Founding of the Dutch Republic

The Dutch began their battle for independence in 1568. They were led by William, or Willem, of Orange (called the Silent), stadholder (viceroy) of Holland and Zeeland. From the beginning the religious differences between the Protestant north and Catholic south made unified action difficult. In 1576, in a treaty known as the Pacification of Ghent, all the provinces agreed to put aside their differences until the Spanish were driven out. In 1578 Philip II of Spain made Alessandro Farnese governor general of the Netherlands with orders to crush the revolt. Farnese subdued the southern provinces with a combination of military force and promises of political freedoms.

The seven northern provinces—Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Groningen, Friesland, and Overijssel—in 1579 signed the Union of Utrecht, a pact to stand together against Spain. Two years later they declared their independence and formed a republic, called the United Provinces. It was a loose federation headed by William of Orange as military leader. When William was murdered in 1584 at the instigation of Philip II, leadership passed to his son Maurice.

The United Provinces received aid from England in their war of liberation, and in 1609 the Twelve Years' Truce with Spain was signed. Fighting was resumed during the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), in which the Hapsburgs were defeated by an alliance of Protestant nations. By the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 Spain finally recognized the Dutch republic's independence, and ceded some additional territory to it. The southern provinces continued under Hapsburg rule as the Spanish (later Austrian) Netherlands until ceded to France in 1797.