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Siege of Ostend (Peter Snayers, ca early 17th century) oil on canvas

The Siege of Ostend (1601-1604) was a devastating siege which lasted three years and effectively destroyed the city of Ostend in West Flanders. The defenders of Ostend were the rebel Dutch “Geuzen” (and their English allies) who stood up to the hegemonic and reactionary Spanish Crown. The siege was important to two different wars–the 80 Years’ War (a struggle for independence by the Dutch) and the Anglo-Spanish War, an undeclared and intermittent war between Spain and England for naval supremacy.

Ostend was a small coastal city of perhaps 3000 inhabitants who mostly made their living from fishing. It ended up being at the center of one of Europe’s most costly and prolonged sieges by the accidents of war since, in 1601, Ostend was the only piece of territory which the Dutch Republic held in Flanders. Spain was a towering world power during the 16th century and honor demanded that Ostend be retaken (presumably as a prelude to a grand defeat of Dutch and English forces). The Spanish side had a famous aristocratic leader, the Archduke Albert, who commanded vast armies of soldiers. The Spanish also had an Italian inventor, Pompeo Targone, who kept creating outlandish new siege devices (see illustrations below) and they had a Catholic turncoat embedded within the English garrison. None of these assets proved particularly helpful. The Spanish commander had a penchant for huge frontal assaults which cost tens of thousands of besiegers their lives. Exposed to saltwater, gunpowder, and sand, the innovative siege devices of Pompeo Targone had a way of breaking and turning into deadly rubble. The English turncoat was found out and sentenced to death (although, in a show of goodhearted English mercy he was merely stripped and whipped out of town).

What could go wrong?

On the other side, the English and Dutch had the ability to resupply from the ocean, which proved invaluable in defeating the hunger and scarcity which are the purposes of a siege. Although they could never field the endless men or martial the vast material resources of the Spanish, the defenders could hide out behind heavily fortified walls, palisades, moats, and so forth. Then, whenever the Spanish breached the fortifications through sheer heroic bravado, the Dutch could pour grapeshot onto the invaders, or collapse walls of sand onto Albert’s men, or, perhaps most devastatingly, break the levees and drown the armored soldiers.

After long years of this, the Spanish crown finally replaced Archduke Albert with Ambrogio Spinola, a Genoese general who understood that the siege could only be won by carefully building elaborate earthworks and methodically bringing up larger and larger artillery. The Spanish were victorious in September of 1604, when the Dutch commanders allowed the garrison to surrender (the Dutch had just conquered the city of Sluis and no longer needed Ostend). The terms of the surrender allowed Ostend’s defenders to depart with their weapons and their colors–and they marched right off to Sluis. the Spanish finally entered Ostend which was effectively destroyed. Only two civilian inhabitants were left. The siege had cost over 100,000 lives. The Spanish victory proved pyrrhic, since, its cost caused the Spanish crown to go bankrupt three years later, which in turn lead to the twelve years truce (and an era of Dutch ascendancy).

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