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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Fernando Gonzalez de Leon

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

History of Warfare 52. Leiden: Brill, 2009. 406 pp. €139. ISBN 9789004166608.

The Army of Flanders was one of the pre-eminent military formations of early modern Europe, a pillar of Spanish Habsburg power as well as the military academy of successive generations of European aristocrats.   As such it has naturally attracted the attention of scholars; in the English speaking world most notably the classic works of Geoffrey Parker and I A A Thompson.   Much of this scholarship has however focussed on issues of grand strategy and logistics.   Fernando Gonzalez de Leon offers a view from a slightly different angle, examining the Army’s high command structures from a social and military perspective.

The tale Gonzalez de Leon tells is one of largely uninterrupted decline from a foundational golden age under the command of the Duke of Alba in which promotions to senior command positions were made on merit and even Spanish grandees were proud to do time in the ranks of the infantry.   What he terms “the School of Alba” retained an influence in the years up to the 1609 truce with the Dutch but an increasingly diluted one as even such talented generals as the Duke of Parma and Ambrogio Spinola struggled to contain abuses.   With the coming of peace the army became increasingly a creature of court patronage for the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella. 

When war resumed in 1621 command problems rapidly became visible.   The dominant figure in the government of King Philip IV, the Count (later Count-Duke) of Olivares, a man convinced that “lack of leadership” was the main issue Spain’s armies faced, tried to remedy the situation.  His first response, the establishment of military academies, fizzled out.  His next one was to add “lustre” to the command structures in Flanders by systematically appointing representatives of the Spanish higher aristocracy to senior positions in the expectation that they would learn  on the job (appointments were made on a temporary basis with confirmation in principle dependent on merit), a process culminating in the choice of the king’s brother Fernando, Cardinal-Infante as supreme commander.

 Olivares’ initiatives turned out to have unintended consequences.   Grandees scorned infantry service, so the Army of Flanders’ cavalry was increasingly composed of untrained blue bloods who proved unreliable in the field.  Aristocrats expected senior posts (preferably independent ones) so there was a proliferation of detached commands with unclear lines of authority between them, a tendency for command by committee and rampant rank inflation.  Men who held temporary positions were disinclined to take much interest in their units outside the campaign season.  Grandees,  often reluctant soldiers, were more comfortable leading parades in Brussels than manning the siege trenches at Breda.   The situation was further complicated by fragmentation on national lines.  Spanish units represented at most some 20% of the Army of Flanders but Spaniards expected to hold all the senior command positions; the claim that local noblemen were unreliable became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Genuinely combined operations with allies proved virtually impossible-the 1636 Corbie campaign fizzled out through lack of co-operation with Piccolomini’s Imperial forces while  in 1654 the siege of Arras was undertaken by three separate armies which scarcely communicated and ended in a predictable fiasco.  

The net result was a lumbering army, grossly over-officered (by the 1650's the officer to men ratio was about one to four) yet under-commanded, sluggish out of winter quarters and slow in its response to threats.   It was also backward in its structures and armament (the Spanish infantry remained wedded to the pike with the result that the Army became increasingly deficient in firepower by comparison with its Dutch and French foes).    The battlefield heroism of the Spanish infantry could move even the enemy to tears but was increasingly deployed in despairing last stands which snatched some honour from crushing defeat as at Rocroi and Lens.

Gonzalez de Leon’s account of developments from the resumption of the Dutch war in 1621 (the main focus of his book) is generally persuasive.    At times one loses sight of the wood among the trees in the rather dense presentation of command appointments and structures while a clear time line of operations would have been helpful since the book is not organised on strictly chronological lines.   His focus on the high command means that there is little sense of how the forces he describes played out at unit level though he implies that a de facto “glass ceiling” confined long serving but socially low ranking officers to junior positions.  

More seriously, the overall “decline and fall” model is problematic, especially as the Army’s pristine condition under Alba is asserted rather than demonstrated in detail- the chapters on the years 1567-1621 are at times sketchy and even they tend to focus on the forces leading to degeneration from an assumed high point.   “Promotion on merit” is a slippery concept which requires more deconstruction than it receives, especially since the upholders of “the School of Alba” writing in the 1580's and 90's did not view merit and experience as synonymous.  It is interesting to find that Alba, hammer of Protestant heretics, was prepared to promote men with converso ancestry but surely there was more to merit than this.  It is also worth noting that the post-1621 Army of Flanders was never guilty of the atrocities committed by its predecessor in the 1570's (in fairness Gonzalez de Leon recognises this issue) nor did it disintegrate into mutinous inaction as had happened in the 1590's.

There is also a certain fuzziness over what Gonzalez de Leon characterises as the forcible remilitarisation of the Castilian nobility.   He makes a persuasive case for the detachment of Spanish social, and indeed cultural, elites from military values from at least the 1640's- certainly by comparison with their French counterparts.    He argues that aristocrats were not being appointed to senior positions on the basis that they would assume financial responsibility for their commands; instead they had to be bullied and bribed to undertake command roles with funding diverted from functions like intelligence gathering to subsidise them and promotion structures loaded in their favour.  On the other hand he points to the financial costs of service as a factor discouraging aristocrats from serving, cases of men appointed to command positions in Flanders spending more time in Madrid lobbying for pensions than with their units and very low military participation by the top ranks of the aristocracy.  This sits awkwardly with the picture painted elsewhere of almost total Spanish aristocratic dominance of senior ranks even into the war-weary 1650's.   Clearly additional factors were at work which require further elucidation.

Despite these conceptual issues, Gonzalez de Leon has provided a fascinating case study of the decline of an army which had once been at the forefront of military quality to mediocrity and worse due in part to misguided appointment policies.  As usual with Brill publications, the book is handsomely produced but has a fair sprinkling of misprints and typos- including the startling assertion that Walloon units were equipped with the arquebus “since there were not sufficient local recruits corpulent enough to handle the musket” (323), which throws an interesting light on logistical issues.

Brian Ditcham

Independent Scholar <>

Page Added: September 2009