History of Spain


Ferdinand and Isabella

The marriage in 1469 of royal cousins, Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516) and Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), eventually brought stability to both kingdoms. Isabella's niece, Juana, had bloodily disputed her succession to the throne in a conflict in which the rival claimants were given assistance by outside powers--Isabella by Aragon and Juana by her suitor, the king of Portugal. The Treaty of Alcaçovas ended the war in September 1479, and as Ferdinand had succeeded his father in Aragon earlier in the same year, it was possible to link Castile with Aragon. Both Isabella and Ferdinand understood the importance of unity; together they effected institutional reform in Castile and left Spain one of the best administered countries in Europe.

Even with the personal union of the Castilian and the Aragonese crowns, Castile, Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia remained constitutionally distinct political entities, and they retained separate councils of state and parliaments. Ferdinand, who had received his political education in federalist Aragon, brought a new emphasis on constitutionalism and a respect for local fueros to Castile, where he was king consort (1479- 1504) and continued as regent after Isabella's death in 1504. Greatly admired by Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Ferdinand was one of the most skillful diplomats in an age of great diplomats, and he assigned to Castile its predominant role in the dual monarchy.

Ferdinand and Isabella resumed the Reconquest, dormant for more than 200 years, and in 1492 they captured Granada, earning for themselves the title of Catholic Kings. Once Islamic Spain had ceased to exist, attention turned to the internal threat posed by hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in the recently incorporated Granada. "Spanish society drove itself," historian J.H. Elliot writes, "on a ruthless, ultimately self-defeating quest for an unattainable purity."

Everywhere in sixteenth-century Europe, it was assumed that religious unity was necessary for political unity, but only in Spain was there such a sense of urgency in enforcing religious conformity. Spain's population was more heterogeneous than that of any other European nation, and it contained significant nonChristian communities. Several of these communities, including in particular some in Granada, harbored a significant element of doubtful loyalty. Moriscos (Granadan Muslims) were given the choice of voluntary exile or conversion to Christianity. Many Jews converted to Christianity, and some of these Conversos filled important government and ecclesiastical posts in Castile and in Aragon for more than 100 years. Many married or purchased their way into the nobility. Muslims in reconquered territory, called Mudejars, also lived quietly for generations as peasant farmers and skilled craftsmen.

After 1525 all residents of Spain were officially Christian, but forced conversion and nominal orthodoxy were not sufficient for complete integration into Spanish society. Purity of blood (pureza de sangre) regulations were imposed on candidates for positions in the government and the church, to prevent Moriscos from becoming a force again in Spain and to eliminate participation by Conversos whose families might have been Christian for generations. Many of Spain's oldest and finest families scrambled to reconstruct family trees.

The Inquisition, a state-controlled Castilian tribunal, authorized by papal bull in 1478, that soon extended throughout Spain, had the task of enforcing uniformity of religious practice. It was originally intended to investigate the sincerity of Conversos, especially those in the clergy, who had been accused of being crypto-Jews. Tomas de Torquemada, a descendant of Conversos, was the most effective and notorious of the Inquisition's prosecutors.

For years religious laws were laxly enforced, particularly in Aragon, and converted Jews and Moriscos continued to observe their previous religions in private. In 1568, however, a serious rebellion broke out among the Moriscos of Andalusia, who sealed their fate by appealing to the Ottoman Empire for aid. The incident led to mass expulsions throughout Spain and to the eventual exodus of hundreds of thousands of Conversos and Moriscos, even those who had apparently become devout Christians.

In the exploration and exploitation of the New World, Spain found an outlet for the crusading energies that the war against the Muslims had stimulated. In the fifteenth century, Portuguese mariners were opening a route around Africa to the East. At the same time as the Castilians, they had planted colonies in the Azores and in the Canary Islands (also Canaries; Spanish, Canarias), the latter of which had been assigned to Spain by papal decree. The conquest of Granada allowed the Catholic Kings to divert their attention to exploration, although Christopher Columbus's first voyage in 1492 was financed by foreign bankers. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia, a Catalan) formally approved the division of the unexplored world between Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tordesillas, which Spain and Portugal signed one year later, moved the line of division westward and allowed Portugal to claim Brazil.

New discoveries and conquests came in quick succession. Vasco Nunez de Balboa reached the Pacific in 1513, and the survivors of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition completed the circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. In 1519 the conquistador Hernando Cortes subdued the Aztecs in Mexico with a handful of followers, and between 1531 and 1533 Francisco Pizzaro overthrew the empire of the Incas and established Spanish dominion over Peru.

In 1493, when Columbus brought 1,500 colonists with him on his second voyage, a royal administrator had already been appointed for the Indies. The Council of the Indies (Consejo de Indias), established in 1524 acted as an advisory board to the crown on colonial affairs, and the House of Trade (Casa de Contratacion) regulated trade with the colonies. The newly established colonies were not Spanish but Castilian. They were administered as appendages of Castile, and the Aragonese were prohibited from trading or settling there.

Charles V and Philip II

Ferdinand and Isabella were the last of the Trastamaras, and a native dynasty would never again rule Spain. When their sole male heir, John, who was to have inherited all his parent's crowns, died in 1497, the succession to the throne passed to Juana, John's sister. But Juana had become the wife of Philip the Handsome, heir through his father, Emperor Maximilian I, to the Hapsburg patrimony. On Ferdinand's death in 1516, Charles of Ghent, the son of Juana and Philip, inherited Spain (which he ruled as Charles I, r. 1516-56), its colonies, and Naples. (Juana, called Juana Loca or Joanna the Mad, lived until 1555 but was judged incompetent to rule.) When Maximilian I died in 1519, Charles also inherited the Hapsburg domains in Germany. Shortly afterward he was selected Holy Roman emperor, a title that he had held as Charles V (r. 1519-56), to succeed his grandfather. Charles, in only a few years, was able to bring together the world's most diverse empire since Rome.

Charles's closest attachment was to his birthplace, Flanders; he surrounded himself with Flemish advisers who were not appreciated in Spain. His duties as both Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, moreover, never allowed him to tarry in one place. As the years of his long reign passed, however, Charles moved closer to Spain and called upon its manpower and colonial wealth to maintain the Hapsburg empire.

When he abdicated in 1556 to retire to a Spanish monastery, Charles divided his empire. His son, Philip II (r. 1556-98), inherited Spain, the Italian possessions, and the Netherlands (the industrial heartland of Europe in the mid-sixteenth century). For a brief period (1554-58), Philip was also king of England as the husband of Mary Tudor (Mary I). In 1580 Philip inherited the throne of Portugal through his mother, and the Iberian Peninsula had a single monarch for the next sixty years.

Philip II was a Castilian by education and temperament. He was seldom out of Spain, and he spoke only Spanish. He governed his scattered dominions through a system of councils, such as the Council of the Indies, which were staffed by professional civil servants whose activities were coordinated by the Council of State, which was responsible to Philip. The Council of State's function was only advisory. Every decision was Philip's; every question required his answer; every document needed his signature. His father had been a peripatetic emperor, but Philip, a royal bureaucrat, administered every detail of his empire from El Escorial, the forbidding palace-monastery-mausoleum on the barren plain outside Madrid.

By marrying Ferdinand, Isabella had united Spain; however, she had also inevitably involved Castile in Aragon's wars in Italy against France, which had formerly been Castile's ally. The motivation in each of their children's marriages had been to circle France with Spanish allies--Habsburg, Burgundian, and English. The succession to the Spanish crown of the Habsburg dynasty, which had broader continental interests and commitments, drew Spain onto the center stage of European dynastic wars for 200 years.

Well into the seventeenth century, music, art, literature, theater, dress, and manners from Spain's Golden Age were admired and imitated; they set a standard by which the rest of Europe measured its culture. Spain was also Europe's preeminent military power, with occasion to exercise its strength on many fronts--on land in Italy, Germany, North Africa, and the Netherlands, and at sea against the Dutch, French, Turks, and English. Spain was the military and diplomatic standard-bearer of the CounterReformation . Spanish fleets defeated the Turks at Malta (1565) and at Lepanto (1572)--events celebrated even in hostile England. These victories prevented the Mediterranean from becoming an Ottoman lake. The defeat of the Grand Armada in 1588 averted the planned invasion of England but was not a permanent setback for the Spanish fleet, which recovered and continued to be an effective naval force in European waters.

Sixteenth-century Spain was ultimately the victim of its own wealth. Military expenditure did not stimulate domestic production. Bullion from American mines passed through Spain like water through a sieve to pay for troops in the Netherlands and Italy, to maintain the emperor's forces in Germany and ships at sea, and to satisfy conspicuous consumption at home. The glut of precious metal brought from America and spent on Spain's military establishment quickened inflation throughout Europe, left Spaniards without sufficient specie to pay debts, and caused Spanish goods to become too overpriced to compete in international markets.

American bullion alone could not satisfy the demands of military expenditure. Domestic production was heavily taxed, driving up prices for Spanish-made goods. The sale of titles to entrepreneurs who bought their way up the social ladder, removing themselves from the productive sector of the economy and padding an increasingly parasitic aristocracy, provided additional funds. Potential profit from the sale of property served as an incentive for further confiscations from Conversos and Moriscos.

Spain's apparent prosperity in the sixteenth century was not based on actual economic growth. As its bullion supply decreased in the seventeenth century, Spain was neither able to meet the cost of its military commitments nor to pay for imports of manufactured goods that could not be produced efficiently at home. The overall effect of plague and emigration reduced Spain's population from 8 million in the early sixteenth century to 7 million by the mid-seventeenth century. Land was taken out of production for lack of labor and the incentive to develop it, and Spain, although predominantly agrarian, depended on imports of foodstuffs.

Spain in Decline

The seventeenth century was a period of unremitting political, military, economic, and social decline. Neither Philip III (r. 1598-1621) nor Philip IV (r. 1621-65) was competent to give the kind of clear direction that Philip II had provided. Responsibility passed to aristocratic advisers. Gaspar de Guzman, count-duke of Olivares, attempted and failed to establish the centralized administration that his famous contemporary, Cardinal Richelieu, had introduced in France. In reaction to Guzman's bureaucratic absolutism, Catalonia revolted and was virtually annexed by France. Portugal, with English aid, reasserted its independence in 1640, and an attempt was made to separate Andalusia from Spain. In 1648, at the Peace of Westphalia, Spain assented to the emperor's accommodation with the German Protestants, and in 1654 it recognized the independence of the northern Netherlands.

During the long regency for Charles II (1665-1700), the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, validos milked Spain's treasury, and Spain's government operated principally as a dispenser of patronage. Plague, famine, floods, drought, and renewed war with France wasted the country. The Peace of the Pyrenees (1659) ended fifty years of warfare with France, whose king, Louis XIV, found the temptation to exploit weakened Spain too great. As part of the peace settlement, the Spanish infanta Maria Teresa, had become the wife of Louis XIV. Using Spain's failure to pay her dowry as a pretext, Louis instigated the War of Devolution (1667- 68) to acquire the Spanish Netherlands in lieu of the dowery. Most of the European powers were ultimately involved in the wars that Louis fought in the Netherlands.

Spain History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress