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1516-1700 - Habsburg Spain

The internal resources of the country were immense. The soil, the climate, the ports, the people,—everything offered a foundation for greatness. The chivalrous qualities of her children, their pride, their scorn of sordid views, their sense of honor, their intellectual attainments and inflexible virtues, all offered a hopeful prospect. With powers bounded by precedent, or by conscience alone—powers which, in other hands, might have proved fatal to the community—the kings of Spain had seldom been tyrants. Her nobility and gentry were not more distinguished for illustrious descent than for unsullied honor and boundless generosity. Her ecclesiastics would have honorably sustained comparison with the clergy of the established Church of England and were among the foremost defenders of popular rights. Her citizens, even the rustics, were distinguished for intelligence and honest hereditary pride and contained within themselves resources sufficient to ensure their future fortunes.

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.

Under the emperor the condition of Spain was more splendid, perhaps also more prosperous, than in any prior or subsequent reign. Though he was engaged in so many wars, the people do not appear to have been overburdened in supporting them: the treasures of the New World and the ordinary contributions were generally sufficient for the purpose. The circulation of so much wealth, and the vast markets opened for Spanish productions in the Americas, gave a new impulse to the national industry. Hence labor was in constant demand, and adequately remunerated. But the happiness even of this bright period had its drawbacks.

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.

The commencement of the reign of Philip II exhibits the same generally prosperous state of things as that of his father. Some of the causes assigned for Spanish decline were, indeed, in full operation, but their influence was not yet felt, and the mischief of others was counterbalanced by accidental circumstances. This great monarch — for such he really was — had a judgment much more solid, much less liable to be misled, than the emperor; and for some years he consulted the welfare of his people with perseverance and success. The acquisition of Portugal and of the Philippine Islands augmented his resources, and consequently his power. But, if his policy in regard to the conquered kingdom was humane and enlightened, he overlooked some obvious considerations. Had he fixed his court permanently at Lisbon, he would have secured Portugal forever. That city, too, was far better fitted to be the capital of a great kingdom than the inland town of Madrid.

In all the dominions of Philip, — in Milan, Parma, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Netherlands, Portugal, as well as in Spain, in the vast colonial empire both of Spain and of Portugal, — the number of archbishoprics was 58, of bishoprics 684, of abbeys 11,400, of chapters 936, of parishes 127,000, of religious hospitals 7,000, of religious orders and confraternities (friars, etc.) 23,000, of monasteries 46,000, of nunneries 13,500, of secular priests 312,000, of monks 400,000, of friars and other ecclesiastics 200,000. The civil functionaries nominated by the king amounted to 80,083, the viceroys and inferior authorities to 367,000. Prodigious as these numbers, — those of the ecclesiastics especially, — may appear, they will not be deemed so extraordinary considering that the scepter of Philip extended over, perhaps, 100,000,000 of human beings.

The new king, Philip III, observed that he would rather be without subjects than rule over infidels: the foolish saying was applauded by the courtiers; and orders, dated September, 1609, were despatched to the captains-general to force the Moriscos on board the galleys prepared for them, and land them on the African coast.

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. At the accession of Philip IV, the Spanish monarchy had much declined from that supremacy which it had so long held among the nations. Its territory indeed was but little diminished, and if power could be measured by extent of dominion, Spain was still the most potent kingdom in Europe. But its energy was in a great measure spent, and its resources were nearly drained.

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.

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Page last modified: 12-07-2012 17:03:08 ZULU