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History of the United Netherlands: from the death of William the Silent to the twelve years' truce--1609 (Volume 2) online

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in the field, and planted directly on their communications
with Ostend. Eetreat, if retreat were desired, was already
impossible, and as to surprising the garrison of Nieujiort and
so obtaining that stronghold as a basis for further aggressive
operations, it is very certain that if any man in Flanders was
more surprised than another at that moment it was Prince
Maurice himself. He was too good a soldier not to see at a
glance that if the news brought by the straggler were true,
the whole expedition was already a failure, and that, instead
of a short siege and an easy victory, a great battle was to be
fought upon the sands of Nieuj)ort, in which defeat was


destruction of the whole army of the republic, and very
possibly of the republic itself.

The stadholder hesitated. He was prone in great emer-
gencies to hesitate at first, but immovable when his resolution
was taken. Vere, who was asleep in his tent, was sent for
and consulted. Most of the generals were inclined to believe
that the demonstrations at Oudenburg, which had been so
successful, were merely a bravado of Rivas, the commander
of the permanent troops in that district, which were compara-
tively insignificant in numbers, Vere thought otherwise.
He maintained that the archduke was already in force within
a few hours' march of them, as he had always supposed would
be the case. His opinion was not shared by the rest, and he
went back to his truckle-bed, feeling that a brief repose was
necessary for the heavy work which would soon be upon him.
At midnight the Englishman was again called from his slum-
bers. Another messenger, sent directly from the States-
General at Ostend, had made his way to the stadholder.
This time there was no possibility of error, for Colonel Piron
had sent the accord \vith the gamson commanders of the
forts which had been so shamefully violated, and which bore
the signature of the archduke.

It was now perfectly obvious that a pitched battle was to
be fought before another sunset, and most anxious were the
deliberations in that brief midsummer's night. The dilemma
was as grave a one as commander-in-chief had ever to solve
in a few hours, A portentous change had come over the
prospects of the commonwealth since the an-ival of these
despatches. But a few hours before, and never had its destiny
seemed so secure, its attitude more imposing. The little
republic, which Spain had been endeavouring forty years long
to subjugate, had already swept every Spanish soldier out of
its teiTitory, had repeatedly carried fire and sword into Spain
itself, and even into its distant dependencies, and at that
moment — after effecting in a masterly manner the landing of
a great army in the very face of the man who claimed to be
sovereign of all the Netherlands, and after marching at ease


through the heart of his territory — was preparing a move-
ment, with every prospect of success, which should render
the hold of that sovereign on any portion of Netherland soil
as uncertain and shifting as the sands on which the States
army was now encamped.

The son of the proscribed and murdered rebel stood at the
head of as powerful and well-disciplined an army as had ever
been drawn up in line of battle on that blood-stained soil.
The daughter of the man who had so long oppressed the pro-
vinces might soon be a fugitive from the land over which she
had so recently been endowed with perpetual sovereignty.
And now in an instant these visions were fading like a

The archduke, whom poverty and mutiny were to render
powerless against invasion, was following close up upon the
heels of the triumphant army of the stadholder. A decision
was immediately necessary. The siege of Nieuport was over
before it had begun. Surprise had failed, assault for the
moment was impossible, the manner how best to confront the
advancing foe the only question.

Vere advised that the whole army should at once be con-
centrated and led without delay against the archduke before
he should make further progress.'* The advice involved an
outrageous impossibility, and it seems incredible that it could
have been given in good faith ; still more amazing that its
rejection by Maurice should have been bitterly censured.
Two-thirds of the army lay on the other side of the harbour,
and it was high water at about three o'clock. While they
were deliberating, the sea was rising, and, so soon as daybreak
should make any evolutions possible, they would be utterly
prohibited during several hours by the inexorable tide.
More time would be consumed by the attempt to construct
temporary bridges (for of course little progress had been
made in the stone bridge hardly begun) or to make use
of boats than in waiting for the falling of the water, and,
should the enemy make his ap})earance while they were

" See the note on Sir Francis Vere at the end of this chapter.


engaged in such confusing efforts, the army would be hope-
lessly lost.

Maurice, against the express advice of Vere, decided to
send his cousin Ernest, with the main portion of the force
established on the right bank of the harbour, in search of the
archduke, for the purj^ose of holding him in check long enough
to enable the rest of the army to cross the water when the
tide should serve. The enemy, it was now clear, would
advance by precisely the path over which the States' army
had marched that morning. Ernest was accordingly instructed
to move with the greatest expedition in order to seize the
bridge at Leffingen before the archduke should reach the
deej), dangerous, and marshy river, over which it was the sole
passage to the downs. Two thousand infantry, being the
Scotch regiment of Edmonds and the Zeelanders of Van der
Noot, four squadrons of Dutch cavaliy, and two pieces of
artillery composed the force with which Ernest set forth at a
little before dawn on his hazardous but heroic enterprise.

With a handful of troops he was to make head against an
army, and the youth accepted the task in the cheerful spirit
of self-sacrifice which characterized his house. Marching as
rapidly as the difficult ground would permit, he had the dis-
appointment, on aj5proaching the fatal point at about eight
o'clock, to see the bridge at Leffingen in the possession of the
enemy. Maurice had sent off a messenger early that morn-
ing with a letter marked post haste (cito, cito) to Ostend
ordering up some four hundred cavalry-men then stationed
in that city under Piron and Bruges, to move up to the sup-
port of Ernest, and to destroy the bridge and dams at
Leffingen before the enemy should arrive. That letter,
which might have been so effective, was delivered, as it
subsequently appeared, exactly ten days after it was written.''
The States, of their own authority, had endeavoured to send
out those riders towards the scene of action, but it was with
great difficulty that they could be got into the saddle at all,
and they positively refused to go further than St. Albert fort
4 Duyck, ii. 663.



What course should he now pursue ? He had been sent to
cut tlie archduke's road. He had failed. Had he remained
in his original encampment his force would have been
annihilated by the overwhelming numbers of the enemy so
soon as they reached the right bank of Nieuport haven, while
Maurice could have only looked hopelessly on from the
opposite shore. At least nothing worse than absolute destruc-
tion could befal him now. Should he accept a combat of six
or eight to one the struggle would be hopeless, but the longer
it was protracted the better it would be for his main army,
engaged at that very moment as he knew in crossing the
haven with the ebbing tide. Should he retreat, it might be
possible for him to escape into Fort Albert or even Ostend,
but to do so would be to purchase his own safety and that of
his command at the probable sacrifice of the chief army of the
republic. Ernest hesitated but an instant. Coming within
carbine-shot of the stream, where he met his cavalry which
had been sent forward at full speed, in the vain hope of
seizing or destroying the bridge before it should be too late,
he took up a position behind a dyke, upon which he placed
his two field-pieces, and formed his troojjs in line of battle
exactly across the enemy's path. On the right he placed
the regiment of Scots, On the left was Van der Noot's
Zeeland infantry, garnished with four companies of riders
under Risoir, which stood near St. Mary's church. The
passage from the stream to the downs was not more tlian a
hundred yards wide, being skirted 0:. both sides by a swamp.
Here Ernest with his two thousand men awaited the onset of
the archduke's army. He was perfectly aware that it was a
mere question of time, but he was sure that his preparations
must interpose a delay to the advance of the Spaniards,
should his troops, as he felt confident, behave themselves as
they had always done, and that the delay would be of in-
estimable value to his friends at the haven of Nieuport.

The archduke i)au8ed ; for he, too, could not be certain, on
observing the resolute front thus presented to him, that he
was not about to engage the whole of the States' army. The


doubt was but of short duration, however, and the onset was
made. Ernest's artillery fired four volleys into the advancing
battalions with such effect as to stagger them for a moment,
but they soon afterwards poured over the dyke in over-
whelming numbers, easily capturing the cannon. The attack
began upon Ernest's left, and Risoir's cavalry, thinking that
they should be cut off from all possibility of retreat into Fort
St. Albert, turned their backs in the most disgraceful manner,
without even waiting for the assault. Galloping around the
infantry on the left they infected the Zeelanders with their
own cowardice. Scarcely a moment passed before Van der
Noot's whole regiment was running away as fast as the
troopers, while the Scots on the right hesitated not for an
instant to follow their example. Even before the expected
battle had begun, one of those hideous and unaccountable
panics which sometimes break out Uke a moral pestilence to
destroy all the virtue of an aiTny, and to sweep away the best-
considered schemes of a general, had spread through Ernest's
entire force. So soon as the demi-cannon had discharged
their fourth volley, Scots, Zeelanders, Walloons, pikemen,
musketeers, and troopers, possessed by the demon of cowardice,
were running like a herd of swine to throw themselves into
the sea. Had they even kept the line of the downs in the
direction of the fort many of them might have saved their
lives, although none could have escaped disgrace. But
the Scots, in an ecstasy of fear, throwing away their arms as
they fled, ran through t] p waters behind the dyke, skimmed
over the sands at full speed, and never paused till such as
survived the sabre and musket of their swift pursuers had
literally drowned themselves in the ocean. Almost every
man of them was slain or drowned. AU the captains — Stuart,
Barclay, Murray, Kilpatrick, Michael, Nesbit — ^\^th the rest
of the company officers, doing their best to rally the fugitives,
were killed. The Zeelanders, more cautious in the midst of
their panic, or perhaps knowing better the nature of the
countr}'^, were more successful in saving their necks. Not
more than a hundred and fifty of Van der Noot's regi-


ment were killed, while such of the cavalry of Bruges and
Piron as had come to the neighbourhood of Fort Albert, not
caring to trust themselves to the shelter of that redoubt, now
fled as fast as their horses' legs would cany them, and never
pulled bridle till they found themselves in Ostend. And so
beside themselves with panic were these fugitives, and so
virulent was the contagion, that it was difficult to prevent the
men who had remained in the fort from joining in the flight
towards Ostend. Many of them indeed threw themselves
over the walls and were sabred by the enemy when they
might have been safe within the fortifications. Had these
cavalry companies of Bruges and Piron been even tolerably
self-possessed, had they concentrated themselves in the fort
instead of yielding to the delirium which promj)ted them to
participate in their comrades' flight, they would have had
it entirely in their power, by making an attack, or even
the semblance of an attack, by means of a sudden sally
from the fort, to have saved, not the battle indeed, but a
large number of lives. But the panic was hopeless and
universal, and countless fugitives scrambling by the fort
were shot in a leisurely manner by a comparative few of
the enemy as easily as the rabbits which swarmed in those
sands were often knocked down in multitudes by half-a-
dozen sportsmen.

And thus a band of patriots, who were not cowards by
nature, and who had often played the part of men, had
horribly disgraced themselves, and were endangering the
very existence of their country, already by mistaken councils
brought within the jaws of death. The glory of Thermopylas
might have hung for ever over that bridge of Lefiingen. It
was now a pass of infamy, perhaps of fatal disaster. The
sands were covered with weapons — sabre, ])ike, and arquebus
— thrown away by almost every soldier tis he fled to save the
life which after all was sacrificed. The artillery, all
the standards and colours, all the baggage and ammuni-
tion, every thing was lost. No viler panic, no more complete
defeat was ever recorded. Such at half-past eight in the

Voi,. 11— I*


morning was that memorable Sunday of the 2nd July, 1600,
big with the fate of the Dutch republic — the festival of the
Visitation of the Virgin Mary, always thought of happy
augury for Spanish arms.

Thus began the long expected battle of Nieuport. At least
a thousand of the choicest troops of the stadholder were
slain, while the Spanish had hardly lost a man.^

The archduke had annihilated his enemy,^ had taken his
artillery and thirty flags. In great exultation he despatched
a messenger to the Infanta at Ghent, informing her that he
had entirely defeated the advance-guard of the States' army,
and that his next bulletin would announce his complete
triumph and the utter overthrow of Maurice, who had now no
means of escape. He stated also that he would very soon
send the rebel stadholder himself to her as a prisoner. The
Infanta, much pleased with the promise, observed to her
attendants that she was curious to see how Nassau would
conduct himself when he should be brought a captive into
her presence. As to the Catholic troops, they were informed
by the archduke that after the complete victory which they

^ There can be no doubt whatever ' on his side as the privy counsellor of
as to the rout of Leffingen. There 1 Le^vis William. The troops of the
was no fight at all. The journal of i archduke, he says, attacked Ernest
Antony Duyck and the accounts of and in one moment killed 1800 to
Meteren, Bor, and other chroniclers 2000 men without losing a man them-
entirely agree with the most boastful selves — " EUes mirent a mort en un
narratives of the Spaniards. Everard moment 1800 a 2000 hommes s'em-
van Reyd to be sure stoutly maintains parirent de deux pieces d'artillerie et
that the troops of Ernest fought to i de plusieurs drapeaux sans avoir subi

the uttermost (" zum euszersten ge- ' aucune perte On esperait

fochten "), and tliat hardly a whole i generalement que ce jour mettrait fin

spear was found in the hands of any
of the dead on the field. Nor a broken
one either, he might have added. It
is a pity that the army had not been as

aux guerres de Flandre." (! !)

Substance d'une lettre ecrite de
Bruges le 13 Juillet, 1600, par Fray J.
de Brizuelas a imseigneur de la cour

stanch as the secretary and chronicler. I a Madrid et reposant en copie aux fol.
But Reyd was not on the field nor near 45-48 du vol. H. 49, (Varias Consultas
it, and there is not a word in Ernest's en tiempo de los reyes Austriacos)
private letters to conflict with the appartenant a la Bibliotheque Nat' a
minute and unvarnished statements of Madrid. MS. kindly communicated
Duyck. See also the excellent note to me by M. Gachard.
of Captain Mulder on pp. 668, 669, I ^ " Qui fut si vivement chargee
part ii. of his admirable edition of qu'elle y demeura toute " are the
Duyck's journal. words of the archduke writing on the

The confessor of the archduke. Fray 4th July from Ghent to his councU of
Inigo de Brizuelas, was as enthusiastic ' state. (MS. Archives of Belgium.)


were that day to achieve, not a man should be left alive save
Maurice and his brother Frederic Henry. These should be
spared to grace the conqueror's triumph, but all else should
6e put to the swordj

Meantime artillery thundered, bonfires blazed, and beUs
rang their merriest peals in Ghent, Bruges, and the other
obedient cities as the news of the great victory spread through
the land.

When the fight was done the archduke called a council of
war. It was a grave question whether the army should
at once advance in order to complete the destruction of the
enemy that day, or pause for an interval that the troops
fatigued with hard marching and with the victorious combat
in which they just had been engaged, should recover their full
strength. That the stadholder was completely in their
power was certain. The road to Ostend was barred, and
Nieuport would hold him at bay, now that the relieving army
was close upon his heels. All that was necessary in order to
annihilate his whole force, was that they should entrench
themselves for the night on the road which he must cross.
He would then be obliged to assault their works with troops
inferior in number to theirs and fatigued by the march.
Should he remain where he was he would soon be starved
into submission, and would be obliged to surrender his whole
army. On the other hand, by advancing now, in the intoler-
able heat of a July sun over the burning and glaring sands,
the troops already wearied would arrive on the field of battle
utterly exhausted, and would be obliged to attack an enemy
freshly and cheerfully awaiting them on ground of his own

Moreover it was absolutely certain that Fort Albert would
not hold an hour if resolutely assaulted in the midst of the
panic of Ernest's defeat, and, with its capture, the annihila-
lation of Maurice was certain.

Meantime the three thousand men under Velasco, who
had been detached to protect the rear, would arrive to rein-

' Le Petit on tlie authority of prisoiuTS. De la Piae.


force the archduke's main army, should he pause until the
next day.

These arguments, which had much logic in them, were
strongly urged by Zapena, a veteran marshal of the camp
who had seen much service, and whose counsels were usually
received with deference. But on this occasion commanders and
soldiers were hot for following up their victory. They cared
nothing for the numbers of their enemy, they cried, '- The
more infidels the greater glory in destroying them." * Delay
might after all cause the loss of the prize, it was eagerly shouted
The archduke ought to pray that the sun might stand still for
him that morning, as for Joshua in the vale of Ajalon. The
foe seeing himself entrapped, with destruction awaiting him,
was now skulking towards his ships, which still offered him the
means of escape. Should they give him time he would profit
by their negligence, and next morning when they reached
Nieuport, the birds would be flown. Especially the leaders
of the mutineers of Diest and Thionville were hoarse with
indignation at the proposed delay. They had not left their
brethren, they shouted, nor rallied to the archduke's banner
in order to sit down and dig in the sand like ploughmen.
There was triumph for the Holy Church, there was the utter
overthrow of the heretic army, there was rich booty to be
gathered, all these things were within their reach if they now
advanced and smote the rebels while, confused and panic-
stricken, they were endeavouring to embark in their ships.

While these vehement debates were at the hottest, sails
were descried in the offing ; for the archduke's forces already
stood upon the edge of the downs. First one ship, then
another and another, moved steadily along the coast, re-
turning from Nieuport in the direction of Ostend.

This was more than could be borne. It was obvious that
the rebels were already making their escape, and it was
urged upon the cardinal that probably Prince Maurice and
the other chieftains were on board one of those very vessels,
and were giving him the slip. With great expedition it

8 " Quanto mas Moros tauto mas ganancias." — De la Pise.


would still be possible to overtake tliem before the main body
could embark, and the attack might yet be made at the
most favourable moment. Those white sails gleaming in the
distance were more eloquent than Zapena or any other advo^
cate of delay, and the order was given to advance. And it
was exactly at this period that it still lay within the power
of the States' cavalry at Ostend to partially redeem their
character, and to render very effective service. Had four or
five hundred resolute troopers hung upon the rear of the
Spanish army now, as it moved toward Nieuport, they might,
by judiciously skirmishing, advancing and retreating according
to circumstances, have caused much confusion, and certainly
have so harassed the archduke as to compel the detachment
of a very considerable force of his own cavalry to protect
himself against such assaults. But the terror was an enduring
one. Those horsemen remained paralyzed and helpless, and
it was impossible for the States, with all their commands
or entreaties, to induce them to mount and ride even a half
mile beyond the city gates.

While these events had been occurring in the neighbour-
hood of Ostend, Maurice had not been idle at Nieuport. No
sooner had Ernest been despatched on his desperate errand
than his brother Lewis Gunther was ordered by the stad-
holder to get on horseback and ride through the quarters
of the army. On the previous afternoon there had been so
little thought of an enemy that large foraging parties had
gone out from camp in all directions, and had not returned.
Lewis gave notice that a great battle was to be expected on
the moiTow, instead of the tranquil commencement of a
leisurely siege, and that therefore no soul was henceforth to
leave the camp, while a troop of horse was despatched at the
first gleam of daylight to scour the country in search of all
the stragglers, Maurice had no thought of retreating, and
his first care was to bring his army across the haven. The
arrang:3ments were soon completed, but it was n(!cessary to
wait until nearly low water. Soon after eight o'clock Count
Lewis began to cross with eight squadrons of cavalry, and


partly swimming, partly wading, effected the passage in
safety. The advanced guard of infantry, under Sir Francis
Vere — consisting of two thousand six hundred Englishmen,
and two thousand eight hundred Frisians, with some com-'
panics of horse, followed by the battalia under Solms, and
the rearguard under Tempel — then slowly and with difficulty
moved along the same dangerous path with the water as
high as their armpits, and often rising nearly over their
heads. Had the archduke not been detained near the bridge
of Leffingen by Ernest's Scotchmen and Zeelanders during
three or four precious hours that morning ; had he arrived,
as he otherwise might have done, just as the States' army —
horse, foot, and artillery — was floundering through that
treacherous tide, it would have fared ill for the stadholder
and the rejjublic. But the devotion of Ernest had at least
prevented the attack of the archduke until Maurice and his
men stood on dry land.

Dripping from head to foot, but safe and sound, the army
had at last reached the beach at Nieuport. Vere had refused
his soldiers permission to denude themselves in crossing of
their shoes and lower garments. There was no time for that,
he said, and they would either earn new clothes for them-
selves that day, or never need doublet and hose again any

Online LibraryJohn Lothrop MotleyHistory of the United Netherlands: from the death of William the Silent to the twelve years' truce--1609 (Volume 2) → online text (page 58 of 118)