcopy of the cyphered pages.
The King only got to the point on the second page, where he turned to his codebook. He gave a long series of excuses which, he claimed, forced him to abandon his plan to join Alba in the Netherlands. 'The season is advancing', he noted, and 'without a miracle' the ships carrying the provisions necessary for the fleet
... will not be able to arrive at the place where I plan to embark except at a time that will not permit me to put to sea without great risk Lo those of us who would have to go.
Therefore, the King continued, it was now too late for him to sail safely to Flanders in autumn 1567. Instead he would do so in spring 1568. Since 'both of these decisions have now been taken, I thought I should inform you of them at once so that with the same secrecy and dissimulation' - two of Philip's favourite expressions! - 'as we will observe concerning them here, you can plan and prepare accordingly over there.'
The King then proceeded to review the three main consequences of this change of plan for the restoration of royal control over the Netherlands. His first dealt with how best to punish those involved in the previous disorders. Originally, he had instructed Alba to round up all those designated for punishment before he arrived; but now,
I do not know if you can do this with the necessary authority and justification; but I believe that in the course of this winter you will possess more of both with regard to Germany, which is where any obstacle or complication in this matter of punishment is most likely to arise.
So it would be wise to wait, Philip argued, especially since a delay might 'lead the prince of Orange to feel secure and want to return to those provinces', and then 'you would be able to deal with him as he deserves'. By contrast, 'if you punish the others first, it will make it impossible to deal with [Orange] forever'.
Events would vindicate the Ring's insight; but unfortunately for his plans, immediately thereafter he made a crucial concession to Alba.
I remit all this to you, as the person who will be handling the enterprise and will have a better understanding of the obstacles or advantages that may prevail, and of whether it is better to move quickly or slowly in this matter of punishment, on which everything depends.
Next, the King turned to the problem of who would govern the Netherlands until he arrived the following spring. He had dispatched Alba from Spain with full powers as captain-general of the royal army but ordered him to share civil authority with Margaret of Parma. Despite the fact that at the height of the Iconoclastic Fury the previous year Margaret had pleaded with the King to send troops, she now bitterly opposed Alba's advance and bombarded both Philip and the Duke with requests to halt his march. When her pleas failed, she informed the King curtly that she had decided 'to leave here in October whatever happens' - that is, whether Philip came to the Netherlands or not. In addition, Margaret resented Alba's presence and the King warned him that 'we fear that she will never get on with you'. He concluded that the best plan was to let her go.
But who could replace her? Ever since Charles V left the Netherlands to claim his Spanish inheritance in 1517, junior members of the dynasty had served as regents: his aunt, Margaret of Austria, his sister Mary of Hungary, his nephew Emanuel-Philibert of Savoy, his daughter Margaret of Parma. Philip was reluctant to break this tradition, but he had limited choices. His sister Maria and her husband (and cousin) Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II had served jointly as regents of Spain between 1548 and 1551, but Maximilian openly criticised Philip's uncompromising policy towards the Netherlands, advocating instead moderation and concessions. Clearly neither he nor his wife could be trusted to execute the King's wishes. Philip's younger sister, Juana, had also served as regent in Spain, between 1554 and 1559, but she had joined the Jesuit Order - its only female member ever - in part to avoid having to marry again but also to devote herself to a life of seclusion. She, too, could not take charge in the Netherlands. The obvious choice was Don Carlos, the King's son and heir, but his increasingly erratic behaviour led Philip to doubt his capacity even to serve as regent in Spain, then apparently at peace, let alone to take charge in the recently rebellious Netherlands. According to the French ambassador in Spain at this time,
some people here think that, but for what the world would say, the King would lock up Don Carlos in a tower to make him more obedient.
This left only Charles V's illegitimate son, Don John of Austria, born in 1547. Philip therefore suggested to Alba that
I could send my brother there, so that he could be in [the Netherlands] until my arrival, with orders to do in everything what seems best to you, and to follow your counsel, since he lacks the requisite experience in the affairs of [those provinces], and yon have so much, and you also know my wishes and intentions for them. This will also serve to introduce him to their government, since I do not see anyone else who could stay on after I return.
More ambitiously, he added,
And so that the provinces would view this more favourably, please consider whether he should bring with him a General Pardon and anything else that would be appropriate.
Once again, however, Philip stopped short of acting without first learning the Duke's reaction. He urged Alba to reply immediately, both about taking over all civil powers from Margaret and about sending Don Juan with a General Pardon:
... and also advise me at once how you think my brother should travel, whether by sea or by land, because neither of them is free of serious difficulties and it is necessary to choose the less dangerous of them.
Philip next addressed a third difficulty caused by his decision not to sail at once to Flanders: money. He ordered Alba to assess how much the Netherlands might be expected to pay to maintain the king and his court, when they eventually arrived, together with the Spanish troops already there, and how much would have to come from Spain - although he reminded the Duke of the lack of funds in his own treasury.
Having dealt with the three principal consequences of his decision to remain in Spain, Philip turned to a series of lesser matters and then closed by repeating the need for secrecy. Alba must send his responses to these various issues only to the King in person, not to any minister in Madrid - especially not to those who normally handled Netherlands affairs at the court of Spain. 'Writing this has not wearied me', the King concluded unconvincingly, 'and the materials that I have dealt with in this letter made it necessary.'
In the event, Alba entirely rejected the King's advice. He opposed the idea of sending Don Juan in particularly strong terms. As he explained in a letter to Philip's principal adviser at Court:
I tell Your Lordship that, if His Majesty decides to send the person he proposes, I will not fail to obey and carry out orders as I have done all my life. But what makes me speak out so clearly is that I do not want, above all else in this world, the business in which I am engaged to slip from my hands.
For the same reasons, the Duke also opposed the issue of a General Pardon (it was only promulgated in July 1574, after his recall). Instead, after biding his time in Brussels for two weeks, during which 'I was forced to hide my claws', he set up a secret tribunal to try those suspected of rebellion and heresy. A few days later, he arrested Lamoral of Egmont and prominent opponents of royal policy. Alba claimed that if the Netherlanders 'see me display a little mildness, they will commit a thousand outrages and difficulties. These people', he added contemptuously, 'are better managed through seventy than by any other means' and more arrests soon followed. Embarrassed and disgusted, Margaret resigned and left Alba in sole charge of affairs. The Prince of Orange therefore remained in Germany, where he raised an army and launched an invasion the following year. The cost of defeating Orange created huge debts and to pay them Alba imposed unpopular new taxes on the Netherlands, which fuelled far more widespread opposition. In 1572, a general revolt broke out that Alba could not crush - a revolt that steadily undermined Philip II's power and led eventually to the decline of Spain.
In retrospect, all this seems inevitable. Spain's Great Power status now seems an aberration; the secession of at least part of the Netherlands, almost 1,000 miles from Madrid, a foregone conclusion. But did it have to happen like that? The King's change of plan on August 7th, 1567, provides a unique opportunity to measure how 'reversible' the troubles in the Netherlands had become by then. What might have happened had Philip II reached Brussels that autumn, or had the Duke accepted the advice contained in the King's cyphered letter? Would it have ended the Dutch Revolt?
Counterfactual history - asking 'What if?' questions - is controversial. Some disparage it as an intellectual dead-end: they see no point in constructing scenarios about how history would have unfolded in hypothetical worlds that no one can ever visit or document. But they are wrong. Counterfactual history is indispensable for testing causal hypotheses, for reconstructing lost possibilities and for preventing the world that did occur from obstructing our view of what might have occurred but for minor twists and turns of fate. There is no shortage of real-world examples of what psychologists call 'hindsight bias'. Thus few in the early 1980s predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union; and yet virtually everyone today who claims professional competence in such matters can muster half a dozen 'fundamental' or 'structural' causes why it had to happen roughly when and how it did.
But counterfactual thought experiments must be done according to rigorous protocols. Two of them are critical: first, the minimal-rewrite rule. In considering potential causes for insertion as antecedents into counterfactual arguments, we should give priority to those that require rewriting as little as possible the actual historical record, yet still achieve some significant re-routing of subsequent events. We cannot give the Aztecs machine guns or smallpox vaccine to resist the Spanish conquest; but we can let them kill Hernán Cortés after he was wounded and captured on the retreat from Tenochtitlán during the 'Night of Sorrow' in 1520, in order to assess what might have happened without his leadership.
Next, the 'second order' counterfactual. The clock of history does not stop if and when a hypothetical change occurs: subsequent developments can return history to the course from which the antecedent was intended to divert it. So even if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had somehow escaped assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914, his reckless bravery combined with Serbian intransigence would probably have soon led to his murder at some other place, provoking the same confrontation between Austria and Serbia that produced the First World War.
With these protocols in mind, let us consider whether either Philip II's arrival in the Netherlands in autumn 1567, or the Duke of Alba's compliance with the sage advice contained in the cyphered letter of August 7th, might have ended the Dutch revolt for good.
The former certainly counts as a 'minimal rewrite.' First, the King had already gone to the Netherlands in person twice: the first time overland through Italy and Germany in 1548, remaining in northern Europe for three years; the second time by sea (via England) in 1554-55, remaining in northern Europe for five years. Furthermore, from at least 1564, he had declared his intention to visit the Netherlands again 'soon', but the massive disorders in summer 1566 ruled that out. The following year, however, Philip authorised extensive and expensive preparations for a royal voyage. He assembled a powerful fleet to carry him and his whole court, and recalled from Florida Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, his most experienced Atlantic admiral, to command it. His officials embargoed almost fifty ships at Santander, with more at Laredo and Corunna, and embarked over 100 naval guns, with forty rounds per gun and over a ton of powder per ship, for their defence. Philip also ordered a squadron of warships from the Netherlands to join them (they got as far as Falmouth before receiving the order to turn back). Several infantry officers raised soldiers to travel with him on the fleet. The King also commissioned seven 'great scarlet standards' and a number of flags and pennants for the ships; supplied his court with new liveries; authorised the embarkation of much equipment; and even started packing up his household before announcing that his departure would be delayed. he also took other administrative measures: ordering his secretary to search for and assemble relevant documents from the State Archives in Simancas castle, securing a passport for Don Juan to travel across France, and creating a new postal chain to link Madrid with Corunna.
One of Philip's ministers later claimed that the cost of the preparations for the 'voyage that never was' exceeded 200,000 ducats; while an ambassador at the Court of Spain put the true total at over 600,000 ducats. Given the parlous state of the Spanish treasury, it seems unlikely that Philip would have spent so much if he had never planned to leave Spain. He probably changed his mind because of the Queen's pregnancy - of which he was surely unaware in spring when he promised Alba that he would follow without fail in the autumn.
Certainly, those who favoured Philip's cause believed that only his return to the Netherlands would suffice to restore order. From Brussels, Margaret of Parma and her senior advisers begged the King with increasing stridency to come back. From Rome, Pope Pius V used his private letters to the King, his official correspondence with the nuncio in Spain, and his audiences for the Spanish ambassador in Rome to impress upon Philip the absolute necessity of a personal visit. He even - somewhat sneakily - sent a letter to Queen Isabella, urging her not to deploy her 'strong conjugal love' to prevent her husband from leaving. The Pope saw the Dutch Revolt as more than the central problem facing Philip's monarchy. He believed that the destruction of heresy in the Netherlands would lead to its decline and fall in France, Germany, England and Scotland, whereas its triumph there - which Pius feared would occur if Philip did not go in person - would imperil the survival of Catholicism throughout north-west Europe. The Iconoclastic Fury temporarily reduced the pressure - it clearly would not be safe for Philip to go - and the Pope heartily approved the decision to send Alba first, recognising that only military force could now restore order. News of Philip's subsequent decision not to leave Spain therefore infuriated him: the Pope felt deceived, as well as fearful for the future of Catholicism in northern Europe.
Were these men right? Probably: it seems unlikely that Orange and the other opposition leaders who had fled as Alba approached would have dared to resist a direct summons Philip in PCTSOn to return to the Netherlands, and outright refusal would surely have discredited them at home and abroad. They would therefore have found it difficult to mount an invasion of the Netherlands in 1568 had the King been present; and, even if they had tried, few if any German rulers would have allowed them to recruit troops in their domains. As it was, although Emperor Maximilian refused to prohibit his subjects from joining the rebels in the Netherlands, in March 1567 he forbade any recruiting by the rebels in Germany (albeit in part for purely selfish reasons: 'because of the claims that we and our successors might make to the said provinces'). Finally, without the expense of defeating the invasion of 1568, Alba's need to raise new taxes would have abated; while, conversely, the King's presence would have made it hard for the States-General to refuse financial support.
Of course, Philip's departure for the Netherlands in autumn 1567 would not have prevented the deteriorating mental health of Don Carlos or the outbreak of the revolt of the Moriscos of Granada in December 1568; but sending Don Juan with a General Pardon to the Netherlands instead would probably have achieved much the same results as a visit from the King himself. First, an early demonstration of clemency would have reassured most of those who had fled at Alba's approach, fearing punishment for their behaviour during the Troubles. In September 1567, Margaret put the total number of fugitives at over 200,000: this was probably an exaggeration, but recent research suggests that at least 60,000 people, many of them rich, fled to England and Germany alone. Second, an attack on the son of Gharles V, especially without a numerous and wealthy exile community to provide recruits and funds, would surely have foundered. (As it was, no Netherlands town declared for Orange in 1568 and he ended the campaign bankrupt and discredited.)
But what of the 'second order' counterfactual? Even had Philip gone to the Netherlands in person in 1567, he could not have stayed there forever: once he returned to Spain, would a new wave of resistance have gathered momentum and produced a second revolt in the 1570s anyway? Two parallels again suggest a longterm outcome favourable to Spain. First, arresting or even discrediting Orange would have removed the only credible opposition leader facing Philip II: it is hard to imagine the success of the Dutch Revolt after 1567 without William the Silent, who played a crucial role both in attracting foreign aid and in papering over disputes among his followers and allies. Second, it was rare in the sixteenth century for a revolt to break out again after the personal intervention of a monarch. The daring voyage of Charles V to the Netherlands in 1540 to suppress the rebellion of Ghent ended all stirrings of discontent in the region for over two decades. Philip II's visits to southern Spain in 1570 after the revolt by the Moriscos of Granada, and to Aragon in 1592 after the rebellion there, both helped to produce a lasting peace.
This did not happen in the Netherlands because of the traumatic events that prevented the King from leaving Spain in 1568 as he had solemnly promised Alba and the Pope that he would do. In January, the behaviour of Don Carlos became so erratic that Philip arrested him and placed him in preventive custody until he died. At this point, Philip apparently decided that he would not be able to leave at all that year. Before long, Orange's invasion of the Netherlands made a royal visit impossible anyway. Then in October his wife died, temporarily depriving Philip of the opportunity to produce another male heir. Finally, in December, the Moriscos of Granada rose in rebellion. The King's spirits sagged, and he confessed to his principal advisor that so many things were going wrong that
They cannot fail to cause much pain and weariness; and, believe me, I am so pained and wearied by them, and by what goes on in this world, that were it not for the Granada business and other things that cannot be abandoned, I don't know what I would do... Clearly I am not fit for the world of today. I know very well that I should be in some other station in life, one not as exalted as the one God has given me, which for me alone is terrible.
The King wrote these words early in 1569. As we now know, far worse setbacks would befall him, above all the outbreak in 1572 of a second revolt in the Netherlands, largely provoked by the misguided policies followed by the Duke of Alba, and it continued until in 1648 Spain had to recognise the provinces still in rebellion as an independent sovereign state. Therein lay the true cost of Philip's decision on August 7th, 1567, not to travel to the Netherlands: it forfeited his best chance of restoring order to the Netherlands and thus of preserving Spain's status as a Great Power.
Geoffrey Parker is Professor of History at Ohio State University.
- Philip II’s letter of August 7th, 1567, in the original with a decoded transcript, is still preserved in the archive of the Dukes of Alba in Madrid: Caja 5 number 69. I thank the Duke of Alba, and his librarian, for permission to cite this document and for providing photographs of the page reproduced here. For a complete transcript, and for sources, see the Spanish version of this article in Ana Crespo Solana and Manuel Herrero Sánchez, eds., España y las 17 provincias de los Países Bajos (Córdoba, 2002), pp. 269-90.
- See also Geoffrey Parker, The Dutch Revolt (revised edn., Harmondsworth, 1984)
- William S. Maltby, Alba: A biography of Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, third duke of Alba, 1507-82 (Berkeley, 1982)
- Geoffrey Parker, Philip II (4th edn., Chicago, 2002)
- Henry Kamen, The Duke of Alba (New Haven and London, 2003)
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