Fernando VI (1746–59), King of Spain

Portrait by Louis Michel Van Loo

The Franco-Spanish fleet commanded by Don Juan José Navarro drove off the British fleet under Thomas Mathews near Toulon in 1744.

Fernando VI (1746–59) ascended to the throne at the age of thirty-three, mature and well trained in the business of government. As the second son of Felipe V and his first wife María Luisa Gabriela of Savoy, Fernando was not first in line for the throne, but upon the premature death of his older brother Luis I in 1724, he became the heir, ahead of his half-brothers Carlos and Felipe. Historians often consider Fernando VI as the first “Spanish Bourbon,” not only because he was born in Madrid, but also because his government chose not to continue the reliance on France that had characterized the long reign of his father. Open to question is whether that was a useful strategy for Spain at the time.

In contrast with the active and warlike stance of Spain under his father and stepmother, Isabel Farnese, Fernando consciously chose the pursuit of peace as the best way to serve his people. He shared his father’s ability to recognize talent among the pool of potential advisers at court; he appointed a series of competent men to the highest posts in his government and let them do their jobs without royal meddling. The king set the tone and direction of his administration, but he felt no need to try to control every aspect of government.

Fernando’s wife Barbara of Braganza, the Portuguese ruling dynasty, set the tone for the cultured court life in Madrid and in the other palaces of the realm. Because both the king and queen had a passion for music, orchestral and vocal performances and multimedia spectacles occupied an important place in court entertainments. Domenico Scarlatti, the son of Alessandro Scarlatti, had served as the queen’s music tutor in Portugal and came to the Spanish court with his royal patroness. He spent the rest of his life serving the royal couple and writing hundreds of compositions for them. The queen also patronized Father Antonio Soler, a notable Spanish composer who studied with Scarlatti. To organize the elaborate spectacles and outings that defined the life at court, the royal couple hired Carlo Broschi, the famous castrato singer better known as Farinelli. As the court traveled from palace to palace on a regular annual round, taking advantage of the seasonal attractions in each venue, Farinelli made sure that they had sufficient amusements to distract them from the tedium of daily life and political responsibilities.

These distractions were of particular importance for the king, who lived under the same cloud of depression that had haunted his father. Also like his father, Fernando depended heavily on the loving support of his wife. In the arcane language that historians use to describe that dependence, he was uxorious, a characteristic often attributed to the Spanish Bourbon kings as a whole. When it became clear, after years of devoted marriage, that the royal couple would have no heir, both the king and queen felt the lack of children keenly. The lavish entertainments that they sponsored at court can be seen, at least in part, as an attempt to fill the emptiness in their lives.

Court culture included an affinity for the mathematical and scientific interests of the Jesuits as well as the early stirrings of the Spanish Enlightenment, most notably in the writings of the Benedictine monk Benito Feyjóo. Lamenting that Spain had fallen behind its European neighbors in intellectual pursuits, Feyjóo argued tirelessly for a new spirit of inquiry, particularly in the sciences. Although his writings met with strong criticism from traditionalists, Feyjóo enjoyed the steadfast support of the king.

Although Fernando sent his stepmother Isabel Farnese into retirement at the palace of La Granja, he did not entirely abandon her quest to recover territories in Italy lost in 1714. His half-brother Carlos had inherited the duchies of Parma and Piacenza in 1731, when the Farnese line died out. Carlos conquered Naples in 1735. That same year, the Habsburg emperor ceded the kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) to Spain, in exchange for Parma and Piacenza. Carlos reigned as king of the Two Sicilies from 1735 to 1759, and Fernando regained the duchies of Parma and Piacenza for his half-brother Felipe by allying with France in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8).

Thereafter, Italy ceased to be the major focus of Spanish foreign policy, and the Bourbon “Family pact” with France no longer defined Spain’s relations with its European neighbors. The main proponent for this new posture was José de Carvajal y Lancaster, a Spaniard of Anglo-Portuguese origins on his mother’s side and one of the king’s foremost advisers on foreign affairs from 1746 to 1754. He held the posts of Secretary of State and president of the Junta de Comercio (Trade Committee), as well as serving as the head of the Council of the Indies. After the War of the Austrian Succession ended, Carvajal moved away from the pro-French policy of his precursors. Although England continued to pose the most serious threat to the Spanish Empire, Carvajal followed the Portuguese example by choosing cordiality rather than confrontation with England as the best way to protect Spain’s interests abroad.

The king and Carvajal also worked to end friction with Portugal regarding the borders between Spanish territories in South America and Portuguese Brazil. By the Treaty of Limits in 1750, Spain and Portugal agreed to a frontier that many Spaniards branded as too favorable to the Portuguese. In effect, the treaty abandoned considerable territory in Uruguay to Portugal, bordering on the missions that the Society of Jesus had established in Paraguay among the Guaraní people. Despite the crown’s support for missionary activities in the American empire, officials in Madrid faulted the Jesuits for managing their missions largely without regard to the crown’s interests and supervision. The dramatic story of Portuguese harassment of the Jesuit missions and their eventual dismantling serves as the basis for the 1986 film The Mission.

Predictably, the Jesuits were angry about the terms of the treaty, and many members of the Spanish elite agreed with them. Among their supporters, the Jesuits could count the marquis of La Ensenada, who had continued as a key adviser to the crown during the reign of Fernando VI. Like José Patiño before him, Ensenada held responsibility for numerous government ministries, dealing with finance above all, as well as war, the navy, and the Indies. The responsibilities of Ensenada and Carvajal overlapped at several points, and they disagreed about many aspects of Spanish policy, both in Europe and abroad. For example, Ensenada was pro-French, as well as pro-Jesuit, whereas Carvajal remained wary of both of those positions.

Conspiracies at court swirled around Ensenada in the aftermath of the Treaty of Limits, and he encountered royal displeasure for corresponding about its terms with King Carlos of Naples, Fernando VI’s half-brother. In 1754, Ensenada’s enemies brought about his fall from favor, an outcome that the English ambassador Benjamin Keene claimed as his doing. Even though Ensenada’s career ended in disgrace, he accomplished a great deal during his decade in power, including the negotiation of a new agreement with the Vatican: the Concordat of 1753. Settling a series of jurisdictional disputes between the papacy and the Spanish crown, the Concordat clarified and arguably increased the role of the crown in the religious life of Spain.

Perhaps the most important legacy of Ensenada’s tenure in office was his focus on the need to strengthen the Spanish economy and rebuild Spanish shipping capacity for both military and mercantile needs. Like his rival Carvajal, he thought the crown should play a major role in building up all the resources of the state, both human and material. With a growing population and a strong economy, Spain could defend its interests in Europe and abroad. The government inquiry called the “Catastro de la Ensenada” set out to survey the landed wealth of the kingdom, preparatory to instituting a single tax (“Única Contribución”) based on wealth. That inquiry, carried out by the system of intendants reinstalled in 1749, remains the most important source of information on the Spanish economy in the mid eighteenth century. Much as Ensenada had hoped, the Catastro suggested that both the population and the economy were indeed experiencing impressive growth. Tapping into that growth in the guise of tax reform met resistance, however, from the large landowners who would have paid most of the new tax. Faced with their resistance, the “Única Contribución” never came into effect.

Instead of general tax reform, Ensenada had to settle for piecemeal revisions of existing taxes. He also instituted other reforms that contributed to the goals of a stronger Spanish economy with an enhanced military capability. For example, he set up seed banks (pósitos) that helped poor farming families survive through lean times without depleting their seed for the next planting. As for the military, after years of preparatory work, in 1748 his office published a thoroughgoing new set of naval regulations for ship construction, manning, and general administration.

Key to Ensenada’s naval reform was the creation of three large naval districts, with headquarters at Ferrol on the north coast, Cartagena on the Mediterranean, and Cádiz on the southern coast west of Gibraltar on the Atlantic. Moreover, Ensenada was able to install a marine registry (matrícula), based on economic incentives, which his precursors had planned but had not implemented. With the registry in place, the government could ensure a steady supply of crewmen for the navy, based on a strengthened merchant marine, and without relying on coercion or violence to enlist them. With the support of the king, Ensenada had been able to secure huge resources for the navy, even with the country at peace, and new ship construction up to the early 1750s aimed to make Spain into a formidable naval power once again. Jorge Juan y Santacilia pioneered the new science of hydrography to study how ships moved through water, and Spain’s new warships took advantage of the best in modern design and the best materials available.

With both Carvajal and Ensenada out of power after 1754, government reforms lost their momentum in all spheres. Ricardo Wall, a mediocre bureaucrat of Irish ancestry, became the dominant adviser to the king. Although some historians consider him pro-English, he seems to have lacked any clear vision for the direction of Spanish foreign policy. Some of Ensenada’s appointees stayed on in the government, presumably with their pro-French and anti-English sentiments intact. In the growing rivalry between France and England, the neutrality that Wall and the king seemed to favor was not necessarily a bad choice. Even though England still posed the greatest threat to the empire, France had been an unsteady ally. Only through avoiding a renewal of warfare could Spain hope to concentrate on continued economic growth.

When warfare broke out in 1756, Fernando VI refused to participate, even though the stakes clearly included control of overseas territories. Most of Europe would know the conflict as the “Seven Years War,” whereas North American historiography would call it the “French and Indian War.” Spain would call it the “First Anglo-French Maritime War,” denoting both its major antagonists and its global character. In the fluid diplomatic climate of the times, the war featured a “diplomatic revolution,” in which France allied with Austria rather than Prussia, and England allied with Prussia rather than Austria. Although England wanted a Spanish alliance as well, Spain probably benefited from her neutrality in the short term, not least because the Spanish monarchy was in serious disarray in the late 1750s.

Queen Barbara of Braganza died in 1758, and her death afflicted the king beyond all reason. He soon sank into the same black depression that had claimed his father at the end of his life. By the time Fernando died in 1759, madness reigned. Both King Fernando and Queen Barbara are buried in the Convent of the Royal Salesians in Madrid, on the street that bears the queen’s name near the National Library.

Although his reign lasted only fourteen years, Fernando VI continued the Bourbon reform program, as well as the royal building program begun in his father’s reign. That was possible because the king appointed capable men loyal to the interests of the crown and of the Spanish state. Like other European monarchies at the time, Spain had developed an identity apart from that of its monarch, so that government business and the loyalty of the citizenry did not depend as heavily as they had in the past on the person of the king. That was fortunate, given the king’s battles against mental illness. Despite those battles, however, Fernando worked hard to be an enlightened king to his people and to keep Spain out of the wars that dominated the mid eighteenth century and drained his neighbors’ treasuries. That was a difficult posture to maintain, however, because Spain was a second-rank European power with a first-rank global empire, viewed by its rivals and allies alike as an attractive prize.

Carlos III’s Reign

Portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1761

Though Fernando VI’s reign saw the end of French tutelage, the latest intellectual currents from France and elsewhere circulated among the Spanish elite and characterized Spain’s version of the Enlightenment. Spain adopted the enlightened passion for scientific investigation, governmental reform, and social justice that affected much of the rest of Europe. However, Spanish intellectuals rejected the anti-religious and anti-Spanish stance that marked the writings of Voltaire and others. These characteristics of the Spanish Enlightenment would continue into the reign of Fernando’s successor, though Spain’s foreign policy would change dramatically.

Fernando’s half-brother Carlos had spent all of his adult life in Italy, first as duke of Parma and Piacenza (1731–5) and then as king of the Two Sicilies (1735–59). Nonetheless, it had been obvious for some time that he was the most likely successor to the Spanish throne, given that Fernando VI and Barbara of Braganza had no children. Carlos and his queen, María Amalia of Saxony, whom he married in 1738, left Naples for Madrid with mixed feelings. The kingdom of the Two Sicilies boasted a huge and elegant capital city, a strong economy, and a manageable size. The Spanish capital at Madrid was presumably much less attractive – even though Carlos had been born and raised there – and carried with it the burdens of a global empire.

Groomed to be a ruler by his father Felipe V and his mother Isabel Farnese, Carlos had received an excellent education and knew Spain well because of the wide travels of his parents’ court. He remained in close touch with the Spanish court after he moved to Italy, and he presumably did not agree with the neutral foreign policy that Fernando and his advisers pursued. From Carlos’s point of view, England was the enemy. Quite apart from England’s continued possession of Gibraltar and the island of Menorca, English forces posed the greatest threat to Bourbon interests in the Mediterranean and to Spanish interests in the Americas. When he left Naples to take up the crown of Spain in 1759 as Carlos III, he moved Spain away from neutrality and toward an active foreign policy aimed at thwarting English ambitions.

The world war that began in 1756 had seen Spain on the sidelines, anxious to avoid taking part. In 1761, however, Carlos’s government signed a third so-called “Family Pact” of alliance with Bourbon France and entered the fray, in what Spaniards would call the First Maritime War against England. The timing could not have been worse. After more than a decade of relative inactivity, Spanish naval forces were not prepared to confront the English. They failed to regain Gibraltar at home and lost Havana and Manila overseas, two of the key ports of Spain’s global empire. However, in the complicated negotiations that ended the war in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, Spain regained Manila and Havana and gained Louisiana from France, while losing the colony of Sacramento in Uruguay to Portugal and Florida to England. The settlement of the war saw France defeated and left England in effective control of the eastern part of North America, but Spain’s American empire remained largely intact. Analysts at the time and thereafter credited that outcome less to Spanish diplomatic efforts than to the bungling of the English Foreign Minister and to general misgivings about England’s power. Carlos of Spain certainly shared those misgivings and spent the rest of his reign working to blunt English power, especially in the Americas.

At home in Spain once again, Carlos would continue the personal style and policies that had made him revered in Italy, extending the enlightened reforms of Fernando VI in Spain. Carlos was devoted to his wife and family, and did not remarry after María Amalia’s premature death in 1760, just a year after they moved to Spain. Like many other monarchs, he was fond of hunting, both as exercise and to escape the formalities of court life. In his case, hunting also served a therapeutic purpose, helping to relieve the melancholy that ran in the family. The great Spanish artist Francisco Goya y Lucientes painted Carlos in a hunting pose early in his career, and it remains one of his most engaging portraits, with the king smiling shyly and guilelessly at the viewer. Despite the necessary trappings of monarchy, he seems to have been a man of modest and unpretentious demeanor, highly intelligent, pious, and hardworking.

Modern Spaniards continue to rank Carlos III as one of the best rulers that Spain has ever had – a king conscious of his power, but determined to use it to further the well-being of his subjects. Many historians agree with that assessment and consider him the most genuine and effective enlightened ruler in all of eighteenth-century Europe. When he took up the crown of Spain, Carlos announced to the president of the Council of Castile, “I want to apply the law so far as possible to favor the poor,” and in many other ways he exemplified the movement of enlightened reform sponsored by a powerful monarchy. At the same time, the king’s conservative habits and sincere piety helped to deflect criticism from Spaniards who feared reform as detrimental to their interests.

Among his other virtues, Carlos III was an excellent judge of character. He chose his ministers for their ability rather than their lineage or political connections, though several of his best appointees came from distinguished families. He brought the marquis of La Ensenada, who had already served the first two Spanish Bourbons, back into royal service. He retained Ricardo Wall as Secretary of State (1759–63), even as he shifted Spain’s foreign policy away from Wall’s pro-English stance. He also fostered the careers of a number of men who distinguished themselves in the various branches of government. An astute diplomat, the count of Aranda (Pedro Pablo Abarca de Bolea) became the architect of Spain’s newly active foreign policy. The count of Campomanes (Pedro Rodríguez Campomanes) specialized in economic policy, tackling the difficult issue of agrarian reform. Perhaps the greatest among them, the count of Floridablanca (José Moñino) shaped overall domestic policy during the last half of the reign.

Carlos III and his ministers aimed at a thorough overhaul of Spain’s economic structures, in order to foster a growth in production and trade that would support the rising population. All over Europe, the eighteenth century saw an increase in the number of inhabitants, both rural and urban, and every state faced the challenge of feeding them. To fail that challenge could easily lead to social unrest, as public officials well knew. The problem was particularly acute in Spain, where even now only one-third of the land is suitable for farming on a regular basis. The scarcity of arable land was one reason for the great importance of migratory herding in Spain. Since the Middle Ages, flocks of sheep totaling several million animals grazed on land unsuitable for agriculture, and shepherds moved them around seasonally, both to take advantage of optimal conditions for winter and summer forage and to lessen conflicts with farmers during the growing season.

Conflicts nonetheless arose and became particularly acute when population growth necessitated an expansion of cropland. At those times, notably in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the organization of flock owners known as the Mesta faced pressure from farmers and from the government to yield some of their traditional rights to grazing lands. Like other modern bureaucrats, Carlos III’s reform-minded ministers viewed agriculture as the basis for a prosperous economy and used government power to expand farming at the expense of herding. They viewed the traditional privileges of the Mesta, as well as the privileges of other corporate bodies, such as artisan guilds, as no more than obsolete impediments to economic growth. Government ministers were not alone in urging reforms and were joined by a wide swath of educated Spaniards well versed in the best new ideas. To encourage elite opinion in favor of the reform program, the government supported universities and philanthropic societies such as the Amigos del País (lit., friends of the country), a movement founded in the Basque country with enthusiastic groups of local reformers all over Spain. Like similar movements throughout enlightened Europe, the Amigos met to discuss the latest books about agriculture, commerce, science, and culture. With royal support, the Amigos also established schools for both boys and girls, with comprehensive curricula that included artisanal skills as well as standard academic subjects. A few of the societies also decided to admit women.

On balance, it is fair to say that the economic reforms had a salutary effect on the population as a whole, but they were not without cost. For example, whereas the government founded hospitals, schools, asylums, and almshouses all over the country, it also clamped down on vagrancy and begging, in effect restricting the movement and activities of thousands of impoverished citizens. In order to increase peasant landownership, the government attacked the Mesta and large landowners, and reforestation plans and irrigation schemes inevitably overruled traditional uses of Spain’s natural resources at the local level. In some of the most visible initiatives, the government brought in foreign artisans and businessmen to found factories for the production of luxury goods that were formerly imported. These included factories for fine glass at the palace of La Granja, and for porcelains at the palace of the Buen Retiro in Madrid; cotton velvet in Ávila, leather goods in Seville and Córdoba; and a variety of fine machinery, watches, optical instruments, and other items. Some of these efforts were profitable, others were not, and they went hand in hand with government efforts to restrict the power of traditional artisan guilds.

Not surprisingly, the reform program faced opposition from everyone affected adversely by these initiatives, not only the large flock owners of the Mesta and officials of guilds, but also ordinary people who relied on custom and traditional privileges to earn a living. Also in the economic sphere, the government sponsored savings banks and benefit societies to update traditional forms of savings and insurance. In order to pay for the array of new initiatives and reduce government debt, Carlos and his ministers organized the Bank of San Carlos, which sold bonds that traded at face value.

In the cultural sphere, in addition to traditional activities such as sponsoring art and music, the crown reformed education and added to the university curriculum new scientific developments, such as the physics of Sir Isaac Newton. The king and his ministers also worked to raise the educational level of the clergy and to curb the remaining power of the inquisition, which was increasingly anachronistic by the eighteenth century.

Taken together, the changes in the first years of Carlos III’s reign moved forward rapidly on a broad front and aimed to bring about a thorough restructuring of Spanish life. Not surprisingly, the changes generated considerable opposition on a broad front as well. The pace of reform approached a crisis after the government eliminated ceiling prices on grain in July 1765. In the traditional economy, ceiling prices shielded the poor from the rising cost of food in times of harvest shortages. As bad luck would have it, the harvest of 1765 came up short. With price ceilings removed and the population rising, the harvest shortfall led to exponential increases in the cost of food in the ensuing months, affecting poor city dwellers above all. Sermons against artificially inflated prices in Madrid and other cities added to the dangerous mood of the people in the spring of 1766, particularly among the working classes.

Matters came to a head over a seemingly minor incident. In an ill-timed move to discipline the rabble, the king’s Minister of the Interior, the Italian marquis of Squillace (Sp. Esquilache), decided to ban the long capes and broad-brimmed hats favored by the street toughs of Madrid. These majos had long preoccupied the forces of law and order, who argued that their hats could mask their identities and that their capes could conceal weapons and stolen goods. Following the decree on March 10, 1766, Squillace ordered a table set up in the Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid, on Palm Sunday. Officials stationed at the table stopped men in the prohibited costume, cut off their capes, and pinned up their hats in the three-cornered style fashionable among the well-behaved classes. Not surprisingly, this set off a riot in Madrid, and disturbances soon spread to cities and towns throughout Castile. The twentieth-century Spanish composer Manuel de Falla immortalized the incident, known to Spanish history as the “Mutiny of Esquilache,” in his ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, which neatly captures the complex nature of the uprising.

Another element in the unrest was the crown’s religious policy. The king and his ministers were pushing beyond the Concordat of 1753 to assert royal authority, known as regalian rights, over the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, in opposition to the power of the pope. In Spain and elsewhere, the Society of Jesus led the defense of papal authority, which challenged royal authority. Carlos III and other contemporary monarchs viewed the Jesuit opposition as disobedient at best and potentially traitorous at worst. In the aftermath of the “Mutiny of Esquilache,” royal officials blamed the Jesuits for inciting the riots, and Carlos III expelled the order from Spain and its empire in 1767. The Spanish action was part of a broader assertion of royal authority all over Europe that induced the pope to abolish the order in 1773. They would not be reinstated until 1814.

In the short term, government forces put down the riots and restored social peace. The king dismissed Squillace in April and appointed the count of Aranda to oversee the broad program of agrarian reform. The defenders of tradition in the countryside had opposed Squillace, and presumably cheered his dismissal. They fared even worse, however, under Aranda, a freemason steeped in the principles of physiocracy, which held that a country’s prosperity depended on the well-being of small farmers. Aranda drafted a royal decree of May 2, 1766, that gave the government authority to sell municipally held lands in Extremadura that were not cultivated, in order to make them available to land-hungry farmers. The decree applied to other areas in Castile in the next few years. Although small farmers often lacked the resources to purchase the lands put on the market, and herding interests suffered, there is no question that the decree increased the supply of available farmland and set a precedent for other reversals of traditional patterns of landholding.

After the “Mutiny of Esquilache” the pace of internal reforms slowed in Spain, which some historians have attributed to royal wariness. Carlos III and his ministers had realized that too much change, too fast, could lead to dangerous social instability. Given the continued activism of Spanish foreign policy, internal peace was essential. Hostile diplomatic negotiations with Great Britain (1766–71) over the Falkland Islands (Sp. Malvinas) off the coast of Argentina brought the countries to the brink of war, and Spain did go to war with Portugal in 1776–7, winning back Uruguay. By then England was fighting to retain her colonies in North America in the face of a rebellion that began in 1776. Although Carlos III was pleased to see England in a difficult situation, he was reluctant to support the rebels openly, given the danger of inspiring rebellion in the Spanish colonies. France had less to fear from aiding American rebels, however, and poured considerable resources into that effort. Spain entered the war against England in 1779 as an ally of France, in what Spanish historians call the Second Maritime War (1779–83).

The man in charge of Spanish operations in Louisiana, Bernardo Gálvez, led three regiments of soldiers and militiamen against British forces on the Gulf coast, winning a victory critical to the success of the American rebellion. He also organized the Spanish naval victory at the battle of Pensacola Bay in Florida. Because of these successes, Spain was able to demand the return of Florida and the Mediterranean island of Menorca from the British when the war ended in 1783. King Carlos had also hoped to regain Gibraltar, but Britain would only trade that piece of territory for all of Spain’s other gains, a trade that the Spanish government could not accept. Bernardo Gálvez became the count of Gálvez for his efforts in the war, and thereafter served as the Spanish governor of Florida and as viceroy of Mexico. Galveston Bay on the Texas Gulf coast was named after him.

The count of Aranda negotiated the Treaty of Versailles (September 3, 1783) that ended the successful American Revolution and the war that it engendered. Despite Spain’s support for the revolution, Aranda had no illusions about the likely future of the former British colonies. As he wrote to Carlos III in 1783, “This Federal Republic was born a pygmy and needed the support of Spain and France to achieve independence. The day will come when it will grow into a giant and forget the benefits received from the two powers and will think only of its own enlargement…Then it will aspire to the conquest of New Spain.”

Aranda was not far wrong. Nonetheless, the last years of Carlos III’s reign saw the Spanish Empire in the Americas at its apex, with territorial claims running from Tierra del Fuego to the Bering Strait. In the far west of North America, Carlos’s government continued to sponsor an active program of expansion and settlement to add substance to those claims. Moving north from New Spain, soldiers, citizens, clerics, and bureaucrats founded a series of fortified presidios, towns, and missions in the king’s name. Every major city in California, and many cities and towns in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas, owe their origins to those foundations. The history of the United States has traditionally neglected the Spanish legacy of law and settlement across the southern tier of the country, although these so-called “Spanish borderlands” are increasingly finding a place in that history, as new generations of historians revisit and revise old views.

Back in Europe, Spain experienced an upsurge of piracy in the western Mediterranean at the end of Carlos III’s reign, sponsored by the leaders of Algiers and Morocco. Although Spanish fishermen, merchants, ship owners, and even coastal farmers had suffered from such piratical attacks for centuries, the activity increased in the late eighteenth century, perhaps related to population pressures in North Africa. The Spanish crown had to spend large sums to combat it, and even sent expeditionary forces against Algiers in 1784 and 1785, to little effect. Nonetheless, by the end of Carlos III’s reign, there is no question that Spain stood higher in prestige and economic clout than it had in the late seventeenth century. That is the legacy of the Bourbon reforms and of the active foreign policy pursued by Felipe V and Carlos III.

Sertorian War (80-72 B. C. E.)


Sertorius was a disaffected Roman who fought successfully against Sulla and Pompey. He was a masterly tactician specialising in surprise and ambushes exploiting wooded hills and according to Plutarch introduced Roman weapons, formations and signals. The 53 cohorts of Roman exiles under the treacherous Paperna that joined him maintained a separate command and camp.


For a century the old Republic had creaked under the pressures of a series of brutal internecine conflicts. The gang warfare that had caused the deaths of the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus escalated into military strife. Romans fought Italians (the Social War), Sulla fought Marius and Marius’ supporters, the Senate crushed Lepidus, Pompey and Metellus fought Sertorius, Crassus (joined by Pompey) repressed the rebellious slaves of Spartacus, Cicero led the Senate against Catiline, Pompey was destroyed by Caesar, the triumviral successors of Caesar hunted down Caesar’s assassins, Sextus Pompeius and Octavian fought a series of naval engagements, and finally Octavian and Mark Antony disputed dominance over the empire. The Republic died in a welter of civil wars.

As in all such civil conflicts a crucial role was played by soldiers who showed themselves willing to engage in their generals’ political battles and to march against Rome in furtherance of political objectives. The new system of government created by Augustus transformed the military from a source of political instability and the instrument of conflict into one of the props of the new regime. Six decades of regular civil wars ushered in a period of two centuries in which, with the exception of ad 68-9, civil political conflicts did not escalate into war.

Quintus Sertorius (d. 72) was an able general who was appointed governor of Lusitania (Portugal and western Spain) in 83. He was forced to flee to North Africa in 81, when Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-72) became Roman dictator and took vengeance upon all former enemies, among them Sertorius. A year later, the Lusitanians revolted against Rome and asked Sertorius to return to lead them, which he did. Rome’s legal governor in Lusitania was defeated by Sertorius at the Battle of the Baetis (Guadalquivir) River in 80. Sulla sent an army under Quintus Metellus Pius (d. c. 64) to squash the revolt, but it was overcome by Sertorius’s forces. By 77, Sertorius controlled most of what is now Spain and Portugal. A new Roman army under Pompey the Great (106-48) marched from Italy over the Pyrenees to join forces with Metellus, but Sertorius out-generaled them in a series of campaigns (76-73). After the arrival of reinforcements, the Romans gradually began to win the upper hand. Sertorius initiated strict discipline and severe punishments for infractions in his army, which roused dissension among his troops. Marcus Perperna (d. 72), his chief officer, stirred up more disaffection, helped murder Sertorius, and assumed command of the army. He was shortly thereafter defeated by Pompey, taken captive, and killed.

Quintus Sertorius

There was a certain Quintus Sertorius who served with distinction in the war against the Cimbri and Teutones. This man of great military and political talent was an associate of Marius and Cinna, and an adherent of their populist movement. His abilities incurred the jealousy and dislike of Cornelius Sulla. This hostile influence kept him from political office in 88 BC; but during the period when Marius was dominating Roman political life, the climate was more favourable to his ambitions, and he was elected praetor. In 83 BC, the year in which Sulla returned victorious over Mithridates and became dictator in Rome, Sertorius went as propraetor to govern Hither Spain. His aim was to establish a base for Marius’ populist party in Spain, from which it might be possible to launch an attack on the dictator in Rome. Sulla understandably wanted to replace Sertorius with an appointee of his own. Sertorius was forced out of Spain and sought refuge in Africa.

After a period devoted to wandering and to mystical contemplation, Sertorius returned to Spain in 80 BC and took the lead in a revolt of the Lusitani. With these formidable warriors, Sertorius and his lieutenants inflicted bloody defeats on the Roman forces. The senior Roman commander, Metellus, was incapable of eradicating an enemy who used guerilla tactics so skilfully in a terrain that suited them so well. Sertorius wore down Roman power sufficiently to enforce its withdrawal to the South, and gradually he increased his authority until it covered the greater part of Spain. He established his own government and among other constructive measures, set up a school for the sons of Celtic chieftains. He also developed a naval base at Denia to accommodate his other allies, the Mediterranean pirates. After the abortive attempt at revolution by the radical leader and consul of 78 BC, M. Aemilius Lepidus, the remnants of his forces which had been defeated by those of the other consul, Catulus, were taken to Spain. M. Perpenna, who was in command of them, added them to the forces of Sertorius, and himself became a lieutenant of Sertorius.

Gnaeus Pompeius, who was to become `the Great’, and C. Memmius were appointed in 76 BC by the Senate to the task of removing what was growing to the proportions of an international menace; for Sertorius had established friendly relations with Mithridates through the agency of the pirates, who themselves constituted a major problem which it was to be one of Pompeís most notable achievements ultimately to solve. Pompey and his colleagues were not able to destroy Sertorius’ forces in a set battle. When this was attempted in 75 BC, in the Sucro valley, Pompey would have been completely defeated if Metellus had not arrived with timely reinforcements.

In time, and with the aid of repeated additions of new troops, Pompey and Metellus were able to put increasingly severe pressure on the Sertorian forces. Many of the Lusitanian soldiers deserted and Sertorius felt obliged to inflict harsh punishments to discourage this. This policy further alienated the Lusitani, who already were sensitive to the tyrannical treatment they had received from some of the Romans on Sertorius’ staff, who themselves were involved in internecine squabbling. In this atmosphere it was not too difficult for the Roman high command to inspire Perpenna with the suggestion that he should murder Sertorius. He did so in 73 BC, but his army was defeated by the Romans under Pompey, and he was taken prisoner and executed. When Pompey returned to Rome in the following year, he seemed to have solved the Spanish problem.

Sertorius is said to have kept a white doe which enabled him to communicate with the divine world. We might surmise that the Lusitani and his other Celtic adherents respected this pet as the impersonation of the horned god whom we know elsewhere as Cernunnos. According to Plutarch (Sert. 11) the doe was supposed to be his medium of communication with the goddess Diana. This may have been a propaganda trick to bemuse simple natives, but I can see no reason why we should think so, or why we should not do him the honour of accepting that he believed what he said about the creature. He regarded it as a mascot of his success and he was greatly disturbed when it was lost for a time at the battle of the Sucro.

Sertorius had the combination of intuitive understanding of people and creative imagination which is often found in great commanders and major poets. He was a brilliant master of guerilla tactics: his devices for winning the loyalty of tribesmen were no less inventive. He recognised the necessity of holding a visible balance of justice between the native population and the Roman settlers. He also understood the need to give the Lusitanian warriors plenty of gold to adorn their armour. Plutarch’s life contains many other examples of his insight and leadership.

If Sertorius had enjoyed the good fortune to exploit the military possibilities of a country as rich in men and resources as `Gallia Comata’, he might have achieved success of comparable magnitude to that of Caesar. But he had no official standing in Spain and he had to rely upon Celtic soldiers who did not see themselves as soldiers, but as warriors who could go and come as they pleased. He had not enough Romans or Romans of good enough quality on his staff, and his cause was bedevilled by the presence of Roman settlers in the country who had already founded deep roots of resentment amongst the population. He was, however, an inspiration to Julius Caesar, and was himself an early example of the Roman man of power who in later times would intimidate Rome from a base in the provinces, when the `secret of power’, in Tacitus’ words, `got out that emperors could be made elsewhere than in Rome’.

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.