It happened today, April 1, 2016

On April 1 the Sea Beggars captured Brielle during the Eighty Years War. And no, I’m not pulling your leg.

There really was an 80 Years War. Why not? I grant that it seems a long time to be fighting and you’d think you’d get tired. But if there can be a Seven Years’ War and a Nine Years War and a Thirty Years War and a Hundred Years War, then 80 is also plausible. And in fact it was the protracted war for Dutch independence against Spain.

As for Brielle, it was the Sea Beggars’ first conquest on the Dutch mainland at a low ebb in their fortunes. They were a group of Dutch nobles sworn to oppose Spanish absolutism in their homeland. And after losing a series of battles in the Netherlands they had been expelled from England in 1572 and, having nowhere else to go, decided to attack Brielle and to their surprise found it undefended, the Spanish garrison having been sent to cope with trouble further south.

The town duly sacked, gently as these were their countrymen with the exception of those loyal to Spain, they realized there was no particular reason to leave. They had nowhere else to go and liberating the country had to start somewhere so why not where they were?

Within nine years the rebels had secured control of the Dutch heartland. The Spanish imperialists being as stubborn as they were inept, fighting dragged on into the early 17th century, then after a 12-year truce resumed with the outbreak of the Thirty Years War and didn’t stop until the Peace of Munster was signed as part of the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the latter horrifying conflict.

At this point you’re probably wondering who these Beggars are and why they matter unless you’re Dutch. And I would answer on the second point that the decay of Hapsburg Spain was a significant factor in the shaping of early modern Europe. But the first is secretly the point of this vignette.

The name originated with a solemn compact by minor Dutch nobles in 1566 to moderate the excesses of Spanish religious policy in the Netherlands, particularly the persecution of heretics under the infamous placards that made the teachings of Luther, Calvin and the Anabaptists capital offenses.

On April 5, 1566, some 300 signers of the anti-placard petition walked solemnly through Brussels to the court of the Regent, Spanish king Philip II’s half-sister Margaret of Parma. She found the whole thing extremely upsetting, which prompted a member of her Council of State to say N'ayez pas peur Madame, ce ne sont que des gueux” which translates to “Don’t be afraid, Madame, they are nothing but beggars”.

The Regent, recovering her bearings, promised the nobles she would send their petition to the King with her endorsement. They repaired to a banquet where they toasted the king and one of their number gave a speech in which he said if need be they would all become “beggars” in the service of their country which evidently elicited a hearty “Raaahr” of approval.

When the obtuse Philip II eventually responded with an imperious rejection of their request, the stage was set for rebellion and war. And in a process tediously dubbed “linguistic reappropriation” by sociological bores, the rebels adopted the name “geuzen”, Dutch for beggars. They even made trinkets of beggars’ symbols, wallet and bowl, and wore them on their hats and belts, and had a medal struck with Philip II on one side and two clasped hands on the other, reading “Fidèle au roy, jusqu'à porter la besace (“Loyal to the King, up to the point of carrying a beggar's pouch”).

They were promptly crushed in the early fighting. But Dutch patriots regrouped and reclaimed the name and ultimately prevailed so proudly that to this day the Dutch term for taking an insult as a badge of honour is “geuzennaam”.

It was the perfect riposte given the snobbish, arrogant insensitivity of the Spanish court. Well, along with actually winning the war. Benjamin Disraeli is famous for saying “A majority is the best repartee” though apparently he actually said “A majority is better than the best repartee.”

A victory is even better, or a series of same if facing an idiot as stubborn as the Spanish king. But it’s nice to do it in style, like those beggars.