‘The Great Bog of Europe’ II


Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba.


City map of Haarlem around 1550. The city is completely surrounded by a city wall and defensive canal.


The Spanish court was electrified by news of desecrated churches and murdered priests; Flemings were insulted in the streets of Madrid. Philip determined to send a formidable army of mainly Spanish veterans from Italy to restore Catholic order in the Netherlands, but he struggled to find a general willing to accept such a potentially toxic command. Finally, after weeks of negotiations, Garcilaso’s great friend, the ever loyal Duke of Alba, acquiesced and agreed to serve as Governor of the Netherlands, which would result in Margaret’s resignation the following year.

In the spring of 1566, Alba sailed for Italy with a fleet commanded by the eighty-two-year-old Andrea Doria. The Archbishop of Toledo, Bartolomé de Carranza, was among the passengers, on his way to Rome to clear his name following his release by the Inquisition. Alba told a Spanish cardinal, as they waited to set sail, that ‘every hour we delay seems like a year to the archbishop . . . He has been going out of his mind since yesterday thinking that we intended not to take him because we embarked last night’ without him.

In the meantime, Philip’s heir Don Carlos had descended into hopeless lunacy: according to a reliable diplomatic report, ‘he walks hunched over and seems weak on his legs’, but is ‘much given to violence to the point of cruelty’. On one occasion, he rode his father’s prize horse so brutally that the animal died of its wounds. ‘He has abandoned himself to such chaos that . . . the joy among the Spaniards at having a native prince is as great as the doubts they have about his ability to govern.’ Yet he could be generous, buying the affection and favour even of the servants in his father’s household. He borrowed heavily from moneylenders to gamble and especially to lavish gifts on women, notably Philip’s attractive young Queen, Elizabeth of Valois.

Philip lived in hope, encouraging Carlos to attend the Council of State, where he seems to have behaved responsibly. But the boy was furious when he heard that his father had appointed Alba to the governorship of the Netherlands, which he had come obsessively to believe was his birthright. He began to plot maniacally, pleading with Don John of Austria to support his claim to rule in the Netherlands. Philip asked Don John to talk some sense into the boy, but his half-brother’s report was deeply troubling: the Prince was determined to rebel.

The King was torn between treating the matter as treason and accepting that his heir did not have the capacity for government. Finally, he felt compelled to act: shortly before midnight on 18 January 1568, Philip personally donned his armour and silently led four of his most senior ministers into the Prince’s apartment, avoiding a contraption designed by the Prince to drop a heavy weight on intruders. They collected up all his papers and secured the weapons he kept to hand. The King then personally oversaw his son’s incarceration; the windows were boarded up, an armed guard was placed on the door.

Marooned in an ocean of his own discontent, the Prince turned his violence upon himself, starving himself almost to the point of death and then swallowing his ring because he thought that diamonds were poisonous. In the relentless heat of the Castilian summer, he ate snow and took to sleeping on a mattress of ice, presumably brought from a nearby ice-house. One evening, he gorged himself on a supper of four partridges and was overtaken by fever; he at last died on 24 July, propelling the court into a year of mourning.

Philip’s feelings of relief at the loss of such a troubled heir and distress at the crisis of succession must have been intense, but there were also dark rumours that the King himself had ordered his son’s murder.

Alba already had a reputation for brutality gained during years of campaigning in Italy: as we have seen, his favourite advice to Philip, when faced with insurrection, was to go into battle, defeat the rebels and ‘cut off their heads’. Now he was marching north to Brussels with his army of 10,000 men-at-arms and an impressive entourage of camp followers, ‘four hundred mounted courtesans, as fair and beautiful as princesses, and eight hundred more who went on foot’. As the army approached, two Spanish Protestants published their horrifying Art of the Holy Spanish Inquisition, offering all Europe an apparently authoritative account of the terrible institutionalization of Spanish religious intolerance that Philip had ordered Alba to impose on the Netherlands. The Flemings were so terrified by this propaganda that the local nobility rallied to the Habsburg cause and began to restore order so effectively that Margaret exhorted Philip to stay Alba’s hand. But the die was cast.

There was a toxic atmosphere as Alba entered Brussels, and Margaret’s own confessor gave a sermon in the palace chapel denouncing the Spanish presence. But Alba took no notice: his orders were immediately to mete out severe and exemplary punishment. He began with the simultaneous arrest of Egmont and other leading noblemen and instituted a new and draconian tribunal that became known as the ‘Council of Blood’.

A terrified peace settled across the Low Countries, but thousands of Netherlanders were fleeing abroad. William of Orange retreated to his ancestral lands in Germany, and others went to France. Eleven thousand weavers from Ghent came to England, and Norwich alone gave succour to 4,000 Flemings; the oldest Dutch Protestant church in continuous use is in Austin Friars, in the City of London. By the spring of 1568, William of Orange, the natural leader of the Dutch patriots in exile, was able to co-ordinate a series of armed incursions, but he was no match for Alba, who kept the patriot army in the field until Orange ran out of money to pay his mercenaries. But Alba also resorted to the only psychological weapon he really believed in: terror. He had Egmont and the Count of Hornes publicly executed for high treason in the main square of Brussels, with 3,000 Spanish troops on duty to keep order. For the next three years, he prosecuted a relentless campaign of persecution against anyone suspected of rebellion or heresy. The figures are staggering: 9,000 were imprisoned, fined or had their property confiscated; as many as 1,700 were executed, ten times as many victims as the Inquisition in Spain would execute during the whole of Philip’s reign. Many more fled, perhaps as many as 60,000 in total in 1567 and 1568.

Then, in 1568, with breathtaking arrogance, Alba erected at Antwerp a bronze statue of himself trampling the rebellious Dutch under his horse’s hooves, cast from the melted-down cannon he had captured from the patriot army. It was modelled on medieval images of the Spanish patron saint James ‘the Moorslayer’ riding down Muslims and caused such outrage that Philip had it removed and destroyed. Alba was a brilliant soldier and strategist when it came to battle, but he had no truck with the subtleties of government. At sixty, he was an old man who quickly tired of trying to win the peace.

He is best known from the stunning Titian portrait of 1548, painted after his role in Charles’s victory at Mühlberg, in which he already seems almost careworn, with his greying beard and the tiredness evident around his eyes. Twenty years later, his gout was agonizing, while the northern climate left him susceptible to rheumatic fevers; he suffered occasional bouts of intestinal trouble and was often laid up in bed. He repeatedly wrote to Philip asking permission to return to Spain.

Finally, in 1572, the King began the process of bringing his ageing general home. But before he could retire, the Dutch erupted in rebellion. Alba was too sick to direct the Spanish troops in the field and that task fell to his equally psychopathic but extremely inexperienced son Fadrique. Father and son approached the campaign of repression with appalling brutality, only made worse by the riotous mood of the troops, who had not been paid for many months. The soldiers went on the rampage at Mechelen and then put the entire population of Naarden to the sword. There could have been no more powerful encouragement for the Dutch, and when Fadrique advanced on Haarlem he found the citizens steeled for a fight to the death. Even children now helped to break the siege, skimming across the ice on their skates under cover of fog to bring supplies, and 300 armed women played their part in the fighting. Instead of the easy victory they had anticipated, Fadrique’s army had to dig in during the harsh winter. In early skirmishing, a contingent of crack troops was devastated when it tried to engage a handful of armed Dutch vessels trapped in the ice. Suddenly, a group of musketeers emerged from the boats wearing skates and slipped fast and sure across the frozen sea, firing volley after volley at their veteran Spanish assailants, who slithered and skidded helplessly. Alba commented that ‘it is the most novel business that has ever been heard of’ and ordered 7,000 pairs of skates to be made.

The Spanish besiegers became so desperate that even Fadrique suggested raising the siege. ‘If you strike camp without the town’s surrender,’ his father ranted, ‘I shall disown you as a son, but if you die in the siege, I shall take your place in person . . . and if we both fail, your mother will come from Spain to do in battle what her son has neither the valour nor patience to achieve.’ But assault after assault failed.

During one retreat, John Haring of Horn, in the spirit of brave Horatius, had stood alone with sword and shield on a narrow dyke, where two men could not stand abreast, and faced off the great array. Haring held back thousands, as his men sought safety in the town, for (to borrow Macaulay’s classic verse), ‘how can man die better than facing fearful odds for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods? And for the tender mother who dandled him to rest and for the wife who nurses his baby at her breast?’

Haring then jumped into the sea, just as Horatius had leapt into the Tiber. Later, a great mock grave was constructed high upon the walls, and the citizens spelled out their motto for the besieging eyes: ‘Haarlem is the graveyard of the Spaniard.’

‘It is a war such as has never been seen nor heard of even in the remotest lands,’ Alba reported to Philip. But it was a war that Alba understood must be won on the water. In late May, the decisive naval battle took place, and before the end of July sorry Haarlem surrendered. The victorious army, still unpaid, unleashed the most heinous carnage. More than 2,000 members of the garrison had their throats cut, and the townsfolk were raped and pillaged. ‘In the forty years’, Alba lamented, ‘that I have led men, I have never seen such dangerous and repellent behaviour. I do not know what to say or do . . .’ But Fadrique found a solution: he had the ringleaders of the mutiny arrested and shot his own men by the score. Alba’s own commanders now openly talked of ‘the abhorrence in which the name of Alba is held’. Fadrique and his father had lost the trust of their most trusted men. Worse still, their riotous behaviour and the senseless slaughter of the garrison confirmed for every Dutch man, woman and child that Spaniards were without mercy. Throughout August and September, the tiny town of Alkmaar held out against Fadrique’s army of 10,000 and at the beginning of October he admitted defeat and raised the siege.

On 18 December 1573, Alba finally rose from his sickbed and left Brussels, never to return. On his way home, he brilliantly summarized the reality of the Dutch problem for his King: ‘the greater part of the States have always aspired to liberty of conscience and the [principle] that whatever is done in the privacy of one’s own home should not be subject to inquiry . . . If Your Majesty grants them freedom of worship, they will pay whatever taxes you demand . . . Neither side . . . wants another ruler . . . but you should understand that they want you to be their ward’ under their tutelage. To Alba, any such tolerance of religion was heresy in itself and any dilution of absolute monarchy was anathema. As he said himself, had he been given the resources to stamp out heresy in the Netherlands, he would almost certainly have done so, even if he had to destroy the dykes in order to visit a flood of Catholic seawater upon the heretics, their farms and their cities. He had repeatedly complained to Philip about the impossibility of winning the war because he did not have enough money to pay his troops, but the King retorted that ‘I shall never have enough money to satisfy your greed.’ Philip had understood that he could not afford to borrow enough money to defeat the Dutch; in fact, Alba’s war had bankrupted him.

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