Fair gentlefolk of the shire of Adamastor, once again I must crave your indulgence. Not only am I about to inflict upon you yet another offering in my occasional series of very dodgy historical articles, but I am also going to indulge myself by telling a tale based on what, for my persona, is both recent and local history. I most humbly beg your forgiveness for my impudence and sincerely hope that, despite its many and manifold shortcomings, my tale provides you with some little pleasure.
Of the many tragedies that occurred within the Spanish-Dutch war, one of the saddest was the senseless and treacherous murder of Lamoral, Count of Egmont, the most dashing and romantic cavalier of his time. This is not the story of that tragedy. This is the story of the glorious days that preceded it(1). I have decided to exercise my editorial discretion and present for you only the opening act of the tragic tale, not, I must confess, out of any serious academic motives, but merely because I have a strong personal preference for happy stories(2).
Our story opens in Brussels. A 16th century Brussels, sprouting with colour and atmosphere, for today the glamour boys of European chivalry have turned out in force to witness the abdication of Charles V in favour of his son, Philip II. The previous year Charles had handed over the Holy Roman Empire to the tender mercies of his brother Maximilian(3). This year, he was to hand his remaining possessions (the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Morocco, the Americas and a few other odds and ends) to his son Philip.
Philip was delighted and couldn’t wait to begin playing with all his new toys(4). As soon as the formalities were over (a few oaths here, a few documents signed there), he gathered his generals together and unleashed them on a not altogether unsuspecting France. His most experienced general, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alva, was placed in charge of the invading army and King Philip remained in Brussels with a small force under the command of the Count of Egmont.
Now Pope Paul IV wasn’t exactly overjoyed at being summarily handed over to Spain by Charles and threw his weight behind the French. In response, the Duke of Alva crossed the Alps, demolished the Papal army and seized most of the Pope’s lands. Hearing that the Spanish army was the other side of the Alps, Coligny, the recently appointed Admiral of France, decided to hop into Flanders and do a bit of plundering. So far, so good. Pretty much a normal day at the office for 16th century Europe.
At this point Egmont stepped in. Young counts aren’t particularly good at garrison duty at the best of times. When it’s their land being plundered, it takes a lot more than an order to stay put to stop them taking revenge. Coligny was halfway home and feeling very pleased with himself when he suddenly discovered that the entire northern division of the Spanish-Dutch army was bearing down on him at full speed. Pausing only for a suitably French expletive, the Admiral bolted for the nearby castle of St. Quentin and locked the doors behind him.
Montmorency, the Constable of France, had originally been a little put out by Coligny’s decision to wander off plundering on his own, but now that the Admiral had given him the chance to destroy Philip’s army of the north, all was forgiven. The Constable gathered together the flower of French chivalry and marched north to relieve St. Quentin.
Commonsense suggests that this would have been a good point for Egmont & co. to shuffle off home with the booty they had acquired en route. However, commonsense and Lamoral, Count of Egmont had at best only a nodding acquaintance. The young cavalier saw before him a superior force, composed of the cream of the French army and led by its most senior commander. Immediately, all of his neurons marked “chance of immortal glory” kicked into overdrive(5).
The French (for fairly obvious reasons) were not expecting the Count to attack. Nor were they expecting his strategy of dispensing with the usual preliminaries and launching straight into the suicidal cavalry charge phase. One of the advantages of having a commander with the tactical ability of a rabid mongoose is that the enemy finds him somewhat unpredictable. The Admiral, looking on from the safety of his castle, watched in disbelief as Egmont and his fellow psychopaths proceeded to annihilate the French army.
When King Philip turned up a little later on the young count was able to present him with: the French standards, the French guns, the Constable of France, one Prince, one Marshal, three Dukes, half a dozen Counts and one somewhat ruffled partridge in a pear tree. The King was rather chuffed and gave young Eggie a big pat on the back. However, he decided that knocking over the castle of St Quentin was more important than conquering France, so he decided to stop the advance at this point(6).
This unexpected pause allowed the emissaries of Pope Paul IV to catch up with the king. They tore strips off the till now triumphant monarch for daring to seize Papal lands. Philip was surprised by their vehemence. Hadn’t the Pope attacked him first? Still, popes will be popes. Philip told the messengers that it had all been a silly misunderstanding and sent a message to Alva ordering him to return all his conquests and to apologise personally to the Pope for his impudence. The King then arranged a treaty with France and told Egmont to take his army home.
So ended the first campaign of King Philip II. It had no effect whatsoever on the borders of Europe(7). As far as I can tell, its only major effects were to infuriate the Duke, to humiliate the French and to convert the Admiral(8). Still, King Philip seemed happy and Egmont was the toast of Flanders.
Less than a year later, the French couldn’t stand the humiliation any longer. They tore up the treaty, sacked Calais (held at the time by Philip’s English allies) and invaded Flanders. The Duke of Alva was delighted. Here was his chance to win some victories that no one could throw away. He had just dug up all his old plans when suddenly he was struck by a horrible thought. That idiot Egmont was closer to the enemy than he was. The Duke immediately whipped off a despatch, ordering the Count to wait for him(9).
Egmont added the remnants of the English forces to his army, and marched south to meet the invaders, pausing only to throw Alva’s orders in the nearest canal. The French, hearing of his advance, prepared a well-defended position near Gravelines on the banks of the Aa, one of Europe’s more imaginatively named rivers(10). Once again, the French forces were stronger and they had had time to prepare. Cold hard logic suggested that the misgivings of the Duke of Alva (who was riding post-haste with the King and the remainder of the forces to try and save the Netherlands from Egmont’s stupidity) were well founded. Alas for the French, cold hard logic was out to lunch.
Egmont surveyed the scene before him. The battle was raging, the infantry were slowly but surely being forced back by the French, his commander was coming to replace him and there, behind him, was the might of Flemish chivalry. They were mounted on their finest horses, their armour glinted in the sun, their pennants streamed out behind them. It was for Egmont a matter of a moment to take in the scene, point at the strongest point of the French defences, cry “Havoc”(11) and let slip the clogs of war.
The French defenders saw the charge. No doubt they shrugged their shoulders in that charming Gallic way. They loaded the artillery and calmly demolished the front rank of Egmont’s cavalry. They then paused to admire their handiwork and wait for the smoke to clear. At this point, the second, third and fourth ranks of Egmont’s cavalry (followed by the Count on a new horse – all heroes get their horses shot out from under them at least once in my stories) smashed through and proceeded to slaughter the French centre. King Philip and the Duke arrived on the scene a few hours later to find the victory complete, the road to Paris open and the French even more abject than before.
King Philip was over the moon(12). He upgraded the Count to stateholder of Flanders and Artois(13) as a reward for his suicidal insanity and chided Alva for his caution. The Duke finally snapped. He stood up in front of Philip and gave Egmont a very precise and very personal description of his (Egmont’s) ancestry, intelligence and personal appearance. The Count’s response of “Who won the war then, garlic breath?” completely failed to soothe the Duke’s savage breast. From that point on, relations between the two great generals were always somewhat less than cordial. However, let us not allow this petty quarrel to mar our celebrations. This is the happy part of King Philip’s reign and the very zenith of Egmont’s star: let us stop and savour the moment.
Victory and its reflected glory shine on all concerned. King Philip II, after less than a year on the throne has France at his feet. The Count of Egmont is being fêted in every town in the Netherlands and even the Duke of Alva can console himself that man is mortal (tactless counts doubly so) and that temporal glory is but a passing thing. Now, rise and drink a toast to the gallant Lamoral, Count of Egmont, the bravest, if not the brightest, military leader of his day.
(1) The Dutch establishment of the 16th century were classophiles of the 1st order. Prince Maurice of Nassau – the inventor of parade ground drill and the patron unsaint of private soldiers for the last 400 years – based his strategies on Caesar’s propaganda pamphlets and Hugo de Groot’s(a) claim to fame was a rehash of the old Roman legal system. As ancient Greek tragedies all start with great victories, triumphs and celebrations, it is hardly surprising that the tragedy of Egmont followed the same pattern(b).
(3) Sans Italy and the Pope. The mutual admiration, respect and co-operation between Pope and Emperor had not exactly been a by-word since the inception of the Holy Roman Empire in 800AD and neither side was entirely sorry to see the back of the other. (Remembering, of course, that if you can see your opponent’s back, you can always stick a knife in it.)
(4) Up until then he had been King of England, France and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Henry II and Suleyman the Magnificent had their own opinions about the latter two titles and his missus, Queen Vodka and Tomato Juice herself, had the final say in matters north of the channel. The number of kingdoms actually controlled by Philip prior to 1550 could be counted on the fingers of a single foot.
(5) Egmont’s speech before St. Quentin in which he pleads with his officers for the chance to cross swords with the Constable could have come straight from the mouth of one of M. Dumas’ musketeers or Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sir Nigel. I have a recurring nightmare. In it, I am posted to a regiment on active service and I see on the top of the notice board the words “Commanding Officer: Lamoral, Count of Egmont”.
(6) When Charles heard the Philip had passed up the chance to conquer France in order to secure a half-starved castle in Picardy, he did his nut. The staff at the retirement village spent the remainder of the campaign in fear of more bad news from Philip. It is amazing how difficult it is to force-feed nice warm gruel to an old age pensioner who insists on yelling and screaming and belting you with his walking stick.
(9) Something along the lines of “To the high born lord, Lamoral, Count of Egmont, greetings. If you even think about moving your forces until I join you and take command, I will cut off your spectacles(a) and feed them to my pet wolfhound. I remain, for my sins, your commanding officer (and don’t you forget it), Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alva”.
(10) Possibly short for “Aaagh”, the drowning cry of an early explorer. Alternatively after “Ah”, the noise made during a thoughtful pause by a Batavian celt confronted with a Roman general inquiring in Latin as to the name of a river.