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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 21 — The siege of Leyden

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Leyden – Provisions Fail – William's Sickness – His Plan of Letting in the Sea – The Dykes Cut – The Waters do not Rise – The Flotilla cannot be Floated – Dismay in Leyden – Terrors of the Famine – Pestilence – Deaths – Unabated Resolution of the Citizens – A Mighty Fiat goes forth – The Wind Shifts – The Ocean Overflows the Dykes – The Flotilla, Approaches – Fights on the Dykes – The Fort Lammen – Stops the Flotilla – Midnight Noise – Fort Lainmen Abandoned – Leyden Relieved – Public Solemn Thanksgiving – Another Prodigy – The Sea Rolled Back.

For two months the citizens manned their walls, and with stern courage kept at bay the beleaguering host, now risen from 10,000 to three times that number. At the end of this period provisions failed them. For some days the besieged subsisted on malt-cake, and when that was consumed they had recourse to the flesh of dogs and horses. Numbers died of starvation, and others sickened and perished through the unnatural food on which the famine had thrown them. Meanwhile a greater calamity even than would have been the loss of Leyden seemed about to overtake them.

Struck down by fever, the result of ceaseless toil and the most exhausting anxiety, William of Orange lay apparently at the point of death. The illness of the prince was carefully concealed, lest the citizens of Leyden should give themselves up altogether to despair. Before lying down, the prince had arranged the only plan by which, as it appeared to him, it was possible to drive out the Spaniards and raise the siege; and in spite of his illness he issued from his sick-bed continual orders respecting the execution of that project. No force at his disposal was sufficient to enable him to break through the Spanish lines, and throw provisions into the starving city, in which the suffering and misery had now risen to an extreme pitch. In this desperate strait he thought of having recourse to a more terrible weapon than cannon or armies. He would summon the ocean against the Spaniards. He would cut the dykes and sink the country beneath the sea. The loss would be tremendous; many a rich meadow, many a fruitful orchard, and many a lovely villa would be drowned beneath the waves; but the loss, though great, would be recoverable: the waves would again restore what they had swallowed up; whereas, should the country be overwhelmed lay the power of Spain, never again would it be restored: the loss would be eternal. What the genius and patriotism of William had dared his eloquence prevailed upon the States to adopt.

Putting their spades into the great dyke that shielded their land, they said, "Better a drowned country than a lost country." Besides the outer and taller rampart, within which the Hollanders had sought safety from their enemy the sea, there rose concentric lines of inner and lower dykes, all of which had to be cut through before the waves could flow over the country.

The work was executed with equal alacrity and perseverance, but not with the desired result. A passage had been dug for the waters, but that ocean which had appeared but too ready to overwhelm its barriers when the inhabitants sought to keep it out, seemed now unwilling to overflow their country, as if it were in league with the tyrant from whose fury the Dutch besought it to cover them. Strong north-easterly winds, prevailing that year longer than usual, beat back the tides, and lowering the level of the German Sea, prevented the ingress of the waters. The flood lay only a few inches in depth on the face of Holland; and unless it should rise much higher, William's plan for relieving Leyden would, after all, prove abortive.

At great labor and expense he had constructed a flotilla of 200 fiat-bottomed vessels at Rotterdam and Delft; these he had mounted with guns, and manned with 800 Zealanders, and stored with provisions to be thrown into the famine-stricken city, so soon as the depth of water, now slowly rising over meadow and corn-field, should enable his ships to reach its gates. But the flotilla lay immovable. The expedition was committed to Admiral Boisot; the crews were selected from the fleet of Zealand, picked veterans, with faces hacked and scarred with wounds which they had received in their, former battles with the Spaniards; and to add to their ferocious looks they wore the Crescent in their caps, with the motto, "Turks rather than Spaniards." Ships, soldiers, and victuals – all had William provided; but unless the ocean should cooperate all had been provided in vain.

Something like panic seized on the besiegers when they beheld this new and terrible power advancing to assail them. Danger and death in every conceivable form they had been used to meet, but they never dreamt of having to confront the ocean. Against such an enemy what could their or any human power avail? But when they saw that the rise of the waters was stayed, their alarm subsided, and they began to jeer and mock at the stratagem of the prince, which was meant to be grand, but had proved contemptible. He had summoned the ocean to his aid, but the ocean would not come. In the city of Leyden despondency had taken the place of elation. When informed of the expedient of the prince for their deliverance they had rung their bells for very joy; but when they saw the ships, laden with that bread for lack of which some six or eight thousand of their number had already died, after entering the gaps in the outer dyke, arrested in their progress to their gates, hope again forsook them. Daily they climbed the steeples and towers, and scanned with anxious eyes the expanse around, if haply the ocean was coming to their aid. Day after day they had to

descend with the same depressing report: the wind was still adverse; the waters refused to rise, and the ships could not float. The starvation and misery of Leyden was greater even than that which Haarlem had endured. For seven weeks there had not been a morsel of bread within the city. The vilest substitutes were greedily devoured; and even these were now almost exhausted. To complete their suffering, pestilence was added to famine. Already reduced to skeletons, hundreds had no strength to withstand this new attack. Men and women every hour dropped dead on the streets. Whole families were found to be corpses when the doors of their houses were forced open in the morning, and the survivors had hardly enough strength left to bury them. The dead were carried to their graves by those who to-morrow would need the same office at the hands of others.

Amid the awful reiteration of these dismal scenes, one passion still survived-resistance to the Spaniards. Some few there were, utterly broken down under this accumulation of sorrows, who did indeed whisper the word "surrender," deeming that even Spanish soldiers could inflict nothing more terrible than they were already enduring. But these proposals were instantly and indignantly silenced by the great body of the citizens, to whom neither famine, nor pestilence, nor death appeared so dreadful as the entrance of the Spaniards. The citizens anew exchanged vows of fidelity with one another and with the magistrates, and anew ratified their oaths to that Power for whose truth they were in arms. Abandoned outside its walls, as it seemed, by all: pressed within by a host of terrible evils: succor neither in heaven nor on the earth, Leyden nevertheless would hold fast its religion and its liberty, and if it must perish, it would perish free. It was the victory of a sublime faith over despair.

At last heaven heard the cry of the suffering city, and issued its fiat to the ocean. On the 1st of October, the equinoctial gales, so long delayed, gave signs of their immediate approach. On that night a strong wind sprung up from the north-west, and the waters of the rivers were forced back into their channels. After blowing for some hours from that quarter, the gale shifted into the south-west with increased fury. The strength of the winds heaped up the waters of the German Ocean upon the coast of Holland; the deep lifted up itself; its dark flood driven before the tempest's breath with mighty roar, like shout of giant loosed from his fetters and rushing to assail the foe, came surging onwards, and poured its tumultuous billows over the broken dykes. At midnight on the 2nd of October the flotilla of Boisot was afloat, and under weigh for Leyden, on whose walls crowds of gaunt, famished, almost exanimate men waited its coming. At every short distance the course of the ships was disputed by some half-submerged Spanish fort, whose occupants were not so much awed by the terrors of the deep which had risen to overwhelm them as to be unable to offer battle. But it was in vain. Boisot's fierce Zealanders were eager to grapple with the hated Spaniards; the blaze of canon lighted up the darkness of that awful night, and the booming of artillery, rising above the voice of the tempest, told the citizens of Leyden that the patriot fleet was on its way to their rescue. These naval engagements, on what but a few days before had-been cornland or woodland, but was now ocean – a waste of water blackened by the scowl of tempest and the darkness of night – formed a novel as well as awful sight. The Spaniards fought with a desperate bravery, but everywhere without success. The Zealanders leaped from their fiat-bottomed vessels and pursued them along the dykes, they fired on them from their boats, or, seizing them with hooks fixed to the ends of long poles, dragged them down from the causeway, and put them to the sword. Those who escaped the daggers and harpoons of the Zealanders, were drowned in the sea, or stuck fast in the mud till overtaken and dispatched. In that flight some 1,500 Spaniards perished.

Boisot's fleet had now advanced within two miles of the walls of Leyden, but here, at about a mile's distance from the gates, rose the strongest of all the Spanish forts, called Lammen, blocking up the way, and threatening to render all that had been gained without avail. The admiral reconnoitered it; it stood high above the water; it was of great strength and full of soldiers; and he hesitated attacking it. The citizens from the walls saw his fleet behind the fort, and understood the difficulty that prevented the admiral's nearer approach. They had been almost delirious with joy at the prospect of immediate relief. Was the cup after all to be dashed from their lips! It was arranged by means of a carrier-pigeon that a combined assault should take place upon the fort of Lammen at dawn, the citizens assailing it on one side, and the flotilla bombarding it on the other Night again fell, and seldom has blacker night descended on more tragic scene, or the gloom of nature been more in unison with the anxiety and distress of man. At midnight a terrible crash was heard. What that ominous sound, so awful in the stillness of the night, could be, no one could conjecture. A little after came a strange apparition, equally inexplicable. A line of lights was seen to issue from Lammen and move over the face of the deep. The darkness gave terror and mystery to every occurrence. All waited for the coming of day to explain these appearances. At last the dawn broke; it was now seen that a large portion of the city walls of Leyden had fallen over-night, and hence the noise that had caused such alarm. The Spaniards, had they known, might have entered the city

at the last hour and massacred the inhabitants; instead of this, they were seized with panic, believing these terrible sounds to be those of the enemy rushing to attack them, and so, kindling their torches and lanterns, they fled when no man pursued. Instead of the cannonade which was this morning to be opened against the formidable Lammen, the fleet of Boisot sailed under the silent guns of the now evacuated fort, and entered the city gates. On the morning of the 3rd of October, Leyden was relieved.

The citizens felt that their first duty was to offer thanks to that Power to whom exclusively they owed their deliverance. Despite their own heroism and Boisot's valor they would have fallen, had not God, by a mighty wind, brought up the ocean and overwhelmed their foes. A touching procession of haggard but heroic forms, headed by Admiral Boisot and the magistrates, and followed by the Zealanders and sailors, walked to the great church, and there united in solemn prayer. A hymn of thanksgiving was next raised, but of the multitude of voices by which its first notes were pealed forth, few were able to continue singing to the close. Tears choked their voices, and sobs were mingled with the music. Thoughts of the awful scenes through which they had passed, and of the many who had shared the conflict with them, but had not lived to join in the hymn of victory, rushed with overmastering force into their minds, and compelled them to mingle tears with their praises.

A letter was instantly dispatched to the Prince of Orange with the great news. He received it while he was at worship in one of the churches of Delft, and instantly handed it to the minister, to be read from the pulpit after sermon. That moment recompensed him for the toil and losses of years; and his joy was heightened by the fact that a nation rejoiced with him. Soon thereafter, the States assembled, and a day of public thanksgiving was appointed.

This series of wonders was to be fittingly closed by yet another prodigy. The fair hind of Holland lay drowned at the bottom of the sea. The whole vast plain from Rotterdam to Leyden was under water. What time, what labor and expense would it require to recover the country, and restore the fertility and beauty which had been so sorely marred! The very next day, the 4th of October, the wind shifted into the north-east, and blowing with great violence, the waters rapidly assuaged, and in a few days the land was bare again, He who had brought up the ocean upon Holland with his mighty hand rolled it back.


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