Parma, Alexander Farnese, Duke of (1545–1592)

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PARMA, ALEXANDER FARNESE, DUKE OF (15451592), soldier and governor general of the Netherlands. Born in Rome to Ottavio Farnese, duke of Parma, and Margaret of Austria, the natural daughter of Charles V, Alexander accompanied his mother to Brussels in 1559 when Philip II of Spain appointed her regent of the Netherlands. Philip took his nephew to Spain for his education in statecraft and service to the Habsburg dynasty, alongside Philip's son Don Carlos and half-brother Don Juan of Austria. Alexander returned in March 1565 to Brussels to marry Maria of Portugal, eldest daughter of Infante Dom Duarte. They returned to Parma in 1566 as troubles in the Netherlands worsened. In Parma the prince studied the art of war and fathered two sons, Ranuccio, his heir, and Edoardo, who became cardinal, and a daughter, Margherita, later duchess of Mantua. In 1571 he joined Don Juan to fight at the Battle of Lepanto, returning afterward to family concerns in Parma. In 1577, Don Juan, now governor-general of the Netherlands, begged Philip to send the prince of Parma, widowed that year, to the Netherlands with needed soldiers. Parma arrived in December and, with Don Juan, won the Battle of Gembloux in January 1578 over forces of the rebellious Estates-General (the Netherlands' parliament). After a fruitless summer campaign with an ill-paid army, Don Juan died, nominating Parma as his successor. Philip promptly confirmed Parma as governor and captain general of the Netherlands. His effective authority obtained only in the Walloon provinces (save for Tournai), most of Groningen and Drenthe, and Luxembourg. The remaining provinces were in the hands of the defiant Estates-General, which seemed firmly controlled by Prince William of Orange, but deep religious and provincial differences and personal rivalries made the Estates factious, and Don Juan had already won important Catholic nobles to Philip's side. Parma, using familiarity with the Netherlands acquired in 15651566, continued to exploit fissures in the Estates-General while he groomed his army. In 1579 he steered the southern Walloon provinces under his control to form the Union of Arras and declare obedience to Philip II, while skillfully employing his regrouped army to capture Maastricht and ensure communication with loyal strongholds in the northeast. In 1580 seven northern Dutch provinces, led by William of Orange and the Calvinists, formed the Union of Utrecht to oppose him, while the collapse of the peace conference at Cologne over religion brought most of the great Catholic nobles back to Philip's cause. In 1581, Parma captured Tournai.

When theocratic Calvinist militants seized control of the chief Flemish towns, including Ypres, Ghent, and Bruges, the middle classes flocked to Parma. Divided, the towns fell, and, by the end of 1584, Parma was able to lay siege to Antwerp. The finances of his army having been put in order by Philip, Parma carefully ringed Antwerp with trenches and redoubts, and built a fortified pontoon bridge to cut it off from the sea. The famous "hellburner" of Italian engineer Giambelli briefly broke the bridge, but not the siege. Brussels and Mechlin had already submitted when, in August 1585, starved Antwerp surrendered, winning Philip's grateful restoration of Piacenza, a contentious issue, to the Farnese family. Parma prepared next to subdue the Dutch provinces north of the Maas and Rhine rivers, leaderless since the assassination of Orange in 1584.

Regarding Parma's successes as a threat to England, Queen Elizabeth openly allied with the Dutch and sent an army to aid them. Philip II decided on the Enterprise of England, for which he built the Spanish Armada, and ordered Parma to prepare to invade England with his army. For two years the Enterprise preoccupied him, allowing the Dutch to recover ground under Maurice of Nassau, later prince of Orange (16181625). When Philip's armada reached Calais in August 1588, to cover the invasion, Parma had just learned of its approach. He hastened to embark his army, but the English forced the armada away. Its officers claimed Parma was unprepared and lacking enthusiasm, raising doubts about him in Philip. Parma was left with insufficient funds, unruly troops, and new distractions.

In 1590 Philip ordered Parma to march into France in support of the Catholic League, then waging civil war to keep the Huguenot Henry of Navarre from the French throne. Parma broke Navarre's siege of Catholic Paris and, in 1591, sparred with Maurice, to little gain, until ordered again into France. Wounded as he ended a successful campaign, he convalesced in his headquarters at Arras, where he died in December 1592, unaware that Philip had secretly ordered his recall.

Parma had saved what would become Belgium for Philip and Roman Catholicism. His son, Duke Ranuccio (15691622), whose strong claim to Portugal his father had not pressed, and who was bitter over Philip's treatment of him and his father, soon broke with Spain.

See also Armada, Spanish ; Dutch Republic ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; Elizabeth I (England) ; Henry IV (France) ; Juan de Austria, Don ; Netherlands, Southern ; Parma ; Philip II (Spain) ; William of Orange .


Essen, Léon van der. Alexandre Farnèse, prince du Parme, gouverneur général des Pays-Bas (15451592). 5 vols. Brussels, 19331937.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977.

Peter Pierson