William the Silent

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William the Silent


William of Orange

(William I, prince of Orange), 1533–84, Dutch statesman, principal founder of Dutch independence.

Early Life

A descendant of the Ottonian line of NassauNassau
, former duchy, W central Germany, situated N and E of the Main and Rhine rivers. It is now mostly included in the state of Hesse, and partly in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
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, he was born at Dillenburg, near Wiesbaden, Germany, of Protestant parents. After inheriting (1544) the holdings of the branch of the Nassau family in the Low Countries and the principality of OrangeOrange
, town (1990 pop. 28,136), Vaucluse dept., SE France. An agricultural market center, the town also produces refined sugar, pâtés, preserves, wool, and shoes. Tourism is also important. Orange was an earldom probably founded by Charlemagne.
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 in S France, William was reared a Roman Catholic at the insistence of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose favorite page he became. In 1555 he was made stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht.

Struggles with Spain

William ably served Philip II of Spain as a diplomat, particularly in the making of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), but Philip's encroachments on the liberties of the NetherlandsNetherlands
, Du. Nederland or Koninkrijk der Nederlanden, officially Kingdom of the Netherlands, constitutional monarchy (2015 est. pop. 16,938,000), 15,963 sq mi (41,344 sq km), NW Europe.
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 and the introduction of the Spanish Inquisition by Cardinal GranvelleGranvelle, Antoine Perrenot de
, 1517–86, statesman in the service of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and of King Philip II of Spain; cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
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 led William to turn against the king. In 1563, with the help of counts EgmontEgmont, Lamoral, count of
, 1522–68, Flemish general and statesman, member of one of the noblest families of the Netherlands. In the service of Philip II of Spain he helped defeat the French at Saint-Quentin (1557) and Gravelines (1558) and was governor of Brabant and
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 and HoornHoorn or Horn, Philip de Montmorency, count of
, 1518?–1568, Netherlands nobleman, member of the council of state during the regency of Margaret of Parma.
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, he succeeded in obtaining the removal of Granvelle, but under the regency of Margaret of ParmaMargaret of Parma,
1522–86, Spanish regent of the Netherlands; illegitimate daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. She was married (1536) to Alessandro de' Medici (d. 1537) and (1538) to Ottavio Farnese, duke of Parma.
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 disorders grew in the Netherlands.

In 1566 the party of the GueuxGueux
[Fr.,=beggars], 16th-century Dutch revolutionary party. In 1566 more than 2,000 Dutch and Flemish nobles and burghers (both Protestants and Roman Catholics) signed a document—the so-called Compromise of Breda—by which they bound themselves in solemn oath to
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 was organized with William's connivance, and when AlbaAlba or Alva, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, duque de
, b. 1507 or 1508, d. 1582, Spanish general and administrator.
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 was sent to the Netherlands to quell the rebels, William withdrew to Germany. When he refused Alba's summons to appear before a tribunal, his property was confiscated. William and his brother Louis of Nassau raised an army to drive the Spanish out of the Netherlands. They at first met defeat, but in 1576 the provinces of the Netherlands, taking advantage of the mutiny of the Spanish army under John of AustriaJohn of Austria,
1545–78, Spanish admiral and general; illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He was acknowledged in his father's will and was recognized by his half-brother, Philip II of Spain. In 1569 he fought against the Morisco rebels in Granada.
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, united under William's leadership in the Pacification of Ghent for the purpose of expelling the Spanish. In 1573, chiefly for the sake of policy, William had become a Calvinist.

The struggle with Spain continued. The Union of Utrecht (1579) proclaimed the virtual independence of the northern provinces, of which William was the uncrowned ruler, but the victories of the Spaniards under Alessandro FarneseFarnese, Alessandro
, 1545–92, duke of Parma and Piacenza (1586–92), general and diplomat in the service of Philip II of Spain. He was the son of Duke Ottavio Farnese and Margaret of Parma and thus a nephew of Philip II and of John of Austria, under whom he
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 forced William to seek French support by offering (1580) the rule over the Netherlands to FrancisFrancis,
1554–84, French prince, duke of Alençon and Anjou; youngest son of King Henry II of France and Catherine de' Medici. Although ill-shapen, pockmarked, and endowed with a curiously formed nose, he was considered (1572–73) as a possible husband for Queen
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, duke of Alençon and Anjou. Philip II denounced William as a traitor, and a high price was set on his head in 1581.

William replied with his famous Apologia, in which he not only sought to vindicate his own conduct, but hurled violent accusations at the Spanish king. In the same year the representatives of Brabant, Flanders, Utrecht, Gelderland, Holland, and Zeeland solemnly declared Philip deposed from sovereignty over those provinces. William's support of the unpopular Francis resulted in the wane of William's own popularity during his last years. He was assassinated at Delft by a French Catholic fanatic, while the struggle against Spain was still in a critical stage.

Wives and Heirs

William married four times. His first wife was Anne of Egmont and Buren (d. 1558); in 1561 he married Anne, daughter of Elector Maurice of Saxony, in spite of the opposition of Philip II and of Anne's parents; in 1575, two years before Anne's death, he married Charlotte de Bourbon, a French princess and a runaway nun, after securing the approval of several Protestant divines; in 1583 he married Louise de Coligny, daughter of Admiral Coligny. From the first marriage Prince Philip William of Orange (d. 1616) was born; from the second and fourth marriages issued William's successors as stadtholders—Maurice of Nassau and Frederick Henry.


See biography by C. V. Wedgwood (1944, repr. 1967).

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