Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

How the "Beggars" Fought for Their Rights

Of all people in Europe, none are more peacefully inclined than the inhabitants of Holland. They are great workers, and have no desire to engage in quarrels with anybody. There was a time when a portion of their land was under the sea. The water was not deep, and the people built dikes—laying down bundles of brush, trunks of trees, heaping mud upon them, so fencing out the ocean. Then they erected windmills, and pumped out the water. They laid off the land into fields and gardens, built their houses, made the canals their highways, and so, as the years rolled on, there grew up a country, as it were, from beneath the sea.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The Dutch have little time to spend in pleasure. In winter, when the canals are frozen, they get up skating parties but in summer the butter and cheese must be made, and the cabbages cultivated. Everybody must work. Even the dogs are put into harness. By hard, patient labor they have become a thrifty people. Once they all accepted the Pope as L the head of the Church; but they have begun to think for themselves, and are fast becoming heretics. Charles, before be resigned his crown to Philip, began to burn and hang them. He taxed them unjustly, confiscated their property, cast them into prison. The men who ask questions have been sending thousands of men and women to jail. Fires blaze, and men are burned, not because they have committed crime, but because they read the Bible. Since Charles laid aside the crown, Philip has been crushing out the heretics with all his might. More than one hundred thousand have been put to death, thrust into jail, or driven from the country. The people have risen in revolt. One of Philip's officers called them a nation of beggars; they have accepted the term, and have elected as their leader the Silent Man, William, on whose shoulder Charles leaned when he resigned his crown. The Silent Man is giving his money, his time, his energies, to the cause. He was a Catholic; but he sees that men have a right to think for themselves, and is ready to lay down his life, if need be, for liberty. He has been defeated in battle again and again, has been so straitened in circumstances that he had not money enough to buy a breakfast; but he has gathered another army, and is determined to drive the Spaniards out of Holland.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


In 1574, the Spaniards are besieging Leyden. Philip offers the citizens of the town a pardon if they will surrender. But what have they done that they should accept a pardon? Nothing. They have been thinking for themselves, and reading the Bible, which the Pope has forbidden; but have they not a right to read it? If so, they will not ask pardon of any one.

Philip is in Spain, eating bacon-fat and witnessing the burning of heretics. This is the answer which the people of Leyden send to him:

"As long as there is a man left, we will fight for our liberty and our religion."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


General Valdez, one of Philip's officers, is sent by the Duke of Alva to level the city to the ground. After taking Leyden, he will sail up the Great Canal to Amsterdam. Five miles from Leyden is a great dike—the Land-scheiding. Three-quarters of a mile nearer is another, called the Greenway.. There is another still, called the Kirkway. Inside of these are the forts and redoubts—sixty-two in all, which are in the possession of the Spaniards. Half a pound of meat and half a pound of bread is all they have to eat a day, the aldermen weighing it out to each person in the city. On every side the Spaniards pitch their tents. The people of Leyden are shut in. Only by pigeons can they send word to the Prince of Orange. They have no soldiers; but every citizen is a soldier, and so is every woman. May and June pass; there are frequent skirmishes.

"We will pay a bounty for the head of every Spaniard," say the burgomasters of Leyden, and now and then a man steals out, kills a Spaniard, cuts off his head, brings it in, and sticks it upon a pole on the walls, that the Spaniards may see it.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The Spanish general expects to starve the "beggars" into submission.

The days go by. The Prince of Orange cannot raise an army large enough to fight Valdez; but there is one thing that can be done—he can let in the sea upon the laud, and drown out the hateful myrmidons of the Pope and of Philip. The people hail the proposition with joy. "Better a drowned land than a lost land. We can pump it dry again, if we drown it; but if we yield to the Spaniards, our liberties are gone forever," they say.

"Cut the sluices!" It is the order issued by the Silent Man, and men go to work with their spades digging away the dikes. But what will the people in the country do? They must leave their homes. There is a scene of confusion. They take their pigs, cattle, goats, their goods and chattels, on board their boats, and hasten to Amsterdam. It is hard to see the property disappearing beneath the waves, to behold their houses floating away; but better this than to give up their rights.

A pigeon flies into Leyden with a letter fastened to its neck. The burgomaster reads the letter to the people:

"The dikes are cut. There are two hundred vessels ready to sail to your relief loaded with provisions."

The cannon thunder, the bells ring, the people sing a psalm of thanksgiving over the joyful news, for starvation is staring them in the face.

The Spaniards wonder what is going on in the city. It is not long, however, before they know that something is going on outside which they never dreamed of. The water begins to rise around them. What is the meaning of it? It rises slowly. Light dawns upon them. The dikes are broken, and all enemy which they will be powerless to resist is stealing upon them. It rises ten inches, and comes to a stand-still. They are safe. It will not rise any higher. They laugh at the "beggars."

"Go up the steeples, you 'beggars,' and see if the ocean is coming to your relief."

The people go up and look toward the north. They can see water covering the fields, but then it is only a few inches deep, and the Spaniards' camp is still on dry land. They gaze in sorrow, for the bread and meat are nearly gone. People are already starving.

There are sea "beggars" as well as land "beggars," and the "beggars" of the sea are getting ready to come to the aid of their beleaguered brethren.

Admiral Poisot commands them. They are hardy sailors—twenty-five hundred in number. The man on the tower in Leyden discovers the "beggars" of the sea. There they are, only five miles away, two hundred armed vessels loaded with provisions. The vessels have sailed in over the submerged land fifteen miles, passing over fields and gardens. The fleet reaches the great dike—the Land-scheiding, which is guarded by the Spaniards; but the "beggars" of the sea open the upon them. Some of them leap out of the ships, wade to the dike, and quickly overpower the Spaniards. None are spared, but all are put to death.

Now the "beggars" are at work with their spades breaking down the dikes, the water rushes through, and the vessels float on.

The admiral seizes the second main dike, the Greenway, and breaks it down. He floats his ships to a stone bridge, a fortress in itself, swarming with Spaniards. The admiral cannot take it. His vessels ground. The wind is off the shore, and the water, instead of rising, is falling away. For a week the vessels lie there imbedded in the mud.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The wind suddenly whirls north-west, and the waves roll in once more. The vessels float. They are only half a mile from Leyden, but between the fleet and the city is the Kirkway, and the forts, swarming with Spaniards and bristling with guns. Oh, how dismal the days in the besieged town! Thousands have died of starvation. Bread—there is none. All the malt-cake has been eaten. The people are eating dogs, eats, and rats. A few cows only are left. When one is killed, every scrap is eaten. They boil the hide, make it into soup. They eat the intestines, boil the horns to get the last particle of marrow. The famishing creatures strip the leaves from the trees, dig up the roots of grass growing in the streets, and devour them.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Infants starve in the arms of their mothers, and mothers drop dead in the streets, or creep away to die in some lonely place. The watchmen, as they go their rounds, find corpses everywhere. Eight thousand have died of starvation. The air is reeking with malaria, but still the people of Leyden hold out.

Pieter Van der Werff is burgomaster. He stands in the market-place —tall, haggard with hunger, worn out with watching.

There are a few faint-hearted ones. "Give up the city," they cry.

"Would you have me surrender? I have taken my oath to hold the city. May God give me strength to keep it! Here, take my sword; plunge it into my body; divide my flesh to appease your hunger, if you will; but, God helping me, I never will surrender."

Brave Van der Werff! For this heroic firmness your name shall go down the centuries.

"Ha! ha! How do you rat-eaters get on? The sea hasn't come to Leyden yet." It is the taunt which the Spaniards shout, secure in the fortifications.

"You call us rat-eaters. We are; but so long as you can hear a dog bark inside of the walls, you may know that the city holds out. We will eat our left arms, and fight with our right. When we can stand no longer, we will set fire to the city, and perish in the flames, rather than give up our liberties," is the answer hurled into the teeth of the Spaniards.

The night of October 1st comes. The city is at its last gasp. Day after clay the wind has been off the shore, and the fleet has lain motionless in the mud. The wind whirls south-west and blows a hurricane. The sea is rolling in. The water rises. The vessels float. "Hurrah!" The cry goes up from the "beggars" of the sea. The morning comes, the fleet is close upon two of the forts. The Spaniards are seized with a panic. They leave the fortifications, and rush along the dike. The "beggars" of the sea chase them, throwing harpoons, and striking them down just as they have harpooned the walruses of the north seas. Only one fort blocks the path of the "beggars" now. Let them but take that, and the city will be saved. Night comes on. In the morning the '"beggars" will open upon the fortress with all their cannon. The waves are rolling in, dashing over the dikes. Dark and gloomy the hours. In the city everybody is astir; for when morning comes the citizens will make a sortie, and light their way to the fleet.

Crash! There is a sound of a falling wall. The citizens stand aghast, for the waves have undermined the wall of the city, and there is a wide gap through which the Spaniards can enter the town. There is a hubbub in the Spanish camp. All is lost! No, not all. Day dawns. The forts are silent. No Spaniards are in sight, not even a sentinel pacing his beat.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Just outside of the fort is the fleet. The cannon are loaded, and the men stand with lighted matches. The "beggars" of the sea are determined to sweep all before them.

The admiral sees a man wading through the water toward the fleet, while the people in the city see a boy waving his cap from one of the forts. What is the meaning of it?

"They are gone!" he cries.

There is not a Spaniard left. At midnight they fled. The falling of the wall filled then with consternation. They think the citizens are making a sortie, and flee along the dike, and now they are miles away. They might have stayed secure. The fleet might have been beaten back. Had they waited till daybreak, they might have marched into the city over the fallen wall.

Up to the town sail the ships; out from their houses creep the starving citizens. The sailors are tossing meat and loaves of bread on shore. The starving creatures eat as wolves eat; and then they enter the great church, fall on their knees, and, with tears upon their cheeks, give thanks to God.

Never again shall the Spaniard beleaguer Leyden; never again shall Philip encamp his armies in their fields, over which the sea is rolling. They have drowned their land, but have saved that which is worth more than houses, lands, or life—their liberty. From this time on they will wage war against the Spaniards till they drive them from the country. There is great rejoicing in Amsterdam. The people send more supplies to their friends in Leyden. Other cities contribute. Elizabeth of England befriends them. She is greatly moved when she hears of their sufferings, and of their bravery and endurance. She sends Sir William Davison with money to aid them. Sir William has a young man for his secretary, William Brewster, who performs his duties so faithfully that the burgomaster presents him with a gold chain. Let us take a good look at this young man, for we shall see him by-and-by in the old manor-house at Scrooby, and on the shores of New England, laying the foundations of liberty in the New World. Sir William Davison is his friend; and Elizabeth's great minister, Sir Thomas Cecil, has appointed him to this position. He is in high favor. He loves liberty, and his soul is greatly stirred at the outrages committed by the Spaniards. He is learning early in life that liberty is worth more than all things else.