Military Wiki
Siege of Leiden
Part of the Eighty Years' War & the Anglo–Spanish War
Relief of Leiden by the Sea Beggars on flat-bottomed boats, on 3 October 1574. Otto van Veen.
DateOctober 1573 - 3 October 1574
LocationLeiden (present-day Netherlands)
Result States-allied victory
Dutch Republic Dutch Rebels
England England
Croix huguenote.svg French Huguenots
Spain Spain
Commanders and leaders
Pieter Adriaanszoon van der Werff (Mayor of Leiden) Francisco de Valdez
11,000 15,000
Casualties and losses
500 2,000

The Siege of Leiden occurred during the Eighty Years' War and the Anglo–Spanish War in 1573 and 1574, when the Spanish under Francisco de Valdez attempted to capture the rebellious city of Leiden, South Holland, the Netherlands. In the end the siege failed when the city was successfully relieved in October 1574.[1]


In the war (eventually called the Eighty Years' War) that had broken out, Dutch rebels took up arms against the king of Spain, whose family had inherited the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands. Most of the counties of Holland and Zeeland were occupied by rebels in 1572, who sought to end the harsh rule of the Spanish Duke of Alba, governor-general of the Netherlands. This territory had a very high density of cities, which were protected by huge defenseworks and by the boglands, which could easily be put under water.

The Duke of Alba tried to break resistance using brute force. He used Amsterdam as a base, as this was the only city in the county of Holland that had remained loyal to the Spanish government. Alba's cruel treatment of the population of Naarden and Haarlem was notorious. The rebels learned that no mercy was shown there and were determined to hold out as long as possible. The county of Holland was split in two when Haarlem was conquered by the Spaniards after a costly seven-month siege. Thereafter, Alba attempted to conquer Alkmaar in the north, but the city withstood the Spanish attack. Alba then sent his officer Francisco de Valdez to attack the southern rebel territory, starting with Leiden. In the meantime, Alba had realised he failed to quell the rebellion as quickly as he had intended, and requested his resignation, which king Philip accepted in December. The less harsh Luis de Zúñiga y Requesens replaced him as governor-general.

First siege of Leiden

The city of Leiden had plenty of food stored for the siege when it started in October 1573. The siege was very difficult for the Spanish, because the soil was too loose to dig holes, and the city defense works were hard to break. Defending the Leiden was a Dutch States rebel army which consisted of English, Scottish and Huguenot French troops.[2][3] The leader of the Dutch rebels, William the Silent, Prince of Orange, tried to relieve Leiden by sending an army into the Netherlands. Valdez halted the siege in April 1574 to face the invading rebel troops, but Sancho d'Avila reached them first and defeated the army of Orange in the Battle of Mookerheyde.

Second siege, and relief, of Leiden

The legend of Magdalena Moons and Francisco de Valdez grew out of the siege of 1574: painting by Simon Opzoomer, ca 1845.

Valdez' army returned to continue the siege on May 26, 1574. The city considered surrendering, because there was nearly no chance of relief and supplies were dwindling. The rebel army was defeated and the rebel territory was very small compared to the huge Spanish empire.

The Prince of Orange, however, was determined to relieve the city. Therefore he sent a carrier pigeon into the city pleading for it to hold out for three months. To fulfill this promise, he wished to break the dikes, allow the sea to flood the low lying land (in the same fashion Alkmaar was saved), so that the siege could be lifted using the rebel fleet. But the damage to the surrounding countryside would be enormous, and therefore the population of this area resisted the cutting of the dikes. However, in the end, the Prince prevailed and the dikes were cut on August 3. Previously, two hundred small ships and a large store of provisions had been collected in preparation to lift the siege. Unfortunately, soon after the dikes were broken, the Prince of Orange, the heart, soul and energy of the rebel cause, came down with a violent fever and the relief of the besieged city came to a grinding halt.[citation needed] More important, the flooding of the outskirts took longer than expected because the wind was not favourable. During this time, on August 21, the inhabitants of Leiden sent a message to the Prince saying that they had held out for three months, two with food and one without food. The Prince then sent a response saying that the dikes were all pierced and relief would come soon.

However, only by the first day of September, when the Prince had recovered from his ailment, that the expedition continued in earnest. Over 15 miles lay between the rebel relieving fleet and Leiden, but ten miles were covered without difficulty. On September 10, the fleet came upon the Land-scheiding, which blocked their path to Leiden and captured it in a night surprise attack which was successful. The next morning, the Spaniards counterattacked to try to regain the important position but were repulsed with the loss of several hundred men. The dike was cut through, and the fleet proceeded to Leiden.

But again, another barrier blocked the way. This time, the dike of Greenway halted the water, but this was seized and cut. But as the water spread over the countryside, it also grew shallower to such an extremity that the only way the fleet could proceed was by a canal leading to a large inland lake called Zoetermeer (Fresh Water Lake). This canal, however was thoroughly guarded by 3,000 Spaniards and the rebels failed to take the canal. Soon, the water was so shallow that most of the Dutch ships ran aground.

Meanwhile, in the city, the inhabitants clamoured for surrender when they saw that their countrymen had run aground. But Mayor van der Werff inspired his citizens to hold on by offering his arm as food. Thousands of inhabitants died of starvation. They held on because they knew that the Spanish would kill them all to set an example, as had happened in Naarden.

Only on October 1 did the wind, which previously blew from the east pushing the water out of the countryside, shift to the west which blew the sea water into the countryside. Then the rebel fleet was afloat again and they advanced. Now only two forts blocked the way of the relieving force: the forts of Zoeterwoude and Lammen, both of which were strongly garrisoned. The garrison of Zoeterwoude, however, when they saw the Dutch fleet, fled their fort which was occupied by the Dutch. The last for Lammen still blocked the way to the rebels, but on the night of October 2/3, the Spanish retreated from their fort and lifted the siege. Ironically, the same night, part of the wall of Leiden, eroded by the sea water, fell, leaving the city completely vulnerable. The next day, the relieving rebels arrived at the city, feeding the citizens with herring and white bread. The people also feasted on 'Hutspot' (carrot and onion stew) in the evening. According to legend, a little orphan boy named Cornelis Joppenszoon found a cooking pot full with 'Hutspot' that the Spaniards had had to leave behind when they left their camp, the Lammenschans, in a hurry to escape from the rising waters.[citation needed]


In 1575, the Spanish treasury ran dry, so that the Spanish army could not be paid anymore and it mutinied. After the pillaging of Antwerp, the whole of the Netherlands rebelled against Spain. Leiden was once again safe.

The Leiden University was founded by William of Orange in recognition of the city's sacrifice in the siege.

The 3 October Festival is celebrated every year in Leiden. It is a huge festival, with an enormous funfair and a dozen open air discos in the night.[4] The municipality gives free herring and white bread to the citizens of Leiden.


  • There was an earlier Siege of Leiden (1420).


  1. Fissel, pg 141
  2. Van Dorsten, pg 2-3
  3. Trim, pg 164
  4. "Leidens Onzet"


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