Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Grand Commander Dies

For the space of nine months after the relief of Leyden there was little fighting carried on between the Spaniards and the patriots. Once again the Spanish army was mutinous, and Requesens, with his empty exchequer, had nothing with which to pay them. In April 1575 the Grand Commander wrote to Philip, complaining that it was now five months since he had heard from his Majesty.

To win over the Prince by his favourable terms seemed to Requesens the only way out of his difficulties, and accordingly during these months of inactivity he again approached Orange. But the most he dare offer on behalf of his master was that those of the Reformed faith should be allowed a space of time in which to sell their property and leave the land in safety. Neither the states of Holland and Zeeland nor their Stadtholder would for a moment accept such an offer.

These provinces were now anxious to unite with one another under the authority of the Prince. In April 1575 the conditions of the union were drawn up, and it was declared that William of Orange, as Sovereign, should have absolute power in everything that concerned the defence of the country, while in all other matters his power was assured. In July the Prince formally accepted the government of the devoted provinces of Holland and Zeeland.

A month previously, William, who had been divorced from Anna of Saxony, was married to Princess Charlotte of Bourbon. In sympathy with the Reformed faith, she had, three years earlier, fled from a cloister, in which she had been placed by her friends. Many were the remonstrances made to William, for it was far from pleasing to his friends that the great reformer should marry a fugitive nun. But the Prince did not hesitate. Writing to his brother John, who had joined in these remonstrances, he said, "I can assure you that my character has always tended to this, to care neither for words nor menaces in any matter where I can act with a clear conscience and without doing injury to my neighbour." And the marriage was a happy one, the Princess Charlotte proving herself in many troublous times worthy of the Prince's reliance on her character.

Towards the end of July 1575 the Grand Commander, having found that all negotiations with William ended in failure, renewed hostilities, resolving, if possible, to recover some portion of Zeeland. To do this he resolved to follow the wonderful example of Mondragon and send his army through the sea to capture Zierickzee. The passage would be even more perilous than that accomplished by Mondragon, for now there was not only darkness and the ocean to overcome, but a watchful and determined foe.

The night for which the expedition had been planned proved wild and stormy. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled, while waves dashed over the narrow path along which the soldiers marched. They soon found themselves up to the neck in water, while from the long line of Zeeland vessels the artillery played ceaselessly upon their ranks. Then, as they advanced, the adventurers found themselves attacked by harpoons, and many a soldier fell transfixed by the fatal weapon, while many another was dragged from the war-path with boat-hooks. Still the enemy steadily advanced, and soon after daybreak the opposite shore was reached, though many had perished by the way. The patriot vessels were unable to prevent the enemy reaching Schouwen, on which island was the city of Zierickzee. It was accordingly besieged, and Mondragon was left in charge of the important enterprise. For lack of funds, however, the operations of both besiegers and besieged were but languid.

In the spring of 1576 the Prince came to the neighbourhood to attend personally to the plans that were being made for the relief of the city.

On May 25 Admiral Boisot, the hero of the Leyden relief, was given the command of an expedition, which was to attempt to throw help into Zierickzee by the sea. But Mondragon had blocked the shallow harbour with hulks and chains and with a loose submerged dyke.

Boisot, with his usual boldness, drove his ship, the Red Lion, against these obstacles, but failed to cut his way through them. His vessel, the largest in the fleet, becoming entangled, he was at once attacked by the besiegers. With the ebb of the tide the enemy withdrew, and Boisot found that his ship was aground, while the rest of his fleet had been beaten back by the enemy. Night fell, and it had been impossible for the Admiral to accomplish his task. With the morning his captivity would be certain. Rather than wait to fall into the hands of the enemy he sprang into the sea, followed by 300 of his crew, some of whom succeeded in escaping. The Admiral himself swam for a long time, sustained by a broken spar, but night fell before assistance reached him, and he perished.

Deeply the Prince mourned the loss of his brave and trusted Admiral. Where he had failed none were likely to succeed, and Zierickzee was regretfully ordered by the Prince to surrender, should honourable terms be offered.

Mondragon, whose soldiers were on the point of mutiny, willingly agreed to let the garrison depart with their arms and personal property, while the citizens were allowed to retain their charters on payment of 200,000 florins. There was little money in the impoverished town, but mint-masters were hastily appointed, and to them the citizens brought their spoons and silver dishes, which were melted and coined into dollars and half-dollars until payment could be made.

By the fall of Zierickzee the Spaniards had once more gained an outlet upon the ocean, and the Prince was not easily reconciled to its loss. "Had we received the least succour in the world from any side," he wrote, "the poor city should never have fallen."

Hemmed in on every side, the Prince felt that the time had at length come to face the great question of throwing off allegiance to Philip, should a foreign power be found willing to accept the trust forfeited by the Spanish King. On October 1, 1575, William therefore formally proposed to the Estates of Holland and Zeeland to make terms with the enemy or to throw off for ever their allegiance to Philip and find a new Sovereign to protect the Provinces. Unanimously the Estates declared their independence of Philip and their willingness to accept as Sovereign him whom the Prince of Orange should select. An embassy was therefore sent to England to offer to Queen Elizabeth the Sovereignty of the two Provinces, but she, being fond of neither rebels nor Calvinists, declined the offer, while promising to the Dutch envoys her secret support, which in reality counted for but little.

William, if not in despair, was reduced to great straits. He even dreamed of a wonderful scheme by which to deliver the people and the land he loved for ever from the tyranny of Philip. He would collect a gigantic fleet, and, placing in it all the men, women and children who dwelt in the Provinces, with their property, he would sail with them to seek a new home beyond the seas; while the Netherlands, her windmills burnt and her dykes pierced, would be for ever restored to the ocean from which she had painfully been redeemed.

But the unexpected death of the Grand Commander changed the tenor of the Prince's thoughts. Once more he stood alert, watchful to seize a new opportunity should it arise. A violent fever had attacked Requesens on the 1st of March 1576, and on the 5th of the month he died, in the fifty-first year of his life. In the royalist ranks all was thrown into confusion, and before a successor was found to take up the reins of government, Orange found his opportunity.