The Prince of Orange had at last thrown down the gauntlet. From henceforth he stood before the world the champion of his sorely bestead countrymen. Had he been goaded to this act by the wrongs done to him personally, could one have wondered? An outlaw, his eldest child kidnapped, his property in the Netherlands confiscated, his wrongs cried aloud for vengeance. Yet it was, above all else, the cry of the nation that rang in his ears and roused him to defy her pitiless oppressor.
On March 8, 1568, he had boldly refused to acknowledge Alva's right to summon him to appear before his self-appointed tribunal. Nor did his defiance end here. At Dillenburg he was busy enlisting the aid of the Sovereign of Germany on behalf of his oppressed country. At the same time he was doing all in his power to raise funds and to collect troops.
On April 6, 1568, Louis, one of the boldest soldiers of the age, received a commission from his brother, the Prince, and he, along with Van den Berg and Hoogstraaten, were actively engaged in levying troops. William stopped at no sacrifice. He gave 50,000 florins, and sold all his jewels, plate, tapestry and other furniture to help to raise the funds which were necessary before he could organise an army fit to enter the Netherlands. For his task was no light one. The country he meant to invade was garrisoned by an old and experienced army, and was under the command of the redoubtable Alva.
But no difficulty could quench the steadfast determination of William to bring help to the victims of Alva's cruelty. The constancy of the Reformers had gained the admiration of the Prince, and their faith had become his own. In his letters to his wife we catch a glimpse of the true source of his unwavering efforts to serve his country. It was not ambition that called to him, nor the love of power, but a strong belief that God had chosen him, as in olden days He had chosen strong men, to be the deliverer of his country.
Only after many weary delays was the Prince at length prepared to invade the down-trampled Provinces. An army of Huguenots and refugees was to enter Artois from France, another, under Hoogstraaten, was to cross the frontier near Maestricht, while a third, under Louis of Nassau, was to enter Friesland from the Ems. The two first corps, numbering respectively about two thousand and three thousand men, were easily routed by the Spanish troops sent out by Alva to meet them; but Louis was at first more successful. He reached the Provinces with a small body of troops. On his banners was blazoned the watchword of the patriots, "Freedom for fatherland and conscience." Thousands, he was assured, would flock to his standard. On the western wolds of Fresia he surprised the Castle of Wedde, belonging to Aremberg, Stadtholder of the province. Encouraged by his success, he then advanced to Appingadam, or Dam, where he was met by his younger brother, Adolphus, with a small troop of horse. Here his expectations seemed as though they would be realised, for daily armed bodies of troops, and peasants carrying any rustic weapon they had been able to lay their hands on, found their way into the camp.
Alva was aware that the Beggars were increasing in numbers, and he at once ordered Count Aremberg, Governor of Friesland, to enrol a force of twenty-eight veteran troops to march against the enemy, while he himself despatched Meghem with 15,000 more to support the Count. His orders were strict, that neither commander should risk an action until their forces had united.
After a long march Aremberg arrived close to the little unwalled city of Dam, where he quartered his troops. Meghem had been delayed by a mutiny among his troops. They had received no wages for many months, and now refused to move unless at least a small payment was made. Nor could Meghem's authority quell the disturbances until money sent from Brussels was distributed amongst them. He then advanced to within fifty miles of Dam, where he encamped, at the same time sending to let Aremberg know that he might expect him with his infantry and light horse the following day.
Louis of Nassau meanwhile, on the approach of Aremberg, had broken up his camp at Dam and retreated to a strong position near the monastery of Heilger-Lee. To reach it he had crossed an ugly morass by a single narrow footpath. There had been trouble in his camp also, but a little money, ample promises, and the hope of booty had soon ended the mutiny.
On the morning of May 23 Aremberg came in sight of Louis, in his well-nigh impregnable position. Behind him lay a thick wood, in front a swamp. A hill on the left screened his infantry from the enemy's fire, while on the right was stationed his cavalry, under the command of his brother, Adolphus.
Recognising how strong was the position of the enemy, and knowing better than could his Spanish soldiers the great sweep of pitfalls in the morass before them, Aremberg had no wish to risk an engagement, at least till he was reinforced by Meghem's troops. But the Spanish soldiers chafed at the delay, and called loudly to be led against the enemy, whom they foolishly despised. They even hinted their suspicions of the loyalty of their general, as he still persisted in his plan of awaiting Meghem's arrival. Aremberg was a Fleming, they grumbled, and might well be in touch with his countrymen in the enemy's camp. The taunts stung the General to the quick. Discretion and obedience were flung to the winds. Placing himself at the head of his army, he marched towards the enemy. Feeling sure of an easy victory, the Spanish veterans rushed forward to the attack, and in a moment found themselves struggling helplessly in the morass. As they struggled, the musketeers of the enemy poured in a deadly fire upon them. The pikemen too charged upon those who were attempting to escape and drove them back to a muddy death.
At length Louis ordered the cavalry on his right to charge Aremberg's flank, and the unexpected movement decided the fate of the battle. Attacked in front and in the flank, hemmed in by the fatal morass, the Spaniards were thrown into utter confusion. Gallantly Aremberg attempted to rally his followers. As he rode hither and thither, doing his utmost to restore their courage, his horse was killed under him, and as he was mounting another he received a shot from a foot soldier and fell from his saddle mortally wounded. Their General fallen, the soldiers fled in all directions, pursued by the enemy. The ground was covered with the dead and dying. Count Louis' victory was complete.
The battle was scarcely over when an advancing trumpet was heard, and the victors paused in their pursuit, thus allowing a remnant of the conquered Spaniards to escape. Meghem's force was believed to be advancing. He had come indeed, but with only a few attendants, his army being still some leagues from the scene of battle. Hearing from some stragglers how the day had gone, Meghem hastily fell back on Groningen, and succeeded in securing that important city, which was indeed the key to the province of Friesland.
Unfortunately Count Louis, hampered by want of artillery, had no power to follow up his victory by attempting to reduce Groningen. He and the Prince of Orange, while they rejoiced in the triumph achieved by their troops, were left to mourn the loss of the chivalrous Adolphus, whose life had just been given in the cause of freedom.
To Alva the news of the defeat of his Spanish veterans was well-nigh incredible. His choicest troops defeated by the patriots! Then the patriots should suffer for their audacity, and that right speedily. The defeat and death of Count Aremberg should be avenged. This time he would leave nothing to chance, he himself would lead his army forth to victory. Accordingly, after completing the arrangements for the execution of Egmont and Hoorn, and seeing them carried out to their fatal end, Alva left Brussels at the head of a large force of Spanish soldiers.