Siege of Oostende Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following a siege of more than three years, the Spanish capture of Oostende, the last Dutch stronghold in the southern Netherlands, signaled the end of the Dutch Wars of Independence.

Summary of Event

Known in Europe as the Eighty Years’ War, the Dutch Wars of Independence Dutch Wars of Independence (1568-1648) ravaged the Low Countries, northern Europe’s most prosperous region. The oppressive policies of Spanish king Philip II sparked widespread rebellion in 1566. Led by Alessandro Farnese, Spanish forces reconquered what is now Belgium by 1588, but conflicts with England and France delayed Spanish campaigns against the mostly Protestant United Provinces of the northern Netherlands, allowing the Dutch, led by Stadtholder Maurice of Nassau Maurice of Nassau , to reorganize. [kw]Siege of Oostende (July 5, 1601-Apr., 1604) [kw]Oostende, Siege of (July 5, 1601-Apr., 1604) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 5, 1601-Apr., 1604: Siege of Oostende[0230] Belgium;July 5, 1601-Apr., 1604: Siege of Oostende[0230] Netherlands;July 5, 1601-Apr., 1604: Siege of Oostende[0230] Oostende, Siege of (1601-1604)

Influenced by Maurice’s interests in engineering and the advice of mathematician Simon Stevin, Stevin, Simon the army of the chief province of Holland was reduced in size, but its organization was improved. To avert mutiny—the perpetual curse of that era’s armies—troops were promptly paid, properly equipped, and regularly trained. Systematically emphasizing siege warfare, Maurice captured several Spanish strongholds, beginning with Breda in 1590.

After Philip II appointed his son-in-law, Albert VII Albert VII (archduke of Austria) of Austria, governor of the Spanish Netherlands in 1595, Maurice was persuaded by his mentor, Landsadvocaat Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, Oldenbarnevelt, Johan van to move south to reunite the Netherlands and aid Flanders in repelling its Spanish occupiers. A Spanish force of twelve thousand led by Albert clashed with eleven thousand Dutch troops deployed among sand dunes on the North Sea near Nieuwpoort Nieuwpoort, Battle of (1600) on July 2, 1600. More numerous but weary from a twelve-hour march and outmaneuvered by greater Dutch mobility, Albert’s army retired with losses exceeding four thousand troops, double those of his enemy. Despite this victory, Maurice also was compelled to withdraw because few Flemings rallied to his side. Attention was focused 10 miles northeast on Oostende, the last Dutch stronghold in the south. Originally Oostende-ter-Streepe, the town was founded about 814 as a fishing village. Fortified by Farnese in 1583, Oostende was defended by forts, bastions, and walls, and by ditches surrounding the town with seawater. By land, a web of streams and canals fed wide channels known as the Old Haven and Geule, on the west and east respectively.

Failing to convince Madrid to negotiate with the Dutch, Albert laid siege to Oostende with twenty thousand troops and fifty cannon on July 5, 1601. The Dutch garrison consisted of only two thousand men under Governor Vander Nood. However, the Estates-General (Dutch parliament) considered Oostende to be of utmost importance, and so it dispatched English general Sir Francis Vere Vere, Sir Francis to the besieged port with sixteen hundred troops. Facing them across the Old Haven, sixteen thousand of Albert’s troops with thirty cannon encamped west of the town, while Count Bucquoy, Bucquoy, Count with four thousand men and ten guns, took up positions across the broader and deeper Geule. Fordable for four hours every tide, the Old Haven was Oostende’s weak side, and it included the Sand Hill, Porc Espic, and Helmond forts and several bastions.

Vere strengthened Oostende’s defenses and dug ditches to the sea to maintain water levels. Drawing the Spanish away, he stationed two hundred men on rising ground to the south to fire on enemy boats coming from Bruges. Finding their supply lines threatened, the Spanish shelled the defenders mercilessly. Though his preparations proved successful, Vere was severely wounded by a cannon shot on August 4. Taken to Middelburg to recuperate, he returned to Oostende before his wounds properly healed. By August 8, some twelve hundred English troops arrived to bolster the defenders, who had been forced underground by cannon fire. Undistracted by sorties led by Vere’s brother, Sir Horace Vere, Vere, Sir Horace the besiegers erected a battery near the Old Haven and then opened fire on Sand Hill fort. Reinforcements continued to arrive, however, raising the garrison to forty-five hundred troops by late September.

Stunned by Oostende’s stiff resistance, Albert engaged an English traitor named Coningsby to spy on the defenders. Captured when he attempted to bribe a sergeant to blow up a powder magazine, Coningsby confessed and was whipped out of town, an extraordinarily light punishment.

Through the autumn, the Spaniards built floating batteries in the Geule and sank sand-filled baskets in the Old Haven to allow passage of their troops. Late on December 4, they attacked suddenly. Igniting straw to see in the dark, the defenders fired on the besiegers as they crossed the mud, driving the Spaniards back with losses exceeding five hundred troops. Hard frosts thwarted further attacks but also prevented help from reaching the defenders. Ammunition fell short. The garrison dwindled. Only twenty-five hundred able-bodied men remained, though four thousand were required to guard the fortifications.

Correctly believing that a major Spanish assault was imminent once tides were low, Vere stalled for time. He sent Sir John Ogle Ogle, Sir John to parley with Mateo Serrano, Serrano, Mateo who agreed that he and another Spanish officer should go into Oostende, while Ogle and Sir Charles Fairfax Fairfax, Sir Charles would be held as hostages by the Spanish. Expecting a surrender, the Spanish were astonished when Vere proposed that Albert end the siege. Meanwhile, the three-day cease-fire, accompanying this parley (discussion of terms), enabled the defenders to repair the weakest of their fortifications. By night, five Dutch men-of-war ships anchored off Oostende. Sleeping in Vere’s quarters, the Spanish envoys awoke to fire from their own side, vainly attempting to stop the disembarkation of four hundred men and great quantities of supplies. Breaking off negotiations, the envoys and hostages were returned to their respective sides.

On January 7, 1602, Spanish cannon fired more than 163,000 shots into Oostende. However, its complex fortifications were difficult to destroy, and the defenders, lying down in their earthworks, suffered little. That evening, 5,000 Italian and Spanish troops with ladders attacked the Porc Espic, Helmond, and Sand Hill forts. Closing sluices, Vere retained water in the channels. When the besiegers ceased firing to allow their guns to cool, 2,000 Spanish troops waded across the Old Haven, and a gun signaled Bucquoy to converge from the east. Stones, bricks, burning pitch, flaming hoops, grenades, and barrels of nails and ashes were hurled down on Albert’s troops, who faltered at the foot of the walls. Meanwhile, Vere withdrew from and then recaptured a fort on the Geule to occupy Bucquoy’s forces and prevent them from supporting Albert. Repulsed on all sides, the attackers retreated across the Old Haven as the tide rose. Vere reopened the sluices, carrying some Spaniards out to sea. Losing only 30 men, with 100 wounded, the garrison inflicted 2,000 deaths on the Spanish. Victorious, but worn by fatigue and numerous wounds, Vere resigned his command, retired to England, and was succeeded by his brother.

The siege continued. Open to the sea, Oostende’s harbors allowed its stubborn defenders, some six thousand at their peak, to be resupplied and reinforced. A flotilla of Spanish galleys under Genoese Admiral Federico Spinola Spinola, Federico tried to blockade Oostende by sea and was attacked by Dutch warships, resulting in the admiral’s death. A second land assault on April 13, 1603, also failed. Despite pressure from the Estates-General, Maurice, cautious after Nieuwpoort, refused to send a relief force. Both sides were distracted elsewhere.

Continuing the siege at his own expense, Ambrogio Spinola, Spinola, Ambrogio Federico’s older brother, took command in October of 1603. By April, 1604, he began to capture Oostende’s outer defenses by attrition. Five Dutch governors died in battle that year. Following the loss of Sand Hill fort on September 14, 1604, the last Dutch governor, Daniel de Hertaing, Hertaing, Daniel de surrendered the nearly destroyed town on September 20.


Compared by its contemporaries to the Siege of Troy, the struggle for Oostende was the focal point of the final phase of the Dutch Wars of Independence. Despite the Dutch capture of Sluys, Spanish control of the southern Netherlands (Belgium) was reasserted. A lack of Flemish support had clearly caught Maurice of Nassau by surprise, revealing that intelligence had been overlooked by his military reforms.

Meanwhile, King James I of England anxiously pressed for peace. Negotiated by Albert, the Treaty of London (1604) London, Treaty of (1604) ended sixteen years of Anglo-Spanish war. Albert and Spinola also urged Madrid to negotiate with the Dutch. Spain recognized the Netherlands’ borders, but the Dutch refused to tolerate Catholicism or withdraw from conquests in the Americas and the East Indies. Having spent unprecedented sums in Flanders between 1604 and 1607, Spanish king Philip III Philip III (king of Spain) was in no position to raise 300,000 ducats a month to continue the war. The Netherlands had secured its frontiers amid the expensive distraction of Oostende. The two sides concluded an armistice in 1607 and a twelve-year truce in 1609.

Maurice’s increasingly tense relations with the impatient, overly optimistic Oldenbarnevelt led to Oldenbarnevelt’s execution for treason in 1619. Hostilities resumed in 1621, and Spinola captured Breda in 1625. Embittered, Maurice died shortly thereafter. An important general in the Thirty Years’ War and later governor of Milan, Spinola was killed in the War of the Mantuan Succession (1628-1631) Mantuan Succession, War of the (1628-1631) . Fearful of France’s growing power, Spain finally recognized Dutch independence in 1648, and the Dutch-Belgian border, which has remained into the twenty-first century, was drawn.

Prospering under Austrian rule in the 1700’, Oostende became Belgium’s most important fishing port and a fashionable seaside resort by the nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Melegari, V. The Great Military Sieges. New York: Thomas Crowell, 1972. This work contains a good description of the Siege of Oostende.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. London: Penguin, 1990. A thorough history of the Dutch Wars of Independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rady, Martyn. From Revolt to Independence. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990. A good general work on the Dutch Wars of Independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vere, Sir Francis. The Commentaries of Sir Francis Vere. London: 1657. Published posthumously, this manuscript at Yale University includes Vere’s account of Oostende, an account frequently quoted in books and electronic sources.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

James I; Maurice of Nassau; Philip III. Oostende, Siege of (1601-1604)

Categories: History