About the siege of ‘s Hertogenbosch
The Eighty Years' War, the Dutch war of independence from Spain, was a long, slow war that lasted from 1668 until 1648. After a truce, a period that lasted from 1609 until 1621, things evolved the wrong way for the Dutch: in 1625 their Stadtholder Prince Maurice died and Breda was taken by the Spaniards.
Prince Frederick Henry succeeded to his brother Maurice: his tactic was to besiege town after town, a relatively slow system that paid of well. The Dutch were lucky: while Spain was regularly in need of money, with soldiers and mercenaries that could not be paid, they (Piet Hein) had captured the famous Spanish silver fleet in Cuba in 1628. All this money could now be used for the war.
In 1629 a Dutch Republican army lead by their Stadtholder Frederick Henry besieged and captured the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch, which had remained loyal to the King of Spain, Philip IV.
The town was defended by 3.000 men of infantry, plus 4.000 armed civilians. It was besieged by 24.000 men of infantry and 4.000 of cavalry. The siege lasted only for four and a half months (from April 30th until September 14th). This was remarkably rapid for ‘s Hertogenbosch had the reputation of being impregnable, hence its surname “the march dragon” (“Moerasdraak”): its defences had been modernized and improved by adding several fortifications during the period of truce and it was surrounded by marshes, a situation that did not favour contemporary siege methods, such as digging tunnels for undermining the fortifications or digging trenches. Prince Maurice had already in vain tried to take the town in 1601 and in 1603.
But as there was enough money Frederick Henry chose for a spectacular siege:
- at a large distance from ‘s Hertogenbosch he had a 45 km long double line of dikes build: one facing the town, the other facing potential attacks from troops wanting to help the besieged. He had actually learned this successful concept from general Ambrogio Spinola who had taken this way Breda from the Dutch in 1625. On regular distances encampments and fortifications were build.
- He then changed the course of three rivers, the Dommel, the Aa and the Dieze, so that their waters would not reach ‘s Hertogenbosch and its marches any more.
- Finally the marches inside the two rectangular dikes were drained with horse mills.
When a relief army that could not breach the circumvallation of Frederick Henry was finally chased away and once the Dutch army could start digging trenches and tunnels (so-called “sapps”) in the dried soil it was clear that it was just a matter of time before the defenders would have to surrender, which they did September 14th.
The 17th of September 1629 a large number of Catholic inhabitants and its Spanish troops (actually Flemish, German and Burgundian mercenaries) left ‘s Hertogenbosch.
About our painting
During the second quarter of the 17th century there were two types of representations of besieged towns, giving either the official or a freer vision of the war game.
In the “official” sieges the view point is high, giving a grand, panoramic view of the landscape and the troops, while in the foreground is often represented Prince Frederick Henry and his staff.
Our painting clearly belongs to the second group, with a more realistic, narrative approach. These paintings were clearly not made for the Stadtholder (who is not represented) or his court. This type of painting actually stands closer to genre painting and to two types of paintings with military subjects that evolved from it: guardroom scenes (“kortegaerden”) and representations of military encampments. War and the adventurous soldiers’ life are shown in its small anecdotic details, like a snapshot. Some of the soldiers are at work, shooting their canons at the besieged city (they shot exactly 28.517 canon balls in these four and a half months), others are playing cards or dice, smoking a pipe, or even flirting with a maid.
Our anonymous painter showed the town from the NE.
The towering church building left of the centre is the gothic St John’s cathedral (115 by 62 metres). On Wednesday 19th of September 1629, five days after the fall of the town, the first Protestant mess was held here for Prince Frederick Henry and his wife Amelia of Solms. Left of it stands the smaller church of St James.
The attackers facing the town are situated between two of the original five encampments laying around ‘s Hertogenbosch: to their left was the largest camp (for 20.000 men), in Vucht, of Frederick Henry, to their right the camp of Count Johan Wolfert van Brederode (for 3.000 men). This had originally been marsh country, in between the rivers Dommel and Aa.
The main attacks were actually held further left and further right of this position. But it is clear that our painter chose this sight for its obvious perfect view onto ‘s Hertogenbosch. An anonymous engraver used approximately the same position for his engraving of the siege, now at the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam.
Around the field artillery guns one clearly sees gabions (“schanskorven” in Dutch) protecting them. These gabions were a sort of round cages, open at the top and at the bottom. They were mobile and light fortifications, made from wickerwork, that could be filled with earth.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is an important addition to the limited number of views from the siege of ‘s Hertogenbosch.
Because it is such a lively, anecdotic, historic document: it is rare, interesting and decorative.
Because it is very detailed and because there is a lot of information about this siege.