Brown cover De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Louis Sicking

Neptune and the Netherlands. State, Economy and War at Sea in the Renaissance

History of Warfare 23, xxxi+551pp.; 25 plates and maps, 21 tables and figures (Leiden: Brill, 2004) $198. ISBN 90 04 13850 1.

Louis Sicking’s Neptune and the Netherlands explains why the powerful rulers of the Habsburg dominions (and their vassals, the Burgundian Lords of Veere) failed to establish hegemony over the maritime affairs of the States of Holland, and in doing so he illustrates how the interplay between commerce and dynasticism shaped the early-modern state. The Holy Roman Emperor appointed an Admiral-of-the-Sea, who, from the strategically located stronghold of Walcheren, regulated commerce, exercised diplomatic influence, and upon occasion mobilized imperial fleets. Ordinances of the Admiralty issued in 1488 and again in 1540 buttressed the Admiral’s authority. The Ordinances provided a “legal framework for the maritime policy of the Habsburgs… [which] expressed their aim to monopolise violence at sea” [p. 481] and to centralize administration. Possessed with sole authority to fit out war fleets, the Admiral’s authority extended to matters in which he might have a conflict of interests, for example when as Admiral-of-the-Sea Adolph of Burgundy sided with Christian II in the contest over the Danish succession. His executive authority imposing Habsburg sovereignty upon the seas (and the coastline) was unprecedented in the governance of the Netherlands. Well-equipped to adjudicate commercial disputes and wage war, the Admiral was positioned to counter the decentralizing regional and civic interests of the commercial centers. However, from 1488 to 1558, successive Admirals and Ordinances failed to constrain the Netherlands’ mercantile, diplomatic, and naval activities.

Sicking asks how it was that an individual endowed with personal dynastic influence and wielding a uniquely centralized apparatus of state could not rein in and dominate those urban oligarchies that would become the Dutch Republic. The author points out that the Admirals never really monopolized “violence at sea [that] was organized from the Netherlands as long as the coastal provinces and ports fitted out their own warships to protect trade and fishery” [p. 485]. Fisheries constituted a major point of contention between the States of Holland and the Admirals. [p. 106]  The contours of Dutch commerce, shaped by the size and nature of cargoes, differed greatly from the traffic in the smaller and comparatively luxurious exports of the Flemish cities. The transport of finished goods from the southern region could be protected by convoys. The larger merchant marine of the Hollanders, particularly the fishers, required great swaths of pacified ocean that could be protected only by a vigorous naval strategy that was both pre-emptive and quickly mobilized. In 1533 Holland had assembled, on its own, a Baltic war fleet. Dutch independence and confidence rested upon the immensity of the Netherlands’ merchant marine, which dwarfed state navies and could be fitted out for war surprisingly efficiently. Netherlanders had learnt to rely upon their own resources, and saw their interests as distinct from those of the Empire. The States of Holland thus developed a maritime strategy that was necessarily belligerent and fiercely independent. A fundamental commercial distinction compounded the religious, political and cultural divisions of what then constituted the medieval Low Countries. 

The carrying trade and the fisheries spawned a substantially different maritime strategy than those pursued by Zeeland and Flanders to the south. Only in the latter half of the sixteenth century did “defence of maritime trade . . . form a part of Habsburg policy” [p. 286], and that was largely necessitated by the Empire’s self-interest in safeguarding the sea lanes connecting the Low Countries with Spain. Sicking shows how the various parties groped towards the establishment of a permanent war fleet, and emphasizes the allocation of the limited resources of the various states. The organization of war fleets, by the Habsburgs, or by Zeeland, or by the States of Holland, reflected the revenue-raising capabilities of the respective governments. The author’s discussion of the Habsburgs’ collection of the wine tax in the Netherlands, and its fiscal limitations is particularly illuminating in regard to state formation and maritime strategy. “The wine tax was specially introduced to fund warships… and [it] by no means brought in enough to cover the expenses of the war fleet”. Sicking goes on to point out that the lastgeld on the herring fisheries, too, was insufficient: “All in all, the taxes on shipping activities were not enough to finance the Habsburg war fleet” [pp. 364-5].

In contrast, the capital and revenue generated by the commercial pursuits of the States of Holland empowered Dutch vessels to do as they pleased for the most part. Holland exploited the “immaturity” of the Habsburg Empire by enabling the Dutch merchant marine that sustained the fisheries and the carrying trade to convert temporarily into what was comparatively speaking an impressive war fleet. Those embryonic fleets, Dutch and imperial, are nicely illustrated. Using iconographic as well as statistical evidence the ships themselves are revealed, along with their crews and shipboard armaments. Historians can now more easily examine naval expenditures, where ships were purchased, the individual vessels comprising a given expedition, the distribution of artillery among the vessels of the imperial standing navy, how that ordnance should have been positioned aboard ship, the geographical origins of the crews, mariners’ wages, and more.

Despite attempts at centralization, Habsburg state-formation had not yet harnessed the money of the burgeoning towns via a centralized taxation system that might create a proper standing navy. This phenomenon was not limited to the sea, for the towns, especially the Flemish ones, had already resisted successfully the power and authority of the rural landed magnates in the preceding centuries.  In 1488, of course, there was no Dutch nation-state; the pre-Reformation Netherlands included Flanders. That region, from the late thirteenth century, witnessed urban development that did not fit so tidily into a system dominated by nobles whose power (and legitimacy) was grounded in agriculture rather than bourgeois entrepreneurship. Bruges and its sister Flemish cities set a precedent for their neighbors to the north, even if in subsequent centuries Holland’s economy (and corresponding maritime strategy) evolved into something rather different from Flemish culture and economy. Thus Sicking’s scholarship casts light both forward and backward, to the Dutch Golden Age and to its antecedents in the fourteenth century. The author consciously looks beyond traditional time-frames in a conscious effort to transcend the limitations of national history.

Whilst imperial efforts were slow and often blunted, the Habsburg achievement in time broke new ground in pursuit of state-formation. The author concludes that the “Habsburg government in the Netherlands implemented on a modest scale the modern idea of a permanent [war] fleet and the corresponding administration” [p. 419]. That said, the author’s research then accounts for the seemingly inexplicable abandonment of this Habsburg “standing navy” and the sale of its ships in 1561. Sicking shows how Habsburg dynastic policy strove to shape maritime strategy itself, incorporating the Netherlands into a world empire consisting of composite states partially linked by sea-going commerce.  The author is quick to remind his readers that Walcheren (where the Admiral-of-the-Sea based his office) was the “centre of gravity” for Habsburg maritime defense, and that Brussels controlled the financial administration of war fleets. Although forever overshadowed by the triumphant emergence of an independent Dutch state, the Habsburg imperial achievement (if temporary) should not be overlooked. While the Dutch Revolt ruptured the bonds that linked the Low Countries with its medieval past, particularly in the areas of religion and national identity, the process of Netherlands state-formation was to a degree a response to Habsburg maritime policy.

David Loades, the historian of the Tudor navy, observes that sixteenth-century navies were more events than they were institutions. Ironically, the modest English navy of Henry VIII served as a model for continental naval aspirations. This state of affairs came about when Phillip II incorporated (if only temporarily) England within his dynastic web by wedding Mary Tudor. Sicking shows yet another case of the profound interplay between dynasticism and maritime strategy, for the union with England exposed Habsburg dominions to institutional innovations being attempted across the Narrow Seas. The source of the irony is that while the States of Holland saw in English naval organization a paradigm for their own aspirations, the Habsburgs similarly borrowed from a foreign power by adapting a French organizational model in the genesis of the Admirals-of-the-Sea.

A distinguishing feature of Neptune and the Netherlands that merits praise is the astounding archival research that stands behind the book’s conclusions.  This reviewer counted no fewer than fifty-two archives explored by Sicking. These range in location from the Baltic to the Iberian peninsula. The sheer scope of this scholarship ought to place Sicking among the foremost historians of the field, such as Jan Glete and N.A.M. Rodger. The paleographic and diplomatic challenges inherent in such an inquiry as this book are formidable indeed. The final product is a magnificent work both of archival research and historical investigation.

Mark Charles Fissel

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