Ostend, West Flanders, Flanders, Belgium
Ostend is a small port city in Belgium, located around 15 kilometres from Bruges. It is the main town on the Belgian coast, whose 70 kilometres of coastline are home to local tourist resorts such as Nieuwpoort and Oosduinkerke, as well as De Panne on the border with France.
Today it has a promenade alongside which is an area frequented by local tourists in summer and surrounded by stalls selling fish and seafood from the North Sea. It gives a certain air of a type of «Belgian Benidorm». Far from being a quiet town, the centre of Ostend is always bustling with activity.
The city also has a rich historical and artistic heritage, including the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Although it is not one of the driving forces of modern-day Belgium, Ostend, like most towns and villages in the region, has a history that is closely linked to that of Spain including the Spanish Tercios. And the events that took place here had very important consequences for the development of the Eighty Years’ War (or Flanders War).
Specifically, we are referring to the Siege of Ostend, between 1601 and 1604.
In 1601, Philip III (or rather his favourite, the Duke of Lerma) was ruling. At that time Spain was still developing its world hegemony. However, the economic situation was truly miserable. The majority of the population lived in poverty and much of the income from America was spent on the wars of the Empire.
The end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th probably coincided with one of the highest peaks in Spain’s war activity.
Not only was Spain fighting the Eighty Years’ War with its tercios, in the context of which the Siege of Ostend took place, but it also had time to confront England (which was beginning to awaken as a power), France (in its wars of religion) and the Ottomans in the Mediterranean.
In 1601, Ostend was the only Dutch-held town in Flanders. Until the mid-16th century, it was merely a small fishing village, but with the outbreak of war, the United Provinces realised its strategic importance on the North Sea.
Since 1598, the governors of the Netherlands were Elisabeth Clara Eugenie and Archduke Charles of Austria, and for them Ostend was a constraint on trade and shipping as well as a problem in stabilising the Catholic zone.
Because of the amount of resources expended on the siege, the Siege of Ostend is considered a complete campaign.
Siege was a tactic commonly used by the tercios. Rather, they were long battles in which whoever held out the longest eventually won the day, but not without first paying a high price for victory in the form of immense losses of both lives and resources, losses which often overshadowed the military victories.
In 1601 Ostend was a fortified city with a garrison of eight thousand men. The siege began on 5 June, with the Spanish tercios of Rivas, Monroy and Villar involved.
However, Maestre Monroy was soon killed by a cannon shot, and was replaced by Simón Antúnez. He was not the only field master to die, as the same thing happened to Juan de Bracamonte, who was replaced by Álvarez Juárez de Quiñones.
For months there were skirmishes, attacks and counterattacks between besiegers and besieged, reaching a point at which it seemed that the situation would never be unblocked.
However, at that time the Genoese Ambrosio de Spinola was placed at the head of the Catholic troops. Thus, Ostend was the glorification of one of the most important figures of the Spanish presence in Flanders.
In 1603 and without much progress in the siege, Ambrosio Spinola was appointed as the main person in charge of the siege. With no previous military experience, he ended up becoming Captain General of Flanders and was immortalised by Velázquez after the surrender of Breda in his well-known painting.
At the same time, the figure of Maurice of Nassau, one of the many sons of William of Orange, who had caused Spain so many setbacks, was emerging in the Dutch armies.
Maurice of Nassau attacked the town of Grave, which surrendered after two months. This attack was intended to divide the Catholic army and distract the besieging forces. He succeeded in his aim, as the siege was almost lifted. However, thanks to Spinola’s determination, the siege was able to continue. Spinola completely blockaded the city and built new dykes and trenches.
Due to the strategic and religious importance of Ostend, the prolongation of the siege also became the subject of international controversy and the fighting involved Dutch, Flemish, Walloon, , Tudesque, German, Italian, French, English, Irish troops… often motivated by religious motives in a new confrontation between Protestantism and Catholicism.
As usual, the siege was accompanied by a war of mines and countermines, which meant that there were so many Spanish casualties that Spinola had to reinforce them with Tudescos.
At the beginning of September 1604, the canal supplying the city was blocked and finally, on 20 September 1604, after demolishing part of the city walls, the then governor of the city, Daniel d’Hertaing, surrendered it to Ambrosio de Spinola.
Ostend would remain in the hands of the Crown for the next 100 years, and the United Provinces lost one of their main base ports.
After the end of the campaign both sides were exhausted. This was one of the reasons for the 12-year peace, especially as Philip III had little interest in Flanders, focused as he was on his clashes with the English.
It is true that shortly before the fall of Ostend, Maurice of Nassau had taken the town of Sluis (Sluis), in present-day Zeeland Flanders, which was to become a new port for Dutch operations. However, despite Protestant attempts to make the town more valuable, it never achieved the importance of Ostend.
The Siege of Ostend was the longest military campaign of the Eighty Years’ War, in which more than 100,000 people died on both sides. Because of the harshness of the siege, Ostend always held a special place for the Spanish monarchy. As reflected in the fact that all its governors for the next 100 years were Spanish.
Today the siege of Ostend is completely forgotten in Spain and there is nothing in the town to remind us of it.
Today Ostend is nothing more than a quiet Western European town, where except for a few German buildings from the Second World War and a NATO Centre of Excellence (CEO), nothing would make you imagine what happened at the beginning of the 17th century.