Since October William had been in his own provinces of Holland and Utrecht, repressing disorder on the basis of the Accord of August 24, only to find, however, a few weeks later, that all his arrangements had been cancelled by the Duchess. She withdrew all privileges from the Reformers, peremptorily forbidding the preaching of the Reformed faith either within or without the walls of the cities. This she did while fully aware that the Prince had restored order on the understanding that every privilege granted by the Accord should be strictly guarded.
It was becoming daily more impossible for William to allow his work to be undone by the foolish policy of a treacherous woman. Largely by his personal influence he had restored peace in Holland and Utrecht, and men of all ranks and religions were grateful to him for the security which seemed now assured, while the Regent disowned his deeds and on every opportunity reviled his character to the King. Yet the unselfishness of his acts was apparent. Holland in its gratitude voted the Prince 50,000 florins, as a recognition of his labour on their behalf. But he, though in debt and pressed for money, refused the gift, telling Philip that it was not his wish that any one should think his actions were governed by motives of avarice or private gain, rather than by the true affection which he had for his Majesty's service and for the good of the country. In spite of his true affection, however, he was forced by the Regent's next move into an attitude of rebellion, if not to the King himself, at least to his counsellors and his policy.
Margaret demanded from the nobles a new oath of allegiance, an oath by which all who held office for the King solemnly pledged themselves to obey the orders of Government, "everywhere, and against every person, without limit or resistance." Count Mansfeld had not hesitated to take the new oath. Aerschot, Berlaymont, and Meghem took it with fervour, and after a little wavering Egmont also took this irrevocable step. Orange, however, spurned the idea. "A new oath!" he had not yet broken the one already taken of allegiance to the King, nor did he intend to do so. He was still ready to do all he could for the real interest of the monarch. It was no hypocrisy for the Prince to use such language, both now and later on, when he entered the Netherlands with an army in the hope of overthrowing for the King's good the King's representative, Alva. There was but one alternative to taking the new oath, and this Orange had already accepted when he resigned the offices he held on behalf of the Government.
His resignation, however, was not accepted by the Duchess, who in the meanwhile felt that the Prince was the one man in the country whose influence it was necessary to retain. She accordingly asked him at once to take measures against Brederode, who was actively engaged in levying troops in and around Antwerp. Orange had returned to Antwerp early in February 1567, but he was little inclined to accede to the Regent's request. Brederode, it was true, was rash, yet he was whole-hearted in his endeavour to check the spread of tyranny, and the Prince resolved to leave him to enroll his troops unchecked. He meanwhile devoted himself to preserving peace in Antwerp, of which city he was burgrave.
But the Regent could not tolerate such indifference to her wishes, and after shrill and reiterated commands she at length induced the Prince to issue a formal proclamation forbidding the Count's enlistments, but otherwise he continued to ignore Brederode's efforts. The Count, however, moved northwards, and still went on with his work of enrolling troops.
Meanwhile in Brussels there was a feeling of alarm. The enrolment of rebels must end. Egmont, anxious to give further proof of his loyalty, offered to throw himself at once into the Isle of Walcheren to dislodge any rebels who might have gained an entrance there, but his services proved unnecessary. The rebels, it was true, had been cruising about in the neighbourhood of Flushing, but they had been refused admittance into any of the ports of the island. They therefore sailed up the Scheldt, and landed at a little village called Ostrawell, little more than a mile distant from Antwerp. The commander of the rebels, Marnix of Tholouse, was a young nobleman who had left college to fight for the cause of liberty. A mere lad, accomplished and talented, he had yet nothing but his courage to fit him for the post he had undertaken. Inexperienced himself, he led a troop as inexperienced, composed of raw youths, vagabonds, and outlaws. Marnix, however, posted his army, such as it was, in a convenient position in the little village. The Scheldt and its dykes lay to his rear, his right and left were protected by the dykes and the village, while before him he threw up a breastwork and sunk a trench. This accomplished, Tholouse set up his standard, and to it there flocked many vagrants from the countryside. Within a few days the young nobleman had 3000 men in his camp, while Brederode, still busy in Holland, boasted he would soon be in the field with at least 6000 troops.
The alarm in Brussels was growing. The Regent felt it was necessary to act. With some reluctance she accepted the offer made by Lannoy, Seigneur de Beauvoir, commander of her bodyguard, to destroy the rebels before their numbers were further increased. On March 12 the intrepid officer despatched secretly a force of 8000 troops towards Ostrawell. Though few in number these were all picked men. To avoid suspicion the soldiers were sent off in small companies, unarmed, save with sword and dagger. Helmets, bucklers, spears, flags, drums were handed over to the officers and conveyed noiselessly to the Abbey of St. Bernard. Here, within a league of Antwerp, before daybreak the following morning, De Beauvoir met his soldiers and gave them their arms. Their orders were plain. With banners furled and muffled drums, the troops were to advance silently till within sight of the enemy. The foremost section was then to fire, retreat to the rear and load, while the next company were to do as the first had done. Above all, not an arquebus was to be discharged until the faces of the enemy could be clearly distinguished.
The troops started. Soon they were in full sight of Ostrawell. Flags were unfurled, trumpets sounded, the roll of drums was heard, and with loud huzzas the 8000 picked men advanced upon the rabble entrenched behind their breastworks. Tholouse hastened out to welcome, as he believed, a detachment of Brederode's promised force. The cross on the banners soon undeceived him. His disappointment was bitter and his surprise complete, yet, "like a brave and generous young gentleman as he was," he lost no time in drawing up his men for action, assuring them that if they would but defend their breastworks courageously, so small a force could do them no serious harm. But the young nobleman had no power to infuse his own brave spirit into his undisciplined followers. Already, at the mere sight of the enemy, they were panic-stricken.
De Beauvoir's veterans came coolly on, aiming deliberately at their enemies, though themselves exposed to fire. The fire of those behind the fortress, however, did little harm to the assailants, as it rattled aimlessly over their heads, while the defenders fell as often as they ventured to show themselves above their bulwarks. The trench was crossed, the breastwork carried at a single determined charge. Resistance there was none, the rebels fleeing in terror as soon as the enemy entered their fort. They fled, terror-stricken, and what followed was no longer a battle but a hunt. Hundreds were cut down as they fled. Hundreds were driven into the river Scheldt. Many more vainly dreamed of safety as they took refuge in a farmhouse. It proved but a trap, for De Beauvoir's men set fire to the building, and every rebel who had entered it was either burned alive or shot. The body of Tholouse, the brave young scholar, was cut into a hundred pieces.
De Beauvoir had won a complete victory. Writing to the Regent, he paid a pleasing tribute to his veterans, telling her that there were "some very valiant fellows in his little troop." Truly they had acquitted themselves bravely and with entire success of the task entrusted to them.
In Antwerp, but a league away, the excitement was intense. The ramparts, the roofs, the church towers were thronged by anxious spectators. The sympathies of 40,000 of the inhabitants in Antwerp were with the rebels. Looking down from the battlements they watched in growing suspense. Would Tholouse hold Ostrawell? Would the breastwork and the bravery of its defenders win the day? And still they gazed, till at last the cry arose, "They fly! they fly!" Too soon they knew the flight meant disaster to their hopes. It was not the Government troops who fled. The fugitives were those who from the surrounding country had flocked to the standard of liberty.
The citizens of Antwerp could watch no longer. Their excitement had become uncontrollable. The battlements were deserted while they hastened to arm, and then rushed madly to the gate. The burghers had determined to go to the help of their friends. They reached the gate, but only to find it locked. Dismay, succeeded by a terrible tumult, prevailed when the 10,000 men already in arms found the gate not only locked, but guarded by order of their burgrave, the Prince of Orange. He must be a strong man indeed who could control such a mob. Yet in the city was one who could achieve the feat. Antwerp, its enormous wealth, nay more, its women and children, had been confided to the care of William of Orange. And he had accepted the responsibility, and now, in the crisis which had come upon the city, the Prince was determined to discharge it to the uttermost. The citizens, indeed, were to see the mettle of which their burgrave was made. Mounting his horse, he rode quietly and unattended down to the Red Gate, where the mob raged furiously. Howls of execration greeted him. An angry clothier aimed an arquebus full at his breast, shouting, "Die, treacherous villain!" but the weapon was struck away by another hand in the crowd.
The Prince, undaunted by the attack, and undisturbed by the abuse, began to address the crowd earnestly and imperatively. And the mob listened, listened till the wonderful power of William's personality asserted itself and held them quiet. Alone, without soldiers, without violence, he quelled the rage of 10,000 armed Calvinists who were thirsting for vengeance on the victorious Catholic troops. Unfortunately the postern of the Red Gate had been broken before the Prince had arrived, and the most excited of the mob were still prepared to rush forth upon the enemy at Ostrawell.
The battle was over, urged the Prince, the Reformers already slaughtered. It would be impossible for a disorderly mob to retrieve the fortunes of the day. Once more his words prevailed, till only a determined five hundred insisted on leaving the gate. The rest of the mob, still restless and inclined to wreak their vengeance on the Catholics within the walls, since they had been thwarted in their wish to punish those without, thronged through the long, wide street into the very heart of the city, called the Mere.
Meanwhile the five hundred, finding themselves in the open fields, felt their confidence waning. De Beauvoir, seeing the advance of a new enemy, had rallied his little army for a fresh encounter, shooting 300 prisoners he had spared for ransom, lest they should prove troublesome during the fight. Then, drums beating, flags waving, De Beauvoir marched towards Antwerp. The 500 Calvinists, in reality outnumbered and with their ardour damped, did not feel capable of meeting the enemy, and retreated within the Red Gate even more hastily than they had left it. On marched the enemy close to the city moat, and there De Beauvoir planted the banner of the unfortunate Tholouse and sounded loud a trumpet of defiance. But all was silent within the walls, and De Beauvoir, finding his menace ignored, removed his trophy and marched away with his troops.
Mounting his horse, he rode quietly and unattended to the Red Gate.
In the city the resources of the Prince were being taxed to the uttermost, for the tumult grew as the hours passed. By early afternoon twelve or fifteen thousand Calvinists had assembled in the Market-Place. Here they erected barricades of pavement and upturned wagons. They broke into the arsenal and carried off field-pieces, which they planted at every street and by-path. They stormed the city gaol and set free the prisoners, all of whom, grateful and ferocious, came to add to the numbers who were defending the stronghold of the Mere. An angry mob and powerful this, ready to pillage the Catholic churches and to sack the whole city. As the rumour of their threats spread, terror grew apace. The wailing of women and the cries of little children, fearing what the day might bring forth, filled the air.
On the part of the Prince of Orange courage and diligence but grew with the spread of the insurrection. He did not yet despair of saving the city. He ordered the eight companies of guards, enrolled in September, to be mustered. He summoned to a consultation the Senate of the city, the board of ancients, the deans of guilds. At the peril of his life he again went down to the angry mob, in face of their cannon, and demanded, in spite of their outcries, that eight deputies should be appointed to treat with him and the magistrates at the Town Hall. Again the Prince's influence prevailed and the deputies were sent, but the conditions hastily drawn up by William, and agreed to by the deputies and the magistrates, were not received with favour by the mob. They demanded the keys of the city. They did not choose to be locked up at the mercy of any man. They even threatened to blow the Town Hall into the air should the keys not be given into their keeping.
At length the long day was over. It was nightfall, yet no settlement had been reached. Slowly the night hours dragged along. Would the mob fulfil their threats before a new day dawned? Fierce cries of "Down with the Papists!" "Long live the Beggars!" filled the air, but the mutineers did not leave their barricade. Day broke and still the city was unharmed.
During the whole of the following day the Calvinists remained in their encampment, the Catholics and city guards at their posts near the Town Hall. The Prince spent the day in drawing up a treaty of peace that might satisfy the angry mob, but their dislike to any reasonable arrangement was expressed with fierce determination. They threatened, without further delay, to plunder the religious houses in the city and the mansions of all the wealthy Catholics. They even declared that should the Lutherans not join them, they too should share the fate of the Catholics.
Another day dragged slowly by. Night brought with it no rest to the Prince. He had determined, if possible, to induce the Lutherans to join with the Catholics and all those who wished to preserve peace against an army of outlaws who were threatening to burn and sack the city. With this end in view Orange did not wait for morning, but had interviews that same night with the ministers and notable leaders of the Lutheran Church. Did the Prince know that men were as wax in his hand, or was his success beyond his highest hopes? Before the night was over the Lutherans had taken arms and encamped to the number of three or four thousand along the riverside, near St. Michael's cloister.
Nor was it Lutherans only who had that evening prepared to defend the city. The Prince had enlisted the aid of the deans of the foreign merchants' guilds in protecting Antwerp from destruction. They, with their associates, had undertaken to remain in their armour at their various factories, ready to act at a moment's notice.
On the morning of February 15, 1567, there were thus three distinct armies stationed at different points within the walls of the city. The Calvinists, 15,000 strong, lay in their encampment on the Mere. The Lutherans, armed and eager for the fray, were assembled near the river, while the Catholics and city guards were drawn up on the square. There seemed still to loom before the city a great struggle, but William the Silent, foreseeing the terrible havoc and desolation that would be brought to every home should a battle be fought within the walls of the city, was still determined to avert the threatened doom.
The arrangements for peace drawn up by the Prince had been already read to the Catholic and Lutheran parties, and by them had been cordially approved. It was now imperative that the Calvinists should also approve them or that the quarrel should be fought out at once.
At ten o'clock the Prince of Orange, attended by Hoogstraaten and the magistrates, and followed by a hundred troopers, rode to the Mere. To distinguish them from the Calvinists they all wore red scarfs over their armour. Fierce and threatening as ever, the insurgents watched as the Prince and his few attendants drew near. They were, however, permitted to ride unharmed into the square. The conditions of peace were then, by William's commands, read aloud, after which he, with the greatest composure, spoke a few words. The arrangements for peace were, the Prince reminded them, founded on the concessions obtained by Antwerp in September, and granted the right of worship within the city, while it continued to refuse a foreign garrison. "Nothing," and his voice rang out clear and strong, "nothing further could be justly or honourably demanded by them." As for a struggle, he confidently declared it would be hopeless, as the Catholics and Lutherans, who were already agreed as to the justice of the treaty, outnumbered them by nearly two to one. Earnestly and affectionately he entreated them to accept the conditions offered to them by repeating after him the words with which he should conclude. Then, for the last time, as it proved, but with a firm voice, the Prince exclaimed, "God Save the King!"
A moment of suspense! the city's fate trembled in the balance. Then the magnetism of the Prince asserted itself over the vast throng, and the air was rent with one tremendous shout of "God Save the King!"
The day was won, and gratefully the Prince of Orange recognised that his efforts had been successful. Antwerp was saved. Deputies from the Mere signed the treaty, while kind words were exchanged among those who but a short time before had been thirsting for one another's lives. Weapons were now restored to the arsenal, while Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics laid down their arms.
The Prince had indeed achieved a signal triumph. For three days 50,000 armed men could have been found in Antwerp. Of these many were incited, by a fierce religious zeal, to avenge their comrades who had fallen at Ostrawell on the Catholics within their reach. Yet not a blow had been struck, not a shot had been fired.
The Regent had followed the events in the city with alternating hope and fear. Her gratitude for the safety of Antwerp was forgotten in her annoyance with Orange for the terms on which it had been saved. The Reformed worship was still sanctioned within the city walls; the garrison was still refused. Then William of Orange deserved rather to be denounced than thanked for the arrangements he had thus foolishly made. And the Regent did not scruple to ignore the difficulties the Prince had overcome, while she wrote to Philip denouncing the methods by which he had restored peace to Antwerp.