Evaluate the reasons for Phillip II’s unpopularity in The Netherlands

While it is fair to say that Phillip II survived early areas of tensions in his relationship as ruler of the Netherlands, it was only later in his reign that major unpopularity began to surface for the King, in light of social developments in the form of rebellion and the Dutch Revolt. There are a number of different reasons for this increasing unpopularity, including issues of economics, constitutional politics, leadership aspects and religion. While all contribute in some form to the unpopular perception of Phillip from some areas of society in the Netherlands, the most important reason is within the religious issues of the time. After all, Phillip II was not wholly unpopular in loyal Southern provinces of the Netherlands. Unpopularity is, in many ways, a subjective feeling and we must remember that Phillip had large proportions of loyal subjects as he did vast amounts of malcontented subjects. It is a generalisation, but religion seems to be the major dividing line between those who respected the King’s decision-making, rule and authority, and those who added to a perceived notion of unpopularity on the part of Phillip, due to his various policies. The divide comes, therefore, generally between Catholic and Protestant subjects respectively. Either way, the fact that Phillip was unpopular with a significant number cannot be debated, and as such we must attempt to evaluate which particular reasons, above all the other contributors, caused this feeling.

Phillip’s economic policy certainly angered many in the Netherlands. The Spanish empire was affluent and vast, on which ‘the sun never set’. However, Europe was a divided and conflicted continent during this period. England was facing turbulent religious and succession problems, France was locked in civil war between Catholic and Protestant factions, and the Ottoman Empire threatened Spanish interests in the Mediterranean. On top of this, on a broadly international scale, Spanish fleets faced raids from English and Ottoman parties in the Atlantic and Pacific and Phillip II faced a struggle to maintain power over Indonesian settlements. Running such a vast base of power, therefore, was expensive and complex. Apart from, at this time, seeing the Netherlands as a mere acquisition and further base of power, Phillip felt that he could use his foreign territories to pay for maintaining them in Spanish arms. Phillip was fighting a number of wars, most prominently in the Med against the Turks. Wars, by their very nature, cost money and even the resources of Castile were not perfect. Phillip sought, therefore, to increase taxes in the Netherlands so as to provide more money for troops in the Med, and to maintain sufficiency in the Netherlands itself. It was a policy of engineering the people of the 17 Provinces of the Netherlands to pay for themselves.

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Under the control of Phillip’s leader in the Netherlands, the Duke of Alva, Spain levied the ’10th Penny Tax’. The tax saw a 10% tax on sales and transactions. Alva assumed the tax was a permanent measure, and not to be up for negotiation or renewal every few years. This needed the support of the States-General however, and this forum was unlikely to vote in a tax on a permanent measure, due mainly to the perceived special right of the States-General to control taxation policy as representatives of the interests, not only of the peoples of the various 17 Provinces, but also of the traditions and privileges that each Province had created over many centuries. Furthermore, the States-General saw the tax as potentially ruining trade. They also felt that the permanency of the tax would undermine their right to control fiscal policy. Therefore, the States-General voted it in as a temporary measure only for two years. In 1569, after the 24 months were completed, the States voted not to renew its tenure as a legitimate tax. This was a problem for both Alva and Phillip. Alva needed it enforced to maintain his influence over Phillip, and Phillip needed it in place for purely financial reasons. Alva decided to enforce the tax through military means, placing his troops around important commercial areas like Brussels and Antwerp and demanding the money handed over. This was an arbitrary act, undermining the States-General. Businesses shut their doors in response, causing an economic breakdown and vacuum.

The majority of the public blamed Alva solely for the problem, and not the King. Orangist propaganda suggested that King Phillip had been ill-advised and distanced blaming the King himself from the troubles. However, many nobles – whose privileges had been breached – understood that real policy power lay with the King in Madrid and they he alone should be held responsible for what happened. Whether people took their anger out on Alva or not, associations with the negative outcome and the rule of Spain were naturally made and, as King of Spain, Phillip was a figurehead who could not be disassociated from the policy. In many ways then, we can this fiscal policy was a reason for general unpopularity. However, we should not confuse it as the main reason for unpopularity, and more general displeasure. Firstly, more blamed acting regents than the King for unpopular economic policy – at least until Orangist propaganda grew tired of isolating the King from negative aspects. Furthermore, economic views are always widely debated. The 10th Penny was in fact supported by many Southern nobles and few people throughout history have greeted increased taxes with cheers. In this way, annoyance at the policy was nothing new within the boundaries of early-modern European society. Alone, this would dismiss the issue as genuine creator of distinct unpopular feelings towards the King. However, it is enhanced as a reason due Alva’s force undermining the power of the States-General. This was a sensitive issue as nobles had reputations to uphold, and certain rights and obligations that had been formed over time and had become a nuance and part of the society’s functioning politic and idiosyncrasies. The issue moved from purely economic, to constitutional, and thus more worrying.

We can also claim, nevertheless, that Phillips’ general politics approaches caused problems, and not just his economic views. Phillip only ever placed confidence in small select groups that he could manipulate to be his followers. This was harder in the case of the Netherlands due to nobles’ land and status being developed over time. Phillip found it impossible to control influential grandees by patronage, and so attempted not to involve them in government, as seen by the work of Alva in ignoring the States-General’s decision on only a two-year stretch of 10th Penny Taxation. This was an increasingly important issue for Kings of Spain to grasp due to the continually evolving nature of politics in the Low Countries. Any who didn’t attempt to understand the constitutional complexities was in danger of misunderstanding how to rule effectively and efficiently, opening oneself up to risk of alienation. Phillip tried to make the States-General do as he pleased. He felt it was the forum’s obligation to bow to the King of Spain’s will, and this was a mistake that he made on a number of issues, from fiscal policy to religion. This was a shock to the States as they had been used to the relatively turbulent-free reign of Charles V’s politics of compromise.

An example of Phillip’s ideology can be seen in 1557 when powerful Town Nobles in Brussels attempted to impede a subsidy bill enforced by the States-General and influenced by Phillip. Phillip threatened to suspend the Brussels’ nobles’ privileges, even though this was trigger violent political responses in light of the nobility’s belief in the legitimacy of their privileges and need for them to be recognised in order for efficient government to exist. Phillip’s measure was, in the end, not put into effect, but is caused the States-General and now Nobles, or at least Northern ones, to question the King’s trustworthiness further still. Thus, in the future when Phillip allowed his acting regents to use force to back up a decision in Madrid, many saw it as mere affirmation of a prior political and communicative breakdown between the important groups of King, States-General and Nobility. These are reasons for unpopularity on a political front.

However, the original tensions didn’t break-up the relationship at all and it is misconception to suggest that relationships between Phillip and the Netherlands were strained and irreconcilable immediately. Nonetheless, undermining privileges borne out of years of socio-political development was not a shrewd tactical move. It created a distrust of Phillip that propaganda, in the long-term, would eventually accentuate. However, if we relate the problem to that of religion – which I consider to be the most important reason for unpopularity – we see less substantiation in this current point. After all, political blemishes between decision-makers were nothing new. Previous monarchs had found difficulties in the territories they ruled, just as some Kings and Queens faced difficulties in their own territories, and we need look no further than the actions of King Charles I of England for proof of this fact. We must also remember that Phillip’s policies and actions affected only part of the population. While this doesn’t excuse them as such, recognition that some supported the King reverently is important. Furthermore, some of the issues that the King and power-holders in the Netherlands argued over only affecting some areas of the population, whereas the issue of religion – the central and fundamental ideology of the people – affected everybody.

Another reason, and an important precipitator for the other contributions, for Phillip’s increased unpopularity is to do with anti-Spanish propaganda, the main creator of which was William of Orange. William of Orange represented Phillip’s main political rival. William’s aims of a united 17 Provinces with religious toleration and a form of pluralistic democracy differed radically to Phillip’s desire for a united 17 Provinces ruled by Spain and subjected to the Spanish Catholic rules and credos as any other Spanish-held territory. Indeed, William of Orange latched on to the feeling of anger at the work of regents in the Netherlands like Grenvelle, Alva and Parma – all who used force to back up decisions and supported a militant form of Inquisition that aimed to halt the work of radical Calvinists after the Iconoclastic Fury of 1566. William of Orange didn’t singe-handedly sustain the Dutch Revolt – he died in 1584 – but his work and his ‘politique’ nature, coupled with his practical idealism, helped seriously undermine the Spanish cause. Orange’s style of leadership, gaining foreign support from sympathetic anti-Spanish nations and groups like the French Huguenots, the English and the Ottomans, issuing damning propaganda, placing rival foreign regents that seemed to serve all the demographic into opposition positions in the Netherlands, and leading invasions and attempted coups against the Spanish forces that many involved in the revolt saw as the embodiment of a so-called Spanish ‘tyranny’.

William’s use of propaganda changed from placing the blame on regents, to singling out Phillip as solely responsible for the region’s troubles, mainly as a result of Phillip’s continual insistence on force to back up decision. William had many supporters – both Calvinists who were against the attempted Catholicisation of the region, and discontented nobles, land-owners and town officials who were disturbed by the violence, danger and economic, private and military implications of the work of the Spanish. In this way, William’s propaganda and statesmanship became world-famous and widely respected as legitimate and objective throughout the region, especially in the Northern rebelling provinces. As these areas, in particular the provinces of Holland and Zealand, were most caught-up in the revolt and most radical about pursuing it, we must also associate these areas with the most hardcore feelings against Phillip, increasing his unpopularity.

Nevertheless, propaganda or general statesmanship directed against or for cause (Orangists would call it freedom-fighting) can never work effectively if there is no basis to the argument. William’s propaganda against Spanish troops in the Netherlands would not have been effective if no troops had been present or they had posed little threat. In the event, they were present and were equally despised by Northern and Southern Provinces alike. This point was well made by William and served as one of the major reasons for the ultimately flawed Union Of Utrecht that saw William’s dreams of a united 17 Provinces a distinct reality for the first time, with all the areas united against the positioning of Spanish troops. However, while the leadership of William of Orange appears to be the sole biggest reason for Phillips’ unpopularity, William would never have achieved any dominance or power himself if it wasn’t for the behaviour of individuals opposed to the Spanish religious policy that sought to eradicate any forms of Calvinism, and any questions of toleration. This, ultimately, was the trigger and catalyst for the first few phases of the Revolt. Any power statesman like William gained as a leader of the revolt must be beholden to the causes of the revolt that turned the issues into mainstream soundbites and talking-points, and not just personal convictions. Historical religious developments at the time were unavoidable and the geography of the Netherlands meant the area was naturally susceptible to new ‘reformed’ ways of thinking.

There was a natural and unavoidable tension caused as a result of Phillips’ unmoving stringent Catholicism and the exclamations of a new and radical movement that sought to undermine everything the King and his society believed in. This doesn’t necessarily justify his response, but it does help explain why Phillip was so against Calvinism just as Ferdinand and Isabella were against religious tolerancy in their reigns. To control the people, you had to control religion, and if religion became a contentious issue, with new ideas and changing opinions, a Crown’s stranglehold over social ideologies would be admonished and if that happened – the seeds of revolution could be sowed. Charles V had been relatively flexible and that limited the Calvinist ‘voice’. Phillip was different. He tried to stifle a movement that, by its very nature, is all about questioning, criticising and probing. He thus gave the Calvinists room to rebel and attempt to indoctrinate – a major reason for the Iconoclasm. Continuation of force on the part of Phillip to halt these religious issues eventually led to discontent directly with Phillip, and not acting regents and, while Southern Catholic Nobles were against a Calvinist take-over, nobody wanted Spanish troops present, even if these troops were meant to be upholding Catholic rule. Religious oppression sparked discontent, which in turn triggered force in a bid to check the discontent. Yet, the use of force gave protestors grounds for further rebellion, plunging the region into civil disorder and war.

When we look to reasons for Phillip II’s unpopularity, recognition that he was not unpopular with everyone in the 17 Provinces – many of which remained loyal to Spain – is important. The question should really be about why Phillip was unpopular with those that supported this viewpoint. In this case, nevertheless, we must be clear about the reasons. Phillip’s political mismanagement, seen in economic policies, constitutional mocking, and a lack of understanding of the basic complexities of the society, including privileges, rights and powers of the States-General, was a key reason for the unpopularity. Yet, the personal feelings of the people were not articulated publicly until a major faction rose up against Phillip – providing a division between two groups that people could choose between. Therefore, the leadership of William of Orange contributed to the unpopularity of Phillip, if only because it publicised people’s anti-Spanish feeling through foreign deals, military invasions and propaganda. As a result of the Dutch Revolt being triggered due to the issues of religion, and the various reasons for unpopularity that the Revolt itself proported, we must clearly define religion as the fundamental reason for the unpopularity of King Phillip II.