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The Spanish Habsburgs and their Irish Soldiers (1587-1700)

By Moisés Enrique Rodríguez


Colonel insign, Ultonia Regiment.

In 1516, Ferdinand II of Aragon (better known as Ferdinand 'The Catholic') died, and the Spanish crown passed to his grandson, who ascended to the throne as King Charles I. He is better known as Charles V, since this was the title by which he reigned as Holy Roman Emperor. 

Born in Ghent in 1500, the young man was brought up in the Netherlands and only arrived in Spain at the age of 17. As the son of Joanna 'The Mad', the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Charles inherited not only the Spanish kingdoms but also their overseas empires. Castile brought with it the colonies of South and Central America, and Aragon the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and Naples. As the son of Philip 'The Handsome' (his Habsburg father who had died in 1506), he was already the ruler of the Burgundian territories: The Netherlands (spanning present-day Holland, Belgium and northern France) and the Franche-Comté (covering areas of present-day France and Switzerland). In 1519, upon the death of his paternal grandfather, Maximilian I, Charles inherited the Holy Roman Empire (present-day Germany and adjacent territories in Central and Eastern Europe).

During the subsequent forty years, the King-Emperor fought wars against the Turks, the French, the Protestant Princes of Germany and other enemies, and turned Spain into the leader of the Counter-Reformation. These policies continued under his successors. Exhausted by his immense responsibilities, Charles abdicated in 1556 and died two years later. The Spanish empire and the Burgundian inheritance went to his son Philip II and the Holy Roman Empire to his brother Ferdinand. The fact that the Netherlands were given to Philip meant that Spain became inextricably involved in the affairs of Northern Europe and was unable to concentrate her energies in her traditional areas of interest: the Mediterranean and the Americas. Madrid became the enemy of the Dutch Protestants and hence of Elizabeth's England. Habsburg (and Catholic) solidarity meant that Spain took part in the Thirty Years War. It also led to a dynastic confrontation with France which resulted in military campaigns in the Low Countries, Central Europe and Italy (where Madrid and Paris had been rivals since the Middle Ages).

During the two centuries of Habsburg rule, Spain fought innumerable wars: against the Dutch, the English and the French on the continent of Europe and on the high seas; and against the Moors and the Turks in North Africa and the Mediterranean. It is remarkable that at the same time her Conquistadores conquered much of Latin America for the Crown, putting an end to the powerful Aztec and Inca empires and subjugating the Maya and scores of other indigenous people.

Philip II was succeeded by Philip III and Philip IV, who continued the Eighty Year War against the Dutch. This conflict merged with the Thirty Years War in Germany and only came to an end in 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia recognised the independence of the seven 'United Provinces'. However, Spain retained the Southern Netherlands (predominantly Catholic and spanning present-day Belgium and northern France) for the best part of a century and this territory witnessed many of the battles of her long war against the French.

In 1700, Charles II, the last Spanish Habsburg, died and left the Crown to the future Philip V, the grandson of Louis XIV of France. Emperor Leopold I supported the rival claim of Arch-Duke Charles and this led to the War of the Spanish Succession. The conflict ended in 1713 and the following year the Treaty of Utrecht confirmed Philip (the first Bourbon) as King of Spain but, as part of the general settlement, gave the Spanish Netherlands and the Kingdom of Naples to the Habsburg emperor.

This meant that under the Bourbons, Spain was still an empire but not a truly multi-national one. She remained a significant player in European and world affairs throughout much of the eighteenth century and fought several wars in Italy and elsewhere against the Austrians and French. The Bourbon kingdom of Naples and Sicily was created largely by Spanish bayonets, a significant achievement for a nation perceived to have been in decline. Madrid only sank into insignificance in the nineteenth century, after the loss of her American empire.

Irish troops fought in virtually all the Spanish wars between 1587 and 1814. During the Habsburg period (1587-1700), their Order of Battle changed frequently and regiments (named after their commanders) were created and disbanded in quick succession according to the number of troops available and the exigencies of the military situation. With the Bourbons, their organisation stabilised into a single Irish Brigade composed of three regiments: the 'Hibernia', the 'Ultonia' (Ulster) and the 'Irlanda'. These units were created in the first two decades of the eighteenth century and were disbanded in 1818.

Why the Irish?

During the sixteenth century, several areas of Europe had become traditional sources of mercenary troops. The Swiss Cantons provided military contingents for the armies of France, Spain and many Italian princes (including the Pope). The harsh geographical conditions, poverty and overpopulation had combined to turn the Swiss into the paramount source of professional soldiers. Scotland and Ireland experienced similar situations, which were rendered more difficult by the repressive actions of the London government and its local allies. Violence was a constant feature in the lives of the inhabitants of the two Celtic kingdoms. Scotsmen served France but not Spain because of their religion, but Irishmen made their way into the armed forced of both powers.

There was at this time no moral stigma attached to serving in a foreign army and the soldier was regarded as a professional who could sell his services to princes other than his own without shame. All European powers made extensive use of mercenary troops during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The first Irishmen to join the Spanish army did so in 1587 and became an essential (or at least significant) part of Madrid's armed forces for the next two centuries. Habsburg Spain, as we have mentioned, was permanently at war and this coincided with a period in which Spain itself underwent a demographic crisis, caused by the wars themselves but also by other factors such as emigration to America and epidemics. If the Peninsula itself could not supply the men to fight her wars, the troops had to come from elsewhere: the other 'Nations' of the Empire and foreign countries.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 31 August 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Rodríguez, Moisés Enrique, 'The Spanish Habsburgs and their Irish Soldiers (1587-1700)
' in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5:2 (July 2007), pp. 125-130. (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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