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Part 14 - Spanish infantry

by George Gush

SPAIN WAS VERY definitely the dominant military power of 16th Century Europe, primarily because her troops were the only real 'Regulars' west of the Ottoman Empire they were permanently employed, since Spain was permanently at war; Spanish forces alone provided anything like a career-structure for officers also, and partly for this reason enjoyed the best generalship of the period. Spanish armies were far the most efficient, and acted as model and training-school for many others.
    Spanish commitments were as great as Spanish wealth, and her troops fought in Spain itself, Oran and Tripoli, Italy, Ireland, France, South and Central America, and, above all, in the Low Countries, under Spanish control from 1519.
    Under Charles V (1519-58), Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were united, and even into the 17th Century Spanish forces cooperated with Imperial armies; they played a considerable part in the 30 Years' War. However, by this time the economic and political decline of Spain was sapping the strength and morale of her troops, and their decline was highlighted by the disaster of Rocroi (1643), a defeat, at French hands, from which they never recovered.

Ferdinand and Isabella

    Their Catholic Majesties undertook a thorough reorganisation of the rather heterogeneous forces of their newly-united Kingdom, and it was from this that the 16th Century Spanish army sprang.
    The main infantry force for home defence was the militia of the fortified cities, the Hermanadad (Brotherhood). This was reorganised into battalions of ten 50-man companies each. Those of Andalusia (1490) had seven per cent men with firearms, 33 1/3 per cent crossbowmen, 42 per cent with spears or pikes, and the rest pioneers and craftsmen. A sort of uniform was worn, consisting of a white woollen over-tunic with a hood, sleeves tight at the top but flaring out widely from the elbow, and a red cross back and front. Trousers (probably tight hose) were also red; boots or sandals were worn. Helmets were commonly of sallet type, much favoured in Spain at this time. Provincial militia served throughout the period, mainly against rebellions - in 1567 they were 33 1/3 per cent crossbowmen, 66 2/3 per cent arquebusiers, with some lancers.
    A standing army under fuller Royal control was started in the 1490s with Constabulary on the lines of the French 'Bandes de Ordonnance' (see Part 2) and Infantry of the Ordinance, formed in 100-man companies. They were probably similar to the Hermanadad troops in appearance, and were 1/3 pikemen (modelled on Swiss mercenaries), 1/3 Aragonese sword-and-buckler men, and 1/3 crossbowmen or arquebusiers.

The Italian Wars

    Once an army was created, and the Moors finally conquered (1492), a more active foreign policy was possible, and Spanish armies first began to make their mark in Europe in the early Italian wars, under the great Gonzalvo de Cordoba.
    A high proportion of this expeditionary force were crossbowmen, and there were also many sword-and-buckler men, but the former were steadily replaced with arquebusiers (the Spanish pioneering the use of massed firearms) and the latter (despite some striking successes against pikes-for example at Ravenna, 1512) by pikemen, who had some chance of standing against cavalry. Infantry firepower, combined with skilful use of field fortification, however, was the key to early Spanish success.
    The troops were divided into 'Colunelas' (columns), under 'Coroneis', at first of about 600 men in three 'squadrons'. In 1505, 20 Colunelas, of 1,000 to 1,500 men in four or five 'banderas' were established. They were predominantly pikemen and arquebusiers, but included a few halberdiers and up to perhaps 20 per cent of sword-and-buckler men.
    The infantry still wore close fitting hose from the waist down, often with calf-high Moorish boots of red Morocco leather; a tunic with a very long and wide skirt might also be worn. Even arquebusiers could wear a plate corselet, but mail shirt, studded brigantine or stout leather jerkin was a more usual type of protection. Nearly all seem to have had helmets - simple sallets, burgonets or cabacete morions. Red was a popular colour, and scarlet military cloaks are mentioned. A picturesque unit in Gonzalvo's army was the negro guard of the field-treasury, clad in fuschia-blue cloaks (there were field-forges, field-mills, and even travelling altars as well).
    As in later years, the Spanish infantry were supplemented by mercenaries - mainly Italian skirmishes with arquebusses, and Germans with pike or arquebus. There was even a 'secret weapon', tried in 1512 - from 30 to 100 'war-carts' on two wheels, carrying two or three heavy arquebusses, and a spear and scythe-blade projecting in front. A five-foot trail-pole behind allowed for man-power propulsion. Apparently designed to break up infantry or cavalry attacks, these early 'tanks' were presumably not successful, as they were only used once.

The Tercios

    Emerging in the early 1530s, these were a new step in infantry organisation, for the Spanish or any other European army - the first large permanent infantry units, both administrative and tactical, with 'territorial' titles (the earliest were 'Lombardy', 'Naples' and 'Sicily') and enduring traditions and esprit de corps - they soon acquired nick-names too -'The Invincibles', 'The Immortals'; with the earlier 'Corunelas' they were the ancestors of all later regiments.
    They were created by amalgamating existing Corunelas in threes (it may be this which gave rise to the name 'tercio', but it is likelier that it comes from their resemblance to one of the three 'battles' of earlier armies). This gave an organisation of 12 companies of 258 men each, two being of arquebusiers only, the others of both arquebusiers and pikemen, giving a roughly 50:50 ratio of pikes to 'shot' (rather advanced for its time).
    This basic set-up seems to have lasted throughout the 16th Century, with only two significant changes. The first is a decrease in the proportion of pikemen, which fell to 40 per cent by the 1580s; the second the introduction of the musket. This weapon was pioneered by the Spanish army, and seems to have appeared in the tercios in the 1560s. At first the proportion of musketeers in the Tercio was under ten per cent, but by the last decade of the century Parma's army in the Netherlands is said to have had more musketeers than arquebusiers.
    In the 17th Century the proportion of pikemen fell to only 20 to 30 per cent, but the trend toward the musket appears to have been somewhat reversed, a proportion of from five to 33 per cent being used. The number of companies was increased to 15 - 20 in 1603 and fixed at 15 by an ordinance of 1632, which also abolished the arquebus-only companies. Actual strength, however, probably fell, and throughout our period the realities corresponded only very roughly with 'paper' strength and organisations; Tercios in the 16th Century averaged closer to 1,500 than 3,000 men.
    A Tercio was commanded by a Maestre de Campo, assisted by a 'Sargente Mayor' and a small staff including a doctor, a Drum Major (ic Signals), a Chaplain and an honour guard of eight halberdiers (there may well have been a few sword-and-buckler men and halberdiers among the Tercio pikemen, but they would not form over five to ten per cent of the whole). Each company had four officers and NCOs, including a standard-bearer, plus a chaplain, a drummer and a fifer.
    One photograph shows a typical early Tercio formation: the pikemen are massed centrally, in a solid square (derived from the Swiss); there are four 'mangas' (sleeves) of shot at the corners, linked by a thin screen on each face of the square, provided by the arquebus companies.
    A rather clumsy formation, wasteful of manpower, it was nonetheless used into the 17th Century with considerable success, though in later years the mangas became broader and stronger and the shot at the rear were omitted; one advantage over linear formation was its aptitude for all-round defence should a flank be turned. However, it did prevent the full use of firepower in one direction, and by the 17th Century Tercios did employ semi-line formations (though nine to 12 ranks deep) on occasion. The contemporary diagrams show some of the variations possible in battle and on the march.
    The number of Tercios increased over the period; the Walloon and Burgundian troops being formed into Tercios around the end of the 16th Century; later ones included 'Portugal', 'Liege', 'Brabant', 'Flanders', 'Malaga', 'Sardinia', and 'Armada' (marines), but there remained many troops, especially non-Spanish ones, whose Banderas were not organised into Tercios. These were usually formed into Colunelas or Regiments of varying size; one of Germans in 1536 was no less than 8,800 strong (20 bands)! This was exceptional, however; most had five to ten banderas, with a similar combination of arms to that of a Tercio.

Infantry dress

    That for the beginning of the period has already been described; style throughout was fairly uniform, following - or even setting - civilian fashion, the troops generally distinguishing themselves by richer dress - silver trimming was common. In the mid- to late-16th Century short stuffed breaches were worn; doublets could also be padded; coats with hanging sleeves were often worn. Spanish and Burgundian troops were particularly characterised by the stiff white neck-ruff, which they wore longer than others, into the 17th Century.
    Longer, baggy breeches then became usual, often with red stockings; by mid-century the usual dress for an infantryman was a black felt hat with a kerchief round it, white linen shirt, dark brown doublet and breeches and a buff coat. There was, however, no uniform, properly so-called, before the later 17th Century-a document of 1610, indeed, remarks: 'Never was there a strict ruling on the costume and armament of the Spanish infantry, for it was this that raised the morale and dash that must possess the men of war'.
    The national distinguishing mark (shared with Imperial troops) was first, the red cross (X) on back and breast, later the red sash worn by officers, pikemen and cavalry.
    Musicians were more ornately dressed, and in the 16th Century wore small round caps and heavily-slashed clothing; by the mid-17th Century they had coat trim diagonally striped in the Hapsburg red and white. Officers sometimes carried gilt partisans or halberds, and had a shield carried before them by a page (even in battle).
    After the early 16th Century, only pikemen, halberdiers, sword-and-buckler men and officers were likely to wear plate armour - a corselet, often with gorget and armour for shoulders, arms and thighs (at least half the Spanish pikemen were armoured). Armour could be blackened, but that of Alva's army (1567) is said to have been richly decorated and gilded. 16th Century arquebusiers often wore mail shirts or leather jerkins for protection; 16th Century musketeers, encumbered with their heavy weapon, its stand, bandoliers etc, wore no protection and usually affected a felt hat rather than the burgonets, morions or caps of the other infantry.


Spanish officer of the later 16th Century, probably around 1580.

Spanish standard bearer, circa 1580.

A Spanish arquebusier in sallet, corselets and short tassets: early 16th Century. Long-skirted tunic over hose and soft shoes. Could have shoulder and elbow protection as well, or no armour at all. Pikemen etc could be similar. [Based on Conquest of Oran by Juan de Borgoña, 1514]

B Spanish crossbowman, late 15th or early 16th Century. Tight hose, studded brigantine with mail sleeves, sallet helmet, plate protection at knees, Moorish boots. Pikemen, swordsmen and arquebusiers could be similar.

C musketeer, 1581. Velvet cap would later probably be replaced by 'bowler' or felt hat; later musketeers would also wear bandolier. Note heavily tasselled flask, sash and musket rest.

D arquebusier of a Tercio, 1534. Wears ornate morion, 'gola demaia' (mail cape), and short, baggy leather jerkin.

E Spanish arquebusier 1551. Tunic over mail shirt, sash and ornate burgonet; could well be Italian.

F Guard halberdier, second half of 16th Century. Colours probably red and yellow.

G officer, late 16th or early 17th Century. Half armour, ornate morion, rapier with round guard. Plumes probably red-white-red. Sash red.

H late 16th or early 17th Century arquebusier. Morion, hanging sleeves, knee-length baggy breeches. Note tasselled pouches and match on belt.

I arquebusier 1551 with flat plumed cap with narrow brim, slashed tunic (probably leather) and slashed and embroidered breeches. Note sword suspension, also in other drawings. Note also alternative cap worn by some Spanish/Imperial arquebusiers a little earlier.

J officer 1581 wearing corselet with embroidered cloth covering, velvet bag-type hat with narrow brim, stuffed and slashed breeches and sash.

K sergeant of a Tercio 1534. Pikemen would be similar - note pike head inset.

Spanish drummer and fifer of the late 16th Century - probably 1580s.

Above: Cabacete morion, a typical early Spanish helmet.
Below: a Spanish sallet, late 15th or early 16th Century (Tower of London Armouries).

Contemporary diagram showing Spanish Tercio formations.

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Next: Part 15 - Spanish Ginetes to Caballos Corazas by George Gush

Return to Contents of Renaissance Warfare by George Gush (Airfix Magazine Articles)

See also: Spanish & Moorish Soldiers in Conquest of Oran, 1509, painted by Juan de Borgoña, 1514
The 1535 Hapsburg Attack on La Goleta from the 1744 copies of the 'Conquest of Tunis' Tapestries.
Spanish Soldiers in Códice De Trajes, 1547
Other Spanish & North African Illustrations of Costume and Soldiers