Fall of Antwerp

John Florens | Jun 18, 2024

Table of Content


The Siege of Antwerp during the Eighty Years' War began on July 3, 1584, lasted fourteen months and ended on Aug. 17, 1585 with what is called the Fall of Antwerp, which brought an end to Antwerp's Golden Age. Antwerp was led during the siege by Philip of Marnix of St. Aldegonde in battle against the regular army led by Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma.

In 1576, Antwerp joined the Pacification of Ghent. The following year a strong Calvinist regime came to power in the city that called itself the Antwerp Republic, it was led by outdoor mayor Philip of Marnix of St. Aldegonde. During this period of radicalization, Catholicism was officially banned. On July 29, 1579, the city also became part of the Union of Utrecht. The largest Dutch city, with more than 100,000 inhabitants at the time, thus became the capital of the Dutch revolt. In 1583, William of Orange stayed temporarily in Antwerp with his court.

In 1582, the Duke of Parma, Alexander Farnese, had become governor of the Seventeen Provinces as successor to Juan of Austria. Farnese's mother, Margaret of Parma, had also been governor, from 1559-1567. Farnese was an excellent strategist and had devised a plan to cut off the Flemish and Brabant cities from their export territory. He wanted to achieve this by conquering the coastal areas and the Scheldt estuary. He had already regained control of many cities during the years 1583-1584. On July 3, 1584, the encirclement of Antwerp began.

In early summer, William of Orange had received advance knowledge from his spies of an imminent siege of Antwerp. It was important to him that Antwerp be preserved for the States. He invited Philip of Marnix of St. Aldegonde and registrar Martine to supposedly attend the baptism of his youngest son. During the meeting, he assured the people of Antwerp that he would come within two months to relieve the city should it be besieged. William of Orange also gave orders to pierce the Blauwgaren and Kouwensteinsedijk so that the state fleet could reach Antwerp through the flooded areas, Parma would thereby be prevented from building his entrenchments, and it would keep the army of Flanders outside the dike. Despite the fact that Aldegonde stressed the necessity of this plan, there was great opposition to the plans of the Vleeshouwersgilde, because pastures would be lost on which as many as twelve thousand oxen were annually fattened. Meanwhile, the defensive works had begun. Several entrenchments were thrown up along the Scheldt: the St. Antheuni entrenchment on Vlaams Hoofd, in Burcht, at the Melkhuis and at the Tolhuis, and on the south side under the city the Austruweelseschans and the Boerenschans. the best point to flood the polders, according to Hendrik T'Serraets, was at the confluence of the Kouwenstein and Scheldedijk, where he had his castle. However, the protest against this was great, so much so that T'Serraets had to leave the city and he went to seek refuge with Parma and offered him his services. Parma later rewarded him with the Margrave's office upon the city's surrender. To nip collusion with Spain in the bud, the prince of Orange promulgated an edict on June 22, which threatened severe punishment for anyone who collaborated or negotiated with the (Spanish) king or the royals.

First, the route between Antwerp and Dendermonde was closed off; ordered to do so was Antonio Olivera, who had to build a new fortress at the height of a bridge, so that trade between Ghent, Dendermonde and Antwerp would be cut off. To control the Brussels navigation, Parma sent another division to Willebroek to take an entrenchment on the Scheldt. Beveren was fortified, the village of Kallo was evacuated and occupied.


Parma, meanwhile, had figured out the best way to get Antwerp: cut off the supply and starve the city. On July 3, the sealing off of Antwerp began. The army was split. Five thousand men under the Marquis of Rijsburg took position against Liefkenshoek, seven thousand led by Mansfeld and Mondragon against the fortress. (According to Strada, it was four thousand and five hundred men of foot-soldiers and eight horsemen, which were added to Mondragon, at Rubaes three thousand men of foot-soldiers and four horsemen.) Mansfeld and Mondragon crossed the Scheldt at Kruibeke, although the Zeeland admiral's ship tried in vain to prevent this. Some had to capture the entrenchments of Lillo and Liefkenshoek. The first storming of Liefkenshoek was repulsed by the defenders; a stratagem was used in the second attempt. On July 10, some hay wagons were brought under the ramparts and set on fire. Because of the smoke, the defenders were unable to move onto the ramparts and the entrenchment could be taken. Everyone inside the ramparts was beaten to death. On the same day, William of Orange was shot dead. Because his eldest son was in Spanish hands, Prince Maurice was appointed as his successor.

The next day Doel was also occupied, July 15 Zwijndrecht, on July 17 Herentals. Meanwhile, the part of the army led by Mondragon had advanced to Lillo. Within this entrenchment was a French infantry with a hundred or so Antwerp guild brothers, later reinforced by four Scottish infantry under Henry Balfour. The royalists had made a breach. They were about to begin their assault, when the defenders inside the entrenchment detonated a mine prematurely. They suffered many losses from this mishap, from which the royalists took advantage. Nevertheless, the defense was so fierce that it took Mondragon another three weeks to take the entrenchment.

Crossing dikes, coming Frederico Gianibelli

The meatcutters yielded and finally gave their permission to flood the polders, Mondragon, however, had already occupied the roads around the dikes. Despite the edict that had been in effect since July 17, dozens of families left Antwerp daily to seek fortune elsewhere. However, the edict forbade leaving the city without permission under penalty of expropriation of property and heavy fines. On July 26, many citizens left for Zeeland.

On August 10, Oorderen was taken and shortly thereafter the Boerenschans. On August 17 Dendermonde fell, on August 19 two blockhouses around Willebroek, on August 20 the castle of Grimbergen, on September 4 Vilvoorde, on September 17 Ghent. Earlier, since April, Ypres, Bruges and other Flemish cities had surrendered. Antwerp was becoming increasingly cut off. Meanwhile, Parma had gathered the coarse artillery in Beveren.

At Antwerp, Frederico Gianibelli, an Italian inventor, offered his help. He came up with all kinds of inventions such as burners, a floating castle, but also unmanned vessels that had to be resilient en route if Spanish attackers wanted to attack them. A construction with powder kegs hung around the unmanned vessel was to ensure that a keg exploded every half hour: enough of a deterrent to make no one approach the ship.

Another idea was the introduction of a hundredth penny, with the proceeds of which (thirty-six tons of gold) could then be used to buy food in Holland for the benefit of all. However, another option was taken: each inhabitant was to have two years' worth of supplies for himself. Unfortunately, wealthy citizens bought too sparsely, for they feared that in times of need, supplies would be taken from them anyway.... Van Meteren is convinced that things could have been different and that the city should not have fallen into the hands of the Spaniards. Indeed, the city council had imposed a maximum price for grain, which was so low that it would have deterred many supply ships. Without a maximum grain price, more grain would have come to the city, and with a larger food supply, the population would have held out much longer. Farnese would have had neither enough money nor enough food to sustain the encirclement much longer. Thus, Van Meteren sees this as the Antwerpers' biggest mistake: not stockpiling enough food supplies when it had the chance.

Parma's bridge

In October Parma established his headquarters at Beveren, the encirclement of Antwerp was almost complete with the taking of all the surrounding towns and villages. Except for the water. Within Antwerp, the option of a bridge was not considered. It would even be impossible it was thought. One hundred carpenters, six hundred sappers, had to rebuild twenty-two seized pleats from Dendermonde into a bridge. The bridge would come between two forts, called Philips and Mariaschans. A third entrenchment below Lillo covered the Kouwensteinsedijk. On October 10, Aldegonde personally tried in vain to prevent this, it cost Captain Peter de Bakker his life.

Some distinguished citizens in Antwerp wanted to negotiate with Parma. These were imprisoned as traitors. They were tried and, as a deterrent to others with similar thoughts, had to pay high fines. Farnese had heard from his spies about the difficult atmosphere within the city, and considered the time ripe to claim the city. On Nov. 13, he sent a polite letter to the alderman. There was an equally polite reply that hostilities would cease if Parma did the same, and promised "freedom of conscience. Parma sent another letter on Dec. 10, but received no further reply.

The Spaniards laid a 730-meter-long bridge of ships across the Scheldt. It barricaded the Scheldt. After its completion in February 1585, the starvation of the city could begin. All attempts from the city itself (with gunpowder loaded so-called mines) and from Zeeland to breach the ship bridge on the river failed.

Attacks on Parma's bridge

The city was blocked from navigation by a large ship bridge. In April, the Antwerpers undertook an attempt to blow them up with the mining ships "Fortune" and "Hope." Thirteen hundred people (friend and foe) were killed in the huge explosions. The royals looked mesmerized at the brilliant lights of the vessels, the bridge flooded with spectators who watched with a mixture of wonder, joy and fear. The Scheldt was beautifully illuminated by the burners, the glow of armor and banners gave a beautiful effect. When the soldiers saw the burners extinguish one by one, fear disappeared. They marveled at the enterprise, some even taunted the statesmen, soldiers joked about the failed venture. Strada writes: "Since by memory of all ages nothing more terrible has been heard" and continues: "The deadly ship burst with such a hideous bang that it seemed as if the heavens were coming down, the lower being mixed with the upper. Even the globe seemed to shudder. After the lightning and thunder there was a torrential rain of bullets, there followed an eccentric precipitation that no one would believe could have happened if it had not happened." He continued with: "The Scheldt miraculously rising seemed first to bare the depths of her ground, then struck over the dikes, the movement of the leaping earth stretched 9,000 paces."

Large stones were found up to ten kilometers away, deeply embedded in the ground, which had come from the explosion. Victims had flown "like light chaff through the air." One hopeful from the Mariaschans miraculously survived: he was blown out of his entrenchment, remained in the air for a while, fell into the Scheldt, managed to strip himself of his armor in the water and swim to the shore alive and well. A young soldier serving with Parma's bodyguards was blown from Flanders to Brabant. He sustained only minor injuries to his shoulder. He stated, "having been lifted up, then flown across the stream like a bullet shot out of a stout cannon. "Generally, the royals agreed: this weapon could not have been man-made, but had to be diabolical work. The deadly fire could not be anything but hellfire. One sergeant reported eight hundred dead, not counting the wounded, many of whom lost their limbs. Despite the huge explosion, the bridge was not badly damaged. Parma's workmen managed to repair the damage in three days.

On May 28, the monster ship Finis Bellis or Fin de la guerre (the Spanish gave it the name "Carantamaula") sailed against the embankment instead of destroying the ship's bridge, although other sources report that the ship ran aground. All kinds of attempts were made to break through the barricade, but to no avail. Finally, Statesmen, together with the Antwerpers, undertook several more futile attacks on the Kouwensteinsedijk in a final attempt at disengagement.

Battle of the Kouwensteinsedijk

Meanwhile, at Flushing, Hohenlohe had determined to take up the siege of Antwerp. On December 24, the statesmen sent a hundred ships with grain to get through the winter. By January 1585, four new colonels had been appointed in Antwerp to deal with the confusion that existed within the city. In early February, Parma again sent a letter admonishing them to surrender and a promise to treat the citizens well. Meanwhile, Parma's workmen had worked relentlessly on the ship bridge for six months. As early as February 25, traffic could pass over the bridge. The bridge and surrounding entrenchments would become a battleground in May. The last hope for relief was now focused on the capture of the Kouwensteinsedijk. In fact, if the Statesmen succeeded in capturing the Kouwensteinsedijk, Parma's bridge would be useless. Parma's troops would then be drowned, or at least forced to break the siege. Both the attack on Parma's bridge and the battle on the Kouwensteinsedijk failed.

In Antwerp, the losses had been a severe blow. There had even been riots when news of the Spanish recapture and restoration of the dike became known in Antwerp. In addition to the Catholics in the city, it was now the Calvinists who wanted to enter into talks with Parma about peace negotiations. Meanwhile, grain supplies had shrunk drastically, a lot of citizens, especially the wealthy left the city. There were even those who saw the loss on the dike as God's punishment. In Holland, reactions and help were slow to arrive, despite the fierce insistence of Maurice and his Council of State.

Now the Catholics in particular demanded negotiations with Farnese. These were conducted by Marnix in the Spanish headquarters on the Singelberg in Beveren, and on Aug. 17 he signed the surrender of the city. The Peis (peace) was proclaimed on the Grote Markt. The terms of peace were sealed in the so-called Act of Reconciliation. The mayor had obtained that opponents of the king were allowed to leave the city. Many Protestant merchants and intellectuals took advantage of this and left for the North. A total of twenty-four conditions were drawn up, including: the Catholic faith was to be reestablished, churches rebuilt, expelled Catholic families and clergy were to be received again. The king was to pardon the people of Antwerp for their crimes against the Spanish Empire and allow the heretics to remain in the city for another four years. Four hundred thousand guilders was charged as compensation for the expenses of the Spanish siege. This fine was so large that a separate city treasury, the reduction treasury, was established to organize revenue for payment. Prisoners of war (from both sides) were to be released, provided they had not determined a ransom in advance.

Order of the Golden Fleece

While setting the terms, shots of joy sounded from Parma's bridge and dikes. Parma thought for a moment that the English and French had come to relieve the Statesmen; his tired army would not have been able to stand the assistance of fresh troops. A Spanish fleet had approached. Parma was knighted in the Order of the Golden Fleece on behalf of the king in the chapel of the entrenchment of St. Philip's, on the Brabant side of Parma's bridge, as a reward for conquering the city of Antwerp, so that he could make an entrance with the jewel around his neck. After a ceremony by the archbishop of Cameroon, Louis of Berlaymont, the Count of Mansfeld presented the jewel to Parma the badge of honor on Aug. 11.

Parma's entry

On Aug. 17, a surrender agreement was reached, Antwerp and the surrounding area was opened to Parma's officers so they could inspect the city to ensure safety for Parma's entry. Parma's officers were received with joy in the city. However, Parma delayed his entry (for unknown reasons) for ten days. Meanwhile, Antwerpers went en masse to see Parma's bridge, Peerle's port and all the constructed Spanish fortifications. Antwerpers praised the wonder of all the works. Except on the Kouwensteinsedijk, there they only sighed. The dike still looked terrible. Drenched in blood, hulks of bodies, scattered limbs lay on the spot where so hard was fought in the last attempt at dismemberment. Silently the scene was viewed.

More lavish was Parma's entrance on Aug. 27; he was festively received in the city, with Parma receiving a golden key. He then went to the church for a worship service. Parma then gave a speech and then moved to the citadel. The Spanish and Italians held a statehood on Parma's bridge in Parma's honor. A few days later, Parma went to his bridge to eat his breakfast in the middle of it. The bridge was decorated with ribbons and flowers. After breakfast, Parma gave orders to dismantle the bridge again. This was begun the very next day, Parma donating the wood to the workmasters Plaet and Baroc.

The fall of Antwerp would have been precipitated or facilitated by a city council decision on a maximum price for grain. Until this decision came, grain was easily smuggled within the city. A risk premium had to be paid. By prohibiting this risk premium, not enough smugglers were found willing to smuggle grain into the city. Thus, famine broke out, increasing popular resistance.

Some argue that the Northerners waited too long to send reinforcements, including English support that did not arrive in Flushing until December 1585. The fleet poised on the Scheldt to liberate Antwerp remained in place to cut off the now Spanish-owned city from overseas trade. The Protestant inhabitants were given four years to return to the Catholic Church or else leave with their belongings. In the end, only 40,000 inhabitants remained in the city and thus Antwerp's golden age as a port and commercial city came to an end. After the fall of Antwerp, several more attempts were made to recapture the city and re-engage the South in the revolt: in 1605, 1620, 1624, 1638 (Battle of Kallo) and 1646 (see Siege of Antwerp (1646)). These were all unsuccessful, however, and Antwerp remained part of the (Catholic) Southern Netherlands. Under Spanish rule, the city experienced a certain revival with, for example, the painting of Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Antoon van Dyck and David Teniers the Younger. Aldegonde had fallen into disfavor with his northern Dutch compatriots after the surrender of Antwerp.


  1. Fall of Antwerp
  2. Beleg van Antwerpen (1584-1585)
  3. a b c De overgave werd getekend op 17 augustus, waarmee het beleg formeel gezien is beëindigd, en Antwerpen 'gevallen' is. De intocht van het Spaanse leger op 27 augustus is slechts de bezetting van de reeds gevallen stad.
  4. a b c d e f Famiano Strada, Der Nederlandtsche oorloge, Volume 2 P.376 Uitgave: A. van Hoogen-huyse, 1655
  5. Der Artikel beruht teilweise auf dem Artikel in der englischen Wikipedia.
  6. a b c Johann G. von Hoyer: Handbuch der Pontonnier-Wissenschaften in Absicht ihrer Anwendung zum Feldgebrauch, Band 1, 2. Aufl., Verlag von Johann Ambrosius Barth, Leipzig, 1830 (Digitalisat auf Google Books).
  7. So die Abbildung der Schiffbrücke.
  8. Eine lebhafte Darstellung gibt die Radierung Pontis Antwerpiani fractura, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
  9. a b c Giménez Martín, pág 171
  10. ^ Van Houtte 1952, v. V, p. 139.
  11. ^ Marek y Villarino de Brugge 2020a, v. I, p. 199.

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