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Holding Up the Empire

Alba: A Biography of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba, 1507–1582

by William S. Maltby
University of California Press, 376 pp., $29.50

Richelieu and Olivares

by J.H. Elliott
Cambridge University Press, 189 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The empire of Spain in Europe, unlike that in America which lasted so much longer, was not a rational construction, the effect of gradual expansion or conscious policy. Even more than most empires, it was built up by accident. It had no natural or institutional cohesion; but then Spain itself, throughout its “golden age,” had very little of such cohesion. Its various “kingdoms” or provinces—Castile, Aragon, Catalonia, Granada, and in the end also Portugal—had distinct histories and brought with them, into the common pool, their particular colonies. Aragon brought in Italy. Granada was a Castilian conquest. The Netherlands and Franche-Comté, the Burgundian inheritance, came by dynastic accident. So did Portugal, which brought Africa and Asia in its wake.

All these countries had their own traditions, sometimes stronger and more ancient than those of Castile. The sixteenth century saw attempts by the crown of Spain to provide some cohesion to this vast dominion: to centralize its government, to ensure its defense, to protect its communications, to remodel its institutions. The attempt was heroic but costly: without the bullion of America it could hardly have been made. In the end it foundered. The effort to centralize, to rationalize, provoked the usual nemesis of imperialism: revolution fortified by nationalism and religion, and exploited by the Realpolitik of rival imperialist powers.

The disintegration occurred in three stages. In 1572 the Netherlands revolted and, after a long struggle, nine of the sixteen provinces were permanently lost. In 1640 the refusal to admit that loss led, indirectly, to the revolt of Catalonia, the ultimate loss of Portugal and Franche-Comté. In this last protracted struggle—a struggle which began in 1621 and did not end until 1659—the communications of the empire were fatally broken and thereafter the empire itself escaped brutal partition only to see its remaining limbs quietly detached, as they had originally been acquired, by dynastic marriage treaties: Flanders and Milan to Austria, Naples and Sicily to an independent Bourbon line.

The failure of an empire at particular moments may be organically inevitable, but history commonly assigns the responsibility to individuals. If any one man is blamed for the first stage of the Spanish debacle, the loss of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, it is the Duke of Alba, who governed the provinces in the name of Philip II for the fateful years 1567–1573. He turned the opposition of an aristocratic fronde into a national revolt: indeed he may be said to have created the Dutch nation. The second stage is even more decisively ascribed to one man: to the statesman who dominated Spain and its king from 1622 to 1643 and whose failure caused hegemony in Europe to pass from Spain to France—“ce rival pas toujours malheureux de Richelieu,” as Fernand Braudel has called him, “ce presque grand homme,” the Count-Duke of Olivares. Two new books of historical scholarship invite us to take a new look at these unfortunate upholders of the Spanish empire against its disintegration. Let us begin with the first, the Duke of Alba.


When Alba took up his post in the Netherlands—and he took it up very reluctantly, for he was an old man and had already experienced the dangers of serving Philip II at a distance from the court—the provinces were already in commotion. The great nobles were mutinous; the common people, through economic crisis, had taken to violence which Calvinist preachers were prompt to organize. But as yet there was no repudiation of allegiance, no organization of revolt, no leader who could weld together these disparate forces. When he left, six years later, the situation was very different. The “Sea-Beggars,” marauding Dutch partisans, had landed in the north; the Prince of Orange, defeated hitherto, had come to take command of an open rebellion; and Calvinism had become a religion of political defiance, fortifying rebellion against princes in the Netherlands as in Scotland and France. Alba, said his enemies, had found the country submissive and had reduced it, singlehanded, to civil war, spending twelve million ducats in the process. Alba, said a Catholic bishop, in six years had done more harm to the Church than Luther, Calvin, and all their followers together.

How had he done it? The Black Legend of the Protestant North has no doubt of the answer. Alba has gone down in history as the man who sought to reduce the Netherlands to obedience by indiscriminate terror and who thereby drove all classes together in resistance to him. He caused the great Flemish noblemen, who had dared to assert the rights of their countrymen, to be publicly executed in the square of Brussels; he set up the Council of Blood to circumvent the lawyers “who only condemn for crimes which are proved”; he showed “excessive contentment” at the news of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; he ordered wholesale slaughter in captured towns—“I am resolved,” he once wrote, “not to leave a creature alive, but to put them all to the knife”; he openly claimed that his policy was one of reconquest by “terror.” In Flemish art he is immortalized as the Herod whose lean, grim features, “with long, forked beard, piercing eyes and vulturine posture” appear in the younger Breughel’s Massacre of the Innocents. Such is the picture that has become traditional in Protestant historiography.

In Spain—at least in conservative Spain—the legend has never been accepted, and the late Duke of Alba, in particular, sought to restore his ancestor’s good name by publishing his extensive epistolario. With this and the other documents that have become available a more balanced judgment is possible, and now Mr. Maltby has set out to redraw the picture. He has done his work thoroughly, in the immense and scattered archives of Philip II’s empire. He knows all the secondary material—Spanish, Italian, German, Belgian, Dutch. He is sympathetic and judicious and seeks to place his hero in his context. How far has he changed the conventional portrait?

The answer is, not very much. He modifies the detail, of course, and explains the forces to which Alba responded and by which he was controlled: the forces of his Castilian noble tradition, the pressures of his immediate and unfamiliar task, the intrigues of the court in Madrid which constantly impeded his work in the Netherlands as it had previously in Italy. But essentially Alba remains unchanged: a stiff, proud Castilian, limited by his background, bigoted in his religion, ruthless in his methods. No doubt he had his virtues, both public and private. He was an efficient administrator, an able general and quartermaster, a loyal and conscientious servant of an unresponsive royal master. But he was arrogant and querulous, of violent temper and language, insensitive to the rights and feelings of others, contemptuous of foreigners, intolerant of dissent, confident that all problems, in the end, would yield to superior force. On his deathbed he declared to his new confessor, the famous preacher Fray Luis de Grenada, that “his conscience was not burdened with having in all his life shed a single drop of blood against it.” The remark illustrates only the limits of his conscience. All the blood that he had shed was, he believed, justly shed: was it not the blood of heretics and traitors? He diabolized his adversaries, and so he could hardly complain if they in turn diabolized him.

All this makes it surprising that he was ever sent to the Netherlands, to handle a difficult and delicate situation. After all, he was sixty years old at the time; he had served Charles V for thirty years before the accession of Philip II; and in that time he had had plenty of opportunity to show both the arrogance and the savagery of his character. His arrogance toward fellow nobles in Spain seemed, at times, insufferable. At the royal marriage in 1543 he forced them all to stand: as majordomo he gave a seat to himself alone. His savagery shocked his contemporaries: in his campaign in Piedmont in 1555 he insisted on the massacre of every French garrison that resisted him. And he had shown a particular dislike for the Netherlands, both country and people. In 1544, when Charles V had to decide—or thought that he had to decide—whether to part with Milan or the Netherlands, other counselors had urged him to cling to the Netherlands as the “ancient patrimony” of his house. Alba had urged—more realistically, perhaps—that they be discarded as a liability, remote, vulnerable, and disloyal. Milan, he believed, was the linchpin of the empire: the Netherlands were expendable. Four years later, when he visited the country with the future Philip II, master and servant were alike disgusted by that undisciplined, exuberant people.

Why then did Philip II, as king, at a critical moment, send this contemptuous and ruthless old soldier to govern the most difficult part of his empire? The answer is twofold. First—as so often in that reign—the appointment was the result of a court intrigue: a rival faction wished to get Alba out of the way. Alba knew this—it had happened to him before, when he was sent to Italy in 1555—but he was trapped by his own arguments and had to go. Secondly, he was sent, and went, on a false assumption. The assumption was that he would restore order to the Netherlands by military rule and that the King would then come himself (as his best servant, Cardinal Granvelle, always urged him to do) without an army, to settle the country. Alba, in fact, was to be the hatchetman to do the dirty job and then be relieved. In fact it did not work out thus. The King never came, and Alba was left to carry the can. For this, as he showed, he was not fitted.

Why did Philip not come? It was not merely his habitual indecision, or his personal hatred of the Netherlands. In 1568, the year after Alba’s arrival, the heir to the throne, Don Carlos, died, followed, three months later, by the Queen. Then the Moriscos of Granada rose in revolt: a revolt that lasted two years. For the King “to leave his country in turmoil and to undertake a perilous journey when there was no one to succeed him was unthinkable.” So Alba had to soldier on, fighting, by the only methods he knew, the enemies whom he multiplied with every act of brutal repression.

Not that his rule was total failure. He defeated every military challenge. In order to ensure his communications he created what was to be the lifeline of the empire: the famous “Spanish Road” from Milan to Luxembourg. He dealt firmly with the Catholic bigots—Pope Pius V, with his crusading fantasies, and the Spanish ambassador in London, with his troop of English papists; and he preserved that peace with England which was essential to his sea communications. He also carried through to completion the great and necessary reorganization of the Netherlands Church, which had been the original cause of all the trouble. This has been described, by a Catholic historian, as one of Alba’s greatest contributions as an administrative reformer. It formed “the basis of ecclesiastical organization in the Netherlands for centuries to come.” Even the famous tax of the tenth-penny, which raised such an outcry, was a defensible device: “the most equal,” as he himself said, “to all sorts of people.” But no administrative virtue could compensate for the calculated brutality by which he believed that he could end the revolt, and which in fact only intensified it.

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