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Alba - a political biography,
This review is from: The Duke of Alba (Hardcover)
Perhaps the most Castilian subject of the most Spanish of the Kings of Spain, Philip II, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, III Duke of Alba had until recently remained controversial in the eyes of the public, an iconic figure representing vividly Spanish imperialism, cruelty arrogance and all those other characteristics which constitute La Leyenda Negra.
A few years after William S. Maltby penned his superb biography of the Duke (William S. Maltby, <Alba: A Biography of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba 1507-1582>. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), Henry Kamen makes another attempt to uncover the man behind the myth, and shed light on Alba's personality as a man and a statesman, on his ideas, views on faith, politics and people, all those things which define one's perception of the world and are the root of the choices one makes. Kamen tries to keep his usual spirit of anti-Castilianism under control, and focuses more on the controversy surrounding his hero, ably recreating the political situation in which Alba's ideology was constantly formed throughout his life. He succeeds in demonstrating the Duke's strengths and weaknesses, connecting ably Alba's mistaken vision of government as applied to the Netherlands during his governorship there, with the spread of popular dissent in the region, and the transformation of a political game of the local élite into a popular revolt.
Where Kamen misses his mark, is warfare. One has the sense that the author doesn't fully comprehend the changes in the ways war was now waged, which is an important downside when the subject of your research is primarily a military figure, and one who was considered the greatest general in the Spanish realms by friend and foe. It becomes obvious in several places during the narration, that Kamen decided to focus in his research more on politics and less on military matters, and that he did not utilize, even if he did read, all the various commentaries and 'discursos' on military matters the Duke produced, which often leads him to misconceptions about warfare and tactics in context of what is called "the school of Alba", and to gross mistakes, like, f.e. the assertion that Alba preferred German mercenaries to native Spanish soldiers. Although dealing relatively well with some aspects of Alba's strategical approach (f.e. terror as a weapon), Kamen seems to often downplay the significance of the use of special operations and of Fabian tactics, in which Alba was masterful, to the effect that when one finishes his book, one is perplexed as to why the Duke was held in such high esteem for his military capabilities at all.
In all this book is a well-researched biography of the Duke, which should be read in conjunction with Parker's <Dutch Revolt> and (for the treatment of the military aspect) the first part of F. González de León's excellent study <The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders, 1567-1659> (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2009).
The earlier biography of the Duke by William Maltby remains however the most complete treatment of the subject, and a much more enjoyable read.