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Useful Notes / The Eighty Years' War

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The sack of Antwerp (November 4, 1576) by Spanish troops during the Eighty Years' War

"I can not approve that monarchs desire to rule over the conscience of their subjects and take away from them their freedom of belief and religion."
Rebel Leader William of Orange

The Eighty Years' War, or the Dutch War of Independence (1568-1648), was a war fought, as the name suggests, over the course of eighty years and for the independence of the Dutch Republic (a precursor to the modern-day Netherlands) from the western Habsburg realm led by Philip II of Spain. The leaders of the rebellion cited the strict control of the monarchy over the people as their main incentive to rebel, mainly in terms such as freedom of religion and thought and the matter of taxation. More cynically-minded observers generally put the taxes first, though.

As fitting for a war spanning almost a century, the Eighty Years War was a dramatically evolving conflict. What had started essentially as a police action within the Spanish Empire ended up spiraling into an international engagement that pitted Philip and his clan against all the other European powers at the time, most notably England and France, resulting in an endless back and forth that eventually ended with Philip's grandson throwing the towel and letting part of Netherlands separate as an independent nation.

In many ways, the war went into history as the Spanish version of the Vietnam War, leading to the popular idiom España mi natura, Italia mi ventura, Flandes mi sepultura ("Spain (was) my birthplace, Italy my fortune, Flanders my grave"). The conflict manifested as countless skirmishes, minor to medium battles, foreign interventions and incredibly long and tedious sieges, many of which went nowhere. As a consequence, although the Spaniards suffered few decisive disasters, the sheer accumulation of warring expenses and the multiplication of enemies through almost a century managed to ultimately overwork the empire into giving up by exhaustion. The science of warfare would substantially evolve during his course, ending the era of the pike-and-shot and promoting the adoption of linear infantry tactics.

Losing the war not only dented the already falling Spanish hegemony, but also their reputation, as the war proved the value of propaganda, skillfully used by the rebel side to convince Europe of Spain's wickedness and the sore need to resist or die against them. It basically codified the Spanish Black Legend for its further expansion by all factions interested for the next centuries.

The Other Wiki has a incredibly extensive and more specific article on the Eighty Years War.


The Netherlands had ended up in Philip's hands after his father Charles V divided his personal domain and restored the separation between the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. The Netherlands should have gone back to the Holy Roman Empire, its previous domain, but the latter's endemic infighting, increased by the recent triumph of the local German Protestantism, had convinced Charles that the province would be safer as part of Spain, much more capable to control the similar Dutch proneness to turmoil and defend it militarily from France. In general, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, especially because the Habsburg Netherlands were an incredibly rich land with an enviable position for trade, and aside from it being a great asset for the Spanish Empire and its global trade network, it was a priority to keep under Habsburg control.

However, relations between Philip and the Low Countries soon soured. The infamously centralist king wanted to re-organize the land and extract taxes proportional to their richness, while the local nobility resisted, accustomed to Charles' more hands-off attitude. Furthermore, while Charles had been born in the very Netherlands and lived all of his life like a Central European, Philip was instead a remote, southern king whom the northerners struggled to accept. As it can be read in William of Orange's Apology, at the time it was popular in Europe to see Spaniards as a race "contaminated" by their contact with Jews and Moors, and Philip's fiscal voraciousness only confirmed this impression. To make things even worse, it also happened that Philip was an uncompromising Catholic, while at the time the Netherlands had a sizable Protestant population he couldn't just leave be - and it turned out that even the local Catholic majority was unmotivated to hold together with him, as the common threats of France and the Ottoman Empire were removed by way of the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis and geographical distance respectively.

The revolt explodes

By 1566, tensions had only fired up after the Low Countries started suffering economically from the Northern Wars, the inflation caused by American silver, and Philip's own attempts to stamp out Protestantism. In August of the same year, Protestant mobs started attacking and destroying Catholic properties all around the country in an event called the Beeldenstorm ("Iconoclasm"), and although Spanish governor Margaret of Parma managed to control things with the help of the noblemen themselves, Philip heard the alarming reports and basically panicked, believing the Netherlands were spiraling out of control. The king replaced Margaret with the iron-handed Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, who came with the double mission to control things by any means necessary and centralize and modernize the largely medieval local society in order to refloat things, hopefully for Philip himself to come over, endear himself to the Netherlanders and solve the problems.

The event said to have set off the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of the revolution is Álvarez's execution of the statesmen Lamoral, Count of Egmont and Philip de Montmorency, Count of Hoorn, on the main square in Brussels on June 5, 1568, after which William of Orange, a understudy of Charles V best known as William the Silent, fled to Germany and became the leader of the rebellion in exile until being killed by a spy. Álvarez crushed the first waves of the revolt and managed to hold most of the country, but even his most positive reforms were too much and too quickly for the moment, and on the other hand, his implacable repression of any rebellious elements ensured even the areas controlled by the crown were only forcefully so. To boot, Philip's original plans to travel to the Netherlands were postponed until being ultimately discarded, leaving the Duke of Alba alone and with a bad case of only having a hammer and seeing everything as a nail.

Álvarez was eventually called back on the sight that the problem would not be solved the same way it was provoked, and Philip now tried luck the soft way by sending a more diplomatic governor, Luis de Requesens, with more concialiatory orders and a general amnesty. It went nowhere, perhaps predictably, and Requesens was forced to resume warfare with his sorely lacking military skills. The Spaniards did snatch a couple decisive victories, after which Requesens and William the Silent entered negotiations by the conciliation of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, but failure to reach an agreement coincided with a series of savage sackings by mutinied Habsburgian troops, unpaid by Spain's own economic problems, which enraged the local population and sent the war beyond its point of no return. Requesens then died of illness as a final strike of unrest for the country.

Europe at war

The mismanagement of Alba and Requesens had set virtually all of the Low Countries against Habsburg rule, seven of them forming the United Provinces, so Philip sent now his charismatic half-brother John of Austria, who got some tentative diplomatic success by promising to withdraw with all of his forces - only to return to state of war due to John's erratic political plans, now with the problem of Elizabeth I of England supporting the Dutch. However, John obtained again a couple of devastating victories, after which infighting exploded between the rebels and an increasing number of them started changing sides. Austria's untimely death passed command to Alexander Farnese, Philip's best general, whose diplomatic and military offensive gradually brought most of the country under Spanish control - only to stop again with the disaster of the Spanish Armada and the diversion of the French Wars of Religion, where Farnese was killed in action.

With the Spanish Empire now being simultanously at war against Dutch, French and British Protestants, the Dutch turned the tide and re-conquered most of the territory with their own military genius, the late William's son Maurice of Nassau. During more than a decade, unable to focus and depending on Habsburgian governors of dubious abilities to keep the theater running, the Spanish could do little but fight for stalemates, time the Dutch used to organize themselves and reinforce their hopefully independent republic. At this point, a soon-to-be dead Philip decided to change tactics again and, reasoning the Dutch would be more open to accept a Central European ruler, he gave back the Netherlands to the Holy Roman Empire, helped because the latter had been functionally neutral during the whole war in order not to disturb their own Protestant population and due to their engagements with the Ottomans. The inheritor was the Holy Roman Archduke Albert, Philip's son-in-law, but the attempts to reach an agreement failed again due to the whole thing's obvious sketchiness.

The situation reached a balance by the arrival of another imperial wunderchild, Ambrogio Spinola, managing to thwart Maurice and making things look promising for King Philip III, who was still backing economically the war effort even although Albert was the man in charge now. Both sides were utterly exhausted and needing for the negotiations to give out something, so by this point the Twelve Year Truce, Exactly What It Says on the Tin, was declared in 1609. Albert invested the time in rebuilding the Netherlands under his control and all of its Catholic structure, but the spiritual winner was the Dutch Republic, because the sole fact that the Habsburgs had signed a treaty with them meant they were now being implicitly given recognition as an entity.

Restart of the war

The peace lasted until 1619 when the Thirty Years' War broke out, similarly pitting the Holy Roman Empire against more or less everybody in Europe, and this returned the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Empire to opposition as the Dutch intervened against the Holy Romans. The truce also finished in 1621, point at which both the Archduke Albert and Spinola wanted to negotiate again with Maurice and end the damn war, but the truce had seriously disadvantaged the Spanish Empire in many fields around the world (for instance, weakening their Portuguese subjects in The Dutch-Portuguese War) and many voices called for retribution. To further muddle things, Albert died shortly after, returning the Netherlands now to Philip IV, whose big man Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, declared war again.

Despite the Habsburg's ambition, the Spaniards became finally aware that trying to militarily re-conquer the Netherlands had stopped being feasable several decades ago, so they went instead for a policy of economic warfare, planting their forces around Dutch Republic to besiege it and engaging in intense commerce raiding to cut off its wings. The plan was initially successful, and it advanced even more with the death of Maurice of Nassau, but the Republic resisted, and when the Spanish Empire found itself busy with yet a new front, the War of Mantuan Succession, the whole campaign crashed. Full frontal war came again, although Spain returned unexpectedly stronger from Mantua under the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Austria, to which the Dutch answered by allying with the France of Cardinal Richelieu.

The clash against France and the Dutch Republic started looking worse and worse for the House of Habsburg, especially because Ferdinand died of exhaustion and the two countries managed to isolate the Netherlands from Spain by land and sea. It only added to two new inner revolts against Philip IV's authority: that of the Portuguese, who had realized years earlier that being in the Habsburg team had basically meant their ruin, and the Catalonians, by vaguely similar reasons. Ironically, at the other side of the war, Frederick Henry of Nassau also found himself in midst of an inter-provincial conflict. At the end, both sides accepted to negotiate for real, an in the 1648 Peace of Munster, the Eighty Year War finally ended, with all Spanish forces abandoning the former Habsburg Netherlands for good.


The Peace of Munster divided the Low Countries into two, the southern part belonging to Spain and the northern part belonging to the Dutch Republic, which would later become respectively the modern countries of Belgium and Netherlands. The fortunes of war, however, were unequal.

The Eighty Years War basically brought an end to Iberian supremacy in the Christian world. Portugal, soon free from the control of more Austrian overlords, managed to re-conquer gradually their territories in America and Africa, but most of their control of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean had been lost forever to the now better-called Dutch Empire. The Spaniards were now free from a 80-year nightmare that in hindsight could have been both avoided and won at several points under better heads, but their ultimate inability to recover the Netherlands was seen as a a massive Shoot the Shaggy Dog, and the loss of their conjunction with the Portuguese Empire translated into a global loss of influence as well. The Spanish Habsburg branch would die off soon by the hand of Charles II of Spain, whose complicated succession ended up placing a French dynasty in its throne and further solidifying France as the next great power in Europe.

For their part, although the lands of the Netherlands had been left quite devastated, sinking the life of everybody that wasn't part of the safer bourgouis middle and high class and/or had a hand in trade, their independent republic only came out of the war stronger, having become one of the lead powers in Europe thanks to the improbable chance of establishing diplomacy with multiple countries, spreading their trade networks around the globe, and capitalizing on the reforming work made by their own enemies back when it seemed to be the solution to keep the country in the empire. Its new prosperity marked the beginning of the Dutch Golden Age, which would replace the similar - and now dying - Spanish Golden Age.

Depictions in fiction

  • The titular character in Alatriste is a Spanish veteran of the 80 Years War. The war is brought front and center in the third book of the series, The Sun over Breda.
  • Alatriste (2006) takes place with the war mostly in the background, starting with the title character fighting in the Dutch Revolt and ending at the 1643 Battle of Rocroi.
  • The setting of Age of Empires III includes this period and has the Spanish and Dutch as playable factions, although it is mostly centered around the conquest and colonization of the Americas.
  • The Dutch comic Gilles de Geus is set during the war, with Gilles even participating in some of the historical battles.