Mons, Hainaut, Wallonia, Belgium
Mons, known in Flemish as Bergen, is today one of the main cities of Wallonia and Belgium. In the south of the country, Mons is entirely French-speaking. It was of great importance during the Spanish period and was the site of several significant events during the Eighty Years’ War, and between 1580 and 1584 Alexander Farnese established the seat of the Spanish Netherlands in Mons.
The city remains an important point of Western military strategy today, hosting NATO headquarters since 1967.
Few, if any, Spanish remains are left in the city; and to tell the truth, the main reason for me to visit it is the fact that it was named European Capital of Culture in 2015.
Today, the collegiate church of Sainte Wadru, which was completed during the Spanish period, stands out, as well as the bell tower declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, and also its castle.
The city, like so many others, is arranged around the Grand Place where the City Hall is located. The city contains several museums and this year, following its designation as a World Heritage Site, it is hosting various exhibitions.
It is a small city of just over 90,000 inhabitants, very welcoming and old-fashioned. It is well connected to the rest of the country and has a small university.
The most remarkable event of the Spanish era was once again a military one, in this case the Siege of Mons in 1572.
At the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War, in 1572 Louis of Nassau took the city, mainly with the help of French Huguenots.
Faced with this action, the tercios under the leadership of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo (then 3rd Duke of Alba) quickly prepared to reconquer the city.
The first thing the Duke of Alba wanted to avoid was to stop the possible advance of French support from the south. To this end, he sent two of his sons, Don Fadrique and Don Rodrigo de Toledo, together with the field master Chipino Vitello.
Skirmishes with the rebel troops garrisoned in Mons soon began.
The French Protestant admiral Coligny sent more reinforcements from France to try to free the city from the siege. Don Fadrique was informed and decided to temporarily lift the siege due to the enemy’s numerical advantage.
On their arrival the French vanguard confronted the Spanish rearguard and due to the fact that they did not see the bulk of the Spanish contingent which was already in a nearby wood, the French, confident of victory, launched an attack on the Spanish troops. But the reality is that the idea could not have turned out worse for them and resulted in a total and crushing defeat for the French troops, with very heavy casualties.
Mons was once again unprotected.
It was against this situation that the Duke of Alba decided to move permanently to Mons to take command of the troops. It was then that William d’Orange decided to cross the Rhine with more than 17,000 men with the intention of helping the besieged, but his troops were held back at Weert where a small Spanish garrison delayed their march for more than a month. During this time, the Spanish troops completed their encirclement of the city.
On his way to Mons, William of Orange was mainly raging against the Catholic population that ended up turning against him and delaying his way again. Finally, on September 9, the Protestant troops arrived near the Spanish camp.
The Spaniards repelled the rebel attacks but did not want to pursue them so as not to break the siege of the city.
In spite of not facing Orange’s troops, other strategies were developed.
During the 80 years war, the Spaniards often developed a tactic known as “encamisada». Like the one carried out by the Spanish field master Julián Romero in the camp of Guillermo of Orange. This military action almost ended Orange’s life and more than 600 rebels died at the hands of only 60 Spaniards. Shortly after, his army desisted from helping the troops of Luis de Nassau who remained in Mons.
The encamisada can be defined as a surprise attack carried out at night, or in the first hours of dawn: a small group (between 50 and 2000 soldiers), armed with light weapons made an accurate blow on the enemy positions. To distinguish themselves in the darkness of the night, the attackers used to wear a white camisole over their clothing or armor, which, in addition to identifying their comrades, covered the glare of the armor, which could give away their position.
From the Italian wars onwards, the «encamisadas» were considered a typically Spanish action.
In the Flanders wars this tactic was widely developed, mainly due to the duration of the conflict.
However, what caused the balance to be tipped in favor of the Spanish side was an event that took place in France. On the night of Saint Bartholomew there was an important massacre of French Huguenots in France. In it some of their main leaders (like Coligny) died. William of Orange understood that he was not going to receive any reinforcement from the south, so he decided to retreat abandoning his brother Louis. This time the Spanish troops did pursue the Dutch causing them important losses.
In a short time the Flemish cities previously taken by William of Orange, such as Ooudenarden, Terramunda or Tilemont, were recovered.
Throughout the seventeenth century Mons was of great importance in the Spanish strategy in the area, being again besieged on several occasions and falling into French hands at the end of the century.