In 1621, four years before that achievement, Spain was coming to an end of its twelve years’ truce with the Dutch rebels. Little more than a week into Philip IV’s new monarchy, the hourglass of relative peace ran out. Olivares had never backed the truce; he thought it injured Spanish trading interests and imperial expansion plans; and—one policy somewhat at cross-purposes with another—he believed a renewed war would give the insurgents pause and allow Spain time to work out an honorable way of bringing the interminable conflict to an end. A surge! And then a permanent peace! Meanwhile the southern provinces of the Low Countries had to be defended. Somehow Spain’s integrity depended on it. Defending the Catholic religion and opposing Protestantism were involved. Yet many in both Madrid and Flanders thought that immediate peace should be given a chance instead. The southern provinces had prospered during the truce. The leadership on the spot was not gung ho about a renewed war—neither of the “archdukes” was keen, with Isabella doubtful about its long-term value and Albert, on the point of death, with his thoughts on eternity. Their senior military commander Ambrogio Spinola was a member of a distinguished Genoese banking family. Lack of financial support from the Spanish crown forced him to invest his own funds in providing for the Army of Flanders; he wanted the Dutch to be given a chance to cool off. Unfortunately, the Dutch were once again feeling belligerent and ill-feeling mounted on both sides. The Spanish Council of State took the majority position that refinancing the struggle against the Dutch would be worth it if the conflict preserved Spain’s glory. “A good war in Flanders” would promote peace elsewhere. It would also keep the restless Spanish army busy in the southern Netherlands. The troops needed something to do that would take their minds off their long overdue pay. And of course money would be found to pay for the renewed war, wouldn’t it?
In 1623 Don Fernando Giron, one of Philip’s counsellors, had declared that war in the Netherlands was causing the total ruin of the monarchy. The Council of State in Madrid believed it was the moment for defensive rather than offensive operations against the Dutch, possibly taking heed of the military maxim of the time that “One good towne well defended sufficeth to ruyn a mightie army.” But now in 1625 the clouds momentarily lifted. There were smiles all around and applause as word wafted through the Alcázar that things for a change were going well in the Low Countries; the Army of Flanders was heading for Brabant; this could be the start of the recapture of all the rebel provinces and the collapse of the heretic cause. A victory would herald a new golden age for Spain. The Dutch would be under dire pressure once again. Think of all the money that would be saved! Let’s not think about possible defeat. In any event, Spinola shook off the quagmire mud and first directed his forces toward the town of Grave. This was a feint. The archduchess Isabella, sole governor of the Netherlands since Albert’s death in 1621, had approved an action against a town in Brabant. However, when Breda—“the right eye of Holland” as the prolific court newsletter writer Andres de Mendoza put it—was proposed for the purpose, she and her council thought it might be too hard a nut to crack; it was well fortified; it had been held by the Dutch since the peat-boat assault in 1590 and in recent years had been judged the best-manned garrison in the Dutch defensive ring. But it was at Breda that, taking the offensive, Spinola took aim.
Spinola at this point was already known throughout Europe. His successful siege of Ostend, his capture of towns and fortresses in Cleves-Julich, a German duchy close to the Dutch border, and his consequent control of the Rhine Valley and with it the Spanish Road, all led to him being recognized as the best army commander of the time. In 1618, the year the Thirty Years War broke out, Spinola was invoked along with the celebrated imperial general Bucquoy in an English verse inveighing against the evils of tobacco, a “dear drug” that gallants spent their gold on, but which might make—the author Thomas Pestel suggested, tongue-in-cheek or fingers holding his nose—a useful poison gas:
’Tis our artillery too; and armed this way
Our English scorn Bucquoy and Spinola:
Set but each man unto his mouth a pipe
And—as the Jews gave Jericho a wipe,
Raising a blast of rams’ horns while it fell—
Some ballad on a time, the truth shall tell
How it befell, when we our foes did choke
Like bees, and put them pell-mell to the Smoke.
For the Spanish, in the improving early 1620s, embargoes seemed to be working against the Dutch. The rebels were prevented from entering Iberian ports, while their herring boats were being sunk in the North Sea and their merchant ships blockaded. Prince Maurice had started negotiating with Brussels about a new truce but the talks were stalled. Moreover, there was now peace with England and France—France particularly had its hands full and was sundered by religious conflict. The Spanish army had been expanded to sixty thousand men, causing the Dutch to increase their forces while having difficulty raising taxes to pay for them. A butter tax of four guilders per vat, imposed by the States General in The Hague in June 1624, provoked urban riots; in Haarlem some of the town’s militia—one member of which was the painter Frans Hals—fired on the angry demonstrators.
Spain’s army was cosmopolitan, reflecting the fact that Spain was less a nation than an international organization: a conglomerate of kingdoms, princely territories, duchies, states, colonial possessions. The Spanish army included men of all ages. Some Spanish towns recruited by lottery, taking into the ranks males even in their sixties. Most who volunteered did so to get food and clothing. A common soldier in Don Quixote says, “I was driven to the wars by my necessity. If I had money I would never go.” The Spanish tercios were units of varying size, anywhere between one thousand and five thousand men, and they included—the military historian Geoffrey Parker tells us—boys of sixteen, without hats or shoes. Many recruits never reached the Low Countries; trudging north up the Spanish Road, they vanished in the snow on Mount Cenis, in the forests of the Vosges, and the fields of Luxembourg. Some were criminals or tramps, and some were poor gentry, so-called particulares, gentlemen-rankers who weren’t inhibited by strictures against their participating in manual labor, in trade and warfare. The king of Spain was served by Spaniards, Italians, Burgundians, Germans, Walloons, Flemings, Dutch, and English. For the moment, too, the Army of Flanders was being properly financed, and with the Dutch on the verge of revolt against their own leaders, it seemed to Brussels, if not Madrid, that the chance should be seized. Spinola had his opportunity. On July 21, 1624, he and his army set forth from Brussels as the corn ripened in Flanders fields.
Breda was defended for the United Provinces by a garrison of seven thousand armed men, also of motley origins. Since the turfship assault, the town had been reinforced with fortifications immediately outside the existing stone walls. Among the soldiers who briefly served in the town was a Frenchman, René Descartes, an expert in mathematics. On one occasion in the town’s Grote Markt he got talking to a teacher from Dordrecht and helped him solve a geometry problem. Breda’s people were predominantly Catholic but for 220 years the town had been the seat of the Nassau family, and hence the home of the Orange-Nassau dynasty. This made it a splendid target for the Spaniards: the hometown of the rebel chiefs; the lynchpin in the necklace of towns hung like a chain around Holland, mostly along the rivers, which impeded even if they didn’t prevent the movement of armies. Capturing—recapturing!—Breda would be a coup indeed. What counted most in laying siege to such towns was the ability to get an army together that would be big enough to envelop the town and yet could be sustained with provisions and pay for the duration of the siege. Sources differ about the size of Spinola’s army, Andrés de Mendoza saying it was 23,000 men, and Herman Hugo, Spinola’s Jesuit chaplain, who kept an account of the siege, reckoning 18,000. On the way to the city, Spinola decided to wind up Prince Maurice, who was trying to gain advantage by dithering over the truce talks. Spinola set his troops to ravage the prince’s family lands around Moers, Grave, and Breda.
In August Spinola began to establish his own ring around Breda. His troops camped in the woods and pastures and took over farm cottages; some locals were glad of the rent they were paid. Spinola’s staff officers tried to convince their chief that Breda posed great difficulties with its strong walls and surroundings, which could be readily made inaccessible by inundation. Even Philip IV when he heard about his general’s plans thought it a risky business. Some in the Council of State suggested withdrawing the army if this could be done without sacrificing its honor. But the captain-general—although also mocked by Dutch pamphleteers—went ahead. Spades and wheelbarrows were for the moment the chosen weapons rather than pikes and flintlocks. In less than a month Spinola’s men had created a network of trenches, parapets, moats, pits, redoubts, bastions, batteries, and causeways across swampy ground. The double line of trenches didn’t incorporate “saps,” which would have been needed for wall-breaking cannon, because Spinola intended to take the town by starvation. The siege lines made a slightly irregular circuit of ten leagues, a distance it took three and a half hours to get around.
Prince Maurice, William the Silent’s son, wasn’t in the best of health and at first didn’t grasp the full measure of Spinola’s challenge. Maurice thought Breda was impregnable (although the turfship backed by him thirty years before had surely proved the contrary). Father Hugo believed the Dutchman should have anticipated the Spanish threat and moved his army, camped at Meede only twelve miles from Breda, to occupy the low-lying land around the city. From there he could have resupplied the garrison by boats. But Spinola’s arrival outside Breda forestalled him. Spinola was ready to cope with however long the siege might take. To his men, the Genoese seemed to be everywhere at all times of day and sometimes all night, checking progress of the siege works, riding, walking, skipping meals, taking a nap in a cart or a soldier’s bivouac. He was a hands-on commander. He rode constantly to call on his officers and see how things were in the lines; this kept the soldiery on their toes, never sure when he might turn up. He had a particularly good eye for spots where the enemy might attempt an attack. He seemed to need less sleep than most men and wasn’t bothered by rain and wind. He sometimes went days without a proper meal. Any officer anxious to see him could gain access but he was reserved about his plans. All would be well. His serenity spread confidence through the ranks. His presence made his men think of victory, and therefore plunder. They were still short of half their proper pay. In fact, for a time there seemed to be greater danger of famine among Spinola’s besieging army than in besieged Breda. But Spinola ensured that basic supplies of food and clothing were dispensed using four hundred carts, and he took care discipline and morale were maintained. The siege was soon famous. The nobility of Europe came, as it were on a grand tour, to inspect the operation and some actually to get their hands dirty by cutting turf or heaping up soil for the Spanish siege works. Among Spinola’s notable visitors were the Duke of Bavaria and Prince Ladislaw Sigismund of Poland. During the latter’s visit at the end of September three volleys were fired in his honor by the Spanish artillery, aimed so that the shot passed intentionally over Breda. However, by the arcane rules of sieges the firing of enemy cannon meant that the townsmen of Breda were now exempt from taxes. And the salvoes encouraged the Dutch to reply. A ball from one Dutch gun killed a local Brabant miller with what would now be called friendly fire. The Breda defenders also fired at Spinola’s party as it conducted Prince Ladislaw around the siege works. Later one Dutch cannonball landed on Spinola’s cabin, carrying away the canopy over his field bed and breaking two tables. (The general was out at the time.) On another occasion gunfire struck the bit of his horse’s bridle, leaving the reins useless in Spinola’s hands. Father Hugo wrote, “It is probable that, either Almighty God hath a peculiar care of great Generalls or that, by how much more a man adventureth himself, so much the less danger, for the most part, he incurreth.” Yet actual large-scale fighting was rare. On one occasion in September 1624, during the prince of Poland’s visit, the Dutch made a raid on the Spanish lines and Spinola set up a new headquarters at Terheyden to oppose them, with a small battle ensuing. The Dutch set fire to the church at Oosterhout and Spinola’s troops made a counterattack. Small skirmishes were commoner, and hand-to-hand encounters now and then occurred when patrols or foraging parties ran into one another.
Maurice in his camp at Meede also had foreign visitors. Denmark and Sweden sent men to fight for the Dutch rebels, though they were unable to get into Breda itself to reinforce the garrison. Spinola squeezed the city in such a way that not even a bird could get in or out, said Andrés de Mendoza. The most effective weapon for the Spanish was inaction; then the Dutch had little to do except contemplate their grumbling stomachs. In the course of the siege more than a thousand men in Breda tried to surrender, but Spinola cannily wouldn’t let them. He sent them back into the town, knowing they would do his cause more good by consuming the diminishing provisions there. When one eight-strong group of young French nobles attempted to escape, they were captured and sent back in Spinola’s own carriage. But gradually attitudes hardened. Two peasants caught bringing wheat into Breda were hanged on Spinola’s orders. Looters were tortured with the strappado and strung up on gibbets, although Father Hugo gives the impression that Spinola was far from severe by the standards of the day.
Both sides used water as a weapon. They dammed and diverted rivers and drains, creating flooded fields or causing navigable channels to run dry. Spinola cut the banks of the rivers Mark and Aa in crucial places; he ordered sluices to be opened to allow the tides to rise, shut to enclose a good head of water, and then reopened, with a consequent outrush, when the Dutch were at work trying something similar. Prince Maurice sent one fleet of supply boats but the high tide they expected to carry them to Breda was held back by the wind. The Dutch attempted to raise the water levels by flooding but the Spanish channeled the waters back into the city. After these inundations, a large lake formed over the Vucht polder and Spinola’s men built a causeway, the Black Dike, a mile and a half long, which gave them a secure and dry route across it.
Because it was a time before regular uniforms, with soldiers on both sides wearing the same sorts of clothing, friend and foe were distinguished by scarves. The Dutch troops flaunted scarves of blue and orange, the men of the Army of Flanders wore red scarves. The flag flown by the armies of the king of Spain was the old Burgundian device, Saint Andrew’s emblem, a red cross. Spanish army wagons had their canvas covers marked with such crosses. The siege lines and water wars brought both sides close together. As in other conflicts, proximity sometimes provoked not fighting but impromptu truces: Dutch and Spanish soldiers had shouted conversations and made it clear in one language or other that they would for the moment stop trying to kill one another, putting down their pikes and arquebuses. Once in a while the king of Spain’s men threw bits of cheese and tobacco at the Dutch and the Dutch hurled back crusts of bread, though eventually these became too precious to give away.
It was a mild winter, which helped the Spaniards trying to keep alive in bivouacs out in the countryside. In Breda, food and fuel prices rose rapidly. Spinola’s men intercepted messages passing between the governor, Justin of Nassau, and Prince Maurice and learned that scurvy and cases of plague were appearing; rape oil was running short but the stores of wheat might last till the end of April. The Breda hangman was kept busy killing stray dogs and rats, supposedly to prevent the spread of disease; however, he sold dog meat to many now willing to buy it. The tolling of church bells was proscribed at funerals. About five thousand people, a third of the city’s inhabitants, died during the siege. Meanwhile out in the Spanish siege lines and their fortified camps, the troops were hard-pressed; any animals that moved were fair game; the carcasses of horses were eaten. Wanting food and forage, the Army of Flanders began to steal—“that ancient tollerable theft,” Herman Hugo called it, “winked at of old in soldiers.” Houses in the villages close to the lines were ransacked. Most soldiers had a bag of loot, which, their pay being as uncertain as it was, represented their savings.
The Dutch army seemed more handicapped by the long periods of nothing to do. Prince Maurice appeared to have lost his impetus, and in the final stages of his mounting illness he abandoned the camp at Meede and retired to The Hague. His last words were said to have been, “Is Breda saved?” The new stadtholder prince Frederick Henry, Maurice’s older half brother, who took over the command after Maurice’s death, attempted a breakthrough near Terheyden in May with his English mercenaries. Part of the Army of Flanders was encamped where a small Spanish fort—the Kleine Schans—had been built near the river Mark in the northernmost sector of the siege ring. Most of the king of Spain’s troops were in fact Italians who had made the long march northward up the Spanish Road from Lombardy. Spinola’s men were ready and there was a savage engagement. Father Hugo reported “a great slaughter of the enemy.” The United Provinces’ attacking force lost two hundred or so men, the king’s defenders a mere dozen. Moreover, five hundred of the Dutch army’s horses were captured, having been (said Father Hugo) “carelessly put to grass near their camp.” After that there were bodies to be buried, not difficult in the Brabant ground. Anyone who had a copy of Don Quixote might have read of the roadside meeting of the knight from La Mancha and a young man who was going to the wars. Don Quixote tells him not to be uneasy about possible misfortune. “The worst can be but to Die, and if it be but a good Honourable Death, your Fortune’s made, and you’re certainly happy.… As Terence says, a Soldier makes a better figure Dead in the Field of Battle, than Alive and safe in Flight.”
Spinola kept the pressure on Justin of Nassau, too. Justin was sixty-six and had been the governor of Breda for more than twenty years; he didn’t want to give up what he felt was his city. His mother, Eva Elincx, had been a Breda girl and William the Silent’s mistress between the prince’s first and second marriages. William had acknowledged Justin and raised him with his legitimate children. As a lieutenant admiral in the late 1580s Justin had captured two galleons of the Spanish Armada. Spinola wrote to the governor at Easter (March 30 that year) just before Prince Maurice died, suggesting that he surrender, but Justin politely declined. In May Spinola made further efforts to get the Dutch to treat. His men had captured letters that the new Dutch captain-general prince Frederick Henry had sent on to Justin, and Spinola now forwarded these to the Breda governor, showing him who was in control. Justin then agreed to talks that took place on the last day of May just outside the town. Articles of surrender were discussed, including a pardon for all citizens of Breda for any offenses against the king of Spain committed since 1590, the year of the turfship, more than a generation before. The Dutch were offered 1,200 wagons and sixty boats to carry away their casualties, their sick, and their household goods. Some commentators thought Spinola too generous, but the Genoese general said he regarded it as “a point of wisdom to be merciful rather than severe.”
The articles were agreed upon on June 2 and the surrender took place three days later. The Dutch garrison of just less than 3,500 men marched out of the three gates of the town, colors flying, drums beating, and looking in better shape than those they were surrendering to. As Herman Hugo noted, “They had been better lodged, having had the benefit of good fires; and their bread never failed them till the day they marched away.” Outside the Bosschepoort, Spinola took the salute of the assembled Dutch columns. The Dutch dipped their ensigns respectfully as they passed the Spaniards’ commander. They looked cheerful, grateful to be out in the great world again, and showed no resentment about their situation. Spinola in return saluted the Dutch captains, in particular the gray-haired governor. Justin rode on horseback while his wife and children followed in a carriage. Here he may have performed the symbolic gesture of handing over to Spinola the keys to the city, but this was not made much of until later. The Dutch procession moved off northeastward toward Geertruidenberg, leaving their sick and wounded to be carried away in boats. Taking over the city again, the Spanish forces celebrated. Spinola, we are told, led the rejoicing. Bells were rung from church towers and on June 13 a victory ceremony was held: The weathered hull of the turfship, hauled out by the castle, was burned. Cannons were fired in salutes of triumph. The town records describing the surprise turfship attack were destroyed in bonfires, as though to expunge them from memory. As the news of the surrender spread, Te Deums were sung throughout the empire. Philip IV wrote to say that he was bestowing on Spinola the office of Encomienda Mayor of Castile, a nominally profitable honor somewhat circumscribed just now by the fact that the lucrative income meant to come with the post was mortgaged for the next dozen years.
As high moments go it was splendid; but the moment of glory soon passed. In 1627, less than two years later, the Spanish government again declared bankruptcy; fortunately the bankers of Portugal picked up the baton of debt from the Genoese, and funds aplenty managed to reach the Army of Flanders. That year the king was seriously ill, and when he recovered it was whispered that he had promised to turn over a new leaf. For a while he spent less time hunting and perhaps fewer nights on the town.