Battle of Gembloux (1578)
The Battle of Gembloux took place at Gembloux, near Namur, Low Countries, between the Spanish forces led by Don John of Austria (Spanish: Don Juan de Austria), Governor-General of the Spanish Netherlands, and a rebel army composed by Dutch, Flemish, English, Scottish, German, French and Walloon soldiers under Antoine de Goignies, during the Eighty Years' War and the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604). On January 31, 1578, the Spanish cavalry commanded by John's nephew, Don Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma (Italian: Alessandro Farnese, Spanish: Alejandro Farnesio), after pushing back the Dutch cavalry, attacked the Netherlandish army, causing an enormous panic amongst the rebel troops. The result was a crushing victory for the Spanish forces. The battle hastened the disintegration of the unity of the rebel provinces, and meant the end of the Union of Brussels.
After the terrible Sack of Antwerp by Spanish mutineers on November 4, 1576, Catholics and Protestants of the Low Countries concluded the Pacification of Ghent, to remove all Spanish troops. The Spanish Tercios were in fact withdrawn to Italy in April 1577, after that the new Governor-General of the Spanish Netherlands, the famous Christian knight, and half-brother of Philip II of Spain, Don John of Austria (victor of Lepanto), had signed the Perpetual Edict.
However, in the summer of 1577, Don John of Austria (brandishing the motto In hoc signo vici Turcos, in hoc vincam haereticos) began planning for a new campaign against the Dutch rebels, and in July, 1577, he took by surprise the Citadel of Namur without a fight. This action further destabilized the uneasy alliance between Catholics and Protestants. From December 1577, John of Austria, still based in Luxembourg, received reinforcements from the Spanish Lombardy. Some 9,000 battle-hardened Spanish troops under Don Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma (Duke after the death of his father, Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, in September 1586), complemented by 4,000 troops from Lorraine under Peter Ernst, Count of Mansfeld, and local Walloon troops from Luxembourg and Namur. By January 1578, he had between 17,000 and 20,000 men at his disposal.
The Union of Brussels had 25,000 men-at-arms, but these troops were badly equipped and led, and above all very divers: Dutch, Flemish, English, Scottish, Walloon, German and French, and religiously ranging from staunch Catholics to zealous Calvinists.
Battle of Gembloux
In the last days of January 1578, the Netherlandish army was camped between Gembloux and Namur. The army was in a bad shape, with many sick. Its leaders, George de Lalaing, Philip de Lalaing, Robert de Melun and Valentin de Pardieu, were absent because they attended the marriage of the Baron of Beersel and Marguerite de Mérode in Brussels. The command of the army was in the hands of Antoine de Goignies, Seigneur de Vendege. Other notable commanders of the Netherlandish army were the Count of Boussu, Martin Schenck (who after the defeat at Gembloux, enlisted in the Army of Flanders), Emanuel Philibert de Lalaing, Philip, Count of Egmont, William II de La Marck, Lord of Lumey, and Charles Philippe de Croÿ, Marquis d’Havré.
When De Goignies learned that the Spanish army was approaching Namur, he decided to withdraw to Gembloux.
At dawn on 31 January, the Spanish army marched towards the rebel army, with the cavalry under Ottavio Gonzaga in forefront, followed by musketeers and infantry commanded by Don Cristóbal de Mondragón, and then, the bulk of the army led by Don John of Austria and Don Alexander Farnese. The rear of the army was left in the hands of the Count of Mansfeld.
The Spanish cavalry had crossed the Meuse River and made contact with the rear of the rebel army. With the bulk of his army still south of the Meuse, Don John sent messages to his cavalry, now commanded by Don Alexander, not to approach the enemy to closely until the arrival of rest of the troops. But Alexander, seeing the sorry state of the enemy forces, and advised by Mondragón and Gonzaga of the opportunity to surprise the enemy, gave the order to charge. The Netherlandish cavalry, which protected the rear of the army, after several confrontations against the Spanish cavalry, fled towards their army, causing an enormous panic amongst the rebel troops. The result was a crushing victory by Parma's cavalry. The entire army was instantaneously disintegrated, and the Spanish cavalry, practically unopposed, carried out a massacre on the fleeing troops.
Destruction of the States-General's army
The Netherlandish army tried to regroup, but a cannon and its ammunition blew up, causing many deaths and a new panic reaction. Meanwhile, part of the rebel troops, mostly Dutch and Scots, led by Colonel Henry Balfour, tried to take defensive positions, but they could not do anything against the musketeers and pikemen led by Don John, Mondragón and Gonzaga. The Spanish victory was complete, De Goignies was taken prisoner, among great part of his officers, Don John captured 34 flags and banners, with the whole of the artillery and baggage of the enemy, and thousands of rebel soldiers were killed or captured. On the other hand, the Spanish casualties were minimal, about 12 dead and a few wounded. 3,000 men reached Gembloux and closed the gates, but after negotiations, the rebels surrendered to the Spaniards on February 5, and the city was spared from plunder.
The Spanish had been less lenient directly after the battle. Hundreds of prisoners had been killed by hanging or drowning.
The defeat at Gembloux forced Prince William of Orange, the leader of the revolt, to leave Brussels, along with its nominal Governor, Matthias of Austria (the future Holy Roman Emperor), who had accepted the position of Governor-General by the States-General, although he was not recognized by his uncle, Philip II of Spain. The victory of Don John also meant the end of the Union of Brussels, and hastened the disintegration of the unity of the rebel provinces.
Don John died 9 months after the battle (probably by typhus), on October 1, 1578, and was succeeded by Don Alexander Farnese as Governor-General (last desire of Don John that King Philip II confirmed), who at the head of the Spanish army reconquered large parts of the Low Countries in the following years.
On January 6, 1579, the provinces loyal to the Spanish Monarchy signed the defensive Union of Arras, expressed their loyalty to the King Philip II and recognized Don Alexander Farnese as Governor-General of the Netherlands. In contrast, the provinces loyal to the Protestant cause signed the defensive Union of Utrecht.
- Pacification of Ghent
- Perpetual Edict
- Union of Brussels
- Union of Arras
- Union of Utrecht
- List of Dukes of Parma
- List of Governors of the Spanish Netherlands
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