The Flanders War (1568-1648) was, in the opinion of numerous historians, the great political and military mistake of Felipe II. His stubbornness in admitting that it was completely impossible to sustain a war on land thousands of kilometers away from Spain ―with the enemy France strategically positioned between the peninsula and the Netherlands and England blockading the English Channel― provoked the Dessert an economic, social, military and reputational crisis in the Hispanic Monarchy of colossal dimensions. Unlike his father, Carlos I, the one known as wise king he squandered fortunes and lives in an enterprise in which his best and most faithful captains did not even believe, but which they accepted knowing that they were headed straight for disaster. The determined will of the monarch to impose, by blood and fire, Catholicism in the 17 rebellious provinces left scenes of terror and inhumanity recorded for posterity, but also days of military heroism that are difficult to believe. The irrational stubbornness of the king to achieve victory at any cost forced the Tercios to radically and rapidly modify the existing warfare tactics. The enlightening Asedites in the Flemish War. Captains, techniques, feats and excesses in the Rebel Provinces (Editorial Tercios Viejos), by Jose Luis Hernandez Garvi, dissects this war that lasted 80 years, which left the Hispanic kingdom exhausted and which gave rise to the Black Legend.
Remember Hernandez Garvi that Carlos V maintained the integrity of the territory under a centralized government. His sister Maria de Austria held the position of governor of these possessions for 24 years thanks to an effective containment policy that gave the provinces a “stage of stability and prosperity like they had never enjoyed before.” The emperor respected his most representative institutions and maintained a low tax policy. But the advent of Felipe II ended up degenerating into a political clash that ended up reaching levels of open warfare with “episodes of extreme violence.”
The intransigence of the monarch and his centralist absolutism exacerbated the spirits of those who would end up being his most rebellious subjects”.
When the spark of Protestantism in Flanders ignited, says the author, important reformist nuclei arose in the cities, which were forcefully responded to by the local Inquisition. These excesses “planted the seeds of rebellion.” “The intransigence of the monarch and his centralist absolutism exacerbated the spirits of those who would end up being his most wayward subjects.” The initial discontent caused the local nobles, until then loyal to the king, to decide that the time had come “to assume power”. The prince of Orange, Guillermo de Nassau, and the counts of Egmont and Horn, would lead the revolts. There was, however, one last attempt to avoid disaster, the so-called Breda Compromise: the legitimacy of Felipe II would not be questioned in exchange for “freedom of worship and veto of the Inquisition”. The monarch’s response was resounding: “without concessions of any kind.” If he gave in, it could be taken as a sign of weakness. He ignited the spark of war.
From the beginning, the military experts of the Hispanic Monarchy -cases of incompetence were rare, although they also existed- were aware that the tactics applied in other armed conflicts were not valid in a scenario completely different from the others: dikes, canals, rivers, great rainfall, muddy terrain, fortified cities… It was necessary to forget about the great battles that had given them so much glory and honor in the past and adapt to a different war: the siege.
The military of the Hispanic Monarchy were aware that the tactics applied in other conflicts were not valid in a completely different scenario”
On the one hand, the Spanish built strongholds along the Rhine and Meuse rivers to block the arrival of supplies to the rebels; on the other, the Dutch rushed to fortify their main urban centers against future attacks. The artillerymen of the empire then generalized the use of the mortar ―a parabolic firing weapon that surpassed the defenses― and caused terror among the besieged. The rebels responded by copying the design of the revolutionary Italian fortifications that included massive, sloping breastworks, not too high, with polygonal and star shapes and with protruding corners and bastions to prevent blind spots. The besiegers, in turn, developed the technique of underground mines in order to reach the walls and blow them up without being detected. The subsoil of the Netherlands thus witnessed real and fierce battles in the most absolute darkness.
The arrival of the attacking army at the gates of a city marked the beginning of the siege. A camp was established at a distance to house the troops and the headquarters. Ring lines were built around the besieged square and artillery was installed. The first bombardments served to gauge how far the besieged were willing to endure and their level of military response. If the defenders did not lower the flag, an attempt was made to destroy the walls. Through the open gap, the Tercios would advance. “In the midst of the cases, the soldiers, stunned by fear and the noise of combat, made their way as best they could between point-blank shots that decimated their ranks; At those critical moments, unintelligible orders, insults, blasphemies and litanies of prayers were mixed in an indescribable cacophony of voices and sounds that emulated that of hell”, the author reconstructs. “The smoke from the black powder and the dust raised by the landslides made vision difficult and made the atmosphere unbreathable under the dismal hum of the bullets and the shrapnel taking lives. The screams of the wounded and mutilated overwhelmed the faint-hearted, who were pushed or trampled by those who came behind.
The screams of the wounded and mutilated overwhelmed the faint-hearted, who were pushed or trampled by those who came behind.
The atrocities after the sieges by both sides are indescribable. On June 27, 1572, the city of Gorcum, favorable to the Spanish side, surrendered. Commander Willem van der Merck looted it despite his promises to spare the lives of its inhabitants. He ordered the arrest of 19 Catholic religious, tortured them, paraded them in procession, exhibited them naked and sadistically applied horrible tortures while they sang the Te Deum.
The painting of ‘The Surrender of Breda’ takes us through time to a time of heroes and villains, cowards and brave, great lords and loyal vassals”
On October 2, 1572, the troops of the Duke of Alba appear before the city of Mechelen. Panic ensues and the defending soldiers flee. The square opens its doors, but the duke did not take into account the pleas for mercy of its terrified inhabitants and authorizes the looting. The Spanish Tercios ―only represented 10 percent of the troops― are the first to initiate the excesses. The next two days were exclusively for the Walloon and German soldiers. “The scenes of fires, murders and rapes that illustrated this barbaric custom once again did a disservice to the sad fame that the armies of Spain already accumulated.”
The sieges during this cruel war were very numerous: Maastricht, Antwerp, Middleburg, Groningen, Breda…, as many as the commanders killed or destroyed in life: Farnesio, Alba, Spinola, Austria, Requesens…, and in the same number than his heroic military actions. The Spaniards were true experts in organizing incredible night operations, which today we would call commando and which were then called encamisadas, to cause confusion in the enemy troops.
“The decline was sealed in Rocroi”, writes Hernandez Garvi, “and the feat achieved by the Genoese captain general [victoria de Spinola en Breda] it soon dissolved, like a mirage that deceives our hopes and to which a decadent dynasty clung to. The contemplation of the marvelous painting by Velazquez exhibited in the Museo del Prado, with its artistic licenses and its also undeniable historical value, brings us closer through time to a time in which heroes and villains, cowards and brave, great lords and loyal vassals , they disputed the glory sharing sacrifices in a fight that deserves to be remembered”.
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