In the 16th century the republic was practically a protected state under the power of Spain, the Genoese being the bankers of the monarchy and having entire control of its finances. Several of the younger brothers of Ambrosio Spinola sought their fortune in Spain, and one of them, Frederick, distinguished himself greatly as a soldier in Flanders. The eldest brother remained at home to marry and continue the family. In 1592 he was married to Joanna Bacciadonna, daughter of the count of Galerrata. The houses of Spinola and Doria were rivals for authority within the republic. Ambrosio Spinola continued the rivalry with the count of Tursi, then the chief of the Dorias.
He was not successful, and having lost a lawsuit into which he had entered to enforce a right of pre-emption of a palace belonging to the Salerno family which the Dorias wished to purchase, he decided to withdraw from the city and advance the fortunes of his house by serving the Spanish monarchy in Flanders. In 1602 he and his brother Frederick entered into a contract with the Spanish government--a "condotta" on the old Italian model. It was a speculation on which Spinola risked the whole of the great fortune of his house. Ambrosio Spinola undertook to raise 1000 men for land service, and Frederick to form a squadron of galleys for service on the coast.
Several of Frederick's galleys were destroyed by English war-ships on his way up channel. He himself was slain in an action with the Dutch on May 24 1603. Ambrosio Spinola marched overland to Flanders in 1602 with the men he had raised at his own expense. During the first months of his stay in Flanders the Spanish government played with schemes for employing him on an invasion of England, which came to nothing. At the close of the year he returned to Italy for more men. His actual experience as a soldier did not begin till as general, and at the age of thirty-four, he undertook to continue the siege of Ostend on September 29, 1603. The ruinous remains of the place fell into his hands on September 22, 1604.
The archduke Albert and the infanta Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II, who then governed Flanders and had set their hearts on taking Ostend, were delighted at his success, and it won him a high reputation among the soldiers of the time. On the close of the campaign he went to Spain to arrange with the court, which was then at Valladolid, for the continuance of the war. At Valladolid he insisted on being appointed commander-in-chief in Flanders. By the April he was back at Brussels, and entered on his first campaign. The wars of the Low Countries consisted at that time almost wholly of sieges, and Spinola made himself famous by the number of places he took in spite of the efforts of Maurice of Nassau to save them.
In 1606 he again went to Spain. He was received with much outward honour, and entrusted with a very secret mission to secure the government of Flanders in case of the death of the archduke or his wife, but he could not obtain the grandeeship which he desired, and was compelled to pledge the whole of his fortune as security for the expenses of the war before the bankers would advance funds to the Spanish government. As he was never repaid, he was in the end utterly ruined. The Spanish government began now to have recourse to devices for keeping him away from Spain. Until the signing of the twelve years' truce in 16o9 he continued to command in the field with general success. After it was signed he retained his post, and had among other duties to conduct the negotiations with France when the prince of Condb fled to Flanders with his wife in order to put her beyond the reach of the senile admiration of Henry IV of France.
By 1611 Spinola's financial ruin was complete, but he obtained the desired "grandeza." In 1614 he had some share in the operations connected with the settlement of Cleves and Juliers. On the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War he made a vigorous campaign in the lower Palatinate and was rewarded by the grade of captain-general. After the renewal of the war with Holland in 1621 he gained the most renowned victory of his career—the capture of Breda after a long siege (August 28, 1624 - June 5, 1625) and in spite of the most strenuous efforts of the prince of Orange (Frederick Henry) to save it. The surrender of Breda is the subject of the great picture by Velasquez, known as "Las Lanzas"; the portrait of Spinola is from memory.
The taking of Breda was the culmination of Spinola's career. Utter want of money paralysed the Spanish government, and the new favourite, Olivares, was jealous of the general. Spinola could not prevent Frederick Henry of Nassau from taking Groll, a good set-off for Breda. In January 1628 he left for Spain, resolved not to resume the command in Flanders unless security wiis given him for the support of his army. At Madrid he had to endure much insolence from Olivares, who endeavoured to make him responsible for the loss of Groll. Spinola was resolute not to return to Flanders.
Meanwhile the Spanish government added a war over the succession to the duchy of Mantua to its other burdens. Spinola was appointed as plenipotentiary and general. He landed at Genoa on September 19, 1629. In Italy he was pursued by the enmity of Olivares, who caused him to be deprived of his powers as plenipotentiary. Spinola's health broke down, and, having been robbed of his money, grudged the compensation he asked for his children and disgraced in the presence of the enemy, he died on the 25th of September 1630 at the siege of Casale, muttering the words "honour" and "reputation." The title of marquis of Los Balbases, still borne by his representatives in Spain, was all that his family received for the vast fortune they spent in the service of Philip III and IV.
Don A Rodriguez Villa has published a biography well supplied with original documents--Ambrosia Spinola, primer marqués de los Balbases (Madrid, 1905).