FARNESE, ALEXANDER (1545-1592), duke of Parma, general, statesman and diplomatist, governor-general of the Netherlands under Philip II. of Spain, was born at Rome on the 27th of August 1545, and died at the abbey of St Waast, near Arras, on the 3rd of December 1592. He was the son of Ottavio Farnese, duke of Parma, and Margaret of Austria, natural daughter of Charles V. He accompanied his mother to Brussels when she was appointed governor of the Netherlands, and in 1565 his marriage with the princess 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 his uncle Don John of Austria, both of whom were about the same age as himself, and after his marriage he took up his residence at once at the court of Madrid. He fought with much personal distinction under the command of Don John in 1571 at the battle of Lepanto. It was seven years, however, before he had again an opportunity for the display of his great military talents. In the meantime the provinces of the Netherlands had revolted against the arbitrary and oppressive Spanish rule, and Don John of Austria, who had been sent as governor-general to restore order, had found himself helpless in face of the superior talent and personal influence of the prince of Orange, who had succeeded in uniting all the provinces in common resistance to the civil and religious tyranny of Philip. In the autumn of 1577 Farnese was sent to join Don John at the head of reinforcements, and it was mainly his prompt decision at a critical moment that won the battle of Gemblours (1578). Shortly afterwards Don John, whose health had broken down through disappointment and ill-health, died, and Farnese was appointed to take his place.
It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the difficulties with which he found himself confronted, but he proved himself more than equal to the task. In military ability the prince of Parma was inferior to none of his contemporaries, as a skilful diplomatist he was the match even of his great antagonist William the Silent, and, like most of the leading statesmen of his day, was unscrupulous as to the means he employed so long as he achieved his ends. Perceiving that there were divisions and jealousies in the ranks of his opponents between Catholic and Protestant, Fleming and Walloon, he set to work by persuasion, address and bribery, to foment the growing discord, and bring back the Walloon provinces to the allegiance of the king. He was successful, and 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.
Farnese, as soon as he had obtained a secure basis of operations in Hainaut and Artois, 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, and finally he laid siege to the great seaport of Antwerp. The town was open to the sea, was strongly fortified, and was defended with resolute determination and courage by the citizens. They were led by the famous Philip de Marnix, lord of St Aldegonde, and had the assistance of an ingenious Italian engineer, by name Gianibelli. The siege began in 1584 and called forth all the resources 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 to prevent its completion. At last, on the 15th of August 1585, Antwerp was compelled by famine to capitulate. Favourable conditions were granted, but all Protestants were required to leave the town within two years. With the fall of Antwerp, for Malines and Brussels were already in the hands of Farnese, the whole of the southern Netherlands was brought once more to recognize the authority of Philip. But Holland and Zeeland, whose geographical position made them unassailable except by water, were by the courage and skill of their hardy seafaring population, with the help of English auxiliaries sent by Queen Elizabeth, able to defy his further advance.
In 1586 Alexander Farnese became duke of Parma by the death of his father. He applied for leave to visit his paternal territory, but Philip would not permit him. He could not replace him in the Netherlands; but 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 reconquest of the Northern Provinces. Never was there a better opportunity than the end of 1586 for an invading army to march through the country almost without opposition. The misgovernment and lack of high statesmanship of the earl of Leicester had caused faction to be rampant in the United Provinces; and on his return to England he left the country without organized forces or experienced generals to oppose an advance of a veteran army under the greatest commander of his time. But Philip's whole thoughts and energies were already directed to the preparation of an Invincible Armada for the conquest of England, and Parma was ordered to collect an enormous flotilla of transports and to keep his army concentrated and trained for the projected invasion of the island realm of Queen Elizabeth. Thus the critical period passed by unused, and when the tempests had finally dispersed the defeated remnants of the Great Armada the Dutch had found a general, in the youthful Maurice of Nassau, worthy to be the rival in military genius even of Alexander of Parma. Moreover, the accession to the throne of France of Henry of Navarre had altogether altered the situation of affairs, and relieved the pressure upon the Dutch by creating a diversion, and placing Parma and his army between hostile forces. The ruinous expenditure upon the Great Armada had also depleted the Spanish treasury and Philip found himself virtually bankrupt. In 1590 the condition of the Spanish troops had become intolerable. Farnese could get no regular supplies of money from the king for the payment of the soldiery, and he had to pledge his own jewels to meet the demand. A mutiny broke out, but was suppressed. In the midst of these difficulties Parma received orders to abandon the task on which he had spent himself for so many years, and to raise the siege of Paris, which was blockaded by Henry IV. He left the Netherlands on the 3rd of August 1590 at the head of 15,000 troops. By brilliant generalship he outwitted Henry and succeeded in relieving Paris; but owing to lack of money and supplies he was compelled immediately to retreat to the Netherlands, abandoning on the march many stragglers and wounded, who were killed by the peasantry, and leaving all the positions he had taken to be recaptured by Henry.
Again in 1591, in the very midst of a campaign against Maurice of Nassau, sorely against his will, the duke of Parma was obliged to give up the engrossing struggle and march to relieve Rouen. He was again successful in his object, but was wounded in the arm before Caudebec, and was finally compelled to withdraw his army with considerable losses through the privations the troops had to undergo. He himself was shattered in health by so many years of continuous campaigning and exposure, and by the cares and disappointments which had befallen him. He died at Arras on the 3rd of December 1592, in the forty-seventh year of his age. The feeling that his immense services had not won for him either the gratitude or confidence of his sovereign hastened his end. He was honoured by a splendid funeral at Brussels, but his body was interred at his own capital city of Parma. He left two sons, Ranuce, who succeeded him, and Edward, who was created a cardinal in 1591 by Pope Gregory XIV. His daughter Margaret married Vincent, duke of Mantua.
See L.P. Gachard, Correspondance d'Alexandre Farnese, Prince de Parme, gouverneur général des Pays-Bas, avec Philippe II, 1578-1579 (Brussels, 1850); Fra Pietro, Alessandro Farnese, duca di Parma (Rome, 1836).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)