Death from the shadows: the murder of William the Silent

Lisa Jardine's latest book tells how a 16th-century Dutch Prince was the first head of state to be killed by a hand-gun, and explains the lasting importance of that crime. Here she shows how William the Silent's murder sent shockwaves across Elizabethan England

A portrait of William I of Orange. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement

During the 1570s and early 1580s, Prince William the Silent – William of Orange and Nassau – was the acclaimed head of the Protestant cause in the Netherlands, leading the loose alliance of states and factions in the long-running Dutch Revolt against the imposed Catholic rule of Philip II, Habsburg Emperor and Spanish sovereign, and his occupying forces. To the Dutch, William remains today the “father of the nation”, celebrated in the opening lines of their national anthem.

William’s heroic status depended in no small part on Philip II’s attempts to blacken his name, and finally, in 1581, his placing a price on William’s head of 25,000 crowns, plus lands and titles for anyone prepared to assassinate the Dutch leader. William responded with a carefully judged Apology, whose moderate tones and lofty moral sentiments have coloured attitudes to the valiant Prince of Orange ever since. Nonetheless, Philip’s Ban, widely circulated throughout northern Europe in several vernacular languages, placed William in real danger – particularly since the Ban asserted that murdering William would not be regarded as a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

William played a significant role in British history too. In his lifetime, his Protestantism, and his control of the Dutch coastline across the “Narrow Sea” from England, ensured that Elizabeth I was a close and consistent ally – though the parsimonious Queen, not wishing to risk men and resources, refused openly to send an army to support him.

In 1642, at the age of 14, William’s grandson (also William) married Charles I’s twelve-year-old daughter Mary, shortly before Charles declared war on his people and triggered civil war. Throughout the Commonwealth years, their court in The Hague provided a refuge for English royalists. Their son William, in his turn, married James II’s daughter (another Mary) – his first cousin – consolidating the Anglo-Dutch dynasty and cementing a strong claim on the English throne. In November 1688, William III invaded England at the start of the so-called Glorious Revolution, provoking the abdication of the Catholic James II, and in 1689 William and Mary were crowned joint monarchs of England at Westminster Abbey.

Mortally wounded

If William the Silent’s lifetime exploits were to have a considerable impact on 16th and 17th century England, so was the manner of his death. On 10 July 1584, as the Prince crossed the hallway of his Delft residence, the Prinsenhof, a figure emerged from the shadows under the stairs. Pointing a wheel-lock pistol at William’s chest, the intruder fired three times at point-blank range. William collapsed,crying “I am badly wounded. God have pity on me and on my poor people”. He was carried to a couch in the dining-room, where he died a few minutes later in the arms of his wife and his sister. The assassin, a fervent French Catholic named Balthasar Gérard, escaped, but was swiftly apprehended, tortured unspeakably and executed. His family, however, were duly rewarded with lands and titles by the King of Spain.

This was in fact the second attempt on Prince William’s life by a pistol-wielding bounty-hunter eager to claim King Philip’s well-publicised financial and titular rewards.

On 18 March 1582, another Catholic sympathiser, Jean Jaureguy, had tried to kill William of Orange in Antwerp. Under the pretext of presenting William with a petition as he was leaving the dinner table, Jauregay pulled out a pistol and fired it so close to the Prince’s head that his hair and beard were set on fire (it may be that the gun had been overloaded with powder, and exploded on firing). The ball passed under the right ear, through the palate and out by the left jaw. Amazingly, William survived – the terrible wound had fortunately been cauterized by the heat of his burning hair. On 2 May, a solemn service of thanksgiving for his recovery was held at Antwerp.

Personal courage and charisma

The brutal murder of Prince William the Silent two years after the first bungled assassination attempt represented a serious setback for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands. For 15 years, William had led the Dutch Protestants in revolt against successive incursions and attempts at subduing the Netherlands by the forces of Philip II. William’s personal courage and charisma, the expenditure of his enormous personal wealth on funding military opposition to the Spanish, and his skilful negotiation with the rulers of neighbouring territories, were vital to the Dutch cause. Ultimately his efforts laid the firm foundations for the Dutch Republic.

Yet it was the way in which William was killed, as much as the fact that he had died, that was to send shockwaves throughout Europe. The hand-gun carried by stealth into the victim’s private quarters came to stand for the disturbing way in which totalitarian rulers could insinuate their power into the deepest recesses of their subjects’ lives.

Monarchs in fear

The crowned heads of Europe – perpetually fearful of attempts on their life – reeled at the idea that their security was now threatened by a lethal weapon of hitherto unimaginable effectiveness, which could both kill from a distance and be easily smuggled by the murderer into the presence of the unsuspecting victim. The pocket pistol became an emblem of the impossibility of keeping the sovereign secure.

Queen Elizabeth I’s ministers were obsessed with the idea that a copy-cat attack was likely to be carried out on the Queen herself. A week after William’s assassination, Sir Edward Stafford wrote to Elizabeth’s spy-master Sir Francis Walsingham from Paris, urgently informing him that “the same practice that hath been executed on the Prince of Orange” was likely to be used against the Queen:

“There is no doubt that she is a chief mark they shoot at, and seeing there were men cunning enough to enchant a man, and to encourage one to kill the Prince of Orange in the midst of Holland, and a knave found desperate enough to do it, we must think that hereafter anything may be done. God preserve her Majesty.”

Ministers weren’t the only ones feeling distinctly nervous. The manner of William’s death threw Queen Elizabeth herself into something close to panic. The new wheel-lock pistols (or “Dags”), which could be primed, carried concealed, and fired immediately without access to flint or fire, were to her the stuff of nightmares. In the aftermath of William’s death, legislation was enacted in the English Parliament making it an offence to bring a pistol near a Royal Palace. A proclamation of 1588 announced it:

“A disorder in carrying and shooting with Handguns and Calivers [another early form of firearm] within two miles of her Majesty’s residence”.

As the Spanish threatened to strengthen their hold on the Dutch coastline across the North Sea, the atmosphere of hysterical mistrust and anxiety that surrounded Elizabeth’s person intensified. A litany of supposed plots against the Queen’s life were uncovered in the years following William’s death – many, it was claimed, involved audacious attempts to kill Elizabeth with a pistol.

To this day, British gun laws continue to incorporate the stringent restrictions on the carrying of fire-arms introduced as a consequence of the shocking murder of Prince William of Orange. Meanwhile, sudden death by pistol-shot still captures and holds the public imagination: Abraham Lincoln shot in full public view in a box at the theatre; Jack Ruby gunning down John F Kennedy’s supposed killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, inside a Dallas police-station; and, perhaps most famously of all, Beatle John Lennon shot outside his New York apartment by a fan to whom just hours earlier he had given an autograph.


The contractor: King Philip II of Spain

Philip’s imposition of Habsburg rule in the Netherlands and persecution of non-Catholics  made him a figure of fear and hatred for Protestants.

The victim: Prince William the Silent

Called ‘the Silent’ because of his reluctance to take a stance on controversial matters, William became a Dutch hero.

The next quarry? Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, built an extensive spying network, uncovering dozens of plots against her life.


Lisa Jardine, a member of our advisory panel, is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. Her latest book is The Awful End of Prince William the Silent (HarperCollins)

 Lisa Jardine’s The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Hand-Gun and Andrew Roberts’s Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble are the first two titles in the Making History series, eds Lisa Jardine and Amanda Foreman, published by HarperCollins. 

Advertisement

BOOKS: The Dutch Revolt by Geoffrey Parker (Penguin Books, 1977); The Dutch Republic, Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806 by Jonathan I Israel (Clarendon Press, 1955); The Origins and Development of the Dutch Revolt by Graham Darby (ed) (Routledge, 2001); Tudor England by John Guy (Oxford University Press, 1988); Flanders and England: the Influence of the Low Countries on Tudor-Stuart England by John Joseph Murray (Fonds Mercator, 1985); William of Orange and the Revolt of the Netherlands, 1574-84 by KW Swart, trans. by JC Grayson (Ashgate, 2003)