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 NC0s, 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, word-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.

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.


Part 15 - Spanish Ginetes to Caballos Corazas


THE SPANISH 'KNIGHTS', like the Spanish infantry, were reorganised by Ferdinand and Isabella, becoming a semi-regular 'Constabulary' on the pattern of the French 'Bandes d'Ordonnance'. Their Catholic Majesties also somewhat lightened the man-at-arms' full armour and introduced a rather handier 'Lanza d'Armas' in place of the very heavy medieval 'Lanzon'. They are said to have abolished horse-armour, but some Spanish cavalry certainly retained this much later.
    In 1493 the 'Old Guard of Castile' was created, originally 2,000 strong, in 25 companies of 80 men-at-arms, each also having 20 light 'Ginetes' (Genitors) attached. Each man-at-arms had two horses and a page who rode his 'turnabout' horse and carried his lance. The 'Old Guard' (who survived in reduced form to the 17th Century) wore 'white' armour (uncovered, polished steel), with red plumes and the horse-trappings illustrated.
    As well as the men-at-arms in Royal service, there were also the lances of the Military Orders, Grandees, Nobles, Prelates, and of the wealthier inhabitants of Andalusia and Murcia. The Grandees and nobles raised about 1,800 horse in the 1530s and '40s (a quarter only were actually men-at-arms); the 'Cavalry of Distinction' of Andalusia and Murcia may have reached 6,000, but only a small proportion of these would be men-at-arms, and most of these cavalry were of rather dubious quality in training and equipment. Many served only in Spain.
    From 1519 Spain also had the Bandes d'Ordonnance of the Low Countries, some 3,000 excellent Burgundian 'lances' in squadrons of about 20.
    During the Italian Wars, the Spanish also used a fair number of well-equipped but not over-enthusiastic Italian lances (a 'lance' contained the man-at-arms himself, a page or squire, and one or two lighter cavalry and servants; Italian ones had four horsemen, at least one a non-combatant; the lighter cavalry would form up separately in battle).
    Spain always had some difficulty in maintaining many well-equipped men-at-arms; by 1505 there were actually only nine companies, totalling 1,050, and though Philip II raised the total to 17 companies, these were reduced in 1560 to 50 each. The standard of their mounts and armour is said to have been below that of other nations, and in the later 16th Century they did not form more than about ten per cent of the usual cavalry force.
    In the 17th Century - officially from 1633 - the men-at-arms lost their lances; their armour was reduced to morion and cuirasse, and they were armed with pistols. In their new guise they were known as 'Caballos Corazas'.


    Up to 1512, most Spanish lighter cavalry seem to have been incorporated in the lances of the men-at-arms; they would have operated separately and thereafter were organised separately, normally in 'cornets' of 100 (up to 500 for general's cornet), which could be grouped in provisional 'Trozos' of 300 to 600, or 'Tercios' of 500 or more; these could be grouped in regiments or brigades. Cornets, of lancers and arquebusiers at least, were identifiable by cassocks of a unit colour, worn over armour.
    The lighter cavalry who tended to replace the men-at-arms were the lancers. Found in other armies (English demi-lances for example), they were particularly characteristic of the Spanish, and continued to carry their lances through the first half of the 17th Century (though the lance itself became lighter).
    They wore three-quarter armour, open helmet, and rode unarmoured horses, and by the mid-16th Century carried a pistol in place of the man-at-arms' mace.


    These were the typical Spanish light cavalry of the 15th and early 16th Century. Dashing skirmishers, they carried the heart-shaped Moorish shield and used Moorish tactics - feigned retreats and so on. Gonzalo de Cordoba's arm in 1495 had 500 genitors compared to a mere 100 men-at-arms. They could carry crossbows, but their chief weapons were sword and javelin. Some had plate armour, but most had mail shirt or brigantine, steel cap or morion, and odd bits of arm and leg armour.

Stradiots and Italians

    Stradiots (who probably got their name from the Spanish) were introduced in 1507. These 'Albanians' were also employed by Venice and France; they dressed very like the Turks they often fought, and carried scimitar and sometimes a Turkish type shield. Their favourite weapons were mace or war-hammer, and a short lance or spear with a point at both ends. A steel bascinet replaced the Turkish turban, and they wore mail shirt or padded aketon. Later, considerable numbers of Italian light cavalry were hired, at first with crossbow, later with arquebus.


    In 1502, the 'Archers of Burgundy' were incorporated into the Spanish cavalry as, apparently, a sort of Royal bodyguard. They wore a plumed open-face burgonet, mail shirt, and some arm and leg armour, with a loose white surcoat bearing the red cross of Burgundy on front and back. The fore-quarters of their mounts were protected by a 'clibano' decorated with a royal monogram. Unlike many 'Archers' of the period, they actually carried a bow, in a bowcase-cum-quiver slung on the right of the saddle. They also had two-handed swords (!) and I would imagine that a light lance would also be carried.

Firearm cavalry

    Firearm cavalry or 'escopeteros' appeared early in the Spanish army, and were first organised into separate bodies in the very early 16th Century.
    The two chief types of the 16th Century were 'Herreruelos' and 'Herguletiers' (mounted arquebusiers). From the later Italian wars they replaced the earlier Ginetes.
    The Herreruelos were armed with pistols, and fairly heavily armoured, corresponding to the hired German reiters and other cuirassier types, while the arquebusiers were lighter, only about half of them wearing corselets, the rest leather, and were armed with a longer-range weapon. They also operated on foot as well as mounted. Mounted, both could play a similar role, operating in front or on the flanks of men-at-arms and lancers, preparing and supporting attacks by their fire, but herreruelos were more likely to charge in themselves. Both types carried swords, and arquebusiers sometimes carried a pistol too (while in the 17th Century cuirassiers and Caballos Corazas could have arquebusses).
    Dragoons first appeared in Spanish ranks in the 1630s, and tended to replace the mounted arquebusiers in the 1640s and later. They were similarly armed but carried, besides sword and arquebus, a mace and a small pick which could be used to tether the horse while the rider operated dismounted. Their advantage was really cheapness - being mounted infantry rather than cavalry able to operate dismounted, they could be worse-mounted than the arquebusiers and required no armour. The early dragoons had a white slouch hat with a red feather, buff coat, calfskin gauntlets and boots and breeches decorated with red slashes and piping.


    It is hard to fix the relative proportions of these cavalry types. Sir Roger Williams, referring to the second half of the 16th Century, says there were five lancer cornets to every one of herguletiers, but Spanish writers of similar but slightly later period suggest 25 percent lancers, 25 to 30 percent arquebusiers, and most of the rest cuirassiers (probably including herreruelos and the German pistoleers hired in large numbers). The Spaniards did not consider Germans very highly but their horses were cheap and plentiful and often formed from 25 to 40 per cent of the 'Spanish' cavalry from Charles V's time on. Indeed, one should remember that a large part of any Spanish army was usually non-Spanish - in 1588 the Duke of Parma's army of 60,000 men had only 18 per cent Spaniards, whereas Germans and Walloons, in their own units, made up around a third of the army each!
    It is usually said, following Oman, that cavalry were a small proportion of Spanish armies. Certainly the infantry were the main strength, and the observation made may be true of the early Italian wars, but later the cavalry usually seem to have made up from a quarter to a third of the army.


    Most infantry flags and many cavalry ones would be based, at least from 1519 on, upon the red 'cross raguly' of Burgundy (really two staffs with cut-off 'shoots' on each side, it could simply appear as a red 'X'). It could be on a plain white background, or a chequered or striped one of green, black or blue and white, or more elaborate like those illustrated.
    During the union with the Empire, Imperial eagles, sometimes bearing the arms of the Spanish provinces, could also appear, and the red-white-red Hapsburg horizontal stripes are also likely. Religious subjects were also very usual, such as: red, with the Virgin in glory in gold; blue, with the virgin in glory, moon and stars, and the inscriptions 'Ave Gratia Plena', 'Stella Maris' and 'Pulcher ut Luna'; or Virgin on one side, Christ crucified on the other.
    Commanders-in-chief had their own standard of guidon shape carried with them. That used by Don John of Austria in the Netherlands bore a crucifix and the motto 'In Hoc Signo Vici Turcos, In Hoc Haereticos Vincam'.
    Infantry had the usual six-foot squarish standards, lancers often long swallow-tailed standards, other cavalry usually small square flags.


Key to drawings: a trumpeter, 1525. Breeches red slashed yellow; upper sleeves yellow slashed red, lower sleeves and hose yellow; jacket buckskin; saddle blue, edged gold; white felt hat, probably with red plume. b Genitor, 1509. Shield is roughly heart-shaped, with slight 'V' when seen from above, and is white with a red line about three inches in from edge. Steel cap black, brigantine red. Note elbow and knee armour. Plume red or pink.
c Caballo Coraza, early 17th Century. Corselet and morion steel; sleeves yellow, shoulder pads red and yellow; breeches red and yellow; boots, bandolier, gauntlets and harness (the only horse trapping is a plain breast strap) all brown. d Herreruelo, 1560. Leg and arm armour and corselet polished steel; breeches black, striped red; cloak black, lined red; 'bowler' hat black with red ribbon and many holes showing red lining. e mounted arquebusier, 1630s. Jacket yellow; cross, shoulder pads and under-sleeves red; breeches blue with red stripes; hose yellow; boots black. Note hanging sleeves. f and h Escopetero, 1508, and Caballo Ligero, 1493. Escopetero has black saddle edged red; red and yellow slashed breeches. Lancer's trousers are brown; corselet covered. Both steel armour and leather horse trappings. g man-at-arms, 1560. Breeches yellow; cassock purple; lining, cross and plume red; pennon red over yellow. h horse trappings of Old Guard of Castile, 1490s. Lion red on white (arms of Leon); castle yellow on red (arms of Castile). They are placed in opposite order on other side. i standard bearer, 1525. Saddle, harness and tassels red; saddle edged silver; saddle cloth edged gold; armour and scales, covering rear of horse only, polished steel; plumes (from front) yellow-red-white; standard white, with gold crucifix and red cross.

Key to flags a Cardinal Ximenes' flag, carried at the taking of Oran, which he led. White flag, dark shading, lines and tassels, Cardinal's hat red; light shading gold. b also 1509. Red cross and border on white. c cavalry flag, about 1600, showing the Virgin Mary. One possibility for this is a red flag and figure with gold rays. d the old 'national' flag. Likely to be carried by Spanish in early 16th Century. Yellow castle on red (Castile), red lion on white (Leon). e carried by pikes at Pavia, 1525. Quarters as 'd' alternating with (probably) the four red pales on yellow of Aragon - which could also be carried on its own. f Catalonia. Four red bars on yellow. g men-at-arms flag at Pavia. Probably yellow castles on red quartered with four red pales on yellow, tail of flag white. h cavalry flag at Pavia. Probably red crosses on white, and either red on white or red on yellow stripes; tail white. i mounted standard, 1503, Green flag, black eagle, rest gold. j red cross raguly, green and white stripes: late 16th or early 17th Century. k cavalry flag, probably 17th Century. Colours include red on white, gold on red or white on gold. l yellow cross on red, 1588. Used on ships, but I am not sure about land forces. m 16th Century, red on yellow. Also seen on ships. n simplest form of 16th Century infantry flag - red on white.

More Spanish flags. The one on the left has a white outer edge and background with red cross and green checks. Second left is a red cross on a white background. The dark triangles are green. Border is red with small diagonals and squares in corners green. The third flag is white with a red cross raguly carrying the motto 'Non Minor Est Virtus' in white. The smaller cross is red with a red, green and yellow shield in the centre. The border is green with yellow diagonal dashes. The flag on the right is a red cross on a white background, all other detail green.

The Spanish army in order of battle at Nieuport in 1600. Note large pike blocks (one made from two Tercios), various types of cavalry, and massive gun teams and limbers in the foreground (the Spanish in the Netherlands were the first to use artillery limbers) (by kind permission of the National Army Museum).

Spanish Genitor shield showing heart-shape derived from Moorish shields (Tower of London Armouries).


    I would like to thank Mrs Anita Denials for her assistance with the articles on the Spanish Army.

Previous: Part 13: the Polish Army
Next: Part 16 - The French

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See also: Spanish & Moorish Soldiers in Conquest of Oran, 1509, painted by Juan de Borgoņa, 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 Resources