Dutch Language Blog

April Fools!!! – But why? Posted by on Apr 1, 2014 in Culture, Dutch Vocabulary

Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril – with this phrase, the watergeuzen made fun of general Alva of Spain when they took his city Den Briel (therefore zijn bril) on April 1, 1572. Watergeuzen are  what you could call “Water Beggars”. “Water”, because they came by their ships in the North Sea. They basically were Dutch civilians fighting the Spaniards in the Hollandse Opstand, also briefly mentioned in the previous post. It was often thought that April Fools originated with this event, because it was hilarious to many that a small country like the Netherlands could fight off the gigantic and mighty Spanish Empire. But why was Alva in Den Briel anyway?

The Story

The Dutch were making a lot of fuzz in this Hollandse Opstand, which lasted from roughly 1568-1648. Philips II, the King of this Spanish Empire, was very annoyed with the Dutch. He had the Turks coming on the eastern border, a real threat he had to address, and several times in his reign he had problems with the English, French, and Germans. True, France was basically his and Germany had no unity at the time, but together, they were threats he had to fight off.

The Dutch, however, quite unique, independent and thus quite neutral, were no real threat to him: they just wanted their freedom. They rejected Catholicism, which he tried to uniformly enforce in his Empire, and they rejected his reign, which he of course did not like either.

When he had enough of this small nation creating such problems, he sent Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, better known as Alva, together with 10,000 men. He was a renown general – old, but with battle experience. He was not very soft and merciful, and that would show itself when he arrived in the Netherlands in 1568. Philips II made him the landvoogd der Nederlanden (governor of the Netherlands). First, he had a lot of success, and conquered many cities. One of them was Den Briel in what is now the provincie (province) Zuid-Holland (South-Holland. The Hague and Rotterdam are also in this provincie). Because of his harsh conduct and power, also the powerful Philips II he had behind him, people were scared of him.

But then, this unorganized, much smaller group of poor peasants, the Watergeuzen, just took back Den Briel from him, making this the first free city of the Netherlands. People won back their courage, and were poised again to keep the Spaniards out. Alva left in 1573, as also his mission had no success. Hilarious! Such a powerful man, driven away by a tiny, not very strong nation.

Reenactment in Den Briel

So no, April Fools does not come from this, but we, the small Dutch nation definitely had fun getting rid of Philips II. And this is remembered every year by the 1-aprilvereniging (the April 1st club) in Den Briel. They reenact the conquest and the victory of the Watergeuzen.

Het Wilhelmus

Also interesting is to note that in the Dutch volkslied (national anthem), the Wilhelmus, the Spanish king is honored. The first couplet, which is still part of the contemporary version, ends with the following words:

Den koning van Hispanje heb ik altijd geëerd (The king of Spain I have always honored).

This part of the Wilhelmus originated in the Hollandse Opstand. It is argued that this part of the song was added not to really honor the Spanish king, as this was the last thing the Dutch wanted to do. But since they officially were subject to Philips II and did not want to aggravate him, they just included this in the song. However, it was never really taken seriously and became more a phrase to mock the Spanish king. Nowadays, it is just included as a reminder to the endurance of the Dutch on road of independence of the Dutch.


I remember, back in elementary school, we would say the following phrase when we played a prank on somebody on 1 april. 

1 april, kikker in je bil, die er nooit meer uit wil!!! – Please guess what this means 😉

And also, of course, what pranks are you going to play on others???



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Keep learning Dutch with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.