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How the Battle of Heiligerlee became a legend

The Battle of Heiligerlee, on 23 May 450 years ago, is famous as an epic battle in Dutch history. But was it really so momentous? Professor of Early Modern History Judith Pollmann unravels the myths about ‘Heiligerlee’ and the Eighty Years' War.

The Battle of Heiligerlee is regarded as the start of the  Eighty Years' War of the Dutch against the Spanish. Was it really such an important battle? 

‘It wasn't the first battle, but it was the first victory. In fact it was a stroke of luck that Louis of Nassau, the brother of William of Orange, won the battle because the commander of the king's troops failed to wait for reinforcements on 23 May 1568. He made an error of judgement that led his troops into a trap at Heiligerlee in Groningen. But it did not have any decisive consequences. After the victory at Heiligerlee, William of Orange proved not to have any support in the cities and subsequent military attempts all ended in miserable failures.’

Adolf of Nassau lost his life at Heiligerlee. Ferdinand Ernst Lintz (1863). Museum Slag bij Heiligerlee

So when did the Eighty Year's War begin? 

‘In 1566 a movement toward rebellion started. Hundreds of Dutch nobles pleaded with the country's governor Margaretha van Parma to stop the fatal persecution of heretics (non-Catholics). She did indeed call a temporary halt. After this, many of the Calvinists who had previously fled returned and resumed preaching their beliefs. This opposition resulted in August 1556 in the Iconoclasm, with  Calvinists breaking images in Catholic churches all over the region. The ruler, King Philip II, who was also king of Spain, despatched the Duke of Alba to subdue the uprising with the necessary use of force. William of Orange tried to gain support for his struggle against Alba by creating an image where the Dutch fatherland had to be defended against the foreign enemy.' 

Iconoclasm in a Church. Dirck van Delen (1630). Rijksmuseum

How did he spread this idea?

‘Via open letters, pamphlets and songs, such as the Wilhelmus. He told foreign royalty that it was a fight for the Protestant religion. But he knew that this message would not work in the Netherlands because most Dutch people were Catholic. Instead, he told them: what you are facing is the tyranny of a bad adviser to the king. As a patriot, you have to defend yourself against this Spanish tyranny. The Duke of Alba presented the conflict as a policing mission against defiant rebels. From the outset, there were different ways of interpreting the conflict; in reality, it was primarily a civil war.' 

Wat does your own research cover?

‘Until 2013 I led a large research project on the memories of the Eighty Years' War in the 17th century, examining how war memories helped  shape Dutch identity. Initially, the memorial culture was mainly local, but between 1600 and 1620 a more "national" canon evolved, a narrative where Spanish tyranny was placed in direct contention with the House of Orange. This was the work of the opposition. In the early 17th century, there was talk of peace. However, those who were against the idea of peace kept alive the memories of the very worst period - the persecutions by the Duke of Alba - in order to be able to achieve their aim of pursuing the war. They spread their version of the situation via popular books, pamphlets and plays in which the emphasis was on the struggle against the Spanish barbarians. This story was picked up by the political elite in the local communities and from there it became incorporated in the arts. In the 19th century when the Netherlands became a monarchy, this nationalist interpretation was given an extra impetus. But the nationalist sentiment is a product of the war and not vice versa.'

 Which aspects warrant more attention?

‘There was a stage when historians said that there was in fact no Eighty Years' War; there was a revolt, after which the nature of the war changed. It is true that all kinds of new war aims arose, but 17th century contemporaries continued to look at it as if it were a conflict that started in the 16th century. That's going to be our message this autumn; I am working as adviser on a major exhibition on the Eighty Years' War in the Rijksmuseum and I'm also advising the Dutch broadcaster NTR on a TV series on the subject.’

Why is there so much interest in this episode?

‘In the discussion on what it means to be Dutch, people tend to revert to what connects Dutch people. The Eighty Years' War was a very special period in our history because with hindsight you can say that the Netherlands came about because William of Orange continued the revolt. But we shouldn't ignore the fact that the war was also an terrible civil conflict. Dutch cooperation was by no means automatic and it had to be enforced bit by bit.' 

The Revolt and Leiden University

Without the Revolt, Leiden University would never have been founded, because the main reason for establishing a university in the Netherlands was to train Protestant ministers. Pollmann: ‘The fact that Leiden had just undergone a terrible seige will have played a role in the choice of city. But the story that Leideners were able to choose between lower taxes  and a university is most likely not true, rather like the myth that the people of Leiden were so united. This is how the Academy Building came into being, in a confiscated convent after the women had been driven out.'

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