Habsburg communication in the Dutch Revolt, Monica Stensland

Reviewerhasburg: Wouter van Dijk

Habsburg communication in the Dutch Revolt, Monica Stensland

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2012
ISBN: 978 90 8964 413 8

Paperback, illustrated in black and white, with notes, bibliography and index
235 pages
€ 34,50

Habsburg communication in the Dutch Revolt

This book is based on the author’s doctoral thesis that she submitted at the University of Oxford in 2008. In her introduction she makes clear the need for more research on the Habsburg regime in the Netherlands during the early stages of the Dutch Revolt. Although numerous books have been written about the Dutch rebels’ policy of and motives behind winning the public’s support, little has been written about the Habsburg authorities and their way of securing loyalty of their subjects in the turbulent years from the 1560’s until the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1609. The main notion Stensland questions is the general assumption that there was very little pro-Habsburg communication to compete with the argumentative pamphleteering of the rebels. She also tries to measure the public opinion of the time by analyzing contemporary diaries.
In her introduction Stensland lists the source material she has used. She distinguishes six types of communication that were used in the Low Countries of the sixteenth-century. Public proclamations were often used by the town authorities to announce to the inhabitants pieces of news or changes in town policy, such as royal weddings or the organization of guard duty.

Another way of informing the people about policy changes was through the issuing of edicts. These edicts were widely published. They always contained a preamble in which the authorities could give their view on the present situation and to justify their policy in light of the events.
A third form of communication was ceremonial, such as joyous entries and religious processions. During these well-attended occasions, the public could be made clear a particular lesson or view concerning pressing issues. Sermons were another way of reaching wide audiences, for people attended religious services en masse and could be influenced by what preachers told them. Visual media like pictures, paintings, drawings, sculptures and engravings on wood or coins could also shape public opinion to some extent. Lastly, there was the pamphlet; pamphlets were by far the most used and influential of communication forms in the early years of the revolt for the rebels. However, this was in no means the case for the Habsburg regime, as Stensland tells us. In the years leading up to the revolt, the Habsburg regime always had a tendency of relying on oral and visual communication forms. These were more deemed more authoritative and less suitable for discussion and therefore more convenient for use by the Habsburg regime.

To show how the Habsburgs handled the crisis of the 1560’s and the following full-scale revolt in the Low Countries in their communications, Stensland has chosen a chronological approach. In six chapters she sketches the religious, economic and political crisis in the Low Countries in the 1560’s, which partly due to harsh handling from the Habsburg side, grew into a large scale revolt.

Stensland starts with an analysis of the first years of Habsburg military intervention in the Low Countries following the Iconoclastic Fury, or Beeldenstorm. She states that the choice of letting the Duke of Alba follow a harsh and cruel policy was a very deliberate one. After Alba’s heavy first blow, Philip II would come to the Low Countries to pardon his rebellious, but misguided, subjects. Alba carried out his part of the plan enthusiastically, but Philip never came to ‘forgive’ his subjects. This was disastrous in two ways; firstly because, far in faraway Spain,ordinary people tended to believe rebel accusations about Alba being an evil advisor was and, in fact, an enemy of the good king Philip.

Secondly, Alba’s continuous hunt for rebels and heretics and the breaking of promises of pardon ruined the original plan of a swift punishment and a quickly followed-up forgiving of the people. To support this policy the Habsburgs chose to communicate via non-argumentative media such as edicts and justified its cause only by referring to Pauls’s biblical letter Romans 13, in which is made clear that sovereignty is given by God and therefore cannot be questioned. The sovereign had to be obeyed at all times whatever the circumstances. This authoritative approach didn’t help to make the people understand the regime’s policy.

As the rebels obtained a firm foothold in 1572 when they captured Den Briel and the rebellion spread to more and more neighbouring cities, the Habsburg regime lost its main means of communication; proclamations and ceremony. Since the regime did not yet involve itself in pamphleteering, it lost all opportunities to communicate with the people in rebel territory. At the same time the continuing presence of Spanish troops in loyal towns discredited the people’s view of the regime further. It turned out that only the complete withdrawal of foreign garrisons would satisfy Philips’ discontented subjects. Only with the governorship of Don John in the 1570’s the Habsburg communication policy changed and for the first time the government became actively involved in an argumentative pamphleteering debate with the rebels about the justification of the revolt. However, these Habsburg pamphlet authors made the same mistakes as Alba had by using gross generalizations that estranged even the ordinary loyal catholic from the regime.

The situation changed with Alexander Farnese’s assumption of governorship. His reconquest of many lost cities and subsequent lenient treatment of their inhabitants won him many ‘hearts and minds’. Accompanying this military success story was a pro-regime propaganda pamphleteering campaign that paid off very well. When Farnese left for France and was replaced by count Ernst von Mansfeld, a struggle between their two factions prevented a unanimous communication approach as they denigrated each other for failures of the regime. As it was common practice for the Habsburgs to celebrate positive news but ignore negative news, when there was a lot of negative news to tell, such as the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the regime simply kept quiet.
When the Archdukes Albert and Isabelle were put in charge of the areas under Habsburg control, because of their position as sovereigns, they could use many communication tools, such as the joyous entry, to communicate a positive image of themselves. They also identified themselves strongly with the, in the southern areass of the Netherlands, still very popular Catholic faith. By doing so, they showed the people a very attractive image of the regime that they were willing to support.

Although the amount of contemporary diaries that were available for Stensland to investigate seems sizable at first – around twenty – it turns out that for analyzing the thoughts of contemporaries she relies mainly on only five writers. The lack of many more extensive diary material is regrettable but Stensland nevertheless manages to treat the reader to numerous anecdotes of events as described by contemporaries. The time period stretches from around 1566 up to the beginning of the Twelve Years Truce in 1609. Judging by the title however, one would think that the period following the truce is included. After all, there is no time period mentioned in the titlenor the introduction. The reader therefore may be surprised at the end of the book when it stops quite suddenly after the arrival of Albert and Isabella on the public stage. Despite this, Stensland’s book is very well researched and very well annotated, using 75 pages for notes, an extensive bibliography and index for a total amount of 235 pages. It also does what it was intended to do; to give an overview of Habsburg communication policy during the revolt, lthough it covers only the first part, and analyzes the responses of the general public on this policy. Altogether it is a very good read for those who are interested in the Dutch Revolt or communication in the Early Modern age in general.

Wouter van Dijk