SPAIN, successful in arms, government, and literature, supported by the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs and by Italy and England, was now standing over a France which was beginning a long period of royal minorities and religious wars. Yet the forty years that followed were not successful years for Spain. Philip, who had inherited from Charles V. in 1556, Spain, the Netherlands, the Spanish possessions in the East and West Indies, Mexico and South America, and most of Italy, was a superstitious and sickly dullard, but he had a strong sense of duty and there were very able men around him. Though he tried hard to reconcile religion and politics, the claims of religion drove him to quarrel with the English, to act against his own interests in France, and to provoke in the Netherlands the first and fiercest national revolt of modern times. There were elements of weakness in Spain herself, such as her exclusively military tradition and lack of a solid merchant class.
The Netherlands (our modern Belgium and Holland) were then the richest part of Europe: they consisted of seventeen small states, united only by allegiance to the King of Spain as heir of the Dukes of Burgundy. Calvinism made many converts there, and very great numbers of men and women were burnt or strangled as heretics by the Spanish government. The revolt, which began with riots in Brussels in 1566, was not altogether due to religion. Much was due to excessive taxation, to the misbehaviour of Spanish mercenaries, and the unpopularity of Spanish governors. Many Catholics resented the persecution of their fellow-countrymen by the Spanish Inquisition, and many were led by ambition or restlessness to join the party of discontent. Protestantism was destined to be extinguished in the ten southern provinces, since these provinces were dry, open country, ideal for the operations of Spanish troops, which were handicapped when trying to subdue the seven maritime provinces of the north among their rivers and dykes.
The Dutch revolt was fertile in dramatic incidents, of which the submersion of a wide area to drive the Spaniards off Ley den in 1574 was the most famous. It was distinguished by the career of William of Orange, miscalled the Silent, a national hero who gave his fortune, and finally his life, for the cause which he maintained during twenty years. Spain was served by the infamous butcher Alva, the celebrated Don John of Austria, victor of Lepanto, and the highly competent Duke of Parma. Flanders proved a grave, both for reputations and their holders. By the end of the century, Spain held the ten provinces which now constitute Belgium, but the seven United Provinces of the north were independent. Their energies were now to be given to successful ventures in East Indian, American, and Baltic trade, and to internal quarrels between monarchists and republicans, Calvinists and Arminians, a religious sect, followers of a Dutch divine, Arminius.