How bloodthirsty was the Duke of Alba?

No, he didn’t burn many heretics, but he did sack cities and massacre prisoners.

A reader reports that I was wrong to say that the Duke of Alba had burned 18,000 heretics, but perhaps not wrong to call him “bloodthirsty”:

Although Alba earned a reputation as a ruthless

general and administrator, I don’t recall reading a

report of 18,000 burned heretics ever before.

The claim of 18,000 executed is too high by at least a factor of ten. Geoffrey Parker, whose “The Dutch

Revolt” strikes me as the most even-handed account of the conflict, gives a figure of over a thousand executions out of some 12,000 tried by Alba’s “Council of Troubles,” and many of of these were condemned for political rebellion rather than religious dissent.

The Inquisition was not re-imposed on the Netherlands after Alba crushed the first revolt. Only Calvinist ministers and iconoclasts (and those who sheltered them) were condemned on religious grounds. Moreover, burning was not a favored method of execution; even the extravagantly anti-Spanish J.L. Motley describes the executions almost exclusively as beheadings and hangings.

I suspect that Hume understood how much better

burnings, especially of heretics, would sell to

English readers.

In any case, Alba’s special court certainly inspired

fear, but this was as much a result of its secrecy and

reach as its bloodiness.

I also think that Alba’s conduct as a general provides far more notable instances of his ruthlessness–especially his exemplary sackings of Mechelen, Zutphen, and Naarden and his massacre of the surrendered garrison of Haarlem.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: