Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Grand Commander

As the year 1573 drew to a close the Duke of Alva found his position always more galling. Even in Spain his influence was waning, and Philip, annoyed at the recent losses of his army in the Netherlands, failed to support his minister as he had formerly done.

In Amsterdam the Duke was disliked as heartily as he had been in Brussels, and he believed that, hated by both King and people, the time had come when his recall might be effected. His renewed appeal to Philip met with success, and on November 17, 1573, Alva was once more in Brussels to receive his successor, the Grand Commander Don Louis de Requesens. After some show of reluctance the Grand Commander consented to begin his new duties at once, and on November 29 he took the oath as Governor-General, in the presence of the Duke of Aerschot, Berlaymont, and other officers of the State.

The Duke of Alva, relieved of his duties, did not linger long in the Provinces. On December 18, 1573, he left for ever the country which he had for so long trampled under his foot. And a gleam of hope flashed in the hearts of the Netherlanders, and they rejoiced at the departure of the tyrant, rejoiced in silence, yet, as a courtier wrote to Philip, "the Duke had engendered such an extraordinary hatred in the hearts of all persons in the land, that they would have fireworks in honour of his departure if they dared."

The arrival of the Grand Commander was indeed hailed with a gleam of hope, for it was not possible for any human being to prove as pitiless as had the Duke of Alva. Yet the Netherlanders had no great regard for the character of the new Governor-General, nor did they deem it fitting that a simple gentleman of cloak and sword, rather than a Prince of their ruling house, should be sent to govern them.

Requesens came with a policy of peace, subject to but two conditions. The King believed the conditions pointed to the clemency and goodwill he bore his rebellious subjects. They need but acknowledge his absolute supremacy and accept as the one form of worship the Roman Catholic religion, and peace would once again be restored to their country.

For ten long years the Netherlanders had been fighting against the King's attempt to rule them with absolute authority. Was it possible for them now to give up without a protest that for which they had sacrificed life, home and property? For seven years they had been striving to gain freedom to worship God in their own way. Was it possible for them now to give up the slender fruits of their struggles for the sake of an ignoble peace?

The Commander soon learned that it was to be war to the end, that the two conditions on which alone he might base a policy of peace were conditions that would never be accepted by this nation of sturdy and independent burghers.

Meanwhile there was work awaiting the new Governor, for the war was still waging. Middleburg, in the Isle of Walcheren, was still held for the King by Mondragon, who had now been for some time closely besieged by the patriots. There was both merchandise and money shut up in the city, treasures the Spaniards were loth to lose; there was, above all, Mondragon, too brave and distinguished an officer to be left to his fate. Famine was already in the city, and the townspeople had nothing to eat save rats, mice, dogs or cats. Mondragon would be forced to surrender did he not promptly receive supplies.

Requesens' most pressing duty on his arrival was, if possible, to relieve Middleburg. He accordingly collected seventy-five ships at Bergen, which were under the command of Romero. Another fleet, laden with provisions, was assembled at Antwerp under D'Avila.

Meanwhile the patriots had not been idle. The Prince of Orange was at Flushing with Admiral Boisot, who had already a powerful squadron in readiness to attack the royalist fleet.

Late in January 1574 D'Avila arrived near Flushing and awaited Romero. The two commanders, after uniting, were to make a determined effort to reinforce the starving city of Middleburg. Admiral Boisot had already sailed up the Scheldt and taken up a position nearly opposite Bergen. Here the Prince of Orange came to speak to his assembled officers before the action began. In stirring words he reminded them that it was necessary for the sake of the whole country to prevent the city of Middleburg being wrested from their grasp, and he urged them to fight as men fight for their Fatherland. And the officers rent the air with their cheers, and swore to be true to the Prince, and to fight for their country with every drop of blood in their veins.

The Prince, confident of the valour and enthusiasm of the patriot crews, then withdrew to Delft, to make arrangements to drive the Spaniards from Leyden, which city they had now besieged.

On January 29, 1574, the fleet of Romero sailed from Bergen. A general salute was fired in honour of the Grand Commander, the discharge accidentally setting fire to one of the magazines of the ships. With a terrible explosion the vessel was blown to pieces, every soul on board perishing. The fleet, saddened by the occurrence, went slowly on its way. Opposite Romerswaal the patriot fleet under Boisot awaited them, drawn up in battle array. It was evident to Romero that he would not join D'Avila till a battle had been lost or won.

The captain of the patriot flagship had been left on shore. He was apparently dying of fever, and the Admiral had appointed a Flushinger in his stead. Just before the action, however, Schot, the dying captain, so weak that he was "scarcely able to blow a feather from his mouth," staggered on board and claimed his command. Of such dogged stuff were the men made who were that day to fight for their Prince and for their country.

Romero's first division now drew near and delivered a broadside, which killed and wounded many, both officers and men, Admiral Boisot at the same time losing one eye. But there was no chance to cannonade further, Romero's vessels finding themselves grappled and held in the close clutch of their enemies. No mercy was shown in the murderous fight that followed. Battle-axe, pike, pistol, and dagger were wielded with unerring aim by the wild Zeelanders. Should a man yield, he was instantly stabbed and thrown hurriedly into the sea. No thought of plunder touched the patriots—freedom, not booty, was that for which they fought—and the gold chains and other ornaments worn by the Spaniards they did not stop to seize. Furiously the fight continued. Not until fifteen ships had been captured and 12,000 royalists slain did the enemy's fleet retreat into Bergen. Romero, whose ship had grounded, sprang out of a port-hole and swam ashore, followed by many of his men. He landed at the very feet of the Grand Commander, where, wet and cold, he had remained on the dyke of Schakerloo. "I told your Excellency," said Romero boldly, as with difficulty he clambered up the bank, "I told you that I was a land-fighter and not a sailor. If you were to give me command of one hundred fleets, I believe that none of them would fare better than this has done."

Requesens returned to Brussels, owning himself beaten in his first adventure in the Netherlands. D'Avila, hearing that Romero's fleet was destroyed, speedily brought his vessels back to Antwerp, and Mondragon was left to his fate.

Orange now called upon Middleburg to surrender at discretion, but rather than trust himself to his enemy's mercy, Mondragon declared that he would set fire to the city in twenty places, and, together with every soldier and burgher, perish in the flames. Knowing that the brave old Spaniard was capable of thus destroying the city and its inhabitants, the Prince granted honourable conditions, which were signed on February 18, 1574. It was agreed that Mondragon and his troops should leave the city with their arms, ammunition and personal property. The citizens who remained were to take the oath of allegiance to the Prince, as Stadtholder to his Majesty, and were besides to pay a subsidy of 300,000 florins.

With such humane conditions Mondragon could not but be pleased, for well he knew that had the Spaniards been the victors, slaughter and plunder would have been the fate of the city and its inhabitants.

Requesens now bethought himself of the peace policy which the King would sanction, could his two conditions be but complied with. The Prince of Orange was approached through ambassadors and by letters, but he was not to be moved from the conditions he had always laid down as a basis of agreement. These clashed in every point with the King's conditions. For unless freedom to worship God in their own way was granted, the ancient charters of their land restored, and the Spanish and other foreign troops at once removed from the Netherlands, the Hollanders and Zeelanders, encouraged by the Prince, were resolved to fight to the last man.

In the autumn of 1574 the Prince bound himself yet more closely to the cause he had made his own by publicly becoming a member of the Calvinistic Church, which Church had its firmest roots in the Northern Provinces.

The efforts of the Prince to obtain help from foreign powers were now ceaseless. From both France and England he received at this time men and money, but more often his advances were met with rebuffs, or, what was even harder to bear, with evasions and falsehoods. Often, too, his life was endangered by the knife of the assassin, for Philip and his counsellors counted the attempt to get rid of William a righteous deed, and one well pleasing to Heaven. The Grand Commander, who received orders to dispose of both the Prince and Louis of Nassau, far from dissenting from the proposal, only expressed his regret that in this matter he had small hope of success unless God helped him. The Prince, however, informed by his well-paid spies of all that passed in the secret Cabinet of Madrid, had been able thus far successfully to avoid all the traps that had been laid for him.

During the winter Louis of Nassau had been attempting, with the aid of Charles IX. of France, to raise a force with which to join the Prince and enable him to relieve Leyden. He now, with an army of 7000 foot and 3000 horse, crossed the Rhine. With him were his two brothers, John and Henry.

Requesens felt the situation was grave, and at once levied troops in Germany, and ordered Mendoza, with some companies of cavalry, to throw himself without delay into Maestricht. He then drew off the troops which were besieging Leyden to help at the new point of danger.

Louis, failing in an attempt to take Maestricht by surprise, advanced along the right bank of the Meuse, hoping to join William, who had set out to meet him at the head of 6000 men. But, to his disappointment, he found a strong body of Spanish troops under D'Avila directly in his path, and close to the little village of Mook.

At daybreak on April 14, 1574, both armies were drawn up in battle array. The skirmishing began with an attack on Count Louis' trench, which extended from Mook, where he had stationed ten companies of infantry. After a short and fierce struggle the trench was carried, only, however, to be speedily retaken by a detachment which Count Louis sent to the rescue. The battle at this point now became general, nearly all the patriot force being employed to defend it. But once again the Spaniards carried the trench, and the patriots were routed.

Seeing this, Count Louis charged with all his cavalry upon the enemy's horse, which had remained motionless. So sudden was the shock that the Spanish vanguard fled in all directions, Count Louis driving them before him till they reached the river, into which they recklessly plunged, many of them being drowned, while a few only reached the other side in safety. The patriot cavalry wheeled and retired to load their pieces. Ere they were ready for another charge, down upon them came the Spanish lances and the German black troopers. The patriots were unable to withstand the shock, and a confused action followed, in which Count Louis' troops were overthrown.

Finding his army well-nigh cut to pieces, Louis rallied round him a little band of troopers, among whom was his brother, Count Henry, and rushed to a hopeless and desperate charge. But they were soon surrounded and cut to pieces, and nothing more was ever seen or known of the indomitable Louis and his little band. The battle ended amid horrible slaughter, the whole patriot army being exterminated.

Meanwhile, in intense anxiety, the Prince was waiting to hear from Count Louis, but never a message reached him, only dark rumours were sorrowfully reported in his presence, rumours to which he at first refused to listen, but which at last made themselves heard and believed.

The blow was a crushing one, for William had ever looked to the chivalrous Louis for sympathy and help, and now he deeply mourned his loss and that of the gallant Henry, the youngest of the three brothers who had laid down their lives for their country.

As for the victory of Mook, if it had been disastrous for the patriots, it proved of but little real use to Spain, for the royal troops, irritated at having had to work for three years without pay, resolved to mutiny. This they did in a body, choosing a general of their own, and marching towards Antwerp. On April 26, 1574, they entered the startled city, numbering at least 3000, and encamped in the town square. The Grand Commander at once rode down to the rebels and remonstrated with them, but they only answered briefly and unanimously, "Dollars, not speeches."

Requesens withdrew. He was without money himself, Philip having failed, as was not unusual, to send his minister the necessary supplies, but he appealed to the magistrates for the 400,000 crowns needed to satisfy the demands of the troops. To give it without delay would save the city from the pillaging of the soldiers. But the magistrates were not to be hurried, and while they deliberated, the soldiers barricaded the great square, quartered their self-elected general in the town-house, and found homes for themselves in the houses of the wealthiest citizens. Here they demanded the best apartments, the most luxurious meals, the most delicate wines, the burghers not daring to incur the wrath of the heedless soldiers by refusing to do their will.

On May 9 the magistrates offered to pay ten months' wages in cash, five months' in silk and woollen cloths, and the balance in promises to be redeemed in a few days. The offer was received with hootings and groans of disdain. It was not liberal enough for men who had worked for three years without wages. Nowise disturbed, however, the soldiers proceeded to enjoy themselves still further at the expense of the citizens.

May came to an end, and at the same time the patience of the inhabitants was exhausted. The magistrates must rid them without further delay of their troublesome and alarming guests. Accordingly, pressure being put on them, the magistrates at length complied with Requesens' request for money, and he at once proceeded to make arrangements with the soldiers. They agreed, on receiving all their wages, either in cash or cloth, together with a solemn promise of pardon for all their acts of insubordination, to once again obey their officers. Religious ceremonies in the Cathedral concluded with pledges of pardon being given by Requesens to the soldiers, who immediately afterward received the promised payments. A great banquet was then held in the mere to celebrate the day's event. The soldiers in their foolish glee arrayed themselves in costumes cut from the cloth they had received in payment. Bronzed and scarred faces looked out from fantastic draperies of silks and satins and gold-embroidered brocades. The mirth was loud, the banquet rich, and when it was over the soldiers made their drums into gaming tables, and were soon eagerly winning or reluctantly losing their hard-won gold.

Suddenly the distant booming of cannon was heard from the direction of the river. The soldiers, no longer mutinous, were summoned from their games, and, dressed still in their gorgeous decorations, with many a rag peeping through between the silks and satins, were ordered forth upon the dykes. Admiral Boisot had been sailing up the Scheldt, determined to destroy, if possible, the fleet which, under D'Avila, had retreated to Antwerp after the disaster at Romerswaal. He had encountered twenty-two Spanish vessels, and after a short and sharp action he was victorious. It was the booming of his cannon which had interrupted the soldiers' games. From the dykes the soldiers now opened a warm fire of musketry upon Boisot, to which he replied with his cannon. But the distance from the shore made the action unimportant, and the patriots sailed triumphantly down the river. And the Grand Commander felt that the foothold on the sea, which he believed would enable him to reduce the Netherlands, was farther from his grasp than ever.