Eduardo de Mesa, The Irish in the Spanish Armies in the Seventeenth Century (Fissel)

Eduardo de Mesa

The Irish in the Spanish Armies in the Seventeenth Century

(Boydell, 2014) 260pp.  $120

Irish in Spanish Armies

Eduardo de Mesa’s tome on Irish soldiers that served in Habsburg Spain’s armies succeeds on at least five levels. First, it establishes a significant (and convincing) revisionist position on the military revolution. Second, this work constitutes a contribution to the literature on early modern European identity. Third, de Mesa makes accessible a trove of archival evidence. Fourth, readers with interests beyond Ireland’s shores and the Spanish Road will find insights illuminating the broader topography of the early modern world. Finally, the book advances the historiography that underscores Ireland’s importance in the early modern state-system.

When the military revolution debate gathered momentum, that discourse was conducted almost exclusively in English (in contrast to today’s international perspective on the subject). However, since 1954 at the very least, there existed a Spanish-language scholarship documenting the sophistication and efficacy of the tercios. For an embarrassingly long time, scant attention was paid to works (such as Quatrefages 1995) that contested the alleged superiority of Swedish and Dutch arms in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Geoffrey Parker, arguably the key player in the cause célèbre, worked Spanish archives and paid homage to Spanish history. But, he still argued persuasively for a military revolution that was perfected (if not inspired) by northern European armies, specifically those commanded by the House of Nassau.

De Mesa’s archival expertise and mastery of Spanish-language military history equip him to make the case that the innovations in gunpowder weaponry and tactical flexibility practiced by Spain’s celebrated infantry pre-date the 1590s counter-marches, rolling fire, and Roman-inspired maneuvers of Maurice of Nassau (and later, Gustavus Adolphus). Now, Koreans, Chinese, Mongolians and Japanese of the early modern era might deem this distinction, justifiably, as hair-splitting, since the current consensus is that the military revolution was achieved in Asia before being honed in Europe. However, quarreling over which “nation” enjoys preeminence in the early modern art of war is a debate for another place and time. Suffice to say that de Mesa’s conflation of original research with a proven historiographical strand forces reconsideration of the military revolution more powerfully than any critical book review.

De Mesa introduces his monograph by quoting John O’Neill, Count of Tyrone, in reference to early modern identities. “I can accuse myself of being more Spanish than Irish, for there [Ireland] I have only my origin, but here [Spain, I have], my whole being”(p.1). The Irish predicament is revealing, especially in the case of voluntary exile. These expatriate communities fashioned their own values, cultivated a unique sense of camaraderie, and created/chronicled their own narratives. There’s more to this monograph than tracking martial peregrinations. At times the book conveys a community consciousness, a collective awareness. Nor is this volume confined to social history. Plenty of diplomacy and statecraft grace these pages, and it is the cross-cultural transactions that pique the reader’s curiosity. One gets a genuine sense of the cosmopolitanism of the Irish abroad. These entrepreneurs in arms shared affinities with other cultural chameleons of the 17th century, some soldiers, some intellectuals, some merchants (for example, Sir Thomas Bendysh).

It is a cliché to characterize Irish history as tragic. However, de Mesa’s tale is indeed woeful in its irony. English imperialism drove away the “wild geese” of Catholic Ireland. A common denominator among the soldiers studied is that they could not or would not seek to earn a living in an English-dominated Ireland. They found a new home (expressed so well by the Count of Tyrone) under the standard of the Habsburgs in general, and Spain specifically. These armies were multi-national forces, though obviously not as the term “multi-national” is used today. The troops were part of the Spanish Crown’s initiative to safeguard its territories from the destabilizing effects of Protestantism and regionalism. However, as de Mesa lays out in chapters five, six and seven, the Irish tercios were no longer fighting “heretical” northern Europe, but were deployed in Iberia against fellow-Catholics: Catalunyans and the Portuguese. Even in clashes with French forces that intervened in Iberian conflicts, again the Irish were expected to battle loyal Catholics. Irish soldiers, predominantly victims of English overseas aggression, became agents of imperialismo castellano in Catalunya, Portugal and elsewhere. The Nine Years War in Ireland had been fought within the binary context of the wars of religion, as had the actions in the Low Countries, such as the terrorizing of Antwerp. Enforcing Habsburg authority in Iberia was no confessional conflict, but rather something painfully familiar to the Irish, the imposition of foreign rule on indigenous peoples.

The substance and texture of the volume are impressive. This work was crafted from notes amassed painstakingly in the Archivio de la Corona de Aragon, the British Library, the Archives general du Royaume/Algemeen Rijksarchief, the Archivio General de Simancas, the Archivio Historico Nacional, the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana, the Instituto de Historia y Cultura Militar, and elsewhere. Much of the evidence has been configured quite usefully in more than 80 tables. The abundance of quantitative data is complemented by de Mesa’s relation of episodes and anecdotes salted away in largely bureaucratic and administrative records. Visual evidence, too, was gleaned in the archives, and the book showcases ten plates featuring contemporary engravings.

Deep archival research ultimately uncovers genuine nuggets. To provide but one example, for British history these archives quite literally beyond the Pale yield up damning evidence on Sir Thomas Wentworth (subsequently the Earl of Strafford, Lord Deputy and then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland). Had those prosecuting Strafford possessed the evidence that de Mesa digs up, the Earl’s guilt would have been more conclusive. As it was, the parliamentary opposition ultimately resorted to a bill of attainder in the absence of sufficient evidence of treason. De Mesa finds Strafford deeply enmeshed in supplying Irish troops to Europe’s Catholic armies, and making more than a few shillings for himself in the process. Given the Long Parliament’s general fear of popery and more specifically the intervention of an international Catholic army crossing the Channel and seizing London, Parliament could claim justifiably that Strafford was enriching himself by abetting enemies of the realm.

Medieval historians have long recognized that although on the geographical periphery of Europe, Ireland occupied a central place in letters, theology and culture. Early modernists increasingly have appreciated the reach and relevance of the Irish. As de Mesa documents, Irish arms were, in certain well-defined periods, instrumental in preserving the fortunes of the Catholic Crusade against Protestantism and in championing the survival of the House of Habsburg. The book’s conclusion makes clear how political and military reverberations from Ireland affected Habsburg strategy. Irish footsoldiers made up as much as 5.7% of the Army of Flanders’ infantry in 1621. Upheavals within the British Isles, such as the Rebellion of 1641, siphoned off recruits desperately needed in Spain’s armies. The importance of Irish soldiers was not just reflected in their numbers, but also in their quality and experience. As de Mesa points out, Irish valor was rewarded with the appointment of an official “Protector of the Irish Nation” at court. This unique delegation of honor was emblematic of the esteem in which Irish arms were held, and no other “nation” could boast such a royal distinction.

One marvels at how much the author accomplishes in 216 pages of text. To craft a monograph that is genuinely multifaceted in its scholarly contributions is quite a feat. We can anticipate with assurance that further deeply researched cross-cultural studies will be proffered by Eduardo de Mesa.

Mark Charles Fissel
Augusta University

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