The Sea Beggars


The Revolt of the Netherlands was not a movement of national sentiment, which hardly existed, nor of political ideology. Although the issue partook initially of the 16th century’s general conflict of Protestant versus Catholic erupting out of the breakaway of the reformed church from Rome, the motivating sentiment in the Netherlands was hatred of Spanish tyranny. Forces and events in the eighty-year struggle were a turmoil of infighting among sects and parties, of deals and overtures to foreign states, of mounting oppression by the Spanish rulers that augmented popular hatred to a frenzy and, in a deeply fragmented state, linked the fragments together in a common will for independence.

Led by a League of Nobles, staunch Protestants, which with unusual solidarity included members from every province, although they clung as ever to individual conflicting opinions and separate working classes, the movement ignited agitation in the towns and among the industrial masses raising signals of national rebellion. When a band of 400 nobles marched in a body to the Regent’s palace in Brussels to demand a stop to the Inquisition employed against the resisters, they evoked the sneer of an unsympathetic Count Barlaimont as “a bunch of beggars,” immediately adopted as a proud title. At the League’s banquet, members wore beggars’ gray with beggars’ wooden cups hanging around their necks, and the name thereafter honored their fight for freedom from Spain and afforded seamen the opportunity of calling themselves Beggars of the Sea for the pleasure of rubbing the noses of Spanish and English opponents in the fact that they were anything but that.

More was needed to organize revolt. In 1568, an impetuous and reckless expedition launched by Louis of Nassau against the authorities of the northern city of Groningen thrust into the action a decisive figure. He was Louis’ brother, William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, who was to emerge as one of history’s heroes under the name of William the Silent. Orange was a small principality in the South of France to which the Counts of Nassau held title. William was Stadt- holder and Commander-in-Chief of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht by appointment of the late Emperor. When Louis’ rebellious assault was easily broken and Louis himself later killed, William inherited the movement of revolt. He infused the will and the vigor that would keep the struggle against tyranny going until the goal of an independent Netherlands was won eighty years after Louis of Nassau had lighted the sparks. Before that could happen, both Spanish tyranny and Dutch revolt intensified.

Bowls, flasks and badges were all symbols of the Sea Beggars during the Dutch Revolt. In April 1566 a group of several hundred noblemen presented a petition to Margaret of Parma, regent of the Netherlands, asking for greater tolerance in religious questions. But instead of being treated seriously they were ridiculed as ‘gueux’: beggars. Taking the French epithet (bastardised into ‘geuzen’) as an honorary title, they adopted the beggar’s insignia. The badge is the sign which cities gave those they permitted to beg. The wooden bowl and the pumpkin-shaped flask were the accessories of the indigent pilgrim. Courtesy Rijks Museum (Amsterdam)

In the first years, King Philip’s answer to the outbreaks was to send the ruthless Duke of Alva with 10,000 men, to compel obedience by a reign of terror. Alva’s method was massacre in the towns, persecution of Protestants for heresy and creation of a special court, called the Council of Blood, which in the course of its operations held 12,000 trials, convicted 9,000 offenders and executed or banished more than 1,000. Nobles who were leaders in the revolt were beheaded, eighteen in one day in the market square of Brussels. Estates were confiscated, scores fled the country and everywhere rose the dread of the Inquisition, as distinct from secular persecution, being established in the Netherlands. To make sure that he made everyone of all classes an insurgent, Alva imposed a tax of a tenth on the sale of every article and a hundredth part of every income. The hated “Tenth Penny” did more to spur the revolt than all the atrocities.

The ruler, Philip II—that “odious personage,” as Motley, classic historian of the revolt, cannot refrain in his Protestant Victorian rectitude from calling him—was himself too narrow and rigid to recognize as rebellion the trouble he was stirring up for himself; Philip could think only in terms of being ordained by God to root out Protestantism, and he rejected any consideration that might suggest an obstacle in the way of this task. A small thrill of triumph inspirited the Dutch at the first success of the revolt when, in 1572, a piratical force of the Sea Beggars captured the fortified port of Den Briel, at the mouth of the Meuse, where it controlled the entry to navigation of the river.

MedalExtreme Calvinist partisans, arising from the early persecution of Protestants, and forming wild and ferocious bands of expert seamen, the Sea Beggars served the revolt by harassing Spanish shipping, while their activities added to the internal feuds of regions and factions.

On October 3, 1574, the Sea Beggars distributed herring and white bread among the famished inhabitants of Leyden. After several months, the Spanish troops were finally forced to abandon their siege of the city. By flooding the surrounding countryside the enemy was driven away and the liberators were able to sail in. The painting (by Otto van Veen, 1574) shows how the Sea Beggars entered the city on their flat-bottomed barges. On one of the craft (left, with a medal on a blue ribbon around his neck) is the leader of the Sea Beggars, Admiral Louis de Boisot. Courtesy Rijks Museum (Amsterdam)

The inveterate separatism and mutual jealousies of the cities and provinces of the Low Countries, in which each feared the advantages and influence that might be gained by its neighbor, could have permanently frustrated any united resistance to Spain if the struggle had not found a dynamic leader in William of Orange. By perseverance in what seemed a hopeless struggle, by remaining unshaken under every adversity or disappointment, by overriding the incessant contention of the provinces, by maintaining the single aim of union, by organizing his compatriots with political sagacity, William, though sometimes shifting ground and not always straightforward in his maneuvers, and mainly by strength of character, came to focus and personify the revolt. If it had carried a banner, it would have borne his words “It is not necessary to hope in order to persevere.”

In 1574, the year after Den Briel, the heroic defense of Leyden against a Spanish siege rallied every city and citizen around the standard of revolt. Surrounded by lakes and laced by streams and canals of the lower Rhine, Leyden was a beautiful and prosperous cloth-manufacturing city on the rich soil of the Rhine delta called the Garden of Holland.

The weapon against Leyden was starvation. Alva had gone, but his successor tightened the siege until not a stray chicken nor a leaf of lettuce could get in. For seven months the enfeebled inhabitants subsisted on boiled leaves and roots and dried fish skins and on chaff from old threshings of wheat. When an occasional dog was slaughtered to feed the watch, the carcass might be torn apart in bleeding pieces and devoured raw. Disease stalked as always in the footsteps of famine, adding to the sick and wounded. In their extremity the inhabitants faced annihilation or surrender.

This medal was worn as a badge by the Sea Beggars who fought the Spaniards in the Dutch Revolt. It is an anti-Catholic symbol. The crescent and the text along the edge—‘Rather Turkish than Roman’— refers to the Ottoman Empire. ‘Turkish’ had several connotations. Turks had a reputation for cruelty, but they were also known for their tolerance of other religions. Moreover, Catholic Spain was at war with the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Courtesy Rijks Museum (Amsterdam)

It was then they turned water, their old antagonist, into their weapon and ally. William of Orange proposed opening the dikes of the Meuse and Yssel and the rivers crossing the area between them and Leyden to flush out the besiegers and lay a shallow lake that would allow flat-bottomed scows and barges to sail over the land with provisions for the beleaguered city. Because of the potential damage of a flood to crops, the consent of landholders and farmers had to be gained. Messengers were sent on the dangerous mission through the lines to reach and return with their agreement. Daily more gaunt and feeble, no one in Leyden called for surrender. Meeting in Rotterdam, the States General rejected Spanish terms and accepted the proposal of William of Orange to open the dikes. They ordered 200 flat-bottomed barges and scows to be collected at Rotterdam and at Delft and other river ports, and to be loaded with arms and provisions. The boats also carried what proved essential for the relief, “a small but terrific” band of 800 grim-faced Sea Beggars, hideously scarred by the livid wounds of old battles.

In August, 1574, the order for breaking the dikes was issued. It was not just a matter of poking holes in the walls. Openings wide enough for the barges to pass through had to be breached under the not very efficient fire of the surrounding Spanish garrisons. Their weapons were the primitive muzzle-loading muskets of the 16th century, which after every discharge had to be reloaded with powder carried in bags around the soldiers’ necks. The Sea Beggars countered the attacks with their accustomed ferocity, and forced abandonment of the forts, driving the soldiers into the open where in growing alarm they watched the rising water creeping toward their feet. A northwest wind blowing for three days drove the waters in greater depth toward Leyden, providing an avenue for the barges. Slowly the relief force advanced overland, lake by lake, smashing dikes as they came until they had penetrated within five miles of the goal. The work took weeks while the people of Leyden starved and died. At that point, a contrary east wind rose to blow the water back, leaving the surface too shallow to be sailed. For their last advance, the boats had to be pushed and pulled over the mud flats while the city’s emaciated people waited in agony of expectation.

On the inland lake of Haarlemmermeer the Dutch and Spanish navies met in battle. It was in the middle of the Dutch Revolt against Spain, on May 26, 1573. More than 50 years later this large painting was made, recording the event. It was painted by the Haarlem artist Hendrick Vroom, a specialist in portrayals of ships and naval engagements. The Spanish ships—identified by the flags with a red cross—are sailing before the wind from the right. Meanwhile, the ships of the Sea Beggars are approaching from the left. They were badly equipped and were eventually forced to retreat. Courtesy Rijks Museum (Amsterdam)

Fearing that their retreat could be cut off, the Spaniards had abandoned their fortified posts and, under continued assault by the Sea Beggars, they could not prevent the rescuers’ approach. Through mud the awkward amphibian procession crawled like a turtle out of water nearer to the beleaguered city. Aided this time by a fresh wind, the strange fleet was blown forward to within a few hundred yards of the walls. The crews, jumping out, carried the scows through the shallows over the final distance. A last Spanish garrison was overcome in a brisk fight. The boats were pushed triumphantly up to the quays, and dripping crews threw loaves of bread to the citizens on shore weeping with joy at their deliverance. Leyden, with 6,000 dead of starvation and disease and its population reduced by a third, was saved from surrender. Hollow-eyed survivors crowded into the Cathedral for a thanksgiving service. To honor the city’s steadfastness, William of Orange offered it a choice of relief from taxes during the lucrative annual fair or the establishment of a university. The burghers in hardheaded calculation chose the university, on the ground that taxes could come or go depending on politics, but a university, once established, would permanently benefit their city. Since that day, one of Europe’s greatest halls of learning stands as the gift of the scarred Sea Beggars and the flat-bottomed scows of Leyden.

From THE FIRST SALUTE by Barbara W. Tuchman, copyright ©1998 by Barbara W. Tuchman. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.