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9: IX.

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Two prudent marriages, made by Austrian archdukes within twenty years, have altered the face of the earth. The stream, which we have been tracing from its source, empties itself at last into the ocean of a world-empire. Count Dirk the First, lord of a half-submerged corner of Europe, is succeeded by Count Charles the Second of Holland, better known as Charles the Fifth, King of Spain, Sicily, and Jerusalem, Duke of Milan, Emperor of Germany, Dominator in Asia and Africa, autocrat of half the world. The leading events of his brilliant reign are familiar to every child. The Netherlands now share the fate of so large a group of nations, a fate, to these provinces, most miserable. The weddings of Austria Felix were not so prolific of happiness to her subjects as to herself. It can never seem just or reasonable that the destiny of many millions of human beings should depend upon the marriage-settlements of one man with one woman, and a permanent, prosperous empire can never be reared upon so frail a foundation. The leading thought of the first Charlemagne was a noble and a useful one, nor did his imperial scheme seem chimerical, even although time, wiser than monarchs or lawgivers, was to prove it impracticable. To weld into one great whole the various tribes of Franks, Frisians, Saxons, Lombards, Burgundians, and others, still in their turbulent youth, and still composing one great Teutonic family; to enforce the mutual adhesion of naturally coherent masses, all of one lineage, one language, one history, and which were only beginning to exhibit their tendencies to insulation, to acquiesce in a variety of local laws and customs, while an iron will was to concentrate a vast, but homogeneous, people into a single nation; to raise up from the grave of corrupt and buried Rome a fresh, vigorous, German, Christian empire; this was a reasonable and manly thought. Far different the conception of the second Charlemagne. To force into discordant union, tribes which, for seven centuries, had developed themselves into hostile nations, separated by geography and history, customs and laws, to combine many millions under one sceptre, not because of natural identity, but for the sake of composing one splendid family property, to establish unity by annihilating local institutions, to supersede popular and liberal charters by the edicts of a central despotism, to do battle with the whole spirit of an age, to regard the souls as well as the bodies of vast multitudes as the personal property of one individual, to strive for the perpetuation in a single house of many crowns, which accident had blended, and to imagine the consecration of the whole system by placing the pope's triple diadem forever upon the imperial head of the Habsburgs;—all this was not the effort of a great, constructive genius, but the selfish scheme of an autocrat.

The union of no two countries could be less likely to prove advantageous or agreeable than that of the Netherlands and Spain. They were widely separated geographically, while in history, manners, and politics, they were utterly opposed to each other. Spain, which had but just assumed the form of a single state by the combination of all its kingdoms, with its haughty nobles descended from petty kings, and arrogating almost sovereign power within their domains, with its fierce enthusiasm for the Catholic religion, which, in the course of long warfare with the Saracens, had become the absorbing characteristic of a whole nation, with its sparse population scattered over a wide and stern country, with a military spirit which led nearly all classes to prefer poverty to the wealth attendant upon degrading pursuits of trade;—Spain, with her gloomy, martial, and exaggerated character, was the absolute contrast of the Netherlands.

These provinces had been rarely combined into a whole, but there was natural affinity in their character, history, and position. There was life, movement, bustling activity every where. An energetic population swarmed in all the flourishing cities which dotted the surface of a contracted and highly cultivated country. Their ships were the carriers for the world;—their merchants, if invaded in their rights, engaged in vigorous warfare with their own funds and their own frigates; their fabrics were prized over the whole earth; their burghers possessed the wealth of princes, lived with royal luxury, and exercised vast political influence; their love of liberty was their predominant passion. Their religious ardor had not been fully awakened; but the events of the next generation were to prove that in no respect more than in the religious sentiment, were the two races opposed to each other. It was as certain that the Netherlanders would be fierce reformers as that the Spaniards would be uncompromising persecutors. Unhallowed was the union between nations thus utterly contrasted.

Philip the Fair and Ferdinand had detested and quarrelled with each other from the beginning. The Spaniards and Flemings participated in the mutual antipathy, and hated each other cordially at first sight. The unscrupulous avarice of the Netherland nobles in Spain, their grasping and venal ambition, enraged and disgusted the haughty Spaniards. This international malignity furnishes one of the keys to a proper understanding of the great revolt in the next reign.

The provinces, now all united again under an emperor, were treated, opulent and powerful as they were, as obscure dependencies. The regency over them was entrusted by Charles to his near relatives, who governed in the interest of his house, not of the country. His course towards them upon the religious question will be hereafter indicated. The political character of his administration was typified, and, as it were, dramatized, on the occasion of the memorable insurrection at Ghent. For this reason, a few interior details concerning that remarkable event, seem requisite.

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