Spain, Down(s) but Not Out

Conde-Duque_de_Olivares Diego Velazques
Count-Duke Olivares in 1635. Still in his forties, the burden of running the Spanish Empire had notably aged the statesman. Photo Credit: Diego Velazques.

By 1639 the Thirty Years War and its tangled sister wars in the Netherlands, Italy, and France had stretched the long foundering Spanish Empire to the breaking point. Breisach and the closure of the Spanish Road had been a painful loss, and Olivares had taken to badmouthing the Cardinal-Infante for not relieving the fortress in time. But part of that may have just been the stress talking. In his own telling, there were “so many calamities everywhere”.[1] The French had invaded Catalonia in 1638, and a similarly dire situation was unfolding in Southern Flanders. In the court of Vienna it seemed the Spaniards carried less weight than ever, and Olivares had the creeping suspicion Emperor Ferdinand would hang Madrid out to dry when it came time to make peace. Olivares’ response to all of these crises had been scattershot, and his rapid fire and contrarian orders had cost the Spanish their ability to focus on any one problem at a time.

All of these responses were built on a foundation that was still extremely shaky. At its core, Spain still behaved like the seven kingdoms it had been, rather than the one nation Hapsburg marriage and military might had stitched together in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Nor did these kingdoms particularly like one another. Olivares noted that the various intriguing courts were “as anachronistic as crossbows”.[2] They were also just as dangerous, given that many of the more forcibly conjoined portions of Spain, like Portugal or Catelonia, were increasingly seething with conspiracy and revolution. Equally anachronistic was the pomp and intrigue of the Castilian nobility, who had little and less interest in taking on mercantile professions like shipping or industrial practices, but were equally convinced that no upstart bourgeois types should be allowed to do so either. Olivares took a few attempts at stimulating trade or revitalizing the internal economy of Castile and the other Spanish kingdoms, only to discover that none of his own noble class were interested in taking up the duties he assigned them. Instead, they seemed keen to spend money as fast as they could, with no one less than the now aging King Phillip IV leading with a spending spree on his bastards, beauties, and bull-fighting. The result was an economic anomaly.[3] Spain was still pulling in regular shipments of silver from their new world mines, but fully three quarters of the actual goods arriving in Spanish harbors in 1639 were delivered by Dutch smugglers. These were of course, the same Dutch who were making life hell for the Spanish every way they could. In addition to smuggling, the Dutch navy was busily strangling the life out of Spain everywhere else, and they were reaping a fearful toll every year in seized and sunk Spanish ships.

Admiral Tromp’s flagship before the Downs. Photo Credit: Reiner Nooms

With the land route to Belgium closed, Olivares had been forced to rely on the sea route through the English Channel to bring reinforcements and supplies to the Cardinal-Infante. The route was understandably dangerous, but in 1636 and 1637 Spanish fleets had successfully slipped through the patrolling Dutch wolfpacks undetected and dropped off fresh troops in the harbor at Dunkirk. In 1639, In Madrid Olivares decided to wager on one last big move. Under the command of Antonio de Oquendo, a Spanish force of anywhere between 53-75 warships was to ferry an estimated 20,000 troops and, just as important, a large amount of silver to finance the army, to Dunkirk. Along the way, they were to smash the blockading Dutch squadron harassing the port.

Right from the start the plan collapsed. As Oquendo approached Dunkirk, the Dutch navy under the command of Maarten Tromp turned around to meet them. Tromp was a child of war, having served on Dutch naval vessels since he was nine under his sea-faring father. With just 17 vessels to his fleet, Tromp gauged his odds and asked his second in command Witte de Withe if attacking a force five times his size was foolhardy. A little foolhardy himself, Withe responded, “too many? Nonsense! There is room on the bottom for them all!”[4] On September 16th, Tromp attacked Oquendo’s main line of 67 warships with just 16 of his own.

Oquendo seemed to treat the resulting encounter like a joust between knights, and without bringing his overwhelming numbers to bear tried to directly ram and board the Dutch flagship Amelia with his own Santiago. The result was a furious melee as Spanish boarders met volleys of musket and cannon fire. Shocked at the violence of the encounter and his own losses, Oquendo fell back into the neutral waters of the English coastline near Dover. Over the next month, Tromp’s fleet paced furiously outside English waters, swelling each day with reinforcements from Holland. In a very modern twist, Tromp’s staring contest with the Spanish was being reported on daily by both Dutch and Spanish newspapers, and the result electrified the Dutch readership. In one account from an Amsterdam paper,

“The harbors, wharfs and navy yards of Holland swarmed with preparation for war by land and sea. In every direction ships seemed to grow out of the ground rather than being constructed by human hands. There was no need of establishing recruiting officers for sailors, they fairly rushed for the ships, and in such numbers that it was impossible to accept all that offered their services. Every one was eager to fight under the banner of Tromp. Each felt assured of victory where Tromp commanded.”[5]

The Battle of the Downs at its height. Scholars noted that this was one of the first battles to be reported in near real time by newspapers in nearby Flanders and the Netherlands. Photo Credit: Willem van de Velde

For his part Oquendo stuck to his primary mission seriously, and began to ferry the Spanish army to Dunkirk on ships flying the English flag. Stuck in the middle with both sides abusing its neutrality was a small English fleet led by Jon Pennington, alternately trying to keep the peace in English waters and to quietly give a hand to Spanish.[6] Finally on October 21st Tromp had had enough. Brushing aside the English protests his fleet of nearly 100 ships attacked Oquendo at the Battle of the Downs. Oquendo was outnumbered, but not outgunned, and the two fleets were now nearly on equal footing. But Tromp would not be denied. Utilizing fire ships to panic the Spaniards, the Downs was a chaotic battle fought half in a fog bank. 20 of Oquendo’s squadron ran aground on the English shores and were shelled to pieces. The fireships slammed into the head of Oquendo’s Portuguese squadron and incinerated the ship. In the end, 18 of Oquendo’s ships managed to disengage and make for Dunkirk, and the Dutch were now decisively in control of the seas. While Oquendo’s determination had delivered anywhere from a 30-80 percent of the Spanish troops to Dunkirk safely, the Downs effectively shuttered the sea route. It was the final nail in the coffin of Spain’s naval fortunes. Taken together with other losses later in the year and in the preceding five, and the Spanish navy had lost over a hundred ships and close to 20,000 sailors-the equivalent of their losses at the Battle of Trafalgar ten times over.[7]

Catalonia, with modern divisions. Roussillon is shaded as French, but was prior to the end of the war part of Spain. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Following the Downs, Spanish fortunes continued to crater. The Catalonians then as now barely viewed themselves as a part of Spain. A product of their own distinct culture and language, they had never really benefited from the military adventures of Madrid. Their explorers had never gotten the chance to burn down their own slice of the new world, and now their ships and men were being appropriated for a war that their cousins in Castile seemed to be messing up. Surprisingly, Richelieu had not been behind the insurrection, but he was all too happy to give it a helping hand. As France’s fortunes improved and more of Spain’s resources became tethered elsewhere in the war, the Richelieu sent a probing force into Roussillon, a southern province of France today. Realizing the precursor to an invasion when he saw it, Olivares sent men into Catalonia to garrison the region. Men he of course didn’t have the coin to pay for. Men who, in turn just as naturally took their financial aid from the furious locals. After this first grade bit of diplomatic math reached its combustible conclusion, the rebels raised the flag of revolt in 1640. Taking their cue, the French immediately invaded in support, and by 1641 they linked up with the new rebellion to relieve a Spanish siege of Barcelona.

Joao_IV_proclaimed_king_veloso selgado
A 20th Century interpretation of John IV’S Proclamation. Photo Credit: Velaso Selgado

More surprising for Madrid was Portugal’s almost simultaneous decision to join in the rebellious fun. The Portuguese had been rather forcibly married to the Spanish empire when Phillip II had been running the place, and they had been growing ever more frustrated with the situation. Their own not insubstantial colonial empire was taking punches on the chin from Dutch pirates and insurgents as far afield as Brazil, and the Spanish Hapsburgs seemed to be doing little to help. While king Phillip IV could shout that his subjects had benefited from imperial protection and wealth, shaming has never really worked as a calming tactic in rebellions. Portuguese nobleman John of Braganza now took up the name John IV, citing his direct descent from the Portuguese throne. Only too happy to support John, the Dutch immediately agreed to a ceasefire with the rebels, and before 1641 was out Portugal had been recognized by the United Provinces, Sweden, and France with formal diplomatic acknowledgement and financial aid for their war. For Olivares, the situation was taking an extreme mental toll. Reporting back to London, the English diplomat summed up the dire straits,

“Concerning the state of [Spain], I could never have imagined to have seen it as it now is, for their people begin to fail, and those that remain, by a continuance of bad success, and by their heavy burdens, are quite out of heart. They have not one man of quality fit to command an army. The king’s revenues being paid in brass money will be lessened a third part being reduced to silver…Their provisions of shipping and mariners are not the tenth of what they ought to be, and the greatest mischief of all is that the King of Spain knows little of this, and the Count-Duke [Olivares] is so willful as he will break rather than bend”.[8]

A 1639 portrait of the Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand. Like Olivares, he looks old before his time. Photo Credit: Gaspar de Crayar.

Olivares was not the only one feeling the pressure. The hapless Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand was equally beset on all sides. Just six years ago he had been the charm and future of his line, the new injection of young blood that had seemed so necessary. Now he found himself under siege by both France and the Dutch, each moving to stab him in the back when he turned to face the other. Yet in spite of this, he had grimly held on, and for five years he had ground down his enemies to a crawl. After five years of fighting the Dutch had taken little, and only at great cost had the French finally captured the city of Arras in southern Wallonia in 1640. It was not enough. His influence was undercut at every turn by enemies in the Castilian court and in Brussels, and even now he was being ordered by Olivares to dispatch some of his hard pressed garrisons back to Spain to defend the homeland. It was all too impossible, and Ferdinand was old before his time. On November 8th, 1641 he wrote and signed six sets of orders to Madrid. On November 9th he was dead of acute stomach ulcers. He was just 32. Great times may make great men, but they can also kill them.

[1] Elliott, J.H. (1986). The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline.

[2] The Web Gallery of Art. (1996? Sure looks like it). Gaspar de Guzman: Count of Olivares.

[3] A situation ironically known in economic circles as Dutch Disease. Modern examples include many of the petro states like Alaska.

[4] Milton, K. (2015). The Battle of the Downs and the Eighty Years War. Warfare History Network.

[5] Milton 2015

[6] Charles had a discreet handshake agreement with Spain at the time, having gotten stuck into the same petty diplomatic scuffles with the United Provinces that had marred his father’s reign.

[7] From Peter Wilson’s book

[8] Elliott 1986


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s