Mechelen (French Malines; English traditional
name Mechlin) is a city and a municipality in the Dutch-speaking province of
Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium. The municipality comprises the city of Mechelen
proper, some quarters at its outskirts, the hamlets of Nekkerspoel (adjacent)
and Battel (a few kilometers away), as well as the villages of Walem, Heffen,
Leest, Hombeek, and Muizen. The Dijle flows through the city, hence the term 'Dijlestad'
(Dijle City). Mechelen lies on the major urban & industrial axis
Brussels-Antwerp, about 25 km from each city.
The highly lucrative cloth trade gained Mechelen wealth and power during the
Late Middle Ages and it even became the capital of the Low Countries (very
roughly the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) in the first half of the 16th
century under Margarete of Austria's reign. During the 16th century the city's
political influence decreased dramatically, due to many governmental institutes
being moved to Brussels. The city compensated for this by increased attention in
the religious arena: in 1559 it was proclaimed an Archdiocese, for Belgium not
sharing this title with Brussels before 1961. In 1572, during the Eighty Years'
War, the city was burned and sacked by the Spanish.
Before 1581, the area of the Low Countries
consisted of a number of duchies, counties, and independent bishoprics, not all
of them part of the Holy Roman Empire. Today that area is divided between the
Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of France and Germany. The Low
Countries in the 16th century roughly corresponded to the Seventeen Provinces
covered by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549 of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Through marriage, war or sale, these states all ended up in the hands of the
Habsburg emperor, Charles V, and his son, King Philip II of Spain. In 1568, the
Netherlands, led by William of Orange, revolted against Philip II because of his
efforts to modernize and centralize the devolved medieval government structures
of the provinces, high taxes, and persecution of Protestants by the Catholic
church. This was the start of the Eighty Years' War.
The Spanish King Philip II, a zealous persecutor
of Protestants, sent the Duke of Alba into the Netherlands in 1567 at the head
of an army of 12,000 men, with unlimited powers for the extirpation of heretics.
When he arrived he soon showed how much he merited the confidence which his
master reposed in him, and instantly erected a tribunal which soon became known
to its victims as the "Blood Council," to try all persons who had been engaged
in the late commotions that the rule of Philip had excited. During the six years
of his governorship, thousands of people were executed. Dutch accounts refer to
18,000; while in Spanish history only a few hundred are mentioned. About 6,000
casualties can be considered as the most accurate estimate. He imprisoned
Lamoral, Count of Egmont and Philip de Montmorency, Count of Hoorn, the two
popular leaders of the dissatisfied Dutch nobles, and had them condemned to
death even though they were opposed to the Protestants. His attempt to raise
money by imposing the Spanish "alcabala", a tax of 10% on all sales ("tenth
penny" tax), aroused the opposition of the even the Catholic Netherlanders. The
exiles from the Low Countries, who called themselves Geuzen (French gueux,
"beggars"), encouraged by the general resistance to Alba's government, fitted
out a fleet of privateers called the Sea Beggars. The fleet of the exiles met
the Spanish fleet, defeated it, and reduced Holland and Mons. The
States-General, assembling at Dordrecht, openly declared against Alba's
government and marshaled under the banner of William the Prince of Orange.
Alba, under the conduct of his son Don Federico, succeeded in recovering Mons,
Mechelen and Zutphen. With the exception of Zeeland and Holland, he regained all
the provinces. His son stormed Naarden, massacring its inhabitants, and then
proceeded to invest the city of Haarlem, which, after standing an obstinate
siege, was taken and pillaged. Don Federico left Mechelen, Zutphen and Naarden
in ashes on the way north, slaughtering thousands of citizens in a demonstration
of Spain's absolute power. In December 1572, they reached Haarlem. After a
protracted siege, Don Federico won the city's unconditional surrender, but it
cost him 10,000 men and a crippling seven month delay. The myth of the
all-conquering Spanish military machine had been exposed by the resolve of the
citizens of a poor Dutch town, who had succumbed, not to arms but to famine.
Reneging on a promise to spare the city, Federico proceeded to exact a punishing
revenge. Yet is can be considered that these atrocities ultimately worked
against the Spanish as other Dutch towns took heart and were forewarned that the
Spanish would indulge in wholesale slaughter whether challenged or not. The only
way forward was open resistance. The horrors of the Siege of Haarlem were
somewhat offset by subsequent events. King Philip diverted funds to his
Mediterranean campaign against the Turks and Don Federico's troops mutinied due
to the resultant lack of wages. They eventually moved on but failed to capture
Alkmaar and Leiden. Furthermore, the Sea Beggars regrouped and wiped out the
Amsterdam fleet which had initiated Haarlem's downfall. William of Orange later
set up independence for the Dutch states and Calvinism became the state-favoured
religion, with Catholicism still tolerated in private.