THE character of Requesens was not more opposed to that of his predecessor, than were the instructions given to him for his government. He was an honest, well-meaning, and moderate man, and the king of Spain hoped that by his influence and a total change of measures he might succeed in recalling the Netherlands to obedience. But, happily for the country, this change was adopted too late for success; and the weakness of the new government completed the glorious results which the ferocity of the former had prepared.
Requesens performed all that depended on him, to gain the confidence of the people. He caused Alva’s statue to be removed; and hoped to efface the memory of the tyrant by dissolving the Council of Blood and abandoning the obnoxious taxes which their inventor had suspended rather than abolished. A general amnesty was also promulgated against the revolted provinces; they received it with contempt and defiance. Nothing then was left to Requesens but to renew the war; and this he found to be a matter of no easy execution. The finances were in a state of the greatest confusion; and the Spanish troops were in many places seditious, in some openly mutinous, Alva having left large arrears of pay due to almost all, notwithstanding the immense amount of his pillage and extortion. Middleburg, which had long sustained a siege against all the efforts of the patriots, was now nearly reduced by famine, notwithstanding the gallant efforts of its governor, Mondragon. Requesens turned his immediate attention to the relief of this important place; and he soon assembled, at Antwerp and Berg-op-Zoom, a fleet of sixty vessels for that purpose. But Louis Boisot, admiral of Zealand, promptly repaired to attack this force; and after a severe action he totally defeated it, and killed De Glimes, one of its admirals, under the eyes of Requesens himself, who, accompanied by his suite, stood during the whole affair on the dike of Schakerloo. This action took place the 29th of January, 1574; and, on the 19th of February following, Middleburg surrendered, after a resistance of two years. The Prince of Orange granted such conditions as were due to the bravery of the governor; and thus set an example of generosity and honor which greatly changed the complexion of the war. All Zealand was now free; and the intrepid Admiral Boisot gained another victory on the 30th of May destroying several of the Spanish vessels, and taking some others, with their Admiral Von Haemstede. Frequent naval enterprises were also undertaken against the frontiers of Flanders; and while the naval forces thus harassed the enemy on every vulnerable point, the unfortunate provinces of the interior were ravaged by the mutinous and revolted Spaniards, and by the native brigands, who pillaged both royalists and patriots with atrocious impartiality.
To these manifold evils was now added one more terrible, in the appearance of the plague, which broke out at Ghent in the month of October, and devastated a great part of the Netherlands; not, however, with that violence with which it rages in more southern climates.
Requesens, overwhelmed by difficulties, yet exerted himself to the utmost to put the best face on the affairs of government. His chief care was to appease the mutinous soldiery : he even caused his plate to be melted, and freely gave the produce toward the payment of their arrears. The patriots, well informed of this state of things, labored to turn it to their best advantage. They opened the campaign in the province of Guelders, where Louis of Nassau, with his younger brother Henry, and the prince Palatine, son of the elector Frederick III., appeared at the head of eleven thousand men; the Prince of Orange prepared to join him with an equal number; but Requesens promptly despatched Sanchez d’Avila to prevent this junction. The Spanish commander quickly passed the Meuse near Nimeguen; and on the 14th of April he forced Count Louis to a battle, on the great plain called Mookerheyde, close to the village of Mook. The royalists attacked with their usual valor; and, after two hours of hard fighting, the confederates were totally defeated. The three gallant princes were among the slain, and their bodies were never afterward discovered. It has been stated, on doubtful authority, that Louis of Nassau, after having lain some time among the heaps of dead, dragged himself to the side of the river Meuse, and while washing his wounds was inhumanly murdered by some straggling peasants, to whom he was unknown. The unfortunate fate of this enterprising prince was a severe blow to the patriot cause, and a cruel affliction to the Prince of Orange. He had now already lost three brothers in the war; and remained alone, to revenge their fate and sustain the cause for which they had perished.
D’Avila soon found his victory to be as fruitless as it was brilliant. The ruffian troops, by whom it was gained, became immediately self-disbanded; threw off all authority; hastened to possess themselves of Antwerp; and threatened to proceed to the most horrible extremities if their pay was longer withheld. The citizens succeeded with difficulty in appeasing them, by the sacrifice of some money in part payment of their claims. Requesens took advantage of their temporary calm, and despatched them promptly to take part in the siege of Leyden.
This siege formed another of those numerous instances which became so memorable from the mixture of heroism and horror. Jean Vanderdoes, known in literature by the name of Dousa, and celebrated for his Latin poems, commanded the place. Valdez, who conducted the siege, urged Dousa to surrender ; when the latter replied, in the name of the inhabitants, “that when provisions failed them, they would devour their left hands, reserving the right to defend their liberty.” A party of the inhabitants, driven to disobedience and revolt by the excess of misery to which they were shortly reduced, attempted to force the burgomaster, Vanderwerf, to supply them with bread, or yield up the place. But he sternly made the celebrated answer, which cannot be remembered without shuddering” Bread I have none ; but if my death can afford you relief, tear my body in pieces, and let those who are most hungry devour it!”
But in this extremity relief at last was afforded by the decisive measures of the Prince of Orange, who ordered all the neighboring dikes to be opened and the sluices raised, thus sweeping away the besiegers on the waves of the ocean : the inhabitants of Leyden were apprised of this intention by means of letters intrusted to the safe carriage of pigeons trained for the purpose. The inundation was no sooner effected than hundreds of flat-bottomed boats brought abundance of supplies to the half-famished town; while a violent storm carried the sea across the country for twenty leagues around, and destroyed the Spanish camp, with above one thousand soldiers, who were overtaken by the flood. This deliverance took place on the 3d of October, on which day it is still annually celebrated by the descendants of the grateful citizens.
It was now for the first time that Spain would consent to listen to advice or mediation, which had for its object the termination of this frightful war. The emperor Maximilian II. renewed at this epoch his efforts with Philip; and under such favorable auspices conferences commenced at Breda, where the counts Swartzenberg and Hohenloe, brothers-in-law of the Prince of Orange, met, on the part of the emperor, the deputies from the king of Spain and the patriots; and hopes of a complete pacification were generally entertained. But three months of deliberation proved their fallacy. The patriots demanded toleration for the reformed religion. The king’s deputies obstinately refused it. The congress was therefore broken up; and both oppressors and oppressed resumed their arms with increased vigor and tenfold desperation.
Requesens had long fixed his eyes on Zealand as the scene of an expedition by which he hoped to repair the failure before Leyden; and he caused an attempt to be made on the town of Zuriczee, in the island of Scauwen, which merits record as one of the boldest and most original enterprises of the war.
The little islands of Zealand are separated from each other by narrow branches of the sea, which are fordable at low water; and it was by such a passage, two leagues in breadth, and till then untried, that the Spanish detachment of one thousand seven hundred and fifty men, under Ulloa and other veteran captains, advanced to their exploit in the midst of dangers greatly increased by a night of total darkness. Each man carried round his neck two pounds of gunpowder, with a sufficient supply of biscuit for two days; and holding their swords and muskets high over their heads, they boldly waded forward, three abreast, in some places up to their shoulders in water. The alarm was soon given; and a shower of balls was poured upon the gallant band, from upward of forty boats which the Zealanders sent rapidly toward the spot. The only light afforded to either party was from the flashes of their guns; and while the ad-venturers advanced with undaunted firmness, their equally daring assailants, jumping from their boats into the water, attacked them with oars and hooked handspikes, by which many of the Spaniards were destroyed. The rearguard, in this extremity, cut off from their companions, was obliged to retreat; but the rest, after a considerable loss, at length reached the land, and thus gained possession of the island, on the night of the 28th of September, 1575.
Requesens quickly afterward repaired to the scene of this gallant exploit, and commenced the siege of Zuriczee, which he did not live to see completed. After having passed the winter months in preparations for the success of this object which he had so much at heart, he was re-called to Brussels by accounts of new mutinies in the Spanish cavalry; and the very evening before he reached the city he was attacked by a violent fever, which carried him off five days afterward, on the 5th of March, 1576.
The suddenness of Requesen’s illness had not allowed time for even the nomination of a successor, to which he was authorized by letters patent from the king. It is believed that his intention was to appoint Count Mansfield to the command of the army, and De Berlaimont to the administration of civil affairs. The government, however, now devolved entirely into the hands of the council of state, which was at that period composed of nine members. The principal of these was Philip de Croi, duke of Arschot; the other leading members were Viglius, Counts Mansfield and Berlaimont; and the council was degraded by numbering, among the rest, Debris and De Roda, two of the notorious Spaniards who had formed part of the Council of Blood.
The king resolved to leave the authority in the hands of this incongruous mixture, until the arrival of Don John of Austria, his natural brother, whom he had already named to the office of governor-general. But in the interval the government assumed an aspect of unprecedented disorder; and widespread anarchy embraced the whole country. The royal troops openly revolted, and fought against each other like deadly enemies. The nobles, divided in their views, arrogated to themselves in different places the titles and powers of command. Public faith and private probity seemed alike destroyed. Pillage, violence and ferocity were the commonplace characteristics of the times.
Circumstances like these may be well supposed to have revived the hopes of the Prince of Orange, who quickly saw amid this chaos the elements of order, strength, and liberty. Such had been his previous affliction at the harrowing events which he witnessed and despaired of being able to relieve, that he had proposed to the patriots of Holland and Zealand to destroy the dikes, submerge the whole country, and abandon to the waves the soil which refused security to freedom. But Providence destined him to be the savior, instead of the destroyer, of his country. The chief motive of this excessive desperation had been the apparent desertion by Queen Elizabeth of the cause which she had hitherto so mainly assisted. Offended at the capture of some English ships by the Dutch, who asserted that they carried supplies for the Spaniards, she withdrew from them her protection; but by timely submission they appeased her wrath; and it is thought by some historians that even thus early the Prince of Orange proposed to place the revolted provinces wholly under her protection. This, however, she for the time refused; but she strongly solicited Philip’s mercy for these unfortunate countries, through the Spanish ambassador at her court.
In the meantime the council of state at Brussels seemed disposed to follow up as far as possible the plans of Requesens. The siege of Zuriezee was continued; but speedy dissensions among the members of the government rendered their authority contemptible, if not utterly extinct, in the eyes of the people. The exhaustion of the treasury deprived them of all power to put an end to the mutinous excesses of the Spanish troops, and the latter carried their licentiousness to the utmost bounds. Zuriczee, admitted to a surrender, and saved from pillage by the payment of a large sum, was lost to the royalists within three months, from the want of discipline in its garrison; and the towns and burghs of Brabant suffered as much from the excesses of their nominal protectors as could have been inflicted by the enemy. The mutineers at length, to the number of some thousands, attacked and carried by force the town of Alost, at equal distances between Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp, imprisoned the chief citizens, and levied contributions on all the country round. It was then that the council of state found itself forced to proclaim them rebels, traitors, and enemies to the king and the country, and called on all loyal subjects to pursue and exterminate them wherever they were found in arms.
This proscription of the Spanish mutineers was followed by the convocation of the states-general, and the government thus hoped to maintain some show of union and some chance of authority. But a new scene of intestine violence completed the picture of executive inefficiency. On the 4th of September, the grand bailiff of Brabant, as lieutenant of the Baron de Hesse, governor of Brussels, entered the council chamber by force, and arrested all the members present, on suspicion of treacherously maintaining intelligence with the Spaniards. Counts Mansfield and Berlaimont were imprisoned, with some others. Viglius escaped this indignity by being absent from indisposition. This hold measure was hailed by the people with unusual joy, as the signal for that total change in the government which they reckoned on as the prelude to complete freedom.
The states-general were all at this time assembled, with the exception of those of Flanders, who joined the others with but little delay. The general reprobation against the Spaniards procured a second decree of proscription; and their desperate conduct justified the utmost violence with which they might be pursued. They still held the citadels of Ghent and Antwerp, as well as Maestricht, which they had seized on, sacked, and pillaged with all the fury which a barbarous enemy inflicts on a town carried by assault. On the 3d of November, the other body of mutineers, in possession of Alost, marched to the support of their fellow brigands in the citadel of Antwerp; and both, simultaneously attacking this magnificent city, became masters of it in all points, in spite of a vigorous resistance on the part of the citizens. They then began a scene of rapine and destruction unequalled in the annals of these desperate wars. More than five hundred private mansions and the splendid town-house were delivered to the flames : seven thousand citizens perished by the sword or in the waters of the Scheldt. For three days the carnage and the pillage went on with unheard-of fury; and the most opulent town in Europe was thus reduced to ruin and desolation by a few thousand frantic ruffians. The loss was valued at above two million golden crowns. Vargas and Romero were the principal leaders of this infernal exploit; and De Roda gained a new title to his immortality of shame by standing forth as its apologist.
The states-general, assembled at Ghent, were solemnly opened on the 14th of September. Being apprehensive of a sudden attack from the Spanish troops in the citadel, they proposed a negotiation, and demanded a protecting force from the Prince of Orange, who immediately entered into a treaty with their envoy, and sent to their assistance eight companies of infantry and seventeen pieces of cannon, under the command of the English colonel, Temple. In the midst of this turmoil and apparent insecurity, the states-general proceeded in their great work, and assumed the reins of government in the name of the king. They al-lowed the council of state still nominally to exist, but they restricted its powers far within those it had hitherto exercised; and the government, thus absolutely assuming the form of a republic, issued manifestoes in justification of its conduct, and demanded succor from all the foreign powers. To complete the union between the various provinces, it was resolved to resume the negotiations commenced the preceding year at Breda; and the 10th of October was fixed for this new congress to be held in the town-house of Ghent.
On the day appointed, the congress opened its sittings; and rapidly arriving at the termination of its important object, the celebrated treaty known by the title of “The Pacification of Ghent” was published on the 8th of November, to the sound of bells and trumpets ; while the ceremony was rendered still more imposing by the thunder of the artillery which battered the walls of the besieged citadel. It was even intended to have delivered a general assault against the place at the moment of the proclamation; but the mutineers demanded a capitulation and finally surrendered three days afterward. It was the wife of the famous Mondragon who commanded the place in her husband’s absence; and by her heroism gave a new proof of the capability of the sex to surpass the limits which nature seems to have fixed for their conduct.
The Pacification contained twenty-five articles. Among others, it was agreed :
That a full amnesty should be passed for all offences whatsoever.
That the estates of Brabant, Flanders, Hainault, Artois, and others, on the one part; the Prince of Orange, and the states of Holland and Zealand and their associates, on the other; promised to maintain good faith, peace, and friend-ship, firm and inviolable; to mutually assist each other, at all times, in council and action; and to employ life and fortune, above all things, to expel from the country the Spanish soldiers and other foreigners.
That no one should be allowed to injure or insult, by word or deed, the exercise of the Catholic religion, on pain of being treated as a disturber of the public peace.
That the edicts against heresy and the proclamations of the duke of Alva should be suspended.
That all confiscations, sentences, and judgments rendered since 1566 should be annulled.
That the inscriptions, monuments, and trophies erected by the duke of Alva should be demolished.
Such were the general conditions of the treaty; the remaining articles chiefly concerned individual interests. The promulgation of this great charter of union, which was considered as the fundamental law of the country, was hailed in all parts of the Netherlands with extravagant demonstrations of joy.