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.

Could it have been ended by other methods? Such large hypothetical questions are unanswerable. But a few years later, while Alba, at the age of seventy-four, was carrying out the more successful, and less difficult, conquest of Portugal, another general, no less able than he, but of a very different temper—Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma—“reconciled,” and reconciled permanently, the greater part of the Netherlands. Farnese combined military genius with diplomacy and tact. So did his Genoese successor Ambrogio Spinola, who completed his work. If Italian diplomacy and tact, instead of Castilian brutality and pride, had been used in 1568, the result might have been very different.


By 1609 the Netherlands were firmly divided. “Flanders”—modern Belgium—was “reconciled”; “the United Provinces”—modern Holland—were lost; and an exhausted Spanish government accepted a truce of twelve years. In 1621 that truce ran out and, after a long debate, the Spanish government decided to renew the struggle. There was now a new ruler in Spain, and a new spirit of active imperialism: the young Philip IV was surrounded by men who looked back to the more heroic years of Philip II and Alba. In particular there was Baltasar de Zúñiga, whose long service in central Europe had convinced him that the war newly broken out in Germany could be exploited by Spain. The following year Zúñiga died, and the task of waging the war fell to his nephew, the new king’s privado, or favorite, the Count—soon to be the Count-duke—of Olivares.

For the next twenty years Olivares exerted himself to re-create and strengthen the empire of Philip II in Europe: to recover its lost provinces, secure its essential communications, restore its patronage of the universal Catholic Church. The effort that this entailed was enormous—greater than under Philip II, for the Dutch had now become a formidable sea power and France was no longer paralyzed by civil war. In order to liberate the energies needed for such an effort, Olivares sought to reorganize Spain itself: to remodel its institutions, reform its finances, change its inveterate social habits.

At first the effort seemed to be rewarded. The year 1626 was an annus mirabilis of Spanish victory. But then the tide turned. The turning point was the succession crisis in the Duchy of Mantua, and Olivares’s action in ordering the governor of Milan to intervene with force and seize the city of Casale, which was under Mantuan rule. The intervention could be justified—the Spanish position in Italy and Europe would be seriously threatened by the succession of a French duke of Mantua. But it could be justified only by immediate success. In fact it failed, and the consequences were disastrous. The adventure antagonized public opinion, the papacy, the empire, and wrecked Olivares’s plans of settlement in the north. Worst of all, it brought France into Italy and, ultimately—in 1635—into the general war. It was the France of Richelieu, the most ruthless and successful Realpolitiker of the age. In the contest with France, the Spanish empire in Europe would be broken, Portugal lost, Alba’s “Spanish road” disintegrated. Thereafter Flanders would be held at the mercy of France and Holland. For all this history has held Olivares responsible.

Like Alba, Olivares has had no modern historian—for the late Dr. Marañón’s work is psychological speculation, not history. For this we can blame the fire which, in 1795, destroyed his personal archive. However, the documents of state survive and no historian has made better use of them than Professor Elliott. He began his career as a historian with a classic study of the Catalan revolt of 1640 and he has since, with his collaborators, published the available documents of Olivares’s rule in Spain and a full account of one of his positive achievements: the great palace of Buen Retiro which he built, at immense cost, in the years of war, to illustrate and magnify the authority of his king.* His new book is in form a comparative study of Richelieu and Olivares, and is the best kind of comparative history; for by pointing to similarities and differences in the antagonists who dominated the long struggle, it illustrates not only the causes of failure and success but also the common setting within which they operated and the common problems which they faced.

There are some obvious similarities. Both Richelieu and Olivares were younger sons of noble families. Both, after a period of provincial life—one at his home in Seville, the other as bishop of Luçon—found their way, almost simultaneously, into the court: Richelieu as the protégé of the Queen Mother, whom he would betray, Olivares as chamberlain to the heir to the throne, the future Philip IV, whose chamber pot he would once ceremoniously kiss. Such acts, of treachery and obsequiousness, were necessary if one was to rise in an absolute monarchy. Both men rose. They also survived in power—both of them for twenty years—and amassed great wealth. They indulged their tastes for building—Olivares for his king, Richelieu for himself—for a magnificent style of life, and for intellectual culture: both were well-read men and great bibliophiles who created splendid libraries. Both were reformers who, sacrificed reform to war. They fought wars first against their own “rebels”—here the Dutch, there the Huguenots—finally against each other.

To retain power so long required great skill. Both used the necessary methods. They took the measure of their kings, noted their weaknesses (both Philip IV and Louis XIII were dependent personalities), exalted the royal authority, professed themselves its humble servants, built up clientèles of “creatures” (here Andalusian, there Poitevin), made themselves indispensable, and then, in moments of crisis, obtained consent to their policies by threatening to resign. The most dangerous moments were when their kings were seriously ill. The death of his monarch would have been fatal to either of them, and in fact both kings were gravely ill at the greatest crisis of the Mantuan affair. Luckily both recovered. There was also the danger that displeasure might be fomented by royal confessors or disgruntled aristocrats. Richelieu had to crush aristocratic opposition again and again. Olivares suffered less from it: the Spanish nobility seldom went beyond talk, or boycotting court functions. It was provincial, not noble, opposition—combined with external defeat—that brought him down.

Richelieu and Olivares are remembered as directors of grand strategy in a struggle for European supremacy. But both began as domestic reformers. They came to power at a time of economic recession and political uncertainty. They followed weak men who had allowed their countries to be weakened, here by neglect and corruption, there by internal dissension; and they wished, in each, to restore the strength and prosperity and reputation of the crown. “The present state of the kingdom,” Olivares wrote in 1624, “is probably, for our sins, the worst that has ever been seen”; and Richelieu, looking back to the same date, wrote that in France “the Huguenots shared the state with Your Majesty, the nobles behaved as if they were not your subjects, and the governors of the provinces as if they were sovereign powers.” So both set out to unite the resources of the crown, Olivares by brining the several kingdoms of the Peninsula under “the form and laws of Castile, without any difference,” Richelieu by breaking the independence of Huguenots and grandees. In order to carry out this program, both sought to bypass the inherited structures of popular consent—the French States-General, the Spanish cortes; to abolish the old forms of taxation—the taille and the millones; to reform the economy, to mobilize new resources, to cut out waste. They did not hesitate to challenge the established rulers of religion and finance—to reform monasteries, defy the Inquisition, turn to Jewish and Huguenot bankers.

Most of these projects of reform were sacrificed, or adjusted, to the needs of war and all-justifying reason of state. As the war dragged on, it became personal: each of the two statesmen saw himself as seeking only peace and security, the other as aiming at universal domination. In fact they were prisoners, rather than makers, of the struggle. Olivares came to power when the war against the Dutch had already been resumed, and he often thought, or dreamed, of making peace with them; for like Alba he thought Italy more important. Hence his fatal error over Mantua, the beginning of French intervention: once the Mantuan succession was open, he could not (he thought) afford not to act. But neither, then, could Richelieu. He too saw intervention as a defensive necessity and lamented the predictable consequences: it meant, as he told the King, that he must now “abandon all thought of tranquillity, of economies and re-organisation within the realm.” Olivares had said the same; if the French crossed the Alps, he declared (with remarkable accuracy), it would be the beginning of a war of thirty years, the end of all projects of reform.

Olivares saw himself as fighting a defensive war to preserve the empire. France was threatening its lifeline, Alba’s “Spanish road.” But one man’s lifeline is another man’s halter. Richelieu saw France encircled by the same road; and if Spain was going back to the days of Philip II, how could he forget how Philip II had treated France, exploiting its divisions, subsidizing its rebels, fomenting civil war? Was not Olivares seeking to do the same now, supporting noble conspirators, rebels—even Huguenot rebels—against the crown? In self-defense, as he thought, Richelieu sought to breach the Spanish road, to secure “gateways” into neighboring states, and so “to shelter them from Spanish aggression when the occasion arises.” Once secured, they would be the gateways through which the armies of Louis XIV would pass not to shelter but to lay waste and dominate the neighboring states.

For in the end Richelieu won and Olivares lost. Why? The judgment of history, which always backs the winner, is clear enough: Richelieu was a statesman of genius, Olivares was not. Perhaps this is true; but it was not clear at the time. In 1635, when they first went directly to war, both sides expected a quick victory, and at times it looked as if Spain would still win. The year 1636 was “a terrible year” for France. The army of the Cardinal-Infante, Philip IV’s brother, victorious over the Swedes at Nördlingen (it was that victory that had forced France to enter the war), had won the battle of Corbie and was advancing on Paris. Only the reproaches of his Capuchin confessor and counselor, Father Joseph, then prevented Richelieu from yielding to despair and taking flight. However, he rallied and persevered, and by 1639 it was the turn of Olivares to despair. From then on the disasters multiplied, and the revolts of Catalonia and Portugal began the breakup not merely of the empire but of the Peninsula itself. In December 1642 Richelieu died. Six weeks later Philip IV dismissed Olivares. Two years later he died. The war went on, for another fourteen years; but it was in the long duel between Richelieu and Olivares that the issues had been defined, and the end determined.

What was the secret of Richelieu’s success and Olivares’s failure? At times all seemed to depend on chance; but, as Professor Elliott observes, there is a difference between those who wait upon chance and those who seize it. Richelieu undoubtedly had good fortune. The Huguenot redoubt of La Rochelle surrendered in 1628 just in time for him to lead the royal army into Italy. Gustavus Adolphus perished at Lützen just at the time when the incompatibility of his alliances with Sweden and Bavaria threatened his foreign policy with ruin. But Richelieu seized these chances. “Experience shows,” he had written, “that if one foresees from far ahead the designs to be undertaken, one can act with speed when the moment comes to execute them.” Clear and rational in prevision, ruthless and swift in action, Richelieu could snatch victory out of apparent defeat. Consequently, he created the evidence for the belief that Providence was on his side. Olivares was no less energetic, no less dedicated. But he had less stability, and his confidence dwindled with disaster as Richelieu’s grew with victory. His extravagant rhetorical style, so different from the “imperious brevity” of Richelieu, was combined with a certain stoic fatalism that impeded forethought. The crisis of the Mantuan succession, so momentous for both parties, could indeed be seen from far ahead; but when it came, Richelieu was ready for it, Olivares was not.

When the tide had definitely turned against him, Olivares indulged himself in self-pity and self-justification. He could not see what had gone wrong, or why the cardinal, who was so much more wicked than he, had been so much more successful. He became obsessed with his own responsibility for the disasters, and saw himself as “a latter-day Jonah.” “All the misfortunes of the year,” he wrote in 1637, “are my fault, and once I am thrown into the sea the storm will cease and success and good fortune follow.” Before being thrown overboard he made his will. In it he ordered his executors to establish a Jeronymite convent, to provide for the relief of the poor and the repopulation of deserted villages, to found a college in Salamanca, pilgrim hostels in Santiago, Loreto, and Jerusalem, a hospice and two hospitals for retired soldiers, to rebuild and repopulate Algeciras, and to maintain a squadron of galleons for the defense of the Straits of Gibraltar. After calculating the cost of such fantasies, his confessor dryly remarked that “the gentleman who made this will governed the monarchy for nineteen years in the same style as he bequeathed his inheritance.”

Perhaps, in the end, his mind was unhinged, as it might well be after such disasters. But his moods had always been erratic and extreme; and anyway, what of Richelieu? He, too, could show signs of lunacy, of which there was a streak in his family: sometimes he believed that he was a horse, and his sister dared not sit down, thinking that her bottom was made of glass. Placed, as here, in parallel with his great enemy, Olivares does not seem quite so extravagant, or quite so anachronistic, as some historians have held him, or Richelieu quite so rational and forward-looking. Both grappled with the same general problems. Both attempted to cure the disorders of the state during those critical decades in which so many traditional forms were fractured and remade. Both were political realists, remarkably free from ideological prejudice. Both also aimed high—impossibly high. As Professor Elliott says, “the sheer arrogance of their ambition is what most impresses. Both were ultimately attempting to mould a world to their image.” When they clashed, the victory of the one, the defeat of the other, was “by a hair’s breadth.” Whether the Spain of Olivares, if he had won, could have continued to sustain the burden of empire in Europe is, of course, another matter. All that we can say is that, even in defeat, it preserved its vast American empire for another hundred and fifty years.

Professor Elliott has sought to portray “an Olivares who is more subtle and complex than he is generally depicted,” and he has succeeded in doing so. This is a book that makes all other writing on Olivares seem very thin. It is brief, but profound, full of insight, and a delight to read. Olivares himself—and Richelieu too—was conscious of his historic role. He looked forward to the verdict of history. It has generally been unfavorable. He would, perhaps, be satisfied with Professor Elliott’s more sympathetic reassessment.


Richelieu & Olivares February 28, 1985

  1. *

    J.H. Elliott and Jose F. de la Peña, Memoriales Y Cartas del Conde Duque de Olivares, 1621–1645 (Ediciones Alfaguara, Madrid, two volumes, 1978–1980); Jonathan Brown and J.H. Elliott, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (Yale University Press, 1980).