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Modern impression of a tercio by artist Cabrera Peña. Source: magazine Desperta Ferro!

During the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries Spain was the dominant continental power of Europe. Its main strategic assets were (1) its American, Italian and Flandrian possessions, (2) the family ties and alliances of its Habsburg rulers, and (3) its military establishment. As a wargamer I will concern myself only with the infantry, cavalry, dragoons and ordnance.

1. The infantry

Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, engraving 1513

The core of the Spanish army was the infantry, and the core of the infantry were the shock troops called tercios. The tercio developed around 1530 out of an earlier batlefield formation, the coronelía, a 6000-strong unit of pikemen and harquebusiers with some halberdiers and sword-and-buckler men thrown in. The coronelía had been the answer to the double threat which Spain had encountered in the Italian wars: the Swiss Gewalthaufen (pike blocs) and the French heavy cavalry. Spanish commanders (in particular the brilliant Captain Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba) found that a judicious combination of pikes and shot could withstand both. The tercio was only abolished in 1704 by a Royal Ordinance from King Philip V. It was replaced by the regiment on the French model.

The tercio was 3.000-strong and it was an administrative unit, not a battlefield formation. This is important to keep in mind if you want to understand contemporaneous sources. On the battlefield some tercios would operate on their own as fighting units, but more often they were combined (or sometimes split) into fighting units specifically adapted to local circumstance. The basic fighting unit of the Spanish infantry was a mixed formation of pike and shot called escuadrón, often described in foreign sources as the ‘Spanish square’.

15th century capacete. Source: D. Juan de Valencia, Catálogo histórico-descriptivo de la Real Armería de Madrid, 1898

The tercios had a permanent staff, a veteran core and an esprit de corps which gave them a distinct edge on all battlefields. A tercio was commanded by a Maestre de Campo who had an honour guard of eight halberdiers and who was assisted by a Sargente Mayor and a host of minor officials including clerics. Most tercios had a territorial base after which they were named.

Click here for a list of tercios.

The flags of the tercio were always carried by the pike bloc, usually in the middle rank(s). The Royal ensign of a white field with a red Burgundian cross, the tercio ensign and the bandera coronela (ensign of the Maestre de campo) measured 2.5 x 2.5 meters. Each bandera had its own flag as well; these banderas capitanas were usually about 1.7 by 1.7 meters. Some of the tercio ensigns and banderas and the coats of arms of some Maestres de campo have been preserved. If available, they are shown in the separate Unit Histories of the listed tercios.

The Spanish army was essentially an expeditionary army for Italy, Germany, Flanders and the colonies. It was based on voluntary service. Able soldiers could make a career in the tercios and become officers, even Maestres de campo. The Spanish soldiers would be recruited for service in Italy for a few years, an attractive prospect for most (contemporary Spanish sources note that the soldiers became ‘addicted’ to Italy for its climate, wine, women and easy loot). After they had been drilled in Italy, they would often be transferred to Flanders over the ‘Spanish Road’ which led from (Spanish) Milan across the Alps, through the Franch-Comté and southern and western Germany or the Elzas into (Spanish) Luxemburg.

Spanish tercios raised and drilled for service in Spain were usually of poor quality; so were Italian tercios stationed in Italy, while the Walloons were despised in their native Low Countries. On the other hand the Italians did well in Flanders and Spain and the Spaniards were considered crack troops in Italy and Flanders. The Spanish authorities discovered this phenomenon early in the sixteenth century; hence the system of roulation whereby, if at all possible, Spanish and German troops were sent to Italy and Flanders, Italian and German troops to Flanders and Italian and Walloon troops to Spain. In 1630 the Marquis of Aytona, stationed in Flanders, wrote to his King:

If there should be war in Italy, it would be better to send Walloons there and bring Italians here, because the troops native to the country where the war is being fought disband very rapidly and there is no surer strength than that of foreign soldiers.

In the prestigious army of Flanders the majority of soldiers were always non-Spanish. Its most famous commander, Ambrogio de Spinola, was an Italian. However, the nationalities were kept strictly apart in the tercio system. Spanish Maestres de campo could only command Spanish units, Walloons only Walloon units, etcetera. For reasons that still resonate today, Roman or Milanese soldiers could not command (or even serve in) a Neapolitan tercio, a Scotsman could not command an English or Irish tercio and vice versa.

Coselete circa 1650. Source: Vinkhuijzen Collection, New York Public Library

Spanish soldiers wore no distinctive uniform but you can’t go very wrong if you stick to yellow and red as the dominant colours similar to these romanticised 19th century illustrations. For most soldiers in a unit a single touch of red will do, for instance a red sash or ribbon round the hat.

Spanish rebel troops in Flanders wore green to distinguish themselves from the (red-wearing) Spanish and (orange-wearing) Dutch armies. Spanish and Burgundian troops often wore long white neck-ruffs, all troops wore wide, baggy breeches.

The pikemen were divided into coseletes (armoured pikemen) who would occupy the front ranks and picas secas(unarmoured pikemen) who would bring up the rear of the pike bloc.

Helmets found in tercios, illustration by Delfin Salas in Los Tercios Españoles, 1984

Artist’s impression of pica seca

Ideally the coseletes wore half-armour and a Spanish helmet called cabacete (also called capacete), not to be confused with the Italian-style morion.The picas secas often wore the cabacete and sometimes a gorget. Both carried pike, sword and dagger. In reality a variety of (captured or bought) headgear was worn, as shown in this artist’s reconstruction (left) based on historic paintings and museum pieces. Top left is a morion, top right a cabacete.

Spanish musketeer, about1650. Source: Vinkhuijzen Collection, New York Public Library

Spanish harquebusiers and musketeers wore the same baggy breeches, often with red stockings, a black or grey felt hat, a coloured shirt (sometimes with striped or slashed sleeves) and a brown leather doublet underneath a buff coat.

Officers, musicians and alférezes (flag-bearers) were more ornately dressed, bandera captains and the maestre de campo would wear half-armour and distinctive plumes on their hats or helmets. The guard of honour carried guilt partisans or halberds.

The early escuadrónes were rather unwieldy masses. Their typical formation was a massed square of pikemen with four mangas ‘(‘sleeves’) of shot at the corners, also known as the ‘horns’ of the formation. The pike square was further covered on all sides by thin lines of harquebusiers called guarniciones. This set-up is clearly shown in the engraving below.

Early Spanish tercio, engraving by Merian. Source: Theatrum Europaeum

These early units were moving fortresses that could put up a fight on all sides; the pikes would deal with any incoming enemy horse (the shot units would hide between them for the duration) whilst the marksmanship of the Spanish harquebusiers and musketeers usually gave them the upper hand in fire-fights. But the waste of firepower and manpower in the deep-ranking escuadrónes became unsustainable after the Mauritian reforms which influenced military thinking all over Europe. The Spanish were the first to adapt though, initiating various reforms that have wrongfully been attributed to Prince Maurice, King Gustavus II Adolphus and other famous reformers. As stated in the excellent Osprey book The Spanish Tercios 1534-1704:

The Spanish arquebusiers and musketeers usually fired in successive volleys to achieve almost continuous firing. This was described in a book signed by King Philip II in 1591 – several years, be it noted, before the alleged first creation of this tactic by Maurice of Nassau.

A first round of reform, instigated in 1568 in Flanders, reduced the number of banderas to 12 and their strength to 258. The proportion of pikes was still strong: an average tercio counted 1110 coseletes and 1080 picas secas, 448 harquebusiers and 230 musketeers. According to Geoffrey Parker the reason for this proportion was probably financial: the price of a military (i.e. simple, unadorned) harquebuse was four times that of a good pike. As in all seventeenth century armies, the nominal sizes of Spanish units were almost never reached due to desertion, disease, lack of funds and of course casualties of war.

By 1580 the proportion of pikes had fallen to about 40% and the majority of harquebuses began to be replaced by muskets, a weapon in which the Spanish were pioneers. In the seventeenth century, firing by ranks was standing practice for Spanish musketeers who were drilled to aim ‘slowly and carefully, without blinking an eye’.

In the course of the 17th century both the size of the tercios and the proportion of pikes in them decreased while the average number of banderas increased. By an ordinance of 1632 the harquebuse-only banderas were abolished, whereas the musketeers gradually acquired a semi-autonomous role. The escuadrónes became smaller and more flexible; the mangas were turned into flattened wings of shot that fired more effectively and would often operate independently from the pike bloc. In 1634 an Irish officer in Spanish service, Gerat Barry, wrote that if the coseletes were the reliable core of the Spanish formations, their musketeers were ‘the furie of the field’.

Spanish infantry around 1630. Two musqueteros and a piquero. The musketeer on the right is erroneously described as arcabucero (harquebusier). The Spanish pike in reality was 5.5 meters long. Source: Vinkhuijzen Collection, New York Public Library

The pikes could adopt at least five different formations: the escuadrón cuadrado (perfect square), the escuadrón prolongado (three smaller cuadrados side by side), the media luna (half-moon of three cuadrados), the cuña (triangle or inverted half-moon), and en rombo (diamond shape). The escuadrón prolongado would look like this, a far cry from the unwieldy square of the early days:

Escuadrón prolongado around 1625. Illustration borrowed from Pierre Picouet, author of Les Tercios Espagnols 1600-1660 which is reviewed elsewhere on this blog

The 1632 ordinance fixed the number of banderas of Italian and Flandrian tercios at 12 with 200 men each. By that time the proportion of pikes had been further reduced to about 30%. Another reform in 1663 reorganised the tercios into 16 banderas of 62 men, which was soon changed again to 20 banderas of 50 men each.

Wargamers will want to know until what date the escuadrónes could be considered ‘large units’. Make up your own mind. Here is a breakdown of the average number of soldiers (including mangas) in an escuadrón for different periods, based on estimates of the world’s foremost experts such as Geoffrey Parker, Pavel Hrnčiřík, and Pierre Picouet.

  • 1622 (Fleurus): 1.300 men
  • 1635 (Aveins): 1.000 men
  • 1636 (Tornavento): 900 men
  • 1638 (Saint-Omer): 1.000 men
  • 1638 (Fuentarrabía): 900 men
  • 1639 (Salces): 880 men
  • 1640 (Catalonia) 1150 men
  • 1641 (Montjuich): 1.000 men
  • 1642 (Honnecourt): 750 men
  • 1643 (Extremadura) 675 men
  • 1643 (Rocroi): 750 men
  • 1644 (Montijo): 570 men
  • 1644 (Lérida): 730 men
  • 1648 (Lens): 540 men
  • 1656 (Valenciennes): 460 men
  • 1658 (Downs): 500 men
  • 1659 (Extremadura) 519 men
  • 1662 (Extremadura) 523 men
  • 1694 (River Ter) 424 men

2. The cavalry

Throughout the first decades of the Thirty Years’ War the Spanish cavalry was a branch of secondary importance. It was either numerically or tactically weak and lacked the spirit of renewal that characterised the infantry. New cavalry types, units and formations developed slowly out of older ones, hampered by a shortage of good horses and by social conservatism. Besides, the all-important army of Flanders waged a guerilla war against the Dutch in which large units of cavalry were of little use. Such (German) units could be recruited à l’improviste when needed. It was only after the outbreak of war with France in 1635 that Spain would develop a cavalry of some importance. In 1623 the Spanish army counted 1 horseman for every 7.5 foot soldiers, in 1647 the proportion had risen to 1:4.5 and in 1657 it had gone up to 1:3.5.

Three types of cavalry were dominant in Spanish armies during the Thirty Years’ War: the caballo lanza (lancer), the caballo coraza (cuirassier) and the arcabucero a caballo (mounted harquebusier).

The lancer was a left-over of the feudal age. The lance was officially abolished around 1630, but by that time the caballos lanzas had already been regelated to garrison and guard duty. The caballos lanzas wore demi-armour and burgonet helmet and carried two pistols, a sword and a light lance.

Mounted harquebusier and lancer, illustration by Fred and Liliane Funcken

The arcabucero a caballo was a mounted skirmisher whose task was to support the infantry (particularly by occupying the insterstices between tercios) and to soften up the enemy prior to a heavy cavalry charge.

The Spanish mounted harquebusiers acted as early dragoons; they would dismount in the heat of battle to occupy heights and bushes or to get a few proper shots in before retiring to the rear.

Arbacucero a caballo

The heavy hitters were the caballos corazas or cuirassiers. During most of the Thirty Years’ War the Spaniards would employ German and Italian (mercenary) cuirassiers. Their own cuirassiers wore three-quarter armour and a burgonet and carried two wheel-lock pistols, a sword and a war hammer. The helmet was gradually replaced by a reinforced hat, the three-quarter armour by a buff coat.

Spanish horse were invariably organised in compañias of about 100 horsemen with a captain, lieutenant, standard-bearer and chaplain. The arcabuceros a caballo had two trumpeteers as musicians. In the field three or four compañias would be combined into trozos (squadrons) under the command of one of the captains or a cavalry commissioner. Once again uniform painters should stick with the Spanish colours of red and yellow. Buff coats and capes were often adorned with a large red cross of Burgundy.

Caballo coraza and arcabucero a caballo circa 1633. The coraza is clearly a poor cuirassier, antedating the 1635 cavalry reform. Source: Vinkhuijzen Collection, New York Public Library

3. The Dragoons

Very little is known about the Spanish dragoons during the Thirty Years’ War. Terms like dragones, carabinas and arcabuceros a caballo are used intermittently. One important source of information on the early modern Spanish army is the Historia orgánica de las armas de infantería y caballería españolas desde la creación del ejército permanente hasta el dia (1851-59) by General Don Serafín María de Sutton y Abbach Langton Casaviella, Third Count of Clonard and Fifth Marquis of Granada. Let’s call him Clonard like everyone else does, shall we? Clonard’s books are digitally available, see my Digital resources section. His Historia contains some interesting tid-bits on the origin of the Spanish dragoons. According to Clonard (volume IV, p 461) the first of the companías carabinas (dragoon tercios) was established in Italy in 1633.

Prior to that though, Spanish mounted harquebusiers would sometimes perform a similar role on the battlefield. But the mounted harquebusiers were cavalry and remained organised as such.

The dragoon tercios since 1633 were infantry, they wore lighter equipment and felt hats and were given inferior mounts which they could afford to lose during their operations, although they carried a spike and hammer with which they were supposed to leash their horses after dismounting.

Spanish dragoon, about 1635. Source: Vinkhuijzen Collection, New York Public iIbrary

Since 1633 the dragoon tercios proper consisted of between 8 and 22 companías of 50-100 men, but usually no more than 1.000 men in all. Below is a tentative list of them, including their year of establishment and first Maestre de campo.

  • Tercio de la Fuente (1633, by Don Pedro de la Fuente)
  • Tercio de Bataglia (1640 by Coronel Bataglia)
  • Tercio de Vitoria (1640 by Don Pedro de Santa Cecillia)
  • Tercio de Verloo (1674 by the Baron of Verloo)
  • Tercio de Hartman (1676 by Don Nicolas Hartman)
  • Tercio de Villareal (1677 by Don Manuel de Villareal)
  • Tercio de Dragones de Scheldon (1684)
  • Tercio de Dragones Steenhuise (1689)

4. The Ordnance

Around 1600 the Spanish army, like that of most other nations, possessed a bewildering array of mortars and siege guns, heavy and medium field artillery and regimental cannon of varying caliber and quality. According to Spanish veterans their artillery was more suited to ‘frightening the birds’ than producing results on the battlefield. The siege guns which they schlepped around over the dirt roads of Europe (the Spaniards in Flanders were the first to use artillery limbers) fired 8 to 10 rounds per hour and their barrels tended to overheat.

Balistic calculations. Illustration from Artillerie, c’est-à-dire Vraye instruction de l’artillerie et et de toutes ces appartenances by Diego Ufano, 1628

But the artillery, like the infantry, was not hampered by social conservatism. Rationalisation set in early, starting in 1609 in Flanders at the initiative of Artillery General Charles de Bonaventure, Count of Bucqouy, and his able assistent Captain Diego Ufano. They reduced the available calibers from 23 to 4, i.e. a 40-pound and a 24-pound siege gun, a 10-pound medium field gun and a light ‘regimental’ 5- or 6-pounder.

During the Thirty Years’ War the Spanish artillery was relatively effective. The medium field guns were massed either in front of the line or on one of the wings, depending on local circumstance. ‘Regimental’ cannon were common.

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