Siege Coins

Part One - History


During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Netherlands, or Low Countries, were engaged in a seemingly futile struggle for independence against the most dominant power of the times, Spain. This War of Liberation reflected the wide range of religions, economic, and political forces that influenced the social fabric of Europe subsequent to the Renaissance. It was a complex era that evoked feelings ranging from the basest to the most sublime. The saga includes tales of compassion and intrigue, bravery and man's inhumanity to man.

This brief historical account is an attempt to reveal the background responsible for the most prolific production of obsidional, or siege, coins. There were more than 30 instances necessitating this type of emergency money1. This is not to say that such coinage is common. On the contrary, most pieces are quite scarce and can be very expensive. Nevertheless, they stand as testaments to those who were enmeshed in turmoil, leaving for us today an exciting area of numismatics.


It is not easy to deal with a major historical event in simplistic terms; however. the chronology presented herein does have three basic components: (1) the emotional fervor of religion, (2) the practical reality of economics, and (3) the ever-present element of politics.

The most politically significant turn of events came when Charles V of Spain transferred sovereignty of the Low Countries to his son Philip II. At this point in history the Low Countries were comprised of a loosely associated cluster of provinces. Philip II mishandled his responsibility through a series of bungled diplomatic maneuvers. Unlike his father, he had no basic understanding of the people placed under his direction. Charles V spoke the language; Philip II did not. Charles V was raised in Brussels; Philip II was considered a foreigner. The situation was not ideal from the outset.

The religious element was a decisive factor in the development of hostilities despite the fact that the Dutch people at the time were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Their theological basis was in the liberal tradition of Erasmus versus the conservative line of the Spanish Church. Nevertheless, Protestant religions, especially Calvinism, seeped into the Law Countries during the early part of the 16th century due to the fact that it was a major center for trade.

This period was also known for the Inquisition. Under Charles’ reign, the Low Countries were subjected to the papal form of the Inquisition where laws were rarely enforced. An incident at Rotterdam involving the rescue of several heretics from burning at the stake made Philip introduce the Spanish form of the Inquisition. This did little to promote allegiance to Spain.

Calvinism thrived in the mercantile atmosphere of the Low Countries. Businessmen liked the role of the laity in Calvinist congregations. The Roman Catholic church was viewed as an unyielding patriarch, and the pompous hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church was resented even though Catholicism had respect as an important social, moral, and political force. Merchants welcomed the "new" religion.

Not to be taken lightly was the imposition of taxes on the businesses and people of the Low Countries. The taxation was unilateral in nature: it was levied by a foreign political entity and the benefit derived from the taxes went to Spain. Spain was building an empire, and the low Countries paid dearly.


In 1559 Philip appointed Margaret of Parma as governess. She held little power since her authority had been carefully limited by advisors designated by Philip. This was a means of preserving absolute control over the Low Countries and it was an excellent vehicle to promote the spread of the Inquisition. Hardly a day passed without an execution. Protestant authorities substantiate a number of accounts associated with the "justice" of Philip. One account reveals an incident where an Anabaptist was hacked to death with seven blows of a rusty sword in the presence of his wife, who died at the horror of the sight. Another tells of an enraged man who interrupted Christmas Mass, took the host, and trampled it. He was put to torture by having his right hand and foot burned away to the bane. His tongue was torn out, he was suspended over a fire and was slowly roasted to death2. Margaret interceded but the atrocities continued.

Even the Catholics now joined with Protestants3 as Philip stated that he would rather sacrifice a hundred thousand lives than change his policy.4 Some diplomacy was used and when a compromise was reached on May 6, 1566, Philip eased off. During the ensuing lull, Protestants brought their worship into the open. A group called the "Beggars" grew in strength and proceeded to raise a sizable army.

On August 6, 1566, Philip signed a formal instrument declaring that his offer of pardon had been gotten from him against his will. He claimed that he was not bound by the compromise of May 6th and a few days later, Philip assured the Pope that any suspension of the Inquisition was subject to papal approval.5 The destruction of thirty churches and monasteries followed. Protestants entered cathedrals smashing holy objects, breaking up altars and statues and smashing stained glass windows. Bodies were exhumed and corpses were stripped. Numbers of malcontents drank sacramental wine and burned missals. One Count fed the Eucharistic wafers to his parrot in defiance. It was well known that most Protestant leaders condemned the violence perpetrated by the angry mobs, but the pillage and destruction of property was considered far less criminal than burning heretics at the stake. On the political front, William of Orange saw the opportunity to amass support for a large scale insurrection aimed at procuring independence from Spain. Philip became dissatisfied with Margaret, and seized the opportunity to relieve her. The choice was crucial. Instead of selecting a successor trained in handling diplomacy, Philip sent the Duke of Alva to crush the malcontents.

Philip gave full power to Alva in 1567. Alva's judgment was that of a soldier trained in Spanish discipline and piety. His object was to crush the rebels without mercy on the basis that every concession strengthens the opposition. Alva hand-picked an army of 10,000 men. He issued them the finest in armor while attending to their baser needs by hiring 2,000 prostitutes. Alva installed himself as Governor General and appointed a Council of Troubles which the terrified Protestants renamed "The Council of Blood." There were nine members: seven Dutch and two Spanish. Only the two Spanish members had the power to vote, with Alva personally retaining the right of final decision on any case that interested him. Through a network of spies and informers, hardly a family in Flanders did not mourn some member arrested or killed. One morning, 1,500 wee seized in their sleep and sent to jail. There were short trails held, often on the spot, for 40 or 50 at a time. In January, 1568, 84 people were executed from Valenciennes alone. William of Orange decided to strike back at Spain, having organized three armies. He lost every battle and the Eighty Years War was underway (1568 - 1648).6

The Duke of Alva had money sent from Spain but it was intercepted by English privateers who were beginning to establish England as a viable world power. Elizabeth sent her apologies as a matter of diplomatic courtesy while unofficially enjoying Spain’s troubles. Alva responded to his financial bind by imposing a new series of taxes. There was a 1% levy on all property, due immediately. He enforced a 5% perpetual tax on every transfer of realty and a 10% perpetual tax on every sale. This was Alva's downfall. Catholics, as well as Protestants, opposed him for eroding the foundations of business upon which the Dutch economy was built. What followed was a series of mutual confiscation of property as England and Spain played international cat-and-mouse.

Two new forces emerged to oppose Spain. Seizing upon the term, Beggars, used earlier in a derogatory manner by Margaret of Parma, the Dutch rebels formed the Wild Beggars and the Beggars of the Sea. The Wild Beggars pillaged churches and monasteries, cutting off the noses and ears of priests and monks. The Beggars of the Sea took to pirating under commission from William of Orange. William, who raised another army after a series of earlier defeats, again battled the Spanish without a single victory. He could neither control his troops nor deal with the fanatic Beggars. There existed no true unity between Catholics, Calvinists, and Protestants against Alva. The Beggars, who were nearly all ardent Calvinists, showed against the Catholics the same ferocity that the Inquisition and the Council of Blood had shown against rebels and heretics. Their captives were often given a choice between Calvinism and death. They unhesitatingly killed those who clung to the old faith, sometimes after incredible tortures. One Protestant historian wrote:

On more than one occasion men were seen hanging their own brothers, who had been taken prisoners in the enemy rank. The islanders found fierce pleasure in these acts of cruelty. A Spaniard had ceased to be human in their eyes.

On one occasion a surgeon at Veer cut the heart from a Spanish prisoner, nailed it on a vessel's prow, and invited the townsmen to come and fasten their teeth in it, which many did with savage satisfaction.7

While Alva rested, he sent his son Don Federigo to revenge the Beggar's atrocities. Don Federigo's troops indiscriminately sacked homes, monasteries and churches. They stole the jewels and costly robes of the religious. They trampled consecrated hosts, butchered men and violated women. No distinction was made between Catholic or Protestant. His army crushed the weak defenses of Zutphen (Gelderland) and put nearly every man in town to death, hanging some by the feet while drowning 500 others. Sometime later after brief resistance, Little Naarden surrendered to the Spaniards. They greeted the victorious soldiers with tables set with feasts. The soldiers ate, drank, then killed every person in the town. Don Federigo's army later attempted to besiege Alkmaar but the rebels won by opening the dikes and routing the Spanish troops. When Don Federigo came to Haarlem a brutal battle ensued. Haarlem was a Calvinist center that was known for its enthusiastic support of the rebels. A garrison of 4,000 troops defended the city with such intensity that Don Federigo contemplated withdrawing. His father, Alva, threatened to disown him if he stopped the siege, so the barbarities intensified. Each army hung captives on crosses facing the enemy. The Dutch defenders taunted the Spanish besiegers by staging parodies of Catholic rituals on the cities ramparts.8

William sent 3,000 men in an effort to relieve Haarlem. They were destroyed and subsequent efforts to save the city were futile. After seven months, when the city's inhabitants had been reduced to eating weeds and heather, the city surrendered (July 11, 1573). Most of the 1,600 surviving defenders were put to death and 400 leading citizens were executed. Those that were spared were shown mercy only because they agreed to pay a fine of 250,000 guilders, a sizable sum even by today's standards. This was considered the last and most costly victory of Alva's regime. The Bishop of Namur estimated that in seven years, Alva had done more to harm Catholicism than Luther or Calvin had done in a generation 9. A new Governor of the Netherlands followed.

In 1573, the states of Holland and Zeeland raised war funds by increasing the value of the silver coinage by 1/8 as a war contribution. Each coin whose value was in excess of 1/10 daalder was counter-stamped with a shield or lion of the respective province.

Don Louis de Requesens took over jurisdiction of the Low Countries for the brief period between 1573 and 1576. He was surprised at the number and spirit of the Dutch:

Before my arrival I did not understand how they could maintain such considerable fleets, while your Majesty could not support a single one. It appears, however, that men who are fighting for their lives, their firesides, their property, and their religion--for their own cause--are contented to receive rations only, without receiving pay.10

He petitioned Philip to (a) grant a general amnesty except for persistent heretics, (b) let them emigrate, and (c) abolish the 10% tax. Since no immediate action was taken by Philip, William of Orange chose to regard the inaction as a delay tactic. The war continued during which time Leyden was put to siege in 1575. This was the same year that Philip went bankrupt.

A year later Dan Luis died while besieging Zeirikzee. Philip's half brother, the famous Don Juan, was placed in charge of the Spanish troops who, feeling cheated at not being able to pillage Zeirikzee, mutinied and began a campaign of indiscriminate plunder and violence. This "Spanish Fury" was used by William to reinforce his arguments to ally all the Netherlands' Provinces with him. The Union of Brussels was formed only to be dissolve later out of intolerance towards the religious diversity of its members. Calvinists began their wave of uncontrolled atrocities aimed at the Catholics. This divisiveness gave Spain the opportunity to send Alessandro Farnese with 20,000 well-trained troops into the Netherlands. Groningen, Breda, Campen, Antwerp, and Brussels, among others, were put to siege.

Farnese, the son of Margaret of Parma, was the ablest general of Spain. In January, 1579, a group of Catholic nobles formed a League for the protection of their religion and property. Later that same month Friesland, Gelderland, Groningen, Holland, Overijssel, Utrecht and Zeeland formed the United Provinces which became the Dutch Netherlands of today. The remaining provinces became the Spanish Netherlands and in the 19th century became Belgium. Farnese soon regained nearly all the Southern provinces for Spain.

Further north, the city of Maastricht was besieged on March 12, 1579. Fanese’s attackers tunneled an extensive network of passages in order to enter the city beneath its walled defenses. The defenders dug tunnels to meet them. Battles were fought fiercely in underground caverns with limited maneuvering capabilities. Hundreds of besiegers were scalded or choked to death when boiling water was poured into the tunnels or fires were lit to fill them with smoke. In an attempt to mine the city, 500 of Farnese's own men were killed when the explosives detonated prematurely. It took more than four months but the besiegers finally breached the wall and entered the city at night. Catching the exhausted defenders sleeping, they massacred 6,000 men, women and children. Of the city's 30,000 population, only 400 survived.

Maastricht was a major disaster for the Protestant cause and the Dutch began to turn on William of Orange. After several unsuccessful attempts, William was assassinated in 1584 and died penniless. Spain had taken the upper hand on land but the Beggars still controlled the sea. Queen Elizabeth of England began to aid the Northern provinces and actually sent troops there in 1585. While Philip wasted Farnese with ridiculous and useless battles against England and France, Spain had become spread too thin. The Spanish Armada suffered defeat at the hands of the English in 1588 and the situation in the Netherlands became increasingly difficult to manage.

Maurice of Nassau, William's son, had studied mathematics and applied the latest techniques in science to ballistics and siege warfare. He recaptured Deventer, Groningen, Nijmegen and Zutphen.

In 1592, Farnese died of wounds and exhaustion. Philip II died in 1598. As the period of sieges subsided, the War of Liberation continued. Archduke Albert and Isabel of Austria were given sovereign rights in the Netherlands forming a truce in 1609 that gave Dutch a brief respite from war. But, in 1621, 12 years later, the war resumed when the Netherlands reverted back to Spain when Albert and Isabel died childless.

This period never experienced the fury of the early sieges; however, the struggle for independence went on. Attacks on Dutch border towns were made (i.e. Frankenthal, 1625) by Spinola, an Italian banker who pledged allegiance to Spain. Spain made progress in trying to suppress the Dutch but the Dutch recovered. They were financially supported by France and the money was poured into ships since Spain's control of the seas had been broken by England,

Deeply involved in the Thirty Years' War, Spain decided to yield everything to the Dutch in order to be free to fight the French. The Treaty of Westphalia was signed on January 30, 1648, ending the War of Liberation. The Dutch had finally won their independence.


1. A chronological listing is available in Maillet's Monnaies Obsidionales et de Necessite Bruxelles (1870, 1973).

2. Motley, J,L., The Dutch Republic, New York (1883), Vol. I, pp. 283 - 290

3. Geyl, P., Revolt of the Netherlands, London (1945), p. 86

4. Cambridge Modern History, New York (1907), Vol. III, p. 200.

5. Ibid., pp. 207 - 8.

6. B1ok, P.J., History of the People of the Netherlands, New York, (1898), p. 42

7. Op. Cit., Motley, Vol. II, p. 151.

8. Ibid., p, 101.

9. Pastor, L., History of the Popes, St. Louis (1898), Vol. XX, p. 3.

10. Op. Cit., Motley, p. 169.