On August 22, 1638, the Battle of Getaria–a naval encounter in the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659)–took place off the coast of Gipuzkoa. It was won by the French fleet, and marked the first significant victory for the French navy that had been revamped under Cardinal Richelieu, in turn consolidating Richelieu’s position as chief minister under Louis XIII.

In June 1638, Richelieu ordered the invasion of the Kingdom of Spain because French territory was surrounded by hostile Habsburg territories as a result of the Thirty Years’ War. The House of Habsburg was the main rival of the French royal House of Bourbon for political power in much of Europe. French forces crossed the border and besieged the Basque border town of Hondarribia in Gipuzkoa. In turn, the army was accompanied by a fleet between 27 and 44 French warships under Henri de Sourdis, whose mission it was to prevent any aid reaching Hondarribia on the part of the Spanish navy.

The Battle of Getaria, as depicted by Andries van Eertvelt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Battle of Getaria, as depicted by Andries van Eertvelt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Spanish fleet, under Admiral Lope de Hoces, was then ordered to attack the French even though it was significantly smaller in size. De Hoces’ ships sailed into the Basque port of Getaria, further along the coast, from which they took up a defensive position from which to engage the French – the shallower waters preventing the larger French ships from close engagement. However, de Sourdis employed a twofold tactic of prior bombardment followed by the sending in of fireships–vessels deliberately set on fire and allowed to drift into an enemy fleet–before cutting off any escape routes with the smaller ships in his fleet. On August 22, the winds were favorable enough to employ the fireship method and the Spanish fleet was destroyed.

As a result of the victory, the Kingdom of France came to control the Bay of Biscay, although the siege of Hondarribia was ultimately unsuccessful for the French.

The Franco-Spanish War dragged on, somewhat inconclusively, until 1659. However, the end of the war marked an important date in Basque history because the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), the official agreement signed between the two countries to end the conflict, established for the first time a definitive international border bisecting Basque territory. As Cameron Watson notes in Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present (p. 42).

With this treaty, not only was the international border established once and for all, but the two crowns would be unified through marriage (Louis XIV of France would marry the Spanish infanta María Teresa, daughter of the Castilian monarch Felipe IV, the following year), and the king of France, while retaining the title of king of Nafarroa, relinquished any claim to the Nafarroan [territory] within the Castilian political orbit. The treaty thus marked a definitive political partition of the ancient kingdom.

Modern Basque History is available free to download here.