Netherlands Bourgeois Revolution of the 16th Century

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Netherlands Bourgeois Revolution of the 16th Century


a bourgeois revolution between 1566 and 1609 in the historical region known as the Netherlands that combined a national liberation war against absolutist Spain with an antifeudal struggle. In the late 15th and 16th centuries feudal relations were breaking up in the Netherlands, primary accumulation of capital was under way, and the capitalist mode of production was arising. The old centers of guild production in Flanders and Brabant were declining. In new industries and industrial centers not associated with the guild system (Antwerp, Hondschoote, the Liège district and Valenciennes) capitalist manufactories were developing rapidly. The metallurgy and mining industries at Namur and Liège were flourishing. In Holland capitalist enterprises had been established in cloth-making, brewing, fishing, shipbuilding, and related industries. The most important city was Amsterdam. Trade was being reorganized along capitalist lines.

Fundamental changes were also taking place in agrarian relations. Commercial farming had developed in some areas, and highly productive dairy farming had arisen in Holland and other regions. Monetary rent and various forms of short-term leasing had been introduced in economically developed regions. A stratum of farmers was evolving who managed their farms on an entrepreneurial basis. A bourgeois class was forming, and a proletariat was emerging.

The chief impediment to the further development of capitalism was Spanish absolutism, which was exploiting the Netherlands economically and oppressing it politically in the interests of the reactionary Spanish nobility and the Hapsburg dynasty. The Catholic Church was the main support of Spanish absolutism and of the feudal system in the country, and the social and political demands of the revolutionary segment of the Netherlands bourgeoisie and popular masses took the form of a Reformation doctrine—Calvinism.

The oppression of Spanish absolutism grew particularly intolerable under King Philip II, whose reign began in 1556. A series of heavy blows were dealt to the country’s economy: a duty was introduced on imported Spanish wool that was ruinous for the Netherlands cloth industry and Netherlands merchants were barred from the Spanish colonies. A Spanish absolutist regime was introduced in the country, and Spanish garrisons were established. The Spanish government’s policies crippled the country’s economic development and condemned the popular masses to famine, poverty, and loss of political rights. In the 1560’s Calvinist preaching attracted thousands of people, and arrests and public executions of “heretics” precipitated a number of uprisings in the cities and towns of Flanders and Brabant. The consistories (church administrative bodies of the Calvinist communities), headed by revolutionary members of the bourgeoisie, incited the people against the Catholic Church and Spanish absolutism.

The policies of Philip II provoked the resistance of oppositional elements among the Netherlands nobility and aristocracy, led by Prince William of Orange and the counts of Egmont and Hoorn. The nobility resented domination by the Spanish and by the bureaucracy loyal to the dynasty, but above all the nobles feared that Philip’s policy would precipitate a popular revolt that would sweep away the feudal order. The oppositional nobles formed the League (or Compromise) of the Nobility and on Apr. 5, 1566, sent a petition to the Spanish vicegerent in Brussels, Margaret of Parma, demanding the cessation of religious persecution and of violation of the country’s liberties and the convocation of the States General to resolve pressing questions. The government rejected the demands.

In August 1566 a great iconoclastic uprising broke out in Flanders and quickly spread through almost the entire country. It was directed primarily against the Catholic Church, and about 5,500 churches and monasteries were sacked. The authorities were paralyzed, and Margaret of Parma agreed to stop the persecution of “heretics” and to introduce limited toleration of Calvinism. The uprising was the first stage of the Netherlands bourgeois revolution, and its intensity frightened not only the government but also the nobility and the bourgeoisie. The nobles dissolved their league and helped the authorities suppress the uprising, and the consistories refused to support it. In the summer of 1567, Spanish troops entered the Netherlands under the command of the Duke of Alba, who initiated a reign of terror. During Alba’s years in the Netherlands (1567–73), more than 11,000 people were punished, including Egmont and Hoorn, the former leaders of the noble opposition, who were executed. The popular masses responded with heroic resistance. Partisans hiding in the woods (the forest gueux) killed Spanish soldiers and the officials and Catholic clergy who collaborated with the Spanish. In Holland and Zeeland, the sea gueux destroyed Spanish fleets and coastal bases. William of Orange, who had fled with a handful of followers to Germany, also attacked Alba, supported by German Protestant princes and French Huguenots. But the prince of Orange’s campaigns in the Netherlands in 1568 and 1572 were unsuccessful.

In 1571, Alba introduced a tax, the alcabalá (10 percent tax on all sales), which wrecked the economy of the Netherlands, where commodity relations predominated. Manufactories and shops were closed, credit institutions were bankrupted, and many wage earners and artisans lost their livelihood. In these circumstances the sea gueux captured the city of Brill on Apr. 1, 1572, igniting a general insurrection in Holland and Zeeland. The urban poor, peasants, and fishermen, guided by revolutionary members of the bourgeoisie and the nobility, formed military detachments, overthrew local authorities collaborating with the Spanish, exterminated the Spanish and their accomplices, and destroyed churches and monasteries. The representative bodies (states) of Holland and Zeeland, which met in the summer of 1572 in Dordrecht, took several important steps to organize authority in the rebellious provinces, and a synod, also held there in 1574, laid the foundation for the Calvinist church in the northern Netherlands. The revolutionary segment of the bourgeoisie and the popular masses fought under the banner of Calvinism for the abolition of Spanish rule and feudal tyranny. But the wealthy merchants opposed only the “excesses” of the Spanish regime and advocated an alliance with the oppositional nobility. To “impose order” the merchant oligarchy entrusted supreme executive power and military command to William of Orange, who received almost dictatorial powers in the autumn of 1572. The Spanish authorities threw all their forces into the struggle against the revolt and won several victories, but their efforts were checked by the heroic resistance of the revolutionary forces, culminating in the defense of Haarlem from December 1572 to July 1573, Alkmaar in 1573, and Leiden from October 1573 to October 1574 and in the expulsion of Spanish forces from Amsterdam in 1578.

The successes of the revolution in the north, the failure of the terrorist policy of Alba (whom the Spanish government recalled in 1573), and atrocities and mutinies by Spanish soldiers strengthened the anti-Spanish movement in the southern provinces. On Sept. 4, 1576, a successful anti-Spanish revolt broke out in Brussels, and the center of the revolutionary and liberation movement shifted to the south. The States General of all the Netherlands provinces, which assembled in the fall of 1576, became the principal governing body in the country. It had convened to determine the country’s form of government and to resolve immediate problems of foreign and domestic policy. However, it was dominated by the nobility and conservative burghers, who did not want to see an intensification of the revolution. On Nov. 8, 1576, an agreement was concluded between the northern (Calvinist) and southern (Catholic) provinces, known as the Pacification of Ghent, proclaiming the restoration of the country’s political unity and peace but failing to solve pressing problems. Philip II of Spain was to be the nominal ruler, the religious question was not resolved, a proposal to confiscate church lands was rejected, and the question of eliminating feudal ownership of land and feudal relations in the cities and countryside was not even raised.

On Feb. 12, 1577, the States General concluded an agreement, called the Perpetual Edict, with the new Spanish vicegerent, Don John of Austria. The States General agreed to make peace with the Spanish king if he would recognize the Pacification of Ghent. However, on June 24, 1577, Don John seized the fortress of Namur and began to gather an army to suppress the revolution. Angered by the schemes of the reactionary nobility and Catholics, the urban masses of Brussels, Ghent, Ypres, Antwerp, and other cities removed reactionary magistrates in the summer and fall of 1577 and created their own armed forces and local revolutionary governing bodies—the “councils of 18.” Initially the councils were charged with organizing the defense of the cities, but gradually, they and the Calvinist consistories and urban armed detachments came to control all aspects of urban life. An especially sharp struggle broke out in Ghent, where democratic elements emerged victorious after crushing a counterrevolutionary conspiracy by the nobility in late October 1577. In September 1577, William of Orange, summoned by his supporters, arrived in Brussels from Holland. He was elected ruward of Brabant and became leader of the country’s political life. In 1578–79 a large peasant rebellion swept over Flanders, Brabant, Groningen, Drenthe, and Friesland. The insurgent peasants, who had been mercilessly plundered both by “their own” and by Spanish soldiers, stopped paying taxes to the States General, refused to perform feudal obligations for their lords, who supported the Spanish, seized land belonging to nobles and the Catholic Church, destroyed castles, and killed marauders.

In the fall of 1578 the reactionary Catholic nobility of the province of Hainaut launched a counterrevolutionary uprising, which was joined by the nobility of Artois, Douai, and Orchies. On Jan. 6, 1579, they formed the Union of Arras, detached themselves from the revolutionary provinces, and on May 17, 1579, concluded a separate treaty with Philip II. The revolutionary provinces of the north responded by signing the Union of Utrecht on Jan. 23, 1579. Later the cities in Flanders and Brabant, where the democratic movement had triumphed, also joined the Union of Utrecht. The Prince of Orange and the States General persisted in pursuing the totally discredited policy of “unifying the entire country” through compromise with the feudal-Catholic reactionaries. They rejected the idea of creating a revolutionary army from the armed populace, and relied on foreign mercenaries. In the towns, William of Orange placed his agents in the “councils of 18” and through them carried out his policies. As a result the feudal Catholic reaction in the southern provinces grew stronger, the revolution and the liberation movement there were undermined, and the revolutionary bourgeoisie and many skilled workers and artisans moved to the north.

The promulgation of a decree by Philip II on June 15, 1580, declaring the Prince of Orange an outlaw prompted the States General to depose Philip and declare the Netherlands’ independence from Spain on July 26, 1581. However, the revolution proved to be limited to the northern provinces. In the south, a skillful politician and military leader, Alessandro Farnese (sent to replace Don John, who had died in October 1578), launched on offensive against Flanders and Brabant, conquering the provinces by 1585 (Ghent fell in September 1584, Brussels in March 1585, and Antwerp in August 1585). The Prince of Orange, who fled to Holland, was assassinated on July 10, 1584.

The military forces of the northern provinces, led from 1589 by the outstanding military leader Maurice of Nassau, inflicted a series of crushing defeats on the Spanish and recaptured a number of regions. In 1609 the Twelve Years’ Truce was concluded, under which Spain recognized de facto the independence of the bourgeois Republic of the United Provinces, the name taken by the new state in the northern Netherlands formed as a result of the revolution. The republic received international recognition in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia.

The Netherlands bourgeois revolution dealt a blow to Spanish absolutism, ushering in the age of victorious bourgeois revolutions in Europe. It brought about the overthrow of Spanish domination and the formation in the northern Netherlands of the first bourgeois republic in Europe. The revolution occurred in the early, manufactory period of the development of capitalism, when the class antagonism between the incipient bourgeoisie and the nobility had not fully ripened, and this influenced its outcome. The revolution triumphed only in the northern part of the country, where capitalism was more firmly entrenched and the peasant-plebeian movement was more organized and purposeful. The southern Netherlands remained under Spanish control. The popular masses played an important role in the overthrow of Spanish absolutism, but lacking sufficient sociopolitical maturity and organization they did not leave a democratic imprint on the changes that were made during the revolution. The role of the urban poor was as yet very small. The big commercial bourgeoisie, which was economically the strongest element, usurped political power, and this decisively influenced the subsequent history of the country.


Chistozvonov, A. N. Niderlandskaia burzhuaznaia revoliutsiia XVI v. Moscow, 1958.
Chistozvonov, A. N. “Istoriografiia i problemy marksistskogo issledovaniia niderlandskoi burzhuaznoi revoliutsii XVI v.” In the collection Srednie veka, no. 31. Moscow, 1968.
Pirenne, H. Niderlandskaia revoliutsiia. Moscow, 1937. (Translated from French.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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