Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Spanish Heroes in the Low Countries. The Experience of War during the First Decade of the Dutch Revolt (1567-1577)

How do first-hand narratives of war of commanders in the front line relate to the official narrative of the Eighty Years’ War?

Beatriz Santiago Belmonte
NWO Vrije Competitie NWO Vrije Competitie


This project focuses on the experiences of war of a group of twenty Spanish commanders who were in the front line during the first decade of the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648). In both Dutch and Spanish narrative tradition of the Dutch Revolt the portrait of Spanish commanders has played an important role. These portrayals differ greatly from each other with the result that these commanders are described either as monsters, or as heroes.

For the first time the letters written by these commanders between 1567 and 1577 will be used as main sources to understand commanders’ experiences and to relate them to the traditional narratives. By doing so we expect to reach new insights into the life of these commanders and to finally deconstruct the myths surrounding them and their acts of war. 

Project description

The letters of the Spanish commanders active in the Low Countries during the first decade of the Dutch Revolt have been used only incidentally for historical research. These letters, written by the commanders who were often present in the actual war theaters, consist of loose strings of short paragraphs, each of them describing a different episode or anecdote, explaining events and the people involved. These letters were written on the spur of the moment with concrete and often urgent intentions: asking for more money, extra soldiers or ammunition, outlining the strategic situation, or asking permission to leave the front.

The military information is, however, only one element of these letters. The commanders –many of them career soldiers who had started in the lower ranks– also offer insight into their political opinions and personal lives. These letters are often directed to people they knew personally, and there is no sharp division between their military office and what we consider nowadays as belonging to their private life. For example, Julián Romero can criticize the Duke of Alba for imposing the Tenth Penny, and he can even threaten a royal secretary that he would leave the Low Countries if he were not awarded a governorship. Romero’s wife did not want to follow him around campaigning in the Low Countries and would join him only if he obtained a steady position as a governor, creating unexpected dilemmas, both for this commander and his superiors. On all levels, professional and personal, these letters take us back to the actual war experiences.

In order to be able to analyze the interplay between professional and personal elements in these letters written by the group of commanders under research, we need to know the basic features of their military careers and their personal backgrounds. Even for a well-known commander such as Francisco de Valdés, essential information on his official and private life remains elusive. Who were these commanders and how does the Dutch episode fit into their careers? Did their social position as noblemen or as lower-born professional military influence their outlook on war and violence?

At a second central level, the analysis of the commanders’ letters will be compared to the information about these commanders in the letters of the political elite, including governors such as the Duke of Alba and Luis de Requesens as well as King Philip II and subsequent secretaries and political advisors. It is to be expected that the more politically inspired letters, written from a top-down perspective and from within the safety of palace walls, will have a different outlook on the war then letters written by the commanders. I expect the commanders to focus on personal matters and practical problems. Did politicians and commanders look differently at themes like heroism, atrocities, sacrifice, and war misery? For example, Julián Romero told his governor general how his own soldiers criticized him directly, calling him the worst man on earth, and this because he would not allow them to plunder the countryside. The commander’s vivid description lets us almost hear the soldiers shouting.

A recent study by  Raymond Fagel on the letters of the Duke of Alba has uncovered a clear change of tone after the outbreak of new violent actions in 1572. The hypothesis to be tested is that the letters by the military will reflect the same shift: after a relatively calm initial period (1567-1572), with rather neutral comments, letters will become much more negative as the war intensified starting in 1572, possibly showing a demoralization of the soldiers themselves and a dehumanization of the population.

Most letters by the commanders can be found in the archives of the two most important governors in the Low Countries during this decade: The Duke of Alba and Luis de Requesens. Additional commanders’ letters can be found in the Archivo General de Simancas, where we can also find the accounts of the army of Flanders. Other more limited collections can be found in Madrid, Brussels and The Hague. The published correspondence of Philip II, Cardinal Granvelle, Alba, Requesens and some of the Spanish military such as Sancho Dávila provide a useful starting point. We even find a small collection of letters by someone like Julián Romero in the digitized correspondence of William of Orange.


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