What was the Eighty Years’ War? The Dutch War of Independence explained

The Eighty Years’ War is also known as the Dutch War of Independence. It stretched from 1568 to 1648, as the new Dutch Republic struggled to be free of its Spanish masters. These eighty years are a crucial part of Dutch history, so we’re here to explain what went on during this war, and why it took so extraordinarily long to end.

Now, your natural inclination might be to blame this delay on a maybe-slightly true stereotype of Spanish people never being on time. But eighty years is rather a long time, even by Spanish standards, so the story of the Eighty Years’ War is clearly more complex than that. We’re going to start off by explaining how the Spanish came to control the Netherlands- after all, they hardly came here for the weather. Then, we’ll give a blow-by-blow (or at least decade-by-decade) account of the war, and we’ll end with a summary of the consequences of this almost-century of unrest.

How did the Eighty Years’ War begin? The Spanish in the Netherlands.

The Spanish never really invaded the Netherlands: there was no exciting moment of conquest. Through royal marriage, political arrangements, and the sheer lack of nationhood in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, what we now know today as the Netherlands slowly came under the control of the Spanish Empire. That was fine for a while, but discontentment began to surface for a multitude of reasons in the sixteenth century. One reason was religion: in 1555, Philip II took over from his father as sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands. He was not as liberal about religion as his father, and began to actively prosecute Protestants for heresy. Naturally enough, this was not particularly well received by the Dutchies. Noblemen from the Netherlands put together a petition for the prosecutions to stop, but this was denied by Philip.

Following some minor rebellions, Philip instituted the Council of Troubles, which arrested 9000 people and executed 1000. These people included high-ranking members of Dutch society. Others, like William of Orange, fled abroad to avoid prosecution. Further minor rebellions ensued, which were generally easily defeated by Philip’s troops. However, the king soon doomed himself by imposing much higher taxes on the Netherlands to fund an expensive war against the Ottoman Empire. This disenchanted those who had previously been loyal to the Habsburg Empire.

The Eighty Years’ War begins: the Spanish seem set to win

The war truly began on 1 April 1572, when the Sea Beggars captured the port of Brill. Other cities and towns in the Netherlands decided independently, or were persuaded by the rebels, to defect to the Orange side. By July, the only major cities still supporting Philip were Amsterdam and Schoonhoven. This was also the period in which the famous Siege of Leiden took place. Things ran in Philip’s favour for a couple of years, as his troops slowly reclaimed the rebel land. However, by 1576, he had not paid his troops in two years. Quite understandably, several garrisons mutinied and left their posts.

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The relief of Leiden. Image: Otto van Veen/ Wikimedia Commons

Over the next four years, all of the southern Netherlands were recaptured by Philip, and other cities across the country were also brought back under the control of the Habsburg empire. The Dutch Republic’s troops held firm in some parts of the country, but the fact remained that the Spanish well and truly outnumbered them.

The French get involved in the Eighty Years’ War, and don’t really help

In hopes of encouraging the Spanish to back off, as well as enlisting a pretty powerful ally, William of Orange invited the younger brother of the king of France, the Duke of Anjou, to become the constitutional monarch of the Netherlands. He accepted, and had very little influence over the country, experiencing only full support from Brabant (and we all know that doesn’t mean much).

The Dutch Republic seceded officially from the Spanish on 26 July 1581. This didn’t do all that much to change things, except for encouraging a propaganda war in addition to a real war between the two sides. 

eighty years war
The Spanish attacking a Belgian village. Image: Peter Snayer/Wikimedia Commons

1584 was a disaster for the Dutchies, as the Spanish general, Parma, reclaimed all of Belgium and most of the southern Netherlands. It got so bad that Orange actually considered accepting the title of Count of Holland, and being done with the whole thing. Then he was assassinated, which put an end to that train of thought, as well as his life. Losing one of their leaders struck a major blow to the Dutch troops. The States General decided to send an embassy to France, asking the French king Henri if he would want to become King of the Netherlands as well. But things were not going well internally in France at the time, so Henri decided that defying the Spanish king would be less than wise. 

The English get involved in the Eighty Years’ War, and are mostly a nuisance as usual

Next, the Dutch turned to the English queen, Elizabeth I, for help. She agreed to make the burgeoning Dutch Republic a protectorate of England, and sent thousands of troops there under the eye of Sir Robert Dudley, one of her favourite courtiers. Dudley came into frequent conflict with the Dutchies he was supposed to be protecting, but his power was limited in subtle ways. In the early months of 1587, several Dutch ports were bribed into defecting to the Spanish side, which made the Dutchies even less fond of Dudley than before— it seemed that he’d failed them. Later that year, discouraged, Dudley returned home to England. This was the last time that a mixed monarchy was attempted in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam benefits from the Eighty Years’ War

The positive aspect of the loss of the southern provinces was this: the majority of the protestants in this area fled north after they were reclaimed by the Spanish. This meant that Amsterdam became full of commerce, as skilled workers lined its streets. Eventually, Amsterdam took over as the major port of Northern Europe— a role that Antwerp had filled before this.

The Twelve Years’ Truce begins: a break in the Eighty Years’ War

In 1609, the Spanish and the Dutch signed a treaty negotiating a truce. This was a major victory for the Dutchies— not only did they get the Spanish to leave them alone for a while, they also managed to be recognised by their greatest enemy as a legitimate country. As you can imagine, it was quite an embarrassing situation for the Spanish, but the damage that the war was doing to their economy seemingly made it worth the damage to their reputation. The truce was signed for twelve years.

For a while, this all went well. The Dutch and Spanish avoided each other in international situations. But soon, as the truce came to an end in 1619, the government in The Hague decided to get involved in a conflict in Prague, choosing a different successor to the current king than who the Spanish wanted. The theory behind this was that having allies in Prague would put the Netherlands in a stronger position when the truce ended in two years’ time. However, the Dutchies’ chosen king and queen did not succeed in capturing the throne.

Maurice and Petrus mostly accidentally restart the 80 years’ war

Despite all this, the truce could have continued if it wasn’t for a very unfortunate misunderstanding. Maurice of Nassau, a stadholder, lied to Petrus Peckius, a negotiator from Brabant, and gave him the impression that Spain would be willing to continue the truce if the Dutch Republic agreed to acknowledge the sovereignty of Spain over the Netherlands. Peckius then mentioned this proposal to the government in The Hague, who were disgusted with the idea of giving up their hard-won sovereignty.

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Maurice of Nassau. Image: Wikimedia Commons

War did not immediately begin, despite the feelings of insult in The Hague. Maurice continued in his secret negotiations with Spain, without much success, but also without any more catastrophic failures. Additionally, the Spanish king died, and was succeeded by his son Philip IV, who had to get settled on the throne before war could begin. But war was bound to start again for one very good reason: the truce had been financially ruinous for Spain, and financially beneficial for the Dutch Republic.

Time for economic war: the second phase of the Eighty Years’ War begins

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Dutch ships ramming Spanish galleys. Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, Spain did not want to wage a second all-out war on the Dutch Republic. Instead, they attempted to capture a few strategic ports, and leave it like that. This failed- a siege on Bergen-op-Zoom had to be lifted after a few months. So the Spanish switched to economic warfare. We’re not talking about sanctions here, though: we’re talking attacking ships. Dutch ships had to sail in convoys with naval escorts just to trade with other countries. And, as you know, at this point in history, the Dutch were kings of sea trade, from the VOC to the WIC. The VOC was richer than Apple, Google and Facebook combined. So having their main source of income and power disrupted was a major problem. The Spanish were also able to shut off Dutch internal waterway connections to Germany, causing the price of dairy to drop dramatically. But in doing this, the Spanish also made trading harder for themselves as well, so the real beneficiaries of the trade war were those European countries that remained neutral.

The Dutch do well, and then they don’t, and then they do again

Maurice of Nassau died, which brought almost immediate improvements to the situation in the Dutch Republic: among other things, they strengthened and grew their army in preparation for the second act they knew was coming. England also entered the war as their ally. The war took off again with Frederick Henry, the new Prince of Orange, attacking the southern provinces of the Netherlands. He also issued a statement, very much against the wishes of some of his advisors, saying that Catholics in the southern Netherlands would be able to continue practising their religion if they joined the Dutch Republic. This was a very effective move, with many of the southern provinces deciding they really did want to throw off the Spanish yoke of oppression.

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The Siege of Schenckenschans. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Talks ensued with the Spanish in 1632, which did not come to any useful conclusion, and Henry broke them off in 1633. Following victories in their war against Germany, the Spanish made inroads into the southern Netherlands once more. With any hope of peace with the Spanish fading, Henry made the decision to consider an alliance with France. In February 1635, France and the Netherlands signed a treaty to invade the southern Netherlands later that year. What should have been a very effective strategy did not work as planned: the Spanish forces were strong enough to defeat the Dutch attack, after which the French also piped down.

During this attack, the Spanish besieged Schenkenschans, a crucial tactical location for the Dutch Republic. After its capture by the Spanish, the Dutchies besieged it themselves, and eventually took it back from the Spanish- which was an embarrassing defeat for them. But then the pro-peace party in the Dutch Republic gained popularity and decided to cut spending on the army. That wasn’t all bad news for the Dutch Republic, though. The lack of spending on military budgets, combined with increased German demand for foodstuffs, meant there was a bunch of money freed up. Some of it, notoriously, was spent on tulip bulbs (0/10 investment, would not recommend).

The Spanish run out of money: the Eighty Years’ War grinds to a halt

Despite its lack of military spending, the Dutch Republic was generally victorious at the end of the 1630s. The Spanish were left under no illusions that the Dutch navy was the most powerful in the world. And the proxy wars fought by the VOC and WIC against the Spanish had also mostly gone in the Republic’s favour. Gradually, the war ground to a halt, as the Spanish realised they could no longer afford the expense of a constant conflict.

The Peace of Munster and the end of the Eighty Years’ War

In January 1646, negotiations on a peace treaty officially began, as part of the larger Peace of Munster. The treaty was relatively easy to draft, as the text was pretty much copied from the treaty that provided the Twelve Years’ Truce. By June 1648, the peace was official.

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The Peace of Munster. Image: Wikimedia Commons

What did the Eighty Years’ War accomplish? Well…

Uh, well, not a whole lot, really. Of course, most importantly, the Dutch Republic was a sovereign state that gained in power and influence for the next centuries. Borders resembling the modern-day ones between the Netherlands and Belgium were drawn. The VOC and WIC gained power and territory. And the Spaniards lost their reputation as a formidable force in Europe- they had, after all, lost to a ridiculously small country.

Did we miss anything in this tale of the 80 Years’ War? Let us know in the comments below. 

Reading List:

Gelderen, M. van (2002), The Political Thought of the Dutch Revolt 1555–1590

Israel, Jonathan (1995), The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477–1806

Koenigsberger, H.G. (2007), Monarchies, States Generals and Parliaments: The Netherlands in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries

Tracy, J.D. (2008), The Founding of the Dutch Republic: War, Finance, and Politics in Holland 1572–1588

Feature image: Wikimedia Commons.

Ailish Lalor
Ailish Lalor
Ailish was born in Sydney, Australia, but grew up by a forest in south-east Ireland, which she has attempted to replace with a living room filled with plants in The Hague. Besides catering to her army of pannenkoekenplantjes, Ailish spends her days convincing her friends that all food is better slightly burnt, plotting ways to hang out with dogs and cats, and of course, writing for DutchReview.


  1. I’ve been away from the Netherlands 60 years, but I love reading all your articles!
    Thanks for keeping me up to date with what’s going on in my little country!
    Good job you all ! !


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