Spanish arquebusier



1568. Battle of Jemmingen. Spanish arquebusiers. Angel García Pinto for Desperta Ferro magazine

Gonzalo de Córdoba, (1453-1515).

“el Gran Capitan.” Castilian general who reformed the tercios, reducing reliance on polearms and bringing more guns to reinforced pike formations that could operate independently because of their increased firepower. He fought in Castile’s civil war that attended the ascension of Isabel to the throne. Next, he fought in the long war to conquer Granada. He was sent to Naples from 1495 to 1498 to stop the French conquest. He lost to Swiss mercenary infantry at Seminara, but adjusted his strategy and slowly pushed the French out of southern Italy. He used the same tactics in Italy that worked in Granada: progressive erosion of the enemy’s hold over outposts and the countryside, blockading garrisons, and avoiding pitched battles where he could. He fought the Swiss again, and won, at Cerignola (1503), handing them their first battle loss in 200 years. He beat them again that year at their encampment on the Garigliano River. Between fighting the French and Swiss he fought rebellious Moriscos in Granada and against the Ottomans in behalf of Spain and in alliance with Venice. He retired in 1506, well-regarded as a great general of pike and arquebus warfare.


“Third.” The name derived from the tripartite division common to early modern infantry squares, especially the main infantry unit in the 15th-16th-century Spanish system. Tercios started at 3,000 men, but heavy tercios could have up to 6,000 men each, formed into 50 to 60 ranks with 80 men to a file. They were super-heavy units of armored and tactically disciplined pikemen, supported by arquebusiers and lesser numbers of heavy musketeers on the corners. To contemporary observers they appeared as “iron cornfields” which won through shock and sheer mass rather than clever maneuver. Others saw in the tercio a “walking citadel” whose corner guards of clustered arquebusiers gave it the appearance of a mobile castle with four turrets, especially after the reforms introduced by Gonzalo de Córdoba from 1500. He wanted the tercios to better contend with the Swiss so he added more pikes at the front but also many more gunmen to replace the older reliance on polearms. These formations might have only 1,200 men. The new tercio was still heavy and ponderous on the move, but it was a more flexible unit with much greater firepower that could dig in for defense or advance to destroy the enemy’s main force as circumstances suggested. This reform first paid off at Cerignola (1503). At Pavia (1525), tercios destroyed the French under Francis I. For two generations after that most opponents declined battle against the tercios whenever possible, and they became the most feared infantry in Europe. They remained dominant for nearly a hundred years. Their demise came during the Thirty Years’ War when more flexible Dutch and Swedish armies broke into more flexible, smaller regiments. These units smashed the tercios with combined arms tactics that also employed field artillery and a return to cavalry shock.


Also “arkibuza,” “hackbutt,” “hakenbüsche,” “harquebus.” Any of several types of early, slow-firing, small caliber firearms ignited by a matchlock and firing a half-ounce ball. The arquebus was a major advance on the first “hand cannon” where a heated wire or handheld slow match was applied to a touch hole in the top of the breech of a metal tube, a design that made aiming by line of sight impossible. That crude instrument was replaced by moving the touch hole to the side on the arquebus and using a firing lever, or serpentine, fitted to the stock that applied the match to an external priming pan alongside the breech. This allowed aiming the gun, though aimed fire was not accurate or emphasized and most arquebuses were not even fitted with sights. Maximum accurate range varied from 50 to 90 meters, with the optimum range just 50-60 meters. Like all early guns the arquebus was kept small caliber due to the expense of gunpowder and the danger of rupture or even explosion of the barrel. However, 15th-century arquebuses had long barrels (up to 40 inches). This reflected the move to corning of gunpowder.

The development of the arquebus as a complete personal firearm, “lock, stock, and barrel,” permitted recoil to be absorbed by the chest. That quickly made all older handguns obsolete. Later, a shift to shoulder firing allowed larger arquebuses with greater recoil to be deployed. This also improved aim by permitting sighting down the barrel. The arquebus slowly replaced the crossbow and the longbow during the 15th century, not least because it took less skill to use, which meant less expensive troops could be armed with arquebuses and deployed in field regiments. This met with some resistance: one condottieri captain used to blind and cut the hands off captured arquebusiers; other military conservatives had arquebusiers shot upon capture. An intermediate role of arquebusiers was to accompany pike squares to ward off enemy cavalry armed with shorter-range wheel lock pistols. Among notable battles involving arquebusiers were Cerignola (April 21, 1503), where Spanish arquebusiers arrayed behind a wooden palisade devastated the French, receiving credit from military historians as the first troops to win a battle with personal firearms; and Nagashino, where Nobunaga Oda’s 3,000 arquebusiers smashed a more traditional samurai army. The arquebus was eventually replaced by the more powerful and heavier musket.

Arquebus vs archery

In terms of accuracy, the arquebus was extremely inferior to any kind of bow. However, the arquebus had a faster rate of fire than the most powerful crossbow, had a shorter learning curve than a longbow, and was more powerful than either. An arquebusier could carry more ammunition and powder than a crossbowman or longbowman could with bolts or arrows. The weapon also had the added advantage of scaring enemies (and spooking horses) with the noise. Perhaps most importantly, producing an effective arquebusier required a lot less training than producing an effective bowman. During a siege it was also easier to fire an arquebus out of loopholes than it was a bow and arrow.

On the downside, fired ammunition could not be picked up and reused like bolts and arrows. This is a useful way to reduce cost of practice ammunition or resupply yourself if you control the battlefield after a battle. The arquebus was more sensitive to humid weather. Gunpowder also ages much faster than a bolt or an arrow—particularly if improperly stored. Also, the resources needed to make gunpowder were less universally available than the resources needed to make bolts and arrows. A bullet must fit a barrel much more exactly than an arrow or bolt must fit a bow so the arquebus required more standardization and made it harder to resupply by looting bodies of fallen soldiers. It was also significantly more dangerous to its user. The arquebusier carries a lot of gunpowder on his person and has a lit match in one hand. The same goes for the soldiers next to him. Amid the confusion, stress and fumbling of a battle arquebusiers are potentially a danger to themselves. Early arquebuses tended to have a drastic recoil, they took a long time to load unless using the ‘continuous fire’ strategy, where one line would shoot and reload while the next line shot. When wet the guns were near useless; they also tended to overheat. During repeated firing, guns could become clogged and explode causing pieces of metal and wood to break off, which could be dangerous to the gunner and even those around him. Furthermore, the amount of smoke produced by blackpowder weapons was considerable, making it hard to see the enemy after a few salvoes. Prior to the wheellock the need for a lit match made stealth and concealment nigh impossible, particularly at night. Even with successful concealment the smoke emitted by a single arquebus shot would make it pretty obvious where a shot came from – at least in daylight. Bows and crossbows can shoot over obstacles by firing with high-arcing ballistic trajectories in order to reach the enemy when he has some frontal but no overhead cover (such as when your own troops are in melee with the enemy) — albeit with much less accuracy. An arquebus cannot do this.







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Development of the Battle of Salado

30 October 1340

Many of the battles fought between Islam and Christianity have been hailed as the decisive encounter between the two religions. Few of them can have been more decisive than the crushing defeat of the wealthy emir of Marinid Morocco, Abu al-Hasan, inflicted by King Alfonso XI of Castile and King Afonso IV of Portugal on a clear October day in 1340 in the far southwest of Spain. The Battle of Salado was blessed by the Papacy as part of a new crusade against the infidel; a relic of the True Cross was held aloft in the battle by a priest dressed in white, seated on a white mule. Abu al-Hasan put round his neck on the morning of the battle a reliquary holding a fragment of the Prophet’s clothing. He was determined to smash Christian power in Spain with a major holy war, or jihad, after decades in which the Muslim hold on southern Spain had been slowly eroded.

Later chronicles speak of an army of 70,000 cavalry and 400,000 to 700,000 foot soldiers massed at the Moroccan port of Ceuta to cross the straits to Algeciras, a port still in Muslim hands. The best estimate today suggests perhaps a total of 60,000. The Christian kings between them could muster 22,000 horse and foot. Contemporary opinion held that in open battle the Moroccans were difficult to defeat, but open battle is exactly what Alfonso XI sought.

The battle at the River Salado was won against many odds, and not just the numbers on the battlefield. For years Alfonso had had to battle his own nobles, who accepted vassalage or rule from Castile with ill grace. He was forced to balance the threat from Morocco with the challenge from the vassal state of Granada, still under an Islamic ruler, Yusuf I; he had to win support from other rulers, notably from Aragon or Portugal, and this was a laborious and frustrating task. When the threat from the Marinid Empire of Morocco became evident in the late 1330s, Alfonso found himself almost entirely isolated. Only fear of a Muslim invasion persuaded Afonso IV of Portugal to reach an alliance with Alfonso, signed on 1 July 1340.

By this time the invasion was already under way. In 1339, one of Abu al-Hasan’s sons, Abu Malik, began raiding Andalusia from his bases in Gibraltar and Algeciras. In a major skirmish in late October with Spanish knights, Abu Malik was killed. Abu al-Hasan was already preparing an expedition, but his son’s death sharpened his desire for a savage revenge against the infidel. A letter claimed to have been found after the battle, allegedly from the Sultan of Babylon (probably an Egyptian title), called on the emir to ‘smash their children against the wall; slit open the wombs of pregnant women; cut off the breasts, arms, noses, and feet of other women… Do not leave until you have destroyed Christendom from sea to sea.’ Though probably a piece of Christian propaganda, it is at least consistent with the fiery threats made by Abu al-Hasan as he prepared his campaign.

Troops began to cross the straits in July and on 4 August 1340, Abu al-Hasan himself arrived at Algeciras. By this time Pope Benedict XII had declared a crusade and sent Alfonso the necessary banner and additional funds. Alfonso’s real difficulty was money, a problem that meant little to the wealthy Marinids. He could bring with him supplies for only a few days of fighting, and in order to pay for what he needed he had to pawn the royal jewels. On 23 September, Abu al-Hasan, now joined by Yusuf I of Granada with 7,000 cavalry, began the siege of Tarifa, the only port overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar still in Christian hands. He hoped Alfonso would rise to the challenge. A few weeks later, on 29 October, the Christian army arrived at La Peña del Ciervo (The Hill of the Deer) about 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Tarifa, intent on battle. There were 1,000 knights with the Portuguese king, while Alfonso XI counted on 8,000 knights and 12,000 foot soldiers, mostly recruited from Asturias and the Basque provinces. The number of their Moroccan enemy was much lower than the hundreds of thousands suggested by Christian accounts, but was certainly greater than the crusaders. Alfonso reduced the size of his army even more by sending 1,000 knights and 4,000 foot soldiers round the Muslim lines to reinforce the 1,000 men in Tarifa. This was to prove an inspired move.

Abu al-Hasan drew back from the siege and arrayed his forces along the hills surrounding the port. On the morning of 30 October both sides received blessing from their clergy before moving out to face each other. On the Christian left was Afonso of Portugal, reinforced by 3,000 of Alfonso’s men; on the Portuguese flank were the foot soldiers with lances and crossbows; on the right the bulk of Alfonso’s remaining knights. The Islamic armies were drawn up with Yusuf’s Granadans on the right, the emir’s son Abu ‘Umar on the left, in front of Tarifa, and the centre commanded by Abu al-Hasan himself. Exactly what happened in the battle is not entirely clear. The Christian right began to cross a small bridge over the River Salado where they forced back the Muslim defenders. Then the bulk of Alfonso’s force smashed into the army of Abu ‘Umar, driving it uphill towards the Muslim camp. At some point the 6,000 men in Tarifa stormed out and hit the enemy in the rear, causing a panic which left the emir’s baggage train unprotected.

While the Castilians swarmed up to the camp in pursuit of booty, Alfonso found himself temporarily supported by only a small body of troops. Abu al-Hasan tried to wheel his army around to attack the king, but soon found himself surrounded as the Castilians charged back down the hill and the force from Tarifa hit his flank. Instead of fighting for the faith, he fled with his troops, putting his honour, as one account put it, ‘under his feet’. When he arrived at Ceuta. he told his followers that he had won a great victory, but the sorry remnant of his army that returned could scarcely be concealed.

The victorious Christians pursued the enemy for 8 kilometres (5 miles), slaughtering those they overtook, leaving a field littered with bodies, though how many is uncertain. Muslim women and children, including Abu al-Hasan’s wife, Fatima, were murdered when the camp was overrun and all its occupants killed. Only twelve ships were needed to take the survivors back to Morocco, which suggests either a large-scale massacre or that the Moroccan forces were much smaller than most medieval accounts claimed. Either way the defeat was decisive. Africa never again mounted a major invasion of Spain and Castile extended its domination over the peninsula. Algeciras fell to Alfonso four years later, leaving only Gibraltar as a Muslim outpost. Yusuf was lucky to escape, and Granada survived for a further 150 years. The colossal booty in gold and treasure captured at Salado helped to solve, at least temporarily, Alfonso’s financial embarrassments. So great was the wealth that it temporarily forced down the value of gold and silver on the Paris exchange.

The history of the [Spanish] Army of Flanders and the Eighty Years War. Part I


By Fernando González de León

It appears that there were two distinct periods or eras in the history of the Army of Flanders and the Eighty Years War. The first one lasted roughly from 1567 to the signing of the Twelve Years Truce in 1609. This first Army of Flanders functioned with the regimental and professional structures inherited from earlier periods and those introduced by the Duke of Alba during his administration. It was an army open to tactical innovation, with a remarkably meritocratic official ideology and structure of promotion and that was, all things considered, rather successful, both tactically and strategically. At the very least it was able to rescue and hold the Southern Netherlands for the King of Spain in the midst of widespread revolt and foreign attacks and to intervene effectively in the French Religious Wars. The second Army of Flanders spans the fifty years between 1609 and the conclusion of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 and its most representative figure is the valido of Philip IV, the Count-Duke of Olivares, who greatly influenced its standards and structure during the last half of the war. This army was highly divided among nations, ranks and factions and ultimately failed to adapt too many of the new trends in warfare known in the historiography as the Military Revolution. It is the army whose remarkable decline in combat effectiveness led it to a major string of defeats in the last two decades of the war. Although the Army of Flanders could still be an effective siege and relief force up to the final years of the war, the battles of Rocroi, Lens, Rethel, and the Dunes demonstrated its inability to vanquish the French in the open field. The French, like the Dutch before them, had begun to adapt their armies to a more modern tactical and organizational model while the high command of the Army of Flanders busied itself in perennial disputes over precedence and status. The process of aristocratization that had begun late in the reign of Philip II, gathered speed in that of Philip III and became institutionalized under the Count-Duke of Olivares, had seriously damaged the tercios. Its fractious high command was increasingly dominated by dilettantes (courtiers or diplomats), not by career soldiers. Its Infantry Maestres de Campo were blue-blooded and brave but could not effectively maneuver their units, much less lead larger detachments as they had done under Alba; its untrained cavalry officers showed little fi ghting endurance and its artillery was often inadequately equipped and deployed or not used at all as in the Dunes’.

Thus the history of the Army of Flanders does not adhere to the linear progressive model proposed in all versions of the Military Revolution. In certain key aspects and from a modern perspective, Alba’s army and Parma’s seem much more advanced or “revolutionary” than the Count-Duke’s. On the other hand, one must be cautious not to describe the evolution of this crucial institution as one of absolute decline. As David Parrott and John Lynn have recently demonstrated, the French army ailed from many similar problems throughout the seventeenth century. (However, Parrott’s generalization about the inherent inability of early modern governments to “revolutionize” their militaries does not apply to the successful modernization of the Spanish army in the sixteenth century). It was only in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century when the strict hierarchy and cohesion that had existed in the early tercios of Flanders appeared in the French armed forces and one would have to wait until the nineteenth for the incipient application in some European countries of the meritocratic and technocratic ideals formulated by Spanish officers in the sixteenth. (For instance, it was only in 1811 that commoners were admitted to the service academies in Spain). Therefore, it might perhaps make better sense to refer to the process of deterioration of the Army of Flanders as one of “normalization” or of decline relative only its own previous standards and practices. It certainly appears that the early success of the Spanish army and its remarkable effectiveness derived from the fact that it was, in a manner of speaking, “ahead of its times.”

As Alba, Olivares and others realized, the Spanish monarchy, a vast and heterogeneous empire spanning the globe, relied to a very high degree directly and specifically on cabezas or leaders as well as on the structures that facilitated their proper functioning. Though her rivals enjoyed more advantageous geography, larger populations and richer agricultures and economies, the secret to the remarkable staying power of imperial Spain was her development and mastery in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries of singularly efficient structures of authority and administration, transport and supply, diplomacy and war, and the training and appointment of dedicated personnel capable of making them work. Thus she could ill afford their deterioration, even a relative one, especially at time of general economic and political crisis and population decline like the seventeenth century. In other words, the Spanish army in the Netherlands could not be allowed the luxury of imitating its competitors and deviate from strictly pragmatic and tangible military objectives in a baroque search for luster. To be sure, the process of military aristocratization was common in greater or lesser degrees to almost all of early modern Europe but, as in the general seventeenth century crisis, it was probably the Spanish empire that experienced its most severe consequences.

There are suggestive parallels between this process and the social evolution of early modern Spain and Western Europe. The reinforcement of noble privilege in the Army of Flanders may be considered an episode in that famous early modern “crisis of the aristocracy” that Lawrence Stone described in the English context and that Spanish historians identify also in Castile.4 Recently, for instance, Yun Casalilla has argued that relative distancing between the Crown and the aristocracy that prevailed in the sixteenth century came to an end in the seventeenth as the central government sought to marshall the resources of the country’s elite and the nobility looked to the King for a variety of modes of financial relief. This process led to a certain “refeudalization” not only of Castilian society but also of the Army of Flanders. However, it must be kept in mind that military service was not a money-making proposition for the Spanish aristocracy. In the seventeenth century the Spanish nobility went Flanders only with great reluctance and its organizational and tactical impact on the combat effectiveness of the tercios was severe enough to be obvious even to the most enthusiastic advocates of a socially prestigious high command. It is thus hard to see what sort of military or social advantage either Crown or nobility derived from this aristocratization.

Although nowadays historians almost routinely minimize or simply ignore the importance of military factors in the erosion of Spain’s power and influence, the trajectory or “road” of the Army of Flanders returns these issues to center stage. The deterioration of the combat effectiveness of this army, the Spanish monarchy’s most powerful military weapon, played an obvious and crucial role in the outcome of the Eighty Years War and in the overall erosion of Spanish power in the seventeenth century. The number and importance of fortified places in the Netherlands lost through internal discord, indiscipline or incompetence in the leadership of the tercios is quite high; certainly more enclaves were lost due primarily or even exclusively to those factors than to lack of money or soldiers. Since the 1590’s, when internal struggle among the army’s nations allowed the Dutch to consolidate their position, to the late 1620’s and early 1630’s when another flare-up of intramural disputes imperiled Spanish rule in the Netherlands, to the critical 1640’s when the monarchy was fighting for its very survival, the Army of Flanders failed to perform according to expectations or to its levels of funding and repeatedly spoiled the plans of Madrid’s diplomats and strategists. In the last years of the war Spain’s failure to profit from the Fronde Revolt in France had a great deal to do with the growing inadequacies of its principal military instrument in the Low Countries. Obviously, an efficient Army of Flanders fighting on only one front could have soon exploited French political and social turmoil to great advantage; Spanish victories in the north would have not only relieved the pressure in the Catalonian and Mediterranean fronts but might have brought about favorable peace treaty and even perhaps a shift in the European balance of power in favor of Spain.

The Army of Flanders remained one of the Spanish monarchy’s most important armies after the Treaty of the Pyrenees but on the larger European field it cast a shrinking shadow. The army’s internal problems certainly did not go away and the Spanish aristocracy continued to demonstrate a marked reluctance to serve within its ranks. However, these perennial shortcomings were now compounded by the rise of a more numerous and much more powerful French military under an aggressive Louis XIV. Soldiers were still recruited in Spain and elsewhere and troop levels remained relatively high in the 1660’s and 1670’s (roughly 53000 soldiers in both 1668 and 1675 during French invasions) but they could not match the French build-up from the late 1670’s onwards. By the early 1690’s the tercios were reduced to less than 20,000 soldiers and even further, down to 8000 troops, by the end of the century. In reality the once protagonistic Army of Flanders had become an auxiliary force in a number of major Allied defeats in the Nine Years War (1689–1697). Although it was not a uniformly bleak picture, as the foundation of Europe’s first military academy in 1675 suggests, the formal abolition of the tercio as an organizational and tactical unit during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704 and the adoption of the French regimental model was indicative not only of the changing dynastic direction in Madrid but of the obsolescence and irrelevance of the old Army of Flanders. Thus traditional weapons such as the pike were finally abandoned.


The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567–1659

The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries’ Wars

The history of the [Spanish] Army of Flanders and the Eighty Years War. Part II


BATTLE OF ROCROI, 19 MAY 1643 Following successful cavalry charges by Isembourg on the Spanish right and Conde on the French right, the latter won the battle by keeping his horsemen in check, riding across the rear of the Spanish infantry, and attacking Isembourg’s cavalry from behind. Once the Spanish horse had been defeated, Conde’s artillery opened gaps in the Spanish tercios that were exploited by his horsemen. Rocroi, the last tercio, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau

By Fernando González de León

In a sense, the history of the Army of Flanders parallels that of the Spanish empire. Both were aggregations of disparate and opposing elements that during the “crisis of the seventeenth century” faced increasing fragmentation along social and national lines. Both were subjected to the reforms of an ambitious minister intent on welding the separate units into a cohesive and efficient whole. From its inception the whole enterprise was handicapped by the stubborn resistance of established interests, in the monarchy as a whole and in its military machine in particular. As John Elliott points out, unlike Richelieu, who had the advantage of a fresh start, “Olivares was always trying to make an old system work. He found the machinery hopelessly slow, and was driven to despair by its prevarications and delays.” The stress created by his policies precipitated a crisis in both structures and relegated them to a process of slow disintegration, loss of status and defeat but ultimate survival. However, despite his failure to improve the high command, Olivares should be credited with having correctly identified most of its flaws. His successors were equally or even more unsuccessful, but much less active and perceptive.

The Count-Duke’s worst error in command organization was his failure to detect the links between two problems that he clearly but separately observed and tried to solve: structural disunity and falta de cabezas. Apparently Olivares never realized that internal conflicts prevented the Army of Flanders from taking advantage of the expertise of its officers. Creative tactical leadership could not have much influence in a decision-making structure fragmented by disputes and cumbersome consultative procedures. Although the fall in the levels of seniority and experience in the general staff was certainly a major cause of falta de cabezas, adverse organizational conditions also precluded the emergence of a dominant leader able to implement any single design or plan in the field of logistics, strategy or tactics. This may go a long way towards accounting for the absence of a great General after Spinola, and would certainly explain the army’s failure to profit from the advice of recognized master tacticians like Turenne and Condé.

The absence of a dominant commander contributed to the Army of Flanders’ failure to take the lead in military modernization in the seventeenth century. Tactical reforms were usually applied by strong Generals such as the Duke of Alba, Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and Oliver Cromwell. Without firm and concentrated authority, tactical improvements were difficult if not impossible to apply, especially in an army so far from its political seat of power. Although the Army of Flanders did undergo some of the transformations associated with the new warfare of the early modern era (such as an increase in the number of units, a decrease in the average size of such units, a greater role for cavalry and technical experts, etc.), its structural problems prevented it from integrating these changes into a coherent functional system. Instead of helping, these potential improvements actually aggravated the army’s internal divisions and proved to be instruments of defeat. During the last two decades of the war the Army of Flanders appeared unable to coordinate its major components to win battles or contested sieges. The stress that such engagements placed on its increasingly disjointed structure provoked disasters such as Rocroi.

Nevertheless, despite these clearly harmful consequences, the persistence of internal conflicts and the absence of a strong General was not, from a royal perspective, a completely negative phenomenon. Tactical reform and structural unity demanded intensive training, uniformity of action and rigid discipline, and in the early seventeenth century central governments were often not powerful enough to enforce such reforms which were thus left up to particular commanders to enact. This often resulted in professional armies led by vigorous leaders who used their troops as instruments of their personal political ambitions. Such was the case in the Dutch Republic with Maurice of Nassau and William II, in England with Oliver Cromwell, in the Holy Roman Empire with Wallenstein, and in France with Condé and other rebels. The emergence of a General of this type was possible in the tercios of Flanders, the seventeenth century army farthest removed from its political center. Royal suspicion and fear of insubordination and rebellion was always acutely present and “Secret Instructions” were issued to prominent members of the general staff containing orders to report acts of disobedience by a Captain General, as well as authorization and ways to remove him. Maverick commanders like don Juan José de Austria, who overstepped their authority were immediately reprimanded and did not last long in the Spanish Netherlands. Fortunately for the King of Spain such cases were extremely rare. Structural disunity may have prevented the rise of a Spanish Cromwell or Wallenstein and the closest the King ever came to losing control of his army was in 1576 when following the death of Requesens Sancho Dávila and his cabos led the tercios to the sack of Antwerp. Normally though, the Army of Flanders’ divided high command appealed constantly to the monarch to arbitrate its disputes and Philip IV retained absolute authority over an army less efficient but probably more subservient than its Dutch, French and English counterparts.

In addition, the fragmentation of the army into branches, nations and factions probably contributed to its signal resiliency after defeat. Like a machine designed to break apart on impact to prevent worse damage to its components, the Army of Flanders disintegrated under the intense stress of battle but was never permanently disabled. In Rocroi the cavalry deserted the infantry and fled the field, yet two weeks later Melo could count on an army of sixteen thousand soldiers, many of them cavalry men who, in proverbial style, had lived to fight another day. Their action, however ignominious, certainly kept the number of casualties down (eight thousand dead in an army of twenty-six thousand) and in seven months the Army of Flanders was back at its normal strength of seventy-seven thousand troops, a recovery that despite being mainly quantitative and not qualitative, would have been impossible had the entire army clung together under French bombardment in Rocroi. Similar recoveries took place after Lens in 1648 and Arras in 1654. Under these circumstances, the enemy found it difficult to inflict a decisive, “Napoleonic” defeat on the tercios of Flanders. Should we be surprised that the war lasted eighty years?

Siege of Saigon (March 1860–February 1861)

Capture of Saigon by Charles Rigault de Genouilly on 17 February 1859, painted by Antoine Morel-Fatio.

The 11-month siege of Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam during March 1860–February 1861 by Vietnamese against the French and Spanish occurred during the long French effort to secure control of Indochina.

The French established their first regular trading post in Vietnam in 1680. Christian missionaries were soon active there and Christianity spread. The Vietnamese emperors saw in this a direct threat to their rule, but their attempts to root out Christianity provided an excuse for French military intervention. After the French Revolution and Napoleon (1879–1815), France experienced a considerable religious resurgence and persecution of Vietnamese Catholics during the reign of Emperor Minh Mang (1820–1841) aroused a French popular outcry.

Of course, missionary fervor was not the only factor behind French intervention in Vietnam. The French sought to challenge the British for the vast China trade and hoped to be able to penetrate the Chinese interior by means of the Mekong River into Tibet and the Red River into Yunnan.

Alleged mistreatment of Catholic missionaries, however, was the excuse for French intervention. Already on April 15, 1847, an armed clash occurred between French warships and Vietnamese ships at Tourane (now Da Nang). Then, during Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–1870), Paris adopted a more militant policy toward furthering its interests in Asia with defense of the Catholic Church abroad one of the pillars of Napoleon III’s regime. In 1856 when the French protested the executions of Catholics in Vietnam and the Vietnamese court refused any explanations, a French warship bombarded Tourane.

In mid-July 1857, Napoleon III decided to undertake major military operations in Asia. Charles Admiral Rigault de Genouilly received command of French naval forces in Chinese waters, cooperating with the British against China in the Second Opium War (1856–1860). The success of operations in China in 1858 then freed the French squadron for employment in Indochina waters. Both Spain and France sought redress from Vietnam for the execution of missionaries, and Emperor Napoleon III hoped to secure a port there along the lines of Hong Kong.

It was no accident that the French chose to penetrate southern Vietnam first; it was the newest part of the country and its people were not as wedded to Vietnamese institutions. Indeed, the French conquest of Vietnam would prove more difficult the farther it moved north.

In January 1858, orders issued in Paris the previous November finally reached Rigault de Genouilly. Paris instructed him that while operations in Indochina were to be only an appendix and entirely subordinate to those in China, he was to halt religious persecution and assure toleration of Catholics there. Paris thought this could best be achieved by occupying Tourane, mistakenly considered the key to the entire kingdom. Future Indochina operations were to be entirely at Rigault de Genouilly’s discretion.

On August 31, 1858, Rigault de Genouilly’s squadron of 14 warships carrying 3,000 men (including 1,000 troops from the Spanish possession of the Philippines) anchored off Tourane. The admiral believed that decisive military action would bring fruitful negotiations with the Vietnamese, and on September 1 he landed his men. The invaders stormed Tourane’s forts after only perfunctory Vietnamese resistance, taking them and the port. This auction inaugurated the first phase of the French conquest of Indochina.

Within a few months, Vietnamese resistance, heat, disease, and a lack of supplies forced the French from Tourane. Leaving a small French garrison and several warships at Tourane, Rigault de Genouilly shifted his attention southward to the fishing village of Saigon. He selected it because of its proximity, its promise as a deepwater port, and the fact that it was next to Ta-ngon (today Cholon and part of Saigon), center of the southern rice trade, so vital to all Vietnam.

On February 2, Rigault de Genouilly proceeded southward with his ships. After stopping at Cam Ranh Bay to meet four supply ships, the French and Spanish arrived at Cape Saint-Jacques on February 10 and began bombarding the Vietnamese forts, soon silencing their return fire. A landing force of French and Spanish troops then went ashore and took possession of the forts.

The allied force then moved up the Saigon River, proceeding cautiously and reducing Vietnamese river forts as they proceeded. On February 15, they came upon two forts defending Saigon from the south that had been built earlier by French engineers in the service of Emperor Gia Long (r. 1804–1820). Early on February 16, the French ships opened fire on the forts, which returned fire. Infantry then went ashore, and within a few hours the forts had been taken. The next day, February 17, the French assaulted the Saigon Citadel and captured it, beating back a Vietnamese counterattack. With the fortress covering some 2.5 acres and too large to be held by the troops available, Rigault de Genouilly decided to blow it up, which was accomplished by 35 explosive charges on March 8.

Rigault de Genouilly then returned to Tourane after leaving behind a small force under naval commander Bernard Jauréguiberry. It included a company of French marine infantry, a company of Filipino infantry under Spanish command, and 400 sailors to man the artillery. Left behind as well were a corvette, two gunboats, and a transport. The defenders then repaired one of the southern forts taken earlier as their principal base.

In April 1859, Jauréguiberry led an attack on Vietnamese fortifications west of Saigon. Although successful, the allied cost of 14 dead and 31 wounded led Jauréguiberry to suspend further such efforts.

Saigon was now on its own. Confronted by the major manpower demands of the war involving France and the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont-Sardinia) against Austria (April–July 1859), Paris would not be sending out reinforcements. French government officials also criticized Rigault de Genouilly for his actions at Saigon, and he then asked to be relieved of his command; Admiral Théogène François Page replaced him in November 1859. Paris instructed Page not to seek territorial concessions but to sign a treaty that would guarantee religious liberties and French consuls in the major Vietnamese ports.

Before Page could carry out his instructions, he was ordered to China with his squadron as fighting had again broken out there. The French force ashore in southern Vietnam was too small to accomplish anything save to try to hold on to what it had already taken. The Vietnamese court hoped that European events would cause the French to depart. Meanwhile, both Da Nang and Saigon both came under siege. Although the small French force at Da Nang soon evacuated it by ship that at Saigon remained in place.

Some 12,000 Vietnamese now besieged at Saigon a small allied garrison under French Navy commander Ariès of some 800 men (600 marine infantry and 200 Spanish troops). In addition to Saigon, Ariès had also to defend Cholon.

By March 1860, the allied garrison was completely cut off from outside contact. They did have three corvettes, and they armed a number of smaller craft for river patrols. They also managed to recruit some Annamese and Chinese as auxiliaries, raising their total strength to some 1,000 men.

At Saigon, the allied force came under increasing pressure from the Vietnamese to the west of Saigon and Cholon, who steadily dug trenches closer to the defenders and mounted occasional costly attacks. Disease also took a toll on the defenders. The French, however, consolidated their control of Cholon by taking and fortifying four pagodas there. These roughly paralleled the Vietnamese lines to the west and formed the heart of the French defense.

With the French and British victorious in China in September 1860, the French were again free to concentrate their Asian resources in Indochina. In early 1861, Admiral Léonard-Victor-Joseph Charner received orders to relieve the Saigon garrison and complete the conquest of Cochinchina. In mid-February, Charner departed Chinese waters with a powerful fleet of some 70 ships, including two steam frigates, lifting 3,000 troops under General Élie de Vassoigne. These were joined off Saigon by a small Spanish force of some 270 men.

The Vietnamese had had a year to prepare for the French relief effort and Nguyen Tri Phuong, governor of Gia Dinh Military District that included Saigon, now had at his disposal some 20,000–30,000 men. Extending westward from Saigon and Cholon was the Ky Hoa plain of shallow ravines and gullies, which the French would have to cross to take the principal Vietnamese works in the village of Ky Hoa. The Vietnamese defenses were some seven miles in length, and extending outward from these was a maze of redoubts and outposts. What the Vietnamese lacked was modern weaponry. Their flintlock muskets, iron cannon, and a few war elephants were no match for modern French rifles and artillery.

The French attacked in force on February 25, 1861. Charner’s plan was risky as he knew nothing about his enemy’s defenses, but early that day he moved in force against what was known as the Redoubt at the southern end of the Vietnamese line, with the plan to proceed northward to prevent the Vietnamese from reinforcing and take their principal fortifications from the rear. Fighting was fierce, especially for the Mandarin Fort, but the allies were victorious. In the Battle of Ky Hoa, the French and Spaniards sustained 225 casualties, 12 of them dead; the Vietnamese suffered at least 300 dead as well as many prisoners. The siege was at an end, and France would remain in Vietnam.

Emperor Tu Duc (r. 1847–1883), deprived of rice from the French-controlled South and facing a rebellion in the North under the leadership of a remote Le dynasty descendant, was obliged in 1862 to sign a treaty with France that provided for a 20 million-franc indemnity, three treaty ports in Annam and Tonkin (central and northern Vietnam, respectively), and French possession of the eastern provinces of Cochinchina, including Saigon. Despite ongoing guerrilla opposition, France continued to expand its holdings in Indochina by fits and starts, often with little or no initiative on the part of Paris. By 1867 the French had conquered all of Cochinchina, but they had also learned that the Mekong was not navigable to the interior of China.

The Franco-German War of 1870–1871 put a temporary halt to French imperialism in Asia, but soon the process began anew, propelled by the French desire to recoup overseas the power and prestige they had lost in Europe. In the 1870s, the French turned their attention to northern Vietnam, where Tu Duc’s hold was weak, and by 1884 they had created French Indochina, comprising Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin, along with Laos and Cambodia. Cochinchina was the only outright colony, with Annam and Tonkin protectorates, along with the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia. In reality, all Indochina was subject to French rule, however.

1861 French Conquest of Saigon: Battle of the Ky Hoa Forts

Further Reading

Chapuis, Oscar. The Last Emperors of Vietnam: From Tu Duc to Bao Dai. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Osborne, Milton E. The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response (1859–1905). Bangkok: White Lotus, 1997.

Thomazi, Auguste. Histoire militaire de l’Indochine française des débuts à nos jours (Juillet 1930). 2nd ed. Hanoi: Imprimerie de l’Extreme Oriente, 1931.

Thomazi, Auguste. La Conquête de l’Indochine. Paris: Payot, 1934.

Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Santa Ana (1784)

Santa Ana was a three-masted first-rate, with three decks of guns: the prototype for seven other ships built during the 1780s at Spanish and Cuban yards.

Santa Ana 1784 by San Martín – Artesanía Latina – Scale 1:84

A first-rate of 112 guns, Santa Ana was the first of a class of eight ships intended to provide the central strength of the Spanish Navy. It was Spain’s flagship at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

Naval architecture was a well-established science by the early eighteenth century. By mid-century Spanish shipbuilders were applying lessons learned from English and French designers to their own established techniques, particularly relating to wood treatment and construction methods. Jose Romero y Fernandez de Landa, Santa Ana’s designer, was a scientific builder, author of a textbook on the construction of warships, published in 1784.

Built at El Ferrol, the vessel was launched on 29 September 1784 and first put to sea on 24 November that same year, though not commissioned until 28 February 1785. It was based at Cadiz and maintenance work was done at the La Carraca Arsenal. In January 1787 it was dry docked at La Carraca, and in June 1791 was careened there and rotten timbers were replaced.

Santa Ana had seven anchors with a total weight of 20,457kg (45,100lb). Its ballast, in iron (small ball shots, and iron pieces) occupied around 20 per cent of the length, placed amidships and surrounded by stone ballast. An indication of the care and attention put into construction is given by the ballast-laying instructions. First tar was applied to the holding timbers, then a layer of zulaque (sticky clay or cement), 102mm (4in) thick was applied to the floor-heads. Ground brick was added in alternate layers with iron and fine mix to fill up the space up to 305mm (12in) above the floor-heads. Above this, only the mix of gravel and brick was laid to the heads of the first futtocks. The aim was to ensure that the ballast, around 81 tonnes (90 tons), was densely packed and could not shift in any direction with the pitching and rolling of the ship.

In 1794 the ship was given a full careen at La Carraca, rearmed in January 1797 and stationed at Cadiz. It was with the fleet blockaded in Cadiz in February 1798. In September that year it was careened again at La Carraca and copper sheathing was applied to the bottom. On 21 July 1799 it grounded at the Rota naval base but was refloated. A new keel was fitted in the course of 1800, and Santa Ana remained on service until 1802, when it was again disarmed. Most of its time until 1805 was spent disarmed either through being laid off or having repairs and maintenance; its periods of activity totalled approximately five years out of twenty-one. Disarming meant the removal of everything not integral to the hull structure, including the lower masts, bowsprit and ballast. Everything else was removed and stored away, including the rudder.

In January 1805 preparations for a new spell of active duty began. Careened in La Carraca in September of that year, it was newly rearmed and re-manned when it put to sea with the Combined Fleet, as flagship of the Spanish second-in-command.

In the Battle of Trafalgar, Santa Ana carried the flag of Vice-Admiral Alava and was captained by Jose Gardoqui. It seems it was painted white with black stripes, though some accounts state it was wholly black. Its position in the Combined Fleet’s line brought it against the British fleet’s lee division, headed by HMS Royal Sovereign, flagship of Vice-Admiral Collingwood, under whose drills the ship’s gunnery was the best in the British fleet. Royal Sovereign crossed just abaft of Santa Ana and fired a double-shotted broadside into the stern, which put 14 guns out of action and caused many casualties. The two ships were then locked together for a time, with Royal Sovereign against Santa Ana’s starboard bow, in a devastating cross-fire that continued for almost two hours. ‘They fought us pretty tightish’, reported a British midshipman. Santa Ana’s mizzen topmast was shot away, and after about an hour and a quarter all its three masts had fallen over. At about 14:20 it struck to Royal Sovereign.

Two days after the battle, Santa Ana was recaptured by a Spanish frigate squadron and towed back to Cadiz. When the French invaded Spain in 1808 it was still under repair and took no part in the Peninsular War. With a sister ship, Principe de Asturias, it was moved to Havana in 1810, but saw no further action. It eventually sank at the Havana Arsenal, in 1816.


Dimensions: Length 56.14m (184ft 2in), Beam 15.5m (50ft), Draught 7.37m (23ft), Displacement 2543 tonnes (2803 tons)

Rig: 3 masts, full-rigged ship

Armament: (1805) 30 36-pounder, 32 24-pounder, 10 8-pounder cannon; 10 48-pounder, 2 32-pounder, 6 24-pounder howitzers; 4 4-pounder swivel guns

Complement: 1000-plus

Siege of the Alcázar at Toledo (July 21–September 27, 1936)

On July 17, 1936, with leaders of the Popular Front government of Spain learning of their plans, rightist plotters in the army were forced prematurely to begin their effort to seize power in what became the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). An important battle early in the conflict was the siege of the Alcázar in Toledo during July 21–September 27, 1936.

The reformist Popular Front had won the recent national elections and was determined to bring Spain into alignment with the rest of western Europe. Those opposing the Republicans sought to preserve the character and traditions of ancestral Spain. As historian Herbert Matthews has put it, the central question of the Spanish Civil War was “whether the Catholic, traditional, agrarian, and centralized rule of the past centuries should continue, or whether the great issues that the French Revolution had resolved for France and much of the Western world should be accepted. These included democratic government, capitalism, civil freedoms, separation of church and state, and land reform.”

The Spanish Civil War was both hard-fought and sanguinary. Both sides were equally ruthless, and there were millions of casualties. Whatever the outcome, the war would have been over earlier had it not been for the intervention of other countries, principally Germany and Italy lining up with the Fascists and the Soviet Union supporting the Republicans.

The Nationalists, or Fascists as they were also known, had some two-thirds of the army and 90 percent of the officers. They also had the support of the Catholic Church, die-hard monarchists, and the conservative old-line families who possessed the bulk of the country’s wealth. They also had the Spanish Foreign Legion and the many powerful armies of the paramilitary groups, the Carlists and the Falange.

The government side was known as the Republicans or Loyalists. Led by Spanish president Manuel Azaña Diaz, the Republicans had the navy and most of the air force. It also had strong support from the peasants and workers in the most industrialized part of Spain, the Madrid-Valencia-Barcelona triangle. The loyalties of the middle class were fairly evenly divided.

Nationalist leader General José Sanjurjo y Sacanell was killed in a plane crash on July 20, and leadership devolved to General Francisco Franco, who would emerge as the Caudillo (Leader) and the most durable of twentieth-century dictators. Opinions differ as to which side would have won the civil war had it been left to the Spaniards themselves, but certainly the conflict would have been over much more quickly. Foreign military intervention greatly prolonged the suffering and dramatically augmented the death toll.

German and Italian aid came early. German chancellor Adolf Hitler loaned the Nationalist side transport aircraft and fighter escorts, with German crews, to ferry 20,000 of Franco’s troops from Morocco to Spain, for Republican control of the navy blocked access by water. Getting these troops to Spain was critical if the Nationalists were to be successful. Italy also sent aircraft and the most men, but German assistance, especially the Kondor Legion that enabled the Fascists to win control of the skies, was critical to the outcome. Soviet aid, while it bought influence and eventually subverted the Republic, was late and never in sufficient quantities to overcome that supplied to the Fascists by Germany and Italy. Unfortunately, the Western democracies remained aloof. Fearful of a general war, British leaders insisted on nonintervention and forced France to act accordingly. It was therefore almost a miracle that the Republicans were able to hold on as long as they did.

At the end of July 1936, however, the Spanish capital city of Madrid remained Republican, thwarting Nationalist plans for a quick coup. Most other major cities also remained loyal. Battles raged everywhere, with atrocities committed by both sides.

The rebels hoped to take Madrid early on, believing that its capture would bring the war to a speedy conclusion. Franco and his Army of Africa now moved north from Seville, where they had been ferried by the Germans. But the Republicans had secured control of the city of Toledo about 45 miles south-southwest of Madrid. However, Nationalists there had barricaded themselves in the large Alcázar (fortress) and were refusing to surrender.

Toledo and the Alcázar were important symbolically to Spaniards. The city had been the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom, and the Spanish monarchs had lived in the Alcázar, built in 1520 on high ground and looming over the city, until it had been abandoned by King Philip II and turned into the Spanish Military Academy. The Alcázar was a formidable fortress structure with 10-foot walls. In 1936 it and the military academy were commanded by Nationalist supporter Colonel José Moscardó Ituarte.

On July 18, Moscardó had ordered the Guardia Civil of the province to Toledo and on July 19 and 20 had rejected efforts by the Republican government in Madrid to secure munitions from the city’s arms factory. The government then sent some 8,000 militiamen men south, with seven field artillery pieces and a few small tankettes. They would be aided during the siege by the Republican air force. Unfortunately, the attackers lacked the modern heavy artillery necessary to breach the fortress walls.

On July 21, the Republican force arrived and moved against the arms factory, where 200 Guardia Civil were then located. The latter used the time during surrender negotiations to load trucks with ammunition and remove it to the Alcázar before destroying what they could and withdrawing to the Alcázar.

By July 22, the Republicans controlled most of Toledo and commenced shelling the Alcázar in hopes of inducing its surrender. Throughout the siege, the Nationalist side adopted a passive stance, returning fire only when threatened by attack.

There were now some 1,500 people inside the Alcázar. Moscardó probably commanded 150 officers and noncommissioned officers assigned to the Academy, 650 members of the Guardia Civil, and 7 cadets (the others being on vacation). There were also more than 500 military dependents. In addition, the colonel had taken about 100 civilian hostages, including the provincial governor and his family. The defenders possessed only rifles and a few machine guns and grenades but were now well supplied with ammunition.

On July 23, in what is touted as the most celebrated single incident of the entire war, Republican militia leader in Toledo Candido Cabello talked by telephone with Moscardó inside the Alcázar and informed him that unless he surrendered the fortress within 10 minutes, he would shoot Moscardó’s 17-year-old son Luis. Cabello put the boy on the phone, and the colonel told his son that he should commend his soul to God and prepare for a hero’s death and shout “Viva Christ the King” and “Viva Spain.” “That I can do,” Luis replied. The elder Moscardó then informed Cabello that he would never surrender. Later asked for his report of the day, Moscardó replied, “Sin novedad” (Nothing new). The Republicans indeed executed young Moscardó, claiming this occurred on August 23 in reprisal for a Nationalist air raid.

The Republicans first concentrated their fire on the northern side of the fortress, but shelling here failed to achieve the desired results, and from August 14 for five weeks they attacked the House of the Military Government located close to the fortress, mounting 11 separate efforts, all of which were turned back. Had the Republicans been able to take this structure, they would have been able to mass a large number of men only 40 yards from the Alcázar.

On September 9, Moscardó again rejected a demand from an emissary, Spanish Army major Vicente Rojo Lluch, that he surrender. Two days later on Moscardó’s request, the Republicans allowed a priest of leftist views into the fortress to baptize two newly born infants. The priest also granted the defenders absolution. That evening Rojo again met with Moscardó and requested the release of the women and children. All the women rejected this, saying that if necessary, they would themselves take up arms in defense of the fortress.

On September 18, the attackers exploded a large mine that they had been preparing for a month. The blast collapsed the tower on the Alcázar’s southeast corner and opened a breach in the wall. In the next few hours, the Republicans launched four separate attacks on the breech, employing their tankettes. These met determined resistance and failed.

With most of the outlying structures having been destroyed, on the night of September 21 the defenders abandoned these and concentrated the defense on what remained on the Alcázar itself. Unaware of this, the attackers were slow to occupy the abandoned structures, but in a surprise attack at 5:00 a.m. on September 23 the Republicans gained access to the Alcázar’s courtyard. However, the defenders rallied and drove them back. Later that morning, another attack led by a tankette was also defeated. Still, the situation appeared dire, but relief was on the way.

General José Enrique Varela Iglesius had been headed for Madrid when Franco decided on September 21 to divert his forces to Toledo. Franco realized this decision might well cost him Madrid, but he believed that relieving the Toledo garrison was more important from a propaganda standpoint. On September 23, Varela set out, and three days later his men cut the road between Toledo and Madrid some four miles north of Toledo.

On the morning of September 27, before the Nationalists could arrive, the Republicans exploded another mine on the northeast side of the fortress, but their attack here was defeated. At dusk the same day, the Nationalist relief force arrived and entered the Alcázar, which was then in flames. The Moroccan troops massacred all Republicans in Toledo they could find, including the wounded, doctors, and nurses, in San Juan Hospital.

Republican casualties in the siege are unknown, but the Nationalists side claimed 65 dead, 438 wounded, and 22 missing.

The siege of Toledo was important in the course of the war. Although a great propaganda victory for the Nationalists, it did secure additional time for the Republicans to solidify their control of the capital and improve its defenses. Four Nationalists columns under General Emilio Mola y Vidal attacked the capital on November 8 but were repulsed. The city held out, its defenders vowing “No pasaran” (they shall not pass). Madrid’s fall on March 28, 1939, marked the end of the long conflict. The Alcázar was rebuilt after the war and today houses the Museum of the Army.

Further Reading

Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006.

Eby, Cecil D. The Siege of the Alcazar. New York: Random House, 1965.

Matthews, Herbert L. Half of Spain Died: A Reappraisal of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.

Moss, Geoffrey MacNeill. The Siege of the Alcázar: A History of the Siege of the Toledo Alcázar, 1936. New York: Knopf, 1937.

Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. Rev. ed. New York: Harper and Brothers, 2001.

Whealey, Robert H. Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War 1936–1939. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

The Change of Dynasty – Bourbon Spain

Louis XIV presents his grandson, the King of Spain to the Court and to the Spanish Ambassador.

The dichotomy of Castile-Aragon could not be summarily removed by the stroke of a pen – not even the pen of a Bourbon.

The fall of Oropesa in 1691 left Spain without an effective Government. Indeed, it was followed soon after by the curious administrative experiment of dividing the peninsula into three large governmental regions, one under the Duke of Montalto, the second under the Constable, and the third under the Admiral, of Castile. This was little more than a medieval-style partition of the country among rival lords; and since it was imposed on a State which already possessed the most rigid and elaborate bureaucratic superstructure, it merely led to a further round of clashes of jurisdiction between Spain’s perennially competing Councils and tribunals. But by this stage domestic changes in the peninsula had virtually ceased to be of any importance. Spain was no longer even remotely the master of its own fate. Overshadowed by the terrible problem of the royal succession, its future now largely depended on decisions taken in Paris, London, Vienna, and the Hague.

By the 1690s, the problem of the Spanish succession had become acute. Charles II had remained childless by his first marriage, to María Luisa of Orleans, who died in 1689. It soon became apparent that his second marriage – an ‘Austrian’ marriage, to Mariana de Neuburg, daughter of the Elector Palatine and sister of the Empress was also likely to be childless. As the hopes of an heir faded the great powers began their complicated manoeuvres for the acquisition of the King of Spain’s inheritance. The new marriage had provoked Louis XIV into a fresh declaration of war, which involved yet another invasion of Catalonia, and the capture of Barcelona by the French in 1697. But in the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended the war in September 1697, Louis could afford to be generous. His aim was to secure for the Bourbons an undivided Spanish succession, and there was more hope of attaining this by diplomacy than by war.

The last years of the dying King presented a pathetic spectacle of degradation at Madrid. Afflicted with convulsive fits, the wretched monarch was believed to have been bewitched, and the Court pullulated with confessors and exorcists and visionary nuns employing every artifice known to the Church to free him from the devil. Their rivalries and intrigues mingled with those of Spanish courtiers and of foreign diplomats, who were collecting like vultures to prey on the corpse of the Monarchy. While France and Austria hoped to secure the entire prize for themselves, England and the United Provinces were determined to prevent either of them from obtaining an inheritance which would bring the hegemony of Europe in its train. But the task would not be easy, and time was running out.

At the time of the peace of Ryswick there were three leading candidates for the Spanish throne, each of whom had a strong body of supporters at the Court. The candidate with the best claims was the young Prince Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria, the grandson of Philip IV’s daughter, Margarita Teresa. His claims were supported by the Count of Oropesa, and had been pressed by the Queen Mother Mariana, who died in 1696. They were also acceptable to the English and the Dutch, who had less to fear from a Bavarian than from a French or Austrian succession. The Austrian candidate was the Archduke Charles, the second son of the Emperor, who was supported by Charles’s Queen, Mariana de Neuburg, and by the Admiral of Castile. Finally, there was the French claimant, Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip of Anjou, who claims were clouded by the Infanta María Teresa’s renunciation of her rights to the Spanish throne at the time of her marriage to Louis XIV.

In 1696 Charles, who was thought to be dying, was induced by the majority of his councillors, headed by Cardinal Portocarrero, to declare himself in favour of the Bavarian Prince. Louis’ skilful ambassador, the Marquis of Harcourt, set himself to undo this as soon as he reached Madrid on the conclusion of the Treaty of Ryswick. Still manoeuvring among themselves without regard for the King’s wishes, the great powers agreed secretly in October 1698 on the partition of the Spanish inheritance between the three candidates. Naturally enough the secret was badly kept. Charles, imbued with a deep sense of majesty which his person consistently belied, was deeply affronted by the attempt to dismember his domains, and signed a will in November 1698 naming the Bavarian as his universal heir. This arrangement, however, was thwarted by the sudden death of the young Prince in February 1699 – an event which brought the rival Austrian and French candidates face to face for the throne. While frantic diplomatic efforts were made to avert another European conflagration, Charles fought with a desperate resolution to keep his domains intact. The news that reached him at the end of May 1700 of another partition treaty seems finally to have persuaded him where his duty lay. Alienated by dislike of his Queen from all things German, and deeply solicitous for the future well-being of his subjects, he was now ready to accept the almost unanimous recommendation of his Council of State in favour of the Duke of Anjou. On 2 October 1700 he signed the anxiously awaited will, naming Anjou as the successor to all his dominions. The Queen, who had always terrified her husband, did everything in her power to induce him to revoke his decision, but this time the dying King held firm. With a dignity on his death-bed that had constantly eluded the poor misshapen creature in his lifetime, the last King of the House of Austria insisted that his will should prevail. He died on 1 November 1700, amidst the deep disquietude of a nation which found it almost impossible to realize that the dynasty which had led it to such triumphs and such disasters had suddenly ceased to exist.

The Duke of Anjou was duly proclaimed King of Spain as Philip V, and made his entry into Madrid in April 1701. A general European conflict might still have been avoided if Louis XIV had shown himself less high-handed at the moment of triumph. But his actions alienated the maritime powers, and in May 1702 England, the Emperor, and the United Provinces simultaneously declared war on France. For a time the war of the Spanish Succession, which was to last from 1702 to 1713, seemed to threaten the Bourbons with utter disaster. But in 1711 the Emperor Joseph died, to be succeeded on the Imperial throne by his brother, the Archduke Charles, who had been the allies’ candidate for the throne of Spain. The union of Austria and Spain beneath a single ruler – so uncomfortably reminiscent of the days of Charles V – was something that appealed to the maritime powers even less than the prospect of a Bourbon in Madrid. Accordingly, the English and the Dutch now declared themselves ready to accept a Bourbon succession in Spain, so long as Philip V abandoned any pretensions to the French throne. Agreement was formalized in the Treaties of Utrecht of 1713, which also gave Great Britain Gibraltar and Minorca. A further peace settlement in the following year between France and the Empire gave the Spanish Netherlands and Spain’s Italian possessions to the Austrians. With the treaties of 1713–14, therefore, the great Burgundian-Habsburg empire which Castile had borne on its shoulders for so long was dissolved, and two centuries of Habsburg imperialism were formally liquidated. The Spanish Empire had shrunk at last to a truly Spanish empire, consisting of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, and of Castile’s American colonies.

The extinction of the Habsburg dynasty and the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire were followed by the gradual dismantling of the Habsburg system of government. Philip V was accompanied to Madrid by a number of French advisers, of whom the most notable was Jean Orry. Orry remodelled the royal household along French lines, and settled down to the gargantuan task of financial reform. The process of reform continued throughout the war, and culminated in a general governmental reorganization, in the course of which the Councils began to assume the shape of ministries on the French model. At last, after decades of administrative stagnation, Spain was experiencing that revolution in government which had already changed the face of western Europe during the preceding fifty years.

The most important of all the changes introduced by the Bourbons, however, was to occur in the relationship between the Monarchy and the Crown of Aragon. In the modern-style centralized state which the Bourbons were attempting to establish, the continuation of provincial autonomies appeared increasingly anomalous. Yet it did seem for one moment as if the Crown of Aragon might survive the change of régime with its privileges intact. Obedient to the dictates of Louis XIV, Philip V went to Barcelona in 1701 to hold a session of the Catalan Cortes – the first to be summoned since Philip IV’s abortive Cortes of 1632. From the Catalan standpoint, these were among the most successful Cortes ever held. The Principality’s laws and privileges were duly confirmed, and Philip conceded important new privileges, including the right of limited trade with the New World. But the Catalans themselves were the first to appreciate that there was something incongruous about so generous a handling of provincial liberties by a dynasty notorious for its authoritarian traits. Nor could they forget the treatment they had received at the hands of France during their revolution of 1640–52, and the terrible damage inflicted on the Principality by French invasions during the later seventeenth century. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that as Philip V’s popularity increased in Castile, it declined in Catalonia. Finally, in 1705, the Catalans sought and received military aid from England, and proclaimed the Austrian claimant, the Archduke Charles, as Charles III of Spain. Allied troops were also enthusiastically welcomed in Aragon and Valencia, and the War of the Spanish Succession was converted into a Spanish civil war, fought between the two parts of the peninsula nominally united by Ferdinand and Isabella. The allegiances, however, were at first sight paradoxical, for Castile, which had always hated the foreigner, was supporting the claims of a Frenchman, while the Crown of Aragon, which had always been so suspicious of Habsburg intentions, was championing the claims of a prince of the House of Austria.

On this occasion, Catalonia, although a far more mature and responsible nation than it had been in 1640, proved to have made a disastrous mistake. The Government of the Archduke Charles in Barcelona was sadly ineffective, and would probably have collapsed within a few months if it had not been shored up by Catalonia’s allies. Aragon and Valencia fell to Philip V in 1707, and were summarily deprived of their laws and liberties as a punishment for supporting the losing side. It was hard to see how the Principality could escape a similar fate unless its allies held firm, and firmness was the last thing to be expected of an increasingly war-weary England. When the Tory Government signed the peace with France in 1713 it left the Catalans in the lurch, as the French had left them in the lurch during their revolution against Philip IV. Faced with the equally grim alternatives of hopeless resistance and surrender, the Catalans chose to resist, and for months the city of Barcelona held out with extraordinary heroism against the besieging army. But on 11 September 1714 the Bourbon forces mounted their final assault, and the city’s resistance reached its inevitable end. From 12 September 1714 Philip V, unlike Philip IV, was not merely King of Castile and Count of Barcelona; he was also King of Spain.

The fall of Barcelona was followed by the wholesale destruction of Catalonia’s traditional institutions, including the Diputació and the Barcelona city council. The Government’s plans for reform were codified in the so-called Nueva Planta, published on 16 January 1716. This document in effect marks the transformation of Spain from a collection of semi-autonomous provinces into a centralized State. The viceroys of Catalonia were replaced by Captain-Generals, who would govern in conjunction with a royal Audiencia conducting its business in Castilian. The Principality was divided into a new series of administrative divisions similar to those of Castile, and run by corregidores on the Castilian model. Even the universities were abolished, to be replaced by a new, royalist, university established at Cervera. The intention of the Bourbons was to put an end to the Catalan nation, and to obliterate the traditional political divisions of Spain. Nothing expressed this intention better than the abolition of the Council of Aragon, already accomplished in 1707. In future, the affairs of the Crown of Aragon were to be administered by the Council of Castile, which became the principal administrative organ of the new Bourbon state.

Although the new administrative organization went a good deal less far in practice than it went on paper, the passing of Catalan autonomy in 1716 marks the real break between Habsburg and Bourbon Spain. If Olivares had been successful in his foreign wars, the change would no doubt have come seventy years earlier, and the history of Spain might have taken a very different course. As it was, the change came too late, and it came in the wrong way. Spain, under the Government of the Bourbons, was about to be centralized and Castilianized; but the transformation occurred at a time when Castile’s economic hegemony was a thing of the past. Instead, a centralized Government was arbitrarily imposed on the wealthier peripheral regions, to be held there by force – the force of an economically retarded Castile. The result was a tragically artificial structure which constantly hampered Spain’s political development, for during the next two centuries economic and political power were perpetually divorced. Centre and circumference thus remained mutually antagonistic, and the old regional conflicts stubbornly refused to die away. The dichotomy of Castile-Aragon could not be summarily removed by the stroke of a pen – not even the pen of a Bourbon.