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
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
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
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 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.
Sometime after 1556, Castile industry declined because:
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.
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.
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
The hidalgos sacrificed agriculture to the Mesta, the sheep herding
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.
You can read about this and other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.
Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.