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  • The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders, 1567–1659
  • Ruth MacKay
The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders, 1567–1659. By Fernando González de León. ISBN 978-90-04-17082-7. Maps. Illustrations. Charts. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvi, 406. $221.00.

This book starts by asking a logical question: how is it that the Spanish army, especially its legendary tercios, fell apart over the course of the Eighty Years War? Choosing to include the word “road” in the title of a book about Spain and the Dutch is an obvious gesture of homage toward the historian Geoffrey Parker. But González de León’s road is more figurative than Parker’s. It traces the distance between the Duke of Alba and the Count-Duke of Olivares, and between their respective kings, Philip II and Philip IV, measured in terms of errors and misjudgments. The author also distinguishes himself from his predecessors by stressing men, specifically officers, over money or structures. In so doing, he is able to introduce such considerations as attitudes toward the aristocracy and tensions between Spaniards and the other nations of the monarchy, both of which played key roles in the unraveling of Spanish military superiority. His excellent book is smoothly written, well documented, and logically constructed.

Rocroi, the scene of a battle on 19 May 1643 which the author says “brought together in a single day the results of long-standing organizational weaknesses and dramatically exposed all that was wrong with the high command” (p. 6) was the end of the road for the so-called School of Alba, the system of military training and recruitment that commenced in 1567. Alba had the unusual belief that commoners could make good commanders and that no soldier should face battle unprepared. It would appear from González de León’s narrative, however, that this emphasis on professionalism at the expense of privilege was being challenged already in the 1580s. The duke’s peers expected good appointments, refused to serve alongside lesser men, and were unwilling to lose such privileges as lots of baggage and time off in Brussels. The result was that in the latter years of Philip II’s reign, expertise in the Spanish Netherlands rapidly declined as ill-prepared officers were rotated in and out. The question of why this happened is somewhat of a mystery, and the author himself notes that “the Spanish gentlemen’s inadequacy in artillery is difficult to explain” (p. 76). The aristocracy clearly had little interest in warfare but [End Page 1316] at the same time increasingly demanded, and got, preference for appointments. Anyone with a good title would do, it appears; Albert, Archduke of Austria and Captain General of the Netherlands, awarded a captaincy to the infant son of a prominent governor (p. 80).

Another tendency pushing Spain down the wrong road was the practice of favoring Spaniards over Italians and other subjects of the king. In this, even Alba was prejudiced. And discipline was impossible to enforce over officers who felt entitled to their positions and superior to their superiors. González de León disagrees with Parker and others who attribute the mutinies of the Army of Flanders to class tensions; instead, he says, tensions originated more on the basis of clientage, though obviously non-payment of wages was a source of discontent.

An interesting facet of this march toward disaster lies in the word cabezas, or heads. The Count-Duke of Olivares, mastermind of failed reforms during the reign of Philip IV, spent endless amounts of ink bewailing the falta de cabezas, the lack of able leaders. In his mind, a cabeza was a nobleman. But in the earlier period, González de León points out, cabeza referred to knowledge, to military science as it was laid out in creative and influential treatises. “The flowering of military science that began in the mid 1580s was quite without precedent in Spain,” González de León says (p. 122), referring to writings, including the “perfect officer” genre, by Francisco de Valdés, Sancho de Londoño...