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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 19 — Siege of Alkmaar, and recall of Alva

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Alkmaar – Its Situation – Its Siege – Sonoy's Dismay – Courageous Letter of the Prince – Savage Threats of Alva – Alkmaar Cannonaded – Breach – Stormed – Fury of the Attack – Heroism of the Repulse – What Ensign Solis saw within the Walls – The Spaniards Refuse to Storm the Town a Second Time – The Dutch Threaten to Cut the Dykes, and Drown the Spanish Camp – The Siege Raised – Amsterdam – Battle of Dutch and Spanish Fleets before it – Defeat of the Spaniards – Admiral Bossu taken Prisoner – Alva Recalled – His Manner of Leaving – Number Executed during his Government – Medina Coeli appointed Governor – He Resigns -Requesens appointed – -Assumes the Guise of Moderation – Plain Warning of William – Question of Toleration of Roman Worship – Reasonings – The States at Leyden Forbid its Public Celebration – Opinions of William of Orange.

The Duke of Alva soon found that if he had taken Haarlem he had crippled himself. The siege had emptied his military chest; he was greatly in arrears with his troops, and now his soldiers broke out into mutiny, and absolutely refused to march to Alkmaar and commence its siege till the sums owing them were paid. Six weeks passed away before the army was reduced to obedience, and the duke enabled to resume his programme of the war. His own prestige as a disciplinarian had also suffered immensely. Alkmaar was situated at the extremity of the peninsula, amid the lagunes of North Holland. It was late in the season when the Spanish army, 16,000 strong, sat down before this little town, with its garrison of 800 soldiers, and its 1,300 citizens capable of bearing arms. Had it been invested earlier in the summer it must have fallen, for it was then comparatively defenceless, and its population divided between the prince and the duke; but while Alva was quelling the mutiny of his troops, Alkmaar was strengthening its defences, and William was furnishing it with provisions and garrisoning it with soldiers. The commander of the besieging army was still Toledo.

When Governor Sonoy saw the storm rolling up from the south, and when he thought of his own feeble resources for meeting it, he became somewhat despondent, and wrote to the prince expressing a hope that he had been able to ally himself with some powerful potentate, who would supply him with money and troops to resist the terrible Spaniard. William replied to his deputy, gently chiding him for his want of faith. He had indeed contracted alliance, he said, with a mighty King, who would provide armies to fight his own battles, and he bade Sonoy not grow faint-hearted, as if the arm of that King had grown weak. At the very moment that William was striving to inspirit himself and his followers, by lifting his eyes to a mightier throne than any on earth, Alva was taking the most effectual means to raise up invincible defenders of Holland's Protestantism, and so realize the expectations of the prince, and justify his confidence in that higher Power on whom he mainly leaned. The duke took care to leave the people of Alkmaar in no doubt as to the fate in reserve for them should their city be taken. He had dealt gently with Haarlem; he had hanged only 900 of its citizens; but he would wreak a full measure of vengeance on Alkmaar. "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 proved of no use, perhaps an example of cruelty will bring the other cities to their senses." [1] Alva thought that he was rendering certain the submission of the men over whose heads he hung that terrible threat: he was only preparing discomfiture for himself by kindling in their breasts the flame of an unconquerable courage.

Toledo planted a battery on the two opposite sides of the town, in the hope of dividing the garrison. After a cannonade of twelve hours he had breached the walls. He now ordered his troops to storm. They advanced. in overwhelming numbers, confident of victory, and rending the air with their shouts as if they had already won it. They dashed across the moat, they swarmed up the breach, but only to be grappled with by the courageous burghers, and flung headlong into the ditch below. Thrice were the murderous hordes of Alva repulsed, thrice did they return to the assault. The rage of the assailants was inflamed with each new check, but Spanish fury, even though sustained by Spanish discipline, battled in vain against Dutch intrepidity and patriotism. The round-shot of the cannon ploughed long vacant lines in the beleaguering masses; the musketry poured in its deadly volleys; a terrible rain of boiling oil, pitch, and water, mingled with tarred burning hoops, unslaked lime, and great stones, descended from the fortifications; and such of the besiegers as were able to force their way up through that dreadful tempest to the top of the wall, found that they had scaled the ramparts only to fall by the daggers of their-defenders. The whole population of the town bore its part in the defense. Not only the matrons and virgins of Alkmaar, but the very children, were constantly passing between the arsenal and the walls, carrying ammunition and missiles of all sorts to their husbands, brothers, and fathers, careless of the shot that was falling thick around them. The apprehension of those far more terrible calamities that were sure to follow the entrance of the Spaniards, made them forgetful of every other danger. It is told of Ensign Solis, that having mounted the breach he had a moment's leisure to survey the state of matters within the city, before he was seized and flung from the fortifications. Escaping with his

life, he was able to tell what that momentary glance had revealed to him within the walls. He had beheld no masses of military, no men in armor; on the streets of the beleaguered town he saw none but plain men, the most of whom wore the garb of fishermen. Humiliating it was to the mailed chivalry of Spain to be checked, flung back, and routed by "plain men in the garb of fishermen." The burghers of Alkmaar wore their breastplates under their fisherman's coat – the consciousness, namely, of a righteous cause.

The assault had commenced at three of the afternoon; it was now seven o'clock of the evening, and the darkness was closing in. It was evident that Alkmaar would not be taken that day. A thousand Spaniards lay dead in the trenches, [2] while of the defenders only thirteen citizens and twenty-four of the garrison had fallen. The trumpet sounded a recall for the night.

Next morning the cannonade was renewed, and after some 700 shot had been discharged against the walls a breach was made. The soldiers were again ordered to storm. The army refused to obey. It was in vain that Toledo threatened this moment and cajoled the next, not a man in his camp would venture to approach those terrible ramparts which were defended, they gravely believed, by invisible powers. The men of Alkmaar, they had been told, worshipped the devil, and the demons of the pit fought upon the walls of their city, for how otherwise could plain burghers have inflicted so terrible a defeat upon the legions of Spain? Day passed after day, to the chagrin of Toledo, but still the Spaniards kept at a safe distance from those dreaded bulwarks on which invisible champions kept watch and ward. The rains set in, for the season was now late, and the camping-ground became a marsh. A yet more terrible disaster impended over them, provided they remained much longer before Alkmaar, and of this they had certain information. The Dutch had agreed to cut their dykes, and bury the country round Alkmaar, and the Spanish camp with it, at the bottom of the ocean. Already two sluices had been opened, and the waters of the North Sea, driven by a strong north-west wind, had rushed in and partially inundated the land; this was only a beginning: the Hollanders had resolved to sacrifice, not only their crops, but a vast amount of property besides, and by piercing their two great dykes, to bring the sea over Toledo and his soldiers. The Spaniards had found it hard to contend against the burghers of Alkmaar, they would find it still harder to combat the waves of the North Sea. Accordingly Don Frederic de Toledo summoned a council of his officers, and after a short deliberation it was resolved to raise the siege, the council having first voted that it was no disgrace to the Spanish army to retire, seeing it was fleeing not before man, but before the ocean.

The humiliations of Alva did not stop here. To reverses on land were added disasters at sea. To punish Amsterdam for the aid it had given the Spaniards in the siege of Haarlem, North Holland fitted out a fleet, and blockaded the narrow entrance of the Y which leads into the Zuyder Zee. Shut out from the ocean, the trade of the great commercial city was at an end. Alva felt it incumbent on him to come to the help of a town which stood almost alone in Holland in its adherence to the Spanish cause. He constructed a fleet of still larger vessels, and gave the command of it to the experienced and enterprising Count Bossu. The two fleets came to a trial of strength, and the battle issued in the defeat of the Spaniards. Some of their ships were taken, others made their escape, and there remained only the admiral's galley. It was named the Inquisition, and being the largest and most powerfully armed of all in the fleet, it offered a long and desperate resistance before striking its flag. It was not till of the 300 men on board 220 were killed, and all the rest but fifteen were wounded, that Bossu surrendered himself prisoner to the Dutch commander. [3] Well aware that it was of the last consequence for them to maintain their superiority at sea, the Dutch hailed this victory with no common joy, and ordered public thanks to be offered for it in all the churches of Holland.

With the turn in the tide of Spanish successes, the eyes of Philip began to open. Alva, it is true, in all his barbarities had but too faithfully carried out the wishes, if not the express orders, of his master, but that master now half suspected that this policy of the sword and the gallows was destined not to succeed. Nor was Philip alone in that opinion. There were statesmen at Madrid who were strongly counselling the monarch to make trial of more lenient measures with the Netherlanders. Alva felt that Philip was growing cold toward him, and alleging that his health had sustained injury from the moist climate, and the fatigues he had undergone, he asked leave to retire from the government of the Low Countries. The king immediately recalled him, and appointed the Duke de Medina Coeli, governor in his room. Alva's manner of taking leave of Amsterdam, where he had been staying some time, was of a piece with all his previous career. He owed vast sums to the citizens, but had nothing wherewith to pay. The duke, however, had no difficulty in finding his way out of a position which might have been embarrassing to another man. He issued a proclamation, inviting his creditors to present their claims in person on a certain day. On the night previous to the day appointed, the duke attended by his retinue quitted Amsterdam, taking care that neither by tuck of

drum nor salvo of cannon should he make the citizens aware that he was bidding them adieu. He traveled to Spain by way of Germany, and boasted to Count Louis van Koningstein, the uncle of the prince, at whose house he lodged a night, that during his government of five and a half years he had caused 18,000 heretics to be put to death by the hands of the executioner, besides a much greater number whom he had slain with the sword in the cities which he besieged, and in the battles he had fought. [4]

When the Duke de Medina Coeli arrived in the Netherlands, he stood aghast at the terrible wreck his predecessor had left behind him. The treasury was empty, the commerce of the country was destroyed, and though the inhabitants were impoverished, the taxes which were still attempted to be wrung from them were enormous. The cry of the land was going up to heaven, from Roman Catholic as well as Protestant. The cautious governor, seeing more difficulty than glory in the administration assigned to him, "slipped his neck out of the collar," says Brandt, and returned to Spain. He was succeeded by Don Luis de Requesens and Cuniga, who had been governor at Milan. The Netherlanders knew little of their new ruler, but they hoped to find him less the demon, and more the man, than the monstrous compound of all iniquity who for five years had revelled in their blood and treasure. They breathed more freely for a little space. The first act of the new governor was to demolish the statue which Alva had erected of himself in the citadel of Antwerp; Requesens wished the Netherlanders to infer from this beginning that the policy of Alva had been disavowed at head-quarters, and that from this time forward more lenient measures would be pursued. William was not to be imposed upon by this shallow device. Fearing that the lenity of Requesens might be even more fatal in the end than the ferocity of Alva, he issued an address to the States, in which he reminded them that the new deputy was still a Spaniard – a name of terrific import in Dutch ears – that he was the servant of a despot, and that not one Hollander could Requesens slay or keep alive but as Philip willed; that in the Cabinet of Madrid there were abysses below abysses; that though it might suit the monarch of Spain to wear for a moment the guise of moderation, they might depend upon it that his aims were fixed and unalterable, and that what he sought, and would pursue to the last soldier in his army, and the last hour of his earthly existence, was the destruction of Dutch liberty, and the extermination of the Protestant faith; that if they stopped where they were – in the middle of the conflict – all that they had already suffered and sacrificed, all the blood that had been shed, the tens of thousands of their brethren hanged on gibbets, burned at stakes, or slain in battle, their mothers, wives, and daughters subjected to horrible outrage and murder, all would have been endured in vain. If their desire of peace should reduce them into a compromise with the tyrant, it would assuredly happen that the abhorred yoke of Spain would yet be riveted upon their necks. The conflict, it was true, was one of the most awful that nation had ever been called to wage, but the part of wisdom was to fight it out to the end, assured that, come when it might, the end would be good; the righteous King would crown them with victory. These words, not less wise than heroic, revived the spirits of the Dutch.

At this stage of the struggle (1573) a question of the gravest kind came up for discussion – namely, the public toleration of the Roman worship. In the circumstances of the Netherlanders the delicacy of this question was equal to its difficulty. It was not proposed to proscribe belief in the Romish dogmas, or to punish any one for his faith; it was not proposed even to forbid the celebration in private of the Romish rites; all that was proposed was to forbid their public exercise. There were some who argued that their contest was, at bottom, a contest against the Roman faith; the first object was liberty, but they sought liberty that their consciences might be free in the matter of worship; their opponents were those who professed that faith, and who sought to reduce them under its yoke, and it seemed to them a virtual repudiation of the justness of their contest to tolerate what in fact was their real enemy, Romanism. This was to protect with the one hand the foe they were fighting against with the other. It was replied to this that the Romanist detested the tyranny of Alva not less than the Protestant, that he fought side by side on the ramparts with his Protestant fellow-subject, and that both had entered into a confederacy to oppose a tyrant, who was their common enemy, on condition that each should enjoy liberty of conscience.

Nevertheless, not long after this, the States of Holland, at an assembly at Leyden, resolved to prohibit the public exercise of the Romish religion. The Prince of Orange, when the matter was first broached, expressed a repugnance to the public discussion of it, and a strong desire that its decision should be postponed; and when at last the resolution of the States was arrived at, he intimated, if not his formal dissent, his non-concurrence in the judgment to which they had come. He tells us so in his Apology, published in 1580; but at the same time, in justification of the States, he adds, "that they who at the first judged it for the interest and advantage of the country, that one religion should be tolerated as well as the other,

were afterwards convinced by the bold attempts, cunning devices, and treacheries of the enemies, who had insinuated themselves among the people, that the State was in danger of inevitable destruction unless the exercise of the Roman religion were suspended, since those who professed it (at least the priests) had sworn allegiance to the Pope, and laid greater stress on their oaths to him than to any others which they took to the civil magistrate." The prince, in fact, had come even then to hold what is now the generally received maxim, that no one ought to suffer the smallest deprivation of his civil rights on account of his religious belief; but at the same time he felt, what all have felt who have anxiously studied to harmonize the rights of conscience with the safety of society, that there are elements in Romanism that make it impossible, without endangering the State, to apply this maxim in all its extent to the Papal religion. The maxim, so just in itself, is applicable to all religions, and to Romanism among the rest, so far as it is a religion; but William found that it is more than a religion, that it is a government besides; and while there may be a score of religions in a country, there can be but one government in it. The first duty of every government is to maintain its own unity and supremacy; and when it prosecutes any secondary end – and the toleration of conscience is to a government but a secondary end – when, we say, it prosecutes any secondary object, to the parting in twain of the State, it contravenes its own primary end, and overthrows itself. The force with which this consideration pressed itself upon the mind of William of Orange, tolerant even to the measure of the present day, is seen from what he says a little farther on in his Apology. "It was not just," he adds, "that such people should enjoy a privilege by the means of which they endeavored to bring the land under the power of the enemy; they sought to betray the lives and fortunes of the subjects by depriving them not of one, two, or three privileges, but of all the rights and liberties which for immemorial ages had been preserved and defended by their predecessors from generation to generation." [5]

From this time forward the Reformed religion as taught in Geneva and the Palatinate was the one faith publicly professed in Holland, and its worship alone was practiced in the national churches. No Papist, however, was required to renounce his faith, and full liberty was given him to celebrate his worship in private. Mass, and all the attendant ceremonies, continued to be performed in private houses for a long while after. To all the Protestant bodies in Holland, and even to the Anabaptists, a full toleration was likewise accorded. Conscience may err, they said, but it ought to be left free. Should it invade the magistrate's sphere, he has the right to repel it by the sword; if it goes astray within its own domain, it is equally foolish and criminal to compel it by force to return to the right road; its accountability is to God alone.

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