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Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma

 

Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, was the George C. Patton of his time:  a stalwart, reliable, consistent general whom his troops trusted and his enemies feared.  Parma's extraordinary reputation and significance as a military leader can be discerned in the way that the Spanish Armada engagement overall—for the Spanish invaders and English defenders alike—centered fundamentally on Parma and his professional army.  He was revered by the Spanish as one of the greatest assets in their forces, their ace in the battlefield hole, and tremendously feared by the English, whose defensive plan focused essentially on thwarting a landing by Parma's armies.  While it is extremely doubtful that Parma's soldiers could have "conquered" England upon alighting on British soil, the presence of such an intimidating professional army alone could well have helped to guarantee King Philip II of Spain some of his war aims—chiefly, cessation of English aid to the Dutch Protestant rebels and a clampdown on buccaneering by English pirates. 

 

Parma is an intriguing figure, and not only as the answer to common trivia questions about the Spanish Armada; he was, hands down, the most masterful military figure of his age, and his victories had consequences of historic proportions.  Parma fought under and alongside his cousin, Don John of Austria, in one of history's pivotal battles—the naval victory of the Spaniards and their Christian allies against the invading Muslim Ottoman Turks at Lepanto, in 1571.  He distinguished himself as a courageous and resourceful soldier here, and six years thereafter he was assigned to the Netherlands, where Philip II entrusted him to crush the growing Dutch Protestant revolt against Spanish rule in the Low Countries.  Parma confronted and won numerous victories against the wily and elusive William of Orange, "the Silent," the Protestant leader of the Dutch Revolt who had proven to be such a thorn in Philip's side.  Despite his undoubted skill and audacity, Parma was never able to entirely subdue the Dutch provinces and crush the revolt, in the more northerly regions and the island of Zeeland in particular.  (This is one reason that a "conquest" of England following the Armada is such an extremely dubious scenario—Philip’s forces were unable to quash Dutch resistance despite all their advantages there.)  Nevertheless, Parma was able to recapture many of the Dutch provinces and, through military strength and adroit negotiations, ensure that they remained within the Catholic fold, under the control of Philip II and his Hapsburg relatives.  Parma was even able to besiege and capture Antwerp in 1585—an astonishing military success and a severe setback for both the Dutch and the English, who had recently begun to assist the Dutch in earnest with the landing of troops under the control of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.  Parma was later reassigned to France, where he managed to lift the sieges of both Paris and Rouen by enemies of the Catholic League; it was in 1592, during his effort to aid Catholic forces in Rouen, that Parma suffered a mortal wound. 

 

Besides being a fascinating figure to military historians and a remarkable tactician and strategist, Parma's victories had important historical consequences.  Besides helping to defeat the Turks in 1571—for whom a victory at Lepanto may have meant control of the Mediterranean, and substantial inroads for Muslim Turkish forces in southern Europe—Parma's accomplishments in the Low Countries helped to prevent William the Silent's unification of the Dutch provinces under a Protestant banner.  Many valuable regions in the Low Countries remained Catholic and French-speaking, resulting in the eventual formation of the nation of Belgium in the 19th century.  Parma in more ways than one was a pivotal figure in the 16th Century in Europe. 

 

-- J. Wes Ulm, MD, PhD   © 2004  All Rights Reserved

 

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