The ‘Spanish Road‘, linking Spain’s northern territories with those in Italy and the Peninsula. In an ambitious undertaking, Spain used the Spanish Road to reinforce her position in the Netherlands with the new Army of Flanders in 1567.

Though called a ‘road’, this vital artery in fact still involved a journey by sea from Spain’s Mediterranean coast to Genoa that, like Rome, was part of Spain’s informal empire. Troops, money and supplies were convoyed by the Genoese galley squadron that formed an unofficial part of Spain’s Mediterranean fleet. From Genoa, the men marched north to Milan, centre of Spanish power in northern Italy, where they were refreshed and often joined by recruits from Spain’s Italian possessions. The main route ran from the fortress of Alessandria in the south-west Milanese lands across to Asti in Piedmont, a territory belonging to the duke of Savoy who was an ally until 1610. The road forked here, with one branch running north-west via Pinerolo which gave access to the Alpine pass of Mont Cenis and thence to Savoy proper and the upper Rhône, from where the soldiers could march north into the Franche-Comté. A subsidiary track ran along the Val de Susa west of Turin and over the Mont Genèvre. Alternatively, the men could head directly from Milan north up the Ivrea valley and cross by the Great or Little St Bernard passes through Aosta, down the Arve valley in Upper Savoy to Geneva, and then north-east along the Jura into the Franche-Comté. The three routes converged there and then headed north across the duchy of Lorraine into Luxembourg and the front. Sea transport from La Coruña covered about 200km a day, compared to the 23km a day average soldiers took to march the 1,000km from Milan to Flanders, but the overland route was safer and Spain sent over 123,000 men this way between 1567 and 1620, compared with 17,600 by sea.

The French Wars of Religion

Concern for the Road drew Spain deeper into French and Savoyard internal affairs during the 1580s, rather in the manner that the Dutch and other powers were sucked into German quarrels. In Spain’s case, however, involvement did escalate into major war, because France posed a much greater potential threat than any German territory.

France had entered a dynamic period of expansion following its victory over England in the Hundred Years War. The Valois kings consolidated royal control over the central provinces, while subduing previously autonomous border regions: Normandy in 1450, Provence in 1481, Brittany (1491), Bourbonnais and Auvergne (1523) and Saluzzo (1548). Attempts to seize Burgundy after the death of its last duke in 1477 sparked a long-running war with the Habsburgs that widened with Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494. Though this conflict ended with eventual French defeat by 1559, the country’s population had doubled across the previous century and continued to grow, reaching 19 million by 1600. The ability of the French crown to exploit this potential was hamstrung by its weakness following Henri II’s accidental death in a tournament in 1559. Government passed to his widow, Catherine de Medici, who acted as regent for a succession of the late king’s young sons: Francis II (1559–60), Charles IX (1560–74) and Henri III (1574–89). Aristocrats and others who had lost out during the previous century of growing royal power now sought to reassert their influence, under the leadership of the princes of the blood. These grandees were related by intermarriage with the royal family but excluded from rule by the principle of hereditary succession and the crown’s desire for more exclusive authority. Religion complicated matters since many princes and their provincial clients became Huguenots around 1560, embracing the French version of Calvinism, while their rivals remained Catholic. A series of bitter feuds, known as the French Wars of Religion, developed after 1562 and eroded royal authority by exposing the Valois’ inability to guarantee the peace.

International peace was no longer threatened by French aggression but by the danger that the kingdom’s implosion would suck neighbouring countries into its civil war. This was a particular problem for the Empire where princes claimed the right to recruit soldiers to assist friendly Christian powers as one of their German Freedoms. While recruitment was regulated by imperial legislation forbidding it against the emperor or the public peace, territorial fragmentation made it hard to prevent princes collecting troops for their relations or friends across the frontier. The Huguenot leaders had already appealed to the German Protestant princes in April 1562 for assistance, receiving 4,000 cavalry in the first of seven German military expeditions totalling over 70,000 men. Other soldiers were provided by the Protestant princes for the Dutch rebels, but the Catholics were equally active, supplying Spain with 57,200 men between 1567 and 1575 alone, while a further 25,000 Germans served Sweden and Denmark during their war of 1563–70. These figures illustrate the Empire’s importance, because it provided more troops than any of the other unofficial participants in the French and Dutch wars. Around 20,000 Britons served in the Huguenot and Dutch forces between 1562 and 1591, while 50,000 Swiss fought for the French crown and 20,000 for the Huguenot rebels over roughly the same period. The Palatinate was the prime mover behind German recruitment for the Huguenots, since its elector converted to Calvinism in 1560 and part of its territory lay close to the terminus of the Spanish Road. Germany’s rising population ensured that the princes had the men, but they relied on the Huguenots and their international sponsors to pay for them. The money invariably arrived late and never covered the full cost. Consequently, German intervention was intermittent and short-lived, with most expeditions lasting only a few months and ending in a shambles.

Lorraine and Savoy

Recruitment also exposed the princes to retaliation from the French Catholics who formed the League (Ligue), or ‘Holy Union’ as they preferred, in 1584 when it became obvious that the only plausible heir to Henri III, the last Valois, was Henri de Bourbon, king of Navarre and Huguenot leader. The League was a vehicle for the powerful Guise family, who were related to the Valois and controlled north-eastern France around Champagne, as well as the largely French-speaking duchy of Lorraine which was formally part of the Empire. The Guise considered themselves to be the guardians of French Catholicism and were keen to prevent anyone occupying the French throne who might want to curb their political autonomy. Their territories made them a major factor in Habsburg strategic thinking, since their cooperation was essential to secure the last stretch of the Spanish Road, as well as blocking any hostile French moves towards Alsace and the Rhine. Philip II’s decision to subsidize the League from December 1584 transformed what had been a series of seven fierce but brief civil wars into a protracted international struggle lasting until 1598. The situation within France simplified as the different factions polarized into two opposing camps, each with powerful foreign backers. England complemented its involvement in the Dutch Revolt by allying with Henri de Navarre in 1585 and funding the largest German expedition to date that lasted five months from August 1587. The League retaliated by invading the Protestant territories west of the Rhine, burning 62 villages in Mömpelgard alone.

Lorraine’s involvement was matched by that of Savoy, another territory maintaining a precarious autonomy on the Empire’s western periphery Savoy narrowly escaped being another victim of French expansion during the early sixteenth century, thanks to Habsburg intervention that forced France to return its territory in 1559 after 23 years of occupation. Duke Emanuele Filiberto saw France’s subsequent troubles as a chance to escape the tutelage of foreign kings. He moved his capital from Chambéry in Savoy across the Alps to the relative safety of Turin in Piedmont in 1560, and began fostering a more distinct identity. Italian was declared the official language, the prized Holy Shroud was moved to Turin in 1578, and writers were paid to elaborate the myth that the new capital had been founded by a wandering Egyptian prince and so pre-dated Rome and Troy. These moves were given a nationalist gloss by nineteenth-century writers, especially once the House of Savoy became kings of the newly united Italy in 1860. The family had no such grandiose plans in the sixteenth century, concentrating instead on securing recognition as the equals of other European royalty and capturing enough new territory to sustain its independence. It became a matter of pride to recover Geneva, which had been lost during the French invasion of 1536 and subsequently became an independent Calvinist republic, while its hinterland in the Vaud joined the Swiss Confederation. The duke also planned to move south over the Ligurian Apennines to seize Genoa and gain access to the sea. There were also hopes of pushing westwards into Provence and the Dauphiné, as well as east into Milan. Such ambitions could not be achieved alone, and Savoyard policy relied on capitalizing on its strategic position as ‘gatekeeper of the Alps’. In addition to controlling the Tenda Pass between Nice and Piedmont south of Turin, all three routes of the southern section of the Spanish Road ran across its territory.

The accession of Carlo Emanuele I in 1580 saw the start of a more aggressive policy. The new duke has been dismissed as an opportunist, darting in and out of Europe’s wars over the next forty years. However, his frequent shifts of international alignment were forced upon him since he could not afford to pin his fragile independence too closely to any one power, and his goals of dynastic aggrandizement remained constant underneath. The failure to retake Geneva in 1582 convinced him of the need for a powerful ally and he married Philip II’s daughter, Catalina Michaela, in 1585, agreeing to back his father-in-law’s intervention in France. In 1588 he recaptured Saluzzo in the upper Po valley just east of the Alps that had been lost to France forty years earlier. He retook the Vaud the following year, but another attempt on Geneva ended in failure, prompting him to redirect his efforts against Provence and the Dauphiné, thinking they would be easier pickings.

Supported by the Savoyard invasion of the south, the Catholic League was able to take Paris in May 1588 in defiance of Henri III’s orders. The king’s assassination by a Catholic militant on 2 August 1589 removed the last constraints on the League, which began a vicious persecution of the Huguenots. The League’s apparent success was its undoing, since it lacked its own candidate for the vacant throne. Most moderate Catholics regarded Henri de Navarre as their legitimate sovereign, but the prospect of him being recognized as king was a major challenge to Spain’s reputation. Not only was he a heretic, but he was locked in his own dispute with Spain, which had annexed half of Navarre in 1512. Having used the League and Savoy to fight the war by proxy, Philip II now intervened directly by ordering Parma’s invasion of Artois in 1590 – the act which had such a serious impact on the conduct of the Dutch War. The Palatinate and Saxony organized the seventh and last German expedition in 1591–2 to assist Henri, but the king gained his crown largely through his conversion to Catholicism in July 1593, reportedly saying ‘Paris was worth a mass’. Though his conversion alienated the more militant Huguenots it allowed the far more numerous moderate Catholics to join him, and his formal coronation as Henri IV in February 1594 was followed by his entry into Paris a month later. Philip II’s health was failing and in the face of mounting setbacks he was unable to prevent Pope Clement VIII from welcoming Henri back into the Catholic church in August 1595. The new king copied Spain’s methods with regards to the papacy, relaxing opposition to papal jurisdiction over the French church and swiftly building up a faction of around twenty cardinals. Though Spain remained the dominant factor in Rome, it was no longer the only player in town, especially as France’s rising influence allowed the pope to increase his own freedom by playing one power against the other.

With Henri IV accepted as king, the League looked increasingly like a Spanish puppet and its leaders defected one after another, leaving Spain to fight alone. Henri formally declared war on Spain in January 1595, invading the Franche-Comté and cutting the Spanish Road. Spain had to re-route this section further east into the Empire via Saarbrücken. Two years later, Field Marshal Lesdiguières drove the Savoyards from the Dauphiné and captured the Maurienne and Tarantaise valleys, cutting the southern end of the Road. Spain launched a counter-attack from the Netherlands, capturing Amiens after bitter fighting, but it was clear its intervention in France had proved counterproductive. Both sides accepted papal mediation, leading to the Peace of Vervins in May 1598, whereby Spain recognized Henri IV, returned Amiens and Calais, and compelled Lorraine to surrender occupied Metz, Toul and Verdun. The French evacuated Savoy and put the question of Saluzzo to papal arbitration.

Savoy offered to surrender its French-speaking possessions between the Rhône and Saône if it could keep Saluzzo – a possession that completed its hold on the western Alps. The proposal alarmed Spain, because it would expose the Road as it left the Alpine valleys and skirted Calvinist Geneva. Carlo Emanuele was secretly encouraged to hold out for better terms by the offer of Spanish military assistance. Henri lost patience and sent 20,000 men back into Savoy before any Spanish help could arrive, and Carlo Emanuele cut his deal with France with the Treaty of Lyons on 17 January 1601, ceding his French-speaking subjects in return for Saluzzo. The Road narrowed to the Chezery valley between Mont Cenis and the two-span bridge at Grésin over the Rhône, west of Geneva, and its vulnerability was demonstrated when France temporarily closed it in July 1602. Spain tried to reopen the Geneva route deeper in the mountains by sponsoring Carlo Emanuele’s assault that December: the famous ‘escalade’ that failed to retake the city and led to rapidly deteriorating relations between Spain and Savoy. Keen to maintain good relations with a resurgent France, Savoy placed growing restrictions on Spain’s use of the Grésin route, finally expelling the soldiers guarding it in 1609. The political reorientation was completed in a formal alliance with France the following year. Spain needed another way over the mountains.

The Swiss Passes

Concern for the western route had already prompted Spain to sign a treaty with five of the seven Catholic Swiss cantons in May 1587 to use the St Gotthard pass. This was the only practical way across central Switzerland and ran through the Catholic cantons east of lakes Luzern and Zug, and then down the Reuss valley to the Rhine. From here, soldiers could march through the friendly Austrian possessions of the Breisgau and Upper Alsace and rejoin the original Road north via Lorraine to Luxembourg. The only alternative way through central Switzerland via the Simplon Pass to the upper Rhône was long and could be blocked by the powerful Protestant canton of Bern. The governor of Milan managed to renew the 1587 treaty in 1604, but the Catholic Swiss were growing nervous over the revival of French influence, and one of the original signatories refused to sign. Though the Catholic cantons had formed a holy alliance in 1586, they had no desire to fight their Protestant neighbours. Swiss politics were a tangle of local relationships, like those in the Empire, where conflicting interests inhibited polarization into sectarian violence. The renewed treaty obliged Spain to march its troops in detachments of two hundred men at two-day intervals, with their weapons loaded separately in wagons. Spain used the St Gotthard route six times between 1604 and 1619, but the Catholics of Uri and Schwyz closed it temporarily in 1613, preventing the governor of Milan from drawing on German recruits during the war with Savoy. These were not conditions that a great power could tolerate for long.

It was possible to send men by sea through the Adriatic to Trieste and then across Inner Austria and the Tirol to the Rhine. However, this was not only very long but liable to disruption by Venice, a power that frequently opposed Spanish policy in Italy. Venice also controlled the Brenner Pass, which offered the best access to the Tirol from Italy. Only three routes remained between these eastern routes and the central Swiss passes. One road ran north from Milan over the Splügen Pass, east of the St Gotthard, and down the Upper Rhine past Chur and Lake Constance to the Breisgau. East of the Splügen lay the Engadin valley that exited through the upper reaches of the Inn into the Tirol. Finally, there was the 120km corridor of the Valtellina that ran north-east from Lake Como to enter the Tirol either through the Stelvio Pass, open between June and September, or the slightly lower Umbrail, generally passable throughout the year. Though further east, the Valtellina offered a faster route, taking roughly four days to cross, compared to ten days over the St Gotthard.

All three routes were in the hands of the Rhetian free states, more commonly known as the Grisons, or Grey Leagues. Rhetia was a federation of three alliances loosely associated with the Swiss Confederation, but also nominally allied to the Austrian Habsburgs. Like the Swiss, Rhetia had emerged from a network of alliances among the Alpine communities that rejected Habsburg rule during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The actual Grey League controlled the far upper reaches of the Rhine, including the city of Chur, whose bishop refused to join. The Holy House League held the Engadin valley of the upper Inn, while the smaller Ten Parish League bordered on the Tirol in the north-west. All three were composed of self-governing communes that sent representatives to a council to coordinate external relations. The Grey League held a majority, but agreement of at least two of the three alliances was necessary for binding decisions. Rhetia’s strategic significance derived from conquests it made from Milan in 1500–32. The mountaineers had not only taken the Valtellina but also the county of Chiavenna at its southern end: this controlled access both southwards into Milan and northwards along the Splügen and Engadin routes.

Like Switzerland, Rhetian government was not democratic in the modern sense. A significant part of the population was disenfranchised, and while the inhabitants of Chiavenna and the Valtellina had been left with self-government, they were treated as conquered territories and denied any representation in the Rhetian council. Social tensions grew more pronounced as population growth placed increasing pressure on the relatively meagre local resources by the 1570s. Communal government fell into the hands of the ‘Big Johns’ (Grosse Hansen), networks of families who secured a controlling stake in the village councils and increasingly assumed noble titles and lifestyles. As in Switzerland, the decentralized political structure ensured that local control translated into greater opportunities for wealth and influence at a higher level. Foreign powers were prepared to pay handsomely for favourable decisions in the Rhetian council to open the passes or permit military recruitment among the overpopulated villages. External influence encouraged factions aligned to different powers, heightening existing tensions. Conflicts in the council passed back to village level as the Big Johns used their influence in the local law courts to pursue personal vendettas. This struck at the heart of the communal ideal upon which Rhetian (and Swiss) society was based, since the primary purpose of all early modern association was to preserve the public peace and the courts were intended to uphold this. The spread of Lutheranism complicated this from the 1520s, as many families converted, while others remained Catholic. Protestants regarded their faith as an expression of independence from Habsburg jurisdiction and that of the bishop of Chur. Their disenfranchised southern subjects (the Sudditi) in the Valtellina clung to Catholicism as an expression of their own identity. Linguistic differences reinforced these divisions, since the northerners spoke German, while the southerners spoke Italian.

Matters worsened as the Rhetian church fell under Calvinist influence and began insisting on greater supervision at parish level to enforce the reformation of life just as the Capuchins and other missionaries sent by Cardinal Borromeo and the bishop of Chur arrived to promote Catholic renewal. The Rhetian leadership felt increasingly beleaguered, not least because their three alliances were outnumbered by their subject populations in Chiavenna and the Valtellina. These grew increasingly restless, revolting in 1572 and 1607. Matters were further complicated by the fact that the majority of the inhabitants of the actual Grey League also remained Catholic, while the 4,000 Protestants living in the Valtellina felt very insecure. It is scarcely surprising that the Calvinist political leadership equated Catholicism with subversion and used its influence in the local courts to instigate a campaign of persecution from 1617.

Fuentes, the governor of Milan, induced the Rhetians to permit small detachments of Spanish soldiers to transit the Valtellina after 1592, but the council then promised exclusive access to the French in December 1601 and signed a similar agreement with Venice two years later. The governor retaliated, building Fort Fuentes at the top of Lake Como to block the entrance into Chiavenna in 1603 and imposing a grain embargo. The Rhetians remained unmoved, so that by 1610, Spain was without a satisfactory route across the Alps. Fortunately, this was now less pressing since the conclusion of the Twelve Years Truce with the Dutch.

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