“It seems that God is Spanish in working such a great miracle.” In the Battle or Miracle of Empel, the soldiers of the Spanish Tercios confronted a flotilla of Dutch ships, which is one of the most unusual and iconic acts of arms of the Eighty Years War.

In November 1585, after the conquest of Antwerp that August, Alexander Farnese sent about 5,000 Spanish infantrymen under the command of Francisco de Bobadilla to occupy the island of Bommel, a strategic position by the Meuse and Waal rivers, one of the branches of the course Lower Rhine. Taking the island would provide him with a bridgehead for a further offensive on Holland, the political and economic heart of the United Provinces. The small Spanish army crossed the Meuse in boats alongside Bolduque, a city in Catholic hands, and easily occupied the entire island except its capital, Zaltbommel, and some forts.

The United Provinces saw an opportunity to make up for the loss of Antwerp and put an end to the Spanish soldiers, and for this they sent from Dordrecht a river flotilla under Filips van Hohenlohe-Neuenstein, count of Holac, with a hundred boats. The Dutch breached the island’s dikes and opened several sluice gates, which flooded the terrain and confined the Spanish soldiers to a narrow tongue of land in a dike next to the town of Empel.

Attempts to help from Bolduque by Count Charles of Mansfeld, general of artillery of the Army of Flanders, were unsuccessful, as were the Spanish attempts to find an escape route.

Batalla de Empel

The Battle of Empel in December 1585 (c. late 16th century), engraving by Frans Hogenberg and Georg Braun.

The Miracle of Empel

Supplies began to run out and bad weather reduced the morale of the troop until a fortuitous finding occurred. While digging a trench, a soldier accidentally found a Flemish oil on wood with the image of the Virgin Mary, to which the Spanish entrusted themselves, ready to sell their lives dearly. This raised spirits and was interpreted as a good omen.

In the following hours, a sharp drop in temperatures began to freeze the waters of the Meuse and the Waal, which led Holac to order the withdrawal of their ships to prevent them from being trapped in the ice. As they retired, were riddled by the Spanish. Immediately afterwards, the infantry in better conditions boarded the boats with which they had crossed the Meuse and assaulted the Dutch forts that stood between them and Bolduque, allowing them to escape death or a surrender that seemed inevitable.

This action was accomplished by the Tercios of Francisco de Bobadilla, Agustín de Íñiguez and Cristóbal de Mondragón (the Tercio Viejo –Old Tercio– of Lombardy), although without Mondragón, who had been put in command of the Antwerp citadel.

That same day the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed patron saint of the Tercios of Flanders and of Italy, and since 1892, of the Spanish Infantry.

By Àlex Claramunt Soto