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Sea Beggars


SEA BEGGARS. The Sea Beggars were pirates who made a living in the 1560s from capturing North Sea shipping. On 1 April 1572, six hundred Sea Beggars seized by surprise the small harbor city of Brill. It turned out to be a turning point in the history of the Netherlands, the beginning of what later nationalist historians have coined the "heroic phase of the Dutch Revolt," with its epic sieges of Haarlem, Alkmaar, and Leiden. The Sea Beggars were thus inextricably bound up with the genesis of the Dutch nation. Until 1572, they had been ordinary privateers, confining themselves to disrupting maritime traffic, raiding the coast of the Netherlands, plundering monasteries, and pillaging supplies of the Spanish troops, but with their seizure of Brill and its aftermath, they had become part of national history and memory.

In May 1568, during his invasion of Friesland, Louis of Nassau (15381574), the youngest brother of William of Orange (15331584), needed a small fleet to defend his supply routes to Emden. He called on the assistance of John Abels, a local corsair, and formed a fleet of fifteen ships. The military role of these newly formed Sea Beggars was, however, short-lived. After the failure of Louis's invasion in July 1568, because they lacked a harbor of their own, they were forced to piracy. William of Orange discerned their importance for his own military plans but could not afford to pay them properly. Instead, he provided them with letters of marque, which allowed them to attack hostile ships. Operating out of the communities of exiled Calvinists from the Netherlands in Emden and the English Channel ports, the Sea Beggars performed their acts of piracy and planned their raids of the Netherlands. In the spring of 1571 their force amounted to some thirty ships.

Their disruption of maritime traffic, however, more and more annoyed the authorities in Emden and England. On 1 March 1572, Queen Elizabeth I denied them admittance to English ports. Cruising aimlessly in the English Channel, they decided to seize Brill, hoping to find a new base for their undertakings. The news of the seizure took William of Orange by surprise and complicated his own plans for an invasion of the Netherlands. In the following months, however, one after another the towns of Holland and Zeeland opened their gates to the Sea Beggars. At last, William of Orange had his base in the Netherlands.

The Sea Beggars never proved to be a reliable armed force. Consisting mainly of fortune seekers and Calvinist exiles and commanded by such firstgeneration rebels as Lumey van der Marck and William Blois of Treslong, who had consciously broken with their pasts to revolt, the Sea Beggars cultivated an ethos that differed markedly from that of professional soldiers. They believed themselves to be God's elect and fought with the bitterness of the exile, and this made them hard to control. Their military advance in Holland and Zeeland was accompanied by the murder of priests, raping of nuns, and plundering of monasteries. Fearing that this behavior would alienate the moderate citizenry and town councils, William of Orange dismissed obstinate commanders such as Lumey and incorporated the ordinary men into a new, more professional army.

See also Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; Elizabeth I (England) ; William of Orange .


de Meij, J. C. A. De Watergeuzen en de Nederlanden, 15681572. Amsterdam and London, 1972. The most important study.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. London, 1977.

van Deursen, Arie Theodorus. "Holland's Experience of War during the Revolt of the Netherlands." In Britain and the Netherlands, edited by A. C. Duke and C. A. Tamse. Vol. 6 of War and Society, pp. 1953. The Hague, 1977.

Paul Knevel

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