The Prince of Orange an exile and a wanderer! It was even so, yet never did he let himself yield to despair, and while absent from the Netherlands he was yet, through his agents, kept in constant touch with the affairs of the country.
In 1569 William, with a band of 1200 horsemen, and accompanied by his two brothers, Louis and Henry, joined the banners of Coligny, the great Huguenot chief, but in the autumn of the year he revisited the Provinces. Thereafter, disguised as a peasant, with but five attendants and at great peril, he crossed the Spanish lines, entered France, and before winter arrived in Germany. Here disappointment awaited him. The zeal of the Emperor Maximilian on behalf of the oppressed Provinces had grown faint before the possibility of a close alliance with the powerful King of Spain.
Philip's wife, Queen Isabella, having died, the Emperor had hastened to offer his daughter, Anne of Austria, to the bereaved monarch, and at the same time he had withdrawn the remonstrance he had already sent on behalf of the Prince of Orange and the Netherlands. Nor was it only the Emperor who failed the Prince. Dukes, princes, and electors showed little enthusiasm for the cause that was so dear to William's heart. Yet he had other partisans, who, if rough in their ways, were not wanting in strength, and these were even now beginning to make their power felt.
It was in 1569 that Orange had issued commissions in his own name to various seafaring folk, who were thereby empowered to cruise against Spanish commerce. Soon eighteen vessels were roving the seas. Wild and lawless were the crews who manned the ships, fearless too of danger, and demanding nought save plenty of fighting and plundering. Gathered from all nations, these corsairs, or Sea-Beggars as they were named, were united in a hatred, fierce and undying, against all Spaniards and Papists.
Already, in February 1570, 300 vessels had fallen into their hands, and the booty they had thus secured had been enormous. In April the Sea-Beggars had a fleet of eighty ships in their possession, and it became increasingly difficult to find ports into which they might safely enter to land their plunder. The Prince of Orange, who had no share of the spoil, was yet held responsible for the cruelty and greed of the Sea-Beggars, and he resolved to bring the troublesome cruisers under better control. Accordingly, he deposed Dothain, who, though acting as Admiral for the Prince, yet refused to give him an account of the different expeditions of his fleet. The Prince would issue no further commissions unless the strict regulations which he now drew up were enjoined on the lawless crews. To enforce these regulations would be no light task, as the Lord of Lumbres, the newly-appointed Admiral, very well knew; for the first rule declared that one-third of the booty was to belong to the Prince, while the others were intended to enforce discipline on board, and strict attention to religious services.
But the wild Sea-Beggars, though they could not brook control and often evaded the Prince's orders, were yet not wanting in a fierce devotion to his person. To serve him they would go through fire and water, as they were soon to show. Under Lumbres, their chief leaders were the Lord of Treslong, a man capable as he was fearless; and William de la Marck, a wild and cruel noble, who had sworn to wear his hair uncut, his beard unshorn, until he had avenged the death of Egmont, to whom he had been bound by ties of kinship. Savage and uncouth he was, and men, looking at him, shuddered, seeing before them vengeance become incarnate. On Alva and on Popery, should he have his way, he would practise the lessons of cruelty the Blood Council had taught him all too well.
And, indeed, opportunities were not wanting. Up and down the coasts and into many ports the Sea-Beggars found their way, and terrible were the barbarities executed on hapless priests and monks. After each raiding expedition vast too were the stores of treasures they carried back to the ships. Silver plate, church ornaments were theirs, and often large sums of money which they had extorted as ransoms from their captives.
For some time the fleet had, by the secret permission of Queen Elizabeth, been allowed to put in at various English ports, there to overhaul their ships and lay in fresh supplies of food. They had also used the opportunity to dispose of their plunder and beat up recruits, to fill their ranks. But this privilege came to an abrupt end. The Spanish Government protested against the English Queen's connivance with the roving fleet of the Sea-Beggars, and Elizabeth, having at the time no wish to irritate Philip, issued a proclamation forbidding the rebels to make use of the English ports, and commanding her subjects to cease to supply the cruisers with bread, meat, or beer.
The proclamation being strictly enforced, it became necessary for the fleet to leave the English coasts. Accordingly, in March 1572, about twenty-four vessels, commanded by De le Marck, Treslong, and other famous sea-captains, set sail from Dover, and directed their course towards the shores of Holland. Here, a strong westerly wind forcing them to take refuge in the estuary of the Meuse, they anchored off Brill, where they hoped speedily to procure food, the sailors being now on the verge of starvation. To the inhabitants of Brill the arrival of the fleet caused great astonishment. These were no trading vessels, nor—and their hearts beat less anxiously—were they Spanish ships.
Now there was a worthy ferryman, named Peter Kopplestock, who happened just then to be rowing passengers across the river. "These must be the Water-Beggars," said Kopplestock. The name of the dreaded sea-folk filled his hearers with dismay, and no sooner had they landed than they rushed into the city, warning the inhabitants to prepare for defence or flight.
Meanwhile the ferryman, who was a patriot, rowed boldly out to the fleet to discover, if possible, the cause of its arrival. The vessel he hailed happened to be the one commanded by Treslong, who was well known to Brill, his father having once held the town for the King. Treslong, recognising Kopplestock, hurried him on board De la Marck's vessel, and assured the Admiral that here was the very man for their purpose. It was absolutely necessary to attempt a landing, for the sailors were calling out for food. De la Marck accordingly, persuaded by Treslong, ordered Peter Kopplestock to go back to the city and demand that envoys be instantly sent to treat with them.
Kopplestock, furnished with Treslong's signet ring as a proof of his commission, speedily made his way back to the city, and, pushing his way through the crowded pier, hastened to the town house, where the magistrates were already assembled. Holding up the signet ring, the ferryman told the bewildered magistrates that he had been sent by the Admiral of the fleet and by Treslong, who was well known to them, to demand that two deputies should be sent from the city to confer with the patriots. The deputies need fear no rough treatment, for the only object the Beggars had in view was to free the land from Alva's hated tax and to overthrow the tyranny of the Duke.
As the magistrates deliberated, one of them turned to Peter Kopplestock asking if De la Marck had under his command a large force. "There might be about five thousand." Carelessly the ferryman pronounced his splendid falsehood. To resist so great a force was impossible. On that point the magistrates were assured. The only course left was either to treat with the enemy or fly. They would be wise and do both, these puzzled magistrates! Accordingly, when two men brave enough to go forth to treat with the famous Sea-Beggars were found, the magistrates and leading burghers prepared for flight. The envoys were courteously received, and assured that while Alva's Government was to be overthrown, no harm would be done to the citizens or their private property. "Go back to your magistrates," said the Admiral, "and say to them that they are given two hours in which to decide if they will surrender the town and accept the authority of De la Marck as Admiral of the Prince of Orange." But the magistrates employed the two hours in making an ignominious escape, while most of the townsfolk followed their example. When the appointed time had passed, the invaders appeared under the walls of the city to find only a few inhabitants of the poorer class gazing at them from above. It was evident the struggle to possess the city would be brief.
Treslong, attacking the southern gate, succeeded in forcing his entrance just in time to arrest the governor of the city as he was making his escape. At the northern gate De la Marck and his men made a bonfire, and then with the end of an old mast they battered down the half-burned entrance. Before sunset the patriots met in the centre of the city which they had made their own.
The Admiral, in the name of the Prince of Orange, as lawful Stadtholder of Philip, now took formal possession of the deserted port. No injury was done to the few inhabitants who had remained, but soon the Sea-Beggars were established in all the forsaken houses, and the desire to plunder the churches could no longer be restrained. Altars were torn down and images were destroyed, while the gorgeous vestments of the priests were thrown over the worn and patched garments of the Beggars. Treslong appeared on the deck of his vessel, clad in the magnificent robes of an officiating priest, and henceforth he would use no drinking cups in his cabin save the golden chalices of the Sacrament.
Unfortunately the hatred of Popery was wreaked not only on the garments of the priests, but on the priests themselves. Thirteen monks who had been unable to escape were arrested and thrown into prison, and a few days later De la Marck hailed the opportunity of revenge. To the Admiral these unknown and conceivably harmless men were the representatives of Alva and the Spanish tyranny, and they were therefore executed with all the barbarity of which De la Marck was master. Food had been found in abundance, plunder unstinted had been theirs, and the Beggars were now ready to return to their ships, when Treslong suggested that they should rather fortify the town and continue to hold it as a place of refuge. Accordingly, the inhabitants were forced to take the oath of allegiance to the Prince of Orange as Stadtholder, and for the first time his flag was hoisted and waved proudly over the little port of Brill.
Far and wide spread the news of the great achievement of the Sea-Beggars. It surprised Alva at a critical moment, and broke in upon a deed of deliberate vindictiveness.
In Brussels the demand for the ten per cent tax was arousing violent opposition. Rather than pay the tax demanded upon every sale of goods, the shop-keepers unitedly vowed they would sell no goods at all. The shops were closed. The brewers refused to brew, the bakers to bake, the butchers to kill, the tapsters to tap. The capital was as silent as though it had been stricken by the plague.
The Duke was furious. Defied in his very stronghold! The defiance should end on the morrow, and Alva sent privately for Master Carl, the executioner. The city should be startled into doing his will. Without even the form of a trial, without even a day's delay, he would hang eighteen of the leading shop-keepers of the city in the doors of their own shops. When the remaining tradesmen saw the bakers, butchers, and brewers hanging in front of the shops they had refused to open, they would soon return to their business, and buy and sell with exceeding goodwill. Master Carl was therefore ordered to prepare eighteen strong cords and eighteen ladders twelve feet in length. That very night the executioner was to begin his preparations. At midnight President Vigilius was aroused to draw up the warrants for the hastily planned executions, which he did, being only half-awake, with a very bad grace. Alva, with grim impatience, waited for the dawn.
But before the morning broke, the Duke was disturbed by the overwhelming news that Brill had been captured by the Sea-Beggars. For the time, butchers and bakers were saved, while Alva devoted all his energies to the task of retaking the important little town of Brill.
Count Bossu, who, since the resignation of Orange, had acted as Stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland, was ordered at once to recover the seaport. Hastily marching with a force of ten companies, Bossu reached Brill on Easter Day 1572, and sent a summons to the rebels to surrender the town. The patriots, awed by the numbers of the enemy, were at first afraid to venture beyond the gates, but their courage soon returned. A carpenter of the town, who had long been devoted to the Prince, dashed into the water with his axe in his hand, and, swimming to one of the sluices, hacked it open with a few vigorous strokes from his axe, whereupon the sea poured through the opening, making the approach to the city on the north side impossible.
Bossu, hastily retreating before the onrush of the waters, led his troops toward the southern gate, only to be met by a heavy discharge of artillery, which completely staggered him.
Meantime Treslong and a comrade had, with the daring that distinguished the Sea-Beggars, rowed out to the ships which had brought the Spaniards to the port. Some they quietly cut adrift, some they set on fire. The ships were blazing before the Spanish troops discovered what had been done, then, panic-stricken, as they gazed first at the flames, then at the sea, now rising rapidly over the dykes, they dashed off, bent only on effecting a safe retreat. Many were drowned as they hurried along the slippery dyke or struggled in the rising waters, while others succeeded in reaching those ships that had not drifted far from shore, and thus escaped.
Bossu, baffled in his attempt to retake Brill, retreated with what troops he could muster to Rotterdam, only, however, to find the gates closed against him. The city was loyal. What need had they of Spanish troops to teach them to be faithful to their King?
But Bossu resolved to take possession of the city, were it by force or by fraud mattered little to him. Accordingly, he asked that his troops might at least be permitted to pass through the town without halting. It was not easy to refuse the request, but the magistrates, still feeling uneasy, granted it on the condition that only a small company should be admitted at a time. To these terms the Count consented. But the gates were no sooner opened to admit the first detachment than a treacherous assault was made upon them by the whole Spanish force. The citizens, taken by surprise, made little resistance, though a sturdy smith seized his sledge-hammer and boldly attempted to protect the gates. His efforts were vain, and he was stabbed to the heart by Bossu. The soldiers then rushed through the streets, putting to death all who resisted them, after having, in many cases, insulted and tortured them. Soon 400 of the citizens were murdered, and the town was in the hands of the treacherous Count.
Meanwhile, after the vain attempt to recover Brill, Alva, fearing that Flushing also might fall into the hands of the patriots, commanded that its garrison and defences should be at once strengthened. Flushing was indeed too important a town to be allowed to slip out of the Spaniard's hands, for it was the key to Zeeland and commanded the approach to Antwerp. But the citizens of Flushing had already been roused, by a message from Louis of Nassau, to drive out of the town the small remnants of a Spanish garrison, and Alva's reinforcements arrived too late. The burghers were easily persuaded by De Herpt, a warm friend of Orange, that, having thus defied the Duke, their only chance lay in a determined refusal to admit the fresh troops which had arrived at their port, While De Herpt was still talking to the citizens, a half-witted vagabond was merrily mounting the ramparts, and, having reached the cannon, discharged it in the direction of the fleet. A sudden panic seize the Spaniards, and, waiting for no further signs of hostility, they immediately stood away in the direction of Middleburg, and were soon lost to sight.
The next day Antony, a celebrated orator, and Governor, under Alva, for the Island of Walcheren, appeared in Flushing. Surely his eloquence would not fail to bring the burghers back to their allegiance to Spain! Solemnly the great bell was tolled, and in answer to the summons the whole population assembled in the market-place. Standing on the steps of the town house, Antony pompously delivered his speech. The King was the best-natured Prince in all Christendom, he cried, and would forget and forgive their offence if they would but return to their duties. But the orator was not destined to pursue his eloquence undisturbed. Cries of "Hoorn," "Egmont," were heard from a little group which surrounded De Herpt. " 'The best-natured Prince in Christendom'—Berghen and Montigny found him very good-natured," they tauntingly cried; and then, their patience exhausted, the citizens seized the flustered Governor and hustled him out of the city in the very midst of his eloquence.
But though Flushing's spirit was bold, her soldiers were too weak in numbers to successfully defend her long. De Herpt accordingly sent envoys to Brill to entreat De la Marck to send them men for whom the citizens would undertake to provide arms and ammunition. To aid Flushing meant to thwart Alva, and therefore De la Marck's help was at once secured. He hurriedly despatched 200 bold and experienced men, in three small vessels, under the command of Treslong. A strange, wild crew they were, clothed in the spoils they had clutched at in plundered churches or snatched from condemned priests. A glittering, gorgeous crew, arrayed in gold-embroidered cassocks, in rich vestments and costly silks, with here and there a sombre figure in the dull cowl and robe of a Capuchin friar. Thus along the stagnant waters rowed the fierce Sea-Beggars, shouting as they rowed their songs of warfare and of vengeance. But for all their fantastic robes, Treslong and his crew could fight, and they held Flushing for the Prince of Orange till he sent thither Zerome van Zeraerts as Lieutenant-Governor over the whole Island of Walcheren.