Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Patriots Win by Land and Sea

After the horrible fate of Haarlem, resistance to the Spanish arms would cease—so thought Alva and the self-satisfied Don Frederic. They would have but to demand the surrender of a city and it would be on its knees, with keys hurriedly held out to propitiate the wrath of the all-powerful conquerors. But Alva had yet to learn the indomitable spirit that dwelt in the hearts of Holland's sons, the spirit which, unafraid, would nerve the arm to struggle still for its inalienable right of freedom.

Undismayed by the fall of Haarlem, yet fully aware of the dread fate which awaited them should they fail, the inhabitants of the little city of Alkmaar had even now determined to defy the tyrant. Up in this northern stronghold the hearts of the hardy burghers beat strong and true, and the flag of freedom waved proudly from the battlements. Its defiance was noted by Alva. The spirit of resistance was then alive, had even reared itself and stood erect, undaunted, ready to do and dare to the death rather than renounce its faith. That it should indeed be to the death the Duke had determined. Already as he laid his plans he gloated over the downfall of the town. "If I take Alkmaar," he wrote to Philip, "I am resolved not to leave a single creature alive; the knife shall be put to every throat. Since the example of Haarlem has been of no use, perhaps an example of cruelty will bring the cities to their senses."

It was evident that the defiance of Alkmaar had disturbed the Duke's idea of what was fitting. He had no mind to tolerate the folly of Alkmaar or any other city. It should be war to the death.

On August 21, 1573, the town was invested by Don Frederic with 16,000 veteran troops, Alva declaring that it had been done so thoroughly that not a sparrow could find its way into or out of the city. The town itself had only a garrison of 800 soldiers, while about 13,000 burghers were capable of bearing arms. Sonoy, Lieutenant-General for Orange in North Holland, grew uneasy, for all his experience, at the unequal conflict before him, and wrote to the Prince gloomily, hoping that he had a secret alliance with some foreign power, for otherwise the cause of freedom seemed doomed.

Gently Orange rebuked the fearfulness of his General. "You ask," he said, "if I have entered into a firm treaty with any great king or potentate, to which I answer that before I ever took up the cause of the oppressed Christians in these Provinces, I had entered into a close alliance with the mightiest of all potentates, the God of Hosts, who is able to save us if He choose."

It was in the sea that the main hope of Alkmaar lay, for the great sluices of the Zyp were but a few miles distant. By opening the sluices and piercing a few dykes the ocean might be made to bring them help.

Before laying the country under water, and thus destroying all the standing crops, it would be necessary to gain the consent of the inhabitants of North Holland. For this purpose an envoy must be sent with a letter to Sonoy, to the Prince of Orange, and to the Governors in the chief cities of the province. But if, as the Duke had said, it would be difficult for a sparrow to escape from the city, it would be no easy task for a man to leave Alkmaar and reach the Prince unscathed.

A carpenter in the city, however, undertook the important mission, and, with his letters enclosed in a hollow walking-stick, he set out to cross the enemy's lines.

Don Frederic meanwhile was growing tired of the daily skirmishes which were taking place with but little result, and on September 18 he ordered the guns to open fire on the walls of the city. This continued for twelve hours, when an assault was ordered. Two choice regiments led the attack, rending the air with their shouts and confident of victory.

Yet never, even in Haarlem, had the defence been more vigorous. The walls were alive with men, who assailed the Spaniards with cannon, muskets and pistols, while women poured on them boiling water, pitch, oil, molten lead and unslaked lime. Tarred and burning hoops were also again flung over the necks of the soldiers, who knew not how to free themselves from such strange weapons. The invaders might plant a foot upon the breaches, but only to find themselves face to face with doughty burghers, who hurled them headlong into the moat below. Thrice was the attack renewed, and thrice was it repulsed with unflinching courage. At length darkness fell, and the Spanish troops were recalled, leaving at least a thousand dead in the trenches, while in the city only thirteen burghers and twenty-four of the garrison lost their lives.

The fury with which they had been received surprised the veteran troops of Spain. Who were these plain men, with neither helmet nor harness, but dressed for the most part like fishermen, who were they to defeat the choicest regiments in Alva's army? And superstitious terrors swept across the strong men's hearts and made them feeble and afraid. Half-starved fishermen fight as these citizens had fought? Nay, but the city must be protected by some unseen power; and the soldiers crossed themselves and crouched closer to the camp fires, to whisper strange tales, which for aught they knew might be true, of saint and devil, of unknown spirits of light and darkness.

Next morning, after a fresh cannonade, an assault was again ordered, but it was in vain. The midnight fears of the troopers were not thus easily banished, and nothing could prevail on them to face again the unknown foes and strange weapons of yesterday.

Don Frederic threatened, he even stooped to entreaty, but when that proved useless he drew his sword, as did his officers, and ran through the body several of the soldiers as they stood there immovable. Even then their comrades refused to advance, and the assault was of necessity postponed.

The carpenter meanwhile had reached the Prince of Orange in safety, and on September 26 he was in Sonoy's camp with letters from William, bidding the General flood the country at once rather than risk Alkmaar falling into the hands of the enemy. Copies of the Prince's letter, together with fresh instructions, were then carefully enclosed in the walking-stick. There was comfort for the citizens in the Prince's letter, for should it be necessary he solemnly promised that the waters would be set free to sweep the Spanish army from the face of the earth.

Already, indeed, the work had begun. The Zyp and other sluices had been opened, and the water, driven by a strong north-west wind, had reached the neighbourhood of the Spanish camp. The soldiers, uncomfortable, and as the water slowly increased in depth, alarmed, were inclined to prove mutinous. Should the two remaining dykes be pierced, the flood would be complete. Harvests would be swept away and an enormous amount of property would be destroyed, but as certain recompense the Spaniards would be compelled to fly, or be swept away by the ocean.

The carpenter, on his way back to Alkmaar with the reassuring messages from Orange, found it almost impossible to pass through the enemy's lines. As he fled for his life he dropped the stick containing his despatches, the contents of which, however, he told to his fellow-burghers when at length he succeeded in re-entering the city.

But the despatches being found, were carried to Don Frederic. No sooner had the Spanish General read them than he assembled his officers, for of the determined temper of the foe he now had proof. The sea, which was already creeping around their camp, would soon, he assured them, be set free by the will of these unflinching burghers, and no longer creeping, but rushing upon them in resistless fury, would sweep them off the face of the earth. Don Frederic and his officers decided that loyalty to the Spanish arms did not involve an impossible struggle with the waves of the great deep. On October 8, 1573, the inhabitants of Alkmaar could scarcely believe their eyes as they saw the Spaniards hurriedly raise the siege and retreat toward Amsterdam.

Three days after the raising of the siege the patriots were encouraged by a great naval victory.

Early in October 1573 Count Bossu, with a fleet of about thirty ships, sailed into the Zuyder Zee, despite the sunken vessels and other obstacles with which the patriots had done their utmost to make the passage of the Y impossible.

In North Holland a fleet of twenty-five vessels under Admiral Dirkzoon had speedily been equipped, and was now also cruising in the Zuyder Zee. A few skirmishes only took place, Bossu not encouraging his fleet to come to as close quarters as the patriots wished. But on October 11, favoured by a strong easterly breeze, the fleet under Dirkzoon had its will, and bore down upon the Spanish armada, which was lying off and on in the neighbourhood of Hoorn and Enkhuizen.

A general engagement followed, and the Spanish fleet was soon forced to retire, closely pursued by the Dutch vessels. Five of the royal vessels were captured, the rest effecting their escape. But the Inquisition, the largest and best manned of both the fleets, had not run away. Admiral Bossu was on board, and though he saw himself thus basely forsaken by his forces, he scorned to yield. Grappled to the sides and prow of the powerful Inquisition  were three of the smaller patriot vessels, and together, before wind and tide, the four boats drifted. To guide the ships in any direction was not possible, for a life-and-death struggle was at its height. Bossu and his men, armed in bullet-proof coats of mail, stood on the deck, ready to repel any attempt to board the vessel.

The Hollanders fought, as was now their wont, with tarred and burning hoops, boiling oil and molten lead. Fiercely the battle raged and long. It was three o'clock in the afternoon when the fleets had met, and now night had fallen, and still through the long, dark hours, with never a pause to rest, the combat raged. And the vessels drifted together until they were close to a shoal called the Nek, and there they struck on the rocks, but so hotly was the battle raging that the shock was hardly felt.

Battle of Zunder Zee


Then in the early morning John Haring of Horn, the hero of Diemerdyke, clambered on board the Inquisition  and hauled her colours down. A gallant deed and brave, but the ship was not yet prepared to lower her flag, and John Haring paid the price of his reckless deed, for he was shot through the body, and even as he grasped her colours he fell back dead on the deck of the Inquisition.

But a few more hours passed and Bossu saw that it would be folly to resist longer. The ships were aground on a coast hostile to the Spaniards. His fleet was gone, his crew for the most part dead or disabled, while the vessels of the patriots were continually being reinforced by boats from the shore, which brought men and ammunition, and at the same time removed the killed and wounded. Accordingly, by eleven o'clock Bossu surrendered, and he, with 300 prisoners, was taken into Hoorn. The city was not slow to show its hatred of the Spanish Admiral, for it was he whose treachery had caused the massacre of Rotterdam. Deep and bitter were the curses that greeted him, for was he not one of the hated tyrants under whose oppression they were forced to groan. His capture was of great use to Orange, who held him as hostage for the life of his friend, Sainte Aldegonde, the eloquent patriot, who was taken prisoner a few weeks later.

Both Bossu and the patriot were eventually set free.