The Rise of The Great Captain


Statue of Gonzalo de Córdoba in Madrid (Manuel Oms, 1883)


Italy in 1494, when Frederick IV of Naples took power as the second inheriting son of Ferdinand I of Naples.

Isabella of Castile died on 26 November 1504. Her grandson, the Emperor Charles V, was to be firmly established on the Spanish throne only in 1522. The intervening eighteen years, complex and confused, were decisive in shaping the entire future of the Spanish Monarchy. Against very considerable odds, the Union of the Crowns was somehow preserved during these years, royal authority over the nobles and towns of Castile was confirmed, and Spain launched out on its imperial course under the leadership of the Habsburgs. There was as much of accident as of design in the final conclusion, but in so far as it can be attributed to any particular policies, they were those of Ferdinand and of Cardinal Cisneros.

The diplomatic involvement of Castile in the affairs of western Europe, which was to culminate so unexpectedly in the placing of a foreign dynasty on the Castilian throne, was the work of Ferdinand, inspired in the first instance by the interests of Aragon. Louis XI’s intervention in the domestic troubles of Catalonia during the reign of John II, and his seizure of the Catalan counties of Rosselló and Cerdanya in 1463, had exacerbated the traditional rivalry between the Crown of Aragon and France. It was only natural that Ferdinand, as the heir to this rivalry, should seek to induce his wife to abandon Castile’s traditional policy of alliance with France. Between 1475 and 1477 envoys were sent to Germany, Italy, England, and the Netherlands, offering them, as natural enemies of France, a Castilian alliance. Here were the first steps towards the European involvement of Castile, and towards that diplomatic isolation of France – later to be reinforced by a series of dynastic marriages – which was to be the permanent theme of Ferdinand’s foreign policy.

During the following fifteen years, which were largely taken up with the completion of the Reconquista, Ferdinand devoted himself in particular to a tightening of the bonds between Spain and Portugal, in the hope of preparing the way for the ultimate unification of the peninsula. A marriage arranged between Isabella, the eldest daughter of the Catholic Kings, and Prince Alfonso of Portugal, eventually took place in 1490, but ended a few months later with the death of Alfonso. Isabella was remarried in 1497 to the new King Emmanuel of Portugal, but died the following year giving birth to the Infante Miguel, who himself was to die within two years. Distressed but undaunted, Ferdinand and Isabella married their fourth child, Maria, to Emmanuel in 1500. No opportunity could be neglected for ensuring the succession of a single ruler to the joint thrones of Spain and Portugal.

The fall of Granada in 1492 for the first time allowed Ferdinand to direct all his energies outwards in pursuit of a more active foreign policy. Two areas received his special attention: the Catalan-French border, and Italy. No true king of Aragon could resign himself permanently to the loss of the Catalan counties of Rosselló and Cerdanya. As the original homeland of the Catalans, they were considered as integral a part of the dominions of the kings of Spain as the kingdom of Granada, and their recovery was a prime object of Ferdinand’s policy. His alliance with England at the Treaty of Medina del Campo in 1489 was intended to facilitate a Spanish invasion of France to recover the counties, by obtaining the assistance of an English diversion in the north. This particular project was unsuccessful, but a new opportunity shortly arose to acquire the counties, and this time without bloodshed. Charles VIII of France had conceived his idea of an Italian expedition, and in order to secure the quiescence of Spain while he was away on campaign, he agreed by the Treaty of Barcelona of January 1493 to restore Rosselló and Cerdanya to Ferdinand. For the next century and a half therefore, until the Treaty of the Pyrenees, the counties became once more a part of Catalonia, and Spain’s frontier with France lay again to the north of the Pyrenees.

Satisfactory as was the bloodless reacquisition of Rosselló and Cerdanya, Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy represented a new, and more serious, threat to the Crown of Aragon. Sicily was an Aragonese possession, while the kingdom of Naples belonged to a junior branch of the house of Aragon. A European coalition was needed to check the advance of Charles VIII; and the achievement of this coalition in 1495 in the shape of a Holy League between England, Spain, the Empire, and the Papacy, was one of the greatest triumphs of Ferdinand’s foreign policy. In building up this coalition, Ferdinand laid the foundations of a diplomatic system that was to maintain and extend Spanish power throughout the sixteenth century. The success of the missions he sent to the various European capitals in pursuit of a Holy League had helped persuade him of the value of the resident ambassador – a figure increasingly employed by certain Italian states in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. During the 1480s and 1490s, in his efforts to secure the diplomatic encirclement of France, Ferdinand established five resident embassies, at Rome, Venice, London, Brussels, and the migratory Austrian Court.1 These resident embassies, which were to become permanent fixtures in Spain’s diplomatic network, played a vital part in furthering the success of Spanish foreign policy. The men chosen to occupy them, like Dr Rodrigo de Puebla, the ambassador in London, were men of considerable ability, drawn from the same legally or clerically trained professional class which provided Ferdinand and Isabella with their councillors, judges, and administrators. Francisco de Rojas, who served in Rome and elsewhere, was a hidalgo of moderate means; de Puebla was a low-born converso with legal training, and a former corregidor. Both were Castilians, who were, in fact, much better represented in Ferdinand’s foreign service than might have been expected in the light of the Crown of Aragon’s much longer diplomatic tradition. They and their colleagues served Ferdinand with a loyalty that was by no means fully repaid. Invaluable as he found the reports of his resident ambassadors, he often failed to send them instructions, neglected to pay them, and not infrequently double-crossed them. There were, too, grave deficiencies in the whole organization of the Spanish foreign service. The absence of a fixed capital meant that diplomatic documents were scattered across Spain in a chaotic trail of papers which marked the route taken by Ferdinand on his travels. Letters went unanswered, treaties were lost. But the efficiency of the service increased as the reign went on, and if it was not yet as professional as that of some of the Italian states, it was far superior to the diplomatic services of the majority of Ferdinand’s enemies and allies.

With the entry of Charles VIII into Naples in 1495, however, it became clear that diplomacy must yield precedence to war. An expedition which had been sent to Sicily under the distinguished commander in the Granada campaign, the Great Captain Gonzalo de Córdoba, crossed over to Calabria in 1495. During his Italian campaigns of 1495–7 and 1501–4 Gonzalo was to show himself a commander of genius, quick to learn the lessons taught him by the enemy, and to apply them to his own troops. As a result, just as these years saw the creation of a professional diplomatic service that would serve Spain well for many years to come, so also they saw the creation of a professional army, whose skill and esprit de corps were to win Spain its great victories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

During the Reconquista the Castilians had tended to develop their light cavalry at the expense of their infantry. Light cavalry, however, proved unsuitable for bearing the brunt of the war in Italy; and after his defeat at Seminara, the first battle of his Italian campaign, Gonzalo began to search for new formations capable of withstanding the assault of Swiss pikes. It was clearly necessary to build up the infantry arm and to increase the number of arquebusiers. Borrowing both from the Swiss and the Italians, Gonzalo managed to revolutionize his army by the time of his triumphant battle of Cerignola in 1503, turning it essentially into an infantry army. In the Granada campaign the Spanish infantrymen, although still despised, had already shown their individual valour and their capacity for rapid movement, but against the French and Swiss they were far too lightly armed and inadequately protected. It was necessary to provide them with better protection, while somehow at the same time allowing them to maintain the speed and suppleness which could give them superiority over the more cumbersome ranks of the Swiss. This was finally achieved by equipping them with better protective armour – light helmets and cuirasses – and better offensive weapons, so that half were equipped with long pikes, a third with short sword and javelin, and the remaining sixth with arquebuses. At the same time the formations were entirely reorganized. The ancient units, the companies, too small for modern warfare, were now grouped into coronelías of perhaps four companies, each coronelía being supported by cavalry and artillery.

It was this organization, devised by the Great Captain, which provided the basis for the further development of the Spanish army during the sixteenth century. In 1534 the army was grouped into new model units called tercios, about three times the size of the coronelías. The ‘sword and buckler men’ of the Italian wars had now disappeared, and the tercios were composed only of arquebusiers and pikemen. A tercio generally consisted of twelve companies of about 250 men each, so that it was about 3,000 men strong, and it proved to be an extremely effective fighting force. It was less wasteful of manpower than the Swiss system, had greater fire-power, and was superb in defence, since attacking cavalry would break on the phalanx of pikes, which was deep enough to face an attack from every side. As a formation it dominated the battlefields of Europe for over a century, and its very success helped to reinforce the self-confidence of a fighting force which was, and knew itself to be, the best in the world.

Renaissance Italy therefore proved to be an ideal testing-ground both for Spanish diplomacy and for the Spanish military system; and if these were still imperfect instruments in the reign of Ferdinand, they none the less between them won him striking successes. Not only were the French defeated on the battlefield, but a combination of guile and diplomacy enabled Ferdinand to ease the Neapolitan dynasty off its throne. In 1504 the defeated French recognized the Spaniards as the lawful possessors of Naples. Naples thus rejoined Sicily and Sardinia as an Aragonese possession, and was brought, like them, under the government of viceroys and the jurisdiction of the Council of Aragon.

The winning of Naples was a triumph of the first magnitude for Ferdinand’s ‘Aragonese’ foreign policy, in the furtherance of which he successfully engaged the resources of Castile. But the diplomatic manoeuvres which preceded and accompanied it were to have, for Spain in general and Castile in particular, consequences both unforeseen and unwanted. In the customary manner, Ferdinand had sealed his alliances with dynastic marriages. In order to reinforce the English alliance, a marriage was arranged between Catherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales; and in 1496–7 the alliance between Spain and the Empire was solomnized in a double marriage between their two royal houses. The Infante Juan, the only son of the Catholic Kings and heir to the Spanish throne, married Margaret, daughter of the Emperor Maximilian, while their daughter Juana married Maximilian’s son, the Archduke Philip. Juan, however, died six months after his marriage, and when Margaret was delivered of a still-born child any hope of a direct succession from Ferdinand and Isabella in the male line was destroyed. The succession would now devolve upon their eldest daughter Isabella of Portugal and her children by Emmanuel of Portugal, but Isabella’s death in 1498, followed by that of her son Miguel in 1500, put an end also to this possibility. This meant that, from 1500, the succession, in a manner totally unforeseen, would go to the Infanta Juana, and eventually to her eldest son Charles, who would inherit both Spain and the Habsburg hereditary possessions.

The Union of Spain and the Habsburg lands was the last thing that Ferdinand and Isabella would have wished, but there now seemed no possibility of averting it. When Isabella died in November 1504 it was in the bitter knowledge that the government of her beloved Castile would go to a mentally unstable daughter, and to an incapable son-in-law who knew nothing of Spain and its ways, and showed no desire to learn. Ferdinand’s foreign policy, which had begun by attempting to win allies for Spain in its struggle with the French, had ended by placing the Spanish inheritance in the hands of a foreign dynasty.


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