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Alba, Fernando Álvarez De Toledo, Duke of (Also Alva; 1507–1582)


ALBA, FERNANDO ÁLVAREZ DE TOLEDO, DUKE OF (also Alva; 15071582), Spanish general and statesman. Fernando Álvarez de Toledo was born 29 October 1507 at Piedrahita, one of his family's estates. Three years later his father died fighting the Muslims in North Africa, and he was raised by his grandfather, Fadrique, second Duke of Alba, who gave him a military education. His tutors included Juan Boscán, who translated Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier (1528) into Castilian, and the poet Garcilaso de la Vega. At sixteen Fernando fought at the siege of Fuenterrabía against French forces. After inheriting his grandfather's title in 1531, he served the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191558; king of Spain, ruled 15161556 as Charles I) in the campaigns of Vienna, Tunis, Provence, and Algiers. With the beginning of the emperor's wars against the Protestant German Schmalkaldic League in 1546, Alba became the emperor's chief military advisor and played a major role in the victory at Mühlberg in 1547.

Alba returned to Spain in 1548 as Prince Philip's chief of household. He used this position to create a court faction based upon his own extended family and a group of royal secretaries associated with the imperial secretary, Francisco de los Cobos. The royal chamberlain, Ruy Gómez de Silva, developed a rival faction based on his wife's Mendoza relatives and the group of royal secretaries loyal to Cardinal Espinosa (the Inquisitor-General).

As chief of household, Alba went to England with Philip II (ruled 15561598) in 1554. When Charles V abdicated, Alba served Philip briefly as viceroy of Milan and then of Naples, where, in 15561557, he conducted a successful war against Pope Paul IV and the duke of Guise. When the Habsburg-Valois struggle ended in 1559, Alba helped negotiate the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis before returning to Spain as a member of the Council of State. There, his sharp tongue and haughty disposition made him unpopular, but Philip relied upon his military expertise and trusted his religious orthodoxy to the point of consulting him on ecclesiastical appointments.

After 1562, Alba's glorified ideas of royal authority and hatred of heresy made him the court's leading opponent of compromise with the Netherlanders, who were growing restive under Spanish rule. Both he and the king regarded the rioting and iconoclasm of 1566 as rebellion. Philip, with the duke's knowledge, devised a strategy that would send Alba to the Netherlands to crush the opposition. Philip would then claim that his captain-general had exceeded his instructions, go to the Netherlands in person, and mollify its inhabitants with a general pardon. The plan was supported by Alba's enemies, who hoped to discredit him while he was out of the country.

In 1567, the duke led an army of Spanish veterans to the Low Countries, where he established a political court, known as the Council of Troubles, to prosecute dissidents. The Council declared the counts of Egmont and Hoorn guilty of high treason, as presumed leaders of the revolt, and executed them. These harsh measures caused William of Orange and other leaders of the Gueux (a sixteenth-century revolutionary party) to flee to foreign countries. When William of Orange then invaded the Netherlands with an army of German mercenaries, Alba easily defeated him, and by 1568 had pacified the entire country. It was time for the king to come, but the death of his heir, Don Carlos, and the revolt of the Moriscos in southern Spain prevented him from doing so.

Alba remained in the Netherlands for four more years in the face of growing resentment. He used his time to complete ecclesiastical reforms that had been halted since 1560 and to install fourteen new bishops. He also promulgated the first uniform criminal code in Netherlandish history, but, when he attempted in 1572 to impose the Tenth Penny, a sales tax based on the Spanish alcabala, the towns rose in revolt. Although Alba's campaign against them was at first successful, his policy of reprisals led to prolonged sieges at Haarlem and Alkmaar, and the king finally recalled him to Spain in 1573. Though Alba retained his seat on the Council of State, his position at court was now far weaker than it had been before he was sent to the Netherlands. Philip imprisoned him briefly in 1579, over the unauthorized marriage of his son Fadrique, but released him in the following year to lead Spain's army in the annexation of Portugal. Here his touch was more subtle and successful than it had been in the Netherlands. He died at Tomar in Portugal in 1582.

Contemporaries thought Alba the greatest soldier of his age. His ideas on warfare were popularized by a school of military writers who had served under his command, and they continued to influence Spanish military practice until the Thirty Years' War (16181648). He was capable of successful diplomacy, but as Philip II's governor in the Netherlands he failed. The duke's harshness and insensitivity to local conditions provoked a full-scale insurrection, and he bears much responsibility for Spain's eventual loss of the northern Netherlands.

See also Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) ; Charles I (Spain) ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; Guise Family ; Habsburg-Valois Wars ; Inquisition, Spanish ; Moriscos ; Netherlands, Southern ; Philip II (Spain) ; Schmalkaldic War (15461547) ; William of Orange.


Epistolario del III Duque de Alba, 3v., edited by J. M. del P.C.M.S. Fitz James Stuart y Falco, Tenth Duke of Berwick y Alba. Madrid, 1952.

Maltby, William S. Alba: A Biography of Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba, 15071582. Berkeley, 1983.

William S. Maltby

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