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The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun    by Lisa Jardine order for
Awful End of Prince William the Silent
by Lisa Jardine
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

There are singular moments in history - often obscure to us now in the early years of the 21st century - that have profoundly affected and permanently altered the subsequent course of human events. One such moment occurred late in the 16th century in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands at the time, Prince William of Orange was, by all accounts, an astute politician, a brilliant propagandist, and a courageous military leader. Known as William the Silent, the taciturn and diplomatic leader was a 'man of considered actions and a steady temperament' who operated smoothly in the midst of European courts. As a master of power politics in the midst of a volatile international political arena, this Protestant 'Christian soldier' was widely respected by many as the region's heroic defender of religious and political freedom. William (ancestor of British monarch William III) was impressive as he successfully managed a very dangerous balancing act between competing factions - Catholics and Protestants - who were championing their exclusionary religious causes against each other. William's tolerance of Protestants, however, would lead to his downfall.

King Philip II of Spain, unhappy about William's unwillingness to support a Europe unified by Catholicism, issued a proclamation in 1580 which incited all good Catholics (and those loyal to the Spanish sovereign) to kill William the Silent. Philip, of course, knew that more than mere political principle or religious fervor would be needed as motivation, so he shrewdly offered a reward of 25,000 gold crowns to whoever would rid Europe of the man Philip viewed as dangerously anti-Catholic and anti-Spain. Thus, in 1580, the story of momentum and inevitability began to unfold.

Several years later, Balthasar Gérard, a man with easy access to William's inner-court because of his diplomatic connections (but also a man who was a French Catholic and a covert supporter of the Catholic Hapsburgs), approached the unsuspecting William on the afternoon of July 10, 1584. No one charged with protecting William was at all alarmed that Gérard was carrying a handgun; relatively new as technology, the handgun had become a trendy fashion accessory for well-dressed 16th century gentlemen. Then it happened. The Protestant prince William of Orange was killed by this man wielding a handgun. An unresolved question immediately followed during the investigation into Gérard's bold crime: Was Gérard acting alone or was he a member of a conspiracy? More importantly, though, the indisputable fact remained: It was the first time that a political leader had been killed in this manner, and the murderous implications beyond the borders of the Netherlands were profound and immediate. 'In an instant, the pistol shot that killed the Prince of Orange changed the course of European history' because - among many other reasons wonderfully explored in Lisa Jardine's penetrating study - the safety of political leaders and public personalities would forever after be at risk.

Lisa Jardine's extraordinary volume is a small book - with a mere 125 pages of text nicely supplemented by appendixes (historical documents), explanatory endnotes, bibliography, and index - but it contains an amazingly large treasure trove of fascinating details. This highly recommended study will appeal to any reader interested in the ways in which certain unique and largely overlooked moments in world history irrevocably influence our own present (and our future).

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