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Spanish Tercios
Flag of Cross of Burgundy.svg
Founded1 January 1660;361 years ago (1660-01-01) [1] [2] [note 1]
Country Spain
Type Army
Role Land warfare
Part of Spanish Armed Forces
Patron Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor Philip II of Spain Philip III of Spain Philip IV of Spain Charles II of Spain Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor
Motto(s)Spain my nature, Italy my fortune, Flanders my grave
Equipment Arquebuses Combat pikes
Gran Capitán General Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba [4]
Ceremonial chiefComandante John of Austria [5]
War flag
Flag of Cross of Burgundy.svg

Surrender of Breda, by Velazquez, shows Ambrosio Spinola (at right), commander of a Spanish tercio, receiving the keys to the city from a defeated Dutch general in 1625. Velazquez - de Breda o Las Lanzas (Museo del Prado, 1634-35).jpg
Surrender of Breda , by Velázquez, shows Ambrosio Spinola (at right), commander of a Spanish tercio, receiving the keys to the city from a defeated Dutch general in 1625.

One tercio was a military unit of the Spanish Army during the time of the House of Austria. The Tercios were famous for their resistance on the battlefield, forming the elite of the military units available to the kings of the Hispanic Monarchy of the time. The thirds were the essential piece of the terrestrial hegemony, and sometimes also maritime of the Spanish Empire. The Tercio is considered the rebirth of the infantry on the battlefield, comparable to the Roman legions or the Macedonian phalanxes. [6]


The Spanish tercios were the first modern European army, understood as an army made up of professional volunteers, instead of the raising of levies for a campaign and the hiring of mercenaries typically used in other European countries. The care that was taken to maintain a high number of "old soldiers" (veteranos) in the units and their professional training, in conjunction with the particular personality that the noblemen of the lower nobility who nurtured them, were the basis for their being the best infantry for a century and a half. In addition, they were the first to efficiently mix pikes and firearms (arquebuses).

From 1920, the regimental-size formations of the Spanish Legion also received that name, a professional unit created to fight in the colonial wars in North Africa, and which was inspired by the military deeds of the historical Tercios. The Spanish Legion also has certain similarities with the Foreign Legion of the French army.


Origins of the Tercios

Deployment of disembarked Tercios, 1583. Desembarcoislasterceiras.jpg
Deployment of disembarked Tercios, 1583.

Although they were created by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (the called Old Tercios -In Spanish: Tercios Viejos-) after the army reform by an ordinance managed by the Naples Viceroy in October 23, 1534 and the ordinance by Genoa in November 15, 1536, where it's used for the first time the word "tercio", as a garrison of the Spanish possessions in Italy and for expeditionary operations in the Mediterranean Sea, its origins probably go back to the troops of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba in Italy, organized in colonelías that grouped the captaincies. With these Spanish troops settled in Italy, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in his ordinances of 1534 and 1536 organized his army in three Tercios, one in the Kingdom of Sicily, another in the Duchy of Milan (or Kingdom of Lombardy) and another in the Kingdom of Naples. In fact, it began to take shape in the peninsula. During the reign of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain and as a result of the war in Granada, the model of the Swiss pikemen was adopted, shortly after the troops were divided into three classes: pikemen, shielded (swordsmen) and crossbowmen mixed with the first portable firearms (gunmen and shotguns). It did not take long for the shields to disappear and the firearms to go from being a complement to the crossbows to replacing them completely. The Spanish victories in Italy against the powerful French armies took place when the process had not yet been completed.

The first three Tercios, created from troops stationed in Italy, were the Tercio of Sicily (Tercio Viejo de Sicilia), Tercio of Naples (Tercio Viejo de Nápoles) and the Tercio of Lombardy (Tercio Viejo de Lombardía). Shortly after, the Tercio of Sardinia (Tercio Viejo de Cerdeña ) and the Tercio of the Galleys (Tercio de Galeras) (which was the first marine infantry unit in history). All subsequent Tercios would be known as New Tercios. Unlike the cam system or mercenaries, recruited for a particular war, typical of the Middle Ages, the Tercios were made up of professional soldiers and volunteers who were in permanent ranks, although initially each town had to provide one in twelve men for the services of the king if he needed them for the war. However, there was never a lack of volunteers.

The Tercio in the beginning was not, properly speaking, a combat unit, but an administrative unit, a General Staff that had under its command a series of companies that were garrisoned throughout various places in Italy or that could fight on fronts very distant from each other. Template:Harvnp This peculiar character was maintained when it mobilized to fight in Flanders. The command of the Tercio and that of the companies was directly granted by the king, so that the companies could be added or removed from the command of the Tercio as appropriate. In this way, the Tercio maintained its character as an administrative unit, more similar to an 18th-century brigade than to a regiment of the time, until the middle of the 17th century, when the Tercios began to be raised by nobles at their expense, who appointed the captains and were effective owners of the units, as happened in the rest of the European armies.

They were inspired by the Roman Legion, reason why some historians believe that they could be baptized this way due to the tercía, the Roman legion that operated in Hispania. They were regular units always on the warpath, even if there was no imminent threat. Others would be created later in specific campaigns and were identified by the name of their Maestre de campo or by the scene of their battle. The origin of the term "Tercio" is doubtful. Some think that it was because, originally, each Tercio represented a third of the total troops stationed in Italy. Others argue that three types of combatants should be included (pikemen, harquebusiers and musketeers) according to an ordinance for "people of war" of 1497, where the formation of the infantry is changed into three parts.

«The pawns (the infantry) were divided into three parts. The one tercio with spears, as the Germans brought them, which they called pikes; and the other had the name of shields (people of swords); and the other, of crossbowmen and spitting bearers (crossbowmen and spitting bearers would later be replaced by arquebusiers)».

There are also those who consider that the name comes from the three thousand men, divided into twelve companies, that constituted its primitive endowment. This last explanation seems the most accurate, as it is the one collected by the field master Sancho de Londoño in a report addressed to the Duke of Alba at the beginning of the 16th century:

«The tercios, although they were instituted in imitation of the (Roman) legions, in few things can be compared to them, that the number is half, and although formerly there were three thousand soldiers, for which they were called tercios and not legions, already it is said like this even if they don't have more than a thousand men [7]

So, the name tercio may come from the fact that the first Italian thirds were made up of 3000 men. Most likely, it was simply referring to a portion of the troops, as in boardings, where men were divided into three "tercios" or "trozos."

History and first battles

The Spanish military structure, innovated by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain in the conquest of Granada and in his campaigns in Italy, was strongly influenced by the so-called "Swiss model". The triumphs of the staunch Swiss infantry against the Burgundian heavy cavalry in a series of pitched battles revolutionized medieval methods of warfare. At last the infantry gained ground over the cavalry, undisputed queen of medieval warfare. It was quite logical that in Spain the lesson was learned that well-trained cadres of pikemen could defeat any cavalry that was put in front of them. The number was imposed on the useless effort of the proud knights, as Machiavelli already specified in On the Art of War.

The effectiveness of the combat of the Spanish tercios was based on an armament system that united the white weapon (the pike) with the firepower of the arquebus, taking a complete synthesis of duality of infantry armed with compact firearms. The superiority of the tercio over the model of the Swiss compact frame was, on the other hand, in its greater ability to divide into more mobile units until reaching the individual melee, tactical fluency that favored the combative predisposition of the Spanish infant.

The truth is that from the conquest of Granada (1492) to the campaigns of the Great Captain in the kingdom of Naples (1495), three ordinances already laid the foundations of the military administration of the Spanish armies. In 1503, the Great Ordinance reflected the adoption of the long pike and the distribution of pawns in specialized companies. In 1534 the first official tercio was created, that of Lombardy, and a year later it helped in the conquest of the Spanish Milanese. The Tercios of Naples and Sicily were created in 1536, thanks to the Genoa ordinance, promulgated by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

At the Battle of Mühlberg, in 1547, the imperial troops of Charles V defeated a league of Protestant princes in Germany thanks, above all, to the action of the imperial pikemen.

Ten years later, the Spanish army completely defeated the French in 1557 at the Battle of San Quentin, a fact that was repeated with the same result in Gravelinas in 1558, which led to peace between the two States with great advantages for Spain. In all these battles, the effective performance of the tercios stood out.

Composition and characteristics

A tercio in "bastioned square," in battle Tercio.jpg
A tercio in "bastioned square," in battle

Although other powers adopted the tercio formation, their armies fell short of the fearsome reputation of the Spanish, who possessed a core of professional soldiers, which gave them an edge that was hard for other states to match. [8] That army was further supplemented by "an army of different nations", a reference to the fact that many of the troops were from the German states, and the Italian and Walloon territories of the Spanish Netherlands, as was characteristic of European warfare before the levies of the Napoleonic Wars. In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the core of Spanish armies were formed by Spanish subjects, who were frequently praised by others for their cohesiveness, superiority in discipline and overall professionalism. [9]


Schematic battle formation of a Tercio around 1600. Tercio 1.jpg
Schematic battle formation of a Tercio around 1600.

Within the tercio, ranks of pikemen arrayed themselves together into a hollow pike square (cuadro) with swordsmen – typically equipped with a short sword, a buckler, and javelins – inside; as the firearm rose in prominence, the swordsmen declined and were phased out. The arquebusiers (later, musketeers) were usually split up in several mobile groups called "sleeves" (mangas) and typically deployed with one manga at each corner of the cuadro.[ citation needed ] By virtue of this combined-arms approach, the formation simultaneously enjoyed the staying power of its pike-armed infantry, the ranged firepower of its arquebusiers, as well as the ability to conduct assaults with sword-and-buckler men. In addition to its inherent ability to repulse cavalry and other units along its front, the long-range firepower of its arquebusiers could also be easily shifted to the flanks, making it versatile in both offensive and defensive evolutions.

Tercio companies advancing during the battle of Nieuwpoort 1600. Terciosmarchando.jpg
Tercio companies advancing during the battle of Nieuwpoort 1600.

Groups of tercios were typically arrayed in dragon-toothed formation (staggered, with the leading edge of one unit level with the trailing edge of the preceding unit; see the similar hedgehog defence concept). This enabled enfilade lines of fire and somewhat defiladed the army units themselves. Odd units alternated with even units, respectively one forward and one back, providing gaps for an unwary enemy to enter and outflank itself, where it would become subjected to the combined direct and raking crossfire from the guns of three separate tercios. From their inception, tercio formations were meant to co-ordinate their field operations with cavalry.

Leadership of the Tercio

Officers of a tercio: an alabardero, alferez and arcabucero 1650 - tercio.jpg
Officers of a tercio: an alabardero, alférez and arcabucero

Mirroring military organization today, the tercio was led by a Maestre de Campo appointed by the King as the commanding officer and guarded by eight halberdiers. Assisting him was the sergeant major and a Furir Major in charge of logistics and armaments, with companies led by a Captain, also of royal appointment, with an Ensign in charge of the company color.

Companies had Sergeants, Furrieles (Furirs) and Corporals in them. The Sergeants served as seconds-in-command of the company and brought the captain's orders to his soldiers; the Furrieles were at orders to provide the necessary weapons and munitions, as well as additional men to the companies; and the Corporals, who led groups of 25 (similar to today's platoons), were always in obedience to the Captain's orders and brought to him any possible cases of disorder in the unit.

Each company had corps of drums made up of drummers and fifers, sounding duty calls in battle, with the drum major and fife major being provided by the tercio headquarters.

The tercio staff included a medical component (made up of a professional medic, a barber, and surgeons), chaplains and preachers, and a judicial unit, plus military constables enforcing order. They all reported to the Maestre de campo directly.


Tercios that initially served in Italy and the Spanish Netherlands were organized into:

  • 10 companies of 300 led by Captains, in which
    • 8 were Pikemen's Companies and
    • 2 were of arquebusiers

The companies were later reduced to 250-strong units.

During the actions in the Netherlands, the tercios were reorganized into three coronelias ("colonelcies"), led by coronels ("colonels") each composed of a headquarters unit and four companies each (the predecessor of today's battalions), but as a whole continued to be subdivided into the same 10 companies of 250 personnel each, two of arquebusiers and 8 of pikemen. Colonels were also of royal appointment.


Organization of a Tercio. Organizacion de un tercio.jpg
Organization of a Tercio.
Schematic depiction of the pikemen's combat drill. Tercio piquiers.jpg
Schematic depiction of the pikemen's combat drill.


Tercios and the Spanish Empire

Tercios were deployed all over Europe under the Habsburg rulers. They were made up of volunteers and built up around a core of professional soldiers and were highly trained. Sometimes later tercios did not stick to the all-volunteer model of the regular Imperial Spanish army – when the Habsburg king Philip II found himself in need of more troops, he raised a tercio of Catalan criminals to fight in Flanders, [10] a trend he continued with most Catalan criminals for the rest of his reign. [11] A large proportion of the Spanish army (which by the later half of the 16th century was entirely composed of tercio units: Tercio of Savoy, Tercio of Sicily) was deployed in the Netherlands to quell the increasingly difficult rebellion against the Habsburgs. Ironically, many units of Spanish tercios became part of the problem rather than the solution when the time came to pay them: with the Spanish coffers depleted by constant warfare, units often mutinied. For example, in April 1576, just after winning a major victory, unpaid tercios mutinied and occupied the friendly town of Antwerp, in the so-called Spanish Fury at Antwerp and sacked it for three days. [12] Completely reliant on his troops, the Spanish commander could only comply. [13]

Specialized Tercios

On 24 February 1537 the Tercio de Galeras (Tercio of Galleys) was created. Today, the Real Infantería de Marina (Spanish Marine Infantry) consider themselves successors of the legacy and heritage of the Galleys Tercios making it the oldest currently operating marines unit in the world. There were other units of naval tercios such as Tercio Viejo de Armada (Old Navy Tercio) or Tercio Fijo de la Mar de Nápoles (Permanent Sea Tercio of Naples). Such specialized units were needed for the protracted war with the Ottoman Empire over the entire Mediterranean.

Naming conventions

Most tercios were named according to the place where they were raised or first deployed: thus they were Tercio de Sicilia, de Lombardía, de Nápoles (Tercio of Sicily, of Lombardy, of Naples) and so on. Other tercios were named for their commanding officer, such as Tercio de Moncada for its commander Miguel de Moncada (whose most famous soldier was Miguel de Cervantes). Some tercios were named by their main function, such as Galeras or Viejo de Armada.


The Portuguese terços

Portuguese tercos in the Battle of Alcacer Quibir (1578) Lagos46 kopie.jpg
Portuguese terços in the Battle of Alcácer Quibir (1578)

Portugal adopted the Spanish model of tercio in the 16th century, calling it terço. In 1578, under the reorganization of the Portuguese Army conducted by King Sebastian, four terços were established: the Terço of Lisbon, the Terço of Estremadura, the Terço of Alentejo, and the Terço of Algarve. Each had about 2,000 men, formed into eight companies.

The infantry of the army organized for the expedition to Morocco in 1578 was made up of these four terços together with the Terço of the Adventurers (totally made up of young nobles), three mercenary terços (the German, the Italian, and the Castilian), and a unit of elite sharpshooters of the Portuguese garrison of Tangier. This was the Portuguese force which fought the Battle of Alcácer Quibir.

While united with the Spanish Crown, from 1580 to 1640, Portugal kept the organization of terços, although the Army had declined. Several Spanish tercios were sent to Portugal; the principal of them, the Spanish infantry Tercio of the City of Lisbon, occupied the main fortresses of the Portuguese capital. The Terço of the Navy of the Crown of Portugal, the ancestor of the modern Portuguese Marines, was created in this period.

After the restoration of Portuguese sovereignty in 1640, the Army was reorganized by King John IV of Portugal. The terços remained the basic units of the Portuguese infantry. Two types of terços were organized: the paid terços (first line permanent units) and the auxiliary terços (second line militia units). Portugal won the Restoration War with these terços.

At the end of the 17th century, the terços were already organized as modern regiments. However, the first line terços were only transformed into regiments in 1707, during the War of the Spanish Succession – after the Spanish tercios were transformed into regiments in 1704. The second line terços were only transformed into militia regiments in 1796. Some of the old terços are direct ancestors of modern regiments of the Portuguese Army.

Evolution and replacement

The Battle of Rocroi (1643) marked the decline of the supremacy of the Spanish Tercios, painting by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau picture Rocroi, el ultimo tercio, por Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau.jpg
The Battle of Rocroi (1643) marked the decline of the supremacy of the Spanish Tercios, painting by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau picture

The first challenge to the dominance of the Spanish tercios came at the Battle of Nieuwpoort (1600). The victor of Nieuwpoort, the Dutch stadtholder Maurice, Prince of Orange, believed he could improve on the tercio by combining its methods with the organisation of the Roman legion. These shallower linear formations brought a greater proportion of available guns to bear on the enemy simultaneously. The result was that the tercios at Nieuwpoort were badly damaged by the weight of Dutch firepower. Yet the Spanish army very nearly succeeded in spite of internal dissensions that had compromised its regular command. The Eighty Years' War (1568–1648) in the Low Countries continued to be characterized by sieges of cities and forts, while field battles were of secondary importance. Maurice's reforms did not lead to a revolution in warfare, but he had created an army that could meet the tercios on an even basis and that pointed the way to future developments. During the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) tercio formations began to be tested by more linear formations created and led by the brilliant Swedish soldier-king Gustavus Adolphus. However, eventually, the tried-and-true tactics and professionalism of the Spanish tercios defeated the Swedish army at the Battle of Nördlingen (1634). [14]

Throughout its history, the tercio's composition and battlefield formations and tactics evolved to meet new challenges. Tercio formations with well-trained troops and good cavalry support continued to win major battles in the 17th century such as Wimpfen (1622), Fleurus (1622), Breda (1624), Nördlingen (1634), Thionville (1639), Honnecourt (1641) and Valenciennes (1656). It was not until Rocroi (1643) that the Spanish tercio's reputation of near invincibility in open battle was shattered. Still, the Rocroi defeat was precipitated by the collapse of the supporting cavalry rather than the failure of the tercio's infantry. Tercios continued to win battles after Rocroi, such as Tuttlingen the same year, but their battlefield style continued to evolve. In this period steady improvements in firearms and field artillery were giving the shallower linear style an increasing advantage. By the late 17th century the tercios had adopted so much of the linear style that their battlefield formations and tactics often had little resemblance to the classic tercio formations and tactics of the previous century. In 1704, the regular Spanish tercios were transformed into regiments and the pikeman as an infantry type was dropped. Those of the reserves and the militia would later be transformed into similar organisations.

Famous battles



See also


  1. English/Scottish parliamentary control 1689, British parliamentary control 1707. [3]

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  1. Clifford Walton (1894). History of the British Standing Army. A.D. 1660 to 1700. Harrison and Sons. pp.  1–2.
  2. Noel T. St. John Williams (1994). Redcoats and courtesans: the birth of the British Army (1660–1690). Brassey's. p. 16.
  3. Chandler, David (2003). The Oxford history of the British Army. Oxford University Press. p. xv. ISBN   978-0-19-280311-5. It is generally accepted that the regular standing army in Britain was officially created – in the sense of being fully accommodated within parliamentary control in 1689, although it is, strictly speaking, only correct to refer to the British army from the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707.
  4. "Lieutenant General Mark Carleton-Smith appointed new Chief of the General Staff". gov.uk. 5 May 2018. Archived from the original on 16 June 2018. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  5. "No. 62738". The London Gazette (Supplement). 13 August 2019. p. 14447.
  6. ...y, con el Gran Capitán, la aparición ni más ni menos que del tercio español, de algo que equivale en la historia universal al nacimiento de la falange Macedonia o de la legión romana. Fernand Braudel, "ElMediterráneo y el mundo mediterráneo en la época de Felipe II", tomo II, pág. 28, FCE, 1.976.
  7. Sancho de Londoño: Discurso sobre la forma de reducir la disciplina militar a mejor y antiguo estado, p. 14.
  8. Lynch, John. The Hispanic World in Crisis and Change, 1578–1700 Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992. Page 117.
  9. Davies, T. R. 1961
  10. Lynch, John. Spain Under the Habsburgs, Volume One: Empire and Absolutism, 1516 to 1598. Oxford: Blackwell, 1964. Page 109.
  11. Lynch, Spain Under the Habsburgs page 200.
  12. Israel, The Dutch Republic, p. 185.
  13. Lynch, Spain Under the Habsburgs page 284.
  14. Laínez, Fernando Martínez (2011). Vientos de Gloria : grandes victorias de la historia de España. Madrid: Espasa. ISBN   9788467035605.