The last time Spain faced the Netherlands in a really big match they were wearing cuirasses and carrying swords. Nobody will be killed at Sunday’s World Cup match, but the Dutch will sing the same anthem—Het Wilhelmus—that they sang in 1573 at the siege of Haarlem and in 1577 when the Prince of Orange’s forces defeated the Spanish army and marched triumphantly into Brussels. It is the world’s oldest national anthem. (Since you asked, yes, Japan’s national anthem, the Kimigayo, is technically older, but it was not set to its present music until 1880, when Japan felt the need to have a national anthem. The longest is the Greek, weighing in at 158 stanzas. Well, you know how Greek poetry is…)The William of the title, Het Wilhelmus, refers to William the Silent, the prince who led the armies of the Dutch Revolt against the King of Spain. So it is a more than a little puzzling to find William singing, To the king of Spain I’ve granted
A lifelong loyalty. The Dutch Revolt was the first modern war of national liberation. So why is one of the fathers of the Republic professing loyalty to the King of Spain? The Wilhelmus, like the American Declaration of Independence, was written in the middle of a shooting war to justify armed rebellion. The participants in both wars needed to persuade themselves that they were not rebels, but loyal men forced to rebel by unendurable tyranny. And they also needed to persuade the world. It adds something to the match if you think of the Dutch fans with their faces painted orange as propounding Calvinist resistance theory. Set to music. The great triumph of the Dutch is not that a small people succeeded in defeating the mightiest European Empire of the era, though that was a remarkable feat. What sets the Dutch Republic apart is that it introduced the modern era of nation states governed as liberal democracies. I don’t know what the Hapsburg armies sang during the decades they spent trying to put down the Dutch Revolt, but I do know that they won’t be singing their national anthem on Sunday. Actually, the question of the Spanish anthem is an interesting one. Spain does have at least half a national anthem. The music is a handsome eighteenth century march. What the Spanish can’t agree on are the lyrics. Writing lyrics to a national anthem pretty much requires you to identify the nation you are writing about. There is a committee working on it, and the members have my sincere sympathies as they attempt to write lyrics that will satisfy everyone without offending Basque, Catalan or Galician national sensibilities. But on Sunday I will be rooting for the Dutch, because it was the Dutch who blazed a path out of the wars of religion that led to religious tolerance and liberal democracy. And because you have got to love the weirdly medieval lyrics that will be belted out by Dutch fans: William of Nassau, scion
Of a Dutch and ancient blood,
I dedicate undying
Faith to this land of mine.
A prince am I undaunted,
Of Orange, ever free,
To the king of Spain I’ve granted
A lifelong loyalty.