Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

The Siege of Leyden

"Better a drowned land than a lost land."


The news of the terrible massacre of St Bartholomew that had staggered Europe seemed only to strengthen the resolution of the Protestants in the Netherlands. The return of William of Orange had given new vigour to the Hollanders; town after town rose after the taking of Briel, turned out the hated Spaniard, and raised aloft the colours of their Prince. As winter came on and the great expanses of water froze into masses of solid ice, the undaunted Dutchmen put on their skates and glided into battle, to the astonishment of the Spaniards. Not to be beaten, Alva ordered 7000 pairs of skates to be supplied to the Spaniards, who soon became expert skaters too.

Haarlem was now attacked—Haarlem, one of the most beautiful cities in the country, lying between the Zuyder Zee and the German Ocean. With the utmost heroism she held out for seven months and then fell. She had cost the Spaniards 12,000 men; and even rich Spain, with all her treasure from the New World, could not go on much longer at this rate.

Men from England were helping the Netherlands now. Over the seas they sailed in small companies, and with pike and musket they stood shoulder to shoulder with the men of Haarlem against the power of mighty Spain.

"Like a hen calling her chickens, his Majesty still seeks to gather you all under the parental wing," cried Alva at last. "But if you will not," he added sternly, "every city in the Netherlands shall be burned to the ground."

The Protestants refused, and the Spaniards next besieged the town of Leyden, to the south of Haarlem. It was one of the most wonderful feats of the whole war.

The siege began on October 1573. It was October 1574 when it ended, and all through this long dreary year the Dutchmen inside the town were fighting with famine and starvation—fighting for their religious liberty and freedom from the Spanish tyranny.

In the very centre of Leyden rose an old tower, standing high above the surrounding low country. From it could be seen the broad fertile fields which once had lain under the sea, little villages with their bright gardens and fruitful orchards, numerous canals, and the 145 bridges that spanned those watery streets.

The Prince of Orange was doing all he could from outside to help his countrymen in their plucky defence; but as the long months wore on their condition became desperate. They were starving, but they would not yield; for if Leyden fell, Holland fell too. Yet what could be done?

The Prince of Orange knew what could be done. "Better a drowned land than a lost land. If nothing else could save the city, the dykes could be opened, and the great stormy sea would once more ebb and flow over the country. Holland would be ruined, but it would not be in the hands of the Spaniards."

"We have held out as long as we can," wrote the starving citizens. "Human strength can do no more."

Then the Prince went himself and had the great dykes bored in sixteen places; the water-gates were opened, and the water began slowly to pour over the flat land.

The good news was carried into the despairing city. The citizens took fresh heart. Leyden, their city, would yet be saved. The besiegers, too, heard the news of the cutting of the dykes; but they did not believe in the possibility of the sea getting up so far as Leyden.

"Go up to the tower, ye Beggars," they laughed; "go up to the tower and tell us if you can see the ocean coming over the dry land to your relief."

And day after day the citizens crept up the old ruined tower and strained their eyes out over the sea, "watching, hoping, praying, fearing, and at last almost despairing of relief by God or man."

Meanwhile the Prince lay in a burning fever at Rotterdam. Under the strain of the last months he had broken down. In his fever he seemed to hear the cries of the starving citizens. Would they give in before the ships could sail to their relief?

It was the 1st of September when the Sea Beggars embarked in their shallow boats on the water that was now slowly rising over the land. The little fleet made its way over fifteen miles of flooded country between the sea-coast and Leyden. So far a favourable wind had blown them onwards. Now the wind changed, the waters began to sink, and despair once more fell on the starving people within Leyden. They had eaten everything now. They had boiled the leaves of trees and eaten roots. Women and children dropped down dead in the streets, the burghers could hardly drag their weary legs up to the watch-tower. Yet they would not give up. "Leyden was sublime in her despair." They must be true to their charge, true to their Prince, true to their country. The old burgomaster of the town spoke to the wavering from time to time.

"My life is at your disposal," he said one day. "Here is my sword. Plunge it into me and divide my flesh among you. But expect no surrender as long as I live."

"As well," shouted the angry Spaniards—"As well can the Prince of Orange pluck the stars from the sky as bring the ocean to the walls of Leyden."

On the 1st of October a violent gale swept over the waste of waters from the north-west. The waters rose rapidly, and the Sea Beggars sailed proudly forward in the darkness of the night.

Within the town all was mysterious. Would the Spaniards attack them or flee? Must they yet perish in sight of help?

But before morning had dawned the Spanish host had grown alarmed at the rapidly rising waters, and the crews of wild fierce sailors sailing ever nearer and nearer. And before the waters reached them they had crept away under cover of the darkness.

A long line of moving lights were seen to flit across the black face of the waters at dead of night, and when day dawned at last there was not a Spaniard left. Only a boy stood waving his cap from the summit of the Spanish fort, a boy who had seen the enemy's flight and had had the courage to go and wave the signal. So the Sea Beggars sailed to Leyden and the city was saved.

The Prince of Orange had a new and beautiful town built up to celebrate the victory over Spain. And as long as the world rolls on, this splendid story of heroic defence will be told and retold with ever-growing enthusiasm.