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)

Fernando Alvarez de Toledo
Fernando Alvarez de Toledo; drawing by David Levine

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…

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