"Long live the Beggars! Christians, ye must cry.
Long live the Beggars! pluck up courage then.
Long live the Beggars! if ye would not die.
Long live the Beggars! shout, ye Christian men."
—Beggar's Song (1570)
T HE story of the fight of the Netherlands for liberty now becomes more or less the story of one man's life. That man was William of Orange, or William the Silent, as he was called from his quiet ways. It was on his shoulder that the broken-down old emperor had leant when, thirteen years before this, he had resigned his empire and returned to Spain, leaving Philip to manage his affairs.
William of Orange had been left in the Netherlands to rule over the provinces in the north—Holland, Zealand, Utrecht, and Friesland. He soon discovered Philip's plan of planting the Inquisition in the Netherlands, and from this time up to the last tragic moment of his life he toiled to suppress it and to uphold the ancient rights and liberties of his country. From this time he came forward to champion the cause of the Netherlands. He was to prove, indeed, the "guiding-star of a whole brave nation." Of him it would be truly said that he went through life "bearing the load of a people's sorrows upon his shoulders with a smiling face."
"Tranquil amid raging waves," was the motto of his life. And perhaps no man ever carried out their life's decree more completely than did this man, William the Silent.
He had been born in Germany and brought up as a follower of Luther, but Charles V. had carried him off to Spain and educated him as a Roman Catholic. When Philip introduced the Inquisition and burnt people for their opinions, William grew very thoughtful. He thought that Christians of every kind should live together in peace, and for this end he worked in a cruel age; which could not understand so high a creed. The result of his own deep thought, combined with all that had passed, was, that he returned to the belief of his boyhood, and enrolled himself for ever a soldier of the Reformation.
William had been in Germany, when his friends the Counts Egmont and Horn had been led forth to die in the square at Brussels, raising troops for his brothers to march against the Duke of Alva. But they had fought in vain. They were no match for the brilliant Spanish commander and his well-trained troops.
Unsuccessful by land, William, undaunted, turned his eyes to the sea. The men of the Netherlands were more at home on the sea, after all; they had always been sailors and fishermen, and every sea-coast city had its ships. They would chase the Spaniard by sea and destroy the ships sailing to ruin their fair country. So the "Sea Beggars," as they were called, began their wild work, sailing over the high seas, living as the old Vikings had done, by pillage and plunder.
One day—it was the 1st of April—they were coasting about the mouth of the Meuse, when they found they had eaten all their food. There were some 300 of them at most, and they must land in order to avert starvation. The little seaport town of Briel, or The Brille, lies near the mouth of the broad river Meuse. It was known to be in the hands of the Duke of Alva, like the rest of the country, at this time; but the Sea Beggars were hungry, the Sea Beggars were also desperate. So about two o'clock on this April afternoon a ferryman from Briel saw the squadron sailing up the broad mouth of the river towards Briel. He at once gave the alarm that the Sea Beggars were here, though secretly the stout-hearted ferryman was in sympathy with the marauders.
The inhabitants of Briel were struck with terror. "How many of the Sea Beggars were coming?"
"There might be some 5000," carelessly answered the ferryman. The Spaniards and townspeople decided to take refuge in flight. They sent two men to confer with the strangers, while they fled from the town. So the Sea Beggars entered the deserted town of Briel, and the admiral took lawful possession of it in the name of William of Orange.
It was the first step in the freedom of Holland, and it was achieved by some 250 wild seamen driven from their country by Spanish rulers.
"Up with Orange!" was the cry henceforth wrung from the very hearts of the stricken people.
The hero prince should yet come to his own again. The first ray of light had penetrated the gloom of years, and all hands were now stretched out to William the Silent, who should yet save their country.
And while the rage of the Duke of Alva knew no bounds, the men of Holland sang aloud in their joy the popular couplet—
"On April Fools' Day
Duke Alva's spectacles were stolen away."