The Siege of Leyden
Horizon, Autumn 1976

How luck, the weather, and Dutch ingenuity saved the beleaguered city of Leyden - and with it the future freedom of the Netherlands.

see also

Ships in shallow water laying seige to a city in the Netherlands 400 years ago.  This painting (detail) by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom belongs to the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam.



IN THE ANCIENT CITY of Leyden, October 3, 1976, like the third of October for the past 402 years, will be a holiday. On that day children stride happily alongside marching soldiers and citizens in the flag-decked streets, while bands wheeze and throb their way through the Dutch national anthem. Pitchmen at sidewalk booths hawk cold salt herring to the crowds. The families of Leyden tuck into a supper of simmered beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions known as hutspot. Along with bread and herring, hutspot was the first food their ancestors tasted after weeks of near starvation, when pure chance and pure courage, or the will of God, as most Netherlanders felt at the time, finally delivered the long-beleaguered city from the Spanish.

The siege of Leyden is anything but a household word outside Holland. At best, it is a quaint, antique memory, rarely included with such events as the defeat of the Armada. Cannae and Marathon, Waterloo and the retreat from Moscow on those once-popular lists of the decisive battles in history. Indeed, the whole idea of decisive battles has fallen into sad disrepute. Yet few things are more inspiring, and perhaps even necessary, than the belief that the fate of nations sometimes hangs in brief, dramatic balance: and that God's will, or the courageous sacrifice of swift and determined people, can decide the issue. Such a moment was the siege of Leyden. It took place when Europe was at a turning point, torn by the struggle between the Catholic Counter Reformation and a virulent Protestantism.

At the same time, the divine right of kings had come under new political and religious challenges - on behalf of the rights of nobles, burghers, and eventually the people. The most notable example was the more than half-century struggle between the Spanish crown and the rebellious trading cities of the northern Netherlands, which officially owed their allegiance to a distant king yet gradually found his rule intolerable.

That struggle began in 1568 and was known as the Eighty Years' War. It was not only unbearably long but intolerably bloody. After taking Naarden in 1572 the Spanish set fire to the city and put to death every remaining man, woman, and child. Mechlin surrendered without a fight, asking mercy, but the city was turned over to the troops for three days of unrestricted murder, rape, and pillage. At Zutphen, too, few citizens were left alive, some being tied back to back and tossed into canals to drown, others being driven naked into the frozen winter night. After seven months of siege the fortress city of Haarlem surrendered on promise of clemency. Most of the military garrison was promptly beheaded or drowned.

A floating fort

A "sausage" made of logs

The Netherlanders fought back brutally, defending their cities by pouring boiling lead and unslaked lime over their ramparts on to attackers and tossing fiery ruffs, made of wooden hoops dipped in pitch and set alight, over the heads of the Spanish. In the briny northern provinces of Holland and Zeeland, Netherlanders developed a fierce, water­borne guerrilla force. known as the Sea Beggars. Winter and summer, using superior seamanship and shallow-draft boats, they harassed the enemy. But in spite of all Dutch efforts, Haarlem fell in July. 1573, and Spanish attention turned to Leyden, a rich city on an estuary of the Rhine. The plight of the rebel provinces was now acute, for they simply could not sustain another defeat.

The two figures who most influenced the ensuing drama of the Leyden siege, Philip II and William the Silent, could hardly be improved upon by a playwright intent on screwing his drama to the highest pitch of historic irony. On the Spanish side the prime mover remained off-stage, far to the south at a desk in the Escorial, the massive, forbidding monastery-palace from which Philip customarily directed the affairs of his inherited Catholic empire. Philip has been the villain of many tales and histories. But at the very least he must be regarded as a dedicated Catholic, an obedient son, a dutiful prince, and a careful administrator. Almost all these qualities contributed to his troubles in the Low Countries, which the unfortunate young man received when his father, Charles V, abdicated in 1555.

The Spanish laying siege to the city of Briele.


Philip, unlike his father, who had been born in Ghent, did not know much about the Netherlands. To his eye, the seventeen small, oddly shaped provinces, seigniories, lordships, and duchies that made up the Netherlands looked like a disorderly affront to a proper administrator. Their degree of independence and the traditional rights of burghers and nobles seemed mere encouragement to disloyalty and even treason. Worse, the wind of religious heresy was blowing hard upon the Low Countries.

In 1559 Philip appointed his bastard half sister Margaret of Parma as regent of the Low Countries and acquired the services of an ambitious cleric, Cardinal de Granvelle, to act as his cat's-paw on the Council of State. But his attempt to whip the dissident nobles into shape and re-establish total Catholic supremacy failed miserably. In less than a decade, Philip transformed a tolerant, polyglot, loosely linked collection of rival trading cities into the nucleus of a nation so hating Spanish rule that it would do anything - even unite - to be free of it.

In 1564 Granvelle was forced from office. By 1566, Margaret was begging Philip to come to the Low Countries to see what havoc his harsh policies had produced. When a collection of Netherlands nobles petitioned the king to withdraw the Inquisition and permit a degree of religious tolerance, Philip regarded it as open revolt and secretly dispatched an army to the Low Countries under the command of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the duke of Alva.

The duke arrived in Brussels on August 22, 1567. Swiftly he began imprisoning leaders for trial and torture as heretics. He spoke harshly, spent lavishly, and was pitiless. When money ran out, he raised taxes. eventually declaring a 10 per cent sales tax ("the tenth penny"), which usurped the traditional taxing power of the Netherlands Estates and enraged burghers of all persuasions, including the "glippers." who at first hoped to remain loyal to both king and Church. Yet in his own ferocious way Alva inadvertently did his victims a service: he taught them to expect little mercy from the Spaniards.

William of Orange
Leader of the
Dutch rebellion

A major character in the siege of Leyden, William of Orange, was, according to George Macaulay Trevelyan, "the wisest, gentlest and bravest man who ever led a nation."  He was born in Germany, of a poor but princely family with Lutheran leanings. But when his cousin René died in battle, William became, at age eleven, the prince of Orange (in France) and of Nassau (in the Netherlands). He was thus heir to large chunks of land that produced enough income to make him one of the richest princes in Europe. Thereupon, Charles V brought him to Brussels, made him into a moderate Catholic, and trained him as a soldier-courtier who would one day be able to direct the affairs of the Netherlands. Charles favored the boy heavily, regarding him almost as a second son who might eventually serve his real son Philip.

Unhappily, the two boys presented the kind of invidious contrast familiar in fairy tales and historical romances. Young Philip was introverted, troubled, sexually shy, physically ungifted, intellectual. In his early years William was carefree, outgoing, a lady's man, and a splendid rider, fencer, and huntsman. The Spanish prince disliked and distrusted him, and so it was that in 1559, when Philip embarked on his attempted reorganization of the Low Countries, he picked Margaret and Granvelle as his agents and by-passed William, appointing him instead as stadholder of large portions of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht. From this position William grew silent and serious while he watched what he soon regarded as an unnecessary tragedy unfold.

For William the problem was exquisite. Since he was a powerful prince and vassal, his clear duty was to offer good advice to the Spanish king and, if it was not accepted, to carry out his monarch's policy, however misguided. On the other hand, to disregard the traditional rights of Netherlandish cities was to tamper with public order. "In all things there must be an order," he told the regent and the council in March, 1566. "but it must be of such a kind as is possible to observe ... To see a man burnt for doing as he thought right harms the people, for this is a matter of conscience."

Philip took such disagreement as a sign of disloyalty. In 1567 William, who still had not joined the dissident nobles, resigned his stadholdership, sold his goods, and retired to Dillenburg, his birthplace in Germany.

Soon he was begging for men and money from the Protestant German princes. Twice in four years he was able to scrape together enough cash and credit to finance a largely mercenary army for an invasion of the Netherlands. Both times the Spanish defeated and dispersed his forces - first in 1568, then again at the end of 1572.

The duke of Alva, by Titian

Even without an army William decided to stay in the Netherlands, stirring resistance to the Spanish. Alva had demanded his tenth penny in taxes, and in city after city frugal burghers refused to comply. The two northern provinces of Holland and Zeeland, in fact, pledged themselves to William and were wholly given over to rebellion. It was naturally there that throughout 1573 Alva unleashed his reprisals.

The first phase of the Netherlands war had reached its decisive moment. Alva had run out of money and ideas. He had also stirred so much resistance that even Philip tired of him and ordered his departure for December, 1573. Yet the resources of Spain still seemed inexhaustible and, properly used, could clearly have been overwhelming. The new Spanish commander, Don Luis de Requesens, arrived with a tempting offer of amnesty and peace negotiations. He would soon sweeten his offer by dropping Alva's demand for the tenth penny, a move well calculated to disarm Netherlanders. If Leyden should fall at so delicate a moment, that would be proof of William's failure and of the hopelessness of resistance to Spain. "Leyden saved is Holland saved," the cry William soon raised, was true enough. But it was even truer in reverse: "Leyden lost is Holland lost."

In October, 1573, the siege troops of Don Francisco Valdez moved unhurriedly up to Leyden. They did not storm the city. Instead they encircled it, blocking off all land and water approaches. For five months Valdez waited, while supplies and tempers grew shorter inside the city, and William furiously sought to create a military diversion outside. In March his plans succeeded. His younger brother, Louis of Nassau, crossed the Meuse into the Netherlands with nine thousand men. Because they were needed to meet this threat, Valdez's army packed up and left. Only three weeks later Louis's army was defeated. and Louis was killed.

Mourning his favorite brother, and knowing that Valdez would return. William urged the city fathers of Leyden to lay in supplies. But spring had arrived. The fields around Leyden were rich and green. The city fathers were divided and slothful. By May it was too late. Valdez had come back with eight thousand men. Leyden was sealed off, eventually so tightly that it became impossible to be sure that even the stealthy messengers known as "jumpers" could get into the city.

During the first two months of siege the city was not troubled enough even to ration the food on hand. Leyden was a spacious and prosperous place, well known for brewing and weaving. Besides, it was soundly fortified and had many small gardens. Just outside the walls, cows could be grazed under the city's guns. Through June Leydeners thought that having survived one siege, they could survive another.

William knew better. But what to do? The Spanish controlled all the land and water immediately north of Leyden. Beyond Valdez's encirclements to the south, though, stretching some twenty miles to the wide waters of the Rivers Meuse and Hollandsche Ijssel, was flat land that looked then much as it looks today. Nowadays, to be sure, a few new apartment buildings and small oil rigs stick up against the low horizon. But most of the expanse of Delfland, Schieland, and Rynland still consists of lonely fields and ditches. There are scattered farms, a few cottages, clusters of red-roofed villages connected by small, straight roads (or narrow canals) that run along grassy dikes, dividing the green fields and marking ancient defense lines thrown up against the sea. "This is the real Holland," a Dutch friend of mine once proudly told me. "It was all reclaimed from the sea."

William's daring plan was to give it back to the sea and sail across it to relieve Leyden. The Dutch had used the sea defensively for centuries, but the offensive use of flooding was a new idea. Where would the water actually stop? How much and how permanent would the damage be?  And wasn't the Rynland around Leyden, though below sea level, a bit higher than Delfland and Schieland?  Suppose the dikes were cut and the water didn't spread far enough?

Whatever the risks, William was convinced that cutting the dikes was the only hope for the Low Countries. Tirelessly he pressed the plan, angrily calling on the Estates of Holland and Zeeland to drown "la vermine espagnole ."  Perhaps he also felt, as C. V. Wedgwood suggests, that when

the burghers and landowners of the Estates freely voted their own loss, when the homeless people gathered mute, determined, carrying on their backs and piled in wagons all that they could save, to watch the greedy waters slowly devour their fields and their homes; when the burgomaster of Delft, seeing the grey salt flood creep up through his orchards and his farms beyond the city wall, said stoutly to the citizens watching him that all he had lost was a cheap price for driving the Spaniards out of Holland: then Holland was already saved.

That is what happened, at any rate.  On August 1 placards went up ordering all farmers and villagers to get themselves and their goods and cattle to a town or fortification within fourteen days. On August 3 William himself was on hand as the dikes of the Hollandsche Ijssel were cut, sixteen notches in all between Gouda and Ijsselmonde. The water gushed northwest into Schieland, across fields and orchards and north toward the Rynland and Leyden. Meanwhile the Meuse dikes were cut around Rotterdam, and the sea sluices were opened to let incoming tides pour north toward Delft and beyond. No one knew how long it would take the water to reach Leyden, if it reached it at all.

The summer was hot. There was plague in Holland, and William fell critically ill. In a fading burst of energy he called Louis Boisot, one of his most steadfast supporters, to direct the bizarre land and sea operations. Boisot, then a stout forty-four to William's lean forty-one, had supported the Netherlands revolt since 1567. Put in charge of all Netherlands naval operations, he transformed the Sea Beggars, who had been little better than zealous Calvinist pirates, into a unified force.

When the Estates of Holland decided that the dikes should be cut to save Leyden, William of Orange called upon Admiral Louis Boisot, commander of the Sea Beggars, to form a rescue fleet. 


All through August, as William lay near death in Rotterdam, Boisot and his French aide, Captain La Garde, sweated to gather and equip a curious fleet and odd assortment of men. There were 350 Huguenot harquebusiers under La Garde, some companies of Protestant Walloons, two companies of pike- and spade-wielding Dutch pioneers to cut the dikes and dig out boats that ran aground. The fleet consisted of several long, flat-bottomed praams for ferrying soldiers, powder, shot, and food. Fully loaded, they drew less than two feet of water. For fighting escorts the praams had special shallow-draft galleys, each carrying four small cannon and a few harquebusiers. Last to arrive, on August 30, were seven Kromstevens, larger ships drawing more than the others but also capable of carrying heavier guns. As the fleet assembled, the waters spread slowly over the land, often checked by low, inland dikes.

Meanwhile, in Leyden things had gone from consensus to hunger and division of purpose. Neither then nor later did Valdez storm the city walls, but the Spanish siege lines grew tighter and tighter. Amazingly, not until July was a house-to-house tally of food made. Then it turned out that only 110 lasts (about 8,800 bushels) of corn remained for fourteen thousand people. Still, the governor, the four burgomasters, and the eight aldermen merely confiscated the extra grain of citizens with large reserves. This they now began to sell to the hungry, a half pound per person per day, in return for cash or work on the fortifications. For the moment, too, they let the regular brewing of beer go unchecked, even though it required nutritious grain.

In August real privation and plague set in. So did fear that William had abandoned the city. Messenger after messenger went out. None returned. The few papists (as passionate haters of Protestantism were designated) now began to speak out. So did the rich merchants, who didn't mind Calvinism as long as it didn't interfere with peace and prosperity. Valdez and the Count de La Roche, Philip's figurehead stadholder in the rebellious province of Holland, were offering increasingly easy terms for surrender. The Protestant resolution of the governor, Dirk van Bronkhorst, and of the leading burgomaster, Pieter van der Werf, was soon to be tested.

When grumbling started, Van Bronkhorst simply had a gallows put up in the middle of the Breestraat, before the town hall, to indicate the likely fate of the papists. Pressure built. The plague grew worse. By now, rumors of the dike­cutting and rising waters had reached the city, but no water or relief appeared.

On August 27 mutiny broke out.  Some of the freebooters who were part of the defense force of Leyden gathered at the town hall. They would serve if they were fed, they announced: Otherwise, they demanded free passage out of the city. That same day a corn ration was established, and all the animals, including horses, were registered for eventual slaughter and distribution. On the thirtieth a letter came from the Estates, confirming the news about the cut dikes, the rising waters, and the gathering fleet. Pipers were ordered to play cheerfully at street corners, By September 1, however, the last of the corn was eaten. Officials had begun to slaughter the animals, starting with horses. Meat was distributed in Saint Peter's Church. The ration was two pounds (including bones) per person, every four days.


In September, 1754, having cut the dikes to flood the land south of Leyden (at top center), the Dutch relief force encounters heavy fire from Spanish troops as it moves toward the city.  This seventeenth-century engraving (detail) is a composite view of the twenty-four-day effort.


Then, on September 5, pipers came to the gates to present two letters that all but undid the city's precarious hold on resistance. A clever glipper nobleman from nearby Poelbrug wrote offering to act as mediator in the arrangement of merciful surrender terms. With a touch of evil genius he added that engineers had now proved that the Rynland was indeed slightly higher than Delfland - especially around Leyden - so the slowly rising waters would never float a fleet as far as the city. At the same time Valdez wrote the Leydeners: "Ye rebels against God and King, ye stiff-necked citizens of Leyden," his letter began. But after this inauspicious start he went on to offer, "for the last time," pardon to everyone, even Van Bronkhorst.

As it happened, Van Bronkhorst was dying of the plague. Chief Burgomaster Van der Werf, acting head of the town, now came under extraordinary pressure to give up. Among other things, a crowd brought a fresh corpse and laid it at his door. Deeply troubled, Van der Werf called an assembly in the town hall.

A long debate followed. The likelihood of relief, the trustworthiness of Spanish promises, the requirements of honor and of the town's oath to William were discussed. A stalemate resulted. Another meeting was called for September 8. This one produced a crowd of wailing women and children outside the town hall, and overwhelming shouts for surrender inside. The motion would have carried formally had it not been for Dutch faith in parliamentary procedure and the wit of Jan van Hout, the town clerk. Gaveling for attention, Van Hout urged that each man speak slowly and in turn, as was the custom, so that an accurate and proper record could be kept. The stampede for surrender ended.

Two days later, at another stormy meeting, the outnumbered loyalists managed to push through an agreement that Leyden would not negotiate with the Spanish until they had heard from William. It was a brave decision, but soon after, Van der Werf, beset by a crowd of starving women and children, spoke the most celebrated lines that the siege produced. "I cannot break my oath," he is supposed to have said. "But if my body can serve you, cut it in pieces and distribute it among yourselves."

At dawn on September 11, after nearly four months of siege, a distant. heavy, and intense firing was heard. It was followed by silence. Both sound and silence reflected the mixed fortunes of Admiral Boisot's unorthodox flotilla, now, at last, committed to action. On September 5 he had moved out of Rotterdam. Now with sixteen galleys, several companies of pioneers, and 350 harquebusiers, he was ready to attack.

To visualize Boisol's progress, imagine one of those aerial photographs of delta land that appear in the newspapers in times of flood. In September, 1574, such a view, taken from above the vicinity of Rotterdam, would have shown the besieged city far to the north near the edge of the horizon. In the near foreground, stretching east to west between the Meuse River and Leyden, three dark lines, roughly parallel and a mile apart. would appear, like successive rows of defensive trenches. They were dikes, with roads running on them. The first and foremost was the Landscheiding. Farther to the north, and nearer to Leyden, lay the Groenweg. Finally came a raised road called the Voorweg. That morning of September 11, Spanish troops, horses, and guns were gathered on the first and the third of the barriers.

As Boisol's flotilla approached the Landscheiding, gun galleys swung off to left and right, raking the Spanish. Other galleys and barges plunged straight forward until they hit the dike. French harquebusiers leaped out onto the dike, followed by swarms of pioneers who quickly heaped up earthworks a hundred yards apart to protect the infantry. Then, using spades and pikes, the pioneers furiously hacked their way through the dike. Barges and men slid through the cut in the Landscheiding on a great torrent of water.

Cutting through the Landscheiding so easily seemed a dramatic victory. But Boisot soon saw that to reach Leyden on this course he would have to cut the Groenweg and then successfully assault the heavily defended Voorweg. The Groenweg was cut on September 12, almost without a shot, for Valdez had decided to center his defense on the Voorweg, using its houses for protection and massing his cannon there. Boisot was forced to rig up four corn barges with double bulwarks, mounting one demicannon on each.

During the four days this required, the situation in Leyden grew worse. Forty papists forced their way into the council chamber, demanding bread or surrender. But next day there was good news again. After nearly six weeks, William's fever had been cured, and he now wrote to the city, praising the burghers for their pain and persistence. A messenger got through that day, too, with word that Boisot was past the Landscheiding.

Courage restored, the townspeople rejoiced. But as usual they were a day or more behind the news. That very day Boisol's cannon attack on the Voorweg failed. Barges and galleys kept running aground. Worse, the big barges made ramshackle gun platforms, and by midday, when retreat was called, all four were shaking to pieces. Boisot was now desperate. To take the Voorweg he would need more water. But if he waited too long, Leyden might surrender.

The disconsolate Boisot wrote William of his plight and waited. Then, on September 18, a hard northwest wind began to blow and heavy rain set in. Intelligence reached Boisot that the waters were deeper to the east. Taking eight galleys, he led a flanking movement around the heavily fortified town of Zoetermeer. About halfway between Zoetermeer and the town of Benthuizen, his small fleet groped forward in heavy rains until it crossed a lightly defended extension of the Voorweg. Then Boisot turned north, following a canal, and on September 20 entered Benthuizen, six miles southeast of Leyden.

The rain continued, relentlessly drumming on decks and dikes alike. The Netherlanders, as anyone who has spent much time in Holland knows, were perfectly used to it. But it badly dampened Spanish spirits and, in conjunction with Boisot's surprise flanking attack, flustered the usually methodical Valdez into a mistake. Abruptly he pulled his soggy troops and rusting field guns out of Zoetermeer, ordering them to retreat north along the dikes to the fortified village of Zoeterwoude, some three miles closer to Leyden. La Garde, who was bringing the balance of the fleet toward Benthuizen, learned of Valdez's error. Boldly, on his own initiative, he sailed down to Zoetermeer, where he placed three hundred men as a defense force. Next morning, September 21, 1574, Boisot and twenty galleys plowed through the shallow waters northward until they hit a canal and followed it into the tiny Noord Aa Lake. There the galleys had room to maneuver. They fanned out, firing along the shores and into the canals and dikes that led northward. On September 22 Boisot put his ships and men in order, firing his cannon to indicate his position to the citizens of Leyden. He also sent messengers to urge the townspeople to hang on a few days more.

Boisot had come halfway to Leyden, in fact, but his position was far from cheerful. The fleet was running out of water again. The only possible route to Leyden lay straight north across the fields. but without a storm, a huge tide, and an extraordinary conjunction of wind and waters, there was no hope.

The people of Leyden were happily unaware of this. On September 22. encouraged by William's letter, the continuing bad weather, and Boisot's progress, the city temporarily brought its long inner struggle to an end, rejecting one more "last" offer of clemency. Now, the townspeople told Valdez and La Roche, they would "await how almighty God might dispose of them." Next day almighty God seemed ill-disposed, for the skies cleared. Fair, sunny fall weather set in and with it the exhausted city's last anguish.

In all, during the siege, some six thousand people died (out of a population of fourteen thousand), most of them, it can be fairly estimated in the final month, when plague and famine were at their height. A private journal kept during the siege records: "It is the truth that some go to bed seemingly in good health, but are found dead in the morning, killed by famine, three or four together in one house'" There were rumors of dreadful scavenging, of murder, and even of cannibalism.

One of the many mysteries that surrounds the siege during this agonizing week concerns Valdez. His plan, of course, had been to starve the place out. But when the city rejected his terms on September 22, why did he not attack?  Perhaps he thought the city would eventually fall to him anyway. Perhaps, too, as the Dutch historian Robert Fruin suggests in his account of the siege, he lacked the proper guns for such an assault. The most romantic explanation is that Valdez was stirred to mercy and encouraged to lassitude by the charms of a dazzling, dark-haired glipper girl in The Hague with the unforgettable name of Magdalena Moons.

Whether Valdez was thinking of Magdalena or not on September 28, it was on that date that the food ration of Leyden consisted primarily of pieces of horsehide for chewing or boiling into soup. But during the night the wind changed. On the morning of September 29 it blew hard out of the west, then veered southwest, the precise quarter necessary to drive water up the Meuse estuary, past Rotterdam, and eventually toward Leyden. Dark clouds swept across the sky. Rain came. So did a spring tide, one of the highest of the year. Slowly the water rose. Barges, left aground, began to stir, then lurched free. At dawn on October I. Boisot's forces moved toward Leyden.

In the driving rain the Spanish stood waiting on the slippery dike. The galleys again raked them with fire as the pioneers and harquebusiers landed. Boisot sent a message by pigeon to Leyden, urging the civil guard to open fire from the battlements and divert the Spanish as much as possible. Then he ordered his ships forward, through the gray mass of slowly rising water. By dawn on October 2 the galleys were miserably bogged down in the shallows. The crews jumped out and pushed, and the fleet was somehow hauled and shoved and slithered forward. The ships groaned past Zoeterwoude, which was still filled with Spanish soldiers, until they came at last to the waters of the Meerburg Canal.

Deep as well as broad enough for the fleet to maneuver in, the Meerburg joins a network of ditches and canals just south of Leyden. Once in it, Boisot's fighting galleys spread out along the various channels. They coursed about, firing on the retreating Spanish, who sought safety on roads already ankle­deep in water, often drowning in ditches and canals they blundered into blindly. By noon all that lay between Boisot and his goal was the village of Lammen. He could not avoid this formidable obstacle by sailing over fields. The countryside rises as it approaches Leyden, and Lammen, with plenty of cannon and a garrison of three hundred men. commanded the only channel the fleet might use to reach the city.

Hastily the admiral sent back for those unreliable gun barges. As darkness fell on October 2 his gloomiest thoughts concerned not the Spanish so much as the city of Leyden. Had it surrendered already? He feared so, because for two days no diversion or firing of any sort had flashed from the walls, despite his urgent messages. What he did not realize was that the plea for a diversion, flown early on October I, did not come home to roost in Leyden until late on October 2. When the message was received at last, the Leydeners acted swiftly. Boats were manned and a strike force made ready to leave the city at dawn to attack Lammen. For the first time in five months Hollanders synchronized their efforts. As Boisot waited with his gunboats south of Lammen, the Leydeners were crouching in their boats under the city walls, tensely determined to strike at least one blow against the Spanish soldiers.

Finally dawn came. Quietly several boatloads of Leyden pioneers eased their way along the Vliet Canal toward Lammen, a half mile away. Fruin writes:

They strained their ears. All was still as death. Could the garrison perhaps be lying in ambush, in order to fall upon them suddenly as they approached" They were at a loss what to do. At that moment a boy appeared who had spent the night on the walls of the city. He had noticed, so he told them, considerable movement and the flaring of torches in the neighborhood of Lammen.  The boy was willing to go and investigate, on being promised a couple of guilders.

When he got there, no Spaniards could be found. The demoralized Valdez had ordered his men to fall back on Leyderdorp during the night. The excited boy waved his hat from the walls to signal all was well. The story goes that when the Leydeners and Boisot's sailors met in Lammen, they found Spanish cooking pots still slung over low fires. In them was the stew of beef, potatoes. carrots, and onions known as hutspot.

The Spanish forces now simply melted away. Boisot's fleet had the joyful task of rowing into a city gone mad with relief and expectations. Guns were firing. Bells were ringing. Hymns and prayers were being sung in streets and churches. At the Vlietbrug, just inside the walls, a shower of fresh bread and herring was tossed from barges into the weeping, cheering crowd.


On October 3, 1574, after five months of siege and suffering, starving Leydeners cheer Admiral Boisot's men, and receive food. 


The victory brought Leyden more than herring and hutspot. William arrived next day. Prudently, sternly, he ordered the city to lay in a two-years' supply of grain, in case of another siege (one never came). Leyden had been saved, and the news uplifted Holland and the whole of the Netherlands. How should such a victory be commemorated? Standing among the cheering citizens, William offered them a great free university. (Opened early the next year, it soon became one of Europe's celebrated centers of learning.)


To commemorate the victory, William of Orange founded the University of Leyden, below, still one of Europe's great universities; a clock tower, adorns its older building, on the Rapenburg Canal.


William was commemorating that moment when the nation was born in spirit - and the turn of events that ensured it would soon be established in the flesh. He never gave up hope of freeing and unifying the whole of the Netherlands. He never gave in, either, to the growing Calvinist passion for religious supremacy that would soon be almost as destructive to his plans for a united Netherlands as Philip's fierce Catholic suppression had been.

Nevertheless, when the seven independent northern provinces were formally joined into a free and separate nation, William served briefly as both its prince and its elected ruler. Briefly, because the struggle with Spain went on. Philip had put twenty-five thousand écus on the head of his "dear cousin of Orange." In 1584 a confused young man with an exotic name, Balthasar Gérard, insinuated himself into William's court in Delft and shot and killed the prince.

Philip died in his bed in 1591. But several more generations of wrangling and open warfare were needed to bring the Spanish crown to an official peace at Münster in 1648.It has been argued that this long and unjust war against puny and remote provinces was a draining wound that helped bring about the eclipse of Spanish power around the world. Perhaps. There were, at any rate, riots and disorders in Spain as a result, and a profound sense of demoralization.

Most later historians have been attracted to the Netherlands war not for the damage it did Spain but for the edge it apparently gave to Protestantism and parliamentary democracy in Europe.  The raising of the siege of Leyden, Trevelyan once argued, can claim an equal place with the defeat of the Armada in 1588 as "the decisive check to the conquest of Europe by the Spanish monarchy and by the Catholic Reaction."

The twilight of Spanish power; the spread of parliamentary government; the defeat of the Counter Reformation - all these are eventual developments that the war in the Netherlands and the siege of Leyden clearly affected. They were by no means inevitable occurrences in the unfolding pageant of history. Thinking of the fate of the city, one can easily embark on one of those fascinating, though fruitless, "what if" trains of thought. Leyden falls. The Netherlands stays Catholic. A decade later the Armada is not defeated. A Catholic England, perhaps even a Spanish-occupied England, results. Spain is free to help the Catholic Empire during the Thirty Years' War in Europe .... Would that have meant, today, New Granada instead of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi, New Seville instead of New Amsterdam (and then New York) on the Hudson? But that way lies madness. It is left for Robert Fruin, Dutch patriot, a modest man and careful historian, to put the siege in perspective. "An event of such importance in the world's continuous struggle for freedom," he wrote in 1874, "deserves to be recalled to the imagination as clearly and vividly as possible."