Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Capture and Surrender of Mons

From the towns of Brill and Flushing the flag of the Prince of Orange was now waving. The capture of these towns proved to be but the beginning of a series of triumphs for the patriot cause, which lasted during the first half of the year 1572.

The Island of Walcheren was equally divided between the two parties. Enkhuizen, the key to the Zuyder Zee, the principal arsenal, and a great commercial town, rose against the Spanish Admiral; nor was it long until the banner of Orange was seen flying from the ramparts. Nearly all the important cities of Holland and Zeeland, in one great spontaneous movement, raised the standard of him whom they at last recognised as the deliverer of their country. Henceforth they swore allegiance to Orange, as lawful Stadtholder to the King.

Nor was the movement limited to Holland and Zeeland. City after city in Gelderland, Overyssel, and Utrecht, as well as all the important towns of Friesland, threw off the yoke of the tyrant; and of these, some without a struggle, others after a short siege, accepted the garrisons of the Prince, and formally recognised his authority.

During the outburst of enthusiasm in Holland and Zeeland the Prince was in Germany, working on behalf of the oppressed Provinces, Sonoy being sent to act as Lieutenant-General in the north of Holland.

Louis of Nassau meanwhile was in France, negotiating with the leaders of the Huguenot party, and secretly with the French Court. From France he now made a startling, and to Alva an entirely unexpected descent upon the town of Mons.

Mons was the capital of Hainault, and an important town, protected by lofty walls, a triple moat, and a strong citadel. Situated close to the frontiers of France, it was specially suited to the needs of the patriot party. A native of the city, Antony Oliver, had won the confidence of Alva while preparing for him at different times some well-executed maps of the country. Oliver was on his way to France at this time, and had been employed by the Duke to keep a watch over the movements of Louis of Nassau, and to report on the progress of his intrigues with the French Court. But Oliver had made a dupe of the great Duke, for he was no spy, but a friend and correspondent of Orange. What he had to say to Count Louis in Paris was not, therefore, quite what Alva had expected. Oliver was indeed telling Louis that there were already many adherents of the Prince in Mons, who were waiting and eager to co-operate with him and the Huguenot leaders—Genlis, De la Noue, and others—would they but attempt to secure the city.

On May 22, 1572, Oliver was at the gates of Mons with three wagons, supposed to be carrying merchandise, but in reality laden with arquebuses, which he distributed among his confederates in the city. That same day Count Louis, believed by Alva to be still safely in Paris, also arrived in the neighbourhood of Mons. He had with him 500 horsemen and 1000 foot soldiers, which force he concealed in a thick forest close to the city.

Towards evening twenty men, dressed as wine merchants, might have been seen entering the city gates. Nor were there any to say, "Beware of the wine merchants, they are followers of the daring Count, Count Louis of Nassau." The wine merchants went boldly to a wine shop, ordered supper, and as they chatted with the landlord carelessly asked at what hour next morning the city gates would be opened. About four was the usual hour, they were told, but a "drink-penny" given to the porter would ensure them being opened earlier. "Ah! in that case we will bring some casks of wine into the city before sunrise," said the merchants, and, bidding their host a friendly good-night, they wended their way out of the city.

Early the next morning the wine merchants were at the city gates, and the porter, receiving a handsome "drink-penny," agreed to unlock them. But no sooner were the bolts withdrawn than he was struck dead, while about fifty dragoons rode through the gates. Close on their heels followed the Count and his attendants, and soon they were galloping over the city in the early dawn, shouting, "Liberty! Liberty! the Prince is coming! Down with the tenth-penny tax! Down with the tyrant Alva!" In spite of the cries, not one of the secret confederates joined them. The streets were quiet and empty, and daylight was spreading. Count Louis began to fear a trap, and looked anxiously for his army, which should have followed hard upon his footsteps.

Inaction was impossible, and Louis galloped out of the town in search of his troops, whom he found wandering in the woods, where they had completely lost their way. Sharply rang out his orders to each horseman to take a foot soldier on the crupper behind him, then, turning, he led them speedily towards the city. Nor were they a moment too soon, for the citizens, having at last been roused to their danger, had closed all the gates but one, where the porter was quarrelling with a French soldier over an arquebus. The drawbridge across the moat had even begun to rise, when a French officer riding with Count Louis urged his charger forward and sprang upon it, causing the bridge to sink again under his weight. The troops seized the opportunity and thundered across, forcing the gate on the other side, and riding triumphantly into the city.

Louis then ordered the bell to be rung, and in answer to its summons the burghers, with their magistrates and clergy, assembled in the market square. "I protest that I am no rebel to the King," cried the impetuous Count when silence had fallen upon the crowd. I prove it by asking no new oaths from any man. Remain bound by your old oaths of allegiance. Against Alva alone have I taken up arms; 'tis to protect you against his fury that I am here. I demand, then, that you declare Alva de Toledo a traitor to the King, an enemy to the country, and thereby deprived of authority." " 'Tis a bold demand," whispered the timid magistrates anxiously the one to the other, and they rejected it.

But the burghers would not be guided by their craven leaders. They would hold their city against the Duke. Volunteer troops were speedily organised and drilled, and the fortifications of the city strengthened, the expenses being borne by the owners of the great cloth and silk manufactories for which Mons was famous. No attempt was made to force the Reformed religion on the citizens, nor did the Catholics suffer personal injury, though plate, jewelery, money, and other valuables which had been sent to the city from the churches and convents of the province were seized. Thus, with little bloodshed and no violence, Mons was secured for the patriots.

Three days later Louis received 2000 French infantry into the city, and early in June he was still further strengthened by the arrival of 1300 foot and 1200 horsemen.

The Duke of Alva found himself in the very midst of a revolution; Brill and Flushing were lost, and Middleburg was closely besieged. The news of the revolt of Enkhuizen was followed, two hours later, by that of the rebellion of Valenciennes, while the following day brought the incredible information of the capture of Mons.

Louis of Nassau master of Mons! Alva refused to believe it. It was but the other day that Count Louis had been seen playing in the tennis court at Paris! It was impossible that he should have already reached the province of Hainault.

When at length he was convinced that the disastrous tidings were true, Alva in a fury dashed his hat to the ground, and vowed vengeance against the house of Nassau. Don Frederic, his son, was ordered at once to undertake the siege of Mons, while Alva himself began to raise large reinforcements. Without much opposition Don Frederic proceeded to take possession of the Bethlehem cloister, in the neighbourhood of Mons, and with 4000 troops began to besiege the city, Count Louis meanwhile despatching Genlis to France for the further reinforcements which had been promised by the royal lips of the French King. Sharp combats before the walls were constantly taking place, and it was obvious to Louis that he would be unable to hold the town unless help reached him from without.

Genlis had, however, speedily accomplished his mission, and was already returning to Hainault with a force of Huguenots, whose numbers, being unknown, were greatly magnified. The Spanish enemy held its breath at the report of an approaching army of 10,000 veterans.

It would be necessary for Genlis to approach Mons with great caution. Louis sent an earnest message to him, urging that he should join Orange who had already crossed the Rhine with a new army before he attempted to throw reinforcements into the city. Unfortunately, Genlis disregarded Count Louis' advice. It would, he believed, be a more glorious adventure to relieve the city alone, unaided by the Prince. Accordingly, towards the middle of July he advanced to within two leagues of Mons, and on the 19th of the month he encamped in a circular plain, surrounded with forests, and dotted here and there with farmhouses. A detachment was sent to reconnoitre, but they were soon to be seen hastening back to the camp. "Don Frederic of Toledo is coming instantly upon us," they cried; "Don Frederic, with 10,000 men." In reality the Spanish force was not so great, but 3000 half-armed boors had been engaged by Don Frederic to add to the apparent number of his troops. The panic this caused among the French Huguenots was not easily allayed, and before they were aware, Noircarmes was charging upon them at the head of his cavalry, and the infantry arriving directly after, the army of Genlis was entirely routed.

The slaughter of the Huguenots was great, and among the many officers taken prisoners was the Commander-in-Chief Genlis himself, who was imprisoned in the castle of Antwerp. Sixteen months later he was secretly strangled by the command of Alva, who, however, took care that it should be reported that he had died a natural death. One hundred foot soldiers alone succeeded in making their way into Mons, and this was the only help Count Louis was destined to receive from France.

On August 27, 1572, the Prince of Orange with his new army crossed the Meuse, many cities and villages accepting his authority as he passed along. With Mechlin, the most important of these, Alva was specially angry, as it had but lately excluded his own troops. To the very gates of Brussels the Prince of Orange marched, but the city being too fearful to open its gates, and too strongly defended to be attacked, the Prince passed on his way. He was looking hopefully for the promised aid of the French Admiral Coligny, at the head of a large army, for with such reinforcements William believed the Netherlands would soon be free and Alva in his power.

On August 11, 1572, Coligny had written to the Prince that, sanctioned and aided by his King, he expected soon to begin his march towards the Netherlands.

But an awful catastrophe was on its way, a catastrophe that caused the whole world to pause in its wonted course, and that petrified all those who put their trust in kings. Saint Bartholomew's day dawned, and before its close Admiral Coligny and thousands of the Huguenot party who had been deliberately lulled into security by royal promises were butchered in the streets of Paris.

To Orange the awful tidings from France meant that the fate of his campaign was sealed. Without the French reinforcements on which he had relied, it would be impossible to relieve Mons. But the news which, in the Prince's own words, "had struck him to the earth with the blow of a sledge-hammer," brought only delight to the Spanish camp. They celebrated the massacre of Saint Bartholomew with bonfires and illuminations; they even sang anthems in the church of Saint Gudule in honour of the stupendous murder achieved by the most Christian King of France; they rejoiced, for they knew that the fate of Mons was sealed.

The Prince with his army now turned towards Hainault. On September 11 he reached the village of Harmignies, about a league from Mons, and that same night his camp was attacked by the Spaniards. Creeping through the darkness of the night, 600 men, each wearing a white shirt over his armour, that he might at once see a comrade, and led by their captain, Julian de Romero, made their way towards the camp of the Prince. The sentinels were surprised and cut down. Then the small band of Spaniards dashed in among the enemy, who, suddenly aroused from sleep, were little able to defend themselves. For an hour the slaughter continued, but Romero and a few of the boldest had gone in search of William of Orange. They saw his tent before them. They would capture a prize indeed should they capture the Prince. Yet more stealthily they drew near. His guards slept. William himself was in a profound slumber. All at once a small spaniel who slept on the Prince's bed began to bark furiously and to rub his master's face with his paws. He had heard strange footsteps, this faithful hound. There was but just time for the Prince to spring from his bed, mount a horse which was ready saddled, and gallop into the darkness, before his enemies sprang into his tent. William's servants were killed, and his master of the horse, who gained his saddle but a moment later than the Prince, lost his life. Had it not been for the faithful spaniel it would seem that the bold Romero would have captured his prize. In their fury at his escape the Spaniards set fire to the tents, and in the blaze the Orangists saw that the force that had attacked them was but small. Before they could rally, however, Romero had led off his men.

Six hundred of the Prince's troop had been killed with the sword, while many others were burned in their beds, or drowned in the little river which flowed past the camp, while only sixty Spaniards had lost their lives. The remainder of the Prince's troops were now on the verge of mutiny and furious at his inability to pay them. Indeed, but for the exertions of the officers, who loved and respected their General, his life would not have been safe from the rough soldiers.

With a heavy heart William wrote to Louis of his forlorn condition and inability to relieve Mons, at the same time advising him to capitulate on the best terms he could make. He then took his way across the Meuse, and, marching to the Rhine, crossed it also and disbanded his troops. Thereafter he made his way almost alone to Holland, the only province which still remained true to him. Here warm hearts were beating, and no conqueror could have been greeted with more love and respect than was William after his disastrous campaign. Here in the North, where the spirit of resistance to Spanish tyranny was still vigorous, the Prince resolved to stay. From henceforth his interests were absolutely identified with those of the heroic Hollanders and Zeelanders, who were struggling, at tremendous odds, for freedom.

Meanwhile in Mons the position of Count Louis became daily more difficult. He himself lay in bed with a high fever. His soldiers, knowing that no further help could be expected from the French King, Charles IX., and hearing that Orange had withdrawn his forces, refused to hold the city longer.

Accordingly, when Alva offered honourable conditions, Louis felt that to capitulate was the only course left open to him, and on September 19, 1572, the capitulation was signed, it being expressly agreed that all the soldiers, as well as the inhabitants who had borne arms, should be allowed to leave the city with their property, while those who remained should be safe from injury to either their persons or their goods.

On September 21, Count Louis, still prostrate with fever, was carried out of the city on a litter, being greeted by Alva with perfect courtesy. By easy stages he was conveyed to Dillenburg, where, under the care of his mother, he slowly regained his strength.

Alva entered the city on September 24, 1572. Most of the volunteers had withdrawn with the garrison, but those who had tarried were instantly thrown into prison, notwithstanding the terms of the capitulation.

Soon after Noircarmes arrived at Mons, having been appointed grand bailiff of Hainault He at once began to pillage and massacre the inhabitants, and, not content with this, he proceeded to institute a Commission of Troubles, in imitation of the Blood Council at Brussels. Day after day, month after month its cruel work went on, nor was it abolished until August 27 in the following year. And when Requesens, Alva's successor, caused the prison of Mons to be opened, there were found seventy-five condemned creatures still awaiting their terrible fate.

Mons regained, the revolution in the southern Netherlands was at an end. The keys of that city unlocked the gates of all others in Brabant and Flanders. Towns which had but lately accepted the authority of Orange now hastened to disown the Prince and to return to their cowardly allegiance to Alva. The new oaths of fidelity were for the most part accepted by Alva, but the beautiful city of Mechlin, which had excited his special wrath, he reserved for signal punishment.

As was usually the case, heavy arrears were due to the Spanish troops. To satisfy their demands Alva resolved that Mechlin should be looted. Don Frederic was sent to the town to command its surrender. In answer a few defiant shots were fired from the ramparts. It was a brave answer, but during the following nights the troops proved faithless and marched away, leaving the town defenceless.

Early in the morning a solemn procession of priests with banners and crozier issued from the city gates, closely followed by a suppliant throng of citizens. Slowly as the priests moved they sang their psalms of penitence. Did they dream that thus they might avert the tyrant's wrath? If it were so, they were soon roughly awakened. Before the chant was ended, thousands of Spanish soldiers had rushed through the gates or climbed the walls and entered the city in hope of booty. The sack had begun.

Don Frederic and General Noircarmes were in the city while the soldiers did their cruel deeds, but it was in vain that petitions were brought to them, entreating them to save the city from destruction. "They were seen whispering to each other in the ear on their arrival," wrote an eye-witness of the scene, "and it is well known the affair had been resolved upon the preceding day."

When the three-days' raid was over "hardly a nail was left standing on the walls," and Alva applauded his soldiers for the energy with which they had carried out his desire for vengeance on the beautiful city of Mechlin.