Maastricht, rehearsal before the great work of Farnese

Maastricht, Limburg, The Netherlands (known in old Spanish as Mastrique)

Nowadays, there is no doubt that Maastricht is one of the best known cities in the Netherlands. Although it is not one of the largest cities and the most southerly, Maastricht is quite popular among tourists. Its strategic location between Germany and Belgium gives Maastricht a distinctive identity different from other áreas of the Netherlands. Even Dutch language has special nuances here…

But above all, Maastricht is known for the signing in 1992 of the TEU (Treaty of the European Union), also known as the Maastricht Treaty. The importance of this treaty is fundamental to understanding the current reality of the EU, since it put an end to the EEC and began to drive towards political and economic unión, giving greater legitimacy to the European institutions and developing a common foreign and security policy. Without going any further into this subject, any student or profesional involved in law, economics or IR Will probably be aware of its relevance.

As in many other European cities, the first thing I notice when I left the railway station is a huge “sea” of bicycles parked in front of the station. Very useful for getting around a flat city, such as Maastricht.

As one of the oldest cities in The Netherlands, walking through its streets reveals numerous churches, city walls, historic houses and squares mingled with modern shops and markets. The Basilica of Saint Servatius (a bishop who brought Christianity to this parto f Europe) stands out, as well as other curious monuments, such as an old church now converted into a bookshop under the spiritual and religious crisis that the country is suffering.

However, the situation in Maastricht in the 16th century was far from what it is today.

In 1576, Philip II was King of Spain. He inherited from his father Chales I the Netherlands for the Hispanic monarchy. Since 1568, the 80 years wars had been going on, being the governor of the Netherlands since 1573, Luis de Requesens.

 After his death, don Juan de Austria (recognised son of Charles I) was appointed as the new governor. While he was on his way to Brussels, the States general of the Netherlands signed the Pacification of Ghent, whereby they would accept a peace with Spain. In January 1577, Juan de Austria had no choice but to accept the agreement, which among other conditions included the departure of the Spanish tropos from the Netherlands and that William of Orange would act as head of government together with a “guardian” appointed by the King. Thus, the Spanish tercios (army) left the Netherlands back to Italy.

However, it did not take long for the Dutch to rebel against Spain, forcing Juan de Austria to take refuge in Luxembourg; from where  he called back the tropos from Italy.

Maybe that could have been the time for Spain to forget the Netherlands for Good, and devote its efforts to keep Italy and Portugal and to spread Catholicism in America and Asia, instead of trying to impose it on Dutch merchants and Protestant princes.

In the Netherlands remained Walloon troops. However, the Spanish tercios could be compared to elite troops in the sixteenth century and their presence was crucial for the outcome of any conflict, hence Juan de Austria’s call.

At the beginning of don Juan de Austria’s rule, there were fewer than three provinces loyal to the Crown, out of the 17 that made up the Netherlands at the time. Moreover, as was almost always the case, the rebels were supported by foreign powers (England, of course).

Thus, against this backdrop, the Spanish troops returned to Flanders, in this case under the command of another of the great figures of Spain at the time, Alexander Farnese (Duke of Parma).

Shortly before the beginning of 1578, the Spanish tercios were already back in Flanders. At first, Farnese’s troops quickly and relatively easily took a large number of cities that were in rebel hands, notably Namur, Louvain and Philipeville. They thus managed to turn round a critical situation.

Farnese Coat of Arms

1578 was a good year for the Spanish troops as it meant the rapid recovery of a large part of the Flemish and Dutch possessions, but the year ended with the death of Don Juan, who was succeeded by Farnese as captain general.

Alexander Farnese soon set his sights on the Dutch town of Maastricht and in 1579 it was besieged.

Maastricht was of vital importance, firstly because it was the gateway to the aid the rebels received from Germany and secondly because of the insecurity caused by raids from there on the bishopric of Liège, which always stood by Spanish interests.

Lope de Vega himself depicted the siege of Maastricht in his tragicomedy: «El asalto de Mastrique por el Príncipe de Parma» (The siege of Maastricht by the Prince of Parma), which was a key part of the Flanders wars. Lope himself, in his characteristic style, refers to the hardships suffered by the soldiers in Flanders:

«¡Oh guerra, soberbia, altiva, sangrienta, homicida y fea! ¡Que viva un cura mil años / entre el frasco y el pernil / y que aquí un soldado vil / muera por reinos extraños!»

(Not sure about what would be the proper translation in English…)

After new victories in Belgium (Kerpen, Erclers and near Antwerp), Farnese moved on to Maastricht, where they set up their first camp on 8 March 1579.

The Spanish troops cut off communications across the Meuse and began to build forts, trenches and ditches near the weakest parts of the town walls, which were defended by over 4,000 men, commanded by the Frenchman Sébastien Tapino, assisted by the Spanish captain (renegade) Manzano.

As usual, the siege involved a bloody war of mines and countermines, the aim of which was to blow up the city walls. Each of the tercios commanded by Don Hernando de Toledo, Lope de Figueroa and Francisco Valdés (the only three Spanish tercios in Flanders), and the Burgundian, Walloon and German «brigades» played a very active and decisive role throughout the siege, in the different operations that took place.

On 7 April, after making progress in the trench work, and the sealing off of part of the moat, the final assault on the city began. The troops were prepared for the general assault and, as usual, the hospitals and priests were distributed among the trenches. However, this first attempt at a general assault failed, mainly thanks to the good work of the besieged.

After this first assault, Spanish ammunition was severely depleted, and Farnese decided to build an earthen platform from which to attack the inner fortifications. For their part, the rebels had built a new moat and reinforced the inner security of the city. The resistance of the defenders made it necessary for the Spanish attackers to build fortified towers.

The city was completely isolated, as William of Orange had refused to come to its aid when it was impossible to help it, and the final assault took place on 28 June with Farnese having just recovered from an illness.

Motivated in part by the stubborn resistance of the besieged, and by the fact that they had not been paid for months, the Spanish troops moved against the city. After the entry of the besiegers, Tapino thought he could still defend the city and ordered the wealth and soldiers to be moved to the other side of the river, crossing the stone bridge that separated the city in two. Tapinus ordered the bridge to be raised for better defence, and in their flight the Mossenes tripped over each other, many falling to the ground and into the river as they were unable to protect themselves.

At the same time, they were persecuted by the Spanish, who in one of the less proud episodes of the Flanders wars, sacked and slaughtered the city, resulting in thousands of deaths (sources differ as to the exact number).

Despite Tapino’s attempts to surrender, the Spanish troops took the square by force, as this was the only way to allow looting. Tapino saved his life by taking refuge in a church, and a ransom was obtained for him. Manzano, on the other hand, was executed as a traitor practically on the spot.

About 2,500 men were killed by the royal armies, including Spaniards and other nations. Despite the large number, Farnese’s genius and the major engineering works carried out during the siege limited Spanish casualties.

However, after such great efforts, Maastricht would only remain in Spanish hands for 53 years, as in 1632, with virtually no resistance, the Dutch finally recovered the city. The tercios were beginning to show signs of their decline, and the rescue of the town was a total disaster.

Even so, the war would continue until 1648, with the final independence of the United Provinces.

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