Gateway to the Classics: Brave Men and Brave Deeds by M. B. Synge
Brave Men and Brave Deeds by  M. B. Synge

The Siege of Leyden


"Better a drowned land than a lost land."

Leyden was one of the most beautiful cities in the Netherlands. In the very centre of the city was an old ruined tower, standing high above the surrounding country. From it could be seen the broad, fertile fields reclaimed from the sea, the little villages with their bright gardens and fruitful orchards, the numbers of little canals into which the river had been divided, and the hundred and forty-five bridges over those watery streets.

All through the hot, dry summer of 1574 little groups of half-starved men might have been seen going up to the top of this ruined tower. They did not go to look at the little canals and bridges, at the bright little gardens or smiling villages, but away, far away beyond all this! Their eyes were anxiously strained over the sea—the distant German Ocean that washed their broken coast—watching to see whether yet that ocean had begun to roll over their land. And why should the ocean roll over their land, that land they had with such long years of toil reclaimed from the sea?

"Better a drowned land than a lost land," would have been their despairing cry.

For their city, Leyden, was in a state of siege. Holland was fighting for her liberty, for freedom from Spanish oppression, under the leadership of William the Silent, Prince of Orange.

And now some eight thousand of the enemy had surrounded their city, a force which would surely be increased as the days wore on; and there were but a small corps of "freebooters "and five companies of the burgher-guard inside. No troops, no food, no reinforcements!

"The fate of your country depends on you," wrote their leader. "You are not contending for yourselves alone; you have the nation in your hands. Eternal glory will be your portion if you display a courage worthy of your race, and of the sacred cause of religion and liberty."

If they could only hold out for three months, he would devise all the means in his power to help them from without. He little thought then to what extremities he would be brought, even to drowning the land.

The citizens knew they could depend on the untiring energy of their prince. He was young, he was brave, he was their hero, "he went through life bearing the load of a people's sorrow on his shoulders," he would not fail them now. But his task was a gigantic one.

Meanwhile the king, Philip the Third of Spain, to whom the Netherlands belonged, held out a tempting bait to the starving citizens. He offered all his erring subjects full forgiveness for all past offences if they would all yield and be his loyal subjects for the future.

For the moment the prince feared lest this pardon might have some effect on the wearied men inside the city of Leyden. For himself he had already made answer, "As long as there is a living man left in the country we will contend for our liberty and our religion."

He need not have feared for the men of Leyden. They, too, turned a deaf ear to the message of mercy; they received with contempt forgiveness at the price of defeat, pardon at the cost of their country. Though some of their countrymen who belonged to the king's party, and were called "Glippers," wrote letter after letter to their rebel friends inside Leyden, though they were implored to "take pity on their poor old fathers, their daughters, and their wives," they were firm.

"The best pity we can show," they said, "is to keep our old fathers and daughters and wives from the clutches of the Spanish soldiery!"

And the "Glippers" were silenced.

Soon after the siege began, the citizens had taken stock of all their provisions. By the end of June each citizen was put on a strict allowance of food: half a pound of meat and half a pound of bread was allowed for each full-grown man, and a few weeks later even this small allowance had to be reduced. So closely was the town guarded by the enemy that only a few carrier-pigeons and skilful messengers could carry news to the outside world. Fierce combats took place daily, for a reward had been offered to any man who could bring into the city gates the head of a Spaniard. Many a head had been brought in; but such intense excitement was caused by these conflicts that the reward had to be stopped, and a proclamation was issued by sound of the church bell that no citizen should leave the city gates.

Now the country of the Netherlands lies low, and the ocean is only kept from flowing over the land by means of dikes and sluices. The prince was in possession of a certain important fortress that lay between Leyden and the sea. This fortress the Spaniards had attacked in vain. By this means he held in his hand the key with which he could unlock the ocean gates and let the waters rush in over the land. "Better a drowned land than a lost land." If nothing else could save the city, the dikes could be opened. Leyden was not upon the sea, but he could send the sea to Leyden; an army could not be raised to attack the besieging force, but the ocean waves could besiege them.

The prince had counted the cost. The damage to the fields, the villages, and crops would be enormous; the land, so patiently reclaimed from the sea, would be rendered useless again! On the other hand, if Leyden fell, Holland fell too. The decision was made. In person the prince superintended the boring of the dikes in sixteen places. The great water-gates were opened, and the sea began to flow slowly over the land.

It was the twelfth of August when a letter from the prince found its way into Leyden, begging the citizens to hold on a little longer. The starving people were growing impatient; they had finished all their bread, and malt-cake they found but a poor substitute. But "we have fulfilled our promise," they wrote to him a few days later; "we have held out for two months with food, and for one month without food. Human strength can do no more!"

Even their malt-cake would last but four days more, then starvation stared them in the face! The same day another letter came to them from the prince. He lay in bed at Rotterdam racked with fever, his mind nearly breaking down under the strain of the past few months, his heart torn for the starving citizens of Leyden, ever scheming and planning for the deliverance of the people. But he told them nothing of this. The letter simply told of the boring of the great dikes, and the rising of the water. The letter was read aloud in the market-place, and unspeakable joy broke forth among the faithful burghers. The city musicians walked about the streets playing their liveliest airs, cannon were fired, and the starving city put on a holiday aspect, to the astonishment of the besiegers.

But the water was rising slowly. Now it had risen to ten inches. The besiegers began to realize that their position was uncomfortable; to be surrounded by a stronger power than man's was a somewhat alarming state of affairs. They consulted the Glippers, who knew their country well, knew every dike and sluice and fortress from the coast to Leyden. The Glippers laughed at the wildness of the scheme. The plan was futile, they said.

The days wore on. The first gleams of hope had given place to dull distrust. The dikes were indeed opened, but the water did not rise.

"Go up to the tower, ye beggars," laughed the besiegers—"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 they 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."

On the twenty-seventh they sent out of the city a despairing letter. "The city has been forgotten," they cried, "in its utmost need. Rather 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."

The prince was growing worse. In his fever he seemed to hear the cries of the starving citizens! Then a rumour reached his bedside that they had given up. His fever rose, and his life was in great danger. Then came the contradiction—Leyden was still holding out. From that time he grew better. He ordered more active measures to be taken for their relief.

On the first of September, Admiral Boisot arrived with a small fleet of flat-bottomed vessels and eight hundred veteran sailors. A wild and ferocious crew were those eight hundred Zealanders. Scarred and maimed from past conflicts, they were known never to give or to take quarter. Wild and fierce as they were, they were in a state of the highest discipline, and as seamen unrivalled in skill. Among those flat-bottomed boats was one commonly called the "Ark of Delft," a vessel with neither oars nor sails, moved only by means of a wheel worked by twelve men.

The little fleet made its way over the fifteen miles of flooded country between Leyden and the coast.

By the first week in September the relieving force had come to within five miles of the city. Here were more dikes, through which the sea had not yet passed. Under the very eyes of the enemy, the old sailors pierced through the great dike. The sea rolled in, and the fleet sailed through the gaps—sailed on to within three-quarters of a mile of Leyden. Here was another long dike called the "Greenway," rising a foot or so above the waters, again unprotected by the Spaniards. It did not take long to level it with the ground. Triumphantly the little fleet, now consisting of some two hundred boats, passed over it.

But Leyden was not reached yet, and it was to be almost another month before the city could be relieved.

A large fresh-water lake had yet to be passed. And now another obstacle presented itself. Up to this time the sea had borne on the fleet, thanks to a favourable wind. Now the wind changed round to the east, and the water began to sink! Here, too, was a bridge, held by the enemy in large numbers. The admiral, with his heaviest artillery and bravest sailors, attacked it, but they were driven back, despairing.

It was now a whole week since the great dike had been pierced, the fleet still lay in shallow water, the east wind was causing the sea rather to sink than to rise, impassable barriers seemed to lie between the fleet and the city. The starving citizens of Leyden crawled up to their ruined tower and beheld the shallow waves with sinking hearts. They could not hold out much longer!

Everything looked dark till the eighteenth, when the wind once more shifted to north-west, and for three days blew a gale. The waters began to rise, the boats were afloat once more, and the crews were filled with hope. By this time the admiral had found a way round without having to pass the bridge. The rising ocean tide, now deepening every hour with the rising wind, alarmed the Spaniards. Brave as they were on land, they were no sailors. Vague and mysterious dangers threatened them; they lost their presence of mind, and fled inland towards Leyden.

So the fleet sailed on in triumph, the enemy fleeing as it advanced always nearer and nearer to Leyden. As the admiral arrived at the outlying villages, he ordered them to be set on fire. The flames lit up the desolate waste of waters, and the watchers on the tower at Leyden hailed with joy the approaching fleet.


The Watchers on the Tower

Surely in a few days now they would be relieved. But once more the wind changed to the east, and instead of sailing on to the besieged city, the fleet was stranded in nine inches of water!

Day after day the ships lay motionless, helpless in the shallow sea.

The prince by this time had so far recovered as to be able to stand. He now came on board the fleet. He inspired the desponding men with fresh hope; he gave orders for the last important barrier to be destroyed; he rebuked the impatient sailors, who were mad for revenge and chafed against the enforced delay.

Meanwhile, Leyden was at its last gasp. The citizens realized but too clearly what a change of wind meant to the advancing fleet. As day by day the east wind blew, they stood on tower and house-top, knowing they looked in vain for the longed-for flood. They were literally starving now. Bread, malt-cake, horse-flesh, dogs, cats, rats—all had been consumed!

A small number of cows, kept as long as possible for their milk, still remained, but now a few had to be killed daily and distributed in small bits to the starving people. Some ate vine leaves mixed with salt and starch, others boiled the leaves of trees, roots, or chaff; they eagerly devoured the skins of the beasts, they cooked every living herb—but nothing could avert starvation. Women and children dropped dead in the streets; the burghers could hardly drag their weary limbs to the walls. To hasten death, a dreadful plague broke out, to which six thousand people fell easy victims.

Still they would not yield to the foreign foe, though they died at their posts; and they felt little hopes now of the fleet arriving in time to save them.

"Leyden was sublime in its despair."

True, from time to time, there were some who murmured against the firm decision of the magistrates, some who had grown faint-hearted through the intensity of the suffering. A number of these came one day to the old burgomaster, Peter Vanderwert.

"Give us food," they cried, "or treat with the Spaniards."

The old burgomaster was passing through the streets, when he thus found himself alone, surrounded by a crowd of faithless citizens clamouring for freedom.

"What would ye, my friends?" he cried, waving his broad-brimmed hat for silence. "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 which 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. My own fate is indifferent to me, not so that of the city entrusted to my care. I know we shall starve, if not soon relieved; but starvation is preferable to the dishonoured death which is the only alternative!"

The old man stood in a triangular place in the centre of the city; above him rose the church of St. Pancras, with its high brick tower and its two pointed turrets. He was a tall, gaunt figure; his face was stern and dark, his whole presence calm but commanding. "My life is at your disposal," continued the old man. "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 as long as I remain alive."

A shout of applause, mingled with murmurs of defiance, rose from the starving citizens. The stirring words of the stanch old burgomaster filled them with new hope and courage. They vowed they would be true to their charge, true to their prince, true to their country; and they returned to their several duties, determined to conquer or to die.

"So long," they cried from the ramparts to the enemy, "so long as ye hear dog bark or cat mew within the walls, ye may know that the city holds out. And when all have perished but ourselves, be sure that we will each devour our left arms, retaining our right to defend our women. 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 taken and our liberties to be crushed."

The Spaniards knew that Leyden's only chance of relief lay with the successful flooding of the land. And the fleet was still stranded. "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 to your relief."

On the night of the first of October a violent gale swept over the waste of waters from the north-west. The waters of the North Sea were piled in vast masses upon the coast of Holland, and then dashed furiously landward, the ocean rising over the land and sweeping over the ruined dikes with ever-increasing power.

In the course of the next twenty-four hours the fleet had more than two feet of water. In the midst of storm and darkness the relieving force sailed on. A few of the enemy's sentinel-vessels challenged the fleet, and at midnight a fierce naval battle took place. The roar of cannon and the howling of the wind over the great waste of dark waters told the sleepless citizens inside Leyden that help was very near now.

The enemy's vessels were sunk, and their crews hurled into the waves. There were but two forts now before the fleet reached Leyden, but they were known to be strongly garrisoned by the enemy.

Yet again now, as before, the rapidly rising waters proved a greater terror to the Spaniards than the two hundred vessels with their crews of fierce sailors. Hardly were the ships in sight than, in the early morning, the Spaniards poured out of the fortress and fled along a road towards the Hague. The wild sailors, mad with revenge, sprang from their vessels and drove their retreating foes yet further into the sea. They plunged into the waves after them in keen pursuit, and killed them with boat-hook and dagger.

So the first fortress was seized and set on fire.

There was yet another, and this a more formidable one. Swarming with soldiers and bristling with artillery, it seemed impossible for the fleet either to carry it by storm or to pass under its guns into the city. It seemed, after all, as if Leyden must perish within sight of help!

The fleet anchored, and the admiral spent the day in examining the fort, which seemed only too strong. He resolved to attack it next morning; and if driven back, as seemed more than likely, then, he said, in something like despair, "We must wait for another gale of wind to carry us round to the other side of the city."

Meantime, the citizens had grown wild with alternate hopes and fears. A dove had been dispatched by the admiral with a message informing them of his position and intentions.

The old burgomaster mounted the ruined tower.

"Yonder," he cried, "behind that fort, are bread and meat, and our brethren in thousands. Shall all this be destroyed by the Spanish guns, or shall we rush to the help of our friends?"

"We will tear the fortress to fragments with our teeth and nails," cried the maddened citizens, "before the relief so long expected shall be wrested from us."

They resolved to make a sortie next morning and help the admiral against the besieging army.

But the sea had done its work!

Strange sights and sounds occurred during the night. A long line of lights was seen to flit across the black face of the waters at dead of night. Suddenly, in the darkness, too, the whole of the city wall fell with a loud crash.

The citizens were filled with terror. Were the Spaniards within their walls at last? Had help arrived too late? All was vague and mysterious.

"Day dawned at length after the feverish night," and all prepared for the assault. Within the fortress all was still.

Suddenly a man was seen, wading breast high through the waters, going from the fortress to the fleet. At the same time, one solitary boy was seen waving his cap from the summit of the fort. The mystery was solved.

During the darkness, alarmed at the waste of rising waters and the advancing fleet, the Spaniards had fled in a panic. The lights which had been seen moving during the night were the lanterns of the retreating army. One boy alone had seen it all, and had the courage at daybreak to go alone to the fort and wave the signal.

Thus the Spaniards had retreated at the very moment when, by accident, the wall of the city had fallen in, and they might have entered the starving town in triumph.

The noise of the falling wall had only increased their alarm as they fled in the darkness from the rising flood.

Thus on the morning of the third of October the little fleet sailed past the forsaken fort and entered the city. Leyden was saved!

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