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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 22 — March of the Spanish army through the sea – Sack of Antwerp

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The Darkest Hour Passed – A University Founded in Leyden – Its Subsequent Eminence – Mediation – Philip Demands the Absolute Dominancy of the Popish Worship-The Peace Negotiations Broken off – The Islands of Zealand – The Spaniards March through the Sea – The Islands Occupied – The Hopes that Philip builds on this – These Hopes Dashed – Death of Governor Requesens – Mutiny of Spanish Troops – They Seize on Alost – Pillage the Country around – The Spanish Army Join the Mutiny-Antwerp Sacked – Terrors of the Sack – Massacre, Rape, Burning – The "Antwerp Fury" – Retribution.

The night of this great conflict was far from being at an end, but its darkest hour had now passed. With the check received by the Spanish Power before the walls of Leyden, the first streak of dawn may be said to have broken; but cloud and tempest long obscured the rising of Holland's day.

The country owed a debt of gratitude to that heroic little city which had immolated itself on the altar of the nation's religion and liberty, and before restarting the great contest, Holland must first mark in some signal way its sense of the service which Leyden had rendered it. The distinction awarded Leyden gave happy augury of the brilliant destinies awaiting that land in years to come. It was resolved to found a university within its walls. Immediate effect was given to this resolution. Though the Spaniard was still in the land, and the strain of armies and battles was upon William, a grand procession was organized on the 5th of February, 1575, at which symbolic figures, drawn through the streets in triumphal cars, were employed to represent the Divine form of Christianity, followed by the fair train of the arts and sciences. The seminary thus inaugurated was richly endowed; men of the greatest learning were sought for to fill its chairs, their fame attracted crowds of students from many countries; and its printing presses began to send forth works which have instructed the men of two centuries. Thus had Leyden come up from the "seas devouring depths" to be one of the lights of the world. [1]

There came now a brief pause in the conflict. The Emperor Maximilian, the mutual friend of Philip of Spain and William of Orange, deemed the moment opportune for mediating between the parties, and on the 3rd of March, 1575, a congress assembled at Breda with the view of devising a basis of peace. The prince gave his consent that the congress should meet, although he had not the slightest hope of fruit from its labors. On one condition alone could peace be established in Holland, and that condition, he knew, was one which Philip would never grant, and which the States could never cease to demand – namely, the free and open profession of the Reformed religion. When the commissioners met it was seen that William had judged rightly in believing the religious difficulty to be insurmountable. Philip would agree to no peace unless the Roman Catholic religion were installed in sole and absolute dominancy, leaving professors of the Protestant faith to convert their estates and goods into money, and quit the country. In that case, replied the Protestants, duly grateful for the wonderful concessions of the Catholic king, there will hardly remain in Holland, after all the heretics shall have left it, enough men to keep the dykes in repair, and the country had better be given back to the ocean at once. The conference broke up without accomplishing anything, and the States, with William at their head, prepared to resume the contest, in the hope of conquering by their own perseverance and heroism what they despaired ever to obtain from the justice of Philip.

The war was renewed with increased exasperation on both sides. The opening of the campaign was signalized by the capture of a few small Dutch towns, followed by the usual horrors that attended the triumph of the Spanish arms. But Governor Requesens soon ceased to push his conquests in that direction, and turned his whole attention to Zealand, 'where Philip was exceedingly desirous of acquiring harbors, in order to the reception of a fleet which he was building in Spain. This led to the most brilliant of all the feats accomplished by the Spaniards in the war.

In the sea that washes the north-east of Zealand are situated three large islands – Tolen, Duyveland, and Schowen. Tolen, which lies nearest the mainland, was already in the hands of the Spaniards; and Requesens, on that account, was all the more desirous to gain possession of the other two. He had constructed a flotilla of fiat-bottomed boats, and these would soon have made him master of the coveted islands; but he dared not launch them on these waters, seeing the estuaries of Zealand were swept by those patriot buccaneers whose bravery suffered no rivals on their own element.

Requesens, in his great strait, bethought him of another expedient, but of such a nature that it might well seem madness to attempt it. The island of Duyveland was separated from Tolen, the foothold of the Spaniards, by a strait of about five miles in width; and Requesens learned from some traitor Zealanders that there ran a narrow fiat of sand from shore to shore, on which at ebb-tide there was not more than a depth of from four to five feet of water. It was possible, therefore, though certainly extremely hazardous, to traverse this submarine ford. The governor, however, determined that his soldiers should attempt it. He assigned to 3,000 picked men the danger and the glory of the enterprise. At midnight, the 27th September, 1575, the host descended into the deep, Requesens himself witnessing its departure from the shore, "and with him a priest, praying for these poor souls to the Prince of the celestial militia, Christ Jesus." [2]

A few guides well acquainted with the ford led the way; Don Osorio d'Uiloa, a commander of distinguished courage, followed; after him came a regiment of Spaniards, then a body of Germans, and lastly a troop of Walloons, followed by 200 sappers and miners. The night was dark, with sheet, lightning, which bursting out at frequent intervals, shed a lurid gleam upon the face of the black waters. At times a moon, now in her fourth quarter, looked forth between the clouds upon this novel midnight march. The soldiers walked two and two; the water at times reached to their necks, and they had to hold their muskets above their head to prevent their being rendered useless. The path was so narrow that a single step aside was fatal, and many sank to rise no more. Nor were the darkness and the treacherous waves the only dangers that beset them. The Zealand fleet hovered near, and when its crews discerned by the pale light of the moon and the fitful lightning that the Spaniards were crossing the firth in this meet extraordinary fashion, they drew their ships as close to the ford as the shallows would permit, and opened their guns upon them. Their fire did little harm, for the darkness made the aim uncertain. Not so, however, the harpoons and long hooks of the Zealanders; their throw caught, and numbers of the Spaniards were dragged down into the sea. Nevertheless, they pursued their dreadful path, now struggling with the waves, now fighting with their assailants, and at last, after a march of six hours, they approached the opposite shore, and with ranks greatly thinned, emerged from the deep. [3]

Wearied by their fight with the sea and with the enemy, the landing of the Spaniards might have been withstood, but accident or treachery gave them possession of the island. At the moment that they stepped upon the shore, the commander of the Zealanders, Charles van Boisot, fell by a shot – whether from one of his own men, or front the enemy, cannot now be determined. The incident caused a panic among the patriots. The strangeness of the enemy's advance – for it seemed as if the sea had miraculously opened to afford them passage – helped to increase the consternation. The Zealanders fled in all directions, and the invading force soon found themselves in possession of Duyveland.

So far this most extraordinary and daring attempt had been successful, but the enterprise could not be regarded as completed till the island of Schowen, the outermost of the three, had also been occupied. It was divided from Duyveland by a narrow strait of only a league's width. Emboldened by their success, the Spaniards plunged a second time into the sea, and waded through the firth, the defenders of the island fleeing at their approach, as at that of men who had conquered the very elements, and with whom, therefore, it was madness to contend. The Spanish commander immediately set about the reduction of all the forts and cities on the island, and in this he was successful, though the work occupied the whole Spanish army not less than nine months. [4] Now fully master of these three islands (June, 1576), though their acquisition had cost all immense expenditure of both money and lives, Requesens hoped that he had not only cut the communication between Holland and Zealand, but that he had secured a rendezvous for the fleet which he expected from Spain, and that it only remained that he should here fix the headquarters of his power, and assemble a mighty naval force, in order from this point to extend his conquests on every side, and reconquer Holland and the other Provinces which had revolted from the scepter of Philip and the faith of Rome. He seemed indeed in a fair way of accomplishing all this; the sea itself had parted to give him a fulcrum on which to rest the lever of this great expedition, but an incident now fell out which upset his calculations and dashed all his fondest hopes. Holland was never again to own the scepter of Philip.

Vitelli, Marquis of Cetona, who was without controversy the ablest general at that time in the Netherlands, now died. His death was followed in a few days by that of Governor Requesens. These two losses to Philip were quickly succeeded by a third, and in some respects greater, a formidable mutiny of the troops. The men who had performed all the valorous deeds we have recited, had received no pay. Philip had exhausted his treasury in the war he was carrying on with the Turk, and had not a single guelden to send them. The soldiers had been disappointed, moreover, in the booty they expected to reap from the conquered towns of Schowen. These laborers were surely worthy of their hire. What dark deed had they ever refused to do, or what enemy had they ever refused to face, at the bidding of their master? They had scaled walls, and laid fertile provinces waste, for the pleasure of Philip and the glory of Spain, and now they were denied their wages. Seeing no help but in becoming their own paymasters, they flew to arms, depose their officers, elected a commander-in-chief from among themselves, and taking an oath of mutual fidelity over the Sacrament, they passed over to the mainland, and seizing on Alost, in Flanders, made it their head-quarters, intending to sally forth in plundering excursions upon the neighboring towns. Thus all the labor and blood with which their recent conquests had been won were thrown away, and the hopes which the King of Spain had built upon them were frustrated at the very moment when he thought they were about to be realized.

As men contemplate the passage of a dark cloud charged with thunder and destruction through the sky, so did the cities of Brabant and Flanders watch the march of this mutinous host.

They knew it held pillage and murder and rape in its bosom, but their worst fears failed to anticipate the awful vengeance it was destined to inflict. The negotiators sent to recall the troops to obedience reminded them that they were tarnishing the fame acquired by years of heroism. What cared these mutineers for glory ~ They wanted shoes, clothes, food, money. They held their way past the gates of Mechlin, past the gates of Brussels, and of other cities; but swarming over the walls of Alost, while the inhabitants slept, they had now planted themselves in the center of a rich country, where they promised themselves store of booty. No sooner had they hung out their flag on the walls of Alost than the troops stationed in other parts of the Netherlands caught the infection. By the beginning of September the mutiny was universal; the whole Spanish army in the Netherlands were united in it, and all the forts and citadels being in their hands, they completely dominated the land, plundered the citizens, pillaged the country, and murdered at their pleasure. The State Council, into whose hands the government of the Netherlands had fallen on the sudden death of Requesens, were powerless, the mutineers holding them prisoners in Brussels; and though the Council prevailed on Philip to issue an edict against his revolted army, denouncing them as rebels, and empowering any one to slay this rebellious host, either singly or in whole, the soldiers paid as little respect to the edict of their king as to the exhortations of the Council. Thus the instrument of oppression recoiled upon the hands that were wielding it. War now broke out between the Flemings and the army. The State Council raised bands of militia to awe the proscribed and lawless troops, and bloody skirmishes were of daily occurrence between them.

The carnage was all on one side, for the disciplined veterans routed at little cost the peasants and artisans who had been so suddenly transformed into soldiers, slaughtering them in thousands. The rich cities, on which they now cast greedy eyes, began to feel their vengeance, but the awful calamity which overtook Antwerp has effaced the memory of the woes which at their hands befell some of the other cities.

Antwerp, since the beginning of the troubles of the Netherlands, had had its own share of calamity; its cathedral and religious houses had been sacked by the image-breakers, and its warehouses and mansions had been partially pillaged by mutinous troops; but its vast commerce enabled it speedily to surmount all these losses, and return to its former flourishing condition. Antwerp was once more the richest city in the world. The ships of all nations unloaded in its harbor, and the treasures of all climes were gathered into its warehouses. Its streets were spacious and magnificent; its shops were stored with silver and gold and precious stones, and the palaces of its wealthy merchants were filled with luxurious and costly furniture, and embellished with precious ornaments, beautiful pictures, and fine statues. This nest of riches was not likely to escape the greedy eyes and rapacious hands of the mutineers.

Immediately outside the walls of Antwerp was the citadel, with its garrison. The troops joined the mutiny, and from that hour Antwerp was doomed. The citizens, having a presentiment of the ruin that hung above their heads, took some very ineffectual measures to secure themselves and their city against it, which only drew it the sooner upon them. The mutineers in the citadel were joined by the rebellious troops from Alost, about 3,000 in number, who were so eager to begin the plundering that they refused even to refresh themselves after their march before throwing themselves upon the ill-fated city. It was Sunday, the 4th of November, and an hour before noon the portals of Alva's citadel were opened, and 6,000 men-at-arms rushed forth. They swept along the esplanade leading to the city. They crashed through the feeble barrier which the burghers had reared to protect them from the apprehended assault. They chased before them the Walloons and the militia, who had come out to withstand them, as the furious tempest drives the cloud before it. In another minute they were over the walls into the city. From every street and lane poured forth the citizens to defend their homes; but though they fought with extraordinary courage it was all in vain. The battle swept along the streets, the Spanish hordes bearing down all before them, and following close on the rear of the vanquished, till they reached the magnificent Place de Mere, where stood the world-renowned Exchange, in which 7,000 merchants were wont daily to assemble. Here an obstinate combat ensued. The citizens fought on the street, or, retreating to their houses, fired from their windows on the Spaniards. The carnage was great; heaps of corpses covered the pavement, and the kennels ran with blood; but courage availed little against regular discipline, and the citizens were broken a second time.

The battle was renewed with equal obstinacy in the Grand Place. Here stood the Guildhall, accounted the most magnificent in the world. Torches were brought and it was set fire to and burned to the ground. The flames caught the surrounding buildings, and soon a thousand houses, the finest in the city, were ablaze, their conflagration lighting up the pinnacles and the unrivaled spire of the neighboring cathedral, and throwing its ruddy gleam on the combatants who were struggling in the area below. The battle had now spread over all the city. In every street men were fighting and blood was flowing. Many rushed to the gates and sought to escape, but they found them locked, and were thrown back upon the sword and fire. The battle was going against the citizens, but their rage and hatred of the Spaniards made them continue the fight. Goswyn Verreyek, the margrave of the city, combated the foe with the burgomaster lying dead at his feet,

and at last he himself fell, adding his corpse to a heap of slain, composed of citizens, soldiers, and magistrates. While the fire was devouring hundreds of noble mansions and millions of treasure, the sword was busy cutting off the citizens. The Spaniard made no distinction between friend and foe, between Papist and Protestant, between poor and rich. Old men, women, and children; the father at the hearth, the bride at the altar, and the priest in the sanctuary – the blood of all flooded the streets of their city on that terrible day.

Darkness fell on this scene of horrors, and now the barbarities of the day were succeeded by the worse atrocities of the night. The first object of these men was plunder, and one would have thought there was now enough within their reach to content the most boundless avarice. Without digging into the earth or crossing the sea, they could gather the treasures of all regions, which a thousand ships had carried thither, and stored up in that city of which they were now masters. They rifled the shops, they broke into the warehouses, they loaded themselves with the money, the plate, the wardrobes, and the jewels of private citizens; but their greed, like the grave, never said it was enough. They began to search for hidden treasures, and they tortured their supposed possessors to compel them to reveal what often did not exist. These crimes were accompanied by infamies of so foul and revolting a character, that by their side murder itself grows pale. The narrators of the "Antwerp Fury," as it has come to be styled, have recorded many of these cruel and shameful deeds, but we forbear to chronicle them. For three clays the work of murdering and plundering went on, and when it had come to an end, how awful the spectacle which that city, that three days before had been the gayest and wealthiest upon earth, presented! Stacks of blackened ruins rising where marble palaces had stood; yawning hovels where princely mansions had been; whole streets laid in ashes; corpses, here gathered in heaps, there lying about, hacked, mutilated, half-burned – some naked, others still encased in armor! Eight thousand citizens, according to the most trustworthy accounts, were slain. The value of the property consumed by the fire was estimated at 4,000,000, irrespective of the hundreds of magnificent edifices that were destroyed. An equal amount was lost by the pillage, not reckoning the merchandise and jewelry appropriated in addition by the Spaniards. Altogether the loss to the mercantile capital of Brabant was incalculable; nor was it confined to the moment, for Antwerp never recovered the prosperity it had enjoyed before the bloody and plundering hand of the Spaniard was laid upon it. [5]

But this awful calamity held in its bosom a great moral. During fifty years the cry had been going up to heaven, from tens of thousands of scaffolds, where the axe was shedding blood like water; from prisons, where numberless victims were writhing on the rack; from stakes, where the martyr was consuming amid the flames; from graveyards, where corpses were rotting above-ground; from trees and door-posts and highway gibbets, where human bodies were dangling in the air; from graves which had opened to receive living men and women; from sacked cities; from violated matrons and maidens; from widows and orphans, reared in affluence but now begging their bread; from exiles wandering desolate in foreign lands – from all, these had the cry gone up to the just Judge, and now here was the beginning of vengeance. The powerful cities of the Netherlands, Antwerp among the rest, saw all these outrages committed, and all these men and women dragged to prison, to the halter, to the stake, but they "forbore to deliver," they "hid themselves from their own flesh."

A callous indifference on the part of a nation to the wrongs and sufferings of others is always associated with a blindness to its own dangers, which is at once the consequence and the retribution of its estranging itself from the public cause of humanity and justice. Once and again and a third time had the Southern Netherlands manifested this blindness to the mighty perils that menaced them on the side of Spain, and remained deaf to the call of patriotism and religion. When the standards of William first approached their frontier, they were unable to see the door of escape from the yoke of a foreign tyrant thus opened to them. A tithe of the treasure and blood which were lost in the "Antwerp Fury" would have carried the banner of William in triumph from Valenciennes to the extreme north of Zealand; but the Flemings cared not to think that the hour had come to strike for liberty. A second time the Deliverer approached them, but the ease-loving Netherlanders understood not the offer now made to them of redemption from the Spanish yoke. When Alva and his soldiers – an incarnated ferocity and bigotry – entered the Low Countries, they sat still: not a finger did they lift to oppose the occupation. When the cry of Naarden, and Zutphen, and Haarlem was uttered, Antwerp was deaf.

Wrapt in luxury and ease, it had seen its martyrs burned, the disciples of the Gospel driven away, and it returned to that faith which it had been on the point of abandoning, and which, by retaining the soul in vassalage to Rome, perpetuated the serfdom of the Spanish yoke; and yet Antwerp saw no immediate evil effects follow. The ships of all nations continued to sail up its river and discharge their cargoes on its wharves. Its wealth continued to increase, and its palaces to grow in splendor. The tempests that smote so terribly the cities around it rolled harmlessly past its gates. Antwerp believed that it had chosen at once the easier and the better part; that it was vastly preferable to have the Romish faith, with an enriching

commerce and a luxurious ease, than Protestantism with battles and loss of goods; till one day, all suddenly, when it deemed calamity far away, a blow, terrible as the bolt of heaven, dealt it by the champions of Romanism, laid it in the dust, together with the commerce, the wealth, and the splendor for the sake of which it had parted with its Protestantism.

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