Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Spanish Fury

On the death of the Grand Commander the members of the Council of State had of necessity to attempt to govern the country while they awaited the arrival of a new Governor-General. With the exception of Jerome de Roda the members were Netherlanders, and several of them, among whom was the Duke of Aerschot, were weary of the presence of foreign soldiers in their provinces, and little disposed to brook the further interference of Spaniards in the government of the land. Indeed, the conduct of the soldiers, after the capture of Zierickzee, was filling not only the Government but the populace with dismay. For nine long years they had worked for Philip with but little pay. They had resolved to wait no longer for their wages, and the mutiny on the Island of Schouwen was, by the month of July 1576, already general. Promises were no longer of any use. The soldiers wished for shoes and bread, and at all costs money. To obtain it they resolved to levy themselves on the cities of the Netherlands. Their first step was to imprison their officers within their quarters at Zierickzee, their next to surround the house of Mondragon and call upon him, with threats and taunts, to give them the wages long since due.

The veteran, furious with the insubordination of his men, and fearless of the consequences, sprang into their midst, fiercely daring them to do their worst. But the soldiers turned away, shamed into admiration for the General who had led them to so many victories. They swept through Schouwen, and only when they had stripped it bare did they prepare to leave Zeeland and make their way to Brabant. Terror marched before them, while, as they advanced towards the capital, Count Mansfeld was deputed to meet them and offer them everything but money. But money or a city they would have, and Mansfeld's overtures were laughed to scorn, and he withdrew, having accomplished nothing, as was shown by the mutineers' next movement. Descending on the unfortunate town of Alost in Flanders, they carried it by storm, butchered all the inhabitants and took possession of the well-fortified and wealthy city. They were now nearly three thousand strong.

In Brussels alarm disappeared in rage, and the population rose to a man to defend the capital with their arms. Moreover, they demanded that the Council of State should declare the rebel soldiers to be outlaws, and on July 26, 1576, this was accordingly done. Men everywhere were commanded to slay one or all of them wherever they should be found, to refuse them bread, water, fire, and to assemble at the sound of the bell in every city where the magistrate should order an assault upon them. On August 2 an even more stringent edict was published against them throughout Flanders and Brabant.

The Spanish officers had meanwhile had no dealings with the insurgents. Jerome de Roda had indeed voted in the Council for the edict against the men, yet as the insurrection spread, not only he, but every Spaniard in the capital, was looked on with suspicion by the populace and kept watch over accordingly. As for the Council itself, the citizens had little regard for it, believing it incapable of shielding them from the violence of the soldiers.

By the beginning of September 1576 the whole country seemed subdued by the soldiers, whose officers had now joined them in their revolt. D'Avila, who held the citadel at Antwerp, was in communication with the mutineers at Alost, while the castles of Valenciennes, Ghent, Utrecht, Maestricht, and many other important citadels were held by a body of veteran soldiers, 6000 strong. Out of Holland and Zeeland, Brussels was the only important town that was in the hands of the Netherlanders. From Philip the people need expect no help. He sent indeed an envoy to assure them that they were not forgotten in Madrid, and that a successor to Requesens would soon be found to cure their troubles. Meanwhile he confirmed the authority of the State Council, which had already ceased to exist.

Orange, watching the distracted state of the Provinces, believed that the time had come when Holland and Zeeland might be united with the other fifteen provinces more closely, on the basis of their common hatred to the foreign soldiers. As for their differences in politics and religion, these might be sunk till their land was free from its hated yoke.

In the autumn of 1576, in response to his appeals, deputies from the other provinces were appointed to meet the representatives of Holland and Zeeland. The congress met in the city of Ghent, which was at that time being closely besieged by the State army, assisted by Orange. The meetings were held within earshot of the continual cannonading and assaults of the attacking force.

While the siege of Ghent was being thus vigorously carried on, the citizens of Maestricht determined, if possible, to wrest their city from the hands of the Spaniards. They succeeded in winning the German garrison within the town to their side, and, thus strengthened, the burghers rose and drove the Spaniards without the city gates. The triumph was but short, for a few companies of the banished Spaniards collected at the small village of Wieck, on the opposite side of the Meuse from Maestricht, and here were speedily joined by Don Frederic with several hundred troops. Their own officer had been taken prisoner, and Don Frederic was loudly called upon to lead them back to the city, that they might wipe out the disgrace to their arms. But the bridge over which they must pass was defended by a strong battery, and the citizens were thronging in thousands to defend their homes from the dreaded foe. Before the deathly passage, despite their eagerness, the soldiers flinched, but Don Frederic was quick to supply an invulnerable shield for his faltering troops. There were few men in the little village of Wieck, but many women. Don Frederic commanded each of his soldiers to seize on one of these defenceless women, and, placing her before his own body, to advance across the bridge. And this they did unhindered, for how could the citizens of Maestricht dare to discharge their cannon, knowing that among the women were many of their own kindred, mothers, wives, sisters?

The bridge by this cowardly device was soon secured, and Maestricht was recovered by the Spaniards, and so awful was the fate of those who had escaped from the battle, that a shudder was felt throughout all the land, a shudder not only for the fate of Maestricht, but for the doom that seemed to be hanging over many another fair city.

It was on October 20, 1576, that Maestricht was retaken, and within a few days, foiled in an attempt upon Brussels, the troops marched towards Antwerp, the commercial capital. Here would be gold enough and to spare, and in the massive warehouses would be treasures untold, collected from many a far-off clime. Already the citadel was in the hands of D'Avila, who was now regarded as the chief of the mutineers. It was indeed from him the rebels took their orders.

Champagny, Governor of the town on behalf of the States, had before him no easy task. With only a body of German mercenaries under the command of Count Oberstein to assist him, he knew it would be impossible to save Antwerp from the advancing Spanish troops. At his request, therefore, a large reinforcement of Walloon regiments, under the Marquis of Havré, was sent to the city, and preparations for defence were vigorously carried on.

D'Avila meanwhile had secured Count Oberstein, and persuaded him, when half drunk and wholly irresponsible, to sign a treaty, agreeing to disarm the burghers of Antwerp and send the weapons to the citadel. But the next morning Oberstein, realising what he had done, resolved to ignore the treaty he had foolishly signed, and the burghers retained their arms. Not many hours passed ere D'Avila solemnly called upon the Count to carry out his compact, but Oberstein chose to defy the challenge and treat it with contempt. The result was an immediate cannonade from the batteries of the citadel, which was full of danger to the men and women who were rapidly erecting a rampart along the street. Night fell, but in the bright moonlight the cannon still played on the half-finished fortification, till the Walloons, and at length even the citizens, feared to raise their heads above the frail rampart. Champagny did all that was possible to encourage the workers, wandering all night up and down the city, and with his own hands, assisted by only a few citizens and his own servant, planting the battery at a point where it would tell on the citadel.

Early next morning, through a thick mist that hung over the city, men were seen entering into the castle, and the tramp of cavalry was heard. By ten o'clock the mist had lifted, and from the south-west a moving forest seemed to be approaching. The whole body of the mutineers from Alost, wearing green branches in their helmets, were arriving. Three thousand strong, they rushed into the castle and were warmly welcomed by D'Avila. The refreshments that were offered them they refused. "We will dine in Paradise," they cried, "or sup in Antwerp," and their leader was not the man to balk their mood.

Champagny, seeing that an attack was imminent, mustered the whole of the force of the city. Havré claimed as his right the place of honour and responsibility opposite the citadel, where, accordingly, the whole body of his Walloons and a few companies of Germans were stationed. The ramparts were far from strong, but their strength was increased by the living barrier of 6000 men. Against the determination of these burghers it seemed that even the Spanish fury might be swept aside.

It was noon when 5000 foot soldiers, followed by 600 cavalry, sallied out of the citadel. They bore a standard, these men whose deeds were so inhuman, on one side of which was emblazoned the crucified Saviour, while from the other looked down the pitiful face of the Virgin Mother. Falling on their knees, as was their custom, they invoked the aid of God, and then swept forward confidently into the city. Champagny saw them coming, and spoke a last word of encouragement to the soldiers. The next moment the Spanish troops struck the barrier, and the Walloons, forsaking the post their leader had himself claimed for them, fled, terror-stricken, never staying to look the enemy in the face. Without a struggle the Spaniards crashed through the ramparts and poured into the streets.

Champagny hastily collected a small force of German troops and led them in person to the rescue. The Germans were brave, and fought well and died hard, but their courage could not restore bravery to the ranks of the Walloons, who were in full retreat. As an ensign fled past him, Champagny seized a banner from his hand and called upon the nearest soldiers to rally against the foe, but he called in vain. Still the Governor would not despair. He galloped hither and thither, calling upon the burghers everywhere to come to defend their homes. And they came forth in answer to his call, from every nook and alley they came, and fought as men fight to defend their hearths. "Saint James! Spain! Blood, flesh, fire!" the hideous cries echoed in their ears and nerved their arms with fiercer strength. But the foe was solid, disciplined, resistless, and steadily bore the ill-armed burghers down, down, to be trampled and spurned beneath its feet.

The massacre was enormous, and Champagny, who had hoped to make a last stand, found himself deserted, as the mingled forms of fugitives and conquerors swayed hither and thither like a storm-tossed sea. With great daring the Governor, seeing all was lost, made his escape, while Oberstein, attempting to leap into a boat, missed his footing and was drowned in the river.

The short November day was nearly over when the last few burghers stood at bay in the great Square. Around them blazed the burning houses, for the enemy had set fire to the buildings with their torches, and thousands were perishing amid the flames. But in the square the heroic Margrave of the city still fought with the desperation of despair. At his feet the burgomaster lay dead. Senators, soldiers, burghers fell fast around him, and at last he, too, sank among the slain. With his death resistance ended, the few remaining patriots being butchered or forced downward to the Scheldt to perish there.

Never was more awful fate than that meted out to the city of Antwerp, never more awful doom than that which overtook the inhabitants. The Spanish Fury sent a thrill of horror throughout Christendom, while in the Netherlands itself it aroused a frenzy of indignation against Philip, the author of all this untold misery.

At Ghent the members of the congress felt it impossible to spend more time in discussion. Events were moving too quickly for their slow deliberations. Accordingly, a treaty was at once concluded between the fifteen provinces of the Netherlands and the States of Holland and Zeeland. By this treaty, known as the Pacification of Ghent, all the provinces bound themselves to unite for the purpose of driving the Spanish soldiers and other foreigners from the country. All placards against heretics were abolished. The Prince of Orange was recognised as Governor of the Provinces, and Admiral-General in Holland and Zeeland, while the edict confiscating the property of the house of Nassau was revoked. This treaty was the result of the labours of the Prince of Orange, carried on through many years of defeat and opposition. It was signed on November 8, 1576, on which day also Ghent fell into the hands of the States. By the withdrawal of the mutinous troops from the north, the Prince had also been enabled to regain Zierickzee, and with it the whole Island of Schouwen.