William of Orange (usually known as “William the Silent”) has the dubious honour of being the first head of state to be assassinated by means of a handheld firearm. He was by no means the last.
Many “titles” have been accorded to monarchs throughout history that typify certain features of their life or character, such as “Peter the Great” or “Ethelred the Unready”. One such is “William the Silent”, which seems to imply that he was some kind of Trappist monk. However, this is hardly a fair assessment of a statesman who is regarded by the Dutch as the father of his nation, and after whom the Dutch national anthem, the “Wilhemus”, is named.
His silence only refers to one phase of his life, when he refused to speak out in direct opposition to the Spanish king who oppressed the Netherlands, but he did not stay silent for ever, and it was when he broke out in rebellion that he changed the face of European history and set in train the events that led to his death. It is the particular features of that death that concern us here.
A wanted man
William of Orange, born in Germany in 1533 and brought up as a Lutheran, had become trusted by the Catholic King Philip II of Spain to the extent of being appointed governor general of Spain’s possessions in the northern parts of the Low Countries, which roughly equate to today’s Netherlands. Philip’s attempt to force Catholicism on a Protestant people was what led to rebellion and William’s refusal to continue to act, in silence, as his agent.
Many acts of violence and cruelty followed, leading eventually, in 1580, to Philip putting a price on William’s head, namely 25,000 gold crowns to whoever might “deliver him unto us quick or dead”.
The first attempt on William’s life
However, it was not until 18th March 1582 that the first serious attempt was made to claim the prize. An 18-year-old man, Jean Jauregay, approached William, apparently to present a petition to him, and instead fired a pistol at him at point-blank range. However, the gun had been loaded with too much powder and it exploded, injuring both William and Jauregay. A bullet hit William in the jaw, which thereafter made it difficult for him to eat, but he was still able to make a recovery. Jauregay, however, was immediately stabbed to death by William’s guards, who included his 14-year-old son.
This was the first assassination attempt in history made with a handgun, and it was unfortunately to be followed by many more down the centuries. This was made possible by the new technology of the wheellock, which worked similarly to a modern cigarette lighter in that a wheel was spun against a flint that caused a spark that ignited the charge. Previously, matchlock guns involved the lighting of a fuse (or “match”) that burned down until they reached the powder. Shots could therefore now be fired quickly and in secrecy, if necessary. However, Jauregay was a newcomer to firearms, and his inexperience caused his own death, not that of his target.
The assassination of William the Silent
The next attempt was carried out with better planning. Balthazar Gerard was a fanatical Catholic who had managed to gain employment in William’s household. On 10th July 1584 he bought a wheellock pistol from another member of William’s entourage, loaded it correctly with three bullets, and waited at the top of the stairs while William finished his lunch. As William approached, Gerard stepped forward and fired the pistol. William fell backwards down the stairs, and died without uttering a word.
Gerard, like Jauregay, did not live much longer himself, although his own death was drawn-out and painful, including having both his hands cut off, the skin of his chest torn off and salt applied to the bare flesh, and pieces of flesh torn out with red-hot pincers. The final act of his execution was for his heart to be ripped out.
The reward was duly paid by King Philip to Gerard’s family.
Ramifications of the assassination
The fact that a prince could be killed in his own palace, by a weapon that could be concealed until use, was something that had ramifications across
Europe. In , Queen Elizabeth was
another obvious target of Philip’s long arm, and new measures were brought in
that we would recognize today as basic security but were shocking at the time.
Any foreign person entering the country had their person and baggage searched,
and an order was given that no firearm could be carried within two miles of a
royal palace. England
Nervousness about Spanish plots was a major reason why Elizabeth signed the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots.
There is little doubt that, had William the Silent not been the first victim of assassination by handgun, some other head of state would have claimed that dubious honour before long. However, the date of 10th July 1584 should be remembered as having a significance that has resounded down the centuries.