Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma (1545-1592), led the Spanish suppression of the Dutch Revolt. He doubled the size of Spain's holdings in the Netherlands through his conquests and ensured Spanish rule in the southern provinces for another 129 years.
Serving as Spain's governor-general of the Netherlands from 1578 to 1592, Alessandro Farnese, the third duke of Parma, distinguished himself with a tolerance and restraint uncommon in his day. These qualities, combined with diplomatic acumen and military astuteness, made him Spain's most successful military leader during the Revolt of the Netherlands (1566-1648). Throughout his 15-year tenure, Farnese checked the redoubtable William of Orange, stymied the United Provinces, restored and cemented Spanish hegemony in the largely Catholic southern provinces, and crowned his considerable achievements with a devastating offensive.
Farnese was born the scion of a distinguished Italian family. His great-grandfather Pope Paul III had created the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza in 1534, carving it out of rich papal lands for one of his sons. Originally, the family had risen to prominence in Renaissance Italy as mercenaries who served the Roman pontiffs and married well politically. One such union matched Ottavio Farnese and Margaret of Austria, an illegitimate daughter of Charles V, Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. On August 27, 1545, Margaret gave birth to a son named Alessandro.
In order to guarantee his father's questionable allegiance to the Spanish crown, the family sent the child to reside at the court of his uncle, Philip II of Spain. At the age of 20, Farnese journeyed to the Low Countries where his mother was serving as regent. Once there he married Maria, a princess of Portugal. After several quiet years, Farnese served Spain brilliantly at the epic naval Battle of Lepanto. With this experience, he returned to Parma but yearned for further military and political action. It was the revolt in the Netherlands that finally presented Farnese with his opportunity.
Acquired through marriage in 1506, Spain held all of the Netherlands intact and would continue to do so until the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. In Farnese's day, growing disaffection with the overbearing policies of Philip II, loss of privileges, and simmering religious animosities combined to trigger the 1566 armed Dutch Revolt against Habsburg rule. For seven years, Spain's notorious Duke of Alva acted as governor-general of the region. Despite Spanish military victories, the period was marked by the vicious repression of Protestant rebels and "heretics" by Alva's Council of Troubles—aptly dubbed the "Council of Blood." Alva's arrest and execution of two rebel leaders did little to crush the revolt but went far toward fomenting a more rigid defiance of Philip. The executions of perhaps 12,000 other rebels effectively etched Alva's name in blood in the annals of European history.
Following Alva's recall in 1573, Philip installed his half-brother, Don John of Austria, hero of Lepanto, as the new ruler in the Netherlands. In 1577, Don John called upon his nephew, Alessandro Farnese, to help put down the rebellion in the Dutch provinces. The next year, Farnese distinguished himself at Gembloux as Spanish forces crushed the Dutch. Upon John of Austria's deathbed endorsement in 1578, Philip formally named 33-year-old Farnese to accede to the post of governor-general of the Netherlands.
Negotiated Treaty of Arras
That year, Farnese captured the French-speaking provinces of the Netherlands in rapid order. Demonstrating a thorough understanding of the diverse nature of the Dutch Revolt, he negotiated a tolerant agreement with the southern Walloon provinces at the May 1579 Treaty of Arras. The treaty, his first great diplomatic success, would keep the South solidly Spanish and Catholic until 1714. Only one month later, Farnese struck a tremendous blow to the prestige of his most prominent rival, William, Prince of Orange. On June 27, Parma's forces completed the successful seige of the powerful, walled town of Maastricht. Farnese was not to experience defeat of any kind for the next nine years.
Historians have described Alessandro Farnese in glowing terms: "able and resourceful, rich and cultivated, subtle and shrewd." Garrett Mattingly depicted him as "easily the first captain of his age." Simply put, the Duke of Parma embodied both military genius and diplomatic talent. He was shrewdly tolerant in a way that contrasted sharply with previous Spanish administrators such as Alva; still, he remained the most feared and respected military strategist and tactician of his day.
At Arras, the Spanish had made several vital concessions: in return for allegiance to Philip, Spain acceded to the withdrawal of Farnese as governor and the evacuation of all foreign troops from his Army of Flanders. Left with only a pitiful remnant of mostly Walloon malcontents, Farnese— now strictly military commander in the Netherlands— avoided pitched battles and protracted sieges. Still, his policies continued to be successful.
The Walloon leaders themselves broke the impasse. Fearing an invasion from the northern Protestant provinces, and realizing the paralysis of Farnese's army without its Spanish complement, they appealed to Philip to recall both Farnese and his Spanish soldiers.
Describing this change of heart as "a miracle," Farnese spent most of 1582 regrouping his famed infantry. Farnese called his troops "asphalt soldiers—tough, disciplined and, born to fight with the people of the Netherlands." Indeed, Spain's feared infantry did not lose a pitched battle in any theater of the world for 150 years. Both admirers and adversaries considered them the "pride of the Hapsburgs—the defence of Christendom—[and] the sole foundation of the Monarchy." By the following year, Farnese's preparations were complete, and he was ready to implement a strategy that would take over 30 fortified towns by 1585.
Success was instantaneous and spectacular. In July and August 1583, he took the walled towns of Dunkirk, Nieupoort, Veurne, Diksmuide, and Berges. In October, he moved his armies to the northeast and captured four large towns along the Scheldt estuary. Simultaneously, he sent a small army north to take various towns in Friesland. In the east and along the Rhine, other Dutch towns fell one after another.
For 1584, Farnese's strategy was to starve the great towns along the Scheldt into submission. Realizing their position as untenable, Aalst's English garrison sold the town in February. On April 7, Ypres surrendered after a six-month seige. Bruges soon followed suit. Dendermonde withstood one fierce Spanish assault, but it too fell in August. The next month, Farnese completed his pacification of Flanders when Ghent capitulated, and after subduing the large towns of the province of Brabant, he turned his attention to the great town of Antwerp.
Two noteworthy events took place before the Spanish invested Antwerp. The first was the June 10, 1584, death of Francis, duke of Anjou (brother of Henry III and the last Valois heir to the French throne), who had been made lord over the Netherlands by a desperate rebel States-General in 1581. Though Calvinist Holland and Zealand had protested the solicitation of a Catholic's aid, the majority of the States had hoped Francis would be able to shield the Dutch from Farnese's inexorable advance. Although Anjou had brought a French army to aid the rebels, he fared poorly against Farnese and could not prevent the Spaniards from taking five cities by 1582. The second significant event followed precisely one month after Anjou's death when an assassin killed William of Orange in his own home on the Delft. Although William too had been unable to withstand Farnese's assaults, he had been the great, spiritual leader of the rebels. His loss was considered insurmountable.
Prepared to Invade Antwerp
With the deaths of Anjou and Orange, and the remarkable success of his own campaigns, Farnese prepared to invade Antwerp in July 1584. The city-surrounded by walls five miles in circumference—was considered one of the most strongly fortified towns in Europe, as well as one of the richest. When Farnese ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge on the Scheldt below the city in order to cut Antwerp's access to the sea, Antwerp's leaders responded by opening the dikes. The land held by his army was flooded. The dikes themselves remained above water, and "became the scene of bitter and bloody encounters between the picked men of the two sides." While the Spaniards enjoyed the better of these encounters, they had to brave the oncoming winter "with bare legs and empty stomachs" outside the city's gates.
Farnese meanwhile implored Philip to send more money for their survival. His letters often betrayed his frustration with his uncle's parsimony: "The millions promised me have arrived in bits and morsels and with so many ceremonies that I haven't ten crowns at my disposal. The enterprise at Antwerp is so great and heroic that—if your Majesty knew [it] you would estimate what we have done more highly than you do, and not forget us so utterly, leaving us to die of hunger—God will grow weary of working miracles for us."
In early March, news of the fall of Brussels helped lift the Spanish morale. About this same time, Farnese's men finished constructing their massive bridge, an engineering miracle for its day. At 2,400 feet long, the bridge rested on piles driven 75 feet deep by a machine invented expressly for this purpose. Regarding it as "his sepulchre or his pathway into Antwerp," Farnese protected it with over 200 large cannon.
After Dutch fireships destroyed a 200-foot span of the bridge, blew up 800 Spanish troops, and nearly killed Farnese, the Spanish decided to act. On May 26, they clashed with the Dutch, English, and Scottish defenders of the city in the decisive Battle of Kowenstyn. For eight hours, over 5,000 men struggled on the slippery surface of the narrow, mile-long dike. Following a sharp engagement that favored the defenders, Farnese "descended suddenly—like a deity from the clouds," inspiring the Spaniards to rally and rout the defenders. Though the English and Scottish soldiers resisted to the last man, most were cut to ribbons. About 2,000 of Antwerp's stout defenders lost their lives in the engagement. On August 17, 1585, Antwerp fell.
Farnese and the Spanish appeared unstoppable. The deaths of Anjou and Orange had been major blows, but the fall of Antwerp was even more frightening to Protestant leaders like Queen Elizabeth of England. To safeguard her own interests, Elizabeth realized that she somehow had to stop Farnese in the Netherlands. For Farnese, the path lay open to sweep into the northern provinces and crush the Dutch Revolt for good. Elizabeth knew she had to act. If Farnese completed his conquest of the Protestant provinces, England might be next. On August 20, 1585, just three days after the fall of Antwerp, Elizabeth reluctantly, and with great fear, agreed to the Treaty of Nonsuch with the rebels— in effect, openly declaring war on Spain.
The English declined sovereignty over the Netherlands, but the queen sent her favorite, the earl of Leicester, to act as governor-general. By Christmas, 8,000 Englishmen were fighting in the Netherlands. There was no love lost between Protestant England and Catholic Spain. But along with this hatred also came the fear that the formidable power of Spain might swallow up England as the "ravenous Crocodile doeth the smallest fish."
Philip's reaction was fast and furious. In Spanish ports, he seized all English and Dutch shipping. He also ordered his advisers to prepare a study for the invasion of England. Meanwhile, Farnese continued to enjoy unimpeded success, concentrating his 1586 efforts along the Maas and the Rhine despite the English presence. "Sadly outgeneraled" by Farnese, Leicester gave up Grave, Meghen, Batenburg, Venlo, Neuss, and Mors; yet he consoled himself and his queen by exaggerating the losses of his nemesis. The English general had begun his defense of the Dutch by portraying Farnese as "dejected—melancholy" and "out of courage." Farnese seemed only mildly amused by this assessment when he informed Philip that the "English think they are going to do great things and already consider themselves masters of the field." The only real moment of concern for the Spanish came at Grave, where Farnese lost the hind half of his horse to a cannonball. Within a few weeks, the duke had swept the English out of every town in the area.
The Spanish spent most of 1587 preparing for the invasion of England. Accordingly, Philip sent orders for his nephew to mass his troops on the Flanders coast. There, his strategists foresaw a rendevous between Farnese's hand-picked army and the 130 ships of the Spanish Armada. In preparation, Farnese besieged the deep-water port of Sluys in August. Despite the resistance of England's best troops and commanders, the Spaniards took the town. Soon thereafter Devanter's Anglo-Irish garrison betrayed their town to Farnese. At Zutphen, the duke engaged Leicester in the Battle of Warnsfield, defeated him, and took that town also. By now it was apparent to all that Leicester's rule in the Netherlands was "little short of a continuous disaster."
Historians since Sir Walter Raleigh have speculated on what might have happened if Farnese's army had ever reached England. In 1614, Raleigh wrote that the English were "of no such force to encounter an Armie like unto that." Geoffrey Parker concurred that Farnese's invasion force constituted the "cream of the most famous and formidable army in Europe—The English were terrified of them."
Spanish Formation is Broken
But disaster struck in the summer of 1588. England's admirals, assisted by a great "Protestant Wind," managed to break the formation of the Spaniards. The Dutch and English bottled up Farnese's transport barges in their ports and prevented the crucial rendezvous with the fleet. Rightly or not, Farnese received much of the blame for the disaster. In Spain, his prestige plummeted.
On the heels of the armada debacle, Philip decided to intervene openly in the civil war raging in France over the succession of Henry III. Accordingly, he ordered Farnese to invade France. In 1590, literally "sick to death," Farnese, at the head of a 20,000-man army, confronted Henry of Navarre near Paris and defeated the great French general, thereby lifting the seige of the city. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the rebels took advantage of his absence to seize Breda, their first success in over 12 years. Maurice of Nassau, the second son of William of Orange, also rose to prominence in Farnese's absence. Disregarding his uncle's urgent entreaties to continue subduing the French Protestants, Farnese rushed instead to the north of the Netherlands to turn back the rebel offensive at Nijmegen. He paused at home in July 1591 to inform the King of his disobedience. A furious Philip retaliated by slashing his nephew's economic support in order to compel his obedience. Instead of helping, this action led to the mutiny of 2,000 of Farnese's finest troops at Diest.
In August 1591, an exhausted and sick duke of Parma retired to Spato convalesce. By November he had raised another army of 22,000 and was preparing a second French invasion. With Farnese's absence in France, Henry Navarre's military reputation and victories had been steadily growing. But all of that was to change when the two met again at Rouen in 1592. Spanish troops wounded the Frenchman, and Farnese lifted his seige despite Navarre's English allies. After Rouen, Farnese laid seige to Caudebac, where he was severely wounded. Still, the town fell. Exhausted and ill, Farnese returned to the Netherlands late in the year. He died at Arras on December 3, 1592. Farnese's death brought immediate confusion and deterioration to the Spanish position in the Netherlands. One of Spain's most brilliant lights had been extinguished.
Further Reading on Alessandro Farnese
Geyl, Peter. The Revolt of the Netherlands, 1555-1609. Williams and Norgate, 1932 and 1945.
Mattingly, Garrett. The Armada. Riverside Press, 1959.
Motley, John L. History of the United Netherlands. Harper, 1900.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659. Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. Cornell University Press, 1977.
Parker, Geoffrey. Spain and the Netherlands, 1559-1659. Enslow, 1979.
Pierson, Peter. Philip II of Spain. Thames & Hudson, 1975.
Thompson, S. Harrison. Europe in the Renaissance and Reformation. Harcourt, 1963.
Wedgwood, C. V. William the Silent, Prince of Orange. Yale University Press, 1944.
Wilson, Charles. Queen Elizabeth and the Revolt of the Netherlands. University of California Press, 1970.