We remember them as the best troops of their era. Like a kind of faceless fighters – perhaps with some badly trimmed imperial-style beard – who breathed their last breath in contests the size of Rocroi or Empel. And yes, it is true that they were all of this, but also that, behind the pikes, arquebuses and rodelas, the soldiers of the Spanish Tercios were human beings. Poor children who abandoned their family in Castile to defend the Hispanic Monarchy on the other side of Europe, men already talluddled desires to see their family again, or even old men with years of fighting behind their backs whose only desire was to spend the rest of his days serving in an Italian prison to leave this world rested. Therefore, the new work of the historian Juan Victor Carboneras, «Spain my nature. Life, honor and glory in the Tercios »(Edaf, 2020), is key. Because the also president of the «Association January 31 Tercios» has managed to narrate, from the most human point of view, the life of these soldiers.
What is the objective of your work?
Know the day to day of the soldiers. Humanize their figure and show that they were a key part of the social and economic fabric. Sometimes it seems that they were just military machines, but they were much more than that: they were men of their time. They were not bloodthirsty dogs, as the Black Legend has passed down, but neither were they invincible. It all depended on the circumstances.
In addition, the book seeks to reflect everyday life. Bringing many realities that had been hidden. How the fledgling soldier lived the first moments, what his day was like, what kind of training he received, how he was transferred to Flanders, what the battles were like or what his end was like if he became old. All this related to their ideals, the health of the moment, religiosity and their values.
How was the training of the fledgling soldiers?
When I started researching, after having read a lot about thirds, several questions arose. How did they learn to pick up a sword, load a musket, or handle a pike? I found hardly any information about it. In the end, after studying the subject, I have come to the conclusion that they had no formal training. But, through chronicles of the time, relationships or warnings we can conclude that there were different systems for soldiers to acquire this knowledge. In the texts, for example, it is explained that the captain went out every eight days to train his men. During them, the fledgling soldier was taught basic concepts such as position in battle, fife and drum beats, etc.
On the other hand, I have come across relationships like those of Francisco de Valdés, in which it was specified that they learned to fight with large wooden staves that doubled the weight of normal weapons. There are also vintage engravings that show troops training with specific devices that prepared them physically. In the end, it is true that there was no “military”, but the new recruits were gradually joining military life and based, among other things, on the teachings of the veterans.
What were the early days of the recruits like?
The newly recruited soldier usually learned in his early days what military life and discipline were like. But also to march and the profession of arms. Furthermore, if he enlisted in areas such as Castilla, he would interact with his new companions, comrades, and officers on the journey to his new destination. That generated very important ties of friendship. But we must be clear that for him it was complex. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him in the long run. He had just left home, which was traumatic, and it was unusual for him to be able to return home.
How important were the officers within this framework?
Much. At the time, it was intended that soldiers feel the military, discipline and religion as essential parts of their life in the army. During leisure time (when they ate, for example), the captain treated them like a father. He approached them, gave them advice, spoke to them about the rules and why they should not break them, put the ideas of desertion out of his head, told them God’s rules … The officers tried to make the soldier perfect from the point of view discipline. They used all these premises so that they went to battle convinced and determined.
What motivated a soldier to enlist?
Each one joined the military for a different cause. The peasant could go out of necessity, but that did not prevent him from feeling a staunch devotion to God or defending the King. It is a field that has been studied very little. In the end, the mentality of the time, that of society, prevailed over them.
What types of enlistment were there?
Overall three. The first was through a commission model, the most typical in the peninsula. In it, a captain obtained a patent, arrived at a town, planted the flag and enlisted combatants. But there was also the seat model, very common in other regions of the Hispanic Monarchy such as Italy. It was characterized because a specific person was commissioned to recruit a number of men in a given time. In return, he was paid an amount. The assentist was obliged to fulfill the contract.
Ultimately, as early as the seventeenth century, forced conscription began. The monarchy divided the number of soldiers it needed between different geographical areas and forced men of a certain age to join the army. So ruffians, thieves …
It is striking that only 12% of the soldiers of the Tercios were Spanish …
The reality is that the Spanish were a minority in front of a great melting pot of nationalities. But they were considered the central axis of all stake. They were the first to storm the fortresses and were always in the front line during defenses. They had a predominant condition compared to the rest. An example is that they considered it a disgrace that the Italians attacked before them. They were always the elite.
And the rest, did they feel Spanish?
They did not feel Spanish as such, but they were participants in the daily realities of our country. Traditional religious customs such as the Holy Week processions, which were implemented in Italy, were reflected in the daily life of the soldier. And it’s only an example. This happened because the combatant owed his loyalty to the king and his relationship with the Hispanic Monarchy was very close. Furthermore, it is surprising that the Portuguese and Sardinians were considered Spanish.
Can you make a typical portrait of the soldier of the thirds?
The truth is that no. Each one was a world. When you study each soldier you realize the sea of adventures he went through and how different he was from his partner. They came from different trades, they were of multiple ages … And the same thing happened with social class. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, peasant soldiers, from the third state or plain state of the Modern Age, stood out. By then the participation of the nobility was less and less important because they knew that they no longer had to fight to maintain their status.
He states in his work that the thirds were a kind of army of the people …
The Reconquest process served for the common people – the Castilian, the Aragonese … – to get involved in the militia. Of course weapons continued to be related to nobles, but the paradigm changed. This modification within the Hispanic Monarchy allowed for more soldiers and was a democratizing element. Shoemakers, bakers … All of them could be promoted by war merits without having to be hidalgos and reach a semi-private status.
Were the thirds pioneers in this and other ways?
They formed the first professional army of the Modern Age. And they were born out of necessity. When Carlos I found himself in Italy with an infinity of enemies (French, Turks or Berbers) he was forced to organize the units to make the most of them. This is how the first thirds were lit, which were permanent. That changed the paradigm. Before, during the Middle Ages, a series of soldiers were recruited on a provisional basis who would go to battle without specific equipment, in any way.
How was the relationship of the soldiers with the civilians?
If they were not in the field, they did not live in camps far from the city. It was customary for them to stay with civilians. At this point there is a problem: most of the documentation tells us about the confrontations between the soldiers and the population of towns and cities. But it is normal and has an explanation. In the first place, the arrival of the military meant for them the breakdown of normality. In turn, only the documents that speak of the complaints and claims have been kept in the archives because they were processed at the official level. However, there are other realities that are not reflected at first sight and that denote the good relations between both worlds.
An example that shows that Spanish customs were adapted to other territories are marriage certificates. Between 1625 and 1647, 527 marriages of soldiers took place in Flanders, 60% with Flemish women. This indicates that the relationships were cordial. The fact that Holy Week was celebrated there also tells us about how the military penetrated into society.
He dedicates part of his book to analyzing the importance of logistics in thirds
Yes. It is reflected in the Spanish Way, a logistical prodigy that lasted two centuries. We must understand that bringing 9,000 soldiers and 7,000 civilians from Spain to the Netherlands was an incredible achievement. Each night, this large contingent had to spend the night in a town that, moreover, was adapted to the needs of a large army. At a time when communications were very precarious, it was an administrative trance. To understand it, it is enough to know that quantities of millions of kilos of bread were shuffled.
Why do you give so much importance in your book to the license of soldiers?
The license concept is key. It was the document by which they allowed him to return to civil life. Obtaining it was difficult. To such an extent that there were soldiers aged 70 and 75 who continued in the army. And achieving it was no guarantee that things would go well. Many testimonies tell us of soldiers who lost everything and spent their last days begging at church doors. Others, if they were lucky, could find an administrative position, which guaranteed them a decent life. Lastly, it was not uncommon for them to join a religious order to atone for their sins on the battlefield.
I have found veterans who longed for the long-awaited license in one form or another. Julián Romero wanted her to return to Spain, but the years passed and he did not succeed. Soldiers like Diego de Cañete were seeking retirement in Italy. They longed to be sent to a prison because they knew they would not fight that way.
Are the thirds surrounded by a certain “pink legend”?
Yes. We live in a golden age for the thirds from the historiographical point of view and, sometimes, they fall into the error of thinking that they were invincible, almost gods. And they weren’t. When you read their testimonies, you realize that they were men of their time, with their fears and their obsessions. The pink legend does them no favors. They had outstanding victories, but they also reaped defeats.