I was admitted to the Duke of Lerma’s presence, and took part in the embassy. The Duke exhibited great satisfaction at the excellence and number of the pictures, which surely have acquired a certain fair appearance of antiquity (by means of my retouching), in spite even of the damage they had undergone. They are held and accepted by the King and Queen as originals, without there being any doubt on their side, or assertion on ours, to make them believe them to be such.
—Letter From Rubens at Madrid, to Chieppo, Secretary of the Duke of Mantua
The father of Peter Paul Rubens was a lawyer, a man of varied attainments and marked personality. In statecraft he showed much skill, and by his ability in business management served William the Silent, Prince of Orange, in good stead.
But Jan Rubens had a bad habit of thinking for himself. The habit grew upon him until the whisper was passed from this one to that, that he was becoming decidedly atheistic.
Spain held a strong hand upon Antwerp, and the policy of Philip the Second was to crush opposition in the bud. Jan Rubens had criticized Spanish rule, and given it as his opinion that the Latin race would not always push its domination upon the people of the North.
At this time Spain was so strong that she deemed herself omnipotent, and was looking with lustful eyes towards England. Drake and Frobisher and Walter Raleigh were learning their lessons in seafaring; Elizabeth was Queen; while up at Warwickshire a barefoot boy named William Shakespeare was playing in the meadows, and romping in the lanes and alleys of Stratford.
All this was taking place at the time when Jan Rubens was doing a little thinking on his own account. On reading the history of Europe, Flanders seems to one to have been a battle-ground from the dawn of history up to the night of June Eighteenth, Eighteen Hundred Fifteen, with a few incidental skirmishes since, for it is difficult to stop short. And it surely was meet that Napoleon should have gone up there to receive his Waterloo, and charge his cavalry into a sunken roadway, making a bridge across with a mingled mass of men and horses; upon which site now is a huge mound thrown up by the English, surmounted by a gigantic bronze lion cast from the captured cannon of the French.
Napoleon belonged to the Latin race: he pushed his rule north into Flanders, and there his prowess ended–there at the same place where Spanish rule had been throttled and turned back upon itself. “Thus far, and no farther.” Jan Rubens was right. But he paid dearly for his prophecy.
When William the Silent was away on his many warfaring expeditions, the man who had charge of certain of his affairs was Jan Rubens. Naturally this brought Rubens into an acquaintanceship with the wife of the silent prince. Rubens was a handsome man, ready in speech, and of the kind that makes friends easily. And if the wife of the Prince of Orange liked the vivacious Rubens better than the silent warrior (who won his sobriquet, they do say, through density of emotion and lack of ideas), why, who can blame her!
But Rubens had a wife of his own, to whom he was fondly attached; and this wife was also the close and trusted friend of the woman whose husband was off to the wars. And yet when this dense and silent man came back from one of his expeditions, it was only publicly to affront and disgrace his wife, and to cast Jan Rubens into a dungeon. No doubt the Prince was jealous of the courtly Rubens–and the Iagos are a numerous tribe. But Othello’s limit had been reached. He damned the innocent woman to the lowest pit, and visited his wrath on the man.