History of Holland
By George Edmundson
Public Domain Books
Chapter II: Habsburg Rule in the Netherlands
Maximilian, on the death of Mary, found himself in a very difficult position. The archduke was a man of high-soaring ideas, chivalrous, brave even to the point of audacity, full of expedients and never daunted by failure, but he was deficient in stability of character, and always hampered throughout his life by lack of funds. He had in 1477 set himself to the task of defending Flanders and the southern provinces of the Netherlands against French attack, and not without considerable success. In 1482, as guardian of his four-year old son Philip, the heir to the domains of the house of Burgundy, he became regent of the Netherlands. His authority however was little recognised. Gelderland and Utrecht fell away altogether. Liège acknowledged William de la Marck as its ruler. Holland and Zeeland were torn by contending factions. Flanders, the centre of the Burgundian power, was specially hostile to its new governor. The burghers of Ghent refused to surrender to him his children, Philip and Margaret, who were held as hostages to secure themselves against any attempted infringement of their liberties. The Flemings even entered into negotiations with Louis XI; and the archduke found himself compelled to sign a treaty with France (December 23, 1482), one of the conditions being the betrothal of his infant daughter to the dauphin. Maximilian, however, found that for a time he must leave Flanders to put down the rising of the Hook faction in Holland, who, led by Frans van Brederode, and in alliance with the anti-Burgundian party in Utrecht, had made themselves masters of Leyden. Beaten in a bloody fight by the regent, Brederode nevertheless managed to seize Sluis and Rotterdam; and from these ports he and his daring companion-in-arms, Jan van Naaldwijk, carried on a guerrilla warfare for some years. Brederode was killed in a fight at Brouwershaven (1490), but Sluis still held out and was not taken till two years later.
Meanwhile Maximilian had to undertake a campaign against the Flemings, who were again in arms at the instigation of the turbulent burghers of Ghent and Bruges. Entering the province at the head of a large force he compelled the rebel towns to submit and obtained possession of the person of his son Philip (July, 1485). Elected in the following year King of the Romans, Maximilian left the Netherlands to be crowned at Aachen (April, 1486). A war with France called him back, in the course of which he suffered a severe defeat at Bethune. At the beginning of 1488 Ghent and Bruges once more rebelled; and the Roman king, enticed to enter Bruges, was there seized and compelled to see his friends executed in the market-place beneath his prison window. For seven months he was held a prisoner; nor was he released until he had sworn to surrender his powers, as regent, to a council of Flemings and to withdraw all his foreign troops from the Netherlands. He was forced to give hostages as a pledge of his good faith, among them his general, Philip of Cleef, who presently joined his captors.
Maximilian, on arriving at the camp of the Emperor Frederick III, who had gathered together an army to release his imprisoned son, was persuaded to break an oath given under duress. He advanced therefore at the head of his German mercenaries into Flanders, but was able to achieve little success against the Flemings, who found in Philip of Cleef an able commander. Despairing of success, he now determined to retire into Germany, leaving Duke Albert of Saxe-Meissen, a capable and tried soldier of fortune, as general-in-chief of his forces and Stadholder of the Netherlands. With the coming of Duke Albert order was at length to be restored, though not without a severe struggle.
Slowly but surely Duke Albert took town after town and reduced province after province into submission. The Hook party in Holland and Zeeland, and their anti-Burgundian allies in Utrecht, and Robert de la Marck in Liège, in turn felt the force of his arm. An insurrection of the peasants in West Friesland and Kennemerland–the “Bread and Cheese Folk,” as they were called–was easily put down. Philip of Cleef with his Flemings was unable to make head against him; and, with the fall of Ghent and Sluis in the summer of 1492, the duke was able to announce to Maximilian that the Netherlands, except Gelderland, were pacified. The treaty of Senlis in 1493 ended the war with France. In the following year, after his accession to the imperial throne, Maximilian retired to his ancestral dominions in Germany, and his son, Philip the Fair, took in his hands the reins of government. The young sovereign, who was a Netherlander by birth and had spent all his life in the country, was more popular than his father; and his succession to the larger part of the Burgundian inheritance was not disputed. He received the homage of Zeeland at Roemerswaal, of Holland at Geertruidenburg, and seized the occasion to announce the abrogation of the Great Privilege, and at the same time restored the Grand Council at Mechlin.
In Utrecht the authority of Bishop David of Burgundy was now firmly re-established; and on his death, Philip of Baden, an obsequious adherent of the house of Austria, was elected. These results of the pacification carried out so successfully by Duke Albert had, however, left Maximilian and Philip deeply in debt to the Saxon; and there was no money wherewith to meet the claim, which amounted to 300,000 guilders. After many negotiations extending over several years, compensation was found for Albert in Friesland. That unhappy province and the adjoining territory of Groningen had for a long time been torn by internal dissensions between the two parties, the Schieringers and the Vetkoopers, who were the counterparts of the Hooks and Cods of Holland. The Schieringers called in the aid of the Saxon duke, who brought the land into subjection. Maximilian now recognised Albert as hereditary Podesta or governor of Friesland on condition that the House of Austria reserved the right of redeeming the territory for 100,000 guilders; and Philip acquiesced in the bargain by which Frisian freedom was sold in exchange for the cancelling of a debt. The struggle with Charles of Egmont in Gelderland was not so easily terminated. Not till 1505 was Philip able to overcome this crafty and skilful adversary. Charles was compelled to do homage and to accompany Philip to Brussels (October, 1505). It was, however, but a brief submission. Charles made his escape once more into Gelderland and renewed the war of independence.
Before these events had taken place, the marriage of Philip with Juana, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile, had brought about a complete change in his fortunes. Maximilian, always full of ambitious projects for the aggrandisement of his House, had planned with Ferdinand of Aragon a double marriage between their families, prompted by a common hatred and fear of the growing power of France. The Archduke Philip was to wed the Infanta Juana, the second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel; the Infante Juan, the heir to the thrones of Aragon and Castile, Philip’s sister, Margaret. Margaret had in 1483, aged then three years, been betrothed to the Dauphin Charles, aged twelve, and she was brought up at the French Court, and after the death of Louis XI (August 30, 1483) had borne the title of Queen and had lived at Amboise with other children of the French royal house, under the care of the Regent, Anne de Beaujeu. The marriage, however, of Charles VIII and Margaret was never to be consummated. In August, 1488, the male line of the Dukes of Brittany became extinct; and the hand of the heiress, Anne of Brittany, a girl of twelve, attracted many suitors. It was clearly a matter of supreme importance to the King of France that this important territory should not pass by marriage into the hands of an enemy. The Bretons, on the other hand, clung to their independence and dreaded absorption in the unifying French state. After many intrigues her council advised the young duchess to accept Maximilian as her husband, and she was married to him by proxy in March, 1490. Charles VIII immediately entered Brittany at the head of a strong force and, despite a fierce and prolonged resistance, conquered the country, and gained possession of Anne’s person (August, 1491). The temptation was too strong to be resisted. Margaret, after residing in France as his affianced wife for eight years, was repudiated and finally, two years later, sent back to the Netherlands, while Anne was compelled to break off her marriage with Margaret’s father, and became Charles’ queen. This double slight was never forgiven either by Maximilian or by Margaret, and was the direct cause of the negotiations for the double Spanish marriage, which, though delayed by the suspicious caution of the two chief negotiators, Ferdinand and Maximilian, was at length arranged. In August, 1496, an imposing fleet conveyed the Infanta Juana to Antwerp and she was married to Philip at Lille. In the following April Margaret and Don Juan were wedded in the cathedral of Burgos. The union was followed by a series of catastrophes in the Spanish royal family. While on his way with his wife to attend the marriage of his older sister Isabel with the King of Portugal, Juan caught a malignant fever and expired at Salamanca in October, 1497.
The newly-married Queen of Portugal now became the heiress to the crowns of Aragon and Castile, but she died a year later and shortly afterwards her infant son. The succession therefore passed to the younger sister, Juana; and Philip the Fair, the heir of the House of Austria and already through his mother the ruler of the rich Burgundian domain, became through his wife the prospective sovereign of the Spanish kingdoms of Ferdinand and Isabel. Fortune seemed to have reserved all her smiles for the young prince, when on February 24, 1500, a son was born to him at Ghent, who received the name Charles. But dark days were soon to follow. Philip was pleasure-loving and dissolute, and he showed little affection for his wife, who had already begun to exhibit symptoms of that weakness of mind which was before long to develop into insanity. However in 1501, they journeyed together to Spain, in order to secure Juana’s rights to the Castilian succession and also to that of Aragon should King Ferdinand die without an heir-male.
In November, 1504, Isabel the Catholic had died; and Philip and his consort at once assumed the titles of King and Queen of Castile, in spite of the opposition of Ferdinand, who claimed the right of regency during his life-time. Both parties were anxious to obtain the support of Henry VII. Already since the accession of Philip the commercial relations between England and the Netherlands had been placed on what proved to be a permanently friendly basis by the treaty known as the Magnus Intercursus of 1496. Flanders and Brabant were dependent upon the supply of English wool for their staple industries, Holland and Zeeland for that freedom of fishery on which a large part of their population was employed and subsisted. In reprisals for the support formerly given by the Burgundian government to the house of York, Henry had forbidden the exportation of wool and of cloth to the Netherlands, had removed the staple from Bruges to Calais, and had withdrawn the fishing rights enjoyed by the Hollanders since the reign of Edward I. But this state of commercial war was ruinous to both countries; and, on condition that Philip henceforth undertook not to allow any enemies of the English government to reside in his dominions, a good understanding was reached, and the Magnus Intercursus, which re-established something like freedom of trade between the countries, was duly signed in February, 1496. The treaty was solemnly renewed in 1501, but shortly afterwards fresh difficulties arose concerning Yorkist refugees, and a stoppage of trade was once more threatened. At this juncture a storm drove Philip and Juana, who had set sail in January, 1506, for Spain, to take refuge in an English harbour. For three months they were hospitably entertained by Henry, but he did not fail to take advantage of the situation to negotiate three treaties with his unwilling guest: (1) a treaty of alliance, (2) a treaty of marriage with Philip’s sister, the Archduchess Margaret, already at the age of 25 a widow for the second time, (3) a revision of the treaty of commerce of 1496, named from its unfavourable conditions, Malus Intercursus. The marriage treaty came to nothing through the absolute refusal of Margaret to accept the hand of the English king.
Philip and Juana left England for Spain, April 23, to assume the government of the three kingdoms, Castile, Leon and Granada, which Juana had inherited from her mother. Owing to his wife’s mental incapacity Philip in her name exercised all the powers of sovereignty, but his reign was very short, for he was suddenly taken ill and died at Burgos, September 25, 1506. His hapless wife, after the birth of a posthumous child, sank into a state of hopeless insanity and passed the rest of her long life in confinement. Charles, the heir to so vast an inheritance, was but six years old. The representatives of the provinces, assembled at Mechlin (October 18), offered the regency of the Burgundian dominions to the Emperor Maximilian; he in his turn nominated his daughter, Margaret, to be regent in his place and guardian of his grandson during Charles’ minority, and she with the assent of the States-General took the oath on her installation as Mambour or Governor-General of the Netherlands, March, 1507. Margaret was but 27 years of age, and for twenty-four years she continued to administer the affairs of the Netherlands with singular discretion, firmness and Statesmanlike ability. The superintendence and training of the young archduke could have been placed in no better hands. Charles, who with his three sisters lived with his aunt at Mechlin, was thus both by birth and education a Netherlander.
One of the first acts of Margaret was a refusal to ratify the Malus Intercursus and the revival of the Magnus Intercursus of 1496. This important commercial treaty from that time forward continued in force for more than a century. The great difficulty that Margaret encountered in her government was the lack of adequate financial resources. The extensive privileges accorded to the various provinces and their mutual jealousies and diverse interests made the task of levying taxes arduous and often fruitless. Margaret found that the granting of supplies, even for so necessary a purpose as the raising of troops to resist the raids of Charles of Gelderland, aided by the French king, into Utrecht and Holland, was refused. She fortunately possessed in a high degree those qualities of persuasive address and sound judgment, which gave to her a foremost place among the diplomatists and rulers of her time. Such was the confidence that her brilliant abilities inspired that she was deputed both by the Emperor Maximilian and by Ferdinand of Aragon to be their plenipotentiary at the Peace Congress that assembled at Cambray in November, 1508. Chiefly through her exertions the negotiations had a speedy and successful issue, and the famous treaty known as the League of Cambray was signed on December 10. By this treaty many of the disputes concerning the rights and prerogatives of the French crown in the Burgundian Netherlands were amicably settled; and it was arranged that Charles of Egmont should be provisionally recognised as Duke of Gelderland on condition that he should give up the towns in Holland that he had captured and withdraw his troops within his own borders.
The extant correspondence between Maximilian and Margaret, which is of the most confidential character, on matters of high policy, is a proof of the high opinion the emperor entertained of his daughter’s intelligence and capacity. In nothing was his confidence more justified than in the assiduous care and interest that the regent took in the education of the Archduke Charles and his three sisters, who had been placed in her charge. In 1515 Charles, on entering his sixteenth year, was declared by Maximilian to be of age; Margaret accordingly handed over to him the reins of government and withdrew for the time into private life. Her retirement was not, however, to be of long continuance. On January 23, 1516, King Ferdinand of Aragon died, and Charles, who now became King of Castile and of Aragon, was obliged to leave the Netherlands to take possession of his Spanish dominions. Before sailing he reinstated his aunt as governess, and appointed a council to assist her. This post she continued to hold till the day of her death, for Charles was never again able to take up his permanent residence in the Netherlands. During the first years after his accession to the thrones of Ferdinand and Isabel he was much occupied with Spanish affairs; and the death of Maximilian, January 12, 1519, opened out to him a still wider field of ambition and activity. On June 28 Charles was elected emperor, a result which he owed in no small degree to the diplomatic skill and activity of Margaret. Just a year later the emperor visited the Netherlands, where Charles of Gelderland was again giving trouble, and his presence was required both for the purpose of dealing with the affairs of the provinces and also for securing a grant of supply, for he was sorely in need of funds. Margaret had at his request summoned the States-General to meet at Brussels, where Charles personally addressed them, and explained at some length the reasons which led him to ask his loyal and devoted Netherland subjects for their aid on his election to the imperial dignity. The States-General on this, as on other occasions, showed no niggardliness in responding to the request of a sovereign who, though almost always absent, appealed to their patriotism as a born Netherlander, who had been brought up in their midst and spoke their tongue. Charles was crowned at Aachen, October 23, 1520, and some three months later presided at the famous diet of Worms, where he met Martin Luther face to face. Before starting on his momentous journey he again appointed Margaret regent, and gave to her Council, which he nominated, large powers; the Council of Mechlin, the Court of Holland and other provincial tribunals being subjected to its superior authority and jurisdiction. By this action the privileges of the provinces were infringed, but Charles was resolute in carrying out the centralising policy of his ancestors, the Dukes of Burgundy, and he had the power to enforce his will in spite of the protests that were raised. And so under the wise and conciliatory but firm administration of Margaret during a decade of almost continuous religious and international strife–a decade marked by such great events as the rapid growth of the Reformation in Germany, the defeat and capture of Francis I at Pavia, the sack of Rome by the troops of Bourbon and the victorious advance of the Turks in Hungary and along the eastern frontier of the empire–the Netherland provinces remained at peace, save for the restless intrigues of Charles of Egmont in Gelderland, and prospered. Their wealth furnished indeed no small portion of the funds which enabled Charles to face successfully so many adversaries and to humble the power of France. The last important act of Margaret, like her first, was connected with the town of Cambray. In this town, as the representative and plenipotentiary of her nephew the emperor, she met, July, 1529, Louise of Savoy, who had been granted similar powers by her son Francis I, to negotiate a treaty of peace. The two princesses proved worthy of the trust that had been placed in them, and a general treaty of peace, often spoken of as “the Ladies’ Peace,” was speedily drawn up and ratified. The conditions were highly advantageous to the interests of Spain and the Netherlands. On November 30 of the following year Margaret died, as the result of a slight accident to her foot which the medical science of the day did not know how to treat properly, in the 50th year of her age and the 24th of her regency.
Charles, who had a few months previously reached the zenith of his power by being crowned with the iron crown of Lombardy and with the imperial crown at the hands of Pope Clement VII at Bologna (February 22 and 24, 1530), appointed as governess in Margaret’s place his sister Mary, the widowed queen of Louis, King of Hungary, who had been slain by the Turks at the battle of Mohacs, August 29, 1526.
Mary, who had passed her early life in the Netherlands under the care of her aunt Margaret, proved herself in every way her worthy successor. She possessed, like Margaret, a strong character, statesmanlike qualities and singular capacity in the administration of affairs. She filled the difficult post of regent for the whole period of twenty-four years between the death of Margaret and the abdication of Charles V in 1555. It was fortunate indeed for that great sovereign that these two eminent women of his house should, each in turn for one half of his long reign, have so admirably conducted the government of this important portion of his dominions, as to leave him free for the carrying out of his far-reaching political projects and constant military campaigns in other lands. Two years after Mary entered upon her regency Charles appointed three advisory and administrative bodies–the Council of State, the Council of Finance and the Privy Council–to assist her in the government. The Council of State dealt with questions of external and internal policy and with the appointment of officials; the Council of Finance with the care of the revenue and private domains of the sovereign; to the Privy Council were entrusted the publication of edicts and “placards,” and the care of justice and police.
When Charles succeeded Philip the Fair only a portion of the Netherlands was subject to his sway. With steady persistence he set himself to the task of bringing all the seventeen provinces under one sovereign. In 1515 George of Saxe-Meissen sold to him his rights over Friesland. Henry of Bavaria, who in opposition to his wishes had been elected Bishop of Utrecht, was compelled (1528) to cede to him the temporalities of the see, retaining the spiritual office only. Charles thus added the Upper and Lower Sticht–Utrecht and Overyssel–to his dominions. He made himself (1536) master of Groningen and Drente after a long and obstinate struggle with Charles of Gelderland, and seven years later he forced Charles’ successor, William of Jülich and Cleves, to renounce in his favour his claims to Gelderland and Zutphen. During the reign of Charles V the States-General were summoned many times, chiefly for the purpose of voting subsidies, but it was only on special and solemn occasions, that the representatives of all the seventeen provinces were present, as for instance when Philip received their homage in 1549 and when Charles V announced his abdication in 1555. The names of the seventeen provinces summoned on these occasions were Brabant, Limburg, Luxemburg, Gelderland, Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, Artois, Hainault, Namur, Lille with Douay and Orchies, Tournay and district, Mechlin, Friesland, Utrecht, Overyssel with Drente and Groningen. The bishopric of Liège, though nominally independent, was under the strict control of the government at Brussels. The relations of Charles’ Burgundian domains to the empire were a matter of no small moment, and he was able to regulate them in a manner satisfactory to himself. Several times during his reign tentative attempts were made to define those relations, which were of a very loose kind. The fact that the head of the house of Habsburg was himself emperor had not made him any less determined than the Burgundian sovereigns, his ancestors, to assert for his Netherland territories a virtual independence of imperial control or obligation. The various states of which the Netherlands were composed were as much opposed as the central government at Brussels to any recognition of the claims of the empire; and both Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary ventured to refuse to send representatives to the imperial diets, even when requested to do so by the emperor. At last in 1548, when all the Netherland provinces had been brought under the direct dominion or control of one sovereign prince, a convention was drawn up at the diet of Augsburg, chiefly by the exertions of the Regent Mary and her tried councillors Viglius and Granvelle, by which the unity of the Netherland territories was recognised and they were freed from imperial jurisdiction. Nominally, they formed a circle of the empire,–the Burgundian circle–and representatives of the circle were supposed to appear at the diets and to bear a certain share of imperial taxation in return for the right to the protection of the empire against attacks by France. As a matter of fact, no representatives were ever sent and no subsidy was paid, nor was the protection of the empire ever sought or given.
This convention, which in reality severed the shadowy links which had hitherto bound the Netherlands to the empire, received the sanction of the States-General in October, 1548; and it was followed by the issuing, with the consent of the Estates of the various provinces, of a “Pragmatic Sanction” by which the inherited right of succession to the sovereignty in each and every province was settled upon the male and female line of Charles’ descendants, notwithstanding the existence of ancient provincial privileges to the contrary. In 1549 the emperor’s only son Philip was acknowledged by all the Estates as their future sovereign, and made a journey through the land to receive homage.
The doctrines of the Reformation had early obtained a footing in various parts of the Netherlands. At first it was the teaching of Luther and of Zwingli which gained adherents. Somewhat later the Anabaptist movement made great headway in Holland and Friesland, especially in Amsterdam. The chief leaders of the Anabaptists were natives of Holland, including the famous or infamous John of Leyden, who with some thousands of these fanatical sectaries perished at Münster in 1535. Between 1537 and 1543 a more moderate form of Anabaptist teaching made rapid progress through the preaching of a certain Menno Simonszoon. The followers of this man were called Mennonites. Meanwhile Lutheranism and Zwinglianism were in many parts of the country being supplanted by the sterner doctrines of Calvin. All these movements were viewed by the emperor with growing anxiety and detestation. Whatever compromises with the Reformation he might be compelled to make in Germany, he was determined to extirpate heresy from his hereditary dominions. He issued a strong placard soon after the diet of Worms in 1521 condemning Luther and his opinions and forbidding the printing or sale of any of the reformer’s writings; and between that date and 1555 a dozen other edicts and placards were issued of increasing stringency. The most severe was the so-called “blood-placard” of 1550. This enacted the sentence of death against all convicted of heresy–the men to be executed with the sword and the women buried alive; in cases of obstinacy both men and women were to be burnt. Terribly harsh as were these edicts, it is doubtful whether the number of those who Suffered the extreme penalty has not been greatly exaggerated by partisan writers. Of the thousands who perished, by far the greater part were Anabaptists; and these met their fate rather as enemies of the state and of society, than as heretics. They were political as well as religious anarchists.
In the time of Charles the trade and industries of the Netherlands were in a highly prosperous state. The Burgundian provinces under the wise administrations of Margaret and Mary, and protected by the strong arm of the emperor from foreign attack, were at this period by far the richest state in Europe and the financial mainstay of the Habsburg power. Bruges, however, had now ceased to be the central market and exchange of Europe, owing to the silting up of the river Zwijn. It was no longer a port, and its place had been taken by Antwerp. At the close of the reign of Charles, Antwerp, with its magnificent harbour on the Scheldt, had become the “counting-house” of the nations, the greatest port and the wealthiest and most luxurious city in the world. Agents of the principal bankers and merchants of every country had their offices within its walls. It has been estimated that, inclusive of the many foreigners who made the town their temporary abode, the population of Antwerp in 1560 was about 150,000. Five hundred vessels sailed in and out of her harbour daily, and five times that number were to be seen thronging her wharves at the same time.
To the north of the Scheldt the condition of things was not less satisfactory than in the south, particularly in Holland. The commercial prosperity of Holland was in most respects different in kind from that of Flanders and Brabant, and during the period with which we are dealing had been making rapid advances, but on independent lines. A manufactory of the coarser kinds of cloth, established at Leyden, had indeed for a time met with a considerable measure of success, but had fallen into decline in the time of Mary of Hungary. The nature of his country led the Hollander to be either a sailor or a dairy-farmer, not an artisan or operative. Akin though he was in race to the Fleming and the Brabanter, his instincts led him by the force of circumstances to turn his energies in other directions. Subsequent history has but emphasised the fact–which from the fourteenth century onwards is clearly evident–that the people who inhabited the low-lying sea-girt lands of dyke, canal and polder in Holland and Zeeland were distinct in character and temper from the citizens of Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, Brussels or Mechlin, who were essentially landsmen and artisans. Ever since the discovery of the art of curing herrings (ascribed to William Beukelsz), the herring fishery had acquired a great importance to the Hollanders and Zeelanders, and formed the chief livelihood of a large part of the entire population of those provinces; and many thousands, who did not themselves sail in the fishing fleets, found employment in the ship and boat-building wharves and in the making of sails, cordage, nets and other tackle. It was in this hazardous occupation that the hardy race of skilled and seasoned seamen, who were destined to play so decisive a part in the coming wars of independence, had their early training. The herring harvest, through the careful and scientific methods that were employed in curing the fish and packing them in barrels, became a durable and much sought for article of commerce. A small portion of the catch served as a supply of food for home consumption, the great bulk in its thousands of barrels was a marketable commodity, and the distribution of the cured herring to distant ports became a lucrative business. It had two important consequences, the formation of a Dutch Mercantile Marine, and the growth of Amsterdam, which from small beginnings had in the middle of the sixteenth century become a town with 40,000 inhabitants and a port second only in importance in the Netherlands to Antwerp. From its harbour at the confluence of the estuary of the Y with the Zuyder Zee ships owned and manned by Hollanders sailed along the coasts of France and Spain to bring home the salt for curing purposes and with it wines and other southern products, while year by year a still larger and increasing number entered the Baltic. In those eastern waters they competed with the German Hanseatic cities, with whom they had many acrimonious disputes, and with such success that the Hollanders gradually monopolised the traffic in grain, hemp and other “Eastland" commodities and became practically the freight-carriers of the Baltic. And be it remembered that they were able to achieve this because many of the North-Netherland towns were themselves members of the Hanse League, and possessed therefore the same rights and privileges commercially as their rivals, Hamburg, Lübeck or Danzig. The great industrial cities of Flanders and Brabant, on the other hand, not being members of the League nor having any mercantile marine of their own, were content to transact business with the foreign agents of the Hanse towns, who had their counting-houses at Antwerp. It will thus be seen that in the middle of the sixteenth century the trade of the northern provinces, though as yet not to be compared in volume to that of the Flemings and Walloons, had before it an opening field for enterprise and energy rich in possibilities and promise for the future.
Such was the state of affairs political, religious and economical when in the year 1555 the Emperor Charles V, prematurely aged by the heavy burden of forty years of world-wide sovereignty, worn out by constant campaigns and weary of the cares of state, announced his intention of abdicating and retiring into a monastery. On October 25, 1555, the act of abdication was solemnly and with impressive ceremonial carried out in the presence of the representatives of the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands specially summoned to meet their sovereign for the last time in the Great Hall of the Palace at Brussels. Charles took an affecting farewell of his Netherland subjects and concluded by asking them to exhibit the same regard and loyalty to his son Philip as they had always displayed to himself. Much feeling was shown, for Charles, despite the many and varied calls and duties which had prevented him from residing for any length of time in the Netherlands, had always been at pains to manifest a special interest in the country of his birth. The Netherlands were to him throughout life his homeland and its people looked upon him as a fellow-countryman, and not even the constant demands that Charles had made for financial aid nor the stern edicts against heresy had estranged them from him. The abdication was the more regretted because at the same time Mary of Hungary laid down her office as regent, the arduous duties of which she had so long and so ably discharged. On the following day, October 26, the Knights of the Golden Fleece, the members of the Councils and the deputies of the provinces took the oath of allegiance to Philip, the emperor’s only son and heir; and Philip on his side solemnly undertook to maintain unimpaired the ancient rights and privileges of the several provinces.