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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Les Gueux (Dutch: Geuzen), or The Beggars, was a name assumed by the confederacy of nobles and other malcontents, who in 1566 opposed Spanish rule in the Netherlands. The most successful group of them operated at sea, and so were called Gueux de mer or Sea Beggars (Dutch: Watergeuzen). In the Eighty Years' War, the capture of Brielle by the Gueux de mer in 1572 was the first foothold on land for the rebels, who would conquer the northern Netherlands and become independent as the Dutch Republic.

Origin of the name

The leaders of the nobles, who signed a solemn league known as the Compromise of Breda, 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 by name, was heard to exclaim, "What, madam, is your highness afraid of these beggars (ces gueux)?"

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 appellation. 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.

Gueux de mer

In the year 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. These fierce corsairs 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 Gueux de mer, or Sea Beggars, Watergeuzen in Dutch. At first they were content with plundering both by sea and land and carrying their booty to the English ports where they were able to refit and replenish their stores.

This went on till 1572, when Queen Elizabeth suddenly refused to admit them to her harbours. Having no longer any refuge, the Sea Beggars in desperation made an attack upon Brielle, which they seized by surprise in the absence of the Spanish garrison on April 1, 1572. Encouraged by their unhoped-for success, they now sailed to Flushing, which was also taken by a coup de main. The capture of these two towns gave the signal for a general revolt of the Netherlands, and is regarded as the real beginning of Dutch independence.

In 1573 the Gueux de mer defeated a Spanish squadron under the command of Admiral Bossu off the port of Hoorn in 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.


  • 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

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Geuzen" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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