The Sea Beggars by Cecelia Holland


I meant to finish this last week so that I wouldn’t be reading any Black Legend stuff during the Australian Open :-), but I got distracted by other things! This book, as the title suggests, is about the early years of the Eighty Years’ War, when the Netherlands rebelled against Spanish rule. It covers the Duke of Alba’s invasion and the establishment of the Council of Troubles/the Council of Blood, and then the Sea Beggars’ victory at Den Briel/Brielle, told primarily through the eyes of a brother and sister from Antwerp. Antwerp, ironically as it ended up remaining part of the Spanish Netherlands rather than becoming part of the United Provinces, was the early centre of the revolt.

I’m afraid that I tend to take a rather Anglocentric view of the Dutch revolt – it fascinates me that Elizabeth I was able to persuade the French to back the Dutch rebels on her behalf, by repeatedly hinting that she’d marry a French prince if they did so, and that the French kept falling for it! That didn’t happen until later on, but Elizabeth featured quite strongly in this book even so.

The author did a good job of showing all the different points of view, whilst making it clear just how horrific the Spanish atrocities – and this was even before the Spanish Fury – were. She also covered the issue of extreme Dutch Calvinism and its association with ideas about a new kingdom of the elect, something I was thinking about after the death of Nelson Mandela … it unfortunately got way out of hand in South Africa.

It’s a fascinating, and horrible, period in history. The capture of Brill, as it’s known in English, took place in April 1572. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place in August 1572. In England, we tend to see the 1570s as the start of a Golden Age. Anyway, the point of reading this book was to encourage me to think more about the Eighty Years’ War from a Dutch (or indeed Belgian) viewpoint, and my general verdict on this book is that it did quite a good job of that.

I’m now off back to the Australian Open …

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