Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Siege of Haarlem

Ten miles from Amsterdam lay Haarlem, in which city the spirit of resistance to the Spanish tyranny ran high. The inhabitants were for the most part Reformers of the strictest type. A visit from the Prince of Orange had but lately clinched their determination to make a stand for liberty. With Alva and Don Frederic but a few miles off, they were well aware that their determination would soon be put to the test.

The Prince of Orange was stationed watchfully to the south of the city, without an army, it is true, but ready to organise help for the city should it be needed. His lieutenant, Diedrich Sonoy, had been ordered to take up his post in North Holland. Between them lay the important city of Haarlem, in the narrowest part of the isthmus which separated the Zuyder Zee from the German Ocean, the distance from sea to sea being less than an hour's walk. To the south of the city was a large wood; to the west, beyond the sand dunes, the ocean; while on the east Haarlem looked towards Amsterdam, from which city it was separated by the Haarlem Lake. Communication between the towns was made possible by a narrow pathway which passed along by the side of the dyke. Beyond Haarlem Lake, to the north, the waters of the Y swept across the peninsula.

One of the largest and most beautiful of the cities in the Netherlands, Haarlem was less able to defend herself than many another, for her walls were old, and, though turreted, frail, while the long stretch of the defences made a large garrison necessary. To procure reinforcements was not in her power, and the city's chief hope was in the brave hearts of the burghers. And now Don Frederic, ordered to crown his many triumphs by reducing Haarlem, was approaching.

With the approach of danger the courage of the magistrates gave way, and they were even base enough to treat with Alva, sending three of their number to Amsterdam for this purpose. One of the three discreetly stayed with the enemy, while the other two, on their return to the city, were arrested and condemned to death; for the brave commandant of the little garrison, Ripperda, deemed that no cowards would be of service in the struggle that was before them. Ripperda had assembled the citizens and soldiers in the market-place and warned them that, should they surrender, their fate would be the fate of Mechlin, Zutphen, and Naarden. Soldiers and citizens responded to his appeal, and unanimously swore to die rather than surrender their city. The fugitive magistrate, unashamed, wrote urging the citizens to surrender, but his messenger was hanged. Such was the stern spirit which animated the defenders of Haarlem.

It was the first week in December 1572 when terms were thus roughly refused, and on the 11th Don Frederic appeared before the walls of the city and the siege was begun. The weather was misty and veiled his operations, which did not cease until at least 30,000 men had been encamped around the city. Within the walls of Haarlem the garrison at no time numbered more than 4000.

By the command of the Prince of Orange a cluster of forts had been built along the edge of the mere, by which the command of the frozen lake was secured for Haarlem. The dense fog which hung day after day over the lake, if it served as a screen to Don Frederic, was equally useful to the Haarlemers, for, sheltered by this curtain, large numbers of men and supplies of provisions and ammunition were daily brought into the city, in spite of all the efforts of the besieging troops. All through the short dark days and the long nights of December sledges skimmed backwards and forwards, and men and women, and even children on their skates, brought offerings to the gallant city.

The garrison in Haarlem now numbered about 1000 delvers or pioneers and 3000 fighting men, while there was a strong corps of 300 women armed with sword, musket, and dagger. The chief of this corps was a widow of noble family, a woman honoured by all who knew her. She was about forty-seven years of age when, at the head of her little band, she fought in many of the most fiercely contested actions of the siege, both within and without the walls.

Towards the middle of December the Prince had assembled a force of about 4000 men at Leyden. These he sent, under De la Marck, towards Haarlem, but on the way they were attacked, in a heavy snowstorm, by strong detachments under Bossu, Noircarmes, and Romero, and completely routed. One thousand of the patriot soldiers were slain, while many hundreds were carried off as prisoners and executed on the gibbets which were already erected in a prominent position in the Spanish camp.

On the 18th a cannonade was directed against the Gate of the Cross, which was not very strong, but was commanded by a redoubt. Again on the two following days the cannonading continued, but within the city, men, women, and children worked night and day to repair the breaches as fast as they were made. Everything on which the inhabitants could lay their hands was seized—bags of sand, blocks of stone, cartloads of earth, even the images of saints were dragged from the churches to be thrown greedily into the gaps.

On the 21st December the assault was ordered, Romero leading the attack. He was destined to quail before the fury of his reception. Throughout the city the church bells rang the alarm, and sword and musket did their work, while heavy stones, boiling oil, and live coal descended on the bewildered enemy. Hoops, too, smeared with pitch and set on fire, were skilfully thrown upon their necks, nor could they extricate themselves from the horrible embrace. Romero lost an eye in the conflict, and many officers were killed and wounded, while three or four hundred soldiers were left dead in the breach. The novel weapons had done much damage, and Haarlem was exultant when the trumpet sounded the recall and the Spaniards were compelled to retire, the town still untaken.

Meanwhile the Prince of Orange had assembled another relief party. Two thousand men, with seven field-pieces and wagons full of provisions, were sent forward under Batenberg. All went well till the troops had reached the neighbourhood of Haarlem, when a thick mist came down and the city was completely shrouded in gloom. Not a tower, not a belfry could Batenberg discern. From the city cannons were fired, fog-bells were rung, and on the ramparts beacon fires blazed gaily, but all was useless; Batenberg and his men were lost in the fog. While they were still vainly seeking to find their way into the city the Spaniards stole upon them. In the confusion many were killed. Some escaped and a few even succeeded in reaching the city. But the provisions so eagerly expected in Haarlem were lost, and Batenberg retired with but a remnant of his army. De Koning, the second in command, was taken prisoner. The Spaniards, who had a sorry idea of a jest, cut off his head and threw it over the walls of Haarlem, with an inscription in bold characters: "This is the head of Captain de Koning, who is on his way with reinforcements for the good city of Haarlem." The citizens, not to be outdone in the matter of a joke, grimly cut off the heads of eleven prisoners and put them into a barrel, which they threw into the Spanish camp. To the barrel a label was nailed, with these words: Deliver these ten heads to Duke Alva in payment of his tenpenny tax, with one additional head for interest."

Such ghastly bursts of merriment did not, however, interfere with the serious work of the siege. Since the unsuccessful assault on December 21, Don Frederic had been undermining the fortress that protected the Cross Gate. As fast, however, as the Spaniards mined the citizens countermined, and daily in the dark passages underground desperate hand-to-hand fights took place as Spaniard and Netherlander met. Sometimes it was but a quick, impatient dagger-thrust that was given where the dull lantern dimly showed a foe. A hoarse cry and a groan would follow, and then silence, save for the pickaxe and the spade. The mines were sprung unexpectedly and frequently; and still the Spaniards toiled, and still the besieged, undismayed, dug deeper yet and checked the enemy's advance with sword and spear and horrible explosions.

On January 28, 1573, the burghers were cheered by reinforcements of 400 veteran soldiers, who had been despatched by the Prince of Orange across Haarlem Lake. As the frost still held, the soldiers had crossed on sledges, bringing with them large supplies of much-needed powder and bread. In spite of the Spaniards' efforts the redoubt was still held by the citizens, but they knew it was useless to try to hold it much longer. Should the redoubt be destroyed, Don Frederic believed his way into the city was clear; but the citizens had resolved it should be otherwise, had indeed been working secretly and patiently through the long winter nights that it should be otherwise. On the inside of the redoubt old men, feeble women and little children joined with the strong and able-bodied to build a defence of solid masonry that would save them when the outer protection fell. Of such an obstacle Don Frederic did not dream.

After three days' cannonade, on January 31, the Spaniards were ordered to assault the Gate of the Cross at midnight. The attack was unexpected, but the sentinels defended the walls manfully while they sounded the alarm, and soon the ramparts were manned by citizens, whose sleep was not often deep during those dark and perilous nights. When day at last dawned, the struggle was at its height, the Spaniards being hampered in their movements, as before, by firebrands, melted pitch, and live coal. A general assault was then ordered, and with a tremendous effort the Gate of the Cross and the fortress beyond it were carried by the Spaniards. The troops quickly pressed through the gate, and, mounting the walls of the fortress, prepared to sweep into the city with fire and sword.

But see, they stop, and for a moment stare stupidly, for there, in front of them, bristling with cannon, stands a solid wall of masonry. They have never suspected the existence of such an obstacle. As they hesitate, a sharp fire is opened on them, and at the same moment the fortress, which the citizens had undermined, blows up with a great explosion, carrying with it all the Spanish soldiers who have but a short time before entered it in triumph. The retreat is now sounded, and the Spaniards sullenly withdraw to their camp, leaving at least three hundred dead beneath the walls of Haarlem. Thus gloriously was Don Frederic's second assault repelled.

If the town was not to be taken by assault, it was resolved that it should be reduced by famine, and the Spanish army settled down to watch and wait. But the cold was intense and the food insufficient, and the troops suffered greatly as the winter months dragged slowly by, many of them dying from exposure and the lack of proper nourishment. As for their General, Don Frederic, he grew wearied of the inactivity, and, thinking he had done enough for the honour of Spanish arms, he sent a messenger to his father asking to be allowed to raise the siege. "Tell Don Frederic," was Alva's answer, "that if he be not decided to continue the siege till the town be taken, I shall no longer consider him my son. Should he fall in the siege, I will myself maintain it, and when we have both perished, the Duchess, my wife, shall come from Spain to do the same." Don Frederic understood that he had no alternative save to press the siege.

Within the city the whole population had been put on a strict allowance of food. Nevertheless, the supplies were growing alarmingly less, and should a thaw set in, there was danger that they would be entirely cut off from outside help. Famine no longer skulked in corners, famine was staring them in the face.

By the end of February 1573 a thaw set in, and Bossu, who had been in Amsterdam building a fleet of small vessels, succeeded in entering the Lake of Haarlem with a few gunboats. The Prince was also ready to send his ships to the mere.

Amsterdam was for the time in as great peril as Haarlem, for should the communication along the dykes towards Utrecht be cut, it would be impossible to get supplies for the people in that city. "Since I came into the world," wrote Alva to the King, "I have never been in such anxiety."

Orange too was well aware of the danger of the enemy, but his efforts to profit by their difficulties were frustrated by lack of men and money. He determined, however, to make an attempt to secure the important Diemerdyke. A party of men, under General Sonoy, accordingly entrenched themselves as strongly as they could between the Diemer and the Y, at the same time opening the sluices and breaking through the dyke. Leaving his men thus entrenched, Sonoy then proceeded to a town some little distance off for reinforcements. In his absence his troops were attacked by a large force from Amsterdam, and a fierce contest took place. The soldiers fought in their boats or struggled desperately on the slippery causeway, or, slipping into the water, they carried on the conflict there. Sonoy returned only to find his troops, who had fought bravely, flying before the superior number of the foe, nor with all his efforts could he rally them.

Among the deeds of daring done on the Diemerdyke was none braver than that of John Haring of Horn. Standing alone on the dyke where it was too narrow for two men to stand abreast, he, armed with sword and shield, held in check 1000 of the enemy, hoping that his own men would rally. And when he found that they had fled, he stood dauntless at the post until those of his comrades who yet remained in the entrenchments had had time to escape. Then, plunging into the sea unscathed, he swam to a place of safety.

March came, and still Haarlem held its own, still Don Frederic sat, dogged now and resolute, before the walls of the city. But even yet famine had not subdued the spirits of the citizens. Many were the sallies of the patriots and many the surprises of the Spaniards.

On March 25 the city was gladdened by the capture of seven cannon, nine standards, and, most welcome of all, many wagon-loads of provisions. In this successful venture the patriots had also driven in all the outposts of the enemy, burned 300 tents and killed 800 of the enemy, returning with their spoils to the city. The burghers, in full view of the enemy's camp, made a colossal mound of earth in the form of a grave, and, planting on it the cannon and flags so gallantly won, added the taunting inscription, "Haarlem is the graveyard of the Spaniards."

Alva, who for sixty years had had experience of warfare, wrote to Philip that never was a place defended with such skill and bravery as Haarlem, and added a request for three additional veteran regiments from Milan.

While the Spanish land force was thus in time to be strengthened, the fleet on the Haarlem Lake was already increased. The mere seemed alive with ships, for the fleet of the Prince was also larger and now numbered 100 sail. There was still hope for Haarlem as long as the Hollanders could hold, or even dispute the possession of the Lake. Sea-fights took place daily, but with little result, till at last on May 28, 1573, a decisive battle was fought. The vessels grappled with each other, and a fierce hand-to-hand fight followed. Several thousands were slaughtered ere the victory was won by the Spaniards, who took twenty-two of the Prince's vessels captive and totally routed the rest of the fleet.

In triumph Bossu swept across the Lake, seized the forts on the edge of the mere which had been built by the patriots, and the Haarlemers as well as their allies were now excluded from the Lake.

The dismay in the city was great. Without supplies it would be impossible to hold out longer than three weeks. Would the Prince be able to give them no further aid? Even as they wondered a carrier-pigeon flew into the city, and they read the words with which William hoped to encourage them. He was even now assembling a force, and could they but endure a little longer he would yet succeed in sending them supplies. Therefore, though all through the month of June their sufferings were terrible, the citizens steadfastly set themselves to wait for the promised help.

It was weeks since an ordinary meal had been eaten in the city. Linseed and rapeseed had failed them long ago, and now they were so hungry that they ate without disgust, say rather with relish, cats, dogs, rats and mice, and when there were no more animals left to be devoured, they boiled the hides of horses and oxen and greedily bit at even a leather shoe, were they so fortunate as to find one. Every weed, every nettle showing itself between the stones of the pavement was eagerly gathered for food, that so they might defy the enemy a little longer. Men, women, children died by scores, dropping down in the streets from sheer starvation, while those who were left seemed to walk the streets as living skeletons. Yet never, for all their sufferings, did the courage of the citizens utterly fail.

June passed, and on July 1 the burghers agreed to a parley. It was, however, abruptly ended, Don Frederic offering no compromise.

On the 3rd a tremendous cannonade was reopened on the city. The walls were severely shattered, but no assault followed, for the city could not possibly hold out many days longer. Their Prince seemed to be failing to fulfil his promise. A last letter was now sent to him, written in blood by the despairing citizens, telling him of their desperate straits.

No answer came, and a day or two later they hoisted a black flag on the Cathedral door. It was the signal of despair. Shortly after a pigeon flew into the town. The Prince had not forgotten them. Help was approaching, and could they but hold out two days longer they would be succoured. Indeed the Prince had moved heaven and earth to raise an army to send to the relief of Haarlem, but all his efforts were vain. Soldiers he had none, but a band of burgher volunteers offered to march to the help of the heroic citizens. These, numbering about 4000, assembled at Sassenheim, and the Prince placed himself at their head. But at this there was a loud outcry. The life of the Prince was too precious to Holland to be hazarded thus. Earnestly the people pleaded and protested, and at length they prevailed on Orange to entrust the command of the expedition to Batenberg.

On July 8, at dusk, the expedition set out, and, reaching the woods on the south side of the city, remained there till midnight. The enemy's camp seemed motionless. Batenberg believed he would be able to steal through their lines as they slept.

Never was confidence more misplaced. The enemy was alert, had indeed been on the watch for him for two days. His plans and his numbers were all known, for two doves, bearing letters to Haarlem from the Prince, had been shot and brought into Don Frederic's camp.

Even as Batenberg crept from the shelter of the wood he was attacked by a force superior to his own, and a few moments later he was surrounded by overwhelming numbers. The whole Spanish army indeed was under arms. Batenberg was slain, and his undisciplined troops utterly routed; and thus the last attempt to relieve the city had been made in vain.

In the town the midnight battle was dimly heard, but the citizens were ignorant of Batenberg's arrival, and, thinking the noise but a feint on the part of the Spaniards to draw them beyond their walls, they paid little heed to the disturbance.

When the failure of the volunteer band was known, there were many and unjust reproaches hurled at the Prince throughout the country, but these he bore with the tranquillity which was one of his characteristics. With a heavy heart he wrote to the burghers that the time had come to make the best possible terms with the enemy.

Terms? But the time for making terms was left far behind them! Starvation or slaughter were the only alternatives, for had they not to treat with Don Frederic, the victor and murderer of the inhabitants of Mechlin, of Zutphen and of Naarden? But Don Frederic had seen enough of the spirit of the Haarlemers to dread it still. Should they set fire to the city and perish themselves, their children and their houses in the flames, where were the gains of his hard-won victory? He would offer ample forgiveness would the town submit without further delay. In consequence of this offer of forgiveness the city surrendered at discretion on July 12, 1573.

Slowly the great bell tolled, and the women were ordered to assemble in the Cathedral, and the men in a neighbouring cloister, all arms in the possession of the garrison or inhabitants being first brought to the town-house.

Don Frederic, accompanied by Count Bossu and a numerous staff, then rode into the city. All officers were arrested. Some, however, had already killed themselves rather than yield to the vengeance of the Spaniards. Captain Ripperda, whose courage and eloquence had done so much to sustain the inhabitants during the month of the siege, was among the first to be executed.

Two days later the massacre began, the German troops, of whom there were 600, being, however, dismissed by the orders of Alva himself. The rest of the garrison, as also 400 of the chief citizens, were butchered, while 300 were tied, two and two, back to back, and drowned in Haarlem Lake. Then, vengeance having been taken, tardily the promised pardon was granted, though fifty-seven burghers were exempted from the act of grace and taken into custody as hostages for the good conduct of the other citizens. Of these some were executed, some died in prison, while those remaining were rescued by the Prince soon after the naval defeat of Bossu by the patriots.

In the early part of August 1573, the traces of suffering being removed, Don Frederic, complacent and triumphant, rode through the streets of Haarlem.

Never in the annals of their country will the heroic and steadfast defence of the brave burghers of Haarlem be forgotten, nor ever will the tale of the siege of Haarlem be listened to save with wonder and admiration the wide world over.