Joyous entry of François, Duke of Anjou (1556-1584) into Antwerp, 19 February 1582, with a triumphal arch on St. Jan’s Bridge. Oil painting of a colorful procession of horsemen and infantry on their way to the triumphal arch. Beneath a canopy, the duke is riding a gray, wearing a scarlet coat. Left and right of the procession the procession is separated from the public by militiamen. A captain kneels before the duke. To the right next to a block of houses a glimps of the port of Antwerp. To the right also a construction with barrels of firework.
Conditions in the Netherlands could hardly have been more favourable to Orange’s cause. The combined impact of raids by the Sea Beggars, the English trade embargo and war in the Baltic had caused a major economic recession: food prices soared just as thousands of families lost their livelihood. Nature intensified the misery: storms caused widespread flooding by seawater; ice and snow froze the rivers; and a plague epidemic ravaged the country. Alba pleaded with the king to send funds from Spain to provide relief but in February 1572 Philip replied, ‘With the Holy League and so many other things that must be paid for from here, it is impossible to meet the needs of the Netherlands to the same extent as we have been doing up to now.’ A month later he was even more insistent: ‘It is my will that henceforth the Netherlands be sustained from the proceeds of the Tenth Penny.’ Collection of the new tax must begin at once.
Since the provincial States still refused to sanction the Tenth Penny, Alba decided to impose it without their consent. His officials started to register all commercial activity, and when in March 1572 some shopkeepers and merchants in Brussels ceased to transact business in protest, the duke brought detachments of his Spanish troops into the city – but to no avail: the shops remained shut and economic activity atrophied. Maximilian Morillon, Cardinal Granvelle’s agent in Brussels, reported that ‘Poverty is acute in all parts’, with thousands in Brussels ‘dying of hunger because they have no work. If the prince of Orange had conserved his forces until a time like this,’ Morillon concluded, ‘his enterprise would have succeeded.’ Morillon sealed his prescient letter on 24 March 1572. Just one week later, a party of Sea Beggars captured the seaport of Den Brielle in Holland in the name of William of Orange, and they flamboyantly declared that they would treat everyone well ‘except for priests, monks and papists’.
Nevertheless, the rebel garrison of Den Brielle was small (perhaps 1,100 men, against the millions at Philip’s command); the town was isolated; and it lacked fortifications. News that Strozzi’s fleet at La Rochelle might launch an attack convinced Alba that the effective defence of South Holland and Zeeland required the immediate construction of a citadel at the largest port in the region, Flushing on the island of Walcheren, and on 29 March 1572 he dispatched one of his leading military architects to the city with the necessary plans. For good measure he also sent a warrant to arrest the local magistrates, who had failed to start collecting the Tenth Penny.
The Tenth Penny epitomized all the disagreeable aspects of the ‘new world’ envisaged by Philip and Alba: it was unconstitutional; it was oppressive; it was foreign; and its proceeds were destined for the hated Spanish garrisons. In addition, it placed magistrates everywhere in an impossible position: those who complied lost control of their towns, and Alba dismissed those who refused. The Sea Beggars knew what they were about when they flew at their masthead flags showing ten coins. Philip nevertheless persevered. On 16 April 1572, before news of the capture of Den Brielle arrived in Spain, he again informed Alba that ‘we cannot send you any more money from here’, because ‘my treasury has reached the state where no source of income or money-raising device remains which will yield a single ducat’. By then the citizens of Flushing had defied him – first by refusing to admit a Spanish garrison, then by murdering the engineer sent to construct a citadel, and finally by admitting the Sea Beggars. Philip immediately recognized the strategic importance of this development, since both he and his father had sailed to Spain from Flushing in the 1550s. ‘It would be good’, he wrote officiously to Alba,
that if you have not already punished the inhabitants of those islands, and those who have invaded them, you should do so right away without allowing time for them to receive more reinforcements, because the longer the delay, the more difficult the venture. When you have done this, make sure that nothing like this can happen again on the island of Walcheren, because you can see what a danger it poses.
Alba scarcely needed this lecture on strategy. He would no doubt have taken great pleasure in punishing ‘the inhabitants of those islands’, but in May the port of Enkhuizen in North Holland also declared for Orange and accepted a garrison of Sea Beggars, while Louis of Nassau and a band of French Protestants surprised the city of Mons in Hainaut, defended by powerful fortifications. The following month van den Berg and his German troops captured the stronghold of Zutphen in Gelderland, while Orange himself crossed the Rhine at the head of an army of 20,000 and advanced towards Brabant. Before long, fifty towns had rebelled against Philip and declared for Orange.
Facing so many threats, Alba now took a crucial decision: he refused to re-inforce his hard-pressed subordinates in the northern provinces and instead withdrew their best troops southwards to await the expected French invasion – which never came. Although the wedding of Margot of Valois and Henry of Navarre passed without incident on 18 August, a few days later a Catholic marksman tried to assassinate Coligny, but only managed to wound him. Fearing that the botched assassination attempt would provoke a Protestant backlash, Charles IX did nothing to prevent – and may have encouraged – a killing frenzy by the Catholics of Paris on St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August, that took the life of Coligny and most other Huguenots in the capital. The slaughter of the Protestant populations of a dozen other French cities soon followed.
These events transformed the situation in the Netherlands. As Morillon observed, ‘If God had not permitted the destruction of Coligny and his followers, this country would have been lost’; and the prince of Orange agreed. The massacre, he wrote to his brother, was a ‘stunning blow’ because ‘my only hope lay with France’. But for St Bartholomew, ‘we would have had the better of the duke of Alba and we would have been able to dictate terms to him at our pleasure’. On 12 September the prince’s attempt to relieve Mons failed, and the city surrendered one week later.
Now Alba turned his attention to the other towns in rebellion, and since the campaigning season was running out he decided upon a strategy of selective terror, calculating that a few examples of unrestrained brutality would accelerate the process of pacification. At first the policy proved spectacularly successful. First his men stormed Mechelen, which had refused to accept a royal garrison and instead admitted Orange’s troops, and sacked it for three days. Even before the screams abated, all other rebellious towns in Flanders and Brabant had surrendered. The duke now moved against Zutphen, which (like Mechelen) had defected to the rebels at an early stage, and sacked it. Once again, strategic terror paid off: Alba proudly informed the king that ‘Gelderland and Overijssel have been conquered with the capture of Zutphen and the terror that it caused, and these provinces once again recognize the authority of Your Majesty’. The rebel centres in Friesland also surrendered, and the duke graciously pardoned them, but he resolved to make an example of one more town loyal to Orange in order to encourage the surrender of the remaining rebel enclaves. Naarden, just across the provincial boundary of Holland, obligingly declined a summons to surrender, and so (as the duke smugly reported to his master) ‘The Spanish infantry stormed the walls and massacred citizens and soldiers. Not a mother’s son escaped.’
Almost immediately, just as Alba had anticipated, envoys from Haarlem (the nearest rebel stronghold) arrived at the camp; but, instead of offering unconditional surrender, they asked to negotiate. The duke refused: he demanded immediate surrender or else his troops would take the city and sack it. This proved to be a fateful decision. The rebels had put down far deeper roots in Holland and Zeeland than in the other provinces, and Haarlem (unlike Mechelen and Zutphen) boasted a hard core of Orangist loyalists: after declaring spontaneously for the prince, the city allowed a large number of exiles to return and take charge. The new rulers promptly purged and reformed the town’s government, closed Catholic churches and allowed Calvinist worship. All of those involved in thus flouting the king’s authority in both politics and religion knew that they could expect no mercy if Alba’s Spanish troops got inside their walls – and if any of them doubted this, they had only to consider the fate of Mechelen, Zutphen and now Naarden. Moreover, it was now December, the fields were frozen and the duke’s forces were far weaker. The very success of his campaign had dramatically reduced the size of the Spanish army, both because the sieges and storms had caused relatively high casualties among the victors, and because each rebellious town recaptured, whether by brutality or clemency, required a garrison.
Alba now commanded scarcely 12,000 effectives: to besiege Haarlem, which boasted a powerful garrison and strong defences, with such a relatively small force would have been rash at any time. In the depths of winter, on tactical grounds this was an act of egregious folly. It was also an act of egregious folly on financial grounds. The war in the Netherlands had absorbed almost two million ducats in 1572, and the war in the Mediterranean cost almost as much – with the certainty of an increase in 1573 because in February, as the Spanish troops froze in the trenches before Haarlem, the Venetian Republic resolved to sacrifice Cyprus in return for peace with the sultan. Alba’s intransigence towards the envoys from Haarlem had plunged Philip into his worst nightmare: a full-scale war on two fronts.