The City of Many Faces: Swamp Dragon

The Free Tour only takes two and a half hours, and that’s not nearly long enough to cover all the interesting stories, legends and myths surrounding the Den Bosch. In this blogpost, I’ll try to explain one of the many historical (nick)names of city. Today, we’ll talk about the name the city earned during the Dutch Revolt: moerasdraak or swamp dragon. The name sounds sinister and horrifying in Dutch, but less-impressionable in English. In this blog, I’ll try to restore the Swamp Dragon to it’s former glory.

In 1506, Charles, crown prince of Spain inherited the Duchy of Brabant from his deceased father. At the time, Charles was only 6 years old, and therefore his paternal grandfather, Maximilian the Holy Roman Emperor ruled in his stead. When Charles turned fifteen, he was deemed old enough to rule his domain. Charles was a pious catholic, with a close relationship to the papacy. He did not tolerate any other religions besides catholicism. In the 1540’s, he banned all Jews from his estates in the Habsburg Netherlands, and founded the Holy Inquisition. The persecution of protestants led to the start of the Dutch Revolt against Spanish overlordship.

The Habsburg Netherlands, a.k.a. the 17 estates.

The Dutch Revolt had three major causes: 1. the persecution of protestants, 2. the heavy taxation of the Dutch population and 3. Charles and his son Philip wanted to centralise government in the 17 Dutch estates. All estates had the right to self-govern, adhered to different laws and had different coins, customs and traditions. It was too much for the king of Spain to rule 17 minor regions from the throne in Madrid. The 17 estates didn’t take kindly to this: centralisation meant that they would lose power and influence. In 1568, the War of Dutch Independence, a.ka. the Eighty Year’s War started. Not all 17 estates joined in, and during the early stages of the war, several estates switched sides. Many cities in the Duchy of Brabant, favoured catholic rule over a protestant rebellion. The city of Den Bosch, known as Little Rome, obviously remained loyal to Spain, while cities like Bergen op Zoom, preferred the revolutionary leader William of Orange. When William of Orange was assasinated in 1584, the war passed a point of safe return. In 1588, Seven Provinces (Holland, Utrecht, Zeeland, Gelre, Overijssel, Friesland and Stad en Ommelanden) declared their independence from Spain. Large parts of the Duchy of Brabant, ‘s-Hertogenbosch included, remained Spanish.

The fact that Den Bosch continued to be loyal to Spain was a problem. Maurice, the second son of William of Orange, wasn’t insane for wanting to conquer Little Rome: it’s proximity to the republic, it’s prestige and it’s strenght made ‘s-Hertogenbosch both a formidable opponent as well as a threat to the security of the young state. Maurice was a fool however, for thinking it could be done easily. Due to it’s geographical location, Den Bosch was almost impossible to overpower: situated in a swamp between the rivers Dommel and Aa, and close to the river Meuse, the area surrounding the city was almost completely submerged most months of the year. Den Bosch could only be reached from Vught in the south, and Hintham in the east. Prince Maurice died in 1625, so his half-brother Frederick Henry, military prodigy, inherited this obsession with the city that now became know as De Moerasdraak.

The swamp, the city, and the lines of circumvallation and contravallation.

The summer of 1629 was dry and hot, perfect for overtaking a swamp. One of the first this Maurice of Orange ordered, after procuring the funds to start the siege, was the construction of an investment, two lines of fortifications, blocking ‘s-Hertogenbosch from the outside world. A circumvallation of 45 kilometers around the city, was built to prevent Spanish forces from attacking the Dutch army in the back. The line of circumvallation consisted of several ramparts, dams, mills and locks. It not only kept the Spanish forces at bay, it also prevented rivers from reaching the city, thus gradually draining the swamp around Den Bosch. A second line called a line of contravallation was created just outside the walls of the city, and was about 11 kilometers long. Both lines were created within a few weeks, and slowely cut off the city from the rest of the region.

All the while, the people of Den Bosch weren’t prepared for an attack. In 1627, the Eighty Year’s War had bankrupted Spain, a country that was at war with half of Europe at that time. The Bossche army lacked gun powder and bullets: the people of the city had to donate whatever iron or lead they had, to supply materials for bullets. Due to the draining of the swamp and the river Dieze, the city turned into a cesspool of disease and death. By attacking other regions loyal to the Dutch Republic, the Spanish Army tried to lure Frederick Henry away from ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

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Frederick Henry enters Den Bosch through the Vughterpoort

In july, the first fortresses of Den Bosch fell, while the Bossche army was bleeding soldiers and gun powder. Several fortresses, such as Fort Isabella and Fort Sint-Andries, fell in the summer of 1629. Anthony Schetz van Grobbendonck, governor of the city, and bisschop Michael Ophovius realised that Den Bosch was unable to withstand the armies of Frederick Henry. On the 14th of september, Den Bosch fell in the hands of the Dutch Republic. In the days that followed, many catholics, including the bisshop, left the city. Saint John’s Cathedral is stripped from it’s catholic grandeur and becomes a protestant church. Although many Bosschenaren believe the occupation of their city is temporary, the Spanish never undertake a campaign to liberate the swamp dragon.

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Anthony Schetz van Grobbendonck, his son, and his men leave ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

In 1648, the Eigthy Year’s War finally came to a halt with the signing of the treaty of Münster. Although the Republic had proclaimed independence in 1588, Spain needed another 60 years to cope with the loss of its northern territories. In 1648, most of what was once the Duchy of Brabant, became Staats-Brabant, a de facto colony of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. It was governed by The Hague, had no right to self-rule -a right that the seven provinces did have- and religious freedom was nowhere to be found. The once mighty Moerasdraak became a second class city, ruled by a foreign northern power. A few things still remind us of the former glory of the city: the dragon fountain, the logo of FC Den Bosch and the small ferry over the Dieze.



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