William the Silent, Prince of Orange, grew up in the Netherlands after their Duke, Charles, had become Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain; William was on the side of the disunited Dutch provinces when they began their rebellion against Charles' son Philip II of Spain and became leader of the Netherlands' revolt.
Of course the book has faults. Biographers are often in love with their subjects and, while Wedgwood recognises flaws within the personality and policies of hers, she clearly adores him. "There have been politicians more successful, or more subtle; there have been none more tenacious or more tolerant" she concludes. And she dislikes or despises all those against whom William battled. The Dutch are dim-witted Bruegel peasants. The Spanish are almost all bigots, fanatics and evil persecutors. The French are a little shifty. Like so many writers of the thirties and forties, Wedgwood appears to believe that character is written in a face: both Philip of Spain and William have a "determined" chin although Philip is also damned with a "bulbous forehead and the anxious blue eyes, the turned-up nose and the loose, thick mouth." Williams bastard son Justin is "rather bovine". Usually she is not explicit in her assumptions that physical or racial features define characters; occasionally she is, to modern ears, outrageous: Don John, the illegitimate son of Charles V, feted across Europe as the victor of Lepanto, "had failed, all his life, through a certain egocentricity, an uncertainty of himself masked in arrogance, the common failing of the bastard" (my italics). Thus she damns all those born out of wedlock! This is in a book dedicated to a man who fought for (religious) tolerance.
But you have to read old books as a product of their time. What if her story presents a very one-sided view of the birth of Holland and Belgium? What if the pace of the narrative allows almost no time for analysis in any depth? She can certainly tell a great story. And I love her device of summarising where we are with a few words at the top of each right hand page: "A proud people"; "The sea beggars"; "Antwerp dissatisfied". These helped me keep up with the yarn.
And I learnt lots of little things:
- Antwerp once "controlled exclusively the money market of the world."
- The Knights of the Golden Fleece were Dutch nobles who were allowed, in chapter, to criticise their sovereign
- William once tried to romance Mary Queen of Scots
- Peter Paul Rubens the painter would never have been born if William the Silent had not pardoned his father John from the expected death sentence after Mrs Rubens had not begged for forgiveness for her husband after John had committed adultery with William's wife
- William founded the University of Leyden
- William's third wife, Charlotte de Bourbon, was an ex-nun
- William's fourth wife's father and husband were both murdered at the same time during the St Bartholomew's Day massacre
- William was the first head of state to be assassinated by a handgun (and he had been shot a couple of years earlier so he could have been even more the first)
Flawed but great fun. May 2013; 257 pages