Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sea Beggars: The Foundation of the Dutch Navy

William "the Silent"
In the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Netherlands of Philip II saw the rise of a new world power. The Dutch sought to make their own destiny. A destiny impossible under the Spanish hegemony. As a result, a war that would last over eighty years rocked the Low Countries. At the front of the conflict were group of seafarers that would later lay the ground work for the Dutch navy – the Sea Beggars.

When the Protestant Reformation began when in the early 16th century, the Netherlands was under strict Spanish control. Because of its close proximity to modern day Germany, the heart of Protestantism, the Netherlands became influence by ideas of Reformation. However, the conservative Spanish crown under Philip II launched an Inquisition to wipe out heresy from its lands. Thousands were killed, many more were tortured and mutilated in the Spanish Netherlands. Along with administrative mismanagement, in April 5, 1566, more than two hundred nobles, along with William “the Silent” of Orange, went to the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, Margaret of Parma. They sent “the Request” which sought autonomy, end of Inquisition, and imposing of autonomy. During the meeting between the nobles and Margaret, the Governor was said to have been told that the nobles were nothing but beggars. Beggars they might be, Margaret listened to the nobles and forwarded the petition to King Philip II. However, the King adamant. He rejected the petition of the Dutch nobles.

The nobles then resorted to another option. In order to gain their religious freedom, they must become independent completely from the Spain. And so, under the leadership of William the Silent, the Eighty Years was began.

As the war for Dutch independence began, the Dutch needed to control the sea if they were to cut off the Spaniards in the Netherlands from their homeland. Louis of Orange, brother of William, sent a letter of Marque in 1568 to Dutch seafarers to launch piracy and naval assault to Spanish shipping and Spanish positions in the coast. They took the name Watergeuzen or Sea Beggars, in respect to the name of nobles that were called such during the meeting with Margaret of Parma. Within two years the ranks of the Sea Beggars rose. In 1659, only 18 ships launch pirate attacks to Spanish shipping in the English Channel. After a year later, it swelled to over 84. The French Huguenots, who were Protestants, supported the cause of the Dutch and allowed the Sea Beggars to operate from their port of La Rochelle. Later, the English, a well-known adversaries of the Spaniards, also lend their ports to serve as bases for the Sea Beggars.

Most members of Sea Beggars sought revenge. Many Sea Beggars were victims of torture by the Spanish Inquisition. Many lost some of their limbs. The excruciating punishment brought by the Inquisitors inflamed many to join the Sea Beggars.  As a display of their anger to the Catholics, they flew a flag with a crescent and the words: Better Turkish than Roman.

Their activities cause concerns to many. The Spanish in particular were those of were very concerned. Many of their galleons were sank by the piratical activities of the sea beggars. Reinforcement to the Netherlands could only be done by sea. This was disrupted highly and angered the Spanish commander in the Netherlands, Fernandez Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alva. Catholics in the coastlines of Netherlands also feared the Sea Beggars. Due to the horrific experience in the hands of the Inquisition, many Sea Beggars killed Catholic priest and nuns and destroyed churches and monasteries. Shockingly, William the Silent also was concerned of the Sea Beggars.

The over brutality of the Sea Beggars were causing harm over the image of the cause. Thus, William initiated changes to the Sea Beggars. He appointed an overall Admiral of the Sea Beggars, the Lord of Lumbres, to control and instill discipline the Sea Beggars. To control the plundering of the Sea Beggars, a system of sharing of the spoils were placed. One-third of the booties were to be given to William “the Silent. The other one-third was to go to the captain of the ship. And the last would go to the crew.

The regulations and policies that were placed, however, failed. The English and Queen Elizabeth became concerned over Sea Beggar activities. Some of the Sea Beggars disregard orders from William “the Silent” and continued to attack neutral shipping. Including to the neutral shipping being attack were English. In March of 1572, Elizabeth decided to close all English ports to the Sea Beggars.

The loss of English port, however, was replaced by victories of the Sea Beggars in the Netherlands. In a month after their ban in England, 25 ships under the command of William de la Marck attack the town of Brill. And just few weeks later, they also succeeded in capturing Flushing. In 1573, the Sea Beggars helped the relief of besieged Dutch forces in Alkmaar. Then on October of the same month, Sea Beggars successfully defeated a small fleet of Spanish ships during the Battle on the Zuiderzee. During the battle, they captured seven ships and the commander of the Spanish fleet, the Count of Bossu. In 1574, they defeated the last garrison of Spain in Walcheren Island, the city of Middelburg. Following the victory in Middelburg, the Sea Beggars were also able to lift the Siege of Leiden.

Through the next decades, the Sea Beggars continued to provide support to the independence cause of the Dutch. It served the purposed as a navy until one was finally established starting with the foundation of the five admiralties. The legacy of the Sea Beggars was the rise of a new and powerful naval and mercantile Dutch Republic. Without the Sea Beggars, the independence cause of William “the Silent” and others would have been crushed brutally by Spain. The Sea Beggars built the foundations of not just the Dutch navy but of the Dutch State itself.

See also:
Tulip Mania

Bruce, A. & Cogar, W. An Encyclopedia of Naval History. Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998.

Nolan, C. The Age of Wars of Religion, 1000 - 1650: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Inc., 2006.

Pratt, F. The Battles that Changed History. New York: Dover Publication, Inc., 1956.

Wagner, J. & Schmid, S. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Tudor England. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012. 

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