History of Spain.17th-Century Overview.

Monarchs: Philip III (ruled 1598-1621), Philip IV (r 1621-1665), Charles II (r 1665-1700).

In contrast to Spain’s startling growth of political power and prestige during the 16th century, the 17th century commonly seen as one of “decline.” Not merely historical hindsight, this view was articulated in the early 17th century by a group of writers known as arbitristas. 

They lamented the deterioration of the country, and offered suggestions for both political and especially economic reform. Declinación (the word was used by González de Cellórigo, in his Memorial, published in 1600), desengaño (“disillusion”) and reputación (“reputation”) became key descriptive words for the arbitristas, who recognised the stark contrast between the appearance of imperial greatness and the reality of social and economic problems in their country. Events of the 17th century confirm the foresight of the best of these early political economists.

The focus of the arbitristas’ concerns was Castile.  As in the 16th century, Castile was the driving force behind what was happening nationally and internationally. Castile in fact became synonymous with Spain, since important decisions that affected the course of history during this period were made in the heart of Castile: Madrid.

The very size of Spain’s overseas empire and its possessions in continental Europe made it a constant target for its rivals, England and France, and for the rebellious Dutch. Despite periods of truce with its rivals, for much of the century Spain was at odds with one or more of these countries.  There were victories, of course, but these were outnumbered by defeats and losses, which are a sound measure of the erosion of Spain’s power.

[The Ottoman (Turkish empire) did not pose much of a threat to Spain’s Mediterranean interests during much of the 17th century; it was occupied by internal strife and threatened by challenges from Persia (modern Iran).]

At the beginning of the 17th century, Spain possessed large chunks of Latin America and the Philippines, as well as territories, forts and trading posts –established by the Portuguese– in Brazil, along the coast of Africa, India and the Far East.

In Europe, Spanish rule extended over: The Netherlands (roughly modern Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg), Franche-Comté (roughly modern Burgundy, bordering Switzerland), the Duchy of Milan, and the Kingdom of Naples (all of southern Italy, and Sicily and Sardinia), Cerdagne and Roussillon (just north of the Pyrenees). 

That’s a lot of territory to defend against countries determined to counter Spanish power (the French statesman, Cardinal Richelieu, put it succinctly: “our constant aim must be to check the advance of Spain”). In the end, it proved too much, and the dismantling of that empire began as early as the 17th century.

Indications of Spain’s erosion of power during the 17th century are:

  • In 1609 Spain signed a Twelve Year Truce with the Dutch. This humiliating agreement effectively acknowledged Dutch independence (To counter this humiliation, it was decided to put into effect an earlier decision to expel the Moriscos –converted Muslims—whose adherence to Christianity had long been doubted. ).
  • In 1643, the Spanish tercios (infantry) suffered their first major defeat in generations when they were decimated by French forces at the battle of Rocroi. This left Spain`s reputation for invincibility seriously undermined.
  • In 1648 Spain was forced to recognise Dutch sovereignty.
  • In 1659 Spain ceded the territories of Cerdagne and Roussillon to France.
  • In 1674 the Franche-Comté was invaded by France and its loss recognised in 1678.
  • In 1641 there were separatist plots in Andalusia and in Aragón in 1648, and a separatist rebellion in Naples in 1647-48.
  • Much more serious was what happened in Catalonia and Portugal. In 1640 the Catalans –tired of Castilian demands for troops to fight the French, and fearing the loss of their fueros (local laws)– rebelled, encouraged by French intervention. Castilian attempts to crush the rebellion failed and Catalonia remained under French protection until 1652.  In fact Catalonia was annexed by France, and a French viceroy was installed in Barcelona. The tide turned only after the Catalans became disillusioned by what turned out to be French occupation. When Castilian forces attacked Barcelona in 1652, there was no resistance from the Catalans, who were rewarded with a reaffirmation that Castile would recognise their fueros.
  • In 1640, the Portuguese also rebelled, taking advantage of Castile’s preoccupation with Catalonia. Castile’s demands for increased contributions to its wars in Europe had fomented discontent in Portugal for some time. The last straw came with orders for troops and money to fight the Catalans. With a recent history of being their own masters and with legitimate claimants to their throne, the Portuguese had a powerful incentive for secession. They successfully fought off Castilian attacks, regaining their independence in 1668, taking with them at the same time their overseas possessions. Eighty-eight years of Castilian dominance over Portuguese affairs were at an end.
  • Things were no better overseas. The treasure fleets were constantly harassed and Spanish territories under constant threat. For example, in 1628, the Dutch captured the entire fleet as it prepared its transatlantic crossing, and in 1656 and 1657 the English laid waste to the fleet. In addition, Dutch forts and trading posts in Brazil, India and Indonesia in the early 1600s threatened Portuguese interests and hence the unity of Spain and Portugal.
  • Spain also lost land overseas: Jamaica was seized by the English in 1654 and in 1697 France took the island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic).

The 17th century in fact saw the beginning of the end of Spanish hegemony, a process that would continue in the 18th and 19th centuries.  While France and England were about to accelerate their imperial adventures, Spain witnessed the beginning disintegration of its empire.  

By the end of the 17th century, the balance of power had shifted from Spain to France.  The shift coincided with the end of the Hapsburg dynasty in Spain, to be replaced at the beginning of the 18th century by ironically … the French House of Bourbon (the present King of Spain, Juan Carlos is Bourbon by descent). The last Hapsburg king of Spain, Charles II, was impotent and mentally and physically challenged. The image of an incapacitated monarch is a fitting metaphor perhaps of Spain’s political impotence by the end of the 17th century.

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Darby, Graham Spain in the Seventeenth Century London 1994
Defournaux, Marcelin  Daily Life in Golden Age Spain Stanford 1966
Elliott, J.H.   Imperial Spain 1469-1716  London 1963
Kamen, Henry Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict London 1983
Vincent, M and Stradling R.A  Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal  Oxford: Andromeda 1994