During Alva's absence in Friesland the executions had been carried on with less energy. Even Vargas was growing less zealous in his gruesome labours. But with the return of the Duke to Brussels a new impetus was given to the Council of the Bloody Tribunal. Victims were hauled in cartloads to their doom, were it hanging, drowning, burning, or beheading. Notable among these victims were four, whose sufferings on the rack had been so intense that it was impossible for them to walk to the scaffold. They were accordingly placed in chairs, to which, as a necessary support for their mangled bodies, they were secured by ropes. The chairs were then carried to the scaffold and execution was done on their already mutilated bodies.
Of these sufferers one was Bakkerzeel, who had been Egmont's secretary, and another was the Burgomaster of Antwerp, who had been taken prisoner on the fateful 9th of September 1567. Even the Blood Council hinted that a pardon was due to the Burgomaster. His services to Philip had been both generous and constant. The funds for the King's first brilliant campaign in France had been furnished almost entirely by him. But no power could save him from Philip's pitiless representative. As the Burgomaster mounted the scaffold he was heard to murmur sadly, "For faithful service, evil recompense."
The Prince of Orange from his place of exile followed the events in the Provinces with a sorrowful though courageous heart. He knew that the oppressed people were crouching in mortal fear before their relentless tormentor. He knew that help was needed even more urgently than before. Yet on every side he was urged to await patiently the course of events.
The Emperor Maximilian had written to Philip regarding Alva's treatment of Orange, and till an answer was received the Prince would be wise to pause in his efforts to free his country from oppression. The German Princes too were of the same opinion. "Your Highness must sit still," said Landgrave William. "Your Highness must sit still," echoed Augustus of Saxony.
But in spite of commands and expostulations the Prince of Orange did not sit still. Nay, he arose, determined to give immediate and persistent battle to the pitiless tyrant of the Netherlands. At his own expense and by almost superhuman exertion the Prince had assembled nearly 30,000 men. On August 31, 1568, he summoned all loyal subjects of the Provinces to come to his help. Take heed to the uttermost need of the country," he cried, "and the danger of perpetual slavery for yourselves and for your children, until Alva the tyrant has been overthrown." The rich were called upon to give out of their abundance, the poor out of their poverty. Above all, William begged them, while it was yet time, to do this before God, the fatherland, and the world."
His eloquent appeal received but a scanty response. How could the downtrodden Netherlanders respond while the paralysis of despair was upon them, while Alva still ruled in their midst with his rod of iron? On behalf of the leading nobles and merchants some 300,000 crowns were promised, but of this amount no more than ten or twelve thousand ever reached the Prince.
Late in September 1568 William mustered his 30,000 men, of whom 9000 were cavalry. He was joined by Luney, Count de la Marck, at the head of a picked band of troopers. A bold, ferocious partisan he, who, by his fierce conduct and the cruelties of his soldiers to Papists, dishonoured the cause for which he fought. But even such rough associates the Prince of Orange could not afford to push on one side.
In the first week of October, William crossed the Rhine and descended along the bank towards Cologne. Then suddenly, on a bright moonlight night, he crossed the Meuse with his whole army in the neighbourhood of Stochem. The movement was a brilliant one. A compact body of cavalry was placed in the midst of the current to protect the army, which, under its shelter, successfully forded the river, while it, though unusually shallow, reached as high as the soldiers' necks.
It was a great deed, and its fame spread throughout the country. Yet so impossible seemed the feat that by some its truth was flatly denied, while an unfortunate burgher at Amsterdam was scourged at the whipping-post because he had mentioned it as a matter of common report. Even the Spaniards began to tremble at the prowess of the Prince. But as for the Duke of Alva, he refused to believe the tale when it reached his ears. "Is the army of the Prince of Orange a flock of wild geese," he asked, "that it can fly over rivers like the Meuse?"
Nevertheless the deed, whether accepted or denied, had been actually accomplished. Once again the outlawed Prince stood within the borders of the Netherlands, defying the tyrant who had banned him. He had come with an army of disciplined troops, determined, were it possible, to wipe out the disgrace of Jemmingen. Could he but plant a victorious banner in the very heart of the country, thousands, he believed, would rally around it. Accordingly, hoping either to force or entice Alva into a general engagement, the Prince marched into Brabant, with all the pomp and defiance that a conqueror would assume, and took up his position within 6000 paces of Alva's encampment.
The Duke was encamped close to the city of Maestricht, which furnished him with supplies and was under his immediate protection.
Communication between the armies was begun by the Prince of Orange, who sent a herald to the Duke to propose that all prisoners who should be taken in the coming battles should be exchanged rather than executed, Alva's answer was both brutal and insolent. The herald, booted and spurred, even as he had dismounted from his horse, was instantly hanged.
It was plain to the Duke that the Prince would offer battle, but he had determined that he would not fight, and this resolution once taken, he was inflexible. Even the possibility of defeat was too great a risk. Should William gain a decisive victory, he would at once be master of the nation. For Alva was well aware that the Prince was the idol of the people, who would even now flock to his standard if they dared. Should the idol win a great victory, the fears of the people would be thrown to the winds. No, time should be allowed to work for the Spaniards; so said the Duke, though he knew the fiery spirit of his soldiers and the difficulty of restraining them from an engagement with the enemy. Winter was on its way, and cold and frost would soon combine to weaken William's forces, while the German mercenaries, with wages probably unpaid, and no hope of plunder before them, would in but a few weeks disappear as completely as though they had been defeated in the open field.
And the plan thus formed the Duke carried out persistently. He hung upon his adversary's outskirts, he encamped at such close quarters that the Prince believed a battle would be fought on the morrow. But when morning dawned the enemy had removed and was nowhere to be seen. For a month Alva pursued his irritating tactics. Twenty-nine times the Prince changed his encampment, and each time there was the Duke shadowing his movements, yet never to be drawn into battle. Food began to grow scarce in the army of the Prince, the country people, in their dread of Alva, refusing to help him in his emergency. The troops were growing discontented and clamoured for pay and plunder. A day came when the soldiers, maddened by their inactivity, broke out into open rebellion. The prince's sword was shot from his side, and it was only with great difficulty that he succeeded in averting a general insurrection.
Meanwhile a reinforcement of French Huguenots, which William had been expecting, were on the other side of a river, waiting to join his army. The prince, placing a considerable force upon a hill near the stream to protect the passage, proceeded to send his army across the river. Count Hoogstraaten, with his rear-guard of about 3000 men, was thus left alone to tempt the enemy, who had, as usual, encamped not far off.
Alva rapidly sent his son, Don Frederic, with a force of 4000 foot and 3000 horse to cut off the count. The movement was successful, the hill taken, and the troops, who had been left to guard the passage and provoke the enemy, entirely cut to pieces.
Emboldened by his success, Vitelli, a Spanish officer, sent an envoy to Alva entreating him to advance, cross the river, and attack the main army.
Alva was furious that his plans were not better understood, even by his favourite officer. "Go back to Vitelli," he shouted; "is he, or am I, to command the campaign? Tell him not to suffer a single man to cross the river. Warn him against sending any more envoys to advise a battle, for should you or any other man dare to bring me another such message, I swear to you, by the head of the King, he shall not go hence alive."
Meanwhile a few hundred of Count Hoogstraaten's troops had taken refuge in a house in the neighbourhood. The Spaniards immediately set the building on fire, and, standing around it with lifted lances, offered the fugitives the choice of being burned or of springing upon the uplifted spears. Thus entrapped, some, to escape the fire and the brutality of the Spaniards, stabbed themselves with their own swords, others embraced and then killed each other, the enemy meanwhile looking on and applauding. At this action Count Hoogstraaten, the tried friend of the Prince, received a slight wound, from which he died shortly afterwards.
The Prince of Orange, disappointed in his hopes of a general engagement, was still more disappointed at the abject fear of the people, who dared not lift their voices or open their city gates to welcome those who would deliver them from their oppressor.
Slowly the forecast of the Duke was being verified. The Prince's army was growing more discontented, the mutinies more frequent. The Prince's army was dissolving.
On November 17, 1568, Orange had no alternative but to withdraw across the French frontier. Here he disbanded his troops, after having sold his camp plate and furniture to satisfy their demands. Thus triumphantly for Alva, thus disastrously for Orange, ended the campaign of 1568.
Orange was now a wanderer, in daily danger of assassination by the agents of Alva. It almost seemed that Alva penned the truth as he wrote to Philip, "We may regard the Prince as a dead man; he has neither influence nor credit."
The Duke now returned to Brussels and called upon the people to rejoice with him in his masterly achievement. And for very fear the citizens bedecked their houses with garlands and rang their joybells till they pealed forth merrily. They crowded to the great Square, the scene but lately of their hero's execution, and took part in the gay tournament as they were bidden. But for garlands their eyes saw homes that were draped in black, for joybells their ears heard but the solemn knell to which they had grown used. The gay tournament grew strangely transformed, till they were conscious only of a scaffold, on which their hero and many of their comrades had suffered martyrdom, and the merry crowd seemed to change once more into a multitude of angry men and women, who muttered curses and vowed deep-voiced oaths of vengeance on the hated Spanish tyrant.