Battles on Ice Skates in the 1500s: The Dutch Against The Spanish!
When you think of Spain, you don’t normally think of ice skates. Yet, that’s exactly what the King of Spain wanted back in 1572. And it wasn’t just a single pair; the king specifically requested 7,000 pairs of ice skates to be handcrafted at his request. You may be wondering why ice skates were suddenly so important to the king of such a sunny country, but he actually had an incredibly important reason.
Believe it or not, the ice skates were to be used as a military strategy against the Dutch in the late 16th century. By providing Spanish soldiers with ice skates, the King was able to get his men on an even playing field with the Dutch soldiers. But exactly how were ice skates used as a strategy, and was the idea effective? We’ll get into the details below.
How Dutch Ice Skates Relate to the Spanish Inquisition
Our story begins in Spain in 1478. During this year, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, known collectively as the Catholic Monarchs , implemented the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition , historically referred to as the Spanish Inquisition. The goal of the Inquisition was to identify individuals in Spain and Spanish-governed countries that did not practice the Catholic faith, or at least, did not practice it seriously enough!
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Enforcing the Roman Catholic faith was essential to Spain’s monarchy. After King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I stepped down from the throne, Queen Joanna and King Philip I, King Charles I, and later King Philip II all continued their work for the Spanish Inquisition. Those of religions besides Catholicism were forced to convert or be punished for their “sins” with varying degrees of severity.
Punishments ranged from being exiled from the country to being executed for defiance . Persecution towards those of originally different faiths was severe and Jews and Muslims in Spain were cast out in mass expulsions, the former in 1492 due to the Alhambra Decree and the latter in 1609 due to a decree from King Philip III. Historians estimate that over 150,000 people were persecuted during this time, with over 4,000 of them having been executed through torture or burning at the stake.
The ice skating battles between the Dutch and Spanish resulted from Protestant protests against the Spanish religious persecutions of the Inquisition. This 1685 engraving by Jan Luyken shows Friesian Anabaptist Anneken Hendriks being burned at the stake for being a “witch” in Amsterdam in 1571. (Jan Luyken / Public domain )
In the 15th century, Spain gained control over several Low Countries, such as Burgundy and the Netherlands through royal marriages. Because of this, the Spanish Inquisition soon applied to these territories as well, quickly affecting those individuals and their families living there. In 1566, the northern Dutch provinces made it clear that they would no longer tolerate these religious persecutions on their lands.
When King Philip II got word about the religious resistance in the northern Dutch provinces he immediately began to worry as Protestantism spread across the north. Martin Luther , a German priest and theologian, and John Calvin, a French theologian and pastor, had effectively planted the seeds of Protestantism in the region years earlier. And in the face of the Inquisition, Protestant beliefs deepened and spread amongst the people of these regions. Philip II sought to end this religious shift but was quickly met with opposition. In fact, the Dutch had grown tired of Spanish rule, particularly when it came to Catholicism.
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Some Dutch, however, feared retribution from the Spanish throne. In 1572, some Dutch citizens attempted to surrender to the Spanish by hosting a feast to appease them. Philip, unwilling to be fooled, had more than 3,000 Dutch citizens gathered after the feast and killed with swords and fire. The Spanish troops then traveled to surrounding Dutch towns to inflict more of the same. By 1573, over 18,000 people, including children, were killed to make a statement to the Dutch in opposition to Spain’s rule.
This statement only fueled the Dutch to fight harder for their freedom, but it was a bloody path to take. Most of their cities didn’t have the manpower to fight the Spanish troops as they marched towards Amsterdam, and they didn’t have the infrastructure necessary to defend themselves. So, the Dutch came up with a crazy plan!
The Dutch have long been renowned for their skills on ice skates in battle, like the ones with the Spanish during the Dutch War of Independence, and in sporting competitions. Modern speed skaters in the Netherlands. (Vincent van Zeijst / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Dutch Used Winter Floods to Beat the Spanish!
Simply put, the Dutch flooded their own country. With winter soon approaching, they knew the cold water would cause frostbite in addition to slowing down the Spanish troops significantly. They used tools to destroy any dikes that were holding back the local rivers and let them flood the territory, creating massive spreads of water across the landscape. Luckily, the Dutch knew just when to stop; they flooded enough to slow any soldiers and potentially give them frostbite, but not enough to allow Spanish war ships to penetrate inland.
For several months, the Spanish were unable to access the main city, Amsterdam, sitting in the center of this spread of icy water. They took this time to destroy the surrounding cities.
Small, shallow boats were used by locals to go to and from patches of dry land. As the winter grew colder, the Spanish came up with the idea to travel across the water once it froze into ice. What they didn’t know was that the Dutch were already several steps ahead of them.
Once the water surrounding Amsterdam froze, the Spanish set foot across the ice to attack the unsuspecting Dutch. In a sudden twist, the Spanish realized that they had been played by the Dutch.
Hurtling towards them were the Dutch, soaring across the frozen landscape on ice skates . The Dutch soldiers would skate close enough to attack a Spanish soldier or two before quickly skating back behind a wall to safety. The Spanish, having no familiarity with ice skates, at first believed the Dutch to be using dark magic to soar so quickly and gracefully (and to them, frighteningly) across the ice.
The Duke of Alva, Spain’s governor and the general of these Spanish troops, quickly called his soldiers to retreat, realizing they were hopeless against the skilled Dutch skating soldiers. The Dutch took advantage of their vulnerability, quickly killing several hundred of the Spanish soldiers as they slipped their way to safety. After this loss, the general acquired a pair of the skates and sent them to King Philip II to show him their greatest foe so far.
The general requested Philip II to have as many of the skates produced as possible so that they had a fighting chance against the Dutch. Philip II immediately ordered 7,000 pairs of skates to be made for the Spanish soldiers, and mandatory skating lessons were provided to them at local frozen lakes . The success of their next battle now relied on the developing skating skills of these Spaniards.
Not all of the battles fought in the Eighty Years’ War happened in winter. This scene, from a painting by an unknown artist, shows the horrific Spanish sacking of Antwerp in 1576. (MAS / CC0)
The Dutch Pull Through
After their initial failure, the Spanish soldiers became surprisingly good at skating even though they hadn’t even known about the concept before. Though they got on equal footing with the Dutch after a few months of practice, the Dutch still held an advantage over them in experience. Though the Spanish had practiced well, the Dutch had been skating since childhood, so they were still less likely to fall, and swifter in their movements at times.
Plus, the Spanish still didn’t know the Dutch’s landscape like the locals did. The Dutch continued to use flooding to freeze the surrounding land but became more strategic with it over time. Soon, the Dutch began thinning the ice by cutting it in high-trafficked areas, then would spur the Spanish soldiers to fight. When they would try to reach the Dutch, they would fall through these areas of thin ice and face a cold, slow death.
After several decades, the Dutch succeeded in defeating the Spanish in 1648, winning the Eighty Years’ War. Since Spain was defending its own territory in several countries, they were spread thin trying to fight each territory into submission. Finally, they chose to abandon the Dutch and direct their focus elsewhere, hoping for a more successful outcome.
Because of this success, the Dutch continued using flooding as a defense mechanism for many centuries. Between separation via water and their skilled skating abilities, the Dutch were quite successful in defending themselves with the “Dutch Water Line” method for a long time. This method was used as the norm until WWII, when bombers and paratroopers were able to access their land through the air instead of by ground. The “Dutch Water Line” method has not been used since.
The Spanish Inquisition and the outrageous crimes it ordered on those under Spanish rule, especially the non-Catholic masses of the Netherlands, resulted in the Dutch War of Independence and also the end of the Inquisition (at least in Europe). A witch on fire was a common scene throughout the Inquisition as was the cheering by the Catholic masses! ( Matrioshka / Adobe Stock)
The Fall of the Spanish Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition was abolished in 1834 under the rule of Queen Isabella II. The movement had already endured significant decline in recent decades due to opposition from others and changes in leadership. The power of the Church was reconsidered, and Enlightenment thinkers were being held in higher esteem, leading society towards a more humanitarian future.
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Today, historians continue to unravel the damage caused by the Spanish Inquisition to the Spanish empire and surrounding countries. One study in 2021 claims that areas of Spain with a stronger inquisitional background have lower economic performance and educational achievement.
Though the Spanish Inquisition was a bloodthirsty time, the Dutch certainly put up a good fight to overcome what more and more Protestants regarded as wrong. By using their strengths, they were able to take advantage of Spain’s weaknesses, even when they tried to get on an even playing field with them through the use of ice skates. Because of their bravery, the Dutch were able to protect their country from the terrors of religious persecution.
The tough lesson the Spanish army learned in 1566 has never been so clear: If you ever find yourself in a fight with the Dutch, make sure you learn how to ice skate first!
Top image: In the famous Eighty Years' War or Dutch War of Independence, ice skates played a crucial role in the final outcome between Spain and the Netherlands that also led to the end of the notorious Spanish Inquisition. Blades of ice skates, made by the German company "Kondor," from about 1890. Source: Christos Vittoratos / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Lex Leigh
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Some of my ancestors were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and sought refuge in Holland. I didn’t know they also faced persecution in their new home country. It’s absurd that religion has been used as a weapon, as it is now.
An excellent and fascinating article. Thank you.