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Reviewed by:
  • The Duke of Alba
  • Lorraine White
The Duke of Alba. By Henry Kamen. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-300-10283-6. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Short bibliography. Index. Pp. 204. $30.00.

Twenty-one years after an Anglophone historian produced the first scholarly biography of the third duke of Alba—the most famous, and notorious, of Spain's soldiers of the early modern period (W. S. Maltby, Alba: A Biography of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba 1507-1582 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983])—it has been left to another English-speaker to re-evaluate his life and career. Though Kamen modestly directs this relatively short study to the general reader, this is no mere derivative biography of the great duke. The author has carefully reviewed many of the available published collections of primary materials from Europe's archives that pertain to Alba's life in the service of Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain. In addition, he has explored further in a number of manuscript depositories in Spain (Simancas, the Alba family archive, and other archives in Madrid) and elsewhere in Europe (Geneva, Vienna, and London), uncovering fresh material. Combining this with recently published secondary sources, Kamen has provided new insights into Alba's long and distinguished career (including some major events in which he played only a minimal or indirect role), and has corrected a number of the recent and not so recent misapprehensions about his life and times. Of the book's seven chapters, the two dedicated to affairs in the Netherlands (along with two of the three maps, though these are too small to provide sufficient detail to illustrate the text) and to the most notorious period of Alba's career, contain a number of insights and challenges to conventional wisdom. There is, however, one area where the author apparently sees no need for re-evaluation. The emphasis of the penultimate chapter on the logistical and disciplinary problems of the last campaign in Portugal diverges from Kamen's ampler coverage of strategy and tactics in Alba's military activities elsewhere. If, like others (though not Maltby), Kamen believes the 1580 military campaign was unimportant "because no great events were experienced" (p. 193), this belies the significance the author reveals that his protagonist attributed to the conquest (p. 153). Nevertheless, the final chapter more than makes up for this unexpected shortcoming. In it Kamen engages in a succinct and masterful reassessment of aspects of Alba's character, beliefs and achievements, reminding us that while he did not participate in most of the famous military events of his time, nor take part in a full-scale battle, he was "[f]ar more than merely a general, he was also an active creator of Spanish military power" (p. 157). Throughout, the biography is superbly documented by numerous quotations taken from the duke's and his contemporaries' letters and accounts. If only for this reason, this book will be a key source not just for students of early modern European and military history, but also for academics and researchers of the period.

Lorraine White
University of Wollongong
Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia


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Print ISSN
p. 223
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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