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The Sea Beggars (or Watergeuzen in Dutch*) were the names given to the group of minor Protestant nobles who took to the seas and formed a piratical Calvinist amalgamation. The Sea Beggars played a vital role in the Dutch Revolt by capturing the port of Brill in April 1572 and thus triggering the second stage of revolt and William of Orange's successful invasion of the Netherlands.

The Beggars where formed around 1567/68 to provide naval support for Orange's planned invasion. They consisted of the lesser nobles who had signed to Compromise of the Nobility, pirates and Calvinist seafarers. The Grandees (higher nobility) held aloof from these "Beggar" nobles, as they became known, and even went as far as to condemn them. Following the defeat of Orange they survived through piracy of both Spanish and neutral shipping acting from English ports. This made them unpopular among some merchants of the Netherlands as their piracy was adversely affecting trade.

It was this unpopularity which led to the traders of the Hanseatic league complaining to Elizabeth I that the Beggars had gone too far. Elizabeth I was also under pressure from her advisers at this time to expel the Beggars so as not to anger Philip II and Spain. She obliging expelled them but they went straight to Brill, an important Baltic trading port and captured it with ease.

Alva's troops were largely committed to the French border to prevent a French invasion and so the Sea Beggars where easily able to take Flushing and from these bases the made inroads into Holland and Zeeland. The bases established by the Beggars were vital as Orange was forced to retreat into Holland and Zeeland.

The Beggars remained in control of most of the towns they had taken and Orange had to perform a careful balancing act to keep them onside. Luckily this was his great skill so the Beggars proved a useful ally throughout the revolt. Their naval strength was particularly useful in the rebels' mastery of the Channel and Baltic which proved such a curse on Philip II, as one of his officials pointed out;

The Dutch Revolt could last fifty years unless Spain gained control of the seas
It was not just naval mastery that the Sea Beggars contributed but the rebel control of the few deep water ports in the Netherlands. It was this control that doomed the Spanish Armada to failure before it was even conceived - there was simply no port which the Armada could dock at to rendezvous with the Army of Flanders which was to accompany it.

* Thnx professor pi

My own notes made in class
"The Netherlands: Revolt and Independence, 1550-1650" - Martyn Rady, Arnold 1987
"Years of Renewal: European History 1470-1600" - Edited by John Lotherington, Hodder and Stoughton, 1991
"The Dutch Revolt, 1559-1648" - Peter Limm, Longman 1989

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