Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, or Alva, now fifty-nine years old, was a figure out of El Greco: straight, tall, thin, with dark eyes, yellow skin, silver beard. At twenty he had inherited his illustrious title and extensive estates. He had entered early upon a military career, in which he distinguished himself by courage, intelligence, and severity. Philip attached him to his innermost council and listened congenially to his advice. In this emergency his judgment was that of a soldier trained in Spanish discipline and piety: crush the rebels without mercy, for every concession strengthens the opposition. Philip gave him full powers and bade him Godspeed.
Alva crossed to Italy and assembled there, chiefly from Spanish garrisons in Naples and Milan, a select army of ten thousand men. He dressed them in proud splendor, gave them the latest arms and armor, and solaced them with two thousand prostitutes properly enrolled and assigned. He led them over the Alps and through Burgundy, Lorraine, and Luxembourg, and entered Brussels on August 22, 1567. Egmont met him with all submission and a gift of two rare horses. Margaret met him with regret, feeling that her brother had superseded and overruled her just when she had restored a humane order. When Alva garrisoned the larger towns with his Spanish troops she protested, but the Duke coldly replied, “I am ready to take all the odium upon myself.” Margaret asked Philip’s permission to resign; he granted it with a comfortable pension, and in December she left Brussels for her home in Parma, mourned by the Catholics, who revered her, and by the Protestants, who foresaw how mild her greatest rigor would soon appear beside Alva’s calculated brutality.
The new Regent and Governor General installed himself in the citadel at Antwerp and prepared to cleanse the Netherlands of heresy. He invited Egmont and Horn to dinner, feted them, arrested them, and sent them under strong guard to a castle in Ghent (September 7). He appointed a “Council of Troubles,” which the terrified Protestants rechristened the “Council of Blood”; seven of its nine members were Netherlanders, two were Spaniards; but only these two had a vote, and Alva reserved to himself the final decision in any case that specially interested him. He ordered the council to ferret out and arrest all persons suspected of opposition to the Catholic Church or the Spanish government, to try them privately, and to punish the convicted without tenderness or delay. Agents were sent out to spy; informers were encouraged to betray their relatives, their enemies, their friends. Emigration was forbidden; shipmasters aiding emigration were to be hanged.23 Every town that had failed to stop or punish rebellion was held guilty, and its officials were imprisoned or fined. Thousands of arrests were made; in one morning some 1,500 persons were seized in their beds and carried off to jail. Trials were summary. Condemnations to death were sometimes voted upon groups of thirty, forty, or fifty at a time.24 In one month (January 1568) eighty-four residents of Valenciennes were executed. Soon there was hardly a family in Flanders that did not mourn a member arrested or killed by the Council of Troubles. Scarcely anyone in the Netherlands dared protest; the slightest criticism would have meant arrest.
Alva felt his success tarnished by inability to lure William of Orange within his reach. The Council of Troubles drew up an indictment of the Prince, his brother Louis, his brother-in-law Count van den Berg, the Baron of Montigny, and other leaders as having encouraged heresy and revolt. Montigny was still in Spain; Philip had him jailed. William’s son, Philip William, Count of Buren, was a student in the University of Louvain; he was arrested, was sent to Spain, and was brought up as a fervent Catholic, who repudiated his father’s principles. William was declared an outlaw whom anyone might kill with legal impunity.
He proceeded with the organization of an army, and directed his brother Louis to do likewise. He asked aid of the Lutheran princes, who responded feebly, and of Queen Elizabeth, who held back cautiously; sums came to him from Antwerp, Amsterdam, Leiden, Haarlem, Flushing; Counts van den Berg, Culemborch, and Hoogstraaten sent 30,000 florins each; he himself sold his jewelry, plate, tapestries, and rich furniture and contributed 50,000 florins. Soldiers were plentiful, for mercenaries released by a lull in the religious wars of France had returned to Germany penniless. Toleration was a necessary policy for William: he had to win Lutherans as well as Calvinists to his banner, and he had to assure the Catholics of the Netherlands that their worship would not be impeded by liberation from Spain.
He planned simultaneous action by three armies. A force of Huguenots from France was to attack Artois in the southwest; Hoogstraaten was to lead his men against Maastricht in the south; Louis of Nassau was to enter Friesland from Germany in the northeast. The Huguenot and Hoogstraaten invasions were repulsed, but Louis won a victory over the Spanish soldiery at Heiligerlee (May 23, 1568). Alva ordered the execution of Egmont and Horn (June 5) to release for action the 3,000 troops that had guarded them and Ghent. With these reinforcements he advanced into Friesland, overwhelmed Louis’ weakened army at Jemmingen (July 21), and killed 7,000 men. Louis escaped by swimming an estuary of the Ems. In October William led 25,000 men into Brabant, resolved to meet Alva in a decisive battle. Alva, with men less numerous but better disciplined, outgeneraled him, and avoided battle except in destructive rearguard attacks. William’s troops, unpaid, refused to fight. He led them to safety in France and disbanded them. Then, disguised as a peasant, he made his way from France to Germany, where he moved from one town to another to avoid assassination. With these disastrous campaigns began the “Eighty Years’ War” waged with unprecedented perseverance by the Netherlands till their final triumph in 1648.
Alva was for the time proud master of the field, but he too was penniless. Philip had arranged with Genoese bankers to send Alva, by sea, 450,000 ducats; but the vessels were forced by English privateers into Plymouth harbor, and Elizabeth, not averse to helping William for such a fee, seized the money with the blandest of apologies. Alva summoned the States-General of nobles and burgesses to Brussels, and proposed to them (March 20, 1569) an immediate tax of one per cent to be levied upon all property, a perpetual tax of 5 per cent on every transfer of realty, and a perpetual tax of 10 per cent on every sale. The assembly protested that since many articles changed ownership several times a year, such a sales tax would approach confiscation. It referred the proposals to the provincial assemblies, and there the opposition was so bitter that Alva had to defer the 10 per cent tax till 1572, and content himself meanwhile with the one per cent tax and a grant of two million florins yearly for two years. Even the one per cent tax was hard and costly to collect. Utrecht refused to pay it; a regiment of soldiery was quanered upon the households; resistance continued; Alva declared the whole district treasonous, abolished its charters and privileges, and confiscated all the property of the inhabitants for the King.
It was this taxation, and the measures taken to enforce it, that defeated the hitherto undefeated Alva. Now nearly the entire population, Catholic as well as Protestant, opposed him, and with rising anger as his impositions hampered and discouraged the business activity upon which the Netherlands had built their prosperity. More skilled in war than in finance, Alva retaliated for Elizabeth’s appropriation of the Genoese funds by seizing English property in the Netherlands and forbidding trade with England. Elizabeth thereupon confiscated Netherland goods in England and diverted English trade to Hamburg. Soon the Netherlands felt the torpor of commercial decay. Shops closed, unemployment mounted, and the powerful business classes, which had borne so patiently the hanging of Protestants and the sacking of churches, secretly meditated, at last financed, revolt. Even the Catholic clergy, fearing the collapse of the national economy, turned against Alva and warned Philip that the Duke was ruining the state.25 Pope Pius V, who had rejoiced over Alva’s victories, joined with Cardinal de Granvelle in deploring Alva’s severity,26 and recommended a general amnesty to all repentant rebels and heretics. Philip agreed and so notified Alva (February 1569), but the Duke asked for delay, and the amnesty was not proclaimed till July 16, 1570. In that year the Pope bestowed the blessed hat and sword upon Alva and the Golden Rose upon Alva’s wife,27 and Philip put the imprisoned Montigny to death (October 16, 1570).
Meanwhile a new force had entered upon the scene. In March 1568 a band of desperate men known as the Wild Beggars turned their ardor to pillaging churches and monasteries and cutting off the noses or ears of priests and monks, as if resolved to rival the barbarities of the Council of Blood.28 In 1569–72 another group, calling themselves Beggars of the Sea, seized control of eighteen vessels, received commissions from William of Orange, raided the Netherland coast, plundered churches and monasteries, preyed upon Spanish shipping, and replenished their provisions in friendly English ports—and even in distant La Rochelle, then held by Huguenots. Wherever a coastal town was left without a Spanish garrison, the Beggars of the Sea rushed in, captured strategic posts, and, by their power to open the dykes, made it dangerous for Spanish forces to approach. Alva could no longer receive supplies by sea. The principal cities of Holland, Zeeland, Gelderland, and Friesland, so protected, gave their allegiance to William of Orange and voted him supplies for war (July 1572). William moved his headquarters to Delft and declared himself “calvus et Calvinista,” bald and Calvinist, which was truer of his head than of his creed. Now Philip van Marnix wrote the song “Wilhelmus van Nassouwen,” which became and still is the national hymn of the Netherlands.
So encouraged, William organized another army and invaded Brabant. At the same time Louis of Nassau, supported by Coligny, raised a force in France, entered Hainaut, and captured Valenciennes and Mons (May 23, 1572). Alva marched to recapture Mons, hoping thereby to discourage further support of Louis by France. William advanced southward to help his brother; he won some minor victories, but too soon exhausted his funds; his troops paid themselves by plundering churches and amused themselves by killing priests.29 Catholic opposition rose; when William’s army neared Brussels it found the gates closed and the citizens armed to resist. Resuming its march, it was but a league from Mons when it was surprised in its sleep by six hundred Spanish soldiers; eight hundred of William’s men were slaughtered before they could organize for defense; William himself barely escaped, fleeing with a remnant of his forces to Mechlin in Brabant. Meanwhile the murder of Coligny and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew ended all hope of aid from France. On September 17 Mons fell to Alva, who allowed Louis and his surviving troops to leave unharmed; but Alva’s general, Philippe de Novarmes, on his own authority, hanged hundreds of the inhabitants, confiscated their property, and bought it in at bargain rates.30
William’s failure in strategy, the excesses of his uncontrollable troops, and the barbarities of the Beggars frustrated his hopes of uniting Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans to oppose Alva’s tyranny. The Beggars, who were nearly all ardent Calvinists, showed against Catholics the same ferocity that the Inquisition and the Council of Blood had shown against rebels and heretics. In many instances they gave Catholic captives a choice between Calvinism and death, and they unhesitatingly killed, sometimes after incredible tortures, those who clung to the old faith.31 Both sides in the conflict put to death many prisoners of war. Wrote a Protestant historian:
On more than one occasion men were seen hanging … their own brothers, who had been taken prisoners in the enemy’s ranks…. The islanders found a fierce pleasure in these acts of cruelty. A Spaniard had ceased to be human in their eyes. On one occasion a surgeon at Veer cut the heart from a Spanish prisoner, nailed it on a vessel’s prow, and invited the townsmen to come and fasten their teeth in it, which many did with savage satisfaction.32
It was these merciless Beggars who defeated Alva. Resting from his campaigns, he bequeathed to his son Don Federigo Álvarez de Toledo the task of recovering and punishing the cities that had declared for William or had surrendered to him. Álvarez began with Mechlin, which offered only a few shots of resistance; priests and citizens came out in a penitent procession to beg that the town be spared. But Alva had ordered an exemplary revenge. For three days Don Federigo’s troops sacked homes, monasteries, and churches, stole the jewels and costly robes of religious statuary, trampled consecrated wafers underfoot, butchered men and violated women, Catholic or Protestant. Advancing into Gelderland, his army overcame the feeble defenses of Zutphen, put nearly every man in the town to death, hanging some by the feet, drowning five hundred by tying them in couples back to back and throwing them into the Ijssel. Little Naarden, after a brief resistance, surrendered; it greeted the conquering Spaniards with tables set with feasts; the soldiers ate and drank, then killed every person in the town. They passed on to Haarlem, a Calvinist center which had shown especial enthusiasm for the revolt. A garrison of four thousand troops defended the city so resolutely that Don Federigo proposed to withdraw. Alva threatened to disown him if he desisted from the siege. Barbarities multiplied; each side hanged captives on gibbets facing the enemy, and the defenders infuriated the besiegers by staging on the ramparts parodies of Catholic rites.33William sent three thousand men to attack Don Federigo’s army; they were destroyed, and all further efforts to relieve Haarlem failed. After a siege of seven months, and after being reduced to eating weeds and leather, the city surrendered (July 11, 1573). Of the garrison only 1,600 survived; most of these were put to death; four hundred leading citizens were executed; the rest were spared on agreeing to pay a fine of 250,000 guilders.
This was the last and most costly victory of Alva’s regime. Over twelve thousand of the besieging army had died of wounds or disease, and hateful taxes had poured their proceeds fruitlessly into the sieve of war. Philip, who counted pennies rather than lives, discovered that Alva was not only unpopular but expensive, and that his general’s methods were uniting the Netherlands against Spain. Alva felt the veering of the wind and asked to be relieved. He boasted that he had executed eighteen thousand rebels;34 but the heretics were as strong as when he came; moreover, they controlled the ports and the sea, and the provinces of Holland and Zeeland were completely lost to the King. The Bishop of Namur estimated that Alva in seven years had done more harm to Catholicism than Luther and Calvinism had done in a generation.35 Alva’s resignation was accepted; he left the Netherlands (December 18, 1573), was well received by Philip, and, aged seventy-two, led the Spanish armies in the conquest of Portugal (1580). Returning from that campaign, he fell into a lingering fever, and was kept alive only by drinking milk from a woman’s breast. He died December 12, 1582, having lived a year on milk and half a century on blood.