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'.

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