Namur, Province of Namur, Wallonia, Belgium
Normally, when we talk about the history of Spain, we focus on Flanders. In Spain we associate this region simply with Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent… in other words, the cities of present-day Belgian Flanders, which still retains the same name. But the truth is that what was known in Spain as Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries covered a much wider region.
The Spanish Netherlands included practically the whole of the Low Countries, present-day Flanders, Luxembourg and Wallonia. However, since the death of Charles I, the monarchy did not have complete control of all these areas at the same time.
This is why most of Spain’s historical facts and events in the region take place in Flanders. The Protestant religion and the rebellious nature of the Flemish and Dutch meant that it was there where Spain carried out most of its warfare and cultural activity.
However, we tend to leave out the southern provinces, namely Wallonia and Luxembourg. Without the loyalty of their cities it would have been very difficult to maintain Spanish possessions in the Netherlands for two centuries.
Curious to know more about the history of Spain in the south, I decided to travel to Namur accompanied by a couple of Greek girls, a German and an Andalusian fellow countryman.
Namur is the current capital of the Belgian region of Wallonia, although it does not have the demographic or economic influence of other cities in the region such as Charleroi or Liège. After the Spanish presence, Namur passed through Flemish, French and Austrian hands. After the defeat of Napoleon it became part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and finally after the revolution of 1830 it was included in what is now Belgium.
Today Namur is spread out in the shadow of its citadel, which attracts a large number of tourists and which is perfectly restored and preserved and sits on steep slopes.
During Spanish rule in Namur, there were no major battles, no endless sieges… but it is worth noting the architectural works that took place in the city during the Spanish period, as well as the city’s loyalty to the king.
Walloon cities are not as spectacular as those in the north. The Spanish traveller does not usually go there specifically to visit them, despite the proximity of their people and their more Latinised character. Travel agencies usually include tours of the large northern cities, leaving aside the Walloon cities of Liège, Mons and Namur, among others.
It is true that the spectacular nature of Flemish cities cannot be compared with those of Wallonia, which tend to consist of a small, well-kept historic centre and a few more remote monuments. They are usually very comfortable cities to live in and integrated in nature, as is the case of Namur.
Namur, apart from being the capital of Wallonia, is especially renowned for its Saint Aubin cathedral and its spectacular fortress. Situated at the crossroads of the rivers Sambre and Meuse, the fortress dominates the whole valley.
The fortress was designed and developed during the Spanish period, by both the Spanish and the Walloons.
Both the citadel and the old, now non-existent city walls were built entirely during the Spanish period. However, it now seems that attention is only focused on the modern modifications made by the French and Dutch. Of particular note are those carried out by the French engineer Vauban.
The inner castle with its circular towers dates from the 13th century, but everything else is the work of the Spanish and Walloons.
In 1542, still under Charles V rule, construction of the fortress began, and successive modifications and extensions were made in 1570, 1640 and 1655.
Most of these alterations were carried out mainly at a time when France was threatening to expand northwards. The fortress made Namur one of the most important towns in the area, generating a great deal of activity around it. Moreover, France never managed to take the fortress, which remained inexpugnable.
As mentioned in previous articles, Don Juan de Austria replaced Luis de Requesens in 1576 as governor of the Low Countries.
After the departure of the Spanish troops, William of Orange soon broke the agreement reached at Ghent (Pacification of Ghent). After the initial success of the de Orange in the north (the provinces of Zeeland and Holland), Juan de Austria himself was forced to take refuge in Namur, from where he appealed to Philip II for help.
While it is true that the Spanish victories were achieved by superiority in arms, it was also due to the recklessness of William d’Orange.
Because of the difficulties in convincing the Flemish nobles of the rebellion, William planned to assassinate Don Juan de Austria. However, he was so convinced of his success that he had no problem with his plans being aired. So Juan de Austria went to Namur with the excuse of receiving Princess Marguerite, sister of the King of France, who was coming to take a bath (although in fact she was very close to Juan…).
Don Juan praised the city walls and it was from there that, seeing clearly the Dutch uprising, he asked Philip II for help.
Moreover, after the King’s authorisation in 1578 and the return of the Spanish troops to Flanders, the city of Namur was one of the first to come back under full Spanish control after the Battle of Namur in 1578. Anecdotally, this battle is also known as the «Battle of the Spurs», as it is said that the rebels had to chop their mounts to escape from the battlefield.
After going to Luxembourg and rejoining his troops (17,000 men), Juan de Austria returned to Namur, where the rebel troops (25,000 men) were heading. However, this time the battle did not take place in Namur, but in nearby Gembloux. Despite the Dutch belief that the Spaniards would arrive tired from the long journey from Italy, the victory was overwhelming, and most Flemish nobles fled north from Brussels.
Thus, we can say that Flanders began to be reconquered in Namur after the uprising of William d’Orange.
The army that came to the aid of Juan de Austria included great generals and veterans of Lepanto, such as Alexander Farnese, Mondragon, Toledo,…
However, Namur is not only linked to the figure of Juan de Austria, but also to that of Archduke Albert.
Albert was the brother of Anne of Austria (wife of Philip II). In 1595 he was entrusted with the government of the Netherlands. After passing through Luxembourg, the first city he went to was Namur, where he was received along with several Flemish nobles by Don Pedro Enriquez de Acevedo, Count of Fuente, who had governed the States for a year since the death of the previous governor Archduke Ernest.
According to the chronicles, Namur was then quite a large town, with more than 4000 inhabitants. It was the head of the county of the same name and was under the command of Berlaymont, a Flemish nobleman loyal to the Crown. The town was walled, making it a difficult fortress to take, as its walls were surrounded by rivers.
The city had 2,000 men who joined Archduke Albert, who reorganised the tercios from there as they were short of men.
In short, Namur was vital, as it was the key point through which troops crossed the Meuse from north to south on their way to Flanders.
As a common quartering area for troops, Namur was also the site of a number of mutinies.
In order to establish Catholicism and curb Protestant expansion, Namur also became a new bishopric in which numerous religious orders were established. In addition, the army commanded by Ambrose Spinola arrived in Namur in 1602.
The city was thus central to the Spanish strategy.
Not only was Don Juan’s life linked to Namur, but also his death, for it was here that the victor of Lepanto died at the age of just 31. Although his body is buried next to that of Charles V in El Escorial, his heart is kept in the cathedral of Saint Aubin in Namur.