The murder of William of Orange, the founder of what became the Netherlands of today, is still under investigation four centuries later.
‘My God, my God, take pity on my and my poor people’. It’s not as pithy as Nelson’s Kiss me, Hardy (or Kismet, Hardy) and, as famous last words go, it’s certainly quite a long sentence to utter for someone on the brink of death, especially for a man nicknamed the Silent. So did William of Orange say them?
Point blank range
The discussion, four centuries after William of Orange was murdered, centres not so much on what he said but rather on whether he spoke at all. On July 10th 1584, the Father of the Fatherland, the man who stood at the cradle of a united Netherlands in the face of the Spanish might, was killed at the hands of Balthasar Gerards at his residence, the Prinsenhof in Delft. Gerardts shot him three times, at point blank range.
At the time of the murder, the fledgling Dutch republic was at war with Spain, a battle for control that would last from 1568 to 1648.
The where and why – Gerards was tempted by a large sum of money and absolution for his sins if he rid Philip II of Spain of this irksome rebel – were known but the how was still vague.
Four years ago, the director of the Prinsenhof Museum, Erik de Groot, decided it was time to shed more light on what happened all those centuries ago. He hired a forensic company called DelftTech, headed by the aptly named Willem van Spanje (William of Spain) and embarked on a journey to uncover the truth. DelftTech’s involvement was twofold: investigate the bullet holes that were left in a wall and which are purported to be the result of the impact of two of the bullets from Gerards’ guns and ascertain the nature of William of Orange’s injuries.
The EO’s royalty programme Blauw Bloed was given access to DelftTech’s reconstruction efforts. New findings, shown in a documentary aired in March this year, included an architectural change in the Prinsenhof which, according to Van Spanje, makes for a more logical position of both Gerards and Willem van Oranje at the time of the shooting.
The bullet holes, although much deeper than the ones achieved with similar weaponry, were judged to be in the right position although the experts called them ‘not authentic’. Culture historian Herman Pleij however, was at hand to explain, telling the story of how some 17th English tourists who had come to take a look at the bullet holes were told by the porter that the holes were reconstructed after the building had undergone some architectural changes. ‘Why would these people lie about something like that’, he asked.
So far, so uncontroversial. The nature of William of Orange’s injuries and consequently, his ability to say the words for which he is remembered, were investigated by forensic doctor Mat Weststrate who had another look at the 16th century autopsy report. According to Weststrate, the translation of the report, written in Latin, contains a number of mistakes. Based on these mistakes Weststrate comes to the conclusion that William of Orange was shot through the left ventricle of the heart and must have died instantly.
The entry and exit of the bullets Weststrate found also explains the line up with the bullet holes which, according to the ballistics experts, now make more sense.
The medical theory – the team were denied access to the body of William of Orange which is buried in the royal burial chambers in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft – has been put into doubt since by the Forensic Medical Expertise centre (Formedex). Peeved perhaps by not having had a go at such a juicy research project themselves, Formedex called DelftTech ‘a complete unknown in the world of forensic medicine’ and also maintained that, even if William of Orange had been shot through the heart, blood circulation would not have stopped for ten seconds. In other words, he could have said something, perhaps even the words he is famed for, although he would have had to have been quick.
Herman Pleij again provided the historical context. It doesn’t really matter whether he said it or not, Pleij said. The words William is supposed to have said he actually said before in his written Apologie, or defense, addressed to the king of Spain who had outlawed William. ‘It shows the power of the 16th century spin doctors’, Pleij said. ‘William of Orange’s position had not been as secure as before. Was he really a pious man? Was he really that tolerant to other religious groups? People were having doubts about William so the Staten van Holland set out to make William look like a pious martyr, a faithful servant of ally Anjou. It was a political exercise from which this government could learn a thing or two’.
So do the history books have to be rewritten? As Pleij said: ‘History isn’t something out of Boy’s Own’. It’s the truth that matters. So yes, the story will have to be tweaked here and there although nothing of real consequence was found. There was always doubt about William of Orange’s last words. The contretemps between the forensic teams makes for good copy but as long as William’s body isn’t excavated some of his secrets at least will remain with him in his grave. William is silent still. The nickname didn’t refer to an unwillingness to speak – by all reports he was a charming man -; he just knew when not to tell.
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