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The Siege of Haarlem

"Never was a place defended with such skill and bravery as Haarlem, it was a war such as never was seen or heard of in any land on Earth." (Don Federico of Toledo, captain of the Spanish besiegers, writing to Philip II, King of Spain, in 1573)

(December 1572 - July 1573)

In early 1572, Haarlem was a town in decline in a poverty-stricken country being bled dry by its Spanish overlords. Food was in short supply and peasant riots were not uncommon. Calvinism had spread to the Spanish Netherands and its message of distrust of Catholic riches and rituals found many converts amongst the Dutch, for whom the church and Spain were two sides of the same coin.

Haarlem, without even the means to repair its run-down city defenses, tried to steer a middle path between the Spanish and the Calvinist factions. It had seen none of the iconoclastic riots which had recently wrecked Catholic churches in other Dutch towns but each day brought new support for the Calvinists.

King Philip II, the Spanish king and a fanatical defender of Catholicism was determined to crush the incipient Calvinism in the Dutch cities and appointed his old general, the Duke of Alba, as new viceroy in the Netherlands, with orders to suppress the Calvinists with whatever means he deemed necessary.

The man who would go on to become arguably the most important statesman in Dutch history as leader of the Dutch independence movement was William of Orange. He was a German nobleman who had previously worked for Philip as governor-general of three Dutch provinces. However, he was sickened by the brutal methods of the Spanish occupiers. This Catholic born of Protestant parents had seen both sides of the religious schism and himself favoured tolerance.

William was known as an honest man and gained support amongst the Dutch at all levels of society. He even had a kind of navy: the 'Sea Beggars', a rag-tag band of patriots, skilled seamen and disenfranchised noblemen. In early 1572, they captured Brill and Flushing, two towns in Zeeland. This act gave confidence to the rebels in northern towns, including Haarlem.

The Duke of Alba, meanwhile, sent his son, Don Fadrique of Toledo, to quell the insurrection with some 30,000 men. No-one yet knew it but soon Haarlem was to be the venue of a stand-off between the most zealous Catholic King in Europe and the emerging Protestant Reformation. The Siege of Haarlem would also contribute indirectly to the forming of the future nations of Holland and Belgium.

Don Fadrique left Mechelen, Zutphen and Naarden in ashes on the way north, slaughtering thousands of citizens in a demonstration of Spain's absolute power. In December 1572, they reached Haarlem. Supremely confident, they failed to reconnoitre the town properly, attacking the Kruispoort in the north, the strongest part of Haarlem's otherwise ramshackle ramparts. The fierce Haarlemmers repelled them, leaving the Spanish to wonder how so much resistance could come from such a poor town.

Days before the siege had begun, Catholic delegates from Haarlem went to Spanish-friendly Amsterdam to plead for mercy. During their absence, William won Haarlem over to his cause and the delegates were executed on their return. The town abandoned its neutrality and prepared itself for the inevitable showdown. They had a garrison of some 3,000 troops, mainly German mercenaries, led by Captain Wigbolt Ripperda (after whom the modern city barracks were named). The citizens would fight resolutely alongside the soliders.

For weeks on end, the Spanish cannons pounded the city defenses but to no avail. They even tried tunnelling towards the city walls to mine the remaining defenses but the Haarlemmers dug counter-tunnels and blew up any Spanish and their tunnels they might meet. The strategy was soon dropped.

From the outside, William made use of the winter freeze to smuggle in provisions over the frozen Haarlemermeer (a large lake which has since been drained) on sledges. This was done under the very noses of the shocked Spanish, who had never seen skating. Even after the freeze, in early 1573, William's Sea Beggars maintained the supply line by boat under the cover of a thick mist which hung over the lake. Schalkwijk to the south-east was their favourite destination.

The fierceness of the Haarlemmers in defense of their town was personnified by a woman, Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, shipbuilder by trade. She organised a division of some 300 women to fight alongside the men on the ramparts. They gained respect from all. A park in present-day Haarlem is named in her honour.

Unrelenting savage raids by both sides continued through February and March 1573, the Spanish suffering heavy losses. Don Fadrique was by now so exasperated that he wrote to his father, asking if he might break off the siege. The Duke of Alba, not known for his compassion, sneeringly replied that he would send his own wife if Don Fadrique was not up to the job. More importantly, he suggested that a total blockade was more vital than an immediate capture.

The turning point was reached in early April 1573 when Spanish-led ships from Amsterdam routed the Sea Beggars on the Haarlemermeer. This was the end of the clandestine supply routes. By the end of May, there was no more bread in the town and citizens were eating cats, dogs, horses, rats, even boiled animal hides. The old city defenses had crumbled one by one, the Amsterdamse Poort remaining to this day as the only surviving witness of the horrors of the siege. Despite the appalling situation, the inhabitants managed to build an emergency defensive crescent further into town, an amazing monument to their dedication and energy.

By June 1573, the streets were littered with emaciated corpses. William tried to get help from abroad but in vain. His last move was to send a 5,000-strong company to Haarlem on 8 July. The Spanish learnt of the plan and the troops were slaughtered in an ambush. This truly was the end of hope for Haarlem.

The citizens offered surrender on condition that the town would not be pillaged and the garrison spared but Don Fadrique offered only unconditional surrender. Still worried that the desperate Haarlemmers might attempt a do-or-die final attack, which might include the destruction of potential war spoils for his long-suffering troops, he also set a huge ransom for sparing the city and its citizens, with the exception of a few dozen leading figures who would be executed.

Perhaps under pressure from the remaining German mercenaries, Haarlem accepted his terms on 12 July 1573. Don Fadrique soon abandoned his merciful promises and only the German mercenaries were spared a bout of vengeful blood-letting. The rest of the Haarlem garrison was massacred along with nearly 1,000 citizens. Captain Ripperda was beheaded along with his lieutenant and other noted citizens.

Five executioners and their assistants were kept busy for several days but eventually, perhaps sick of the butchery, they tied up the remaining 300 back to back in couples and threw them into the Haarlemermeer to drown.

Don Fadrique had won but it had cost him 10,000 men and a crippling seven month delay. The myth of the all-conquering Spanish military machine had been exposed by the resolve of the citizens of a poor Dutch town, who had succumbed, not to arms but to famine. Other Dutch towns took heart and were forewarned that the Spanish would indulge in wholesale slaughter whether challenged or not. The only way forward was open resistance.

And resist they did. The horrors of the Siege of Haarlem were somewhat offset by subsequent events. King Philip diverted funds to his Mediterranean campaign against the Turks and Don Fadrique's troops mutinied due to the resultant lack of wages. They eventually moved on but failed to capture Alkmaar and Leiden. Furthermore, the Sea Beggars regrouped and wiped out the Amsterdam fleet which had initiated Haarlem's downfall. William of Orange later set up independence for the Dutch states and Calvinism became the state-favoured religion, with Catholicism still tolerated in private.

In a final twist of fate, even Don Fadrique's last act in Haarlem indirectly benefited the town. He left behind him a company of mercenaries to maintain Spanish rule. Some years later, one of these soldiers was held responsible for a fire which destroyed large parts of the town. Under new treaty arrangements, Spain now had to pay compensation and rather generously turned over all Catholic possessions in Haarlem to the town itself. This massive financial boost fuelled the town's economy for years to come.