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PhD project

War Heroes and War Criminals. The Spanish Commanders and their Actions during the First Decade of the Dutch Revolt in Narrative Sources from Spain and the Low Countries (1567-1648)

How were Spanish commanders fighting in the Low Countries between 1567 and 1577 portrayed in Spanish and Dutch narrative sources during the Eighty Years War?

2014 - 2019
Leonor Alvarez Francés
NWO Vrije Competitie NWO Vrije Competitie

The Dutch Revolt is known as the conflict between the tyrannical, Catholic Spaniards on the one hand, and the Protestant Dutch, who were fighting for independence on the other. However, and as usual, truth is stranger than fiction. Indeed, this conflict is much more complicated and fascinating than that; it was perpetrated by individuals moved by a wide range of interests and beliefs. Religious affiliations, for instance, did not determine political alliances. Accordingly, the Protestant stadtholder William of Orange insisted on his loyalty to the devout Catholic Philips II, while the inhabitants of Arnhem in 1573 were for the biggest part Catholic, but averse to Spaniards.


Therefore, the division of the conflict in two opposing blocks that is already present in sixteenth and seventeenth century chronicles did not mirror reality, but served a propagandistic purpose instead. Images of the other party were intended to create a feeling of unity that led people to fight the portrayed enemy. In this project I study how chronicles written during the Eighty Years´ War (1567-1648) depicted Spanish commanders fighting in the first decade of the conflict. I will also analyse how these descriptions evolved through time and were affected by the political context in which they were produced. How was the portrayal of the Spanish commanders modified when the Truce was signed in 1609? And when hostilities were resumed in 1621? By doing so I aim at better understanding the manner in which an image of the enemy was created under war circumstances, a context most fruitful for propaganda of the enemy.

Description of the programme

In this project, the well-known negative images of the Black Legend will for the first time be confronted with the images created by Spanish authors, comparing the anecdotes about the Spanish commanders and their actions during the first decade of the Dutch Revolt in narrative sources from Spain and the Low Countries. Simultaneously, the project will focus on the changes these anecdotes underwent as more time elapsed between the events and the narratives. Generally speaking, Spanish and Dutch discourses produced heroes and war criminals respectively, but recent research by Yolanda Rodríguez Pérez has shown that these national discourses were not monolithic. In Spain there was room for nuance, and in the Low Countries religious and political affiliation influenced the descriptions. The creation of strong enemy images such as the Black Legend usually is the result of an existing internal debate within a given society: in this case, at first as a result of differences between Catholics and Protestants, and between enemies and supporters of the king; later also between groups within the Low Countries that propagated different memory cultures.

I expect that a growing distance in time from the actual events reduces the episodic character of the texts, creating more space for meta-narratives that embed the episodes within a certain overarching discourse, focusing for example on the importance of religion or the defence of the nation against foreign enemies. Amongst Protestants in the rebellious provinces a discourse of a violent foreign occupation by Catholic Spanish soldiers will eventually gain prominence.

Conversely, Spain sees its international dominance diminishing in the course of the seventeenth century and starts looking backwards to a Golden Age in which heroic Spanish soldiers still dominated the battlefields. How do these developments affect the anecdotes? Do the stories become more biased? What happens to the description of the commanders themselves? In order to study the development of these images through time, a division into several periods will be used: 1567-1572, 1572-1577, 1577-1609, 1609-1621, 1621-1648. This periodization makes it possible to compare the results with those of Yolanda Rodríguez Pérez on the general Spanish image of the Dutch Revolt.

Historiography on the German occupation of the Netherlands (1940-1945) points to the distorted view of the relatively calm first years of the occupation caused by the subsequent years of hunger, resistance and Holocaust. I will test the hypothesis that the descriptions of the relatively calm years between 1567 and 1572 have been influenced by the subsequent period of violence and growing hatred between the taking of Den Briel on April 1, 1572 and the departure of the Spanish troops in 1577. This hypothesis challenges the dominant assumption that the violent conduct of the Spanish soldiers from 1567 onwards formed one of the main reasons for the renewed outbreak of rebellion in 1572.

This project uses both chronicles and general histories as source material, as there is an ample body of texts for the period up to 1648 available for comparison from both Spain and The Low Countries. Overall Spain does not possess an influential body of pamphlets or other textual genres on the Revolt equal to the Dutch holdings. However, on specific events, such as the most important sieges and garrison cities, lesser-known descriptions will be used in addition to the more canonical chronicles of the Revolt.

An inventory of narrative sources is available on the Dutch Revolt website, organized by Leiden University. The most important descriptions from the Low Countries are those by Emanuel van Meteren, Pieter Bor, Everhard van Reyd, and P.C. Hooft; but lesser-known chronicles from the Catholic side will also be used. The important changes made to Van Meteren’s work in later versions means that different editions of these chronicles will have to be compared.

Most of the Spanish chronicles on the Revolt have already been studied on a general level and are accessible through editions, partly modern, partly dating from the Early Modern period. The most important and detailed chronicles of the first decade of the Revolt are those by Bernardino de Mendoza and Antonio Trillo, authors residing in the Low Countries during the time of the Revolt and involved in the military apparatus. Authors writing at a later date had rarely been eye-witnesses. Some of the less accessible texts, including a few manuscript ones, will be digitized and posted on the Dutch Revolt website.

The following researchers will function as an advisory board:

  • Prof.dr. J.S. Pollmann, Universiteit Leiden, Instituut voor Geschiedenis (director of the NWO project ‘Tales of the Revolt’)
  • Dr. Y. Rodríguez Pérez, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Europese Studies (coordinator of the NWO project ‘The Black Legend and the Spanish identity in Golden Age Spanish Theater’)
  • Professor Máximo García Fernández, Departamento de Historia Moderna, Universidad Valladolid
  • Dr. Bernardo García García, Departamento de Historia Moderna, Universidad Complutense and Fundación Carlos de Amberes, Madrid

The last two will support the project members during their research in Spain.

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