The Sea Beggers

While humble men were dying for their faith, Providence was preparing for the deliverance of the country. Following the withdrawal of William’s army, persecution broke out with ever greater ferocity until the unhappy country came to the realization that it had but one hope and that hope was William of Orange. From all sides, from Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, from exiles abroad and from those suffering at home came the most urgent appeals for him to again lift the standard of battle against the enemy.

Prince William of Orange

William had already impoverished himself in his attempt to break the Spanish yoke from the neck of the Netherlands. If the struggle were to again be taken up, it would require the help of others, both at home and abroad.

The Flemish refugees in London and other parts united and outfitted a large number of small armed ships. These they sent to cruise the English and Flemish coasts, making prize of any Spanish ships that came their way. The skill and daring were rewarded by numerous rich captures. As Alva’s furry increased, it enlarged the number of refugees in London and other cities which resulted in increasing the strength of the fleet of privateers. While Alva was gathering taxes on land, they were reaping a rich harvest at sea. These cruisers became known as the Sea Beggars. It occurred to the Prince of Orange that these terrible beggars might do good service in the emancipation of their country and it was ultimately arranged that a fight of the value of all prices would go to support the war effort.

Alva himself unconsciously helped to prepare the way for William, and to draw down the first blow of the great conflict.

Near the close of March, 1572, Spain smarting from the damage inflicted by the Sea Beggars, complained to England that its harbors were open to Flemish pirates, and that they were permitted to sell their stolen goods throughout the country. Elizabeth, while secretly friendly to the Flemish exiles, was as of yet unwilling to make an open break with Philip, and accordingly ordered their ships to quit her ports and forbade her subjects to supply or provision their crews. The Sea Beggars promptly weighed anchor, and crossing the German Sea, they sailed up its broad channel to Brill. The fleet, under the command of Admiral de la Marck, coming opposite Brill send a summon to the town people to surrender. Brill, though a small place was strongly fortified. However, such a summons from the Beggars of the Sea so terrified the magistrate that he fled, followed by many of the inhabitants. De la Marck’s soldiers soon battered open the gates and hoisted their flag, taking the city in the name of William of Orange. Thus, on the 1st of April, 1572, was opened the conflict which was to last for thirty years and ultimately result in a Free Protestant Holland. The conflict which was to be marked alternately by defeats and triumphs would end in the overthrow of the mighty Empire of Spain, and the elevation of the little territory of Holland to a more stable and prosperous level, more enviable in its greatness and renown than Philip’s kingdom could boast in its fairest days.

Upon being made aware of the news that the Sea Beggar, De la Marck had made himself master of the town of Brill, and that William’s standard floated from its walls, Alva was stunned. He immediately dispatched Count Bossu to retake the town.

The Spaniards advanced to the walls of Brill and began to batter them with their cannon. A carpenter from within the town leaped into the canal, and swimming to the sluice, with an axe hewed it open, letting in the sea. The rising waters forced the besiegers to remove to the south side of the town, which happened to be where De la Marck had placed his largest cannons. While the Spaniards were thundering at this gate, La marck’s men slipping out the opposite one, rowed to the Spanish ships and set them on fire.

When the Spaniards saw their ships starting to blaze and the water rapidly rising about them, they were seized with panic and made a hasty retreat along the dyke.  Many perished in the water. Those who made good their escape crowded into the vessels that remained unburned and sailed away. The inhabitants of Brill who had initially fled, now returned. Their names were registered, and all swore all now swore allegiance to the Prince of Orange.

Misfortune continued to dog the steps of the Spaniards. Bossu led his troops toward Dort, but the inhabitants having heard of the capture of Brill, refused to open their gates to him. Turning to Rotterdam, he was met with a similar refusal. However, resorting to stratagem, he requested that his companies be allowed to pass through singly, one by one. This permission given, no sooner had the first company gained an entrance than he made his soldiers keep open the gates for his whole army. The citizens attempting to close the gates were hewn down and the Spaniards in their furry butchered 400 of the inhabitants. This brutality inflicted on Rotterdam had nearly as great an effect as the capture of Brill in spreading the spirit of revolt over Holland.

Flushing, and important town at the mouth of the Scheldt, was next to raise the flag in defiance of the Spaniards. They drove out the garrison of Alva stationed there. The next day the Spanish fleet appeared in their harbor. As the citizens were deliberating as to what course to pursue, one drunken fellow proposed that for three guilders, he would mount the ramparts and fire one of the great guns upon the ships. The effect of that one unexpected shot was such that the Spaniards in panic let slip their cables and stood out to sea.

Within a few months all the more important towns of Holland and Zealand followed the example of Brill and Flushing, hanging upon their walls the standard of the man they recognized as their deliverer. It was a spontaneous movement that originated with the citizens themselves, a great majority of which cherished a hatred of the Roman faith and a detestation of Spanish tyranny. Amsterdam is the only exception in Holland that is worth noting.

About this time, Count Louis of Nassau, approaching from France, made himself master of the frontier town of Mons in the South. Alva was mortified at this change of circumstance and determined to recover the place. He was counseled to postpone the siege until he had put down the uprising in the North. He was reminded that Holland and Zealand were deeply infected with heresy; that there the Prince of Orange was personally popular; and that these Provinces had a natural fortification formed by the rivers and arms of the sea, and that given some time, the inhabitants could strengthen their canals and cities so that many sieges and battles might not be sufficient to reduce them to obedience. As eminently wise as was this advice, Alva turned a deaf ear. And, though he was eventually successful in taking Mons, it was at the cost of losing Holland.

At this time, William addressed a letter to the States of Holland in which he told them in words that were as plain as they were weighty, that if in this time of crisis, they did not show themselves generous to support the effort already begun, they would incur the anger of the great Ruler, as well as making themselves the scorn of foreign nations, and would bind a bloody yoke on themselves and their posterity forever.

He furthermore proposed that should the struggle be crowned with success, the Catholics would have no less reason to rejoice than the Protestants, as the two would divide the spoils. It was his intention that liberty of conscience be allowed as well to the Reformed as to the Roman Catholics and that each should enjoy freedom of work without molestation or hindrance.

A patriotic response to the prince’s appeal was made by the Northern Netherlands. All classes participated. From the aristocracy to the ordinary citizens came gifts and loans. Money, jewelry, and all kinds of valuables poured into the common treasury. A unanimous resolution of the States declared the Prince of Orange Stadtholder of Holland.

“What a contrast between the little territory and the greatness of the contest that is about to be waged! We behold the inhabitants of a small platform of earth, walled in by dykes lest the ocean should drown it, heroically offering themselves to fight the world’s battle against that great combination of kingdoms, nationalities, and armies that compose the mighty monarchy of Spain!” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 18, chapter 14

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