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Habsburg Espionage

The Secret Diplomacy of the Habsburgs, 1598-1625

by Charles Howard Carter
Columbia, 360 pp., $7.50

In its inception this book was apparently intended to be no more than a detailed examination of Spanish diplomacy and espionage in the London of King James I. However, so complex were the foreign relations of the European states in the early seventeeth century that Professor Carter’s brilliant elucidation of the background to his subject has outgrown the subject itself. The fortunate result is a work which is much more valuable and has deeper implications than its author may at first have intended.

The death of Philip II in 1598 bought to a close the “Golden Century of Spain.” Prompted by the economic historians, we know that here was a nation on the verge of ruin; the upper classes subsiding into frustrated ineptitude, the royal blood tainted and inbred, the economy of the state fatally dependent on the silver of the Indies. Spain was living on borrowed time. The long-drawn-out agony of war from 1621 to 1659 would finally push her down into the ranks of the second-rate powers.

But contemporaries did not see this. To them Philip III (“the Prudent”), King of all the Spains (Castile, Aragon, Valencia, Navarre, Galicia, Portugal, Leon and Catalonia), Overlord of Milan and the Netherlands, King of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia, Emperor of Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the Canaries, and those other far-scattered islands on which the sun never set, was the greatest ruler on earth. His army was invincible, his Italian generals masters of the field; to a whole generation Ambrogio Spinola the Genoese was simply the general. His cosmopolitan international bureacracy, from Palermo to Brussels, Acapulco to Milan, still provided the most efficient government the West had seen since the fall of Rome, and Spanish diplomacy, schooled in Italy, set the tone for the chancelleries of Europe.

But these magnificent monarchs were cursed with poor relations, importunate, unstable, and often destitute—for all that they bore the proud title of Holy Roman Emperors. The Habsburgs of Vienna stood in much the same relationship to their Spanish cousins in 1621 as they did to their German allies in 1914; and in 1621 the frenetic energy of the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II pitched Spain headlong into the most disastrous war in human history, the Thirty Years’ War.

In 1618 Ferdinand was elected Emperor, a title which usually carried with it the crown of Bohemia; but the Bohemian nobility, impatient of Habsburg rule, offered it instead to a German Protestant prince, Frederick, the Elector Palatine. He unwisely accepted, and in two years he was driven from Bohemia by the Emperor, who then appealed to Spain for help in conquering the Palatinate, Frederick’s hereditary fief. Spain complied, and sent the Army of Flanders into Germany, hoping for a quick “police operation,” but in so doing she exposed the Netherlands on her weaker flank. The Spanish Netherlands, ruled by Philip III’s son-in-law, the Archduke Albert, was a sprawling territory covering parts of modern France, most of what is now Belgium, and parts of Luxemburg and Western Germany. Immensely wealthy, but without natural defensive frontiers, it was exposed to the rapacity of France on the one hand and Holland on the other. France was weakened by the minority of Louis XIII, but the Dutch were active, aggressive, and capable of any mischief, and the truce between them and Spain was due to expire in 1621. Behind the Dutch lurked James I of England, a man regarded with much greater respect by his contemporaries than by posterity. He dreaded the idea of war, and for nearly ten years he had been negotiating for an alliance with Spain, but he was easily the most powerful Protestant ruler in Europe, and heir to the formidable Elizabeth, and this left him with responsibilities he could not entirely ignore. Moreover, most unhappily for him, he was father-in-law to the Elector Palatine. Whatever Holland’s intentions, it seemed that James must support her against Spain, but no one could be sure. Nor could anyone be quite sure of the French government. Yet if the Dutch or the French did attack the Netherlands, then Spain must pull out of the Palatinate and abandon any hope of containing the German War.

Accurate information was therefore essential to the foreign secretaries at Madrid and Brussels who must plan the next move. But they could learn nothing in Paris, and The Hague—still technically an enemy capital—was impenetrable; London was their best hope, especially on the arrival of a Dutch special embassy in 1621 to consult with the English King.

For the Habsburgs were well served in London. The Ambassador of the King of Spain was the Count of Gondomar, a man of almost legendary diplomatic finesse; more important at this moment, he had the entrée to the highest circles, the Privy Council, even the Throne itself. Complementary to him was the Archduke Albert’s envoy, Jean-Baptiste van Male, spymaster extraordinary. Of humbler origins than Gondomar, representing a less important power, Van Male had concentrated on the collection of information. His virtuosity had been demonstrated time and again, and his chief, Charles della Faille, and the Secretaries at Madrid, had complete confidence in him. For instance, when the maréchal de Cadenat came to London on a secret mission in January 1621 the subject of his negotiations was a mystery to the regular French envoy in London—but not to Van Male.

These complexities are lucidly and exactly described and explained by Professor Carter, who has worked the Spanish, Belgian, and English state archives in depth. It is often said that professional historians cannot write well (though the converse, that those who do write well are amateurs, is rarely put). It is true to this extent, that some academic historians, especially in their early years, are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material at their disposal; their style, chameleon-like, is pulled this way and that by the correspondents whose letters they use, their sense of discrimination is blunted, and they can rarely steel themselves to jettison superfluous evidence arduously acquired. Professor Carter could have been forgiven if he had stumbled in this way. Fellow historians would still have welcomed the book as a real contribution to a little-known field of history; his academic publishers would have gritted their teeth, and perhaps slapped another dollar on the price. In fact, he has produced a book which can be read with pleasure by any intelligent man, and in it he says with wit, lucidity, and wisdom some things which apply directly to the foreign policy of any state in any age.

As is almost inevitable in any honest account of diplomacy, the book ends in a calculated anti-climax. Faced with the simple task of discovering the real purpose of the Dutch mission to London in April 1621, the Hapsburgs’ superb espionage system fell down. On the basis of misleading information from London the Archduke Albert concluded that the Dutch would renew the truce at almost any price, and by putting his terms too high he fell neatly into a trap set by Maurice of Nassau. Public opinion in Holland was outraged at the Flemish demands, and wholeheartedly supported the immediate invasion of the Spanish Netherlands. Spinola at once withdrew from the Palatinate and the initiative in central Europe passed to the Austrian Hapsburgs. Out on the periphery James I still labored for a marriage between his son and the Spanish Infanta, but his price had always been the restoration of the Palatinate to his son-in-law, and suddenly this was too high a price to pay. There was even some question whether the Spaniards could deliver. By 1630 the German War, spinning ever faster, had pulled in most of Europe.

This tiny incident so crucial to later developments offers confirmation of Professor Carter’s thesis:

That foreign policy is fundamentally a matter of decisions made; that the quality of those decisions (and thus the foreign policy) is governed by the quality of the men making them and by the quality of the information on which they are based; and that the quality of the information is even more important to the quality of the decision than that of the men.

Quite so, but Carter’s own discoveries show that ultimate responsibility still rests with the man. Information obtained in profusion, and often contradictory in nature, must be sifted and condensed, even censored, by the ambassador or agent; his superior exercises a similar discretion, and must often be prepared to read between the lines, too. In this instance Van Male, as a Fleming, had such contempt for the Dutch that he could not believe them capable of exercising diplomatic finesse; his chief in Brussels, Charles della Faille, wanted a truce with the Dutch and therefore wanted to believe what his envoy told him. He did not read between the lines. Gondomar had listened so often to King James’s rambling insincerities that he was dizzy; he was so busy looking for the curved ball that he let a straight one through. All three, Gondomar, Van Male, and Della Faille, believed what they wanted to believe; they used the information before them for the purpose of self-deception. No intelligence service, however sophisticated or efficient, can guard against the failure of the human beings operating it.

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