Netherlands - Mary Macgregor

The Siege and Relief of Leyden

The first siege of Leyden had lasted for five months, when it was unexpectedly raised by Requesens, who, on the arrival of Count Louis and his army, had ordered every available soldier to defend the frontier. Here was a golden opportunity for the city to strengthen its garrison and increase its store of provisions. The Prince warned the citizens to use the chance thus provided, but they, assured in their own minds of Count Louis' success over the Spanish army, recklessly omitted to prepare for the renewal of the siege. To their dismay their hopes proved unfounded. Count Louis' defeat was quickly followed by the reappearance of Spanish troops around the walls of Leyden. Unprepared to sustain a long siege, the inhabitants saw themselves completely shut out from all hope of military relief by a circle of forts thrown up by the enemy.

In the city were no troops, save a small company of freebooters and five companies of the burgher guard. It was in the stout hearts of the burghers and the ceaseless energy of William the Silent that the only chance of a successful resistance lay. By the advice of the Prince the city was at once placed on a strict allowance of food. Half a pound of meat and half a pound of bread was given to each full-grown man, and to the others in due proportion. The only communication that was possible was by means of carrier-pigeons and by a few swift and skilful messengers called jumpers. Fierce sorties relieved the monotony of the days, and a handsome reward was offered to any who brought into the city gates the head of a Spaniard.

The Prince had his headquarters at Delft and Rotterdam. Between the two cities lay an important fortress, from which place alone he could hope to relieve Leyden.

On June 29, 1574, the Spaniards, knowing its value, made an effort to capture the fortress, but were beaten off with the loss of several hundreds, and Orange still held in his hands the keys with which he could unlock the ocean gates. He had already determined to pierce the dykes along the Meuse and the Yssel, and, should it prove necessary, the sluices at Rotterdam, Schiedam, and Delftshaven would be opened, though the damage to fields with their growing crops, and to villages left thus exposed, would be enormous. "Better a drowned land than a lost land," cried the patriots, as the Prince explained that only by these means could Leyden be relieved and the whole of Holland rescued from destruction.

Meanwhile, on July 30, Valdez, who was in command of the Spanish army, sent ample offers of pardon to the citizens would they but consent to open their gates and submit to the King's authority. But the offers were treated with disdain, though already the people were suffering from scarcity of food.

Four days later, the Prince himself went along the river Yssel as far as Kapelle to superintend the opening of the dykes at sixteen different points. The sluices at Schiedam and Rotterdam were also opened, and the ocean began to pour over the land. While the waters slowly rose, provisions were being collected, according to the orders of the Prince, in all the chief towns of the neighbourhood, while 200 vessels were equipped at Rotterdam, Delftshaven and other ports. And need was there for help, and that speedily, for Leyden was growing anxious. Its bread had come to an end, and malt cake, which had been used in its place, was all but exhausted.

On the 12th of August a ray of hope reached the city in the shape of a letter from the Prince assuring them of speedy relief. They waited till the 21st of the month, and then sent a despatch to him, reminding him that they had now held out for three months. For two of the months they had had food, for the last nothing but a little malt cake, which would only last four days longer.

On the last of the four days they again received a letter, dictated by the Prince, who was now lying in bed at Rotterdam with a violent fever, though of his illness he did not speak. The dykes were all pierced, they read, and the water rising over the great outward barrier which separated the city from the sea. At the good news the city forgot its hunger for a brief hour, and, to the amazement of the enemy, music was heard and shouts of merriment in the usually silent streets of Leyden.

Valdez felt a vague anxiety. What cause was there for gaiety in the starving town? Uneasily he felt the clue might be found in the watery waste that was spreading round the camp. It lay ten inches deep, this rising flood, and the Spanish camp was already in a perilous condition. But among his officers were Flemings who laughed equally at the fear of Valdez and the desperate remedy of the Prince. The sea come to Leyden! They laughed at the possibility, till Valdez forgot his fear.

In the city, too, the fair gleam of hope had faded to a dull distrust. They heard, these starving men and women, the bitter taunts of the few royalists who were in the city. "Go up to the tower, ye beggars," they cried, "go up to the tower, and tell us if ye can see the ocean coming over the dry land to your relief." And day after day, with trembling feet, they did go up to their ancient tower, and, with eyes blinded by tears, they gazed and gazed across the country, longing and watching, hoping a little and praying much for some sign of the promised relief.

On August 27 they sent a desponding cry to the Estates. Had the promised help failed? Had they been forgotten in their extremity? That same day came back an answer that told the inhabitants that indeed they were not forsaken, and that every nerve was being strained to bring them help. "Rather," said the Estates, "will we see our whole land and all our possessions perish in the waves than forsake thee, Leyden. We know full well, moreover, that with Leyden all Holland must perish also."

Meanwhile the Prince still lay in bed. The fever was at its height, but no relief was possible to his weary brain while Leyden was in danger. From his couch he dictated words of counsel and encouragement to the well-nigh desperate citizens. Towards the end of August the rumour found its way to his sick-room that Leyden had fallen. He refused to believe the report, yet so troubled was he that his fever increased, and not till the rumour was contradicted did he begin to improve.

By the end of the first week in September the Prince was convalescent, and the preparations for the relief of Leyden were pushed on with all possible haste.

On September 1 Admiral Boisot arrived out of Zeeland, with a small number of vessels and a wild, fierce crew of 800 veteran sailors. The fleet was increased to 200, and then sailed without hindrance to within five miles of Leyden. Here a dyke held by the Spaniards, and still a foot and a half above water, stopped their progress. The Prince had given orders that at all hazards the dyke was to be secured by the fleet. This was successfully done, the few Spaniards who had been stationed there being taken by surprise and driven off or killed, while the patriots fortified themselves upon the dyke without the loss of a man.

But the following morning the Spaniards, seeing the folly of leaving the bulwark in the hands of the patriots, rushed in considerable numbers upon the dyke to recover what they had lost. A hot fight followed, but the wild Zeelanders were not to be ousted from the position they had gained, and the enemy was forced to retire, leaving hundreds lying dead along the dyke, of which the patriots were still in complete possession.

In the very face of the enemy great gaps were made in the dyke, and the fleet sailed triumphantly through, only, however, to find, to their surprise, that three-quarters of a mile farther inland their progress was again checked. Another long dyke, called the Greenway, rising a foot above water, lay right across their path. This dyke also was but feebly defended, and Admiral Boisot, taking possession of this barrier, levelled it in many places, and brought his fleet safely over its ruins.

But again disappointment awaited the gallant crew. A large mere, called the Freshwater Lake, stretched before them, and into this lake the Admiral had expected instantly to float. Instead, he found that his only way to reach it lay through a deep canal, which led to a bridge strongly occupied by the enemy. Moreover, along both banks of the canal the Spanish troops were drawn up to the number of 8000.

Boisot determined to force his passage, and led the van himself in a desperate attempt to make his way to the Freshwater Lake. But the enemy's position was impregnable, and Boisot, having lost a few men, withdrew, defeated and nearly in despair.

Meanwhile the water had grown too shallow to keep his vessels afloat, but on September 18 the wind arose, and for three days a gale raged. The waters rapidly rose, and on the second day the fleet was once more afloat.

It was now that a countryman of the district reached the Admiral and showed him how he could reach Leyden and yet avoid the Freshwater Lake, with its fatal approach. Guided by the stranger, the fleet sailed towards a low dyke on the opposite side from the mere, which was defended by a few Spaniards. They, seized by a panic, fled inland, and Boisot surmounted the third barrier, and sailed on to North Aa, which the enemy deserted on their approach.

Yet here again a barrier called the Kirkway rose before them. The waters too, spreading over a wider space and diminishing under an east wind which had arisen, fell to the depth of nine inches, while eighteen or twenty were necessary to float the vessels. Day after day was wasted while the ships lay motionless, helpless in the shallow sea.

Orange, as soon as he could stand, left his sick-room and came on board the stranded fleet. Despair fled before his presence, while his words brought new patience to the restless Sea-Beggars, who, ferocious to foreigners, were docile as children to their Prince. Before he left them, William ordered the Kirkway, the last important obstacle between the fleet and the city, to be immediately destroyed. Then, leaving the Admiral and his men with new inspiration and courage in their hearts, the Prince returned to Delft.

And the city? The city was literally starving. Even Haarlem in all its misery had never suffered as Leyden suffered now. In many a house the watchman, going his rounds, would find a whole family huddled together dead, for hard on the steps of famine there had stalked disease. From six to eight thousand perished from the plague alone. Yet never was there a thought of yielding to the foreign foe, more dreaded far than either plague or famine.

The burghers knew that the fleet was on its way. They had heard of the different barriers that had been surmounted, but after its arrival at North Aa no news had reached them. All was silent, and the silence seemed ominous to the failing hearts of the citizens. Yet wistfully at the dawn of each day their eyes turned to the vanes on the steeples. Had the wind veered, or did it still blow from the cruel east? And day after day they looked in vain for the longed-for change that might yet mean deliverance, for still the wind blew steadily from the east.

Valdez, who was well aware that his position was less stable than the citizens suspected, sent once again offers of pardon, would the city but surrender. But the offers were spurned by the heroic defenders of Leyden. It is true that a party of the more faint-hearted of the inhabitants assaulted the heroic burgomaster, Adrian van der Werf, with threats and reproaches as he passed along the streets. Tall and haggard the burgomaster stood and faced the angry crowd. "What would ye do, my friends?" he cried. "Why do ye murmur that we do not break our vows and surrender the city to the Spaniards, a fate more horrible than the agony she now endures. I tell you I have made an oath to hold the city, and may God give me strength to keep my oath. I can die but once, whether by your hands, the enemy's, or by the hand of God. My own fate is indifferent to me, not so that of the city entrusted to my care. I know that we shall starve if not soon relieved, but starvation is preferable to the dishonoured death which is the only alternative. Your menaces move me not. My life is at your disposal. Here is my sword. Plunge it into my breast and divide my flesh among you. Take my body to appease your hunger, but expect no surrender, so long as I remain alive." And those who heard the brave words never murmured against Der Werf again. With shouts of applause they left him, and mounted yet again to the tower and battlements to watch for the coming fleet.

From the ramparts they flung, these starving men and women, a fresh defiance to the foe. "Ye call us rat-eaters, dog-eaters," they cried, "and it is true. So long, then, as ye hear a dog bark or a cat mew within the walls, ye may know that the city holds out. And when all has perished but ourselves, be sure that we will each devour our left arms, retaining our right to defend our women, our liberty and our religion against the foreign tyrant. And when the last hour has come, with our own hands we will set fire to the city and perish, men, women and children together in the flames, rather than suffer our homes to be polluted and our liberties crushed."

Valdez heard the defiance flung so proudly from the battlements, and he saw the city slipping from his hold. Yet the fleet still lay stranded at North Aa, and derisively the Spaniards shouted to the citizens, "As well can the Prince of Orange pluck the stars from the skies as bring the ocean to the walls of Leyden for your relief."

September had drawn to a close when a dove flew into the city, bringing a letter from Admiral Boisot. In a few days the long-looked-for relief would enter the city, wrote the Admiral. And though to the citizens in their agony the few days seemed to mock them, stretching out into endless hours of gnawing pain, they yet caused the letter to be read publicly in the market-place and caused the bells to ring a merry peal of hope.

Nevertheless when the morrow dawned the wind still blew chilly from the east, and still the waters continued to subside. Boisot, as well as the inhabitants of Leyden, was almost in despair. Then at length the longed-for tempest came. On the 1st and 2nd October a violent gale blew from the north-west, and then veering in a few hours to the south-west, increased in violence. The waters of the North Sea were driven furiously landward, and swept unhindered over the ruined dykes. Ere twenty-four hours had passed, the fleet at North Aa had more than two feet of water, instead of but nine inches, and at midnight, in the midst of the storm, the fleet sailed triumphantly over the Kirkway dyke and on steadily towards Zoeterwoude. A few sentinels challenged them as they rowed along, the only answer being a flash from Boisot's cannon, lighting up for a moment the wild waste of water around them. A little farther and the patriot fleet encountered the Spanish ships, and a fierce battle ensued, the enemy's vessels being soon sunk and the crews hurled relentlessly into the waves. Then on once more the Admiral swept over the broad waters. As they approached some shallows in the great mere, the Zeelanders dashed into the sea and with sheer determination shouldered the vessels through.

Between the fleet and Leyden there were now left only the forts of Zoeterwoude and Lammen, one 500, the other 250 yards from the city. Troops and artillery would assuredly delay them at Zoeterwoude, and every moment was precious. But the panic which had already driven many foes from their path seized upon the defenders of Zoeterwoude.

No sooner was the fleet in sight than the Spaniards fled from the fortress towards The Hague. The footpath was rapidly disappearing in the ever deepening flood, and hundreds of the fugitives lost their footing, while the wild Zeelanders, springing from their vessels upon the crumbling dyke, drove those more fortunate into the sea, plunging after them in their fury and attacking them with boat-hook and dagger.

The first fortress was thus captured and set on fire, and a few more strokes of the oar brought the whole fleet close to Lammen. Swarming with soldiers, bristling with cannon, this last fortress lay directly across their path. Within a mile and a half of the headquarters of Valdez it lay, seemingly an insurmountable barrier. Yet Boisot wrote to the Prince that he would attempt to take the fort the following morning.

And the citizens dragged themselves to the market-place, wild with a newly kindled hope. A dove had been sent by Boisot to tell them that the fleet lay but a few yards off. When night fell, the burgomaster, with a number of citizens, mounted the highest tower. "Yonder," cried the steadfast Der Werf, "yonder, behind the fort, are bread and meat and brethren in thousands. Shall all this be destroyed by the Spanish guns, or shall we rush to the rescue of our friends?" "We will tear the fortress to fragments with our teeth and nails," cried the starving men, "before the relief so long expected shall be wrested from us." At break of day they would join with Boisot in an attack upon Lammen.

It was a pitch-dark night, a night full of ominous sights and sounds, which filled the Spaniards, the city, and the fleet with strange forebodings. Through the darkness, at dead of night, a long procession of lights was seen to issue from the fort and flit across the waters. A large part of the city wall fell with a loud crash, and the horror-stricken citizens believed that the Spaniards were upon them at last, while the Spaniards believed the noise was caused by a desperate sortie on the part of the citizens. All was strange and bewildering through the dark hours of the night, and men looked eagerly for morning, for daylight.

With the first break of dawn, Admiral Boisot prepared for the assault. But from Lammen not a sound was heard. A deathlike silence brooded over the fortress. In the hearts of the Sea-Beggars suspicion, terrible and sickening, awoke. Had they come too late? Had the city been taken during those strange night hours? Had the massacre already begun?

Siege of Leyden


The answer to their surmisings was on the way. Even now a man was wading towards the fleet, while from the summit of the fort a lad was seen to wave his cap. Then, as the man reached them, the mystery was solved.

The night had been full of unknown terrors to the Spaniards also, and, panic-stricken, they had fled through the darkness. Their lanterns were the lights that had been seen to flit across the sea. Only the boy who now waved his cap from the forsaken fort had seen the flight of the enemy, and so certain was he of it, that he had offered to go alone to the camp as soon as morning dawned.

Valdez had indeed fled and ordered all his troops to retire from Lammen. Not an obstacle remained, and Boisot, sweeping by the last forsaken fort, reached his goal at length on October 3. The quays were lined with famishing folk, all who could stand coming out to greet the preservers of the city. From every ship loaves were hurriedly tossed to those who for two months had tasted no wholesome human food.

Admiral Boisot stepped ashore, and a solemn procession was at once formed. Magistrates, wild Zeelanders, soldiers reduced to skeletons, emaciated women and little children all wended their way without delay to the great church, led by the Admiral. Here the grateful citizens with their deliverers bent in deep thanksgiving before the King of Kings. The good news was at once sent to the Prince of Orange, who immediately set out for the city to rejoice with the inhabitants and his brave and tenacious Admiral.

On October 4, the day following the relief of the city, the wind veered again to the north-east, and in the course of a few days the land was bare, and the work of rebuilding the dykes was begun.

As a reward for its great sufferings, the Prince granted the city of Leyden a ten days' annual fair, without tolls or taxes, while as a proof of the gratitude felt by the people of Holland and Zeeland for the fortitude of the inhabitants, it was resolved that a university should at once be founded within their walls. The following year, 1575, the building was consecrated, amid the feasting and rejoicing of a happy and prosperous people.