Military History

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Book Review of The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders, 1567-1659

Posted by William Young on August 24, 2012

Fernando González de León. The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders, 1567-1659. History of Warfare series. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009. ISBN 978-90-04-17082-7. Illustrations. Charts. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Pp. xvi, 406. $210.00.

Originally posted in International History (24 August 2012)

The Spanish Army of Flanders, led by some of the best military officers, stood as Europe’s elite army in the late sixteenth century.  Dr Fernando González de León, Associate Professor of History at Springfield College in Massachusetts, examines the Army of Flanders during the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659).  The author explains the decline of the officer corps and high command of the Army of Flanders that led to demoralized and incompetent leadership with poor military results during the last two decades of this period.  He believes that long brewing problems with the Spanish officer corps, high command, and organizational weaknesses became evident in dramatic fashion against the French at the battle of Rocroi (1643).

González de León sees the history of the Army of Flanders as broken into two distinct parts during the Eighty Years War.  In the first part the author investigates the School of Alba from 1567 to 1621.    At the beginning of this era, the Duke of Alba established a military command in the Spanish Netherlands as well as a military system (or school). González de León discusses the staffing of the School of Alba, the internal structure and hierarchy of the Army of Flanders, issues of military discipline, as well as reforms involving the Spanish officer corps.  Alba established an effective chain of command, favored Spanish officers and the infantry, provided rigorous officer training, and gave promotions to senior ranks based on experience and merit.  González de León states that, “Alba’s sterling reputation as organizer and commander of the Army of Flanders, the first modern standing army, was considered the very pinnacle of military perfection and the main bulwark of Spanish power in Europe” (p.7).  The author, however, points out that abuses began to creep into the system under the command of the Duke of Parma, Ambrogio Spinola, and the Archdukes Albert and Isabella starting from the 1580s to the Twelve Year Truce (1609).  Even so, the Army of Flanders was open to tactical innovation and had success in the field.

In the second part of the study, González de León addresses the military reforms and policies of Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, from 1609 to 1659.  The renewal of war against the Dutch Republic in 1621 brought out the internal problems within the Army of Flanders.  Olivares saw the problems in the army as the lack of effective leadership.  As such, the Count-Duke initiated reforms in military training and military justice, as well as adopted new policies in appointing officers, including the appointment of inexperienced, high-ranking Spanish aristocrats to senior military positions, hoping that they would succeed as effective commanders.  Nevertheless, the author shows that these inexperienced Spanish officers weakened the high command, had little ability to command in the field, and held prejudices against other nationalities serving in command postitions in the multi-national Army of Flanders.  González de León believes that, “this army was highly divided among nations, ranks and factions and ultimately failed to adapt to many of the new trends in warfare known in historiography as the Military Revolution” (p.373).  This decline in combat effectiveness led to the disaster at the battle of Rocroi (1643).  He stresses that, despite the fall of Olivares in 1643, the Army of Flanders made few changes and produced a string of major defeats against the Dutch, and the French in the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659).

The author provides an important study on the Spanish Army of Flanders that contributes to our knowledge of the Eighty Years War.  It adds to the recent literature on the conflict, including Geoffrey Parker’s The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659 (1972), The Dutch Revolt (1977), and The Grand Strategy of Philip II (1998); I.A.A. Thompson’s War and Government in Habsburg Spain, 1560-1620 (1976); Jonathan I. Israel’s The Dutch Revolt and the Hispanic World, 1606-1661 (1982); Marco van der Hoeven’s (editor) Exercise of Arms: Warfare in the Netherlands, 1568-1648 (1997); and Paul Allen’s Philip III and the Pax Hispanica, 1598-1621 (2000).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

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