Margaret of Parma (1522-1586)

As governor of the Netherlands, Margaret found herself between a rock and a hard place: on one side, her brother, the Spanish king who wanted to defend the Catholic faith, and on the other, the nobility of the Netherlands, led by William the Silent, who wanted freedom of religion. She foresaw that the severe measures Spain wanted to impose would end in misery, but she was not listened to.

Margaret was still an inexperienced administrator when her half-brother Philip II appointed her governor of the Netherlands in 1559. He only gave her a partial mandate, too: Margaret could not make decisions without consulting Spain. In practice, this created an impossible situation. Relying on diplomacy, Margaret tried to stay on good terms with the nobles and prevent violence.

In 1566, the people also spoke up and the Beeldenstorm (Iconoclastic Fury) broke out; Catholic churches and monasteries were destroyed throughout the Netherlands. Philip II decided to send the Duke of Alba to the Netherlands to quell the revolt. Margaret felt she had been passed over and resigned – in protest at Alba’s reign of terror. William the Silent was only able to escape to Germany in the nick of time.

Margaret was reputed to be indecisive, a quality often wrongly attributed to women in history. Within the possibilities of her role, however, she tried to prevent war and bloodshed. Was she so judged because she was a woman? Religious conflicts would divide Europe for more than another century. Margaret deserves more praise, then, for her actions in an all but impossible position.

On 26 September 1566, Margaret wrote to William the Silent from Brussels, concerning the riots of Lutherans in the vicinity of Woerden:

‘Duke Eric of Brunswick, as Lord of Woerden, brought to my attention the great chaos which the magistrate, the people and the pastor have created. Here in the heart of religion, and out of fear of disorder and discomfort, I arranged for three hundred footmen to be raised in Overyssel and Gerle to guard the cities and castles of named Woerden.’

Read more about Margaret’s life

© Image: Workshop of Adriaen Thomasz. Key, Portret van Margaretha van Parma [portrait of Margaret of Parma], after 1562, oil on panel, Museum Prinsenhof Delft