Military Wiki
Alessandro Farnese
Portrait of Farnese by Jean Baptiste de Saive
Duke of Parma, Piacenza and Castro, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands
Preceded by Ottavio Farnese
Succeeded by Ranuccio I Farnese
Personal details
Born (1545-08-27)27 August 1545
Parma, Parma
Died 3 December 1592(1592-12-03) (aged 47)
Spouse(s) Infanta Maria of Portugal
Religion Roman Catholicism

Alexander Farnese (Italian language: Alessandro Farnese , Spanish language: Alejandro Farnesio ) (27 August 1545 – 3 December 1592) was Duke of Parma and Piacenza from 1586 to 1592, and Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1578 to 1592. He is best known for his successful campaign 1578-1592 against the Dutch Revolt, in which he captured the main cities in the south (now Belgium) and returned them to the control of Catholic Spain.[1]


Alessandro was the son of Duke Ottavio Farnese of Parma, a grandchild of Pope Paul III and Margaret, the illegitimate daughter of the King of Spain and Habsburg Emperor Charles V. He had a twin brother, Charles, who only lived one month. His mother was the half-sister of Philip II of Spain and John of Austria. He led a significant military and diplomatic career in the service of Spain under the service of his uncle the King. He fought in the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and then in the Netherlands against the rebels.

He accompanied his mother to Brussels when she was appointed Governor of the Netherlands. In 1565 his marriage with Maria of Portugal was celebrated in Brussels with great splendour. Alexander Farnese had been brought up in Spain with his cousin, the ill-fated Don Carlos, and Don John, both of whom were about the same age as himself, and after his marriage he took up his residence at once in the court of Madrid.

It was seven years before he again had the opportunity to display his great military talents. During that time the provinces of the Netherlands had revolted against Spanish rule. Don John, who had been sent as governor-general to restore order, found difficulties in dealing with William the Silent, who had succeeded in uniting all the provinces in common resistance to King Philip II.

Governor General

In the autumn of 1577, Farnese was sent to join Don John at the head of reinforcements, and it was his able strategy and prompt decision at a critical moment that won the Battle of Gembloux in 1578. Shortly afterwards Don John, whose health had broken down, died. Farnese was appointed to take his place, confronted with a difficult situation.

Perceiving that there were divisions in the ranks of his opponents between Catholic and Protestant, Fleming and Walloon, he skilfully set to work by persuasion to take advantage of the divisions and foment the growing discord. By doing so he was able to bring back the Walloon provinces' allegiance to the king. By the treaty of Arras, January 1579, he was able to secure the support of the 'Malcontents', as the Catholic nobles of the south were styled, to the royal cause. The reply to the treaty of Arras was the Union of Utrecht, concluded a few weeks later between the seven northern provinces, who abjured the sovereignty of King Philip and bound themselves to use all their resources to maintain their independence of Spanish rule. As soon as he had obtained a secure basis of operations in Hainaut and Artois, Farnese set himself in earnest to the task of reconquering Brabant and Flanders by force of arms. Town after town fell into his power. Tournai, Maastricht, Breda, Bruges and Ghent opened their gates. In a war composed mostly of sieges rather than battles, he proved his mettle. His strategy was to offer generous terms for surrender: there would be no massacres or looting; historic urban privileges were retained; there was a full pardon and amnesty; return to the Catholic Church would be gradual.[2]

He finally laid siege to the great seaport of Antwerp. The town was open to the sea, strongly fortified, and defended with resolute determination and courage by its citizens. They were led by the famous Marnix van St. Aldegonde and assisted by an ingenious Italian engineer named Gianibelli. The siege began in 1584 and called forth all of Farnese's military genius. He cut off all access to Antwerp from the sea by constructing a bridge of boats across the Scheldt from Calloo to Oordam, in spite of the desperate efforts of the besieged townspeople to prevent its completion. The terms offered included the clause that all Protestants had to leave the city within two years. This disciplined capture and occupation of the town should not be confused with the bloody events of the Spanish Fury on 4 November 1576. Farnese was avoiding the mistakes of his predecessor Don Luis de Requesens, although fear of a repeat of Spanish atrocities could have been a factor in the fleeing of 60,000 Antwerp citizens (60% of the pre-siege population). With the Fall of Antwerp, and with Mechelen and Brussels already in the hands of Farnese, the whole of the southern Netherlands was once more placed under the authority of Philip. At one stage Holland and Zeeland, whose geographical position made them unassailable except by water, were hard pressed to retain territory. The poorly supplied English forces, sent by Elizabeth I, were duly defeated by the Duke's.

Spanish Armada

In 1586, Alexander Farnese became Duke of Parma through the death of his father; he never ruled, instead naming his son Ranuccio as regent. He applied for leave to visit his paternal territory, but Philip would not permit him as there was no replacement in the Netherlands. However, while retaining him in his command at the head of a formidable army, the king would not give his sanction to his great general's desire to use it for the conquest of England, at the time a supporter of the rebels. Farnese at first believed it possible to successfully invade England with a force of 30,000 troops, without significant naval protection, relying mainly on the hope of a native Catholic insurrection. Philip overruled him, and began the work that led to the Spanish Armada. As part of the general campaign preparations, Farnese moved against Ostend and Sluis. Sluis was taken in August 1587. The Armada reached the area a year later. After its defeat, Farnese broke up his camp in Dunkirk in September.

Siege of Paris

Farnese was to have turned his attention back to the northern Netherlands, where the Dutch had regrouped, but on 1–2 August 1589, Henry III of France was assassinated, and Farnese was ordered into France, in support of the Catholic opposition to Henry IV of France. This enabled the Dutch rebels to turn the tide in favour of the Dutch Revolt, which had been in ever deeper trouble since 1576. In September 1590 he moved to relieve Paris from the lengthy siege it had been placed under by Huguenots and Royalists loyal to Henry IV.

On 20 April 1592 he repeated the same deed at Rouen, but was subsequently wounded in the hand. His health quickly declining, Farnese called his son Ranuccio to command his troops. Returning to Flanders, he was however removed from the position of governor by the Spanish court. He died in Arras on 3 December 1592, aged 47.


Alexander Farnese's ancestors in three generations
Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma Father:
Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma
Paternal Grandfather:
Pier Luigi Farnese, Duke of Parma
Paternal Great-grandfather:
Pope Paul III
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Silvia Ruffini
Paternal Grandmother:
Girolama Orsini
Paternal Great-grandfather:
Luigi Orsini
Paternal Great-grandmother:
Giulia Conti
Margaret of Parma
Maternal Grandfather:
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
Maternal Great-grandfather:
Philip I of Castile
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Joanna of Castile
Maternal Grandmother:
Johanna Maria van der Gheynst
Maternal Great-grandfather:
Gilles Johann van der Gheynst
Maternal Great-grandmother:
Johanna van der Caye van Cocambi


From his marriage with Infanta Maria of Portugal, a.k.a. Maria of Guimarães, he had three children:

Name Birth Death Notes
Margherita Farnese 7 November 1567 13 April 1643 married, 1581, Vincenzo I, Duke of Mantua; no issue
Ranuccio Farnese 28 March 1569 5 March 1622 succeeded as Duke of Parma
married, 1600, Margherita Aldobrandini; had issue
Odoardo Farnese 7 December 1573 21 February 1626 became a Cardinal


  • Pietromarchi, Antonello (1998). Alessandro Farnese l'eroe italiano delle Fiandre. Rome: Gangemi. 
  1. Bart de Groof, "Alexander Farnese and the Origins of Modern Belgium," Bulletin de l'Institut Historique Belge de Rome (1993) Vol. 63, pp 195-219.
  2. Violet Soen, "Reconquista and Reconciliation in the Dutch Revolt: The Campaign of Governor-General Alexander Farnese (1578-1592)," Journal of Early Modern History (2012) 16#1 pp 1-22.

External links

Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma
House of Farnese
Born: 27 August 1545 Died: 3 December 1592
Political offices
Preceded by
John of Austria
Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands
Served alongside: Margaret of Parma
Succeeded by
Count Peter Ernst von Mansfeld
Italian nobility
Preceded by
Duke of Parma and Piacenza
Succeeded by
Ranuccio I

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).