This last of the old-style epic duels was the most famous and popular battle scene painted in the first half of the 17th century in both enemy countries, Spanish Flanders and Holland.
The story is incredibly complicated. It was fought in 1600 between 22 local cavalrymen from ‘s Hertogenbosch (lead by Leckerbeetje) in Spanish service against 22 French cavalrymen from Normandy (lead by de Breauté) in Dutch service. Later, in 1629, ‘s Hertogenbosch became and remained a Dutch town. So everybody could see himself in the winning camp. The subject was popular both with Flemish and with Dutch painters and their clients.
At the very start of the duel de Breauté killed both Leckerbeetje and his brother, but then the battle shifted. It ended with the surrender of captain de Breauté and four of his compatriots, the other Frenchmen were either dead or they had fled. These five had hoped not be harmed, but they were immediately executed.
About the Duel of Leckerbeetje
The Eighty Years' War, or Dutch War of Independence, (1568–1648) started as a religeous and socio-economic revolt against King Philip II of Spain. The war ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. The Spanish Netherlands fell apart: catholic Spain finally accepted an independent, (mainly) protestant Republic of the Seven United Provinces. Flanders remained Spanish and catholic. Typical of that period was the use of mercenaries, which made the War a very international, but complicated affair.
The Battle of Leckerbeetje is by far the best-known cavalry duel from the Eighty Years’ War. It was fought February 5th 1600 outside ‘s Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc) on Vught Heath (the Vughterheide). Today it is part of the Dutch Republic. But in 1600 ‘s Hertogenbosch, capital of the Duchy of Brabant, was a Spanish, Catholic town. Its situation was very uncertain. Indeed at the start of the Eighty Years’ War its population was divided between a Catholic and a Protestant camp. In July 1579 the Catholics beat the Protestants in a fight on the market square. Thousands of Protestants fled. But between 1585 and 1622 the Protestants lead by Prince Maurice tried six times in vain to take the town back. They finally did so in 1629, under his successor and half-brother, Prince Frederic Henry.
As to “the Battle of Leckerbeetje”, it was the last of the Medieval duels. It was all about honour, insulted honour of course: a very chivalrous thing. It was fought between 22 local cavalrymen in Spanish service against 22 French cavalrymen from Normandy in Dutch service.
The incident had started November 1599 when a group of cuirassiers from ‘s Hertogenbosch lead by Leckerbeetje, attacked a larger group of French cavalrymen. They beat the French and made several prisoners that they took back to ‘s Hertogensbosch. Ransom for them was asked to their French captain de Breauté.
De Breauté answered to his unfortunate lieutenant that he could not understand how they had been beaten, as there were twice as many Frenchmen. He wrote that “twenty Frenchmen are at least worth forty Dutchmen!” Leckerbeetje was not amused with this answer and challenged de Breauté for a duel with an equal number of cavalrymen on both side: 22. De Breauté accepted the invitation, though his superior, stadtholder and prince of Orange, Maurice, had explicitly forbidden this.
The duel was won by the locals in Spanish service. Their leader, Leckerbeetje had been immediately killed, but the remaining 21 fought bravely. Only 4 more were killed in battle, the French lost 14. De Breauté had fought a great duel, killing both Leckerbeetje and his brother at the very start.
Three Frenchmen escaped, leaving captain de Breauté with another 4 compatriots behind. These 5 finally surrendered on condition that they would not be harmed. But the inhabitants of ‘s Hertogenbosch were so angry at them for having killed their heroLeckerbeetje that they immediately executed all 5 in cold blood. Some sources say it was Grobbendonck, the governor in Spanish service of the town of ‘s Hertogenbosch, who had given the order.
About our painting
This completely unimportant military engagement became a very popular subject of paintings, engravings, songs, poems and books during the first half of the 17th century, both in Flanders and in Holland. Of course every side could find himself in the result of the duel: “Dutchmen” (as ‘s Hertogenbosch fell in Dutch, Protestants hands in 1629) fighting for the Spaniards had beaten French cavalrymen fighting for the Dutch.
The first artist who started painting the Battle of Leckerbeetje must have been the Flemish painter Sebastiaen Vrancx. Many versions are either attributed to him, to his pupil Pieter Snayers and to their workshops and followers. On the Dutch side we know of paintings by Joost Cornelisz. Droochsloot and by Gerrit van Santen.
Typical of these early representations of battle scenes is the lack of uniforms. These appeared only at the end of the 17th century. 16th and 17th century soldiers recognized each other by colours: orange (sometimes also blue or black) for the Dutch, red for the Spanish. These colours appeared in sashes, worn round the middle, and in plumes, attached to the hats and helmets.
Cuirassiers wore then still a full, heavy armour and helmet, they protected themselves in a very old-fashioned way. But at that period they used already guns. Be it a gun with a single bullet. So one would try to approach an enemy as close as possible, have one shot at him at close range and then continue the battle fighting with a sword.
Within a few decades almost all metal protections were replaced by velvet coats and hats: these would still protect the men sufficiently, but foremost permit them to move more freely and promptly.
The description of our painting
- in the background we can see the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch, in front of it the Vucht Heath ("Vuchter Heide");
- on the left and right hand side in the back each group has brought its 2 trumpeteers on horseback, sounding the start of the fight;
- behind the 2 left (Dutch) trumpeteers there is a gibbet, where, according to some sources, the 5 captured Frenchmen were to be hung;
- in the foreground at left lies the dead figure of Leckerbeetje (identified as “Leckerbeetien”), with around his middle an orange sash. At the very start of the battle he was shot dead by de Breauté;
- de Breauté must be mounting the white horse in the centre foreground;
- in the foreground at the extreme right a cuirassier falls from his horse. He is erroneously identified as “Grobbendoncq”. But the Spanish archduke Albert had defended governor Grobbendonck to fight this duel; Grobbendonck did therefore not participate to this duel. Instead Leckerbeetje, who had already been involved in the first fight where the French had been made prisoner, was the leader of the 21 horsemen from ‘s Hertogenbosch.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is a very decorative representation of the Duel of Leckerbeetje.