Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

Philip in the Netherlands

As sovereign of the Netherlands Philip's first act was to visit the Provinces to receive from them their oaths of allegiance. He was but little known to his new subjects, for it was now seven years since he had first visited the Provinces, damping the enthusiasm of the people by his cold, ungracious manner. The impression of disappointment had been renewed by Philip's unfortunate reserve and inability to speak to the people in their own language on the occasion of Charles V.'s abdication, which had just taken place. In spite of this his tour through the Provinces was prepared for with an eagerness which might well have gratified the new ruler.

But once again enthusiasm was met by indifference. Philip rode through the streets of the different Provinces shut up in a carriage, seemingly anxious to escape from the gaze of his subjects, while their demonstrations of loyalty served only to annoy him; and it was scarcely surprising that as the tour was drawing to a close the enthusiasm of the Provinces waned. Slowly they realised that they, with their country, had passed into the hands of a foreigner, to whom their nature and their customs were alien.

On his return to Brussels Philip proceeded to appoint a Regent in the place of Queen Mary of Hungary, who had resigned the post on the abdication of Charles V. His choice fell on the Duke of Savoy, a vagrant cousin of his own, who was yet a brave and experienced soldier, having indeed been beloved by the Emperor as one of his most successful commanders. War being his element, his adventurous spirit had but little love for peace. Yet at the moment of his appointment to the Regency of the Netherlands peace reigned. For Charles, who had waged war all his life, thinking to make his son's career more smooth than had been his own, attempted, as the last act of his reign, to procure peace among the nations. By his efforts a treaty of truce, rather than of peace, had been signed on the 5th February 1555, a truce of five years by land and sea for France, Spain, Flanders, and Italy, and for all the dominions of the French and Spanish monarchs. Unfortunately those who signed the treaty had no intention of keeping it longer than was convenient.

Meanwhile, however, the Netherlands especially rejoiced that at last peace reigned. And they had reason to do so. For to furnish money and soldiers had been their part throughout the long campaigns of their Emperor, and even victory when it came had brought them little benefit.

Antwerp, whose trade had suffered greatly during the long wars of Charles V., believed that with the truce her troubles would be over. Her rebound from depression to rejoicing was, as ever, exuberant. Oxen were roasted whole in her streets, barrels of wine were freely distributed to the citizens, and triumphant arches adorned the pathways. And while the Netherlands were, as was their way, feasting and ringing merry bells and lighting bonfires, Philip, knowing well how unstable was the treaty, had even now begun to revolve new military schemes—schemes which would once more plunge his unconscious subjects into the horrors of war. Vain indeed were the rejoicings of the Netherlanders, for a year later the truce was broken by the French King Henry.

Philip, finding his expectation of war realised, crossed to England, there to cajole the Queen, and if possible to browbeat her ministers to join with him in war against France. He spent three months in England, and, as a Spanish historian tells us, did more than any one could have believed possible with that proud and indomitable nation. He caused her to declare war against France with fire and sword, by sea and land. Queen Mary, always willing to gratify Philip, and on this occasion supported by her Parliament, sent an army of 8000 men to join in the war against France. These—cavalry, infantry, and scouts—were all clad in blue uniform.

Philip meanwhile returned in haste to the Netherlands, and at once gave orders to organise a large army, composed mainly of troops belonging to the Netherlands. With some German auxiliaries, the army of 85,000 foot and 12,000 horse assembled under the Duke of Savoy, who, as Governor-General of the Netherlands, held the chief command. All the well-known nobles of the Provinces were present with the troops, Orange, Aerschot, Berlaymont, Meghem, Brederode; but conspicuous among them all was Lamoral, Count of Egmont, the life and soul of the army.

In the thirty-sixth year of his age, handsome and valiant, Count Egmont was eager to win new laurels in the campaign that was just beginning. Prompt in emergency, bold almost to rashness, he was accounted one of the most distinguished generals in the Spanish service as he took his place at the head of the King's cavalry in 1557. But as a statesman he was singularly unsuccessful, being vacillating and vain, and easily led by those who understood the weakness of his character.

In the beginning of the campaign the tactics of the Duke of Savoy were to deceive the enemy. The real point of attack being Saint Quentin, the army was directed to make a feint upon the city of Guise, in order that the enemy might draw off their forces from the real point of danger. Montmorency, the Constable of France, was not, however, deceived by this expedient. Knowing that Saint Quentin was the most dangerous point on the enemy's route towards Paris, he was convinced that it was the city which was in reality to be attacked. And his conviction was correct, information reaching him from the well-known Admiral Coligny that the Spanish army, after remaining three days before Guise, had withdrawn and invested Saint Quentin with their entire force.

Saint Quentin, standing on a height, protected on one side by a great stretch of morass, through which flowed a branch of the river Somme, was a wealthy city, whose inhabitants were thriving and industrious. A detachment of the Dauphin's regiment, commanded by Teligny, was in the city. Both Teligny and Captain Brueuil, commandant of the town, informed Coligny of the urgent need of reinforcements, both of men and supplies, if the city were to be able to sustain a siege.

Coligny, knowing well that dire indeed would be the consequences should Saint Quentin fall, and the enemy be thus left free to march unopposed on Paris, determined to go to the help of the besieged city. Without delay he set out, but it was too late to introduce help by the route he had taken, for it was already occupied by the English, who had joined the Duke of Savoy and were now in the camp before Saint Quentin. Coligny, however, in his anxiety had ridden in advance of his army, and thus he, with the few troops which had followed him closely, was able to gain an entrance into the city. Having done this he resolved either to effect her deliverance or to share her fate. The presence of the Admiral inspired in the inhabitants of the beleaguered city a confidence which he did all in his power to increase, but which he could not share; for, gazing over the country from one of the highest towers in the city, he tried in vain to discover fords across the morass by means of which supplies might be introduced.

Meanwhile the garrison was daily growing weaker. Coligny ordered those not engaged in active defence to leave the city, while the women he ordered to be lodged in the Cathedral and other churches, where they were locked in, lest by their tears they should weaken or depress the garrison. At the same time the defences of the city were strengthened and all that was possible was done to confirm the resolution of the inhabitants to withstand the siege. Still affairs were growing desperate, and the Admiral wrote to Montmorency that without relief the city could not hold out more than a few days, while at the same time he told him of a route he had discovered by which it might yet be possible to relieve the city. This route was across the morass, which at certain places was traversed by a few narrow and difficult pathways, usually under water, and by a running stream which could only be crossed in boats. No sooner did Coligny's information reach the Constable than he set out at once with 4000 infantry and 2000 horse. Halting his troops at a small village, Montmorency himself walked to the edge of the morass to view the ground and prepare his plans. Thereafter his decision was to attempt to introduce men and supplies by the plan suggested by the Admiral, who had undertaken to provide the boats that were necessary to cross the stream.

On the 10th August 1557 the Constable had advanced far enough to see that his project would have to be carried out in full view of the enemy, for the Spanish army, under the Duke of Savoy, was encamped near the morass, and their white tents stretched far beyond the river. On Montmorency's right stood a windmill, commanding a ford of the river which led to the Spanish camp. The building was in the possession of a small company of the besieging troops, and while it was held by them it was impossible for the Constable to advance. The mill accordingly was secured, and Montmorency, placing a detachment under the Prince of Condé at that point, felt he might safely proceed; for in the meanwhile a cannonade directed upon the quarters of the Duke of Savoy had torn his tent to pieces, and he had been forced to abandon his position and to withdraw his camp three miles farther down the river. Taking advantage of his success, Montmorency at once began to move his soldiers across the morass. It was then that the real difficulties of the passage were apparent. Many of the soldiers lost the narrow and submerged pathways and fell floundering into the morass, while the boats promised by Coligny for the passage across the stream did not appear until two hours had elapsed. The delay was serious, and even when they at last arrived, the boats were so small that each as it left the shore was overcrowded by the eager soldiers and in imminent danger of being swamped. In the middle of the stream, the risk being apparent, some of the soldiers jumped out to lighten the load. Many were drowned, and those who reached the opposite shore were unable to land owing to the steep and treacherous nature of the bank. Some of the boats stuck fast in the marshy water, and while trying to free themselves were subjected to the fire of Spanish troops stationed on an eminence that commanded the stream. In the end there were few who entered the town, but among those who did were Andelot, the brother of Coligny, and about five hundred of his troops.

Meanwhile in Count Egmont's tent, to which the Duke of Savoy had hastily retreated, a council was being held. Should the Constable be allowed to retire with the army he had failed to introduce into Saint Quentin, or should an engagement be risked? Amid the deliberations and the indecisions of the officers, Egmont's voice was heard. Vehement and eloquent as ever, the Count urged an immediate encounter. The Constable, on a desperate venture, had placed himself and the bravest troops of France in their grasp. Could they dream of letting them depart unhindered? His fiery words had the desired effect, and it was determined to cut off the Constable's retreat.

Montmorency, finding it impossible to throw the body of his troops into the besieged city, and realising the danger of his position, had resolved to withdraw. Remembering, however, a narrow pass between steep and closely hanging hills where it would be easy to intercept his retreat, the Constable, who, when advancing, had merely guarded the spot with a company of carabineers, now determined to further safeguard it, and for this purpose he sent forward the Duc de Nevers with four companies of cavalry.

But his act of caution came too late. Egmont's quick eye had already detected the narrow defile, and immediately 2000 of his cavalry had been sent to occupy the narrow passage. The Duc de Nevers, reaching the fatal spot, found it already occupied by the Spanish troops. His first impulse was to order a headlong charge, which indeed might possibly have cleared the pass and left an exit for the Constable had he followed up the movement by a rapid advance. But his orders had been strict, that no engagement was to be risked, and as he hesitated the passage was completely blocked by fresh troops of Spanish and Flemish cavalry, while the Duc was forced to fall back on the mill where the Prince of Condé, with the light horse, had been stationed. Here they were joined by the Constable with the main body of the army. Having failed to secure the pass, Montmorency knew that escape was well-nigh impossible; the morass was behind them, in front and on either side the enemy. No sooner had they come in sight of the pass than the signal of assault was given by Count Egmont himself. The camp followers in the French army, a motley, undisciplined crew, fled at the sight of the foe, and in their flight carried confusion throughout the army. The cavalry was nearly destroyed at the first onset, while that part of the infantry which still held firm and attempted to continue its retreat was completely annihilated. The defeat was complete, the Constable himself being wounded and taken prisoner, most of his officers also being in the same plight. The Duc de Nevers and the Prince of Condé had escaped in some miraculous way, though the Spaniards apparently did not believe in their safety; for when Nevers sent a trumpeter, after the battle was over, to the Duke of Savoy to petition the exchange of prisoners, the trumpeter was called an impostor and the letter a forgery, so hard did the victors find it to believe that Nevers still lived.

Philip II. might well be proud of his army, of whom but fifty had lost their lives. He arrived in camp the day after the battle was won, the Duke of Savoy hailing him as victor, and laying at his feet the banners and other trophies of the fight. Philip cordially congratulated the General on his success, and at the same time acknowledged the promptness and bravery of Count Egmont, to whose readiness and insight the success was mainly due. The victory had saved the Flemish frontier, and this was enough to account for the unmixed joy with which it was hailed by the Netherlanders. "Egmont and Saint Quentin!" The name of the brave Hollander rang throughout the Provinces. "Egmont and Saint Quentin!"—the names were shouted henceforth as the battle-cry of the army.

Among the Spanish officers there was not a doubt that the victory would be followed up by an immediate march upon Paris, but they had forgotten to take into account the lack of enthusiasm and the abundance of caution possessed by their King. The city of Saint Quentin, although defended by only 800 soldiers, was still untaken. Philip feared to leave it behind. He also feared that the Duc de Nevers, who was in front with the wreck of the French army, might organise fresh troops and intercept his army in its victorious march upon Paris. Thus timidly the fruits of Count Egmont's great triumph on the battlefield of Saint Quentin were lost.

And Coligny, shut up in the city, was still holding out bravely, knowing that every day the siege lasted gave his nation a day longer to recover from the heavy blow that had been dealt her. Yet the condition of the besieged was desperate. Toil and exposure, with but a scanty supply of food, had done its work and left them feeble and despondent. In spite of failures, Coligny still talked hopefully of resources at his command. If any should hear him even hint at surrender, he gave them leave to tie him hand and foot and throw him into the moat; while, should he hear so much as a whisper of surrender, he himself would tie the whisperer hand and foot and throw him into the moat. But if the Admiral's words were brave, so likewise were his deeds, for, learning from a fisherman of a submerged path, he succeeded in bringing into the city by means of it 150 soldiers. The pathway being covered several feet deep in water, it was true that the soldiers entered the city unarmed and half drowned; yet even thus they were greeted gladly as more fit to fight than were many of the city's well-nigh starved defenders. Mining and countermining were now resorted to, and for a week a steady cannonade was directed against the wall of the city.

On the 21st of August, eleven breaches having been made, an assault at four of these openings was commanded. Citizens were stationed on the walls, soldiers manned the breaches, resisting every attack with the greatest bravery, inspired by the spirit of the heroic Admiral. The contest was short but severe. Suddenly an entrance was gained by the Spaniards through a tower, which, being strong, had been left unguarded. Coligny, rushing to the spot, fought almost single-handed, but was overcome and taken prisoner. In the streets the fight raged fiercely, Andelot, Coligny's brother, resisting to the last. Half an hour from the time the Spaniards had effected an entrance, resistance had ceased. The town was won, and Philip, arriving in the trenches by noon, in complete armour, with his helmet carried by a page, was told the city was his own.

A terrible scene followed. The victorious troops spread over the town, killing and torturing all whom they met, till women and little children fled in terror, hiding themselves as chance served them in cellar or garret, anywhere to escape the soldiers. Fire breaking out in the city added to the horror of the situation, but nothing could daunt the troops in their eager search for booty. Heedless of danger, they dashed through the flames to secure were it only some broken image which might be converted into coin. For nearly three days the fires blazed and the soldiers plundered, and when at length the flames were extinguished and the soldiers under discipline, the city was well-nigh ruined. Many of the women and children who had again sought shelter in the Cathedral were crouched together anxiously awaiting their fate. On the 29th August they were driven by Philip's orders into French territory, for Saint Quentin, which seventy years before had been a Flemish town, was to be reannexed, every single man, woman, or child who could speak the French language being banished from the city. Few, if any, were the men who had escaped the siege or the sack of the city, but 8500 women, starving, desperately wounded, and for the most part husbandless, fatherless and brotherless, were escorted by a company of armed troopers out of their native city. Children between two and six years of age were alone transported in carts, the rest of the homeless multitude having to make the journey on foot.

After Saint Quentin had fallen, time was wasted in the siege of a few unimportant places, and in September Philip disbanded his army and returned to Brussels. The campaign of 1557 was ended.

In January of the following year the French were again in the field, with a large army under the Duke of Guise. But Philip was now anxious to conciliate Henry, that together they might wage a warfare against a common foe, even against heresy, which Henry held in horror, and which Philip himself believed was the arch-enemy of France and Spain, and indeed of the whole world. With the hope, therefore, of furthering Philip's desire for reconciliation with France, the Bishop of Arras, on behalf of the King of Spain, met the Cardinal de Lorraine, the representative of the French King. Before they separated, the Bishop had convinced the Cardinal that peace with Spain would advance, not only the glory of his country, but his own house. He accordingly returned to France resolved to use his influence on the side of peace; resolved, too, to induce Henry to join in a crusade with Philip against all heretics to be found in their dominions.

Before these plans had time to ripen, a new campaign and fresh disaster to France predisposed Henry to move in the direction desired by his Cardinal. The battle of Gravelines, in July of the year 1558, won by the Dutch hero Egmont, was of so decisive a nature as to settle the fate of the war. It also placed Philip in a position from which he could dictate terms of peace.

With King Henry tired of defeat, and Philip eager to begin his battle with heresy, with the Duke of Savoy now in favour of peace, and the people of the Netherlands clamouring for it, the treaty of Cateau-Cambresis was readily signed in 1559. The Prince of Orange and the Duke of Alva were among the commissioners who acted for Philip on this occasion, and were also, along with the Duke of Aerschot and the Count of Egmont, hostages with the King of France for the execution of the terms of the treaty of Cateau-Cambresis. During the negotiations Philip lost both his father, and his wife Mary Tudor, Queen of England. But while Philip mourned, his subjects in the Netherlands were once again rejoicing at the prospect of peace. Once again joybells were ringing, while for nine days business was suspended that the populace might join in the national enthusiasm; and once again Philip found himself in but little sympathy with the mood of his subjects. Peace had been made not that the industrious citizens should leave their industries and ring their joybells and strew their flowers along the streets. It had been made for other and sterner reasons, as the people would soon learn. Peace would leave Philip free to combat heresy, and to crush it in its strongholds, which were at present to be found in his own dominions, notably in the provinces of the Netherlands. Peace would also leave him free to return to Spain, and of this he was speedily to take advantage, believing that from his distant Cabinet he could better carry out his designs against the religious freedom of his Netherlander subjects.