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The artery of Spanish power in Europe …
Tudor connection? The end lay within sight of Dover: in 1587 the Spanish commander in the Netherlands, the Duke of Parma, looked over the sea in hope of invading England with troops led down the Spanish Road.
Before the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) the Spanish Empire had reached its greatest extent and bullion receipts from the mines of Potosi were accumulating. King Philip II decided to return to Spain after a long stay in northern Europe.
But he left a powderkeg behind him. In 1558 the king’s late wife, the catholic Queen Mary of England, had been succeeded by her sister, the protestant Elizabeth. In the Netherlands – the commercial heart of his empire – the king’s regent, Margaret of Parma, was opposed by an array of anti-Spanish parties aided by sympathisers in England and Germany. The north was sizzling with sectarian aggression.
The flashpoint came in the Iconoclastic Fury of 1566, when gangs ran riot in the Netherlands, destroying churches and sacred images in a cry for freedom of conscience. The king decided to put out the fire with a projection of force from his base in southern Europe.
The immediate problem was in deploying troops over the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees and the Alps. King Philip had managed the task before by avoiding France and mustering his men in the north of Italy to march through Germany; but that route had become too hazardous in the religious conflicts of the eastern Habsburg empire, and the French were happy to deny assistance.
The Duke of Alba took charge of the expedition, and the new Road was laid out for him by Cardinal Granvelle (quoted in Parker):
The shortest route would be from Genoa through Piedmont and Savoy, crossing the Mont Cenis [Pass]. In fact, it would be more than one-third shorter. The route runs between the mountains between Piedmont and Franche-Comté, which borders on Savoy [on one side] and Lorraine on the other. You can cross Lorraine in four days and reach the duchy of Luxembourg.
The map above shows variations in the Road – in each of twelve northern expeditions over three decades the Spanish had to chisel their way around countries of shifting allegiance.
Alba’s Road lay to the west, past Geneva and skirting the border of France – but in the end all roads led to Luxembourg: once there, it was a short hop to the Netherlands.
The expert in this area is Professor Geoffrey Parker, who gives this assessment of the opening of the Spanish Road:
“The duke of Alba’s 700-mile march to the Netherlands at the head of 10,000 veteran Spanish troops in 1567 marked a turning point in European history. It established a Rubicon for Spanish imperialism: a barrier that, once crossed, transformed the political situation in northern Europe and, with it, the prospects of Hapsburg hegemony on the Continent. It also constituted one of the most remarkable logistical feats in European military history, celebrated in art, prose, verse, and proverb.”
Parker describes the politics, strategy and tactics of Alba. Plus the linked article has a much better map, showing how carefully the Iron Duke trod the line with France.
Parker also gives an interesting Spanish observation on the Alpine pass at Mont Cenis – covered in snow at over 2000 metres, a place where Hannibal, Constantine and Charlemagne had gone before and the Revolutionary French were to follow:
Four and a half long leagues of very bad road, because there are two and a half leagues ascent to the top of the mountain – a narrow and very stony road – and after reaching the top we marched another league along a ridge of the mountain, and on this level space there are four huts in which the post-horses are kept. After crossing the top of the mountain there is a very bad descent, which lasts another league, the same kind of road as the ascent, and it leads down to Lanslebourg at the foot of the mountain on the other side, and there the army was billeted. It is a miserable hamlet with a hundred small houses. While we crossed the mountain it snowed and the weather was awful.
Apart from Parker I can’t find any first-hand accounts in English of Alba’s journey down the Spanish Road. My only addition is an entertaining blow-by-blow second-hand account adapted from French sources: James Thomson The Wars of Religion in France 1559 to 1576: The Huguenots, Catherine De Medici And Philip II (1909), pp.305 ff.
Parker has done a great job of integrating European history in this period, and not just for English readers – please take a look at his Wikipedia page.
Wikipedia also has a brief article on The Spanish Road.