The Siege of Haarlem

When Alva and his son, Toledo, learned that rather than opening its gates, Haarlem had decided upon a course of resistance, they were infuriated and immediately set out to humble the little city that had presumed to resist the power of Spain. The first regiments arrived on December 11, 1572 and their number was soon swelled to 30,000 with the addition of Germans and Walloons. By contrast, the entire population of Haarlem did not exceed 30,000 and was defended by a garrison of not more than 4,000 men. It was clear that if the city was to be defended, the defense would like largely with the citizens themselves.

A heavy fog hung over the Lake of Haarlem, effectively concealing Toledo’s preparations for the siege. If, however, it was helping Toledo, it was even more of a friend to the besieged city in as much as it allowed provisions and reinforcements to be brought into the city. Rapidly moving on skates, hundreds of soldiers and peasants passed the Spanish lines unobserved in darkness.

In a complete show of contempt for the defenders of the city, Don Frederic de Toledo established his headquarters at the Gate of the Cross, the strongest part of the fortifications. As to where he would begin his attack, be it the weakest or strongest point of defense, seemed to him to be of little consequence as he believed that with the first sound of his cannon, the city would surrender. He had allowed one week for the capture and a second for the massacre and complete destruction the city. Once this work was completed, he anticipated an ongoing campaign in which he would deal with successive towns until nothing but ruins would remain in Holland.

To this end, he set vigorously to work. His cannon now began to thunder against the gate. Within three days, a breach was made in the walls and greedy for plunder Spanish arms crossed the ditch and rushed into the breach. However, to their great surprise, they met a resistance they had not anticipated.

At the sound of alarm, men, women, and children all rushed to repel the enemy. “They opened their cannon upon the assailants, the musketry poured in its fire, but still more deadly was the shower of miscellaneous yet most destructive missiles rained from the ramparts on the hostile masses below. Blocks of stone, boiling pitch, blazing iron hoops, which clung to the necks of those on whom they fell, live coals, and other projectiles equally dreadful, which even Spanish ferocity could not withstand, were hurled against the invaders. After contending some time with a tempest of this sort, the attacking party had to retire, leaving 300 dead, and many officers killed or wounded.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 18, chapter 18

The vigor and success of the repulse that Spanish arms received opened Toledo’s eyes to the fact that to make himself master of Haarlem would be a much more daunting task than he had envisioned and he now began to prepare for campaign more in keeping with the reality of the situation. It would be a full month before he again took up the attack.

During the lull in the fighting, the Prince of Orange was able to introduce into Haarlem, over the ice, reinforcements of munitions and provisions, in addition to 400 soldiers. A later attempt to fortify the city with an additional 2,000 troops resulted in a disastrous defeat and the loss of all the supplies.

By the end of January, the following year, Toledo was ready to resume the assault. However, despite the trenches he had now dug to protect his men from the fire originating on the ramparts, and the continual cannonading, he found himself unable to overcome the heroism of the citizens of Haarlem. They would, at unexpected times, slip out of the city and attack the Spanish camp, slaying hundreds of his troops, setting fire to their tents, and seizing his cannons and provisions.

No sooner would Toledo’s artillery make an opening in the walls and the Spanish troops crowd into the breach than they would find themselves facing an inner battery from which the defenders waited to rain a murderous fire down on them.

As part of his preparations for what he believed would be the final assault, Toledo had imported 3,000 sappers from the mines of Liege. These sappers and miners pushed their underground trenches below the city wall, but just as they were about to surface within the city, they would find their progress suddenly blocked by a counter-mine which brought them face to face in the narrow tunnel with the citizens, forcing them into hand to hand combat. At other times, the defenders would dig deeper, undermining them, and would fill these excavations with gunpowder which they would then ignite. Suddenly, the ground would erupt and pour forth massive amounts of dirt, stones and mining tools, mixed with numerous body parts.

Eventually, the cannonading succeeded in battering down a section of the wall. Hoping to take the citizens by surprise, Toledo grouped his troops overnight and began an assault before the sentinels on the wall were aware of it. Though several of the storming party reached the summit of the breach, their progress was suddenly arrested. The bells of Haarlem sounded out the alarm and the citizens, arousing from their sleep, rushed to the ramparts and a fierce struggle began. The battle was still in progress when day broke.

Following morning mass, Toledo ordered the whole of his army to advance. As the besiegers pressed into the fortress, to their dismay they discovered that by constant labor, the citizens had erected a half-moon battery behind the breached portion of the wall, from the top of which the defenders poured a murderous fire down on them. Furthermore, the citizens foreseeing the ultimate capture of the outer fortifications had undermined the area with gunpowder. Suddenly the area erupted with a thunderous explosion, sending hundreds of Spanish officers and men soaring high into the air. The magnitude of the loss left the Spaniards aghast. The trumpet sounded a retreat.

Toledo seeing that the siege was making no progress, and in view of the thinning number of his troops, proposed to his father that the siege be raised before his supplies were fully exhausted and winter’s cold took an even further toll on his troops. Alva was scandalized but the suggestion and sent a stinging rebuke to his son.

By the middle of February, the cold had abated and the Lake of Haarlem was once again navigable. The Prince of Orange, taking advantage of the situation, used a number of vessels he had gathered in anticipation of just such an occurrence and now sent them loaded with provisions for the besieged city, thus staving off for the time the specter of famine.

On March 25th, a group of 1,000 of the citizens slipped out of the city and attacking the Spanish encampment succeeded in burning 300 tents, capturing cannons, and many wagon loads of provisions, while killing 800 Spaniards in the process, and returned to the city with the loss of only four of their own number.

Fearing the approach of famine even more than Spanish forces, the citizens attempted by various means to provoke the Spaniards to battle. Alva was greatly amazed, and also mortified to see such expressions of valor. In writing to Philip, he said: “Never was a place defended with such skill and bravery as Haarlem,” said he, writing to Philip; “it was a war such as never was seen or heard of in any land on earth.” Ibid.

Now, however, the tide began to turn against the valiant defenders. Count Bossu, the lieutenant of Toledo had gathered a fleet of armed vessels with which he was able to cut the supply rout the lake had provided and famine set in. By the end of May, bread had failed and though several attempts at supplying the city were tried, they men with no success.

William turned first to Protestant England and then to the Lutheran princes of Germany for assistance, but Elizabeth was fearful to break with Philip and at the moment, the Jesuit reaction in Germany was too powerful to permit the German princes to render assistance.

With famine rapidly wasting away the inhabitants, the few remaining citizens resolved upon a desperate scheme. The men would form a hollow square, putting their wives and children in the center and attempt to cut their way through the Spanish lines. Toledo, learning of their intentions, and knowing that there was nothing of which they were not capable, straightway sent a message to tell the people that upon the payment of 200,000 guilders, the city would be spared, and with the exception of fifty-seven persons whom he named, all would be pardoned.

This proposal created great agony of mind among the citizens. At last, on the 12th of July, they sent Toledo a message accepting his terms and surrendering the city.

At the moment Toledo gave his solemn promise which led to the surrender, he had in his possession a letter from the Duke of Alva, commanding him to put the entire garrison to the sword with the exception of the Germans, and to hang all the citizens of Haarlem, which instructions he ruthlessly carried out once he had gained access to the city.

Though the campaign outwardly bore the appearance of a Spanish victory, yet when we consider that it cost Alva 12,000 men, emptied his treasury, and worse yet, had broken the spell of Spanish invincibility. All Europe had watched as a little town defied the power of Spain for seven long months, while investing the adversary he sought to crush with a moral prestige. In the end, it was to the famine and not force of Spanish arms that prevailed.

Furthermore, Toledo’s perfidy and cruelty only served to encourage the other cities of Holland to stand for their liberties and the prolonged detention of the Spaniards before the walls of Haarlem had allowed them to better their posture of defense.

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