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Au service du Roi Catholique

Alain Hugon

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1From 1598 to 1635, the French and Spanish monarchies maintained official, pacific bilateral relations, manifested in exchanges of ambassadors and in accords —on the whole observed— designed to avert any direct military confrontation. At the peace of Vervins in 1598, Philip II for the time being renounced the policy of defence —or expansion— of Catholicism that he had sustained throughout the half-century of his reign. This change of direction was confirmed by his successor Philip III, with the Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1603 and later the Twelve-Year Truce in the Low Countries (1609-1621).

2Thereafter, the ancestral rivalry of Spanish Habsburgs and Valois that so marked the 16th century, from the Italian wars to multifarious Spanish interventions during the French religious wars, moved in a new direction in which conflict gave way to peaceful coexistence. For historians, the exceptional duration of this peace —thirty years— offers an excellent field for the study of relations between two first-rate powers in the early modem age: the Spanish monarchy, with territories scattered over four continents, including principalities in southern Europe (Sicily, Naples, Milan) and northern Europe (Brabant, Flanders); and the French monarchy, ruling the most densely populated region of Europe. The Archivo General de Simancas contains a practically uninterrupted record of Spanish diplomatic correspondence for the period, providing invaluable insights into Spanish reactions to the policies adopted by the French kings Henry IV and Louis XIII and their ministers; these exceptional sources give an account of discussions (consultas) and decision-making processes in the Spanish Council of State (Consejo de Estado), and of the choices made and attitudes adopted by successive rulers. From these sources it is further possible to conjure the assumptions underlying Spanish political thinking in the Baroque age.

3Readings of these documents already exist. On the French side they have fuelled abundant discussion of the Habsburg aspiration to «universal monarchy», the secular version of the «universal Catholicism» of Madrid; on the Spanish side, these same elements have long been interpreted as justifying military interventions, particularly in the Holy Roman Empire and the Low Countries, in that they demonstrate the duplicity of the French monarchy.

4Nonetheless, up until now no-one had undertaken a continuous reading —that is, a reading specifically taking into account the uninterrupted persistence of relations between the two dynasties. Such a study is a help to diachronic analysis; it makes it possible to measure «the passage of time», to differentiate the large phases into which a policy of State —that is, a foreign policy— is organised, and to examine the thoughts of the rulers on the situation of the Spanish monarchy. This continuity further facilitates a thematic study of the constituent elements of this policy of State, which is considered to bear many of the early signs of modernity: agents of the Spanish monarchy, informers and spies, financial questions, appointment of diplomats, correspondence, places and theatres of operations, actions advocated and so forth.

5The first step is to try and retrace the background of bilateral relations through the discussions carried on by the ambassadors, as related and analysed in their correspondence, and the decisions of the Council of State. A new perception of the reality of the Spanish monarchy thus emerges from the thoughts set down by ambassadors and Councillors of State. Such descriptive elements allow for a singular approach to issues characteristic of Spanish Habsburg power. Thus, the question of control of the monarchy’s considerable possessions is posed in very real terms in the course of this confrontation with the French counterpart The importance of information, highly dependent on diplomatic couriers, was subject to geographic constraints imposed by relations with a French monarchy ever ready to threaten the famous «Spanish route» (camino español), from its position at the intersection of the Habsburg territories. The Atlantic maritime area was crucial for Spain’s large American empire —also Asiatic with the acquisition of the Portuguese possessions by the Spanish monarchy at this time. Moreover, the northern area played a vital role because of its links with Flanders; the southern area was likewise important in that the western Mediterranean lay not only at the centre of relations with Spain’s Neapolitan, Sicilian and Lombard possessions, but also at the heart of financial des with its Genoese backers. The State correspondence highlights the fact that France was a party to the weakening of the Iberian maritime economy, frequently in connivance with companies of Barbary pirates and Protestant or Catholic corsairs.

6Diplomatic correspondence is a dual mirror. On the one hand it reflects the conditions in which the Spanish monarchy pursued its policies: Financial shortages, governmental crises, changes of favourite (valido) and dynastic alliances were all elements taken into account by ambassadors. On the other hand, while it may act as a prism offering the reader an inside view of what went on in the French monarchy, that view is nonetheless distorted by a strong francophobe prejudice, which was not confined to the numerous French émigrés in the Peninsula but was also shared by the ruling elites. The ambassadors were to some extent responsible for these views through their letters: they ran down the sovereigns, court life and the parties present and gave their opinions on the various counsellors of the king of France. The consultas of the Spanish Council of State record this information and pronounce veritable judgments on the various ministers and sovereigns. The assassination of Henry IV was a relief to the Catholic King, obviously, and the personality of Sully was repellent to the Spanish, but the figure of Marie de Medici was more complex; above all, her position evolved, from defiant alliance to Flemish exile as Queen Mother. As for the violent antipathy between Olivares and Richelieu, this is apparent on several occasions in this correspondence.

7One of the more remarkable features of the sources examined is the quality of the handling of «State papers», to which diplomacy was a major contributor as administrative management developed very early in the Spanish diplomatic service. Appointment of diplomats and their collaborators, administration of financial and material resources of embassies, encrypted correspondence and international correspondence, issue of diplomatic instructions and credentials, organisation of the diplomatic career with the build-up of a veritable cursus honorum —all these are sufficient to justify the view that the Spanish monarchy was an administrative monarchy.

8Besides this, there was a genuine mobilisation of space through diplomacy to promote synergy of actions at an international level. Thus, the Spanish ambassador at Paris was in contact with his opposite numbers at Brussels, Turin, London or Vienna, and also with the rulers of the Spanish possessions outside Castile —the Viceroys of the Kingdom of Naples or the Kingdom of Sicily, the Governor of Milan, the Viceroy of the Kingdom of Aragon, etc.

9This dynamic aspect of State policy entailed concerted actions on a grand scale such as the Biron conspiracy at the time of the Franco-Savoyard war or the intervention in the Holy Roman Empire as from 1617-1618. Nevertheless, such connivance could on occasions threaten the positions of rulers of possessions vis-à-vis the Catholic King, and especially the favourite Lerma, in that such activity was promoted by zealous governors —genuine activists desirous of instating an offensive policy, like the Conde de Fuentes, governor of Milan.

10This activism is borne out by the diplomatic sources : from such a continuous study of the documents it is possible to identify absolute networks of spies, secret agents, informers, and indeed of confidentes —a highly useful Spanish term connoting a blend of the two central notions of Spanish engagement : loyalty and secrecy. From these sources we have built up a data base of some two hundred and forty spies, informers and secret agents who entered into political, financial or military contact with Madrid.

11This is an extremely rich source of political information, and here again, in the fields of both secret services and diplomacy, the Spanish administration presented something of a modem aspect thanks to the kind of administrative management, clearly discernible here, so characteristic of the Habsburgs from the latter years of the reign of Philip II until the end of the reign of Philip IV. This quality of the administration of the secret service is exemplified by the institutionalisation of the position of «master spy» (espía mayor), whose incumbent was in charge of supervising espionage and counter-espionage. Under Philip III, the espía mayor maintained contacts in Flanders and in Italy, and with agents in the French embassy.

12The Monarchy’s secret services were clearly administered with the object of destabilising the French partner. To that end, the Spanish services drew on a number of different factors. On the one hand they exploited the discontent of the French aristocracy, which was constant under both Henry IV and Louis XIII and manifested itself in endemic unrest, styled «duty to revolt». Many of these opponents came into contact with the représentatives of Madrid, thus furnishing the Spanish rulers with a powerful lever. This applied to the aristocratic elites at the highest level, to the extent that Louis XIII’s heir Gaston d’Orléans and his adherents, and likewise his mother Maria de Medici, followed by her household, all took refuge with the Spanish in the 1630s.

13This capacity of the Catholic Monarchy to interfere was seen as a response to French «Machiavellianism». At the same time, the monarchy of Philip III inherited some of the imperial messianism of the age of Charles V and some of the Catholic charisma of Philip II. In the eyes of many Europeans, Madrid stood for the defence of the Roman faith against Protestant heresy, be it Anglican, Calvinist or Lutheran. Indeed, a good number of former Leaguers of the previous period found refuge —and slender subsidies— with the Catholic King and served him in the same way as some English Catholics.

14Other vulnerable groups also acted on behalf of the Monarchy: persecuted Moriscos, Jews separated front their original milieu, exiled Spaniards hooked by hints from the Monarchy of a possible pardon. Paradoxically, during the last of the religious wars in France in the 1620s, the French Protestants entered into a behind-the-lines alliance with Madrid. Nevertheless, the fortune of the secret services was wedded to that of the Monarchy; support from a notional «Catholic International» waned as international life became more secular. At the same time, the Catholic Monarchy was forced to operate in ever more theatres with ever smaller financial resources, while religious ideals lost their potency.

15A study of the spies labouring in the service of the Catholic King also illustrates the multiplicity of facets in the history of the secret services, from the social aspects of espionage to the dangers that the Spanish service entailed. Of the adversary’s services, in contrast, the sources consulted give only a sketchy outline; that history is still to be written.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2004

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