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The Military Machine of the Habsburg Monarchy

Info: 2735 words (11 pages) Essay
Published: 9th Nov 2021 in History

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The Habsburgs ruled Europe from the early thirteenth century to the twentieth, eight hundred years, that is no small feat. The formation of the Habsburg Dynasty had its origins with the crowning of Rudolf I in Germany in 1273 along with the Duchy of Austria in 1282. Maximilian I brought the Netherlands under Habsburg rule in 1482 by way of marriage, Maximilian’s grandson Charles V would inherit Spain along with all of her oversea holding in 1516. Under Charles V the empire would grow and stretch around the globe, the sun never set on the Habsburg state.

With an empire so large, one must wonder how did the State manage to move troops from one location to another, communicate with their oversea holdings as well as the other European states, how exactly did one finance such a huge empire?

Eight hundred years is no small feat, there was something behind the Habsburg monarchs that enabled them to keep the engine that was the Habsburg dynasty going all that time. The Habsburg monarchy was a state of two crowns after 1556 when Charles V abdicated his thrown and split the empire between his brother Ferdinand 1 and his son Philip the II of Spain. By 1700 the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs would die out with the Austrian branch remaining mostly intact. It is because of such instances that the monarchy was really a union of crowns, not really a single empire after Charles V besides the Habsburg court, instead the empire was composed of territories within and without the Holy Roman Empire, united only by the monarch. Yet it is how the monarchs handled the military, moved troops, money, and communications that are important in this particular instance.

How exactly were the Habsburg monarchs able to move men from within their realms and colonies? And how did leadership in the military work within the Habsburg state?

Because of The Thirty Years’ War the Habsburg Emperor was able to grow is military quite substantially, just within 1635 the Emperor’s army reached some 65 regiments of foot soldiers each being made up of some 3,000 men each. Just during the war there were over 532 regiments formed then disbanded by the end. Such numbers attest to the amount of military leadership that was required of the monarchy. One of the best monarchs to perhaps look farther into on that subject would be Charles V, there are many who described him as the “monarch of the world” and such a title was justifiable. By the time Charles abdicated his throne to his sone Philip II in 1556 he could count Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, Italy, Germany, Duke of Burgundy, Archduke of Austria, and the Lord of the Netherlands as his titles. Taken into account that he also ruled much of the New World as well then monarch of the world seems fitting.

Yet in the time before modern technology how did Charles manage to move his troops throughout his extensive empire?

Charles has been called among monarch of the world, the last crusader, as he was definitely a warrior king. From the moment he took the crown it seemed war was a constant companion of his and as a true warrior emperor he was often at the front of his troops leading them into battle, oblivious to any personal injuries. Charles often used mercenaries in his battles though not always to the end result he had wished. In 1527 the mercenaries Charles had hired to fight the French would end up sacking Rome. [1] Under Philip IV in 1625 six galleons were commissioned to travel with the Spanish treasure fleets coming and going from the New World, protect interest in the Mediterranean, and to carry men two and from wherever they needed. Under Philip IV the armada increased in size, almost doubling the fleet and the naval budget as well. Philip was always interested in the dealings of his navy, even after the Battle of the Downs where Spain received a crushing defeat Philip still maintained a close ministerial attention to its leadership.[2] He maintained close contact with the Junta de Armadas which after the fall of Olivares was the only junta committee to survive.[3]

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For the Spanish the easiest way to transport troops anywhere in the vast empire whether it was overseas to the New World or simply moving troops up to Flanders the galleon was the way to go. A large multi-decked sailing ship which the Spanish used as armed cargo carriers but also as transport ships, they made up the principle fleet for the monarchy for much of the 1500s on during the age of the sailing vessels.[4] The Habsburg Spanish crown saw large growth in its military during the 16th century, first with the Spanish victory in the Italian Wars as well as its transformation in tactics and organization that came out of the war. Habsburg Spain enjoyed a large set of neutral territories all the way from Milan to Naples and even northward to the Netherlands, these territories would become a route for reinforcements that would become known as the Spanish Road. In the 1630s Philip begin waiving rules to officers allowing them to go through the ranks faster, but also having to pay exorbitant salaries to these officers. His hope in doing so would give him better control over his officers on the battlefield, the issue was because these men were pushed through the ranks so quickly they did not have the necessary skills to successfully command which left must to be desired by their performance. Philip felt the Spanish military was no longer as dominant on the battlefield has it once was because of a lack of leadership. He felt a renewal of concepts of service, duty, and aristocratic tradition would help these issues.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. From the late fifteenth century to the seventeenth the Spanish military grew from somewhere around 20,000 to somewhere around 300,000. With these numbers it took a substantial financial resource to keep men and supplies moving and that is where the New World came into play. The resources drawn from the Americas enabled the Habsburg monarchs to afford to mount lengthy campaigns against their enemies both local and abroad. In reality, without Genoese bankers most of the military spending would not have been possible even with the incoming treasure from the Americas.

No matter how powerful a nation or state, they are only as powerful as their ability to maintain that hegemony. Without troops to fight wars or end rebellions there would be no way to maintain state hegemony, but to have troops and fight wars one must be able to finance such endeavors. It is well known that Charles V spent most of his time as Emperor encaged in one campaign or another, he did so with the financial resources he drew from the Americas, from both the raw materials that came from there as well as the tribute. Charles waged many campaigns during his time as Emperor, from the war with France in the 1520s to North Africa in 1535 and again in 1541. He waged war in Italy and Germany in the 1540s, against the Turks in the 1530s, and again in the 1550s he found himself back against the French. [5]

Charles in the end drained all most all of his treasury by waging war for too long and for too often. Charles’ son Philip II had the problem that he did not seem to understand finances very well, even with the large deposits of gold and silver that was coming in from the Americas Philip was still forced to deal with financial crises on sever different circumstances. One of his main issues was the fact that he inherited an empire who was severally in debt. Like his father before him, most of Philips financial issues were brought on by almost constant warfare, ever increasing debt repayments and his outrageous military spending. [6]

One of the main issues that most of the Habsburg monarchs faced was the fact that their empire was so large and encompassed so many different territories that it meant the empire never had a common currency, common language, or laws. Different political institutions competing amongst the others of the empire as well as economic strategies. The Habsburg monarchs were financing, supplying, and protecting their empire with money from Italian bankers, soldiers from all across the empire, and building ships with wood from the Baltic, Mediterranean, and other countries. [7]

As stated above, without the New World the consent waging of war would have been impossible for the Habsburg kings, the steady flow of wealth from the American colonies kept the Habsburg Empire from going complete bankrupt. The Mexica and Incan Empires fell to Cortez and Pizzaro between 1519 and 1558, the Spanish settlements that were built on top of the old native cities such as Mexico City and Cuzco helped make the Habsburg empire abroad become a unlimited source of wealth and power in Europe for the Habsburg family. All of this wealth though did have some negative consequences, the huge amount of influx of precious metals into the empire contributed to a large inflation issue that ended up affecting the whole of Europe. Instead of boosting the Habsburg’s economy, New World silver made the country increasingly dependent on foreign sources of raw materials and manufactured goods as well as causing the kings to seek out loans to help pay for the military and for campaigns.

One can have an unlimited supply of men and finances to supply those men, but without a well-maintained line of communication there will be failures. Philip II had such an issue with the maintaining of his empire for one because of the sheer distances he was faced with. For his time Philip II was for all pretense and purposes one of the best-informed kings of his period. With Philip and most of his top ministers having visited much of Spain’s European possessions and having access to some of the most current made maps, drawing, surveys, and plans Philip did not have issue with knowing where his information was coming from or going to.

Time was another factor in getting information to the military and to make sure troops were where they needed to be when they needed to be there. A good courier could cover up to 114 miles per day allowing Philip to frequently get his information from the Continent considerably faster than his counterparts.[8]

Unfortunately Philip’s possessions in the New World did not enjoy such smooth lines of communication, information was less predictable and extremely expensive. It took roughly a little over two months to reach the New World from Europe depending on where you embarked from, that means if the King had sent any type of communications over to his colonies and expected a response it would take almost five months to get back to him. Communication with any troops over in the new world was difficult to say the least.

Most of the men the kings had in the new world were not traditional standing armies or at least not in the same sense as they were back in mainland Europe. Charles and Philip did not so much need worry about making sure his troops in America were where they were so much as a need to make sure they did not completely run unchecked against the local native populations. Philips father, Charles V ruled more from horseback then ever at a standing court, Charles did not have a set capital and preferred to move about his empire himself rather then relying on others.

In this Charles also lead his army and during campaigns was found to be giving orders himself there in the middle of the fighting. While Philip lead from afar and from a court Charles lead and communicated with his army in person. Charles frequently met and negotiated with his counterparts such as Francis I of France, Italian leaders, the Pope, and Henry VIII of England just to name a few.[9]

The Habsburg monarchs ruled an Empire that stretched from the New World across the Atlantic Ocean and covered much of the European continent. Their empire encompassed many different cultures and languages and yet they ruled them well for the amount of land and people that fell under their jurisdiction. The military makes up the backbone of an empire, without it the State can not function in the compacity it is need to. There can be no expansion nor defense without the military and the military cannot function without good leadership nor without adequate funding.

Without good lines of communication everything falls apart. The Habsburg monarchs played interictal roles in the running of their military, from Charles V leading troops into battle and traveling extensively throughout his empire in the reassurance of his control over everything to his son Philip II having access to the most up to date maps and lines of communication making him one of the best informed monarchs of his time. Philip IV took great interest in his navy and the roles of leadership within his military, he took great pains to change up the way things ran with the hopes of bringing in fresh officers to help turn the Spanish army around and back into a dominate force it had been under Charles V.

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Philip expanded his naval force by almost double, thus enabling his ability to transport more treasure from the New World back to the Empire, carry more troops at once, as well as defending more points of interest. Philip II carried out his grand strategy in the hopes of maintaining Habsburg hegemony in the region and while more often then not his plans backfired on him Philip none the less continued to move forward with determination and resolve.

For most of the Habsburg monarchs war was a constant companion and they had to deal with it on a number of different levels causing a drain on the State this in turn caused many to seek out loans with different banking institutions to keep the empire afloat. Even with all the resources that were flooding in from the New World many times they would default on their loans. War after all was an expensive business for the Habsburg kings. From taking up the reins and traveling the empire to holding court in one location and making sure one had the most up to date information to financing new military endeavors the Habsburgs always had a hand on their military.

Without the military the Habsburg empire would not have existed, but without the Habsburg monarchs the military would not have been what it was either. It took one to have the other and thus the first global empire was created.

Works Cited

EMPEROR: A NEW LIFE OF CHARLES V.  By Geoffrey Parker. (New Haven. Yale College, 2019)

The Habsburgs: the History of a Dynasty. By Benjamin Curtis. ( New York, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.)

Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763. (New York: Perenial/Harper Collines. 2004)

Six Galleons for the King of Spain. By Carla Philipps. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 1986)

The Grand Strategy of Philip II. By Geoffrey Parker. (Yale University. New Haven. 1998.)


[1] EMPEROR: A NEW LIFE OF CHARLES V

[2] Six Galleons for the King of Spain. By Carla Philipps

[3] Ibid

[4] IBID

[5] EMPEROR: A NEW LIFE OF CHARLES V.  By Geoffrey Parker.(Yale College, 2019)

[6] The Grand Strategy of Philip II. By Geoffrey Parker

[7] Empire. By Henry Kamen.

[8] The Grand Strategy of Philip II. By Geoffrey Parker

[9] EMPEROR: A NEW LIFE OF CHARLES V.  By Geoffrey Parker.(Yale College, 2019)

 

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