Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

Don John's Struggles and Death

Don John was no scribe. Gladly he laid down his pen and rejoiced that the weary correspondence with the Estates was ended, gladly he buckled on his sword and prepared to do battle for the Spanish rights. Already his troops numbered more than 20,000 well-disciplined veterans, while he himself was the most famous chieftain in Europe. Around him too were gathered many officers of renown, among them Mansfeld, Mondragon, and Mendoza, while Alexander Parma, who had already given proofs of the wonderful military genius that was his, was also with the royalist army.

The States troops, though equal in number to those of the opposing army, were handicapped at the outset by the characters of their officers. De Goignies, the Commander-in-Chief, was indeed a veteran who had fought under Charles V., but without distinction, while many of the nobles to whom Orange had entrusted commands were too jealous of the Prince to be whole-hearted in their devotion to their country. Among them, also, were young officers whose inexperience led to their undoing. For the satisfaction of Don John and his Catholic Majesty Philip, the Pope had issued a Bull, declaring once again that all Netherlanders were unbelievers, and therefore under ban and curse, and to be exterminated, should that prove possible.

On the last day of January 1578 the State troops, who had been stationed within a few miles of Namur, began to return towards Gembloux. Don John, at once breaking up his camp before the city, marched in pursuit of the retreating foe, attended by the Prince of Parma. Over the head of the young chieftain streamed the crucifix-emblazoned banner, with its bold inscription, "Under this standard I have conquered the Turks; under it I will conquer the heretics."

Before day was far advanced the rearward column of the States army was seen in the distance. Troops, under Gonzaga and the famous Mondragon, were at once ordered forward to harass the enemy, and do all possible damage to it without venturing on a general engagement until the main army under Parma and Don John should arrive. The orders were at first strictly obeyed, but gradually a spirited cavalry officer advanced nearer to the enemy than was wise, and Gonzaga sent to recall the eager soldier. He was flatly disobeyed. "Tell Ottavio Gonzaga," said the heated Perotti, "that I never yet turned my back on the enemy, nor shall I now begin. Moreover, were I ever so much inclined to do so, retreat is impossible." The retiring army was then creeping along the edge of a deep ravine, which was filled with treacherous mire, and was as broad as, and more dangerous than, a river.

At that moment Alexander of Parma rode up among the skirmishers. At a glance he saw that the enemy were marching unsteadily; he could even see the trembling of their spears as they tried to avoid being thrown into the ravine. He would take advantage of the passing confusion in the ranks of the enemy, and he rapidly assembled the bodies of cavalry already detached from the main body. Then, mounting a fresh and powerful horse, he dashed through the ravine. Tell Don John of Austria," he cried, "that Alexander of Parma has plunged into the abyss to perish there, or to come forth again victorious." Through the dangerous swamp the gallant officer urged his steed, and in another moment it had carried him across in safety. Halting till his troops had also gained the bank, he led them unnoticed to level ground; then, with a few words of encouragement, he launched his little compact column at the foe.

The attack was unexpected, the shock complete; the States cavalry was plunged into confusion, young Egmont, who had command of the division attacked by Parma, trying in vain to rally his men. Assaulted in flank and rear at the same moment, the cavalry turned and fled, and the centre of the States army was left exposed. Nor was it alone from the immediate assault of Parma that it was destroyed, but by the retreat of its own horse, as in a shameful panic it rushed from the scene of battle. The whole States army finally broke to pieces and ran away, hardly staying to defend itself from the onslaught of the Spaniards. Hardly a man in Parma's little band was wounded, while in little more than an hour and a half the whole force of the enemy was destroyed. Of the captives some were soon hurled off the bridge at Namur and drowned in the Meuse, while the rest were hanged, not one escaping with his life. The glory of the day belonged to Parma, whose genius had detected the fatal but almost unnoticed hesitation of the enemy.

The victory was followed up by the capture of several towns, most of them, however, of little importance. When the news of the terrible slaughter at Gembloux spread throughout the country there was great dismay, and burghers in their talk with one another bitterly blamed the officers, some for not being heartily loyal to their own flag, others for the less serious faults of youth and inexperience.

In Brussels itself anger was fierce against the Catholic party, to whose plots and incapacity the defeat of Gembloux was attributed. Orange, with all his influence, could scarcely restrain the citizens from sweeping in a mob to the houses of the leading nobles in order to drag them forth as traitors. In their trouble Matthias was forgotten, and the people turned to the Prince for aid. By his advice all parties joined together to complete the defence of the capital, and measures were at once taken to assemble new troops in the place of the army but now cut to pieces.

The States-General were still anxiously awaiting the King's answer to their letters, written on August 24 and September 8, 1577, in regard to their troubles with Don John. But had they really expected help from Spain they would have been disappointed, for in the early days of 1578 Philip wrote only to express the necessity of maintaining the royal supremacy and the Catholic religion. To their condemnation of Don John's methods and their suggestion of a new Governor-General the King said not a word. To Don John the King also wrote, promising that funds, the lack of which he had so often to deplore, should be more regularly supplied, and advising him with a portion of the money to buy the governors who held the cities belonging to the States.

Meanwhile the armies were once again moving towards each other. Don John was at the head of nearly 30,000 troops, while the new army for the States, under Count Bossu as Commander-in-Chief, hardly numbered more than 20,000 men. Bossu, however, expected to be reinforced by the Duke of Casimir, who had been entrusted by the Queen of England with the levies which she had placed at the control of the States. But Don John would not wait, if he could help it, till Duke Casimir with his 12,000 Germans should join Bossu.

Towards the end of July he advanced towards the enemy, and day by day he offered battle. The result was at first only a succession of indecisive skirmishes, followed, however, on August 1 by an engagement which lasted for nearly eight hours, and in which the royalists were worsted and forced to retire, leaving 1000 dead upon the field.

Don John, wishing to repair his fortune, offered battle on the following morning, which was steadily refused by Bossu, who, secure within his entrenchments, had no wish to run the risk of a general engagement. The royalist army accordingly fell back again to the neighbourhood of Namur.

On August 26, 1578, the Duke of Casimir at length united his forces with those of Bossu. He was neither clever nor unselfish enough to be of real use in the Netherlands during the present troubles, but he had been pushed forward by Queen Elizabeth, who, despite the disinclination of the Prince, believed she was sending him a reliable lieutenant. In her heart she also hoped Casimir might overthrow the influence of the Duke of Anjou, who was now being urged by the Catholic nobles to take the place they had intended for Matthias, which place indeed Matthias now held, but as a dependant of the Prince of Orange in all but name. Orange himself had believed the Duke of Anjou, brother to the French King, might be useful; for should Elizabeth refuse her aid to the oppressed Provinces, he had but to turn to France to force her hand. The Queen of England would rather a Spanish Netherlands than a French one.

Through the intrigues of those who either openly or in secret were hostile to Orange, the Duke of Anjou was now persuaded to enter the Netherlands. He crossed the southern frontier and made himself master of Mons, at the same time that the Duke of Casimir with his troops had joined Count Bossu. The Prince of Orange might well have been daunted by the varied forces thus brought into the unhappy Provinces. Apparently, however, he was resolved to subdue the Duke of Anjou, even as he had subdued Matthias, and the Duke, dull and base in character as he was, understood it was his best policy to cultivate the friendship of one so powerful as Orange.

From Mons, Anjou sent envoys to the States-General and the Prince, ignoring the nominal head of the country, Archduke Matthias. He, poor foolish lad, when he heard of the slight, wept bitter tears, and feebly wished that help from Germany might make this French alliance unnecessary.

The help offered by Anjou was accepted on conditions drawn up by William of Orange. Should he agree to submit himself to the civil government of the Netherlands, and also promise to bring to their aid a force of 10,000 foot and 2000 horse to fight against the Spaniards, the States would confer upon him the title of "Defender of the liberty of the Netherlands."

While these negotiations were being carried on with the Duke of Anjou, Don John, at the head of a large army, was chafing week after week at his enforced inactivity, caused, as was usual in the Spanish camps, through lack of funds. Disappointed at the disgrace to his arms in the late encounter with Count Bossu, and wounded by the King's indifference to his frequent appeals for money, the health of the formerly buoyant chief broke down, and he grew weak and despairing. In his army the plague was raging, and 1200 of his troops were now in hospital, besides many who were being nursed in private houses. To remove the evil, Don John had neither means nor money. Moreover, the enemy, seeing that they were no longer opposed in the open field, had cut off the passage through which money and supplies could reach him, while they themselves had advanced along the Meuse and were in communication with France.

A few days later Don John himself was seized with a malignant illness. Tossing with fever, the gay cavalier was now in but a sorry plight as he lay in a rude hovel, the only room in which had long been used as a pigeon-house. The attendants did their best to make him comfortable, cleansing the garret and hanging the bare walls with flags and tapestry. Alexander of Parma watched by his side, as in the delirium of fever the dying soldier fought over again the battles of his glorious youth. Shrilly he would shout his orders and raise himself with sparkling eyes to listen to the trumpet-call of victory. But as the end drew near the fever left him, and he received the sacraments tranquilly, thereafter breathing his last on October 1, 1578.

When the news of Don John's death reached Philip, he at once appointed Alexander of Parma as Governor-General in his stead.