1572-1574 War in the Netherlands

Protests intensified after the Duke of Alva brought his Spanish army to the Low Countries. Few worried about a Spaniard inheriting the titles to the seventeen provinces. But Spanish troops in the Netherlands? That was different. This was no longer protest, this was war.



Massacre by Spanish troops in Zutphen, 16 November 1572. Netherlands, c. 1620

Spanish troops massacring the defenders of Haarlem after the city surrendered on 13 July 1573. Frans Hogenberg, 1573-1575

In 1567, the Duke of Alva was appointed governor of the Netherlands. When a string of towns declared for the prince in 1572, Alva sent an army on a punitive expedition to capture them and teach the offenders a lesson. While many towns opened their gates as soon as the Spaniards approached, some resisted and then the Spanish troops were merciless.

As at Zutphen, for example, which the Protestant rebels had captured, ransacking the churches and killing several priests. In November 1572, the Spanish army laid siege to Zutphen. Eventually, when the River IJssel froze, they marched into the city. What followed, was a bloodbath. Over five hundred people were drowned, pushed through holes in the ice; others were sent naked to freeze out in the open. Several towns in Holland suffered a similarly cruel fate, including Naarden and Oudewater.

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Battle between Dutch and Spanish ships on Haarlemmermeer, 26 May 1573. Hendrik Cornelisz. Vroom, 1629

Towns that did not surrender immediately were encircled and starved into submission. That happened at Haarlem, which was besieged in the winter of 1572-1573. With three thousand rebels garrisoned in Haarlem, the city was able to repulse the Spanish assaults, while food supplies were brought in by ship across the lake.

But when a Spanish fleet attacked and defeated the rebel ships on Haarlemmermeer in May 1573, the supply line was broken and the city was isolated. For seven months, Spanish troops kept a stranglehold on the city. Eventually, the hunger and deprivation became unbearable and the city surrendered. Over two thousand rebels and defenders were executed, often in the most appalling ways.

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Jug showing the Relief of Leiden, the Siege of Alkmaar and the Battle of Zuiderzee. Adam van Vianen I, 1614

Herring and white bread distributed at the Relief of Leiden, 3 October 1574. Otto van Veen, c. 1575-1600

One town after another fell to the Spaniards, until they reached Alkmaar. It was when they laid siege there that they suffered their first defeat. The Spanish army surrounded the city on 21 August 1573. The inhabitants and the rebels, staunch supporters of the Protestant cause, repulsed each Spanish assault. The Spaniards were not invincible after all! ‘Victory begins at Alkmaar’ became a byword.

Forced to withdraw from Alkmaar, the Spanish army pitched camp around Leiden. In the course of this siege, which lasted a year, around a third of the city’s 18,000 inhabitants died of starvation and plague. Eventually, the Spaniards were chased away when William of Orange’s troops broke the dykes and inundated part of the surrounding country. The Spaniards retreated on 3 October 1574 and the rebels brought herring and white bread into the starving city. The relief of Leiden is still celebrated each year.


Women in battle

Portrait of Kenau Simonsdr Hasselaer. Netherlands, c. 1575-1600

It came as a shock to the Spaniards that women could read in the Low Countries and had access to all kinds of heretical literature. They were probably just as surprised to see women fighting alongside men at the sieges of Haarlem and Alkmaar. A legendary figure is Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer of Haarlem, a shipowner’s widow who had continued her husband’s business after his death. Some sources relate that she headed a contingent of three hundred women armed with pikes, swords and muskets during the siege. There was a similar heroine at Alkmaar, known as the Alkmaar Kenau. In fact the name entered the Dutch language. A kenau is a woman with masculine qualities.