The Lamentable Death of William of Nassau Prince of Orange

William I, Prince of Orange (1533-1584), also known as William the Silent, was the first head of state to be assassinated with a hand gun. Born into a noble family, William became the main leader in the Dutch revolt against the Spanish, which contributed to the start of the Eighty Years’ War. His assassination by a French Catholic had serious political consequences and was a major blow to the Protestant cause in the Netherlands. Elizabeth I, William’s closest political ally, was devastated by his death, and it wasn’t long before the English parliament enacted legislation making it a criminal offence to possess a hand gun anywhere near a royal palace. What follows are snippets from the contemporary account of William’s assassination, entitled: The True Report of the Lamentable Death of William of Nassau Prince of Orange; who was traitorously slain with a Dag in his own Court, by Balthazar Serack a Burgundian, the first of July 1584. Those of a nervous disposition may not wish to read the gruesome account of the subsequent death of William’s assassin.

Upon the 12th day of June last past 1584, there came to the Prince of Orange a base born Gentleman of Burgundy, who brought certain letters from the States of France, concerning matters of news, which the Prince in most thankful manner did receive. This messenger (in whom there remained nothing but subtlety and secret mischief) did show unto the Prince, how he could at any time bring him or his soldiers into the Prince of Parma’s garrison, which caused the Prince to repose a great trust and confidence in him, so that he remained in the court without suspicion of any treachery. But behold what followed, on the 1st day of July last past. This Traitor, seeing a small Pistoll or Dag in the hands of one of the Prince’s servants, did demand what it might cost him, saying: ‘I have occasion to ride a journey shortly, and that dag would be a good defence for me upon the highway.’ The Prince’s servant, thinking nothing of that which happened afterward, did sell it to him for the sum of ten shillings of English money.

The Prince being then in his Court at Delft, who being gone to dinner, and the Guard attendant about his person, this Traitor seeing it a meet time to compass his pretended mischief, went into his Chamber, and charged the Pistol with powder, and put three bullets in the same. That done he placed it privily in his pocket, and went down to dinner. After he had dined, hearing that the Prince would anon go to his privy chamber, devised in his mind where he might best plant himself for the finishing of his wicked deed, who finding a privy corner upon the stairs, placed himself until the Prince’s coming.

The Prince, going up the stairs no sooner came directly against this villainous traitor, but he presently discharged his Pistol, wherein (as before mentioned) he having put 3 bullets, two of those bullets went through the Prince’s body, and the third remained in his belly, through which wicked stroke, the Prince fell down suddenly, crying out, saying ‘Lord have mercy upon me, and remember thy little flock.’

The assassin was captured after attempting to escape the guards, and the account of William’s death concludes with an additional account of the gruesome fate which met his murderer:

He had the 1st day the Strappado, openly in the Market.

The strappardo was a form of torture in which the victim, hands tied behind the back, was suspended from ropes attached to his/her wrists. Often leading to dislocation of the arms, weights could also be attached to increase the severity of pain.

 

The second day whipped and salted, and his right hand cut off. The third day, his breasts cut out and salt thrown in, and then his left hand cut off. The last day of his torment, which was the 10th of July, he was bound to 2 stakes, standing upright, in such order that he could not stir any way. Thus standing naked, there was a great fire placed some small distance from him, wherein were heated pincers of Iron, with which pincers, two men appointed for the same, did punch and pull his flesh in small pieces from his bones throughout most parts of his body. Then was he unbound from the stakes and laid upon the earth, and again fastened to four posts, namely by his feet and arms; they ripped up his belly at which time he had life and perfect memory, he had his bowels burned before his face, and his body cut in four several quarters. During the whole time of his execution, he remained impenitent and obstinate, rejoicing that he had slain the Prince.

Further reading on William’s assassination, and the subsequent political turmoil, can be found in Lisa Jardine’s The Awful End of Prince William the Silent, Harper Collins (2005).

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