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Siege of Antwerp
Part of the Eighty Years' War
Dutch Ship Fin de la Guerre (Finis Bellis), Siege of Antwerp 1585.jpg
Dutch Finis Bellis, a fortified ship meant to break the Spanish blockade
Date July 1584 - August 17, 1585
Location Antwerp, Netherlands (present-day Belgium)
Result Spanish victory
Belligerents
Estates General (Dutch) Flag of New Spain.svg Spanish Empire
Commanders
Philips van Marnix van Sint-Aldegonde Duke of Parma
Strength
80,000 inhabitants 40,000+
Casualties and losses
8,000 Unknown

The Siege of Antwerp took place during the Eighty Years' War from July 1584 until August 1585. At the time Antwerp was not only the largest Dutch city but was also the cultural, economic and financial centre of the Seventeen Provinces and of north-western Europe. On November 4, 1576, unpaid Spanish soldiery mutinied and plundered and burnt the city during what was called the Spanish Fury. Thousands of citizens were massacred and hundreds of houses were burnt down. Antwerp became even more engaged in the rebellion. The city joined the Union of Utrecht (1579) and became the capital of the Dutch revolt, which no longer was merely a Protestant rebellion but had become a revolt of all Dutch provinces.

Contents

Spanish control

Relieved from fighting the Ottomans in the Mediterranean and with his Treasury's coffers filled with gold from the Americas, King Philip II of Spain sent Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza in 1579 to head the Spanish army in Flanders to regain Spanish control over the Low Countries (Flanders, Brabant and the United Provinces). King Philip II assured himself that once the rebellion in the Low Countries was quelled, France would soon yield and Protestant England would then stand alone to bear the full might of the Catholic Habsburg empire. When the siege of Antwerp began (1585) most of Flanders and Brabant had already been recaptured in the years preceding, including Brussels. The Spanish army in Flanders had been reinforced in the previous years both in quantity and quality and in 1585 had 61,000 men under arms.

The siege begins

During the recapture of Flanders and Brabant, Parma noted the logistical side of the Spanish army in Flanders. What is dubbed the "Spanish Route" was a main road leading north, protected by forts built at strategic intervals, providing the army with a reliable flow of supplies. When the siege of Antwerp began Parma's army was well supplied. The first stage of the siege saw encirclement lines constructed around Antwerp and forts built along the Scheldt estuary.

The second stage consisted of commencing a long siege of Antwerp and constructing a bridge across the Scheldt, effectively closing off the city's waterways. The bridge, a unique feat of siege engineering at its time, consisted of a strong fort (reinforced with cannons) on each side of the Scheldt with a bridge of connected pontoons (paintings show sizable rowing boats) running between them. (This bridge is believed to have been 730m long.) In response to the closure of the Scheldt by this bridge, the Dutch flooded the lowlands adjacent to the Scheldt, effectively submerging most roads in scattered areas and leaving Spanish forts either flooded or isolated on small islands. Despite the Dutch using these floodplains to try and regain control over the Scheldt (using low draft oar and sail boats with small cannon emplacements on them), the Spanish position largely held firm, as many of the Spanish forts had been equipped with cannon and high quality troops. Several attempts were made by the Dutch to steer "fire ships" into the Spanish pontoon bridge, but the troops stationed in the adjacent forts managed to push them off course with pikes - though with heavy loss of life when the fire ships exploded.

At one time, the rebels sent the Finis Bellis ("End of War"), a huge floating platform into which they put great hope, against the bridge, but the mission failed miserably. In the end the Dutch abandoned their efforts, considering Antwerp a lost cause.

Antwerp surrenders

On August 17 1585, Antwerp surrendered. After the siege, the Dutch fleet on the river Scheldt was kept in position, blocking the city's access to the sea and cutting it off from international trade. Parma stationed experienced Castilian troops within Antwerp to make sure the city would not fall into enemy hands. The moderateness of Parma's demands and the behaviour of his troops were a complete surprise given the standards of the day, the bloodiness of the siege and the rampage of 1576: Parma issued strict orders not to sack the city, and the Spanish troops behaved impeccably while Antwerp's Protestant majority were given two years to settle their affairs before leaving.[1] Some returned to Roman Catholicism but most moved north and ended what had been a golden century for the city. Of the pre-siege population of 100,000 people, only 40,000 remained. Many of Antwerp's skilled tradesmen were included in the Protestant migration to the north, laying the commercial foundation for the subsequent "Dutch Golden Age" of the northern United Provinces.

The blockage of the Scheldt to shipping remained in place and crippled the city's economy. It was maintained for the next two centuries (see Scheldt#History) and is an important and traumatic element in the history of relations between the Netherlands and (what was to become) Belgium.

References

  1. ^ Boxer Charles Ralph, The Dutch seaborne empire, 1600-1800, p. 18, Taylor & Francis, 1977 ISBN 0091310512, 9780091310516 Google books

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