Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, Duke of Alba, Marquis of Coria, Count of Salvatierra de Tormes and Piedrahíta and Lord of Valdecorneja (29 October 1507 – 11 December 1582), known as the "Iron Duke", the Great Duke of Alba or simply the Duke of Alba, was a Spanish general and statesman of the 16th century, right-hand man of King Charles V and later of King Philip II. Military history has him as the greatest general of his time, as well as possibly one of the greatest ever, noted by his preternatural logistic abilities, his fanaticism for troop discipline, his ability to coordinate the various nationalities of his soldiers, and his condition of being A Father to His Men, known by his speeches and appreciations about the ugly and unfair nature of war. Non-military history has been infinitely less kind to him, though, picturing him as an Evil Overlord whose rebellion-crushing antics were echoed (and wildly exaggerated) through generations to the point of remaining a bogeyman-like figure in the Netherlands. He is considered one of the standardbearing figures of the Spanish Black Legend.
His role as a general has been often overshadowed by his reputation as a villain, especially given that he excelled precisely in the aspects of warfare that people don't usually find interesting, but back in his own time, he was known to be a true scientist of the battlefields. The Duke was infamously staunch on never giving battle if it wasn't under the exact conditions to win, usually playing deadly safe in every situation, and was well aware of the importance of keeping his men properly fed, trained, drilled and motivated to the very last detail, to the point he even organized a special legion of Italian prostitutes and stressed their importance in the armies to avoid harassment of the civil population. He was allergic to any form of indiscipline, and often did guards and placed himself in the frontlines to instigate order and make an example. The result of his attentions is that men under his command not only made highly effective soldiers, but were also famous for their high morale, it being claimed that even the footsoldiers "marched like princes and looked like captains".
Indeed, his biography gives testimony of him being a sort of military otaku of his time. Raised by his grandfather and taught by the best Italian teachers, he enlisted at 17 without the permission of his royal family to fight against the French and the Navarres, and ended up appointed governor of the place of his first battle. A few years later, now as the new Duke of Alba, Álvarez was already a seasoned military man in the service of King Charles V, participating along with his friend, Warrior Poet Garcilaso de la Vega, in the Habsburg's campaigns against the Ottoman Empire; his victorious exploits included not only the famous 1535 conquest of Tunis, but also the retrival of his father's armor, who had been lost to the Ottomans after his death in battle. His successes earned him the job of mayordomo mayor of the King, which he proved further with his role as the imperial field general against the Protestant league during the Schmalkaldic War, so much that after Charles' death, his son Philip kept him in his job.
In 1555, in midst of political agitation against the Spanish in Italy, the Duke of Alba was expeditively sent there as the spearhead of the Habsburg armies. His opponents were no less than Pope Paul IV, Arch-Enemy to the Habsburg, and his supporter King Henry II of France, but the shrewd Alba used his forces to bully the former and distract the latter with Fabian tactics, paving the road for Philip's army in France to score a decisive victory in St. Quentin, after which the Duke participated personally in the treaty of peace. Less than a decade afterwards, this time with the support of Pope Pius V, Alba was deemed the right man to be sent in 1567 to the notoriously ungovernable Habsburg Netherlands, where the Protestant storm was raging again. The Duke found a dramatic visage there, among other reasons because one of the culprits (guilty of inaction, that is) would turn out to be Lamoral, Count of Egmont, one of Alba's oldest friends. However, allowing himself to show only some Manly Tears in Lamoral's execution, Álvarez carried things on and instated the Council of Troubles, an anti-rebellion tribunal of Dutch judges which would gain a reputation similar to that of The Spanish Inquisition.
The Duke of Alba managed to recover control over most of the Netherlands, but the affair's whole proportions forced him to extract heavy tributes and lay an iron hand over local affairs, which only led to more Protestant-hued armed rebellions, which the Duke had to defeat by military force; after that, rinse and repeat. In order to try to break the cycle, the Duke carried orders to give the country a pat in the back, improving its 700 law codes to a more progressive unified system, developing its prestigious universities of Lovaina and Dole, and reforming its tax system to reduce the power of the oligarchy, but this failed to endear the locals (aside from the oligarchy, obviously) precisely because they had started getting tired of the Duke's reign over everything. Even in Spain, they acknowledged that maybe they should really change their policy to a more liberal one, especially given that by this point Álvarez had gained the nickname of the "Iron Duke" (IJzeren Hertog) by his authoritarian methods and too frequent sieges and punitive actions. When Álvarez himself lost hope of making things work and literally asked Philip to either replace him or have him shot dead, the king sent the more diplomatic Luis de Requesens, who, ironically enough, would fail equally by the soft way.
Not helped by the general mood, Álvarez fell out of grace, even receiving a short-lived banishment from the court, but he eventually returned to his role of old, trusted advisor in time for him to participate in the 1580 Portuguese crisis. Philip and the duke had tried to dissuade King of Portugal Sebastian I from going in a military expedition to Africa, and when he went in anyways and became MIA, the throne of Portugal fell on Philip himself, with a variety of international oppositors in the way. Deciding to make the best out of it, Philip ordered Álvarez to clean obstacles up, which the Duke did duly, even although he famously snarked Philip was "the only king who got a general out of prison to go fetch another crown". Backed up by his close friend, the not less legendary admiral Álvaro de Bazán, Marquis of Santa Cruz, the 72-year old Duke of Alba conquered Lisbon and put Philip in the throne, being rewarded with the Viceroyalty of Portugal, as his last great showing before dying in 1582. By this point, his place as Spain's main battlefield expert had arguably been passed to Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, a different, almost opposite kind of general who would shine for one more decade in the ultimately ill-fated wars of Europe.
No member of his lineage would ever acquire the kind of fame he had, although Álvarez's most illustrious descendant would probably Fadrique de Toledo Osorio, grand admiral of Philip IV, who would score sound defeats against the Dutch, English and Muslims before suffering a similarly prosaic fate and falling out of favor in the court.
The legacy of the Duke of Alba is much less aboundant in Spain than in the Netherlands, unless you include the 18th Duchess of Alba, his late successor and an infamous tabloid animal of the 20-21th century Spain. He is remembered in the Dutch lands by a variety of 16th century caricatures, popular songs and folk legends that often portray him literally eating babies, having Satan himself as his puppeteer, and generally being the perfect example of an imperial beast who came from the dark of Spain to oppress the local peoples, supposedly killing over 200.000 of them before being expelled by their valiant efforts. Ironically, the roots of this demonization had their reflection within his own side, as the next Spanish governor, Luis de Requesens, played along and denounced Álvarez to the rebels as a brutal man in an attempt to make himself look better of a governor in comparison. Propaganda also focused heavily in Philip II's unworthiness as lord of the Netherlands, making the whole conflict look like an unprovoked invasion rather than a civil war that had as many locals in the Duke's side as in the opposite.
In real life, Álvarez certainly turned out to be an inflexible, heavy-handed governor, who failed to understand the revoltous nature of the Netherlander politics (there had been around 35 rebellions against local rulers before his arrival, and the latter obviously didn't improve things) and showed little interest to learn about it (likely related to him being overconfident in his power, impatient to finish things, and unable to foresee the catastrophic, 80-years outcome of the affair he was handling), but historiography has slightly rescued his figure in recent times. According to registers, the real numbers of his administration reached not higher than 5,000 executions, of which 500-800 were personally ordered by him, the rest being the work of the Council of Troubles, which was formed and operated by Dutch loyalists with self-serving reasons to abuse their power. In fact, Álvarez himself suspected this was often the case and oversaw it when possible, meaning he might have avoided indiscriminated executions, not caused them. He has also been re-evaluated as a reformator of the Netherlands, whose legal reforms would ironically work well enough to be upheld by the rebels themselves for the next centuries, helping them to paliate the disasters of war and ultimately become an European power.
Historians still disagree whether Álvarez unwittingly worsened the problem or the latter was already beyond solution, given that there were many reasons, be it legal, religious and cultural, for which the Habsburg and their Dutch subjects could never reconcile again - but of course, the image of the uniquely evil, ravenous Mediterranean conqueror makes a much better story.
In fictionComic Book
- Antonio Gil's comic book series Flandes 1566-1573 has Alba as the protagonist.
- He's mentioned at the background of Alatriste, where it's (characteristically) described as a despot.
- Juan Carlos Losada's 2018 historical novel Sangre y honor adapts his life and career.
- He's portrayed by Jesús Noguero in The Ministry of Time in a fairly accurate portrayal of the historical character.
- He appears as Philip's mentor in Carlos, rey emperador, played by Félix Gómez. He was reportedly one of the few praised aspects of the series.
- Águila Roja, set in the times of Philip IV, introduces a contemporaneous Duke of Alba (timewise he would be Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Mendoza, grand-grandson to Pimentel) obviously based on the his much more relevant and famous ancestor.