The Sacking of Antwerp

Sacking of Antwerp

With the setback that the Spanish army received before the walls of Leyden, the tide in the struggle for freedom in the Netherlands had set in favor of the liberty of conscience. Though the contest was far from ended, the first light of dawn had broken over Holland.

There came now a brief pause in the conflict. The Emperor Maximilian, a mutual friend of Philip of Spain and William of Orange, believed that perhaps the time had arrived to mediate a treaty of peace. Though William gave his consent to the idea, he had no confidence in a favorable outcome. He knew that there was one condition and one condition alone on which peace could successfully be established in Holland; and that condition, he knew, was one to which Philip would never agree to, namely, the free and open profession of the Reformed religion.

On March 3, 1575, a congress met at Breda to explore the possibility of a lasting peace. It was quickly seen that William had rightly judged the situation. Philip would agree to no peace unless the Roman Catholic religion was installed in sole and absolute dominance, leaving professors of the Protestant faith to convert their estates and goods into money and immediately leave the country. The Protestants replied that were they all to leave the country, there would not be sufficient men to keep the dikes in repair; and this being the case, the country might just as well 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 struggle in the hope of conquering by perseverance what it was clear Philip would never willingly concede.

The opening of the campaign of the renewed war was signalized by the capture of a few small Dutch towns, followed by the usual horrors that attended the triumph of Spanish arms. The Spanish Governor Requesens soon turned his attention to Zealand, where Philip was exceedingly desirous of acquiring harbors to receive a fleet which he was building in Spain. This led to the most brilliant of all the Spanish victories in the war.

In the sea that washes the northeast 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 anxious to gain possession of the other two. He had built a small fleet of flat-bottomed boats, and these might soon have made him master of the desired islands; but he dared not launch them as the Zealanders, whose bravery was unrivaled in their own element, controlled the waters. Requesens, in his great dilemma, envisioned an alternate plan so different in nature that to even attempt it bordered on madness. The island of Duyveland was separated from Tolen by a strait of about five miles in width; and Requesens learned from some traitor Zealanders that there ran a narrow sandbar from shore to shore that at ebb tide was not more than four to five feet beneath the water’s surface. It was possible, therefore, though certainly hazardous, to cross over this submarine ford. The governor assigned the task to 3,000 picked men. At midnight on September 27, 1575, the crossing was begun.

The night was dark and gloomy. Sheet lightning, bursting out at frequent intervals, shed a dim light across the surface of the black waters. At times the moon, now in her fourth quarter, broke out between the clouds. The soldiers walked two and two, the water at times reaching to their necks. 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 discovered the Spanish plot, they drew as close to the ford as the shallows would permit, opening fire. Their fire did little harm, for the darkness made their aim uncertain; but with their harpoons and long hooks, they were much more successful, dragging numbers of the Spaniards down into the sea.

Undaunted, the Spanish continued their march, arriving at the opposite shore six hours later, their ranks, however, greatly thinned.

Even after they had gained the land, the weary Spaniards might have been withstood; but at the moment they stepped ashore, the commander of the Zealanders, Charles van Boisot, was felled by a shot, whether from one of his own men or from the enemy was never known. Charles' sudden death, as well as the strangeness of the enemy’s advance, for it seemed as if the sea had miraculously opened to provide them passage, unnerved the Zealanders and in panic they fled in all directions. The invading force was soon in possession of Duyveland. The third island was likewise quickly captured; and the Spanish commander immediately set out to destroy all the cities and forts on the islands, a task that occupied the Spanish army for nine months.

Gaining possession of the islands had been an immensely expensive project, both in terms of money and lives. In return, Requesens hoped that he had not only cut the communication between Holland and Zealand, but that he had secured a point at which to assemble a mighty naval force with which to extend his conquests and re-conquer Holland and the other provinces which had revolted from the Spanish crown and the faith of Rome. He seemed well on his way to accomplishing his purpose when disaster struck, dashing his fondest hopes. Never again was Holland to bow to the rule of the Spanish crown.

Vitelli, Marquis of Cetona, who was without question the most able general at that time in the Netherlands, suddenly 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 an even greater setback, a mutiny of his troops. Though his men had fought valiantly, Philip had exhausted his treasury in the war that he was carrying on with the Turks and had nothing with which to pay them. The soldiers had been disappointed, moreover, in the booty they expected to reap from the conquered towns. Seeing no help coming from the Spanish crown, they deposed their officers and elected a commander-in-chief from among themselves. Taking an oath of mutual fidelity, they passed over to the mainland and seized Alost, in Flanders, making it their headquarters from which to plunder the neighboring towns. Thus the hopes which the King of Spain had built upon his troops were frustrated at the very moment when he thought they were about to be realized.

No sooner had the mutineers hung out their flag on the walls of Alost than the troops stationed in other parts of the Netherlands caught the spirit. By the beginning of September, the mutiny was universal; the whole Spanish army in the Netherlands was united in it. Completely dominating the land, they plundered the citizens, pillaged the country, and murdered at their pleasure. Philip issued an edict against his revolted army, denouncing them as rebels and empowering any one to slay them at will; but it fell upon deaf ears.

War now broke out between the Flemings (the people who lived in the southern area of the Low Countries, in what is now known as Belgium), and the army. Bloody skirmishes were a daily occurrence. The peasants and artisans who had been so suddenly transformed into soldiers to defend themselves against the marauders were easily routed by the disciplined veterans who slaughtered them by the thousands. The rich cities on which they now cast greedy eyes began to feel their vengeance, but the atrocities they suffered paled into insignificance beside the terrible calamity which overtook Antwerp.

At this time, Antwerp was the richest city in the world. The ships of all nations unloaded their treasures in its harbor. Its streets were spacious and magnificent, and the palaces of its wealthy merchants were filled with luxurious and costly furniture and embellished with precious ornaments, beautiful pictures, and fine statues.

Immediately outside the walls of Antwerp was a fortification garrisoned with troops. These, however, joined the mutiny; and from that hour Antwerp was doomed. The mutineers in the citadel were joined by about 3,000 from Alost. The attack began Sunday morning, the fourth of November. The troops, now numbering 6,000, swept along the avenue leading to the city. They crashed through the feeble barrier which the citizens had reared to protect themselves from the anticipated assault. Chasing before them the local militia, they quickly scaled the walls and entered the city. From every direction the citizens poured forth to defend their homes; and though they fought with extraordinary courage, it was all to no avail. The Spanish hordes bore down all before them. 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 streets ran with blood. In the end, courage availed little against training and Spanish discipline.

The battle was renewed with equal fury in the Grand Place. Here stood the Guildhall, considered the most magnificent in the world. It was set afire, and the flames quickly caught the surrounding buildings. Soon the finest homes in the city were ablaze. Many, seeking to escape, rushed to the gates, only to find them locked. Though the battle was going against the citizens, their rage and hatred of the Spaniards drove them on. As for the Spaniards, they made no distinction between friend and foe, Catholic and Protestant, or poor and rich. Old men, women and children, and even the priest at the altar, the blood of all flooded the streets of their city.

Darkness fell on the scene of horrors, and now the barbarities of the day were succeeded by the greater atrocities of the night. The first object of these men was plunder, and they had given way to almost boundless greed. Having rifled the shops, broken into the warehouses, and loaded themselves with the jewels of private citizens, they now began to search for hidden treasures. Torturing those whom they supposed to possess these treasures, seeking to compel them to reveal their secret wealth, they committed crimes so revolting in character that by their side, murder itself grows pale.

“The terrified multitudes who had fallen into the hands of the conquerors were seized and maltreated with a fury such as was never remembered before and has never been heard of since. Infants were dashed to pieces in the presents of their mothers, fathers were killed before their children, and women scourged to death, the husbands being compelled to look on. Every cruelty which human malice could invent was practiced in order that the treasures which the city possessed should be revealed and given up. The Spaniards knew that Antwerp was rich; they determined to have the last farthing of its wealth, and to gain it, they spared neither sex nor age. The city was in the possession of thousands of demons, who exhausted all the wickedness and ingenuity of perdition to gain their horrible purpose. Plunder was their sole aim and for it they threw away all guise of humanity, and bent themselves to work all manner of cruelty.”  The New York Times, November 25, 1876

For three days the work of murdering and plundering went on; and when it had come to an end, how awful the spectacle the city presented that but three days before was the gayest and wealthiest on earth! Stacks of blackened ruins rising where marble palaces had stood; ash heaps where mansions had been; and corpses gathered in heaps, hacked, mutilated, half-burned, some naked, others still encased in armor! Eight thousand citizens, according to the most reliable accounts, had been slain. Nor was the financial and monetary loss confined to the moment, for never again was Antwerp to recover the prosperity it had previously enjoyed.

In the dreadful calamity, there was a great moral lesson to be learned. For fifty years the cry had ascended to heaven to the just Judge from tens of thousands of scaffolds where the ax 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 graves which had opened to receive living men and women; from sacked cities; and from violated matrons and maidens. The powerful cities of the Netherlands, Antwerp among the rest, saw all these outrages committed but turned away in callous indifference.

A willing blindness on the part of a nation to the wrongs and sufferings of others is always associated with blindness to its own dangers. Three times the Southern Netherlands had failed to recognize the terrible danger that Spain posed to them. When the standards of William first approached their frontier, they were unable to see the door of escape from the yoke of foreign tyranny. With but a small portion of the treasure and blood which were lost in the fury that broke over Antwerp, they could have carried the banner of William in triumph from Valenciennes to the extreme north of Zealand; but the Flemings chose the easier road. A second time the Deliverer approached them, but the ease-loving Netherlanders declined to involve themselves. Wrapped in luxury and ease, Antwerp had seen the disciples of the Gospel persecuted and driven away. Even when Alva and his soldiers committed atrocities against the cities of Naarden, Zutphen, and Haarlem, it was deaf.

Choosing the easier road, Antwerp returned to that faith which it had been on the point of abandoning but by which it made certain its continued serfdom to the Spanish yoke. The certain results were not immediately apparent. Its wealth continued to increase and its palaces to grow in splendor. The desolating tempests that fell so terribly on the cities around it rolled harmlessly past its gates. Antwerp convinced itself that it was vastly preferable to have the Romish faith, with luxury and ease, than Protestantism with battles and loss of goods; until one day, when it seemed most secure, quite suddenly the champions of Romanism dealt Antwerp a blow that laid it in the dust, together with the wealth and the splendor for the sake of which it had parted with Protestantism.

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