Miracle of Empel

Interpretation of the Battle of Empel by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg.

The Battle of Empel was a decisive battle. The Spanish force was decimated and backed onto a mountain without food and their fate seemed to be left to the enemy’s whims. The die appeared to be cast for the soldiers of the Spanish Tercio and yet, something unexpected happened. The events of the morning of December 8, 1585 would go down in history as “The Miracle of Empel.”

The Eighty Years’ War

The   Eighty Years’ War  began in 1568 and ended in 1648. It was a lengthy struggle between the provinces of the Netherlands against their ruler at the time, the King of Spain. Numerous battles were fought during these eight decades, with some of the more well-known being those of Antwerp and Ostend, as well as the famous  siege of Breda . The Battle of Empel was also part of this drawn-out war.

For years the fighting took place in Flemish territory, claiming thousands of lives. However, the arrival of certain military leaders, such as Alessandro Farnese , seemed to signify a change. Yet the Spanish victories in the late sixteenth century did not quell the revolts.

When Farnese regained Antwerp for the Spanish in the summer of 1585, he sent an infantry to the island Bommelerwaard, situated between the rivers Maas (Meuse) and Waal. In response, Admiral Holak located a fleet of 10 vessels between the Empel dam and the city of Bolduque-Hertogenbosch, completely blocking in the Spaniards and leaving them at the mercy of his naval artillery. The Tercio, led by Francisco Arias Bobadilla, could not resist the pressure for long.

Holak offered the Spanish an honorable surrender but, according to sources of the time, this was the answer he received: “Spanish soldiers prefer death to dishonor. We’ll talk about capitulation (surrender) after death.”

Maestre de Campo Francisco Arias de Bobadilla were besieged on the island of Bommel by 100 ships of the rebel army of the United Provinces. Dutch forces surrounded the Spanish Tercios, who suffered a hopeless situation. Added to the shortage of food there was the flooding of the land caused by their enemies when they opened the levees containing the rivers.

Faced with such colossal arrogance, Holak decided to rid himself of the Spanish soldiers and ordered the opening of the dams’ floodgates (which were located above the enemy camp) to flood the island and drown the soldiers. However, the Spaniards quickly fled to embrace the only piece of high land: the tiny mountain of Empel, which was able to hold about 5000 soldiers.

Soon the Dutch attacked Mount Empel and the night was filled with endless artillery and musketry fire. For the Spanish, the situation reached a new level of desperation: the soldiers were soaked, shivering, and hungry, and did not have dry wood or any food. Surrounded by enemy troops, with no apparent chance of escape, the Spaniards decided to resist until the end.

On the morning of December 7, 1585, the situation was unbearable for the Spaniards, but then something happened that would change the destiny of these soldiers. Legends says that while digging a trench, one of the soldiers found a painting with the image of Mary of the Immaculate Conception.

The finding was interpreted as a divine sign by the soldiers and it greatly raised the morale of the troops. They placed the image in a makeshift altar of a flag and, after praying, had recovered their hopes to escape alive from what they previously felt was a death trap.

Following the unexpected discovery, Francisco Arias de Bobadilla gathered his captains and told them that when night fell they were to attack the main ships. Some captains proposed killing each other instead of falling to enemy fire, but Bobadilla would not hear of it, and berated them for the thought, then encouraged them to fight to the death – entrusting their lives to the Immaculate Virgin Mary.

And Then a Miracle …

During the early hours of December 8, an icy wind began to blow, which caused the waters of the Meuse (Maas) to freeze – something that had not been witnessed for many years. So, Bobadilla ordered Captain Cristobal Lechuga to prepare two hundred men to attack the enemy.  Thus, the Spanish infantry marched onto the ice and completed a surprise attack. The Spanish infantry took many prisoners and captured and burned all the ships of the enemy fleet.

On December 9, the Spaniards charged and conquered the Dutch fort located along the river. The Spanish victory was so complete that many sources claim that Admiral Holak went on to say:

    “In my opinion, it seems that God is Spanish to work so great a miracle [for them]. Five thousand Spaniards who were also five thousand soldiers […] and five thousand devils.”

Since then, the Immaculate Conception is patroness of the Spanish Tercios of Flanders and Italy.

Vamos a satisfacer la curiosidad sobre las tablillas que portan los soldados del grupo religioso. Estas conmemoran el conocido como “Milagro de Empel”.

En 1585, durante la Guerra de los Ochenta Años, unos pocos miles de hombres comandados por el Maestre de Campo Francisco Arias de Bobadilla, se encontraban sitiados en la isla de Bommel por cien navíos del ejército rebelde de las Provincias Unidas. Las fuerzas holandesas contenían al Tercio español, que sufría una situación desesperada. A la escasez de víveres se le une la inundación del terreno al abrir sus enemigos los diques que contenían los ríos.

Tal y como ocurriera en otras ocasiones, los tercios no aceptan la oferta de rendición, prefiriendo la muerte a la deshonra. Refugiándose en la única zona de tierra firme, el pequeño montecillo de Empel, preparan trincheras y parapetos para una defensa final. Mientras cavan, un soldado encuentra unas tablillas enterradas con la imagen de la Inmaculada Concepción. Emocionados, consideran el hallazgo como una señal divina e improvisan un altar encomendándose a la Virgen Inmaculada.

 Esa misma noche se desata un viento inusualmente helado que congela el río Mosa, permitiendo a los españoles cruzar sobre el hielo y atacar por sorpresa. Animados por el fervor religioso, obtienen una victoria completa sobre las tropas de las Provincias Unidas.

Es, desde entonces, la Inmaculada Concepción patrona de los Tercios de Flandes e Italia.

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