William of Orange - George Upton

The Relief of Leyden

The departure of Alva was of little consequence to Orange and had little effect upon the condition of the four provinces.

The most that can be said is that the new governor-general was no longer Alva, but Requesens, and that a slight degree of moderation was substituted for the cruelty which had prevailed. Philip adhered to his policy of weeding out heresy and reducing the refractory provinces to absolute submission. Requesens abolished the "Blood Council" and the "tenth penny," and removed the Alva statue from the market-place in Brussels, but he levied most exorbitant taxes, and marched his haughty Spanish troops against the provinces, as confident of victory as ever was Alva.

Orange meanwhile had secured some advantages. He had obtained the release of his friend Marnix de Saint Aldegonde from Spanish captivity, by exchange for the Spanish Admiral Bossu, and in a second sea-fight had captured the important city of Middelburg, whose possession had cost Spain seven millions; but he suddenly found himself again confronted by a Spanish army far superior to any Netherlands force. His brothers were now obliged to collect an army to meet the Spaniards.

The Netherlands had been so despoiled that rigid economy had to be practised in the castle at Dillenburg. They already had to deny themselves the comforts of life to provide the means for the defence of the country. To organize an army they must do still more. Jewels, valuable bric-a-brac, and tapestries were sold. Women and children took the chains from their necks and rings from their fingers and contributed them to the cause. At the castle they ate from pewter dishes and drank from ordinary cups, instead of from gold and silver ones. It is hard to imagine any nobler deeds of self-sacrifice for a stranger people than those which this family performed for the Netherlands, inspired by the spirit of Orange, their son and brother.

This expedition also met with ill fortune. A decisive battle was fought at Mooker Heyde, resulting in a complete rout. Counts Louis and Henry, brothers of Orange who led the army, voluntarily sacrificed their lives like heroes. No one knows where they fell. It is only known that they were buried somewhere at Mooker Heyde and that they faced death like heroes. Orange was greatly overcome by the news of the death of his brothers, and wept bitterly. Three of them had now sacrificed themselves in the cause of Netherlands liberty. The severest loss was that of Louis, a highly gifted man of extraordinary ability and chivalrous magnanimity, whom the Netherlanders called "a knight without fear or reproach." In all their struggles he had been Orange's right hand. The mother's grief also made a deep impression upon him. She now sat solitary in the castle at Dillenburg, mourning the death of her children and the lost glories of their house. How could he console her? What was left to sacrifice? His own life. But before this sacrifice was made there must be many a hard struggle.

As they were no longer confronted by an army, the Spaniards began to invest various cities. The important city of Leyden was already threatened with the same fate which overtook Haarlem, unless speedy relief came. But whence could it come? Orange had engaged to send assistance to the beleaguered city if it would hold out three months. This was the utmost time Leyden could promise, for its provisions would not last longer. It was only by the wise distribution of the food on hand, and by the energy of such heroes as John Van der Does and Peter Van der Werf, who were the leaders of the people, that it was possible to hold out against the enemy for that period. But the three months had elapsed, and no relief had come. That promise of help burned in the soul of Orange.

There lay the stately, wealthy city in the midst of the most luxuriant pastures of the fertile Rhine valley. Old Father Rhine flowed by its walls, and his waters mirrored its many churches, towers, and rows of elegant houses. The possession of Leyden meant the possession of the whole country; but should Orange lose Leyden, he would lose the whole country, and all his struggles and sacrifices would have been in vain.

What thoughts must have occupied the mind of this great man at such a time! He was calm and silent as he calmly considered the situation; and yet he was not entirely inactive, for he was planning a mighty scheme of relief. He wrote to his brother John, the only brother left, who had vainly been seeking assistance from the German princes:

"If they will not listen to us now we shall trust our cause to God, in the sure hope He will not desert us, for we are determined on our part not to surrender the defence of His word and our liberty so long as there is a man left."

No help could be expected from man. God must help. And could not God work miracles?

Orange's gaze fell upon the sea. Help had often come to him from the sea. The elements were more compassionate than man. A great thought surged through his soul: Leyden must be saved by the sea.

As the sea when at high tide often inundated the country, his plan was to produce an artificial inundation by piercing the dykes which protected the land, so that vessels might sail up to the walls and bring relief to the city. The scheme involved colossal difficulties, and the friends to whom he confided it feared it was impracticable. Thousands of landowners and peasants would suffer heavily, and their loss could hardly be made good with seven barrels of gold. It was also a question whether the condition of the country was such as to bear the loss which must be occasioned by piercing the dykes. Again, even if it were done, there must be a strong northwest gale to force the flood far enough inland, so that navigation up to the city would be possible. Was there any prospect of such a gale at that time? Orange, however, had confidence that God would send favoring wind and weather and just such a gale, and he had faith in the patriotism of his countrymen, to whom liberty was more precious than seven barrels of gold. He was not deceived. When he explained the details of his colossal scheme he found them ready to accept it. "Better a drowned land than a lost land," they cried. His confidence in his countrymen was vindicated; his confidence in divine help waited longer for the test.

One night, early in September, the dykes were pierced, so that the water covered the whole distance from Rotterdam to Leyden, but it was not deep enough to float the vessels. The fleet, which was to go to the relief of Leyden, lay at Rotterdam, as well as a number of vessels loaded with stores and munitions, waiting vainly for a higher stage of water and favoring winds. In Leyden, where carrier pigeons were the only means of communication, they were in almost utter despair. To add to their distress, Orange, the very soul of the scheme, was prostrated by a contagious malady. What could help the city now? The Spaniards, in the hope of disheartening the people, spread reports that he was dead, and also smuggled them into Leyden.

But Orange was not dead. He was helpless in the clutches of a dreadful disease. His spirit was free and his mind was clear, but that was all the worse for him. The fate of Leyden almost distracted him, for he could learn nothing definite about it. His family, fearing the contagion, kept away from him. He was tormented by gloomy apprehensions. It was now the end of September—five months since the beginning of the siege. How could these poor victims hold out longer? One day Cornelius van Mierop visited the forsaken one in his chamber and informed him that Leyden had not yet been taken. This news was better than the best of medicines. In a few days he was out of bed and able to resume his work. But even a Prince of Orange could not control wind and weather.

In Leyden they were living upon dogs, cats, rats, and mice, and cooking the leaves of trees. The distress was worse than that of Haarlem. The heroic burgomaster, Van der Werf, who offered his sword to a faint-hearted crowd and invited them to plunge it into his breast and divide his flesh among them, alone kept the Leydeners from surrender. In the midst of the general despondency the usually courageous Admiral Brisot wrote despairingly to Orange, but Orange held fast to his faith in God and in the fervent prayers which he sent to heaven daily and hourly for the deliverance of the city.

At last his prayers were answered. A strong gale drove the sea waves furiously inward. The vessels got under way. From an old tower in Leyden, which commanded a wide view, they saw with delight the long-expected relief approaching. But the Spaniards, when they saw the vessels coming, as it were, over the land, were seized with a panic. They fled, pursued by the wild Zealanders, who slew large numbers of them.

On Sunday, October 3, Leyden was saved. Orange was at afternoon service when the news came by messenger. After the sermon he gave it to the minister, who announced it to the congregation. It was long since they had celebrated such a joyous thanksgiving.

Orange went to Leyden on the same day, and was received with great enthusiasm. It was an inspiriting moment when the Prince, with deep emotion, thanked the people and the city in the name of the fatherland for their loyal, courageous, and self-sacrificing devotion. Words alone were not enough. In the same year, upon the application of Orange, the Estates made Leyden the seat of a university, which was subsequently established with ample revenues and the largest privileges. The paper money which had been issued by the city during the siege was exchanged for bright silver. The faithful doves which had carried so many messages were mounted after death, and are kept at the Leyden Rathhaus to this day.

The deliverance of Leyden had a decisive effect upon the whole struggle. The Spaniards lost much of their old insolence and confidence in victory. Though the war still went on, it was not conducted with the old vigor. Philip's energy weakened in the face of such heroism. Notwithstanding all his extortions money began to fail him. The war had already cost him millions. The provinces, however, were still greatly oppressed by Spain's superior power. With no help from any quarter, doubt sometimes pressed heavily upon Orange. Once he said,

"Let us burn our mills, and pierce our dykes, and leave the country a waste in the enemy's hands. Let us take our wives and children to our vessels and seek a new home."

But after such hours of weakness his strength of soul, his inflexible courage, and his trust in God returned, and he said,

"Although assailed and persecuted by our ever watchful enemy, upon sea and land, we still have not lost courage, but will rally to the best of our ability to shake off their yoke, doubting not that God will mercifully direct our affairs as best pleases Him. Though we may be forsaken and forgotten by every man and may look for help to no man, we will still hope for assistance and consolation from Him, in whose name we are compassed by danger, though the cause is so Christian and noble that no danger can daunt us or make us afraid. The eternal God, who has often manifested, and still can manifest to us, the strength of his arm, still lives."

The Grand Commander Requesens died after a brief illness, and as his position was not immediately filled, the war languished gradually, and at last ceased. Thereupon Orange's desire to visit the provinces was increased. The Estates in Zealand and Holland had invested him with almost royal power, though they had not yet renounced their allegiance to the King; and even in the southern provinces, which had remained Catholic and looked with distrust upon the Protestant North, his self-sacrificing patriotism, extraordinary judgment, and universal helpfulness were more and more recognized. They clearly realized that the northern provinces, notwithstanding the devastations of war which they had had to endure, had recovered under the judicious and skilful direction of the Prince and were gaining in power and prosperity, whereas the southern provinces under the wretched Spanish administration, which absorbed all their wealth, had come to the verge of ruin.

Orange began at once the agitation of his favorite scheme of uniting all the Netherlands provinces in a strong confederacy. If he could accomplish this, Spanish tyranny would be forever extinguished. He sent out proclamations, and engaged in correspondence with the most influential personages in the South. He was greatly aided by a mutiny among the Spanish troops, which is known by the name of the "Spanish Fury" and which in Antwerp alone cost six thousand lives and for a time threatened life and property in other cities. It was clear there must be an end to this Spanish pest. The Spaniards and Spanish sympathizers in the Council of State were arrested. The delegates from the provinces effected a union at Ghent, known as the "Ghent Pacification." The opening paragraph of the agreement reads:

"The people of Brabant, Flanders, Hainaut, Artois, Valenciennes, Lille, Douay, Orchies, Namur, Tournay, Utrecht, Mechlin, Holland, and Zealand, as well as the Prince of Orange, will maintain a strong, enduring friendship, and pledge themselves to resist all enemies of the Confederation by mutual counsels and acts, with life and property; and besides, to expel the Spaniards and other foreign enemies from the Netherlands forever."

Upon the same evening that this document was signed it was read from the balcony of the Rathhaus in Ghent, amid the blaze of torches, the blare of trumpets, and the ringing of bells. When it was made known in the provinces, it was hailed with universal enthusiasm. Philip was furiously enraged when he heard of these proceedings. He would have despatched another army if he had had one, or money to pay one. In place of this he sent his brother, Don John of Austria, natural son of Charles V, a young, handsome, amiable, and clever man. The laurels of two victorious expeditions crowned the youthful head of this attractive son of the Emperor, and stories of his romantic youth made him doubly interesting. This fascinating man, invested with the command of the Netherlands by his brother, ought to have won the Netherlanders back to their allegiance by the force of his amiability and attractive personality. He had some success at first, but his deceit and trickery were soon manifest, which only helped to increase Orange's power and authority. Don John wrote his brother that the greater part of the provinces fairly worshipped Orange, using the expression, "The people seem to have been bewitched by the Prince."

The people were not bewitched, but they knew they could not place the destinies of their country in truer, stronger hands than his, and knowing this, the Estates decided to invest him rather than Don John with the supreme command of the Netherlands. An imposing deputation from the provinces invited the Prince, whom they found at Gertruidenberg, to go to Brussels for that purpose.

Orange was now at the very summit of his career. His high aspirations and plans for the welfare of the fatherland seemed nearing fulfilment. His journey through the provinces was like a triumphal march. He was greeted everywhere as "Father William"; but his proudest day was that upon which he entered Brussels and was welcomed by his brother John of Nassau amid the endless shouts of the people. An armed deputation of Antwerpers accompanied him to within a mile of Brussels, where the Brussels people received him with flying banners. Three barges in the new canal were superbly decorated in his honor. In the first a banquet of costly viands and wines was spread; the second bore the insignia of the seventeen provinces and the inscription that they had all come to greet him; the third exhibited artistic representations of the deliverance of the oppressed and the release of prisoners. Orange was deeply moved as he thought of the changing events of the last ten years. The nobles of the southern provinces, who were still somewhat distrustful of Orange, succeeded in securing the appointment of Matthias, Archduke of Austria, as governor-general; but he was only a shadow.

Orange was the only governor-general of the United Netherlands. Oh, that this union could only have lasted!

Orange must have thought often of Egmont and Hoorn, with whom he had been associated eleven years before in Brussels. His own hour of death was near at hand, when young Liberty would be consecrated with his blood.