On December 8, 1585, a miracle happened involving the Immaculate Conception.
During the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), Spanish troops faced a revolt in the Netherlands. There were many reasons that caused the war, but it was divided along religious lines. Thus, the Spanish Catholics who ruled the Low Countries as they were called, claimed the conflict was a revolt or a war of secession. The Dutch Protestants call it the war of independence.
The war was triggered by the Iconoclast Fury of 1566, in which Protestant preachers condemned all religious images as idolatry and ordered their destruction. Churches, convents, and monasteries were stormed by mobs, where holy statues and images were destroyed. In Ghent, for example, the cathedral, eight churches, twenty-five monasteries and convents, ten hospitals, and seven chapels were wrecked.
The destruction and hiding of a religious picture played a major role in the miracle that later happened during this long war.
In one of the war’s phases, the Spanish were fighting the Calvinists who were persecuting the faithful Dutch Catholics. During the winter of 1585, a regiment of Spanish infantry called the tercios, led by Field Master Francisco de Bobadilla was ordered to winter in the island of Bommel. The Spanish tercios were famous for their pikes and arquebuses and, even today, enjoy a legendary status among the Spanish military, not unlike the American Marines.
The fertile island of Bommel is encircled by the Vaal River to the north and the Meuse to the south. The commander judged Bobadilla’s 3,000-4,000 tercios could rely on the local population for provisions.
Dikes prevented the island’s low lands from flooding. Bobadilla stationed soldiers to guard the dikes to prevent the Protestants from flooding the whole island.
The Protestant rebels saw Bobadilla’s precarious position and gathered a large infantry force and a flotilla of 200 ships of all sizes. The commander was Filips van Hohenlohe-Neuenstein, Count of Holac, who repeatedly attacked the Spanish. He surrounded Bobadilla’s tercios and finally broke the dike close to Brommel.
Within minutes, the island was flooded, and the water rushed over the tercios’ position with a force stronger than a cavalry charge. The troops, who had resisted waves of attacks, were helpless against the river’s tidal force. Bobadilla ordered his troops to abandon camp and its supplies and march for the highest ground on the hill of Empel, where the miracle took place.
For hours, the Tercios endured barrages of cannon and rifle fire. With no previsions and exposed to the cold, the water-soaked troops were in a desperate situation. When night fell, Bobadilla sent a messenger through the lines to ask for the help of a Spanish army that was no more than 15 miles away.
Later, Bobadilla received an answer from Count Charles of Mansfeld, who commanded the closest Spanish army. He promised to send 50 boats with troops to break the siege. At the same time, Bobadilla would attack with nine barges with pikemen and soldiers. It was a desperate plan with little chance of success. On the morning of the attack, every soldier prepared for this mission by confessing his sins and receiving Holy Communion as was customary.
The attack never happened, however. Holac took advantage of his naval superiority, struck quickly and took control of several key positions, thus cutting off the Spanish from aid and plunging them into despair. Perhaps it was the constant cold and wetness or the lack of food. Whatever the reason, the troop suffered from low morale to the point that some even argued that it would be better to die from their own hands rather than be beaten by the enemy. Bobadilla did his best to ward off this sentiment.
On the 7th of December, an unusual thing happened. While waiting for the attacks, the troops fortified their positions by digging ditches all around them. One soldier uncovered an oil painting of the Blessed Virgin on wood. The colors were magnificently preserved as if it had just been painted. Perhaps the image was the result of a saving hand during the iconoclast fury years before.
The Spanish received the picture with great joy. She was placed on the wall of a nearby chapel. Everyone gathered around her and prayed the Hail Holy Queen. According to accounts, the tercios sensed so much consolation that even their feelings of hunger went away. They saw the finding of the image as a divine sign that renewed their will to fight. The enthusiasm was such that when the Dutch later offered them an honorable surrender, Bobadilla responded, “The children of Spain would prefer death over dishonor. We will talk about surrender after death.”
Later that night, an incredible freeze passed over the area. It was so cold the waters of the Meuse began to ice up. Fearing being trapped by the ice, Holac ordered his ships to retreat. On the morning of December 8, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, the Spaniards attacked. The ice was thick enough for the Spaniards to march over it, attack some ships frozen in place, and set them aflame. The Dutch Protestants fled over the ice under Spanish fire.
The turn of events was so improbable that even the Dutch considered it an act of God. As the Protestants retreated, someone famously shouted to the Spaniards that “God mush be Spanish” since He had favored them in such a way.
The Spaniards did not stop their attack. The following day, they boarded their barges, which could move on both ice and water, and attacked the Protestant base camp at the mouth of the Meuse. The Protestants immediately lost heart and ran for their lives, just as Mansfeld’s reinforcements arrived.
Everyone was so overwhelmed by the improbable victory, which the Catholics attributed it to the buried image. Out of gratitude, the tercios took the Immaculate Conception as their patroness. Years later, the Spanish infantry did the same. Over 340 years later, Pope Pius IX would declare the Immaculate Conception as a Dogma of the Faith.
The celebrated picture of Empel was kept in the chapel until the Second World War when German bombs destroyed the city. The salvaged image was then taken to the Parish of Saint Landellinus in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands. A memorial and chapel were erected in Empel. Even today, the successors to the Spanish tercios commemorate the miraculous event.
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