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“. . . [H]ow long shall the wicked triumph? . . . They break in pieces thy people, O LORD, and afflict thine heritage. . . . But the LORD is my defense; and my God is the rock of my refuge. And He shall bring upon them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness; yea, the LORD our God shall cut them off.” —Psalm 94:3, 5, 22-23

The Death of the Duke of Alba,
December 12, 1582

Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, 4th Marquess of Coria, 3rd Count of Salvatierra de Tormes, 2nd Count of Piedrahita, 8th Lord of Valdecorneja, Grandee of Spain, Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and recipient of the Golden Rose, awarded by the Pope for service to the Catholic Church; he was a Spanish Castilian nobleman (if you couldn’t have guessed), general, diplomat, and butcher of Protestants during the eighty-year war with the Netherlands. He became known as “The Iron Duke” when serving as Governor of the Netherlands; some historians believe he killed more Protestants because they were Protestants, than the entire Roman Empire murdered all types of Christians because they were Christians, more than a thousand years earlier. The Duke of Alba is considered the greatest of Spain’s generals.

Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba (1507-1582), known as the Grand Duke of Alba in Spain and Portugal, and as the Iron Duke in the Netherlands

Fernando was trained by a famous Benedictine monk and a Renaissance poet, and was thus steeped in Roman Catholicism and Humanism from an early age. He mastered Latin, French, English, and German, suitable to a Castilian nobleman destined for international service and renown. At the age of seventeen, Fernando went to war (1524), where he made a name for himself, and was appointed governor of a strategic Basque town. Inheriting the ducal title from his grandfather in 1531, Alba went on to serve both the Holy Roman Emperor and Spanish King Philip II the rest of his life.

The Protestant Reformation, begun in Germany, spread to every corner of Europe in one form or another—Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anabaptist. All three forms found welcome adherents in the northern part of Europe known as the Netherlands, a hugely profitable part of the growing Spanish Empire. Calvinism especially took root among the most prosperous cities of the Dutch people of “The Low Countries”, whose maritime trade connections for woolen goods and fish produced immense wealth. King Philip II of Spain was horrified to see Protestantism flourishing in the Netherlands and committing the attendant destruction of idols and religious sites. He sent the Duke of Alba to stamp out the “heretics” for the greater glory of the Catholic Church, and to restore order with the soldiers of Spain—the only standing professional army in Europe.

Coat of arms of the 3rd Duke of Alba

King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)

Alba had already fought in the Four Years’ War in Italy, the Ottoman-Habsburg War, and the Spanish invasion of Rome. He had led Spain’s armies in the Schmalkaldic War to destroy the Lutherans, and now had free reign to put an end to the Dutch Calvinists and their leader William the Silent, and to restore Spanish sovereignty. Alba’s ferocity and deadly use of the Spanish Inquisition, spawned by the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, resulted in further revolt and what became known as “The Eighty Years’ War”, beginning in 1566.

The Battle of Pavia (northern Italy) in 1525, during the Four Years’ War (1521-1526)

Part of the Ottoman–Habsburg Wars, the Conquest of Tunis in 1535 was the engagement in which Alba first distinguished himself

When he first arrived in the Netherlands, Alba established the “Council of Troubles”, known by the Dutch as the “Council of Blood”. He called for all the Dutch nobles to meet with him in peace, to negotiate a settlement, with immunity and safe conduct. When they arrived, he had them arrested along with 9,000 other Protestants, and murdered the most prominent leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, and a thousand others. He revoked all prior treaties that had been made with Philip’s half-sister, Margaret of Parma, the former Spanish regent, and he turned loose the Inquisition to do their job rounding up and executing “heretics.” Many of the Provinces revolted against Spain.

A 1616 engraving depicting the Duke of Alba presiding over the Council of Troubles

A French army of Huguenots attacked from across the border, but were defeated and massacred. William of Orange attacked the Spanish juggernaut with his tiny exile army, suffering several severe defeats. The Dutch corsairs known as the “Sea Beggars” won a few engagements at sea, which brought several coastal cities to the side of the rebels. City after city fell to Alba’s troops, ending in total massacre on several occasions.

Wars were the most expensive endeavor a nation could embark on. Alba was forced to levy high taxes on all the Netherlands, sending several important trading cities into the arms of the “rebels.” After five years, and the execution of more than 5,000 people—not counting those killed in battle or wiped out in the capture of cities—Philip recalled the Duke of Alba to Spain and sent new generals to deal with the situation.

William the Silent, Prince of Orange (1533-1584)

The Duke of Alba later in life

In 1580, a dynastic crisis enveloped Portugal, and a successor not approved by Philip of Spain brought the seventy-two-year-old Duke of Alba out of retirement. He led 20,000 troops into Portugal, defeated the Portuguese army, and installed as king the man approved by Philip, uniting the two countries under Spanish control. The now sickly Alba, showered with more military honors, died suddenly in 1582, mourned in Spain as their greatest general, but remembered in Holland as the Iron Duke who tried to destroy the Reformation via murder, violence, and war, but who ultimately failed. The Dutch eventually won their independence of Spain and became a Calvinistic Republic. Alba never knew.

Alba’s remains are at the Convento de San Esteban, Salamanca, Spain

Resources for Further Study

The Rise of the Dutch Republic, by American historian John L. Motley, published in 1856, went through multiple editions and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in every major European language. It is considered by some historians the best written history of a nation published before the 20th Century.

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