The Siege of Alkmaar

The next city to which the duke set his sights was Alkmaar. He found, however, that in taking Haarlem, he had crippled himself. Having financially drained his treasury, it left him in arrears with his troops who now broke into mutiny, refusing to march until their wages had been paid. It required six weeks to reduce them to obedience, thus enabling the duke to begin his siege of Alkmaar. In the meantime, his own prestige as a disciplinarian had suffered greatly.

The city of Alkmaar was situated at the end of the peninsula, amid the lagoons of North Holland. During the delay, William of Orange was able to furnish it with provision and a small garrison of soldiers. By the time the Spanish army of 16,000 arrived, the city had a compliment of 800 soldiers, as well as 1,300 citizens who were able to bear arms.

Toledo was again leading the Spanish army, and His cruelty and treachery at Haarlem confirmed the citizens of Alkmaar in their resolution to resist. They reflected that starvation was less to be feared than the unspeakable horrors Toledo had perpetrated against the citizens of Haarlem after he had given them assurance of an honorable surrender.

When Governor Sonoy had first seen the approaching storm, the thought of his own feeble resources nearly overwhelmed him with discouragement. Writing to William of Orange, he expressed the hope that William had been able to ally himself with some powerful potentate who would supply them with money and troops to resist the Spanish scourge. William replied to his deputy, chiding him gently for his lack of faith. He assured him that he had indeed contracted an alliance with a mighty King who would provide armies to fight in the battle. He admonished Sonoy not to grow weak-hearted as if the arm of that King had grown weak.

While William was seeking to inspire his followers with the spirit of confidence, Alva, quite unintentionally, was effectively working to inspire them with the determination to resist. In a letter written to Philip, he confided that he had only hung 900 of the citizens of Haarlem; but once in possession of Alkmaar, he would see that every living creature was destroyed. If his generosity in dealing with Haarlem was wasted, then perhaps a real demonstration of cruelty would bring other cities to their senses.

Toledo planted batteries of men on opposite sides of the town, hoping to divide the garrison. After cannonading the city for twelve hours, he succeeded in making a breech in the walls and ordered an attack. As the troops advanced, confident of victory, they shouted as though the city were already theirs. They dashed across the moat and swarmed through the breach, only to be grappled with and thrown headlong into the ditch below. Three times the attack was repeated, only to be repulsed. The anger of the attackers was increased with each check, but Spanish fury availed nothing against Dutch courage and patriotism. The round-shot of the canon made vacant spaces in the advancing lines. The musketry kept up a deadly fire; and from the top of the walls, boiling oil, pitch, and water, mingled with tarred burning hoops, as well as great stones, rained down on the besiegers. Such as were successful in reaching the top of the wall were quickly dispatched of by the daggers of its defenders.

The whole town was engaged in this effort. Even small children ran between the arsenal and the defenders on the walls, carrying to them ammunition and missiles of all sorts. The apprehension of the fearful calamities that would befall them were the city to fall into the hands of the Spanish made them forgetful of every other danger.

One Spanish soldier who, having reached the top of the breach, before he was thrown down, saw to his utter amazement and dismay that there were no masses of troops in the city, only townsfolk dressed in the plain dress of fishermen. Managing to escape with his life, he repeated the story of what he had seen. It was humiliating beyond words to learn that the flower of Spanish pride had been flung back by plain and humble fishermen.

The assault had begun at three in the afternoon; but by seven in the evening, darkness was closing in and it was evident that Alkmaar was not to be taken that day. A thousand Spaniards lay dead, while of the defenders, only thirteen citizens and twenty-four of the garrison had fallen.

The next morning the cannonade was renewed; and after some 700 shots had been discharged against the walls, a breach was made. Toledo ordered his soldiers to attack, but they utterly refused. His coaxing and threatening were alike in vain. 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 else could it be explained that simple fishermen could have inflicted so terrible a defeat on the armies of Spain? Day after day passed, but still the Spaniards remained a safe distance from the walls. The winter rains began, and the camp was turned into a swamp.

Now a more terrible disaster than anything they had yet been forced to deal with threatened the Spanish. The Dutch agreed to cut their dikes and bury the country around Alkmaar, and with it, the Spanish camp. Already two sluices had been opened and the waters of the North Sea, driven by strong northwest winds, could be seen approaching. This was but the beginning. Don Frederic de Toledo summoned a council of his officers; and after a short deliberation, it was resolved to raise the siege. It had been quickly decided by the council that it was no disgrace to the Spanish army to retire, seeing it was not fleeing before man, but before the ocean.

Alva's humiliation did not end here, however. To punish Amsterdam for its having lent assistance to the Spanish in their conquest of Haarlem, North Holland sent a fleet to blockade it by sea, ending ocean trade for the great commercial city. Alva felt obligated to come to the help of the town which stood almost alone in all Holland in maintaining the Spanish cause. Constructing an even larger fleet with which to overwhelm the Dutch, he gave the command to Count Bossu. In the trial of strength that followed, the Spanish were completely defeated. Some of the Spanish ships were taken, while others made their escape. Finally, only the admiral's ship, the Inquisition remained. The largest and most powerful of the ships, it offered desperate resistance before striking its flag. When the Spanish ship was finally boarded, it was found that it was not until 220 of its 300 men had been killed and all but fifteen of the rest were wounded, that Bossu surrendered himself to the Dutch. Well aware that it was of the greatest consequence for them to maintain sea superiority, the Dutch hailed this victory with joy, offering public thanks for it in all the churches of Holland.

Although it is true that Alva in all his barbarities had but faithfully carried out the intent, if not the express orders of Philip, the monarch had begun to question the wisdom of seeking to subdue the independent spirit of his subjects by means of the sword and gallows. The reversal of Spanish success led to the recall of Alva; and for a short time, the people of Holland breathed more freely.

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