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Spain, 1492-1598


The Iberian peninsula contains the present-day nations of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. The region has been a melting pot of many people for centuries. Celts, black Africans, Romans, Moors, Goths, Arabs, and many others came and interbred. It was a Roman province. The Arab conquest began in 711 as they crossed to attack the Visigoths. The Arabs conquered much of Spain and held it for centuries.

It was a long reconquest for "Spaniards", mainly defined as Christians. The Reconquista in Spanish history was very important in shaping Spanish attitudes. Most of the Reconquista had been done by the mid-13th century and Spaniards slowly continued to take back the land. The fall of Granada in 1492 was not terribly important in the scheme of things. Perhaps it had psychological repercussions because it meant that Spain was whole again, except that Portugal was still a separate kingdom but might not have been.

Spain and Portugal, especially the latter, were centers of great learning during the middle ages while the rest of Europe was relatively unprogressive. Islam made Spain a great cultural center. Moslems were tolerant of people of the Book, that is, Jews and Christians. It was through learned Moslems that the West rediscovered the writings of ancient time and though Moslem culture that the idea of romance was promulgated. Regardless of their accomplishments, the Moslems or Moors were not Christian, so the Spanish people would never accept them. Instead, the either tried to convert them convert them or drive them out.

The question sometimes arises as to whether Spain, because of its Islamic history, was different from the rest of Europe, whether it was more oriental and fatalistic. National character studies are very difficult to make and fraught with danger. Suffice it to say that the Spanish and Portuguese were European. Their monarchies were much more like other European monarchies than not. There was little, if anything, that they did that would have been done differently by others. Spain was characteristic of Renaissance Europe, even in its religious fervor.

It was important that Spain and Portugal had national dynastic monarchies. Nationalism meant escaping from the feudal system of personal allegiance and widespread fragmentation. National dynastic monarchies had a larger organized unit as a source of power and had more control. England was the first national state and Spain and Portugal were early as well.

Spain had been conquered and occupied by Moslems and the Reconquest gave a crusading spirit to Spanish Christianity and a strong military cast to the Spanish upper class. Spain reconquered Granada but this event is not that important in explaining how and why Spain conquered the New World. By the mid-13th century, nearly all of Spain had been reconquered, long before Spain discovered America 150 years later. Spain was not really a single kingdom but we use the term "Spain" for convenience. The Iberian peninsula still had separate kingdoms with lots of differences including language, provincial loyalties, and regional jealousies. The fruition of the movement to create a Spanish national monarchy was coming to past at time of discovery. Portugal was a dynastic state well before the Conquest.

For expansion, these monarchies had to have the following. Geographical position was important; it is hard to conceive of Germans or Russians making the voyages of discovery and conquest. It took economic resources to mount these expeditions; principalities generally could not afford such enterprises. Without sufficient political organization, it would not have happened. Feudal lords did not have the leadership nor the bureaucracy necessary to do these things. England did, of course, but it was engaged in the War of the Roses, a civil war, and the necessary process of consolidation by the victor. It and other monarchies did not have the will to participate in a conquest. Spain and Portugal did.

The unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabela was not as systematic and easy as the creation of the Portuguese national monarchy for it took longer, but that fact was not the chief source of difficulty in "Spain" launching voyages of exploration and conquest.

Both Spain and Portugal were closer to America, but it is not clear how important geographical position was. The economies, technologies, political organization, and will were such that Europe was about to discover America. The Portuguese were working off Africa. Because of this, America was bound to be discovered, bound to have someone blow across the Atlantic to America. Factors which made it possible included technological change in sea-going vessels, the astrolabe, better maps, compasses, sail patterns, and timber. One advantages of the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century was that their most likely rivals were busy.

The dynastic system was a new thing. It was an improvement over feudalism in that the centralization of power signaled who was going to lead the "nation." It, thus, made it clear who had the right to rule. System worked. Succession is always the big problem in politics and the dynastic monarchy largely solved that problem.

In the history of 16th century Spanish monarchy, Spain was blessed by good rulers. Ferdinand and Isabela were highly competent people. They ruled their respective kingdoms independently, but cooperated for many purposes. Ferdinand tended to do the foreign policy for both kingdoms. Charles I (1516-1556), their grandson, effectively represented the merger of the two crowns. Was the fact that he was also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire a help or hindrance? That is a source of debate among historians. Charles was the greatest monarch in Europe. He was a man of considerable ability, fine character, and sense of responsibility. He gave it all up in 1556 and went into monastery. Philip II (1556-1598) has had a very bad press, some justified but a lot exaggerated. He was even more governed by his religious beliefs that his father. Christians who did not believe the things that he did consider him a fanatic. He was a little pig-headed but he provided stability. He had a tremendous sense of responsibility.

Some historians argue that he could not delegate responsibility. In fact, there was a lot of delegation of authority because he could not do it all. He tried to do more than was possible. The system was snowed under by paperwork but he made his situation worse by wasting time in reading too much of the correspondence instead of having more of it read by others. When reading a letter from his ambassador to England, who was stuck in London writing a report to the king while the other important people had left the city, he made a notation on the margin of the letter. Next to where the ambassador had described some insects buzzing around the window, Phillip II had written "probably flies."

Spain, 1492-1598

Castile and Isabela I (1474-1504)

Castile was the stronger of the two as well as the largest and strongest of the states on the Iberian peninsula. Each monarch ruled in his or her area but Ferdinand could not leave Castile without Isabela's permission. The king was less powerful in Aragón. They divided the duties with Isabela doing domestic affairs and Ferdinand doing foreign policy. Castile was the key kingdom on the peninsula, managing to impose many of its ways on everyone else. So Castile is the key.

The area ruled by Castile had to be pacified. The nobility were a threat because each nobleman wanted autonomy and quite a few were rich and powerful. The Crown has greatly strengthened itself by alliance with the towns against the nobles who, with their wealth and landed estates, were a threat to both. The grandees were called "cousin" by the monarch; they did not have to remove their hats in the royal presence, a reflection of their almost equal status with the monarch. Isabela tore down their castles, limited private jurisdictions, and ended their more pretentious imitations of royal customs. She deprived the nobility of almost all influence in royal councils in favor of letrados or ecclesiastics. The letrados were university-educated men with no titles of nobility; thus, they were totally dependent upon the Crown for income and status. The nobility were also attracted to court, thus reducing their attention to their own estates. They lost power in the Cortés in favor of the Crown. She used corregidores on the town councils as an offset to the nobility.

Aragón and Ferdinand II (1479-1516)

The Cortés was composed of four estates instead of the customary three. The greater and the lesser nobility sat separately. Passing laws in the Cortés required unanimous consent, which was hard for the Crown to get. The coronation oath by the nobility indicated the limitations on the monarch, for they said:

We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept as our king and sovereign lord, provided you accept all our liberties and laws; if not, not.

Aragón headed a Mediterranean empire. It controlled the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Sicily, and the southern half of Italy. It had a quite different focus from Castile because it was oriented towards the Mediterranean. The conquest of much of the New World would change that.

The Spanish church was a unifying factor. The Spanish were very devout Christians, who believed that they had the duty to convert others to the faith, by persuasion or force. The Spanish Christian church had been reformed by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, incorporated ideas from Erasmus and other Christian humanists. The church did not have to pay attention to the boundaries of the various kingdoms on the peninsula. However, it was almost completely subordinated to the Crown of Castile, which enjoyed the patronado real. This royal patronage gave the Crown to decide which papal bulls would be published in Spain and to appoint high ecclesiastical officials.

The Inquisition

The Inquisition was a chief instrument of the Crown and the Church. It was an instrument to strengthen monarchy and to unify the two kingdoms. Medieval Spain was one of the most tolerant lands in medieval Europe, a place where Christians, Jews, and Moslems lived in harmony. That had been the policy of the Moslems when they ruled Spain; the Christians continued it. By the 15th century, however, intolerance grew, evidenced by mob violence and persecution laws. In 1492, Castile passed a law requiring Jews to become Christians or go into exile. Spaniards increasingly saw Moslems as a problem. The Moslems rebelled against religious intolerance and were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave. Too many Spaniards were beginning to believe that loyalty to the monarch and to Spain required that everyone believe the same.

The Inquisition stood for social justice. It ignored class distinctions, economic status, and other such differences. It tended to reduce all men to a common level before the law (which was a very leftist posture). Judged by the standards of the times, the Spanish Inquisition was neither cruel nor unjust in its procedure and penalties. In many ways, it was more just and humane than almost any other tribunal in Europe. Conviction, for example, required seven witnesses. The accused was allowed the assistance of trained lawyers and an advocate. An accused could challenge a judge because of prejudice and make a list of all his enemies, thus excluding them from testifying. False accusations carried severe penalties. The Inquisition took good care of its prisoners. Unlike other European justice systems, it was very sparing in the use of torture and, when it did, used the more humane forms. What was terrifying about it was its secrecy. People could be arrested and held for years by the Inquisition.


In the 16th century, Spain contained about 10 million people of whom about 7 million were in Castile. As a unified kingdom, it was large enough to have weight in world affairs.

It supported itself by the production of raw material. Castile, in particular, sold wool. Migratory sheep, usually merino sheep, were a very important part of the economy.. Spanish wool was the best in the world. By the beginning of the16th century, there were millions of sheep. The Mesta, which had royal support, controlled 3.5 million sheep but not all the sheep in the kingdom. Mesta taxes and gifts were a principal source of revenue for the Crown before the Conquest. It used the Consulado of Burgos to market the wool.

One common assertion has been that the Mesta destroyed Castilian agriculture because the herds had the freedom to cross fields and destroy crops. The decline, however, was largely due to the traditions of the country which despised the tilling of the soil as a menial occupation fit only for serfs and Moriscos. These attitudes were formed during the centuries-long Reconquista (the reconquering of Spain from the Moslems) during which armies, led by the nobility, regularly trod down crops.

Spain was leading the commercial revolution, especially in the Mediterranean, and was the home of early capitalism. However, the discovery of American gold and silver elsewhere and caused such inflation in Spain that it destroyed enterprise.

The Spanish military was formidable. It was invested with a halo or romance and chivalry. The horseman or caballero, in other words, a knight, was exalted. He was considered a gentlemen, far above those lowly people on foot, the peones. El Cid was a hero. Spanish soldiers, regardless of rank, possessed religious zeal; they saw themselves as soldiers of God. If asked why they fought, their first answer would be Afor God,@ and they would mean it. Religious zealotry can be difficult for the modern person to understand even though plenty of it exists. Spanish military had a tradition of victory. For 150 years, no Spanish army was defeated in a pitched battle. Spain was the great power of Europe for a long time.

Part of the infantry=s success was its organization and weaponry. The Spanish infantry wore defensive armor. It was organized with the coronelías, 6,000 men, until 1634 when it started using the tercio, 3,000 men. An army typically had half the men armed with long pikes, one-third with short sword and javelin, and one-sixth with an arquebus. This army could cut its way through armies larger in size. The conquistadores knew the Spanish military system.

Spanish politics, 1504-1598

Isabela died in 1504 and her daughter, Juana la Loca (Crazy Joanie), became queen with Ferdinand as regent. She married Philip I of the Hapsburg dynasty who pushed Ferdinand aside to assume the throne. He died within a year and Ferdinand returned as regent until his death in 1516. Charles of Ghent, Juana's oldest son, inherited the throne but he was Flemish and alien to Spain. Many Spaniards did not want this "foreigner" to assume the throne. Castile was on the verge of rebellion. Spanish xenophobia had grown over the last century.

Charles was sixteen years old with a stupid-looking face and the enormous Hapsburg jaw. He was a very quiet person with a coldness of manner. He had gluttonous habits. He aged prematurely. He suffered from gout, which the ignorant thought meant that he overindulged in food and drink. He had an apparent contempt for Spain and did not bother to learn the language in his first years as king. In 1519, he got the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, borrowing substantial sums from the Fugger banking interests. This annoyed the Spanish nobility, for it meant that Spain was not his top priority. In sum, he was king but unpopular.

Some of this dislike manifested itself in the comunero revolt. When these townsmen started turning to social revolution, the nobility began to back the Crown. After the revolt was crushed, Castile enjoyed a period of peace and rising prosperity. The failure of the comuneros strengthened the Crown.

Reasons for the increase in royal power:

The lesser nobility (hidalgos) took the Crown's side in the comunero revolt. They took control of the towns. Hidalgos (barely noblemen) looked to the Crown for appointments and favors.

The king devoted himself to Spain and learned Spanish, having realized that it was in his self-interest to do so.

At first, Spanish prosperity was based on American bullion plus increased demands for manufactured goods from America. Profit rate was 166%. Spanish wool and silk industries grew.

Sometime after 1556, Castile industry declined because:

The influx of the bullion raised Spanish prices making it a bad market to buy from but a good seller=s market. This ruined the Spanish export trade to Europe.

Unsound economic policy of the government was a factor. The hidalgos were interested in lower prices and used laws to lower prices and put prohibitions on the colonials.

The hidalgos sacrificed agriculture to the Mesta, the sheep herding guild.

The upper-class (and therefore, Spanish) attitudes looked down on industry and commerce.

The American colonies increasingly turned to domestic production.

The Crown taxed too much.

Charles I and Wars

Spain was constantly embroiled in wars because Charles I was also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles ruled, directly or indirectly, the Spanish New World, the Philippines, half of Italy, part of North Africa, parts of the Germanies and Austria, and the Netherlands. He fought the Turks and Protestants in the wars of the Counter-Reformation. He was involved in English and French affairs as well as the rest of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1556, Charles, tired of the enormous burdens of ruling such a vast empire and of the constant warfare, retired to a monastery, where he could devote his life to Christianity. He yielded the Spanish throne to his son, Philip, and the Holy Roman Empire to his brother Ferdinand.

Philip II (1556-98)

Philip became Spain's greatest king, arriving in 1559 and never leaving it again. He was fair-haired, growing prematurely bald, fresh complexioned, blue-eyed, shorter than average, and had the Hapsburg jaw. His health was poor.

Philip II has been given bad press by non-Spanish historians and publicists. He was an exceptionally dutiful son, devoted husband, and understanding and affectionate father. He led a sexually moral life except briefly after the death of his first wife, María of Portugal. He was kind to the poor and interested in the welfare of his servants. He had a zeal for social justice. He was truthful, devout, and frugal while being generous to others. He had a comparatively high education and culture. He read and wrote Latin extremely well. He also wrote Spanish, French, and Italian. His library contained 4,000 volumes. He liked paintings and music and played the guitar.

Philip believed that divine right meant that he had to look after the welfare of every subject. He worked tirelessly on their behalf, rising early and going to bed late. Self-abnegation and self control were hallmarks of his character.

To help him rule, he used a councilor form of government. There were twelve councils with the Consejo de Estado being the lead. For America, there was the Real y Supremo Consejo de las Indias. Although these councils were large bureaucracies and worked hard, they were entirely dependent on the king. Philip trusted no one but himself. He read everything; nothing escaped his attention. He did not prioritize what he read; he did not distinguish between the important and the trivial. The Spanish government fell further and further behind. His viceroy in Naples remarked "if death came from Spain, we should live to a very great age."

Philip was a devout Christian who heard Mass every day. In his view, not to be a Catholic was to be a traitor. His foreign policy was also motivated by his Christianity, but he modified it at times for reasons of state. He favored Elizabeth I of England over Mary, Queen of Scots, because Mary, through the Guise family, had ties to France, a chief rival. He also followed an anti-papal policy, for the Pope was a secular prince as well as a religious ruler. Besides, he was not convinced that the Pope was as Christian as he was.

His aims were to strengthen royal power, acquire Portugal, and dominate the British Isles and France by intervening in their religious struggles. Most of all, he wanted to make Spain great.

You can read about this and other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

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