Robert Stewart

Murder made easy

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The Awful End of William the Silent: The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun

Lisa Jardine

HarperCollins, pp. 175, £

What is one to make of this little book? There is much that is good in it, about new handguns, their use in crime and warfare and their role as fashionable accessories (notably in portraiture) of the rich and proud; about the ‘spinning’ rife in Renaissance pamphlet wars; and about that age’s wantonly cruel methods of torture and execution. But does it make sense? Its central contention, that the assassination in 1584 of William of Orange was a landmark in history because it was carried out with a pistol, is more asserted than argued and it remains highly dubious.

In the battle that raged across Reformation Europe in the second half of the 16th century the revolt of the Dutch provinces, deeply infected with Calvinism, against the rule of the Catholic Habsburg empire occupied centre stage. William of Orange, chosen by Emperor Philip II of Spain to be the stadholder (or governor) of the Low Countries in 1559, at first tried to mediate between the two camps, but was driven by Spanish tyranny and religious intolerance to cast his lot with the Protestant rebels. He emerged as the leader of the struggle for national independence and the defender of freedom of worship. In 1580 Philip offered a substantial reward to anyone who would deliver William ‘quick or dead’ into his hands. Four years later William was murdered in his private quarters, slain by three bullets fired by an emissary from the Spanish court.

Lisa Jardine cannot make up her mind about the political significance of William’s death. When William survived a first attempt on his life (also by handgun) in 1582, the supporters of Dutch independence breathed a sigh of relief. ‘The flimsy accord between the Orangists, the English and the French relied upon William’s personality, the confidence he inspired, and his proven track record in standing firm against the might of the Habsburgs.’ By 1584, in Jardine’s view, William had become ‘a liability’ to the Orange cause. Yet a few pages later she writes of ‘the appalling blow the assassination dealt to Protestant fortunes in the Low Countries’ and, although the Dutch revolt eventually succeeded, she ends her book with the high assertion that the assassination ‘in an instant altered the course of European history’.

That overblown language may arise from the fact that this book has to justify its inclusion in the ‘The Making History Series’ launched by Lisa Jardine and Amanda Foreman. In her foreword Foreman tells us that each book will highlight a landmark event in history and that William’s assassination was ‘a turning point, an epoch-making incident, a directional laser-beam of light from the past to the future’. The ground for so heady an assertion is that William’s assassin used the recently invented wheel-lock pistol. It was, as Jardine writes, ‘the first pocket-sized gun capable of being loaded and primed ready for use ahead of time, then concealed about the user’s person and produced and fired with one hand, in a single, surprise movement’ and it became ‘an emblem for the utter impossibility of keeping the sovereign secure’.

No doubt, William’s assassination disturbed the sleep of Europe’s crowned heads. The court of Elizabeth I feared that she would be the next Habsburg target. (Would that our present-day commentators would take note of Lisa Jardine’s wise words about Elizabeth’s agent, William Herle, that it was part of his job ‘to contribute to a heightened sense of anxiety about what might happen should intelligence-gatherers like himself fail to anticipate even the most far-fetched of potential dangers’.) No doubt, too, the handgun was easier to conceal and swifter of purpose than the dagger. But every age uses the weapons it has to hand. Assassination has always been an occupational hazard of high office. For Roman emperors it was almost a natural cause of death. For a truly shocking regicide Europe had to wait only another 65 years, when the parliament of England became the first representative assembly to bring a sovereign to justice and sentence him to death in the clear light of day. Now, that was a landmark in history.