The Dutch national anthem, the "Wilhelmus", has 15 eight-line verses. It was written about 1568, possibly by the poet and diplomat Philip van Marnix, Seigneur of Sint Aldegonde (1540-1598) an ardent supporter of Prince William of Orange. The first and sixth verses are usually sung at national events. In the first verse, Prince William vows that he will remain true to his country unto death; in the sixth, he prays to God for strength to rid the land of tyranny. In periods of oppression especially, these verses have had a strong appeal for the people of the Netherlands. The "Wilhelmus" has been the official Dutch national anthem since 1932.
In 1567, Prince William fled the Netherlands with thousands of other opponents of Spanish rule. The following year, Prince William tried in vain to free his country from tyranny and religious persecution. But his three invasions with mercenaries from the Holy Roman Empire failed completely. In the "Wilhelmus", the composer depicts the Prince addressing the oppressed people of the Netherlands in this terrible and dramatic situation. In his elevated speech interrupted by a prayer in verses six and seven, the Prince bears witness to his sincerity and determination, and expounds his innermost motives for rising against the King of Spain.
Prince William comforts his followers, but at the same time exhorts them to join in the struggle. He also reminds them of their duty to obey God. In what might be called a psalm of defiance, the poet compares Prince William with David, who had to flee from Saul, the first King of Israel, before himself becoming King. He commends the Prince to the people as the chosen leader of the revolt against Philip of Spain.
The tune of the "Wilhelmus" is based on a French soldier's song, which was popular around 1568 and alternates between three/four and four/four time. It probably originated at the time of the siege of Chartres. The melody was further developed by Adriaen Valerius (approx. 1575-1625). The oldest copy of the "Wilhelmus" is to be found in Deuchdelijke Solutien (Antwerp, 1574). Since 1626, it has been included in Valerius's Gedenckclanck, a wellknown collection of national songs.
The song's style resembles that of the work of the Rederijkers ("rhetoricians"), sixteenth-century companies of poets. For example, the first letters of the 15 verses spell the name "Willem van Nassov". The text is also thematically symmetrical, in that verses one and 15 resemble on another in meaning, as do verses two and 14, three and 13, etc., until they converge in the eighth verse, the heart of the song: "Oh David, thou soughtest shelter/From King Saul's tyranny". The sober language and deep feelings that inspired "Wilhelmus" make it far superior to the fashionable works of its period.
On 10 May 1932, it was decreed that on all official occasions requiring the performance of the national anthem, the "Wilhelmus" was to be sung to the melody by Valerius. The need for an official national anthem was first proclaimed at the time of the foundation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815. A contest was held, and a poem by Hendrik Tollens (1780-1856), Wiens Neerlands Bloed ("Whose Dutch Blood") was chosen. The music was by the composer J.W. Wilms. Although Wiens Neerlands Bloed was gradually replaced by the "Wilhelmus" during the late l9th century, regulations in the Royal Netherlands Navy and the National Police Force continued to require that both anthems be honored until 1939.
The "Wilhelmus" has been sung on many official occasions and at many important events since 1568. Important events have included the siege of Haarlem in 1573 and the ceremonial entry of the Prince of Orange into Brussels on 18 September 1578. Trumpets sounded the "Wilhelmus" at the visit of Prince Maurice to Breda, and again when he was received in state in Amsterdam in May 1618. When William V arrived in Schoonhoven in 1787, after the authority of the stadtholders had been restored, the church bells played the "Wilhelmus" continuously.
By then, it had come to be called the "Princes' March", having been banned during the rule of the Patriot party. At the celebrations marking the birth of the child who would later be King William II on 16 December 1792, it was sung after High Mass in the Catholic church in Venlo. Following the surrender of 's-Hertogenbosch to the French on 9 October 1794, the garrison withdrew with full military honors to the sound of the "Wilhelmus".
Once the rule of the Patriots had ended and the Netherlands had been liberated from the French in 1813, the "Wilhelmus" ceased to be the anthem of one Dutch party. It again came to symbolize freedom and independence. During the struggle between the Northern and Southern Netherlands, around 1830, the "Wilhelmus" became particularly popular. It was even played at the unveiling of the Plein 1813 independence memorial in The Hague 1869, and again at the inauguration of Queen Wilhelmina in 1898.