16th C Spain. Overview: Politics

Spain in the 16th Century. Overview: Politics

Monarchs: Ferdinand/ Fernando (b1452-d1516; ruled as Ferdinand II of Aragon 1479-1516 and V of Castile 1474-1504), Isabella/Isabel (b1451-d1504, Queen of Castile 1474-1504); Charles/Carlos I (b1500-d1558; ruled Spain 1516-56, took title of Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire 1519-56); Philip/Felipe II (b1527-d1598; ruled 1556-98).

Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs.

In the 15th century, there were five kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula: Castile, Aragón (which included Catalonia, Valencia, the kingdom of Naples, Sardinia and Sicily), Navarre, Portugal and the Muslim kingdom/emirate of Granada. By early in the 16th century they had been reduced to two: Castile/Aragón and Portugal.

Portugal had been an independent kingdom since the 12th century; Castile and Aragón were united in the late 15th century through the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón, and tiny Navarre was swallowed by Aragón in 1513.  Insofar as Castile and Aragón were concerned, Castile was more densely populated and more powerful than its neighbour, and it was Castile that took the initiative in subsequent political developments both in and beyond the peninsula.
The marriage between Isabel and Ferdinand took place in 1469; she was 18 and he was 17! Isabel succeeded to the throne of Castile in 1474, and Ferdinand to that of Aragón in 1479. Their marriage was essentially an alliance of two royal houses, with the two monarchs being simply consorts in the other’s kingdom. Each kingdom retained its own institutions, coinage and customs etc.  To complicate matters even further, within Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia had their own laws and parliaments!

Granada, being the last Muslim kingdom/emirate of the once powerful al-Andalus, was an anomaly, and an early target for Isabella and Ferdinand who saw its conquest as a necessary step for consolidating their political power and for religious uniformity in the peninsula. By January 1492, Granada was in their hands.  The terms of surrender were generous and included freedom of religion. Religious conformity, however, was still the overall objective of the Christians. Already on March 31, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabel signed an edict giving Jews four months to accept baptism or go into exile; by 1501 the Muslims faced the same choice.

Christianity was now the common bond that held Spaniards together. Nevertheless, the religious conformity of baptized Jews (Conversos) and converted Muslims (Moriscos) was frequently tested and there was widespread suspicion that their conversion was not genuine.
Only the Muslims of Aragón escaped the
forcible baptisms of 1501, but they too were
obliged to convert in 1525 owing to civil
conflicts in Aragon.
 This was not a new phenomenon; the 15th century had seen an explosion of Jews accepting baptism.  Many were sincere in their new faith, many others continued to practice their Judaic faith in secret. It was to investigate the suspicion of heresy amongst Conversos that the infamous Inquisition was introduced into Castile in 1478. Long dormant in Aragón, the Inquisition was established in Castile at the request of Ferdinand and Isabel. What distinguished the Castilian Inquisition was that although it was an ecclesiastical institution, control over appointments to it and over its finances was granted to the Crown, a secular body. This meant that its function overlapped both political and religious spheres, and its impact on Spanish society was felt for centuries as its power quickly extended beyond Castile into all areas of the country.

At the beginning of the 16th century, there was a general feeling of pride and self confidence in the political and religious accomplishments of the Catholic Monarchs.
 This pride extended also to other fields. For example, new universities were founded, reflecting the fresh air of humanism from Italy. Queen Isabel encouraged the study of Latin, which opened up new avenues of thought. There was pride in the achievements of the Castilian language as evidenced in the publication of the first Spanish grammar book and Spanish-Latin dictionary (both in 1492) and in collections of popular poetry.
Further impetus to the general air of confidence was given by two far-reaching events: the fortuitous “discovery” of America (Las Indias) by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and the accession in 1516 to the Spanish throne of the powerful Hapsburg family of central Europe. With the discovery of Las Indias and the
acquisition of vast new lands, Spain embarked on its transatlantic imperial adventures.  With the accession of the Hapsburg Charles (Carlos) to the Spanish throne, Spain suddenly acquired large swathes of land in central and northern Europe (Austria, the Netherlands, Burgundy and chunks of Germany).  These were heady times, the beginning of the so-called Golden Age, both politically and culturally. From the modest marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469, then, there grew within about 55 years an imperial power --more properly called monarquía española-- whose possessions encompassed large areas in Europe and America, and even stretched across the Pacific (under Spanish auspices, the first voyage around the world was completed in 1522).

Internationally, too, Spain was making its mark in Europe, with Ferdinand being particularly active in this field. Spain’s main rival was France, and much of Ferdinand’s efforts went into political alliances to contain French ambitions on Spanish territory (along the Pyrenees and in Italy). Marriage was one expedient way of creating alliances. Probably the best known in the English-speaking world is the marriage of Catherine (of Aragón) to Henry VIII of England,
Actually, Catherine was first betrothed to
Arthur, Prince of Wales and Henry's older
brother.  It was only after Arthur's death
that Catherine married Henry.
but for the future of Spain the most significant of the several arranged marriages was that of Ferdinand and Isabel`s youngest daughter, Juana, to the son of the Hapsburg emperor, Maximilian I. It was their son, Charles, who established the Hapsburg dynasty in Spain.

Charles I/V (1500-1558; ruled Spain 1516-56, Holy Roman Emperor 1519-58)

Charles was born in Flanders and arrived in Spain in September 1517.

Charles I/V's European and North African
possessions. Blue is Castile, orange is Aragon,
purple shows Charles's inheritance from
Burgundy and green his Hapsburg
inheritance. Map from Wikipedia Commons.
Click to enlarge.
He was the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabel, and the first king jointly of both Castile and Aragón (hence Charles I).  A period of uncomfortable adjustment followed as Charles established himself, and Spaniards grudgingly accustomed themselves to a youthful monarch who spoke no Spanish and surrounded himself with Flemish advisors.  Three years after Charles’s arrival, Spanish resentment at Flemish control erupted in the year long Revolt of the Comuneros (members of a popular communal movement). It didn’t help that Charles also requested money in pursuit of the office of Holy Roman Emperor (HRE).  Spaniards feared that their country’s welfare would be subordinated to Charles’s obligations to defend the interests of the Catholic Church beyond Spain’s borders, and to some degree their fears were justified.  Charles did become HRE (as Charles V) in 1519, and his priorities did extend beyond Spain. Indeed, of the 40 years that Charles ruled, he spent only 16 in Spain; in the last 13 years of his reign he didn’t set foot in the country at all.

Nevertheless, there were compensations.  There was considerable prestige attached to their king’s title of HRE, and Spaniards quickly realised that their country was the most powerful in Europe and no European nation could make decisions without taking into consideration Spain’s reaction. In addition, Charles won Spaniards over by identifying them increasingly with the mission of defending Catholicism. His struggle with the threat of heretical Protestants in Northern Europe and with Ottoman (Turkish) activities in the Mediterranean touched a common chord and recalled the crusading spirit of the Reconquista, which was still relatively fresh in the collective Spanish memory.  But not all of Charles’s enemies were Protestants or Muslims. Catholic France, led by the youthful Francis I, was traditionally hostile to Aragón and challenged Charles’s claims to the duchy of Burgundy and the strategically placed duchy of Milan in northern Italy. In addition, Francis had a personal grudge against Charles, who had out-manoeuvred him for the title of HRE in 1519.

The costs of defending imperial and Catholic interests were enormous. How did Charles pay for all these wars?  There was a limit to what he could extract from his possessions in taxes, and even the wealth of The Indies –although very promising—was insufficient. The only solution was to borrow money against the future gold and silver coming from The Indies. However, Spain had lost a large part of its own banking expertise and resources with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, so the borrowed money came mainly from established bankers in Germany and Genoa (Italy). The implications of this for Spain's economy were profound since it effectively mortgaged Spain’s economic future to foreigners.

Charles’s constant travels and military commitment eventually took their toll.  In 1556, he abdicated in favour of his son, Philip, and retired to the isolated monastery of Yuste, in Extremadura.  He still retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor and continued to fire letters of advice to his son, but the end was close for the exhausted and gout-ridden former monarch.  He died in September 1558.

Philip II (1527-1598; ruled 1556-98).

Philip was everything his father was not. Charles was a warrior king, Philip was a bureaucrat par excellence. Charles was decisive, Philip dithered agonisingly over state matters. Charles travelled tirelessly, Philip scarcely travelled beyond Castile once he succeeded to the throne. Charles was multilingual, Philip spoke only Castilian (he understood French, Portuguese and Italian). Charles had no fixed capital, Philip established Madrid as his permanent capital in 1561. Their different personalities reflect in many ways the spirit of the country.  Under Charles, Spain looked outwards, confident of its destiny. Under Philip, Spain closed in upon itself. Internally, the Inquisition continued its relentless pursuit of heresy, abetted now by the zeal imparted by the Catholic reforms (known as the Counter Reformation) to counter the spread of Protestantism.  Externally, Spain appeared defensive, reacting to events, seemingly unable to keep its enemies at bay and struggling to keep its territories intact.  As early as 1559, the Venetian ambassador to Spain observed that Philip’s objective was “not to wage war so that he can add to his kingdoms, but to wage peace so that he can keep the lands he has" (Kamen 129).

Spain did lose lands when Charles died (1558), and the title of HRE and the German territories attached to that title passed –by agreement- to Charles’s younger brother, Ferdinand in 1558.  But this was the least of Philip’s troubles in these early days. The financial burden of empire weighed heavily and in 1557 Philip was forced to suspend payment to bankers, in effect declaring the country bankrupt. He did so again in 1575 and 1596; the glitter of imperial power evidently hid serious economic problems.

In addition, there were grave political concerns.  The Muslim Ottoman (Turkish) Empire was a major threat in the Mediterranean. Although the Turks suffered a humiliating naval defeat in the Gulf of Lepanto (Greece) in 1571, they soon regrouped, conquered Tunis in 1574 and most of Morocco (from the Portuguese) in 1576.  In northern Europe, Protestant discontent led to a revolt in the Netherlands in 1566 and a constant state of hostilities thereafter.
The World Soccer cup final in South Africa
between Spain and Holland (July 2010) has
provoked some interesting comments
recalling their historical relationship,
ranging from the colours of the Dutch
soccer outfit to allusions in the Dutch
national anthem to their rebellions against
Spanish forces in the 16th century. See,
for example www.mediaite.com/tv/
In the Alpujarras region of Granada in the south of Spain, frustrated Moriscos (Moorish converts to Catholicism) started a bloody two-year rebellion in 1568.  Later, in 1591, Philip was forced to send troops to Zaragoza (Aragón) to quell a rebellion and silence general agitation in the kingdom over Aragonese fears of Castilian restrictions on their “fueros” (local legal privileges).

So, with bankruptcies and internal rebellions … why was Spain still considered the most powerful country of Europe? Well, Spanish presence was very visible everywhere, and Spain possessed more land in Europe than any other country, and of course it owned vast overseas territories.  The 1571 naval victory in Lepanto was a major boost, even if it didn’t eliminate Muslim activity in the Mediterranean. Fortunately for Philip, in the late 1570s the attention of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, was directed away from the Mediterranean to a situation of anarchy on the eastern edge of his empire. For both leaders, a truce –which was agreed upon in 1577 and formally signed in 1580-- was in their best interest. 1580 was a good year for Spain: it extended its empire even more when the death of Sebastian I of Portugal in Morocco in 1578 allowed Philip to press his claims to the Portuguese throne.  Backed by money and his armies, Philip eventually overcame opposition and was grudgingly recognised king by the Portuguese in 1580. 
Like Castile and Aragón, Portugal
retained its own institutions etc.,
and its empire remained separate
from the Spanish empire.
With the added title came Portuguese overseas territories: in South America, Africa and the Far East. Clearly, the sun did not set on Philip’s empire!

With all the Iberian Peninsula finally united under one ruler, and a truce signed with the Ottoman Sultan, the omens seemed good for Philip. At about this time a new method of refining metal in The Indies produced a sharp increase in the silver reaching Spain in the late 1570s.  Freed now from pressing financial constraints and from direct threat in the Mediterranean, Philip was able to undertake a number of initiatives against his enemies in Europe in the 1580s and early 1590s. Here he was faced by a constant state of war against the Dutch who were aided by both the English and the French.  At the same time, English ships under Sir Francis Drake were disrupting to the Spanish fleet in the Atlantic and attacking Spanish naval ports in the West Indies and in Spain itself (e.g. Vigo in 1585 and Cádiz in 1587).  By the time Drake had “singed the King of Spain’s beard” in an audacious attack on Cádiz, preparations were under way for the “Invincible” Armada. The defeat of the Armada in 1588 was deeply and widely felt in the country, but Spain’s power was not yet broken. Its army was still feared, and its fleet was quickly rebuilt with better ships. Indeed, two further Armadas were dispatched to England, in 1596 and 1597, but both were driven back by storms.

Still, the costs of the Armadas, the ongoing wars in the Netherlands and intervention in the religious wars in France were exacting an unbearable cost on Spain’s finances. On the high seas English and Dutch ships were more active than ever in harassing Spanish galleons and attacking ports in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, Mexico and Peru had developed their economies and no longer required basic goods (e.g. cloth, grain, oil, wine) that had previously come from Spain.  The boom period of the 1580s was over.  There was less silver, the Spanish economy was stagnating and agriculture decaying, and people emigrating to the towns which were ill equipped to absorb them.  The bankruptcy of 1596 was a consequence of overstretched resources, but fate had one more nasty card to play: a devastating plague that extended from 1596 to 1602, and which killed around 600.000 in Castile alone.

Philip II died in September 1598 in the Escorial, an immense, granite palace-monastery-mausoleum he had built north of Madrid.

El Escorial. Image: Yolanda Piqueras Domínguez
               Wikipedia.  Click to enlarge
In considerable pain, incontinent and surrounded by numerous religious relics, Philip’s death seems a fitting metaphor for his exhausted country at the end of the 16th century. With a new king and the birth of a new century, there might be hope for a resurgence of vitality, but it didn’t happen. That is another story!


Carr, Matthew  Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain 2009 
Elliott, J.H    Imperial Spain 1469-1716  London 1963
Kamen, Henry        Spain 1469-1714: A Society in Conflict  London 1983
      “         “        Golden Age Spain Atlantic Highlands NJ.  1988
Parker, Geoffrey    Philip II  London 1988 (1st ed in 1979, Penguin)                                                     Reston, James Jr Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors 2006