Not All Recruits Were Base-born: the Gentleman-rankers
Not all recruits were destitute or base-born, however. The Army of Flanders, especially in the sixteenth century [C.E.], needed quality as well as quantity; men who excelled in single combat, in the “actions” of the war, were required as well as cannon-fodder for the great battles. Every captain therefore tried to enlist a number of gentlemen (particulares) to serve as common soldiers in his company, offering a bonus-pay (ventaja) to every gentleman who agreed to do so. Some of these volunteers would be the relatives of the captain, others would no doubt be poor gentry unable to gain a living in other ways (Spanish gentlemen were not supposed to demean themselves by manual labour or commercial transactions), others still would be aspiring noblemen who began their military service in the ranks and hoped before long to rise to a position of command.
Most army commanders set the highest value upon these gentleman-rankers. The duke of Alva, for example, was overjoyed to find that a large number of particulares had volunteered to serve in the Spanish infantry which he led to the Netherlands in 1567.
Soldiers of this calibre [wrote Alva] are the men who win victory in the “actions” and with whom the General establishes the requisite discipline among the troops. In our nation nothing is more important than to introduce gentlemen and men of substance into the infantry so that all is not left in the hands of labourers and lackeys.
Throughout the Eighty Years’ War the same sentiment was expressed in remarkably similar terms. As late as 1640, for example, a Netherlander—and a civilian at that—could write:
Gentleman-rankers…are the people who bear the brunt of the battles and sieges, as we have seen on many occasions, and who by their example oblige and enliven the rest of the soldiers (who have less sense of duty) to stand fast and fight with courage.
Service as a volunteer among the infantry was particularly popular among the Spanish gentry, but particulares were also to be found in considerable numbers in the ranks of other “nations”. The English units in the Army of Flanders, for example, regularly included Catesbys, Treshams and other members of the leading recusant gentry families—including Guy Fawkes. Not all these gentleman-rankers were poor. On one celebrated occasion the Emperor Charles V lent additional dignity to the military profession by himself taking up a pike and marching with his men; later, in the 1590s, the dukes of Osuna and Pastrana and the prince of Asculi, scions of the most illustrious houses of Spain, were all to be found serving as simple soldiers in the Army of Flanders. Naturally these volunteers, especially the nobles, aspired to an eventual position of command, but they first received an admirable apprenticeship and, in addition, their presence in the ranks helped to maintain morale and reduce insubordination. In this way the Spanish Habsburgs assembled armies which were supremely capable of victory without resort to any compulsion.
— The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road 1567-1659, pp. 40-41