Tercio: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Tercio ("one third"), also known as Tercio Español, was a Renaissance era military formation similar to and derivative of the Swiss pike square and was a term used to describe a mixed infantry formation of about 3,000 pikemen, swordsmen and arquebusiers in a mutually supportive formation; it was also sometimes referred to by other nations as a Spanish Square after its introduction by the Spanish army,[1] and was widely adopted across international lines and dominated formalized field warfare for more than a century.

The Battle of Pavia (1525)



The Tercio Español was the product of the Italian Wars in which the Spanish general, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, would reorganize the Spanish army throughout a series of conflicts at the end of the 15th and early 16th centuries, into a tactically unique combination of modern and medieval combined arms centered around armored infantry. This emphasis on the infantry was the result of Spain's great dependence on mules in daily life, which in turn resulted in an inability to raise large cavalry forces.[2][3] It marked the transformation of medieval military institutions into the early modern combined-arms[3] army. (See: Pike and Shot for an excellent description of the eventual formation.) Gonzalo Fernández, developed the tercio to further increase the effectiveness of Spanish infantry against every manner of opposing infantry while remaining impervious to the dangers of a cavalry charge.[2]

At first the army consisted of units of around 6000 men, called coronelias, which by 1534 had been reduced into the tercios of 3000 for increased mobility on the offensive.[4]

Composition and Characteristics

Surrender of Breda by Velázquez, shows Ambrosio Spinola, commander of the Spanish tercio receiving the keys to the city from the defeated Dutch general in 1621.

Tercio, consisting largely of professional soldiers with superior discipline and fighting spirit, were well known on the European battlefield for their near-invincibility in combat during the 16th and 17th centuries. The formation was often feared by enemy troops because of the legendary determination of its soldiers in combat – its reputation was fully established at the Battle of Pavia (1525), in which the French king was captured. The 3000 men of a tercio were armed with an assortment of weapons to deal with any enemy they faced on the battlefield - 1500 of them were equipped with pikes, 1000 kept the ancient short sword and javelin armament, and the remaining 500 were armed with arquebuses of the best and most portable type. In battle the pikemen formed squares with the sword-and-javelin men inside, and the arquebusiers, together with field artillery, assumed positions in between the squares to gain the best angles of fire on any enemies approaching the tercio square.

In front of the square formations they would dig ditches or other fortifications to further disrupt a cavalry charge, against which they were essentially invulnerable. Even in battle against an opposing force of pikemen, the tercio had the upper hand in terms of ranged firepower with the arquebusiers causing devastating casualties amongst the tightly packed pikemen as well as the fact that a pikeman, needing both hands to wield his pike, was essentially defenseless against the tercio swordsmen. This organization served them well against both the German Landsknecht and Swiss Reisläufer, who both used similar, though less flexible structures. The inspiration for the tercio's twelve companies and flexibility is considered to be the Roman legion and the Swiss armored pike.[5]


Although other major powers adopted the formation, their armies fell short of the fearsome reputation of the Spanish, who possessed a core of professional, volunteer soldiers, which gave their officers and men an edge that was hard for other nations to match.[6] That army was further supplemented by "an army of different nations", a reference to the fact that many of the troops were mercenaries (Landsknecht) from Germany, Italy and the Walloon territories of the Spanish Netherlands, as was a characteristic of European warfare of the 13th-18th centuries before the revolutionary levies in the Napoleonic Wars. In the 16th and 17th centuries however, the core of Spanish armies were formed by Spanish subjects, and were frequently praised by others for their cohesiveness, superiority in discipline and overall professionalism.[2]


Within the tercio, ranks of pikemen arrayed themselves together into one large block (cuadro), similar to a pike square. The arquebusiers were usually split up in several mobile groups called sleeves (mangas) and deployed relative to the cuadro, typically with one manga at each corner. By virtue of this combined-arms approach, the formation simultaneously enjoyed both the staying power of its pike-armed infantry, as well as the ranged firepower of its arquebusiers. In addition to its inherent ability to repulse cavalry and other units along its front, and the long-range firepower of its arquebusiers could also be easily reorganized to the flanks, making it a versatile in both offensive and defensive evolutions, as demonstrated by the success of the tercios at Pavia in 1525.

Groups of tercios were typically arrayed in dragon-toothed formation (staggered—the leading edge of one unit level with the trailing edge of the preceding unit; see similar hedgehog defense 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 cross fire fire from the guns of three separate tercios.

Tercios and the Spanish Empire

Tercios were deployed all over Europe under the Habsburg Emperors, who were kings of both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Sometimes these 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,[7] a trend he continued with most Catalan criminals for the rest of his reign.[8] A large proportion of the Spanish army (which by the later half of the 16th century was entirely composed of tercio units) was deployed in the Netherlands to quell the increasingly difficult rebellion against the Habsburgs, although 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, unpaid tercio units often turned mutinous - in April 1574, just after winning a major victory, unpaid tercios mutinied and occupied the town of Antwerp, threatening to sack the town if their demands were not met. Bereft of troops, and thus his authority, the Spanish leader on the scene met the tercios demands.[9]


It was at the Battle of Nieuwpoort (1600) that the first hint of the coming end of the tercios is to be had. The victor of Nieuwpoort, the Dutch count, Maurice of Nassau 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 in the Low Countries continued to be characterized by sieges of cities and forts, while field battles were of secondary importance. Nassau'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 pointed the way to future developments. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) tercio formations began to suffer some serious defeats to more linear formations led by the Swedish king-general, Gustavus Adolphus. Yet throughout its history the tercios form and composition was never static as it evolved to meet the new challenges. Tercio formations employed by well trained troops with good cavalry support, continued to win major battles, as can be seen at the famous battles of White Mountain (1620), Fleurus (1622), Breda (1624), Nördlingen (1634), and Thionville (1639). It was not until the Rocroi (1643) that the Spanish tercios reputation for invincibility in major battles was shattered. Even then, the Rocroi defeat was precipitated by the collapse of the supporting cavalry arm rather than the failure of the tercios themselves, which had come close to besting the opposing infantry. Tercios continued to win important battles for a time after Rocroi and even after the Thirty Years war, but were already greatly modified from their older forms. By then, improvements in firearms and field artillery had given the new linear style a decided advantage. In response the later 17th century "tercios" had adopted so much of the linear style's organisation and tactics as to little resemble the classic tercios of the previous century. In 1704, the spanish tercios were transformed in regiments.

The Portuguese terços

Portuguese terços in the Battle of Alcácer Quibir (1578).

Portugal adopted the spanish model of tercio still in the 16th century, calling it terço. In 1578, under the reorganization of the Army conducted by the King Sebastian of Portugal, were organized four terços: the Terço of Lisbon, the Terço of Estremadura, the Terço of Alentejo and the Terço of Algarve. Each terço had eight companies and about 2000 men.

The infantry of the army organized for the expedition to Morocco in 1578 was made up with 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 an unit of elite sharpshooters of the Portuguese garrison of Tangier. It was this force that fought in the Battle of Alcácer Quibir.

Under the royal union with Spain, from 1580 to 1640, Portugal kept the organization in terços, altought the Army has declined. Several spanish tercios were send to Portugal, the principal of them, the Spanish Infantry Tercio of the City of Lisbon, ocuppied the main fortresses of the Portuguese capital. In this period, was created the Terço of the Navy of the Crown of Portugal, the ancestror of the modern Portuguese Marines.

After the the Restoration of the Independence of Portugal, in 1640, the Army was reorganized by King John IV of Portugal. The terços were the base units of the Portuguese infantry. Two types of terços were organized: the paid terços (1st line permanent units) and the auxiliary terços (2nd line militia units). With these terços Portugal won the Restoration War.

In the end of the 17th century the terços were already organized as the modern regiments. However the 1st line terços were only transformed in regiments in 1707, during the War of the Spanish Succession - after the spanish tercios were transformed in regiments in 1704. The 2nd line terços were transformed in militia regiments only in 1796. Some of the old terços are direct ancestrors of modern regiments of the Portuguese Army.

See also

Notes and reference links

  1. ^ George Gush. "Renaissance Armies: The Spanish". http://www.myarmoury.com/feature_armies_spanish.html. Retrieved 2007-10-31. "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—regular, that is, in the sense that they alone were permanently employed, since Spain was permanently at war. Spanish forces alone provided anything like a proper career-structure for officers, for the same reason, and, partly for this reason, enjoyed the best generalship of the period. Spanish armies of the 16th Century acted as models and training schools for many others."  
  2. ^ a b c Davies, T. R. (1961). The Golden Century of Spain 1501-1621. London: Macmillan & Co.
  3. ^ a b George Gush. "Renaissance Armies: The Spanish". http://www.myarmoury.com/feature_armies_spanish.html. Retrieved 2007-10-31. "A high proportion of this expeditionary force were crossbowmen, and there were still many sword-and-buckler men. The first were steadily replaced by arquebusiers and the last, despite striking success against pikes, by pikemen, who had some chance of standing in the open against cavalry. Infantry firepower—the first use of massed arquebusiers—combined with skilful use of field fortifications, was, however, the key to early Spanish success."  
  4. ^ Davis, Trevor. The Golden Century of Spain, 1501-1621 London: Macmillan and Co, 1961. Page 24.
  5. ^ World History of Warfare Christon I. Archer, John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig, Timothy H. E. Travers
  6. ^ Lynch, John. The Hispanic World in Crisis and Change, 1578-1700 Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992. Page 117.
  7. ^ Lynch, John. Spain Under the Habsburgs, Volume One: Empire and Absolutism, 1516 to 1598. Oxford: Blackwell, 1964. Page 109.
  8. ^ Lynch, Spain Under the Habsburgs page 200.
  9. ^ Lynch, Spain Under the Habsburgs page 284.

By Christon I. Archer, John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig, Timothy H. E. Travers - For a history of Spanish arms in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Davies, T. R. (1961). The Golden Century of Spain 1501-1621. London: Macmillan & Co. - Brief description of the birth of the Spanish Tercio.

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address