On 2 July 1600 the Spanish general Francisco de Mendoza led his troops into battle in the dunes near Nieuwpoort. One of the regiments marching on the right wing however, was not officially under his command. A closer look at one of the many depictions of the battle tells us why: these were no regular soldiers, but ‘esquadrons des mutines’. Around Christmas 1599 in the village of Hamont, unpaid and discontented, these mercenary soldiers had declared mutiny. By the following summer they were still in open rebellion, yet they were persuaded to ride out to Nieuwpoort. Driven by desperate need, the Habsburg military and civil authorities had employed careful negotiations to convince their own soldiers, in the humble words of General Herman van den Bergh, to grant them ‘the tremendous favour of consenting to come to their assistance’.2

The Habsburg Army of Flanders, sent north to pacify the rebellious Low Countries, was itself a hotbed of sedition. Induced by arduous conditions and unreliable payment, mutiny broke out at least 45 times between 1572 and 1607.3 Ever since Geoffrey Parker’s ground-breaking The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, which introduced the ‘new military history’ into the historiography of the Dutch Revolt, early modern mutinies have been characterised as labour strikes.4 The question of what they meant politically, based on the authorities’ response rather than on the causes of the event and motives of the mutineers, was first raised by Gervase Phillips in an article on mutiny in sixteenth-century England. The process of negotiation during mutinies, Phillips argued, reflected the manner in which power and authority were exercised and negotiated within Tudor society as a whole.5 In the case of the Spanish monarchy, mutiny and civilian rebellion were likewise assimilated, both in practical response and in political discourse.

The army of Flanders reflected the multinational composition of the monarchy. Although the vast majority of the soldiers were mercenaries, as inhabitants of different lands of the Spanish monarchy they were also subjects of the Spanish king. On entering military service they took an oath of obedience, vowing not to leave service without permission and not to mutiny for their wages.6 According to traditional Catholic political theory, the authority of the Spanish kings flowed directly from God. A good king administered grace to the deserving and chastised those who acted contrary to the laws of morality inspired by divine justice, thus upholding the virtue and prosperity of the commonwealth.7 Authorities naturally condemned the military uprisings, but they were also forced to consider the political reality of the late sixteenth-century Spanish monarchy. In this global empire with subjects of endless diversity in nationalities, characters, traditions and customs, administering justice to one inevitably ran contrary to the interest of others. With the requirement of enforcing authority based on the moral laws of justice on the one hand, and the necessity to show leniency in order to secure the army’s continued support on the other, responding to mutiny for the Habsburg authorities essentially signified dealing with the problem of uniting justice and good kingship and the practical needs of the state.

This article focuses on the negotiations by the Spanish-Habsburg authorities with their own rebel soldiers. With the use of envoys, written supplications and face to face negotiations, the mediation resembled the process of negotiations after a rebellion in the civilian realm, which Violet Soen recently characterised as ‘vredehandel’. Soen analysed the negotiations between malcontent nobles and their king after a rebellion in the civilian realm, arguing that vassals were driven by a concept of duty to seek reconciliation.8 Archduke Albert of Austria and his officers were conscious that their authority as employers had suffered from the structural failure to provide salaries, but by addressing the rebellious soldiers as subjects rather than as employees, they appealed to a similar ‘dévoir de reconciliation’. One case, the authorities’ response to the great mutiny of Hamont (1599–1601), demonstrates the political significance of military rebellion. Moreover, I would like to suggest that the negotiations provide insight into the hybrid character of contemporary political discourse applied to concrete moments of decision-making. The language authorities employed in their reactions to the mutinies was suffused with political realism rather than with moral-religious ideas of justice, and directed at the interest of the state.

Negotiating sustento: from Hamont to Diest

In the autumn of 1599 General Francisco de Mendoza was stationed with his troops in the vicinity of Lothen, awaiting orders of Archduke Albert of Austria concerning their accommodation for the winter. By mid-December they were still waiting, and as the weather conditions deteriorated and resources ran out, both men and horses were suffering ‘the utmost misery and hunger’.9 Around Christmas Mendoza learned that a group of foot soldiers and cavalry had left the camp without permission and had taken refuge in Hamont, a minor village east of Weert.10 Their number increased daily and by New Year, in accordance with the usual patterns of mutiny in the Habsburg armies, they had named their leader or Electo.11 The mutiny of Hamont was a fact.

During the first weeks of 1600 pressure increased on Archduke Albert of Austria, Captain-General and the highest military commander in the Netherlands, to provide a solution for the troubles caused by the mutiny of Hamont. However, conform with the 1598 Act of Cession by which Philip II had signed over sovereignty over the Netherlands to his daughter Isabella and her husband-to-be Albert, the highest authority of the army of Flanders lay with Philip III and his Council of State and War in Madrid. It was the king who, through his Council, ultimately decided on appointments and allocated resources for the soldier’s wages. Thus in military matters the Archdukes were highly dependent on the royal court.12 Their main trouble was obtaining financial backing from the perpetually debt-ridden and regularly defaulting administration of the Spanish empire. Since the central treasury could never afford to pay the wages due to 60,000 to 70,000 soldiers at once, payment was irregular, which caused heavy competition between different companies and, ultimately, mutiny.13

While Mendoza and his officers sent increasingly desperate dispatches to Albert of Austria, authorities of local municipalities called upon the Archduke to stop the mutineers from pillaging the area and threatening civilians.14 The magistrates of Bergen (or Mons), a town in Hainaut, forwarded a note to Albert in which the mutineers threatened them with ‘total destruction’ unless they would pay a considerable sum, calling upon their sovereign for protection.15 Although the Archdukes went to rhetorical extremes to press the cosas de Flandes with the Council of State and War and their most powerful contact at court, the young king’s privado the Duke of Lerma, they received cool replies.16 Their outcries were only a small portion of dispatches from all the empire’s peripheries, pressing local interest from a distance through dramatic exaggeration.17 The Council of State wrote that all available resources had already been sent, and that Philip III should tell his uncle to endeavour to ‘take the best measures possible to arrest and cure this evil over there’.18

Attempts to make the mutineers return to obedience by means of persuasion had failed, as envoys were refused access to Hamont. Only in late January did Mendoza receive word that the Electo and his Council were willing to negotiate, on the condition that they would treat directly with Albert through a plenipotentiary. The Archduke appointed the statesman and maestre de campo Juan de Texeda, but negotiations were troubled from the start. On 17 February Texeda complained that ‘the soldiers are not prepared to accept anything His Highness offers, but only what they themselves demand’.19 Texeda’s mission boiled down to negotiating sustento, a system to neutralize and contain mutinies which had become especially popular in the Army of Flanders during the 1590s. While the mutinous soldiers awaited the payment of their full wages, a town or village was often appointed to them in order to carry the responsibility for their upkeep. Until the full payment was completed, the mutineers were in open rebellion and did not take orders from the high command, although they vowed to defend their enclave against the troops of the rebelling Low Countries.20 To be able to agree to a sustento settlement however, Albert needed financial backing from Madrid. By mid-March he gratefully received a special dispatch from the Council of State, enabling him to set the mutineers up with sustento in the small town of Diest in Brabant.21 On 19 March 1600 Texeda escorted the train of about 1,000 cavalry, 2,000 infantry and their entourage into the town, where they would remain until February 1601.22

For Diest, 19 March marked the beginning of a trying period, invariably referred to in local records as the mutinatie or mutiny.23 Years of war had already taken their toll on this town of beer brewers, part of the Nassau fiefdom, which had been burdened with a garrison continuously since 1567.24 According to an eye-witness, the total number of mutineers and their entourage amounted to about 6,000, which came down to 1.5 persons per inhabitant.25 The presence of the mutineers meant the introduction of a new order within the city walls. Although civilians were still governed by the mayor and his magistrates, the numerous mutineers answered only to the Electo and his Council. Extraordinary taxes appear in the municipal accounts with the explicit mention that they had been imposed ‘with consultation and consent of the Electo and his Council’.26 The mutineers had the right to purchase wine and beer free of tax, while beer tax revenues usually constituted over fifty per cent of the city’s annual income.27 Scraps of evidence in local records provide glimpses of what the mutineers’ presence must have meant for the inhabitants of Diest. In some cases the magistrates temporarily lowered the rent of a dwelling ‘since the mutineers have taken possession of the tenant’s parlour, having placed their horses in it, and have otherwise obstructed his rights’.28 The local sergeant was made redundant during the mutiny.29 And on the title page of the civilian court registry, between notes of measurements and small reminders, an anonymous clerk scribbled his small complaint: ‘What a mutiny is/those who have tasted it, know for sure’.30

Battle of Nieuwpoort, 2 July 1600, with under caption 3: ‘Esquadrons des mutines de Diest’ (upper right in the image).

Charles-Alexandre de Croÿ, Mémoires guerriers de ce qu’y c’est passé aux Pays-Bas, depuis le commencement de l’an 1600, jusques à la fin de l’année 1606 (Antwerp 1642) 11.

Special Collections, University of Amsterdam, OTM: OG 63–6373.

Punishment or diplomacy?

In the authorities’ reactions to the mutiny of Hamont, both in Madrid and in the fields around Zaltbommel, two main themes dominated: the necessity of acting with haste and the paramount importance of warding off a full rebellion or alteración general. The first reflex of officers when confronted with a sign of mutiny was to suppress it and quickly apprehend the culprits. Punishing lack of discipline and disobedience was a matter of principle, but generally it was also an effective way to prevent a minor uprising from turning into an alteración general.31 As Mendoza wrote to Archduke Albert,

His Highness needs to consider the inconvenience we would suffer if a full rebellion broke out, and that what he can cure today with little, will later cost a lot.32

The main objection to swift punishment however, was that it forced soldiers to take up arms against their own colleagues. Officers greatly feared that their soldiers would join forces with the mutineers, as Mendoza knew had happened during the time of the Duke of Alva. Frustrated, he explained to Albert that to his great disappointment it was impossible to punish the mutineers ‘by way of arms, as I would like to do, for there is nobody to do it without causing even more troubles’.33 The Infanta Isabella likewise declared that the behaviour of the mutineers was unacceptable, either on the basis of conscience or reason, but feared that ‘if one were to punish one man, everybody would be dragged in, and the entire camp would rebel’.34

The alternative to swift punishment was a diplomatic offensive, which was initiated during the early stages of the Hamont mutiny. It was customary to send an ‘honourable person’ (persona de respeto) to convince the mutineers to return to obedience, or in a later stage, to inquire after their terms and negotiate. Immediately after dismissing a violent response to the nascent mutiny as undesirable, Mendoza sent his sergeant-major Baltasar López to Hamont, but to no avail. The second envoy, maestre de campo Gaspar Zapena, was not even allowed to enter Hamont, and Captain Conradino, Governor of Weert, was likewise unsuccessful early in the new year.35 The mutineers were only prepared to treat with Juan de Texeda. His first task was to contain the rebellion and ensure that the mutineers would not actively seek to increase their number, and consequently to negotiate sustento.36 Soldiers were well acquainted with the terms of previous sustento-settlements. In fact, only months after the rebels of Hamont had settled in Diest, a fresh group of mutineers demanded ‘contributions like those of Diest’, and by August 1600 they had been assigned the town of Weert.37

The attempts at reconciliation from the side of the Habsburg authorities did not end with the containment of the mutiny within the walls of Diest. When in June 1600 it became clear that General Maurits van Nassau was planning a campaign in West Flanders, officers embarked on an internal diplomatic offensive to persuade the rebel soldiers to join their troops on the road to Nieuwpoort. Pressed by his officers, Archduke Albert instructed General Herman van den Bergh to beg the assistance of the mutineers of Diest in his name. Van den Bergh phrased his request in the most humble terms. With the assistance of God and the mutineers the Habsburg forces would be able to stop the enemy, he wrote, so would they please do His Highness ‘the tremendous favour of consenting to come to their assistance’?38 Meanwhile the Count of Solre, caballerizo mayor and Albert’s personal assistant, solicited the support of the recently rebelled soldiers of Hamont. He begged them to follow the example of the mutineers of Diest, who had just agreed to fight for Albert, the king of Spain and the Catholic faith, despite their general dissatisfaction.39 Days before the battle of Nieuwpoort he tried again, beseeching them

[...] to truly love your reputation, honour and the service of Their Highnesses, and to consent to make a decision worthy of yourselves, and demonstrate [...] that you are not inferior to those of Diest in audacity and affection for the service of Their Highnesses.40

Although the ‘new’ mutineers of Hamont did not respond to the authorities’ plea, those of Diest were part of the vanguard of the troops that left Ghent on 29 June, around 1,400 foot and 600 horse strong.41

After the defeat at Nieuwpoort the regiment of ‘mutines’ returned to Diest, and there they remained until the authorities had assembled the means to settle the final payment. With a total cost of 27,873 escudos paid as sustento in addition to the final settlement of 518,000 escudos, the great mutiny turned out to be the most expensive in the Army of Flanders so far. According to receipts of the Spanish royal treasury, the amount of money sent from Madrid to fund the Army of Flanders during the three years between 1599 and 1601 averaged 3.4 million escudos a year. The total cost of the mutiny thus amounted to sixteen per cent of a yearly contribution.42 On 22 April 1601 the Spanish Council of State and War convened in Valladolid to evaluate the pacification of the great mutiny of Hamont. The Council was keenly aware of the offence of the rebellious soldiers who, by openly defying royal authority, had violated the laws of justice and deserved to be punished. However, the counsellors advised King Philip III to extend a full pardon to the mutineers:

Since the usual thing to do in similar cases is to pardon everything that happened without limitation of time or place, the Council proposes that the same will be done with these. In the privileged realm of conscience there would be little to doubt because of the violence and bad disposition of the mutineers, the insolence and notorious injustice of their pretentions, and the marked disdain for the service and obedience they owe His Majesty and those who rule as vassals in his royal name. However, reason of state demands different considerations.43

Outside the privileged realm of conscience, in the sphere in which precedent and necessity ruled, a king sometimes needed to bow to his rebels in the interest of preserving his state.

Negotiating justice

The tension underlying the negotiations and sustento-arrangement touched the very core of the concept of good government. Shortly upon his arrival as the new sovereign of the Netherlands, Archduke Albert was presented with the memorial Discursos al archiduque Alberto, año 1600, in which the anonymous author introduced mutinies as one of the four major problems in Albert’s new state.44 Continuing the practice of negotiating with the mutineers was as ineffective as ‘cutting off a head of this hellish hydra’, which grew seven new ones in its place.45 His main objection, following Christian-humanist conceptions of good government, was that treating with mutineers was in conflict with the laws of justice, ‘the soul of the state’. A good prince secured his authority by binding his subjects to the laws of justice, making sure he ‘encourages the good ones with grace [...] and makes the bad ones tremble with the fear of punishment’. It was obviously unjust that during the recent mutinies only rebellious soldiers had received payment, and the obedient ones had been left utterly destitute.46

A central arbiter in both the military and civilian realm, Albert of Austria received pleas for justice from at least three different quarters, all supplicants presenting themselves as loyal subjects and servants. In the first place, the mutineers demanded justice in the form of payment. The Archdukes and officers were conscious of the legitimacy of this appeal, knowing that they had failed in their obligation to deliver the soldiers from their desperate plight. After all, ‘it is impossible to live without eating’.47 Second, the States of Brabant and local municipalities complained to their ‘natural lord, and sovereign prince’ that the pay of sustento drained the province’s resources, for what kind of justice was it to ‘encumber good vassals and subjects [...] to satisfy the mutineers’?48 Third, there were the inhabitants of Diest, burdened with the lengthy presence of mutineers. To be assigned a regular garrison was already a strain on a town, but it was considered a necessary evil, since ‘the obligation to preserve the army is paramount, and the preservation and contentment of the country are (also, L.K.) imperative, and to combine the one with the other is immensely difficult’.49 This time however, the inhabitants of Diest knew that the soldiers who took over their town were rebels, and that it was their sovereign who had voluntarily placed the burden on their shoulders. At every mention of the mutineers in municipal records, it is made explicit that they had entered the town ‘by ordre van Zyn Hoochheyt’, at the orders of His Highness.50

Acting contrary to the laws of justice, Albert came close to risking his state, for advisers warned him that ‘the natural love of his poor vassals is growing cold’.51 Yet with a large number of interpretations and conflicting interests, justice in absolute terms was clearly not suited to direct the confrontation of a military rebellion. For Archduke Albert and King Philip III, sustento proved an effective escape out of the deadlock, but its moral legitimacy was highly questionable. How could the authorities legitimise their concessions to the mutineers, and the system that was not only humiliating, but downright unjust?

Appearance and reason of state

An alternative to the unmanageable ideal of pure justice was to make use of calculated deceit and the appearance of justice in political rhetoric and practice. Justus Lipsius, whose Six Books on Politics (1589) were a crucial influence on Spanish political discourse from the late sixteenth century onwards52, had explored the various gradations of legitimate deceit, but the notion of separating the ‘utile’ from the ‘honestum’ was ultimately based on the historical works of Tacitus.53 Given his central concern with the consequences of rebellion and the dynamics between centre and periphery of a large empire, studying Tacitus, in the words of Michel de Montaigne, was ‘proper in a sick and troubled state’.54 The first Spanish translation of Tacitus’ oeuvre, by the lawyer and statesman Baltasar Álamos de Barrientos, included printed marginalia with a large number of aphorisms or lessons in statecraft drawn from the text.55 In both the main text and marginalia the body politic and body military were conflated to a high degree, and generic terms to denominate political disturbances like rebelión, sedición or alboroto were interchangeable with motín, which normally applied to mutiny alone; both were political occurrences to which, from the perspective of the prince, the same rules applied.56

Antonio Pérez, a close friend and collaborator of Álamos, included Tacitus’ account of the response of Emperor Tiberius to the Pannonian and German mutinies of the year 14 AD in a political manual dedicated to Philip III.57 For Pérez, the account illustrated the political expediency of gaining the love of subjects by avoiding the appearance of cruelty.58 The rule of justice required severity and punishment, but since the reputation of cruelty caused the hatred of subjects and eventually the loss of the state, a prudent prince made sure he was not perceived as the actor. Pérez pointed out that by ensuring that the mutinous soldiers in Germany punished their own ringleaders, Germanicus had effectively avoided the role of a cruel general. He concluded that

[...] what Tacitus wanted to teach every prince with regard to the soldiers of Pannonia, was that, to gain the love of his subjects and avoid their hatred – the first being the essence of his preservation, the second of his reduction – only he presides over the rewards, only he will be held for lord and distributor of grace, and only in his trials and punishment one acknowledges the power and necessity of administering justice.59

From the sixteenth century onwards, political writers concerned with the state inevitably dealt with the influence of Machiavelli, either by denouncing him or by adopting (parts of) his ‘doctrine’.60 In the political theory of Counter-Reformation Spain, it was common and obligatory to depict Machiavelli as an evil man whose tenets originated from the devil himself.61 Spanish Tacitist discourse certainly did not abandon Christian-humanist traditions or discard the value of justice in a ‘Machiavellian’ manner, but as a virtue justice was not primarily treated as a political objective in itself. As a means to achieve an aim beyond its intrinsic value, the appearance of justice could be as effective as the pure form in political theory but also in the realm of practical politics. During the early stages of the first Hamont mutiny, Albert and Mendoza explicitly ordered maestre de campo Zapena to pretend that he had no knowledge of their rebellion. This way he would be able to treat the rebels as obedient soldiers whose only crime had been to abandon the camp, and who could legitimately be allowed to return without severe punishment being demanded.62 In March 1600, worrying about the wave of mutinies in the Netherlands, the Council of State in Madrid advised Philip III to seek money to pay off his soldiers but if this turned out to be impossible, he could ‘answer the Archduke with nice words without promising nor assuring anything certain, and that meanwhile he should attempt to make do with the money sent to him’.63 Crucial was not whether the expressions were sincere, but how they would be perceived, and the real effect this would have in the political realm.

With virtue subordinated to political expediency, the legitimising power for controversial measures lay in the ultimate objective. This objective was present at every stage of the decision-making process for Philip III and his Council of State – maintaining dominion, or the state.64 The interest of state was frequently referred to as a justification, for example when the Council proposed to impose an extraordinary tax on flour in Castile in order to gather resources for the war effort in Flanders. A consulta assured the king that in case the plan would meet resistance, ‘his Majesty can very legitimately command that it be executed anyway’ since ‘the preservation and expansion of his kingdoms’ were at stake.65 As is clear in the earlier quote, eventually the counsellors employed the same rhetoric when they advised the king to extend a full pardon to the rebels of Hamont. In the final analysis, the ‘privileged realm of conscience’, where justice was absolute and clear, was separated from the real world of politics, where it was instrumental to the interest of the state. In only a few words, the concise line which decided the fate of the 3,000 mutineers of Hamont thus contained the justification of the sustento-arrangement and the concessions the mighty king had made to his rebels – ‘reason of state demands different considerations’.66


The practice of negotiating power and authority with mutineers was not new, as the cases of the Italian tercios and Tudor mutinies of the early sixteenth century clearly demonstrate. Likewise, many sovereigns had preceded Philip III in making concessions to their civilian rebels. Yet by the end of the sixteenth century, statesmen and theorists of the Catholic Spanish monarchy openly contrasted the ideals of moral justice with political reality. In fact it was precisely during this period that in most of Western Europe the humanist concept of moral politics was gradually being replaced by an essentially pragmatic way of thinking about politics, directed at the interest and preservation of the state. This transition has been firmly localised in the period of civil wars and religious violence during the late Renaissance by Maurizio Viroli and others, although they largely limited themselves to analysing intellectual and discursive contexts.67

Political vocabulary adapted itself to the challenges of ruling a composite monarchy, but this dynamic worked both ways.68 Openly using the demands of the state as a means to legitimise behaviour had a direct impact on historical events. The response to the great mutiny at the threshold of the seventeenth century shows that within the Spanish monarchy, in political writing and in governmental circles alike, a hybrid political discourse had appeared – still very much engaged with defining and observing the laws of justice, but clearly suffused with political realism and directed at the interest of the state. This article does not claim that the mutiny of Hamont played an active part in bringing about this transformation. The negotiations and rhetoric surrounding the mutiny however, do constitute a unique account of how the tension between justice and reason of state played out and on the level of practical politics.

How far statesmen and theorists could go in allowing power to prevail over morality of course depended on the context in which they acted and wrote. In the intimacy of a private meeting, the Council of State might openly contrast the ‘privileged realm of conscience’ with reason of state, but theorists writing for a public audience or aspiring a career at court needed to be careful to avoid the stain of Machiavellianism. The thin and fluctuating line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy lies beyond the scope of this article. What is clear is that political behaviour and its legitimising ideas and rhetoric were intimately connected with the complications of ruling an empire of unprecedented scale. Whether theory followed practice or the other way around is a wider question which deserves further exploration. The dynamic between words and action at any point in history is a complex topic, but we can at least observe a concrete outcome of it when we look at images of the battle of Nieuwpoort, and see the Electo and mutineers of Diest riding out.