The 16th century undoubtedly ranks among the most momentous in universal history. Over its course we find the emergence of a great number of Saints who marked their epoch, the dawn of unprecedented maritime prodigies – such as the circumnavigation of the globe, or the conquest of America – and an endless series of doctrinal controversies which, if not resolved with the subtlety of the pen… often ended up being settled at the point of the sword.
It was in this context that, on October 29, 1507, a child was born in the Castilian lands of Piedrahíta, destined to play an important role in the future of European and world events. His name was Ferdinand Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, third Duke of Alba, heir to one of the noblest Spanish lineages. His house belonged among the twenty-five families whose members bore the title of Grandees of Spain, and were therefore considered the king’s “cousins”.
On the battlefield
From his youth, Ferdinand received a privileged education: he was trained in the subtleties of diplomacy and culture, as befitted someone of such noble birth, without neglecting the equally important art of war. This he learned from books – such as Vegetius’ De re militari, which he knew by heart – but, above all, on the battlefield itself.
Intense and admirable was his career in this field. At a mere seventeen years of age, he distinguished himself as a young captain in a conflict with the French over the village of Fuenterrabía. Once the Spanish had conquered the fortress, Charles V entrusted its government to the brave officer – still a boy in years but already a hero at heart – who had distinguished himself in the enterprise.
He further developed his martial experience in 1535, during the campaign of Tunis, in which Charles V’s army defeated the pirate Barbarossa and regained dominion of the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1547, he was appointed captain-general of the imperial army for the Battle of Mühlberg against the German Protestant princes. Not shying away from the rule of the best commanders in history, the Duke of Alba positioned himself in the vanguard and, furiously fighting the enemy, brought victory to his lord’s side.
After this resounding triumph over the heretics, he was flatteringly asked whether it was true that, on the day of the battle, the sun had stood still in the sky as had happened to Joshua. He only replied that he had so much to do on earth that he had had no time to look at the sun.
Tenacity and determination
He performed countless other decisive interventions in the enterprises entrusted to him by the Emperor; a summary description of them would exceed the space allotted for this article. Truly, Charles V did not err when, in a letter to his son Philip II, he wrote: “The Duke of Alba is the most skilful statesman and the best soldier I have in my kingdoms.”1
After the emperor’s abdication from the throne in 1556, Don Ferdinand retained a very important role at the Spanish court, as it was to his advice that Philip II most often turned. With his characteristic wit and ingenuity, he stood by the new monarch in the most diverse difficulties, offering him solutions of undeniable wisdom, both in war and diplomacy, although the two men sometimes clashed because of the general’s truculence.
Revolt in Flanders
In 1566, the Duke of Alba embarked on what was to be the greatest epic of his life. Following a frustrated attempt by the king to apply the decrees of the Council of Trent in the Netherlands, a revolt instigated by small groups of Protestants threatened royal sovereignty. For Philip II, this uprising was the last straw. He had said to Pope St. Pius V:
“Before I suffer the least thing to the detriment of religion or the service of God, I would lose all my states and die a hundred deaths, for I neither think nor wish to be lord of heretics.”2
The monarch then gathered his advisors and explained the problem to them. In a short time the plan was outlined. Someone other than himself was to appear there, in order to teach the rebels a good lesson – a harsh mission for which only one name seemed to meet the necessary requirements: Don Ferdinand. After the Duke had duly punished the guilty, the King himself was to arrive to grant pardon to the repentant and to alleviate the situation.
It was a wise project, which surely would have yielded good results if Philip II had done his part.
The “Spanish Road” and military discipline
The Duke of Alba, of course, accepted the mission. However, it was not easy from the start. First of all, he had to move an entire army to a region with which they had no frontier. He decided to do part of the journey by land, since reaching the Low Countries by sea meant facing the infamous English ships. The land route, however, required great preparation and logistical efficiency that must not fail, on pain of decimating the regiments before they could even engage the enemy.
On the other hand, it was necessary to instil utmost discipline in the entire army because, having to cross neutral – and often not so friendly – territories, the expedition would fail if any outburst provoked the neighbouring kingdoms to take the opposite side.
But order was nothing new for those marching under Ferdinand Álvarez de Toledo. In the words of the renowned historian William Thomas Walsh, “this was one of the memorable marches in history. Memorable not only for its speed, but for the iron discipline of the duke. Looting and pillaging were forbidden. If a soldier insulted a woman as he passed, in a few moments he was hanging from the nearest tree.”3
It was in this way that the Tercios – the fearsome infantry that immortalized the Spanish army of the Golden Age – reached Flanders, after crossing the Savoy Alps, Switzerland and part of France. This route would become known as the Spanish Road, due to the volume of soldiers and supplies that crossed it during this incursion and over the following decades.
The Iron Duke
Once in the Netherlands, the Duke of Alba immediately set to work. His intentions, should he succeed, had never been in doubt: “to cut off the heads of the leaders – he had done so repeatedly – and bring the others under obedience. A mentality like his, accustomed to seeing things in terms of white or black, was not disposed to make subtle distinctions. He had orders and was determined to carry them out.”4
With great shrewdness, he surprised and apprehended the Counts of Egmont and Horn – key men in the revolt – and, after a nine-month trial, convicted them of the crime of high treason. Over the course of his mission in Flanders, about a thousand seditionists suffered the same fate.5
Although the severe tactic produced good effects in the short term, it was already foreseeable that after a few years the situation would become untenable. Thus, on December 18, 1573, the Duke of Alba had to secretly leave the Netherlands and was replaced by Don Luís de Requesens y Zúñiga.
His next campaign took place in Portugal when, following the death of Cardinal Henrique – an elderly, sickly man who had inherited the Lusitanian throne on the death of Dom Sebastian – Philip II became first in line for the right of succession. The Duke of Alba, then seventy-three years old, was put at the head of an army of twenty thousand soldiers to secure his lord’s interests. It goes without saying that his methods obtained the desired result.
It was during this mission that, on December 15, 1582, that iron man surrendered his soul to God, struck down by an illness that had lasted a month. He had asked Philip II for permission to return to his land in Alba de Tormes, eager to spend his last days there. However, the permission never came.
Talis vita finis ita, says the well-known adage: as one lives, so is one’s end; and it was only natural that Don Ferdinand, having spent his whole life fighting bravely on the battlefield, should also die on campaign.
The black legend
With the passage of time, the energetic, austere and inflexible figure of the Duke of Alba was converted into a kind of bloodthirsty monster, mainly due to his actions in the Netherlands. There were even those who tried to save his reputation by comparing him to a madman like Robespierre.6 However, a close examination of the facts reveals the bias of these judgements.
In the first place, the crimes committed by Protestants during the period of upheaval were countless. By way of example, we may cite the case of two Anabaptists. These confessed that, when tired of one of their wives – each of them had four – the minister would take her to the woods and silently kill her. One of these “holy men” admitted having murdered six or seven women. They also taught that it was licit to kill and rob Catholics.
The depredations of churches by Calvinists and Anabaptists were frequent. In less than a week, four hundred Catholic churches had been destroyed, with the customary desecrations of the Blessed Sacrament, statues and even consecrated nuns and ministers of God, who were beaten or expelled from their convents.
Some might claim that the heretics were seeking a minimum of tolerance in the face of royal tyranny. However, Margaret of Parma – regent of the Low Countries and sister of Philip II – complained in a letter to the latter that she had proposed total freedom of worship to the insurgent leaders along with other concessions, and had received a refusal in reply.
After all, she said, it was not freedom of religion that the rebels wanted, “but the freedom of all religions except the Catholic.”7
Criterion and judgement
On the other hand, it is completely invalid to judge the attitudes of a personage of the past according to the standards of our century. When comparing the attitudes of the Duke of Alba with those of some of his contemporaries, certain authors even consider him humane and indulgent, in terms of the methods employed or even the number of those condemned.
We need to think no further than of the English courts which, during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, sentenced countless completely innocent Catholics to much more violent deaths. And the same can be said of the Tudor proceedings in Ireland or of the Habsburgs in Transylvania.8
If the laws applied by the Duke of Alba were so unjust and cruel, why did they form the basis of Dutch criminal law and procedure for the next two and a half centuries? Perhaps because, as Roca Barea quipped, “the law of Alba was harsh, but it was law, and not the arbitrary application of punishment.”9
Whatever the case, it seems certain that he acted in good faith throughout his mandate. On his deathbed he said that he had not shed one drop of blood against his conscience during his life, and that the executions he had ordered to be carried out in Flanders were fore heresy and insurrection.
We conclude, then, with a sentence written by himself. It shows that his spirit was too great to harbour that petty concern for the opinion of others which leads men to place their own reputation above their sense of duty:
“The evil nature of some wicked people leads them to give the worst possible interpretation to everything; but the truth about all this will only be decided by time and God.”10 ◊
1 WEISS, Juan Bautista. Historia Universal. Barcelona: La Educación, 1929, v.IX, p.285.
2 FERNÁNDEZ ÁLVAREZ, Manuel. El Duque de Hierro. Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, III Duque de Alba. Pozuelo de Alarcón: Espasa-Calpe, 2007, p.315.
3 WALSH, William Thomas. Felipe II. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1943, p.461.
4 Idem, p.463.
5 There is a glaring contradiction when it comes to the number of those executed during the campaign in the Netherlands. According to Roca Barea, “the propaganda converted the Duke of Alba into a monster and raised the death toll from 1,073 executions to 200,000” (ROCA BAREA, María Elvira. Imperiofobia y leyenda negra. Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio Español. 28.ed. Madrid: Siruela, 2020, p.253). Walsh provides less divergent figures: “The number of persons executed by this tribunal during the few years of its jurisdiction has been variously estimated to range from 1,700, which Cabrera cites, to the 8,000 which the Protestants, exaggerating greatly, allege” (WALSH, op. cit., p.464).
6 Cf. PIRENNE, Henri. Historia de Bélgica, apud FERNÁNDEZ ÁLVAREZ, op. cit., p.359.
7 WALSH, op. cit., p.450.
8 Cf. Idem, p.464; ROCA BAREA, op. cit., p.254.
9 ROCA BAREA, op. cit., p.254.
10 WALSH, op. cit., p.522.