The sack of Mechelen

Mechelen, Province of Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium
This time I travelled to Mechelen.

Today, it is a very quiet town in the province of Antwerp, a small treasure away from the tourist crowds in the heart of Belgium. Spain had presence here too. However, you have to dig a little to find this past, which often does not present itself directly to the visitor’s eyes.
It’s Saturday and I’ve been out in Liège the night before, so for a change I oversleep and miss the train my friends had taken. Luckily, the Saint Guillemins station in Liège has hourly connections to the whole of Belgium. After a couple of track changes, I arrive in Mechelen. The day is perfect or rather the usual one: greyish with a sky threatening rain and through which sunbeams sneak in from time to time. At least, it does not rain.

The road leading from the train station to the city centre runs through wide, commercial streets, some of which are closed to traffic and cross over the Dijle River, which flows through the city. On arriving at the «Grand Place», the Cathedral of St. Romuald with its magnificent tower, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and the Town Hall, which preserves effigies, tapestries and heraldic coats of arms relating to Charles V, impress the visitor.

There is a curious story related to the tower of Saint Romuald. On the night of 27-28 January 1687, the neighbours thought that there was a fire at the top of the tower, so they went up with buckets and water to extinguish it. But it turned out that the fire was not a fire at all, but a reddish reflection of the moon.

Saint Romuald Cathedral’s Tower

Since then the inhabitants of Mechelen have been known as «maneblussers», which in English means «those who extinguish the moon».
Incidentally, I discover that in the cathedral there is a tomb dedicated to Doña María de Cárdenas, wife of a «great» of Spain: Ernesto Dominique de Croy. Further proof that if you look closely you can still find traces of the Iberian past in these countries. For those who would like to get to know places like this and would like to prepare them before their visit, I recommend the book «Recuerdos españoles en Flandes», by Antonio Bermejo Herreros.

Grave of Doña María de Cárdenas

Charles V was educated in Mechelen by his aunt Margaret of Austria, governor of the Netherlands. Margaret always showed an inclination towards the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs. Today a statue of her can be found in the main square of Mechelen.
Her remains were laid to rest in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, also in Mechelen, which can be visited.
The renovated palace of Margaret of Austria, where Charles V was educated, can still be seen today. Margaret was much loved in Mechelen. After her death the capital of the Netherlands was moved to Brussels and Mechelen eventually declined into the quiet provincial town it is today.

What cannot be visited (it is now occupied by other buildings) is the hospital that Alexander Farnese had built in the main square of Mechelen for the troops, which was subsidised by part of the troops’ salaries.
It is also worth visiting the Church of St John and the Church of Our Lady of Dijle.

I personally did not visit it, but there is also an important toy museum for those who are curious to see it.

Mechelen is also well known for its beer. As a Fleming by birth, Charles V loved beer, and when he moved to Castile he had his own brewers brought over from Mechelen. Until then, the brewing industry was not very well established in Spain, but the emperor’s taste for beer gave it an important boost. In fact, after his abdication, his trusted brewer accompanied him to Yuste.
In Mechelen, the «Het Anker» brewery stands out. They brew the beer that Charles himself used to drink. It is therefore a good idea to try this Flemish beer, which the emperor already enjoyed to quench his thirst for the salty and spicy products of the time.

In terms of historical events, Mechelen is best known for the sacking it suffered in the 16th century.

The city of Mechelen was subjected to one of the main pillages or sackings carried out by the royal troops during the Eighty Years’ War. The sack took place between 2 and 4 October 1572.

The troops of the Duke of Alba, commanded by his son Don Fadrique, were given permission to sack the city at will. For three days the Spanish troops, made up of soldiers of many different nationalities, had free rein to sack the city.

Among other reasons, it was this type of behaviour that made the troops of the tercios feared and hated by many of the inhabitants of Flanders.
In the context of the time, it was a common act of war carried out by all armies. They involved the civilian population in warfare and often did not solve but rather aggravated existing problems.

In the case of Spanish troops, looting was not always permitted. A number of conditions and requirements had to be met to make the violent looting of a city by soldiers permissible.
It would take another article to explain these rules. However, there is plenty of information on the regulations of the time, and anyone interested will have no problem in finding information on the subject.

In Mechelen, as in other sacked cities, the ordinance regulating this type of act was applied. As M. Barros says: «By order of nationality, since the imperial tercios were composed of soldiers from different territories, they had to limit themselves to the spoliation of goods with the exception of sacred and ecclesiastical goods for a maximum of three days. Although sexual abuse and violence of any kind were theoretically forbidden, this prohibition was not enforced, bypassing the supposedly allied Catholics themselves. Mass rape was the order of the day, as well as all kinds of humiliation. The city also suffered the sacking of churches and convents, private homes and warehouses and even the palace of those who had been governors of the Spanish empire, nothing could stop the fury and desire for revenge of the imperial troops».

In the case of Mechelen, there were two factors that facilitated the decision to sack the city, which was already attractive for pillaging like many Flemish cities.
In the spring of 1572, Spanish troops reconquered Mons. During the siege of the city, William d’Orange came to the city’s rescue and was subsequently badly defeated.

However, during D’Orange’s march to Mons, many towns either surrendered or helped him on his way through them. The situation after the recapture of Mons was that many of the towns in Flanders had been taken over by the rebels, and were therefore against the power of the Crown.

Mechelen was one of these cities. Months earlier the city had refused to welcome the troops of the Duke of Alba. However, it did help William d’Orange on his way to Mons.

The treachery of Mechelen, coupled with the fact that the Spanish troops were several payments in arrears, was the trigger for the sacking of the city. This was allowed by the Duke of Alba, who, however, argued to Philip II that the sacking was mainly due to the need to teach the other cities a lesson, as to reconquer each town one by one would have been a truly costly task in terms of money and time.

Thus, faced with the arrival of the Duke of Alba’s troops, the defenders of Mechelen retreated, leaving the city vulnerably unprotected. In fact, Mechelen did not surrender so willingly to William d’Orange, for the city authorities were threatened by him and his treachery was never made clear. However, it was Mechelen that bore the brunt of the Spanish fury on this occasion.

«The sack of Mechelen», by Frans Hogenberg

Mechelen was taken without resistance, and without heeding the entreaties of the religious authorities, the sacking began.

I do not think it is necessary to describe the actions of the Duke of Alba’s troops during the sack, but they can probably be imagined, given the context of mid-16th century Europe.

The city was thus sacked for three days, after which the core of the Duke of Alba’s troops continued northwards to reconquer the occupied cities. Many of them met the same fate as Malines, but others were saved by paying a substantial sum into the royal coffers.

I do not intend to make a comparison between two nations as important as Spain and England. But since the Spanish black legend was promoted mainly by the English, I think it is appropriate to mention the fact that Mechelen also suffered another episode of siege and plunder by the English in 1580. According to most chronicles this siege was devastatingly cruel and vile. The English acted «with such deep greed of the victors, that after they had plundered churches and houses, leaving nothing in them, after they had forced the neighbours to redeem, not once, liberty and life, they penetrated their cruelty to the jurisdiction of death, tearing out the sepulchral stones, passing them to England and selling them there publicly».

This event has been curiously erased from history and it is difficult to find references about it.

But back in 1572, in less than a year, the Spanish troops had already reconquered a huge territory of the Netherlands and in fact in December 1572 the city of Haarlem, very close to Amsterdam, was surrounded.

The zone orange is the only one that remained in rebel hands at the end of 1572.

Mechelen ceased to be part of the Spanish Southern Netherlands in 1713 with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht. From then on it was ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs.


Guillermo Vergara

Liège, Belgium

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