1572: Battle of Briel
The Capture of Briel (also called Brielle or Den Briel) by the Sea Beggars (in Dutch: "Watergeuzen") on 1 April 1572 marked a turning point in the uprising of the Dutch against Spain. They were led by William van der Marck, Lord of Lumey. After they were expelled from England, they needed a place to shelter their ships.
Twenty-four vessels accordingly, of various sizes, commanded by De la Marck, Treslong, Adam van Harem, Brand, and Other distinguished seamen, set sail from Dover in England in the very last days of March. Being almost in a state of starvation, these adventurers were naturally anxious to supply themselves with food.
They determined to make a sudden foray upon the coasts of North Holland, and accordingly steered for Enkhuizen, both because it was a rich sea-port and because it contained many secret partisans of the Prince.
On Palm Sunday they captured two Spanish merchantmen. Soon afterwards, however, the wind becoming contrary, they were unable to double the Helder or the
Texel, and on Tuesday, the 1st of April, having abandoned their original intention, they dropped down towards Zealand, and entered the broad mouth of the river Meuse. Between the town of Briel, upon the southern lip of this estuary, and Maaslandsluis, about half a league distant, upon the opposite aide, the squadron suddenly appeared at about two o'clock of an April afternoon, to the great astonishment of the inhabitants of both places.
It seemed too large a fleet to be a mere collection of trading vessels, nor did they appear to be Spanish ships. Peter Koppelstok, a sagacious ferryman, informed the passengers whom he happened to be conveying across the river, that the strangers were evidently the Water Beggars (in Dutch "Water Geuzen"). The dreaded name filled his hearers with consternation, and they became eager to escape from so perilous a vicinity. Having duly landed his customers, however, who hastened to spread the news of the impending invasion, and to prepare for defence or flight, the stout ferryman, who was secretly favorable to the cause of liberty, rowed boldly out to inquire the destination and purposes of the fleet.
The vessel which he first hailed was that commanded by William de Blois, Seigneur of Treslong. This adventurous noble, whose brother had been executed by the Duke of Alva in 1568, had himself fought by the side of Count Louis at Jemmingen, and although covered with wounds, had been one of the few who escaped alive from that horrible carnage. During the intervening period he had become one of the most famous rebels on the ocean, and he had always been well known in Briel, where his father had been governor for the King. He at once recognized Koppelstok, and hastened with him on board the Admiral's ship, assuring De la Marck that the ferryman was exactly the man for their purpose.
It was absolutely necessary that a landing should be effected, for the people were without the necessaries of life. Captain Martin Brand had visited the ship of Adam Van Haren, as soon as they had dropped anchor in the Meuse, begging for food. "I gave him a cheese," said Adam, afterwards relating the occurrence, "and assured him that it was the last article of food to be found in the ship." The other vessels were equally destitute. Under the circumstances, it was necessary to attempt a landing.
Treslong, therefore, who was really the hero of this memorable adventure, persuaded De la Marck to send a message to the city of Briel, demanding its
surrender. This was a bold summons to be made by a handful of men, three or four hundred at most, who were both metaphorically and literally beggars.
The city of Briel was not populous, but it was well walled and fortified. It was moreover a most commodious port. Treslong gave his signet ring to the fisherman, Koppelstok, and ordered him, thus accredited as an envoy, to carry their summons to the magistracy.
Koppelstok, nothing loath, instantly rowed ashore, pushed through the crowd of inhabitants, who overwhelmed him with questions, and made his appearance in the town-house before the assembled magistrates. He informed them that he had been sent by the Admiral of the fleet and by Treslong, who was well known to them, to demand that two commissioners should be sent out on the part of the city to confer with the patriots.
He was bidden, he said, to give assurance that the deputies would be courteously treated. The only object of those who had sent him was to free the land from the 10th penny, and to overthrow the tyranny of Alva and his Spaniards. Hereupon he was asked by the magistrates, how large a force De la Marck had under his command.
To this question the ferryman carelessly replied, that there might be some five thousand in all. This enormous falsehood produced its effect upon the magistrates. There was now no longer any inclination to resist the invader; the only question discussed being whether to treat with them or to fly. On the whole, it was decided to do both. With some difficulty, two deputies were found sufficiently valiant to go forth to negotiate with the beggars, while in
their absence most of the leading burghers and functionaries made their preparations for flight. The envoys were assured by De la Marck and Treslong that no injury was intended to the citizens or to private property, but that the overthrow of Alva's government was to be instantly accomplished.
Two hours were given to the magistrates in which to decide whether or not they would surrender the town and accept the authority of De la Marck as Admiral of the Prince of Orange. They employed the two hours thus granted in making an ignominious escape. Their example was followed by most of the townspeople. When the invaders, at the expiration of the specified term, appeared under the walls of the city, they found a few inhabitants of the lower class gazing at them from above, but received no official communication from any source.
The whole rebel force was now divided into two parties, one of which under Treslong made an attack upon the southern gate, while the other commanded by the Admiral advanced upon the northern. Treslong after a short struggle succeeded in forcing his entrance, and arrested, in doing so, the governor of the city, just taking his departure. De la Marck and his men made a bonfire at the northern gate, and then battered down the half-burned portal with the end of an old mast. Thus rudely and rapidly did the Dutch patriots conduct their first successful siege.
The two parties, not more perhaps than 250 men in all, met before sunset in the centre of the city, and the foundation of the Dutch Republic was laid. The weary spirit of freedom, so long a fugitive over earth and sea, had at last found a resting-place, which rude and even ribald hands had prepared.
The panic created by the first appearance of the fleet had been so extensive that hardly fifty citizens had remained in the town. The rest had all escaped, with as much property as they could carry away. The Admiral, in the name, of the Prince of Orange, as lawful stadholder of Philip, took formal possession of an almost deserted city. No indignity was offered to the inhabitants, but as soon, as the conquerors were fairly established in the best houses of the place, the inclination to plunder the churches could no longer be restrained.
The altars and images were all destroyed, the rich furniture and gorgeous vestments appropriated to private use. Adam van Hare appeared on his vessel's deck attired in a magnificent high mass chasuble. Treslong thenceforth used no drinking cups in his cabin save the golden chalices of the sacrament. Unfortunately, their hatred to popery was not confined to such demonstrations. Thirteen unfortunate monks and priests, who had been unable to effect their escape, were arrested and thrown into prison, from whence they were taken a few days later, by order of the ferocious Admiral, and executed under circumstances of great barbarity.
The news of this important exploit spread with great rapidity. Alva, surprised at the very moment of venting his rage on the butchers and grocers of Brussels, deferred this savage design in order to deal with the new difficulty. He had certainly not expected such a result from the ready compliance of queen Elizabeth with his request. His rage was excessive; the triumph of the people, by whom he was cordially detested, proportionably great. The punsters of Brussels were sure not to let such an opportunity escape them, for the name of the captured town was susceptible of a quibble, and the event had taken place upon All Fools' Day.
"On April's Fool's Day,
Duke Alva's spectacles were stolen away."
became a popular couplet. The word spectacles, in Dutch, as well as the name of the suddenly surprised city, being Briel/ Brill, this allusion to the Duke's loss and implied purblindness was not destitute of ingenuity. A caricature, too, was extensively circulated, representing De la Marck stealing the Duke's spectacles (the Dutch word for spectacles is "bril") from his nose, while the Governor was supposed to be uttering his habitual expression whenever any intelligence of importance was brought to him: "No es nada, no es nada" - 'T is nothing, 't is nothing...