Battle between Dutch and Spanish ships on the Haarlemmermeer, 26 May 1573. Sailing before the wind from the right are the Spanish ships, identified by the flags with a red cross. Approaching from the left are the ships of the Sea Beggars. Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom.
Relief of Leiden by the Sea Beggars on flat-bottomed boats, on 3 October 1574, during the Siege of Leiden. Otto van Veen, 1574.

Geuzen (French: Les Gueux, English: the Beggars) was a name assumed by the confederacy of Calvinist Dutch nobles and other malcontents, who from 1566 opposed Spanish rule in the Netherlands. The most successful group of them operated at sea, and so were called Watergeuzen (French: Gueux de mer, English: Sea Beggars). In the Eighty Years' War, the Capture of Brielle by the Watergeuzen in 1572 provided the first foothold on land for the rebels, who would conquer the northern Netherlands and establish an independent Dutch Republic. They can be considered either as privateers or pirates, depending on the circumstances or motivations.[1][2]


Origin of the name

The leaders of the nobles, who signed a solemn league known as the Compromise of Nobles, by which they bound themselves to assist in defending the rights and liberties of the Netherlands against the civil and religious despotism of Philip II of Spain were Louis, Count of Nassau, and Henry, Count of Bréderode. On April 5, 1566 permission was obtained for the confederates to present a petition of grievances, called the Request, to the regent, Margaret, Duchess of Parma. About 250 nobles marched to the palace accompanied by Louis of Nassau and Bréderode. The regent was at first alarmed at the appearance of so large a body, but one of her councillors, Berlaymont, was heard to exclaim, "What, madam, is your highness afraid of these beggars (ces gueux)?"

Traditional emblem of the Geuzen.

The appellation was not forgotten. At a great feast held by some 300 confederates at the Hotel Culemburg three days later, Bréderode in a speech declared that if need be they were all ready to become beggars in their country's cause. The name became henceforward a party title. The patriot party adopted the emblems of beggarhood, the wallet and the bowl, as trinkets to be worn on their hats or their girdles, and a medal was struck having on one side the head of Philip II, on the other two clasped hands with the motto Fidèle au roy, jusqu'à porter la besace ("Loyal to the King, till carrying the beggar's pouch"). The original league of Beggars was short-lived, crushed by Alva, but its principles survived and were to be ultimately triumphant.

In the Dutch language the word geuzennaam is used for linguistic reappropriation: a pejorative term used with pride by the people called that way.

Sea Beggars

William II de la Marck (1542-1578), a leader of the Sea Beggars.

In 1569 William of Orange, who had now openly placed himself at the head of the party of revolt, granted letters of marque to a number of vessels manned by crews of desperadoes drawn from all nationalities. Eighteen ships received letters of marque, which were equipped by Louis of Nassau in the French Huguenot port of La Rochelle, which they continued to use as a base.[3][4] By the end of 1569, already 84 Sea Beggars ships were in action.[3]

Capture of Brielle, 1 April 1572 (Frans Hogenberg).

These fierce privateers under the command of a succession of daring and reckless leaders, the best-known of whom is William de la Marck, Lord of Lumey, were called "Sea Beggars", "Gueux de mer" in French, or "Watergeuzen" in Dutch. At first they were content to merely plunder both by sea and land, and carrying their booty to the English ports where they were able to refit and replenish their stores.

However, in 1572, Queen Elizabeth I of England abruptly refused to admit the Sea Beggars to her harbours. No longer having refuge, they made a desperate attack upon Brielle, which they seized by surprise in the absence of the Spanish garrison on April 1, 1572. Encouraged by this surprising success, they now sailed to Flushing, which was also taken by a coup de main. The capture of these two towns prompted several nearby towns to declare for revolt, starting a chain reaction that resulted in the majority of Holland joining in a general revolt of the Netherlands, and is regarded as the real beginning of Dutch independence.

In 1573 the Sea Beggars defeated a Spanish squadron under the command of Admiral Bossu off the port of Hoorn in the Battle on the Zuiderzee. Mixing with the native population, they quickly sparked rebellions against "the Iron Duke" in town after town and spread the resistance southward.

Some of the forefathers of the great Dutch naval heroes began their naval careers as Sea Beggars, such as Evert Heindricxzen, the grandfather of Cornelis Evertsen the Elder. Many Geuzen medals were awarded.

Geuzen symbolics and the Ottoman Empire

Geuzen medal, cast silver, tooled, about 1570, with the slogans LIVER TVRCX DAN PAVS ("Rather Turkish than Papist") and EN DESPIT DE LA MES ("In spite of the Mass").

The Sea Beggars used symbolics associated with the Ottoman Empire. William I of Orange sought Ottoman assistance against the Spanish king Philip II.[5]

Dutch Ships Ramming Spanish Galleys off the Flemish Coast in October 1602, 1617, oil on canvas by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom and Cornelis Vroom

The "Geuzen" were expressing their anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic sentiments. They considered the Turks to be less threatening than the Spaniards. During the years between 1579 and 1582, representatives from Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Paşa travelled several times from Istanbul to Antwerp.[6]

The slogan Liever Turks dan Paaps seems to have been largely rhetorical however, and their beggars medals in the form of a half moon were symbolically meant. The Dutch hardly contemplated life under the Sultan at all. Moreover, there was no direct contact between the Geuzen and the Turkish authorities. Ultimately, the Turks were infidels, and the heresy of Islam alone disqualified them from assuming a more central (or consistent) role in the rebels' program of propaganda.[7]

See also



Silver medal commemorating the Capture of Brielle in 1572 by the Sea Beggars
  • Kervyn de Lettenhove, Les Huguenots et les Gueux, (six volumes, Brussels, 1882–85)
  • Renon de France, Histoire des causes de la désunion . . . des Pays-Bas, (three volumes, Brussels, 1886–91)
  • Jurien de la Gravìere, "Les gueux de mer" in Revue des Deux Mondes (Paris, 1891–92).
  • Van der Horst (2005) Nederland: de vaderlandse geschiedenis van de prehistorie tot nu. (3rd edition; in Dutch). Amsterdam, Bert Bakker. ISBN 90-351-2722-6. p. 132
  • McCabe, Ina Baghdiantz 2008 Orientalism in early Modern France Berg ISBN 9781845203740
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

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