From the journal of Don Fernando de Torrescusa, Marquess de Girona, Envoy of His Most Catholic Majesty, Carlos the Second, King of Spain, to the Flemish Free City of Laarden in 1688.
I had seen them before, of course. In Spain, at El Escorial, and on the battlefields of Flanders and Germany. They were far harder to notice in the monastery palace of El Escorial than in sunlight. They had a habit of remaining in the corners of rooms, in doorways, slightly behind the fashionable dark wood screens shielding parts of a salon from view. Their clothing helped, as it does with priests, spies, assassins and sellswords of all kinds. And the Brothers of Calatrava were all these, and at most times together, in one.
Well, at least according to the legends.
I’ve never been a great believer in rumours, and still less in legends. There’s always some mundane human truth at the root of a legend. Something prosaic and earthy, usually with the stink and rasp of a dungheap.
The Brothers wove the rumours and their legends together very skilfully in the Court of our Most Catholic Majesty, Carlos II. And that, dear friends, was no accident. As soon as the King revitalised the ancient order of Calatrava on his accession in 1661, there were no shortage of grandees and nobles at Court who saw an opportunity to tie their fortunes to those of the Brothers of Calatrava.
At first, we laughed behind our hands. The Brothers were viewed as a tiresome anachronism. A medieval memory in faded black cloth - an illustrious name maybe, but shorn of any real authority. But then the Royal grants of lands, titles and positions started to be made, and things began to change. Status, money, access, influence and power – accompanied by a cascade of gold from the New Spain placed into the hands of the Brothers - facilitated an effortless rise to prominence for the Master of the Order.
Yet even despite the changing tide, in the early days most of us at Court agreed that there was little that the group of two dozen noblemen could do with a borrowed medieval name, dressed in black and praying in a Castilian fortress chapel alongside the Jesuits, to displace the intricate networks of patronage and power in El Escorial.
Ah…. but that was before Seneffe.
That was when I first saw the Brothers of Calatrava on the field in Flanders. I can almost see your smile from here as I write this page of my journal in my rooms at 'The Harvest Goose' in Laarden. “The Swords around the Throne”? “The Brothers in Black”? “The Lances of Calatrava”? Were there any more titles you wanted to bestow upon the Brotherhood to add to their reputation after that most violent of days?
Oh, there were many other reasons why the Garde du Corps from the Maison du Roi were vanquished on the field of Seneffe. I saw it with my own eyes, of course. The ground was soft and bad for the French Horse to be deployed there. They were constricted, the flower of the Sun King’s household crammed into the narrow Field like fattened geese before St Stephen’s Day. There were more standards among the front lines of the Garde du Corps than swords that morning. And, besides, I had never considered the Comte de Vermandois to be among the first order of the French King’s commanders. All these, and no doubt other explanations - and no doubt excuses - could be offered for what happened that day.
And yet it happened. And yes, I saw it all.
It was impressive, watching the handful of the Brothers of Calatrava slice through the nobility of France like the Black Plague of Naples.
There were eighteen Brothers on the Field that day at Seneffe, although less than a handful survived to the next morning. But that handful was more than enough for the legends to spread, and the rumours to spiral, with even more vigour than the Brothers’ charge into the heart of the French lines.
And now I hear there are to be upwards of forty of the Brothers of Calatrava in Flanders, answering the Free City of Laarden’s call to arms. Of course, I shall not turn them away. I have told you already that I have never believed in rumours, and still less in legends.
Yet, if I see a miracle happen a second time, maybe even I might start to believe.
It's been a while since I visited Laarden on this Blog, and a while since I posted anything. Sorry for the continued silence! Hopefully this post might make up for the absence.
The cavalry in white and light grey are from the Walloon tercio of Horse, raised and funded by Don Nicolas de Puis between 1675 and 1692, when the tercio passed to Don Philippe Gourdin. The figures are both Dixon Miniatures and Wargames Foundry, all in 28mm, and most of them being sculpts from the last 1980s and 1990s. I think they have passed the test of time pretty well. The details of the uniforms of the Walloon tercio of Horse and very much historical, taken from the wonderful Pike & Shot Society book on the uniforms of the Spanish Army in the War of the League of Augsberg. Unfortunately, no details of Spanish cavalry standards for the period exist, and I’ve adapted the standard from an infantry flag captured by the French at the battle of Fleurus in 1690. The flag is freehand, as sadly no-one seems to print flags for the Spanish tercia of horse in this period.
The Brothers of Calatrava are, however, not historical. At least, not in 1688. The Order of Calatrava was essentially nothing but a moribund, inactive order of chivalry in Spain by 1688. Yet, with a little 'alt-historical' magic, hopefully the Brothers of the Order can take to the field again on a wargames table.
The figures of the two Brothers are again Dixons and Wargames Foundry. The lance was from Redoubt, and was shortened down a little. The standard was again freehand, and was taken from the standard of the 13th century Order of Calatrava. I painted the two Brothers in black, as a throwback to their historical origins in the true Order of Calatrava. I wanted to leave them as being a small addition within an existing formation – which is why the Brothers of Calatrava are accompanied by four more soberly uniformed Spanish horsemen.
I really like messing around with ‘alt-history’ in this way – creating historical formations for the wargames table which did not actually exist at the relevant time of a battle, but which could plausibly have done. I did something similar with the Baltic Horse of the Graf von Bek earlier this year – and despite some good humoured ribbing from my friends, not grown out of the habit during 2018!
The bases for the Brothers of Calatrava are larger than those for the Walloon tercio of horse. This is deliberate for a number of reasons. In the rules we’ve been trying out, faster horse has a slightly larger base profile than slower horse (the larger base, and rounded base corners making it easier to identify the faster cavaliers on the tabletop). As regarding their use in a wargame, I reasoned that the Brothers of Calatrava could either be used alone, or to add some bonuses (and possibly some less predictable features) to an existing unit of horse.
For anyone wanting to dive into the historical Order of Calatrava, their background is much more remarkable than even their exploits on the field of Seneffe as described in Don Fernando de Torrescusa’s journal. The home of the order was the Castillo de Calatrava la Nueva – certainly somewhere I’d love to visit one day.