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…

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