The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: The First Assassination of a Head of State With a Handgun, By Lisa Jardine, HarperCollins, 175 pp., illustrated, $21.95
On July 10, 1584, a date drenched in the blood that flowed from violent convulsions of the Reformation, a Catholic assassin shot and killed Dutch Protestant leader William of Orange. The killing is the subject of Lisa Jardine's luridly titled ''The Awful End of Prince William the Silent," the second installment in a new series of slim, learned books called ''Making History," each of which will pivot on ''an event or events [that] made a lasting impact on the unfolding course of history." Jardine's book has an intriguing premise, though her shaky effort raises more questions than it answers.
William's murder had a ''seismic effect on the European political scene," Jardine writes, and, she ventures in a typically breathless statement, ''anticipated the assassinations of Martin Luther King, J.F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy."
Jardine gussies up her text with many glib, topical references, but the facts surrounding William's death are interesting on their own terms. The back story takes us into the frightfully murky world of spies and traitors, contested beliefs, and poisonous political debates that often ended in bloodshed, not reasoned compromise.
Europe was divided into a hodgepodge of squabbling kingdoms, empires, and principalities; Protestant creeds surged across the continent; and the Spanish Catholic Hapsburgs, who occupied the Low Countries (now Holland and Belgium), moved to check their Christian rivals -- sometimes at all costs.
William was reluctantly drawn into this vortex of confessional strife. Born in 1533, he spent his formative years in the court of Hapsburg emperor Charles V, whose son, King Philip of Spain, made William governor-general of Holland, then a province of the Low Countries.
Dubbed ''le taciturne" (the tight-lipped) for his reticence and even keel, William tried to steer a middle course between his Catholic masters and the extreme Protestantism of Dutch Calvinists, who chafed under the heavy hand of Spanish rule. William himself held moderate Protestant beliefs; throughout the 1560s, he advocated tolerance for all forms of worship. But in an era of fanaticism, such moderation tended to be more provocative than pragmatic.
By 1568, bloody Spanish reprisals drove William into open revolt. Although his military campaigns proved inconclusive, he managed to secure the northern coastline (much to the relief of English Protestants, who followed the travails of their co-religionists with nervous interest). Still, the Spanish would not relent; nor would Dutch Protestants in the northern Low Countries, who formed a breakaway statelet in 1579 that became known as the United Provinces. An ambivalent William, who hoped to keep Dutch Protestants and southern Catholics unified under one leader, threw his lot in with the new grouping, which provoked an outraged Philip to put a price on the head of this once loyal Hapsburg servant. William's fate was sealed.
Jardine deftly summarizes the shifts and turns that led to William's death, but her conclusions are off-key. Take her attention-grabbing subtitle, which is somewhat misleading. It all depends on how you parse ''first assassination of a head of state." Only in the most general sense of the phrase could William of Orange be called a ''head of state": The nation-state was in its infancy in the 16th century, and in any case, William was struggling to hold together a fractured polity deeply divided over who would rule with legitimacy. Also problematic is Jardine's notion that William's death was the first of its kind.
Not exactly. As Jardine notes, other ruling figures had been the victims of gun violence before 1584, like the French duke of Guise, shot down by a Protestant gunman in 1563.
That an otherwise superb historian of early modern Europe would resort to gimmicky, historiographical flimflam is disappointing, as is her overblown conceit that William's death portended everything from the national security state to the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana. Jardine seems desperate to make her study relevant to the age of Al Qaeda, but her analogies distort the past -- and the present.
Jardine also takes a cultural studies detour on the symbolic power of the handgun, a newfangled way of delivering death. The handgun became a status symbol for the royal set and ''caught on rapidly with civilians bent on mischief." While this is true, Jardine little considers that the 16th-century handgun was a rather bulky, unwieldy thing (as several illustrations show) and prone to misfiring. A lethal weapon when it worked, to be sure, but not the most reliable way to kill someone in 1584.
If one were to play devil's advocate, a case could be made that William's death did not have as much of a ''lasting impact" as Jardine thinks it did. Though his murder was a blow to Protestant morale, the United Provinces endured without William, whose son, Maurice, became the Dutch military commander. Still, Jardine is right that other rulers, like Queen Elizabeth I, deeply feared assassination, which was the tactic of choice for the forces of the Counter-Reformation.
Then again, political murder has been a historical fact for thousands of years. Just ask Julius Caesar.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.