Spain’s perceived “Golden Age” is a broad classification unconfined to a specific era. The Golden Age has long been affiliated with the growth of a uniquely Spanish identity that arose with the flourishing of arts, architecture and literature expanding notably in the years of Phillip II, and flourishing in the 17th century – the same century traditionalist historians identify as the decline of Spain. To consider the golden age of Spain on a purely art and literature basis however misses the point, the Golden Age in all contexts appeared from the development of the Spanish Empire.
On the European stage Spain appeared at the height of its “Golden Age” during the reign of Phillip II, Spain was the centre piece of the world’s greatest power controlled by the Hapsburg dynasty. Outwardly Spain was a religiously unified nation of great power, wealth and honour. Yet the “Golden Age” was of little substance on a domestic scale, built on a perceived vision of what Spain was like, whilst its periodic decline was built upon greater understanding of what Spain was.
There was little to show of a “Golden Age” outside the confinements of the inner aristocracy in the 16th century, it’s so called decline thereafter were the true colours of Spain shining though. Failure at a domestic level inevitably brought down the golden era of foreign policy. The Catholics Kings role in this dramatic rise and fall in the Golden Age was limited, yet essential. As the founders of Spain, they set the tone of foreign and domestic policy, religion and most importantly (although indirectly), the succession.
Ferdinand and Isabella presided over the making of Spain; as young heirs and monarchs they united Aragon and Castile under one crown. For Aragon this was overwhelmingly desirable, for political reasons more than any imperialistic view of unification and described by Lotherington as “Undoubtedly the most politically effective partnership” . In Aragon expansion in Italy had stalled and she was threatened by the French in both the Mediterranean and to the north in Navarre.
In Castile there was much opposition to the marriage; as noble factions of great power and influence were split over the two potential Castilian heirs Juana and Isabella. Alfonso the archbishop of Toledo proposed Isabella’s marriage to Ferdinand in search of allies, and despite her young age Isabella herself proved to be influential in the decision making. Unification had been attempted before as both monarchs where cousins, yet their marriage in 1469 would be of deciding significance n the making of Spain in the Golden Age to come. The Peninsula was the bedrock of the Catholic Kings foreign policy. For Isabella “Her greatest ambition was to carry to completion the reconquista of the peninsula” ,thus naturally Portugal was the first choice of succession for the monarchs of both kingdoms, but their fortunes were not to be fulfilled due to the misfortune of the deaths of their two children.
This dream of a united Peninsula was not lost however, and stayed in the minds of Castilians and was notably evident in the demands of the Comuneros revolt “They should choose her (Isabella of Portugal), according to the desire of his kingdoms” The Catholic Kings influential desire of a united peninsula had worn off on future generations and laid the foundations for their great great grandson Phillip II to unite Hispania under one monarch. . The foundations of a united Spain however where no more than a “dynastic bundle of states” and lay in the balance following Isabella’s (of Castile) death in 1504.
Despite the unity the Catholic kings displayed swearing to the Cortez of Aragon and Castile and administrating both kingdoms together such unity always was a one sided arrangement. Ferdinand under the marriage arrangements was contracted to live in Castile and govern Aragon though the newly formed Councils of state, Kamen explains “The Marriage treaty drawn up for Ferdinand laid down the basic limits to Ferdinand’s future authority” Economically and in governance the two remained separate entities in all but foreign policy.
Some Historians consider Isabella’s decision to pass the crown to the Hapsburgs rather than Aragon as evidence of Isabella’s disunity. Lockyer claims; “she showed how little she appreciated the concept of Spanish unity” . This theory is supported by Historian Lotherington and Kamen, the latter who comments “the achievement of a united Spain was never an objective of the Catholic Kings” However this is too simplistic a view; because Isabella knew that the Castilian nobles would not accommodate for an Aragonese king, and the crown must rest upon the spouse of Aragon and Castile if unification was to be a realistic goal.
Elliot suggests this when he speaks of a “Spanish inheritance” when referring to the Burgundian inheritance and Rady explains “Ferdinand held such influence in Castile this kingdom also might have been wrenched away from the new heir (Charles)” . Likewise J. Jones identifies “national unification” as a key policy of the Catholic Kings. It was therefore not “entirely by accident” that Spain as united under the same realm but the death of the Catholic Kings Portuguese dynastic ties that meant the Hapsburg dynasty and not the Portuguese dynasty was united under the Spanish crown, which as Isabella had predicted caused friction amongst Cisneros and Castilian nobles who resented Ferdinand fruitless attempts to produce an alternative Spanish heir.
Failing to promote his more desirable Spanish grandson; Ferdinand to the throne, they knew like Isabella that the “Old interfering Catalan” – which they referred to him as, would eventually deliver his kingdom into their new crown if he was unable to establish a strong foreign dynastic alliance, of which he reluctantly did. The Hapsburg succession was “the last thing that Ferdinand and Isabella would have wished” , for Ferdinand only a last resort to an uncompromising Castile.
But it was the road, if bumpy, to a Golden Age for Spain. When the Burgundian Charles first succeeded to the throne of Spain there was no sign of a Golden Age in Spain. Charles rejected the realm, considering Spain simply another of his territories in the Holy Roman Empire. In Brandi’s words his succession – “Hopelessly miscarried” . The young and shy king arrived, (overdue) illiterate in Spanish and assuming the offices of the land for Burgundian friends and for money, Charles made the worst possible impression.
Thus without the attentive eye of the Catholic Kings the nobility grew in strength and confidents under a tentative government; “reopening old feuds” , the revolt of the Germania, Comuneros and in the Balearic Islands were a direct result of Charles neglect of Spanish affairs and could have been prevented. When Charles left Spain in September 1519 Spain was part of Charles Burgundian Empire The monarchy created by the Catholic Kings was a personal monarchy ruled in an absolute style, and therefore totally ungovernable in the way Charles had attempted to rule when he first arrived in Spain.
The theory of new monarchy endorsed by historians such as Katherine Leach and Geoffrey Parker has been largely rebuked, particularly in the case of the monarchy Ferdinand and Isabella founded. What Elliot adequately identifies in the case of “new monarchy is Spain created by Ferdinand and Isabella must be entirely excluded from the European model, or alternatively the model itself is at default” . Absolutism was what the Catholic Kings more defiantly moved towards, this change from feudal to “absolute” and was characterised by subsequent weak and strong monarchs all across Europe.
What is evident is that there was no “new monarchy” in such developments. Henry IV Isabella’s father was a “weak” monarch, his reign characterised by “a period of instability which the great nobles exploited freely” . The New Monarchy is mistaken for a period after 1500 where by “the monarchies of England, France, the Netherlands and Spain had all emerged victorious from long periods of civil wars with over mighty subjects” . In this context the Catholic Kings had succeeded not in the stripping, but the “taming” of the aristocracy.
The Catholic Kings had tackled the political aspect of the nobility; denying them the right to vote in the Consejo Real – (Council of Castile), expanding the use of Corregidors and letrados – (civil servants trained in law) staffed by the “lesser nobility” to encourage political neutrality. The revolts Charles I faced when he left Spain in May 1520 were a reminder of the type of monarchy Ferdinand and Isabella’s had created.
It was personnel, and required a decisive and affirmative monarch, as the Comenros rebels identified “it is not custom of Castile to be without king” . Perhaps this was the most important foundation of the Golden Age that the Catholic Kings created. By transferring political power from the nobles to the monarch they created a new form of national identity. The period of September 1517 – May 1522 was a time of “nationalism and revolt” and thus the Golden Age was established not in the Netherlands or any other part of the Empire, but in Spain.
When Charles returned to Spain in July 1522 he adapted to the unique requirements of Spanish monarchy. He was freed of the influence of the Golden Fleece, upon the deaths of the unpopular statesmen Chievres in 1521 and Sauvage in 1518 Charles turned to Gattinara, an Italian statesman who Brandi identifies as “an influence to Charles Character as only Chievres had done before, as no one was to do again” .
Yet from 1521 on the news of the revolts on Spain Charles began to rely more on Francis Cobos a Spaniard and ex-bureaucrat for the Catholic Kings and “thereafter the star of Cobos rose while that of Gattinara waned” . When Charles returned to Spain as Holy Roman emperor with his prestige greatly increased, Charles had matured, (now aged 22) and the more experienced personality of Charles the man; no longer strangled by his Burgundian advisers showed though.
Lockyer is only half right to comment “Charles never became a prisoner to his ministers” because it was a lesson he learnt that coinciding with the fall of Gattinara, whom when he died in 1530, Charles did not replace with a new chancellor. Importantly, the Emperor rebuked the Spanish offices he had given to Burgundians, made some attempt to learn Spanish and created new councils of state run by Spaniards. Charles, “gradually” extended the use of these councils expanding the centralized government the Catholic Kings had created.
It remains telling that royal authority was never to be challenged in Charles reign, although as Kamen correctly identifies “it would be a mistake to regard it as a triumph for absolutism, like the Catholic Kings before him, Charles sustained his authority over the aristocracy and the towns only by collaborating with them and making it unnecessary for them to claim more power than they already had” . The governance of Spain was, as it always had done, relied on Venality.
By running his administration in the form of a pyramid, with the king at the apex , decisions appeared to have had the authority of the king, without the necessity of him being present. Charles paid far more attention to the administration of Spain than the rest of his realms as Holy Roman Emperor. Above all he showed his commitment to his Spanish subjects by marrying Isabella of Portugal and educating his son Phillip in Spain. With the support of his universal theories, the architect of that national state for which Ferdinand and Isabella had laid the foundation. Charles completed it” The style of government that the Catholic Kings created – for better or worse “helped to transform Charles V Empire into Phillip II Spanish Empire” Under Phillip II the Empire was undoubtedly centred on Spain. It was governed by what Braudel describes as “a metropolitan power, a policy initiated by Charles as well as his predecessors” .
This description could not be more right in the light of Phillip II. When Phillip succeeded to the throne in 1556, “the Spanish monarchy came home” . The Spanish king relived himself of the burden of touring his Empire and ordered the building of the great El Escorial – a monumnet of Spain’s golden age, completed in 1584 some 21 miles from Madrid; where he spent much of his reign.
After his return from Flanders in 1559 – Phillip never again left the Peninsula; “Friend or foe; they saw him as a spider, sitting motionlessly in his web” . In an accurate portrayal of Phillip the Venetian Ambassador reported “The King, has no regard but for Spaniards” , so widespread was the “hatred of the Spaniard ” that it began to spread everywhere in Europe, a sign of the times and a warning of what lay ahead. Yet for a few glorious decades Spain was to be the greatest power on Earth” under a Spanish Monarch. Phillips personal role in the government of Spain far outstripped that of his father. Taking word from a letter from his father warning him of “falling under the influence or becoming the instrument of feuds” he involved himself personally in affairs of government in an isolated manner.
In 1583 the Venetian Ambassador argued “The whole Spanish Monarchy is held together by the authority and wisdom of the king, if he were to die everything would fall into confusion and danger” , Geoffrey Parker may have gone to far too suggest “Phillip ruled absolutely” , a concept rebuked by historians Elliot, Woodward, Lockyer and Kamen who identify Phillips ability to “control” rather than canon the Castilian aristocracy, as his predecessors had done similarly. Yet what remains broadly undisputed, is Phillip in character and policy was Spanish; and any Golden Age in the reign of Phillip, was a Golden Age for Spain.
An evident development of the Golden Age of Spain was the emergence of a cultural identity which the Catholic Kings laid foundations for. Importantly however such developments where confined to the aristocracy of Castile, which estimates suggests concerned roughly 10% of the population . When Historians speak of a Golden Age they acknowledge it did not concern the majority of Spaniards during this period and it would be naive to think otherwise. Although this arguments perhaps grows in weight as it was during the Golden Age that the laity experienced a decline in living standards.
To the majority of Spaniards living on the great enclosures of the nobility there was no Golden Age, and the Cultural Revolution of empire and Catholicism did little to affect them positively. The case of Charles I and the peasant (who did not recognise him) expressed what much of the laity felt like under the monarchy of Charles; describing him as the worst of his five predecessors of Castile since his taxes where ruining them, and all the wealth from the Indies and Castile was being sent abroad.
But for the elite few the Golden Age was tangible in existence, and what it meant to be a Spaniard, or more accurately a Castilian was precious to them, a cultural flair the Catholic Kings had reimbursed. Isabella and Ferdinand greatest cultural success was the renewal of the reconquista in a ten year war that brought the final defeat of the moors and the end of the 800 year reconquista in Granada in 1492. It was this achievement that earned them the title “The Catholic Kings”.
Long centuries of fighting against the moors in the peninsula had led to the “glorification of military virtues” and the concept of the “Hidalgo” the knight who lived for war and glory was widely accepted as the ideal for a Spaniard. 16th century literature such as the “cantar de gesta” (songs of heroic deeds) tells the story of the legend of El Cid, a Castilian nobleman and mercenary from the 12th and 13th century who became the national hero of Spain and the cultural aspiration of this period.
By completing the reconquista the Catholic Kings had “united the Castilian nobles under the banner of Christianity” and tapped into Spain’s cultural ideal, doing much to; “enhance the power and prestige of the monarchy” both domestically and on the world stage. The Catholic Kings were responsible for ensuring the crusading ambitions of Spain never lost momentum and continued an active foreign policy throughout their reign. Only weeks after victory in Granada, Isabella had announced her wish for a crusade on the shores of Africa and in 1494 she persuaded Alexander VI to grant her the Cruzada tax for such a campaign.
Her dying wish to her husband was to devote himself “unremittingly to the conquest of Africa and to the war for the faith against the moors” . In Italy Ferdinand gained a fierce reputation following significant victories against the French that made Spanish troops “feared throughout Europe” , more importantly he seized control of Navarre uniting the state into Spain and pursuing the reconquista into Africa at the dying request of Isabella capturing a thin coastal strip along the southern African coast including the potent city of Oran.
The acquisition of the New World was beginning to expand so by the reign of Charles I “Spain possessed an extensive overseas empire” . An achievement often dismissed as a lucky acquirement by historians such as Kamen and Pendrill, describing the expedition as “reluctantly backed” and “Spain did not have any distinctive expertise in seafaring” . What perhaps is forgotten is the immense cost of any such expedition and the annual allowance of 12,000 maravedis along with other Benefits that Columbus received in 1486 from the Catholic Kings in order to keep his offer confined to Spain.
Whilst the French, Portuguese and English Courts had dismissed Columbus, the Catholic kings spotted potential, but restricted by their finances in 1486 because of the war against the Moors they delayed (but secured) any future expedition. As Elliot explains Spain had a “tradition of maritime experience” , acquired from her overseas territories in the Mediterranean and the Canaries. The Foundations of the New World provided by the Catholic Kings where created on a deeper basis than simply luck.
The foreign policy of the Catholic Kings formed a solid foundation for the Golden Age. They had refused to accept 1492 as the end of the military values for Spaniards; ushering in a less hostile and inward looking society. Instead reconquista was marked by the beginning of “Castilian imperialism” , a nation ready to embark upon the European, African and world stage where it had already made a significant impact.
It was with justification that Ferdinand could remark “For over 700 years the crown of Spain has not been as great or as resplendent as it is now, both in the west and the east, and all, after God, by my work and labour” – Indeed Spain was greater than it ever had been and was certainly looking outwards; confirmed by Isabella’s opportunistic succession plans. In decades to come Spain was to become the aggressor asserting its authority across Europe and the World. A Spanish Golden Age in foreign policy can however be considered exempt from the reign of Charles I.
As Karl Brandi explains;” the emphasis laid on the primacy of the emperor in Europe, was in direct contradiction to the theory of the national state” Charles was the Holy Roman Emperor, of which Spain played a significant but not central part. Attempts to pin a nationality on Charles during his reign as Charles V are futile as “he was essentially a man of universal outlook . Historians such as Rady and Brandi give emphasis to Charles V the Burgundian, commenting in 1520 to the states-general (Netherlands); “His heart had always been among them (literally no their side)” .
However Kamen and Lockyer tend to lay weight on Charles the Spaniard. Rebuking a French clergyman who denounced him speaking Castilian Charles replied “do not expect me to speak any other language but Spanish, which is so noble that it should be learned and understood by all Christian people” . It was in fact the official language of his cortege in the latter part of his reign although Charles spoke more fluently in Dutch and French. Historians generally accept that Charles made neither the Low Countries nor Spain the capital of his Empire.
As monarch of each realm Charles cleverly adjusted himself to appear favourably to each of them. Evidence lies in the many letters he sent to his realms explaining his reason to depart Spain for Italy in the summer of 1529, he tailored each correspondence differently. To Castile his argument was centred on the church and “visiting subjects” , To his sister Mary, regent of the Netherlands (bordering France) suppressing “France” and his commanders Philibert of Orange and Gerard de Rye for “honour and reputation” .
Charles was “a lord of many states: a Burgundian among the Burgundians; a Spaniard in Castile and Aragon; an Italian among the Italians” . Therefore in policy Charles loyalties lay with all his Empire; and troubles in his Northern territories most notably against the French, Turks and German Lutherans kept him occupied in Mainland Europe. Spanish interests, especially in the Mediterranean against the Turkish Navy and in Africa were neglected for problems in the rest of his realms that were not “self supporting” .
There can be no doubt that Spaniards “basked in the reflected sunlight of Imperial glory” , of which they shared amongst his other realms. Over his reign Charles entourage was transformed from the “myriad formalities of the Burgundian court to the solemnity of a Spaniard” , and as David Lockyer identifies “throughout his reign more Imperial titles where granted to Spaniards than any other nationality” , an extraordinary feat considering the circumstances of the dominant role of the Burgundian court at the beginning of his reign.
Likewise the extensive amount of Spanish troops used on the battlefield of the Holy Roman Emperor gave Charles Imperial army the distinct recognition of a Spaniard. Although Henry Kamen appears to dismiss the role of Spanish troops as; “acting only as contingents in a larger force” , based on the evidence that Spanish contributions in numerical terms were limited to selective enterprises it was the case that the Spanish presence was recognisable enough so that (as described by Lotherington and Elliot) “the rest of Europe feared and respected her power” and “the influence of Spaniards became resented and then hated” across Europe.
When assessing Charles in relation to the Golden Age of Spain it is important to identify that “Spain became a great power in its own right only under Phillip II ” and “Charles presided over the start of Spain’s golden age” rather than being part of it. Yet like the Catholic Kings Charles contributed to the rise of the golden age by expressing Spain’s cultural identity though his Imperial Empire. And when in 1556 he abdicated, he retuned not to his birth place in the Burgundies but to Spain, passing the heart of his Empire into the hands of his Spanish son Phillip. Charles born a Burgundian became a Spaniard by choice, and this, more than any formal act of policy, made him loved and respected by his Spanish subjects” . Charles had put the “imperial” into Spain’s Empire a unique foundation of the Catholic Kings that they had ultimately founded by succession. From the foundations of the Catholic Kings and Charles I, Phillip II was handed a vast and impressive domain, and although the title does not fully acknowledge the diversity of her territories “contemporaries knew it as the monarquia Espanola (Spanish Monarchy)” . Generally, although not exclusively historians i. e.
Lotherington, Kamen, Elliot and Cooper agree that that the peak of the Golden Age came in the reign of Phillip II. Lotherington and Elliot also identify the “crisis of the 90’s” as the war in France, England and the Netherlands intensified and the domestic scene turned to revolt in Aragon. John Cooper and Elliot point towards the death of Phillip II as the decline where Spain, or rather Castile was “by 1600 a country that had suddenly lost its national purpose” Kamen on the other hand takes issue with the decline itself as a “historical myth” but at least acknowledges “Spain under Phillip II attained the heights of imperial authority” .
Historians such as Parker and Lockyer suggest that a decline in the 1590’s was “to simplistic” and that “The Spanish Empire appeared far stronger at the death of Phillip III, than at the death of Phillip II” . Although Parker and Lockyer hold some weight in their argument, such a claim is difficult to grasp when considering that by 1621 Spain had withdrawn itself from all its conflicts in Europe, unable to support itself and forced into the humiliation of “making peace with rebels and heretics” .
Likewise the “failed leadership” of the king Phillip III (who passed effective responsibility onto the corrupt Duke of Lerma, his “valido”/Favourite) failed to make use of more than a decade of peace to mend the structural failings at home. Phillip II who knew his son well once commented “I am afraid they will govern him” he had been right to fear the worst. By 1598 the Golden Age of foreign policy had been and gone. Ironically it was in the 17th century, as Spain “slowly abandoned its military imperialism” , The Golden age of Arts and Literature flourished under the very decline of Spain.
The cultural aspirations that the Catholic Kings had preserved, become imperialised under Charles and began under Phillips Spanish Empire blossomed in an era that, for the first time in modern Spanish history, Spain was turning in on itself in agony of self appraisal. Accompanying the glorification of Spain’s Art and Literature in a bygone period of world dominance forth came the myth of the “Golden Age” visible in the arts, architecture and literature.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, regarded as a great Spanish novelist in the early 17th century wrote of “happy times and ages where those which the ancients termed the golden age” only seven years after Phillips death – evidently the majority of Spanish society did not experience a Golden Age under Phillip, similarly to the peasant Charles had met decades before. Religion was a key theme of the Golden Age of arts, architecture and literature; it is estimated that around 90% of Spanish Renaissance paintings where of religious subject. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, the work of El Greco is typical of the period, as the painting adopts both cultural aspects: the legend of “Don Gonzalo Ruiz”, (known for his religious piety) in the theme of a miracle, as the knight ascends into heaven. Phillip II’s evident love for artwork greatly contributed to Spain’s Golden Age of Art and Literature; firstly many of his paintings where imported as the greatest art works remained Flemish and Italian, but by the 17th century Spain began to contribute to some of the greatest artworks of the age.
One of the great Spanish artist, Diego Velazquez composed Spanish concepts of honour and dignity in the painting “the surrender of Breda” – a great victory for the Spanish in the Netherlands. As the victor; General Spinola is seen placing his arm on the shoulder of the defeated Dutch commander Justin sympathetically. Architecturally the great El Escorial, completed in 1584, was by far the most symbolised of Spain’s Golden Age; a palace, a monastery and a tomb all the Hapsburg monarchs of Spain.
Such grand structural designs had actually begun under Ferdinand and Isabella. In the city of Granada the Royal Chapel, the burial place of the Catholic Kings and the Cathedral built in the centre of the Moorish palace in Cordoba to show Catholic dominance over the Islamic world were symbolic of the cultural success of the Catholic Kings and the success of the reconquista. The painting competition in Madrid in 1627 was arranged by Phillip IV to display the expulsion of the Moriscos, embodied the religious intolerance and the Spanish notion for purity of blood.
Aside from the vast cultural contributions the Catholic Kings made to the art and literature of the17th century, its development largely arose from the imperial concepts of Charles and Phillip, the latter having dedicated himself to it. The contribution the Catholic Kings made to religion was far more substantial than that of art, literature and architecture. The work of the Catholic Kings in the Spanish church enabled the clergy to adapt to the ideals of the Spanish monarchy and lay the foundation for one of the main defences against the reformation; The Inquisition.
It is commonly accepted that the Catholic Kings did not significantly reform the church although changes did occur. The Collage of Valladolid 1484 and the University of Alcada 1508 was founded to encourage new learning and Alexander VI gave Ferdinand permission to reform the monastic orders in 1491, which Cisneros carried out with “characteristic energy” . Although “the impact of these reforms should not be exaggerated” the extent to which is debated. J.
Elliot suggests that the reforms under the Catholic Kings “gave the church a new strength and vigour at the very moment the church was everywhere under heavy attack” whilst Kamen; who made extensive research into the Spanish church at this time argues “nothing remotely resembling a reformation of the church occurred in Spain” . What Kamen fails to emphasis is Ferdinand and Isabella’s considerable achievement in creating; as Lockyer describes a “national Spanish Catholic Church” with reforms that took the church into “royal control” In 1486 effective control over the appointment of clerics was granted to the Spanish crown.
The crusada tax was renewed in 1494 and successfully renewed throughout the reigns of Charles and Phillip accompanied with further grants. The new world was granted all major benefices in 1508 and the inquisition from the moment of its foundation “identified itself in a particularly way with the Spanish Church” . Nationalism, a key cause of the reformation in the 16th century particularly in Germany, England and the Netherlands had no effect in Spain because their Church had effectively been nationalised.
It is certainly telling that as Kamen points out “The gains that the English monarchy made though the reformation were already achieved completely in Spain without any change of religion” . Ferdinand and Isabella did not reform the church from abuses and corruption, they brought it under” royal control” helping to unify Spain under one religion; uniformity of the Catholic faith that to become a key concept of the Golden Age of Spain in Foreign Policy. Catholicism was chief to Spain’s golden age but a good relation with the pope was not a ecessity. Charles sack of Rome in 1527 was perhaps the most evident example, as Spanish soldiers amongst other nationalities devastated the Holy City. As one eye witness reported “we took Rome by storm, killed 6000 men, plundered the houses carried of what we found in churches and elsewhere” . Likewise the “most Catholic King” often faced “strained relations” with the papacy; accusing the papacy if “failing in your duty towards God” in 1589, “God is Spanish” , Phillip II once commented.
It was the Catholic Kings who had culturally reimbursed the Catholic faith so that “Catholicism and national interests where so closely interwoven in Spain that it soon became impossible to distinguish one from another” . Catholicism soon became symbolic of Spain’s Golden Age as Spanish monarchs became engulfed in Europe’s religious conflict. Charles I against the Schmalkaldic League in Germany and Phillips II conflicts with the Turks, Dutch rebels, French wars and the war with England.
Even the Duke of Parma’s pleas that religious concessions could “pacify the Dutch states” where ignored by Phillip who persisted “they are all to embrace the Roman Catholic Faith and the exercise of that alone is to be permitted” . Phillip writing as early as 1562 explained “neither my welfare nor that of my states will allow me to neglect helping the Catholics” . Phillip II “an unquestionably loyal son of the Catholic Church” certainly makes Jonathan Lewis doubts of Phillip II religious piety appear doubtful.
The religious unity which the Catholic Kings established had devastating effects for minorities living in Spain, a policy which Historians have widely criticised the Catholic Kings for by establishing the inquisition and increasing hostility to Jews, Conversos and Moors. Henry Kamen famously coined the phrase “society in conflict” to describe amongst the reigns of their successors greater social divisions as a result of the Catholic Kings religiously intolerant polices.
Writer Chris Stewart suggests Ferdinand and Isabella “put the closing word on convirencia” , although in the case of the Jews, their persecution had become increasingly evident from the late 14th century (Black Death) onwards. As historian Elliot explains the expulsion of the Jews was a” Final act in a tragedy that had began long before” , even the medejares (moors living under a Christian monarch) faced “a continuous erosion of their rights” during the 14th century.
The medejares forced conversion in Castile in 1502, Navarre in 1512 and in Aragon in 1525 (under Charles I) laid strong foundations for the unification of Spain under one religion, leading to the more significant and economically damaging expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609. The suppression of Moors, Jews and eventually new Christians from the late 15thcentury onwards certainly “weakened the economic foundations of the Spanish monarchy at the very outset of its imperial career” and began a period of intolerance that would continue to have far reaching economical consequences.
Yet, as Historian John Edwards identifies such policies were; “necessary to remove a genuinely mortal danger from Spanish society” Historians such as Hermann Kesten who suggest “1492 might have marked the ending to conflict between the moors and Christians” are unconvincing. A more contemplative view suggest that such intolerance was a necessity to ensure the religious piety that greatly contributed to the unification of Spain and its cultural contributions to the Golden Age.
It is entirely unrealistic to suggest a nation bound for imperialistic world power could tolerate religious division on such widespread scale both for unitary and social reasons. As Lotherington explains “in Early Modern Europe it was a sign of weakness for states to permit more than one religion inside their borders” . In Spain this was a genuine weakness; the Moorish revolt of 1499-01 and the Moriscos revolt in 1568-73 highlighted the ability of a population of hundreds of thousands; to unite in arms and revolt.
The prospect of a coalition of rebels, estimates of 30,000 in 1568 and an overseas super-power such as the Muslim Turks made the suppression and final expulsion of minorities even the more necessary. The suppression of new Christians was also widely encouraged and supported by the old Christians, this was most evident though the activities of the Inquisition that “relied on informers to hunt out their victims” . Drawn to their discrimination by a mixture of fear and jealousy of minorities, the Inquisition flourished. The suggestion put forward by J.
LMortey that the inquisition “froze Spain into orthodoxy” is unlikely, and built upon a perceived myth of the “Black Legend” that was largely the making of protestant propaganda such as the Englishmen John Foxes who describes the inquisition as a “dreadful engine of tyranny in his book of Martyrs” . Protestant rebels in the Netherlands such as William of Orange wrote of “the horrible persecution that I witnessed by fire, sword, and water” under the Spanish Inquisition. Circulating pamphlets and popular culture abroad painted a blown up interpretation on the inquisition tainting its image.
In fact “there were so few Protestants in Spain that widespread persecution of Protestantism was not physically possible” . Estimates suggest that no more than a few hundred protestants where executed from 1500 to 1660 in Spain, the majority of it’s activities where concerning new Christians. Unsurprisingly the inquisition was “most endangered during the first years of Charles V” when the majority of those tried (77% ) were old Christians. Despite some of its criticisms the Inquisition in Spain remained a “largely popular institution” particularly when minorities where persecuted.
It remains telling that it was the Catholic Kings who were at first cautious in establishing the inquisition but the “tide of popular anti-Semitism that grew in Spain pushed Ferdinand and Isabella into establishing it” . Likewise it was the popular demands of anti-Moorish and anti-Moriscos movements that created a cultural instinct of purity of blood that grew stronger in the later years. The Catholic Kings and their successors did not establish a “society in conflict” . They followed religiously intolerant policies politically desirable that helped unite old Christians.
It was “regarded a price worth paying to rid their kingdom of religious heresy” Whilst Spain had been experiencing a Golden Age on the foreign stage the realm of Castile had long been suffering under its strain. Outside the great aristocratic families who had alone benefited from the offices of Spanish Imperialism lay a nation lacking the ability to support itself. Yet this was not a new development, it was a reality that had long been ignored by the imperialist attitudes of the Emperor Charles and King Phillip and this had allowed the problem to escalate until the “grim realties” could no longer be ignored.
This moment came with the death of Phillip in 1598, Kamen states that “Given Spain’s limited resources, debts and commitments, it is astonishing that Spanish imperialism lasted as long as it did” . Yet it did, and because such superficial glory had continued for so long, a problem had turned into a crisis. Spain’s golden image of new outward looking nation that the Catholic Kings had imagined was rotting from the inside. The Catholic Kings policies caused the least damage to the Castilian economy, whilst those of their successors where far greater.
By forming a united nation state, involving themselves in European affairs and placing it in the hands of the future Holy Roman Emperor, they where ultimately responsible for the consequences of imperialism under the reign of Charles I and his son Phillip II. The evident result of the imperialistic polices followed by Charles and Phillip was that domestic policy within Castilian was ultimately rejected over foreign policy. Spain described a “dry and impoverished land” and it was to suffer greatly during the Golden Age of foreign policy.
The plains of Castile were by far the most difficult to cultivate, and only “In the face of hardship, the peasants of Castile, though techniques of dry farming, extensive fallowing, transhumerance, and above all laborious toil Castilians managed to produced just enough food and generate enough taxes to enable the Castilian monarchs to pursue their polices of expansion within the peninsula” . Economically“Castile was ill-suited for its international role; and its inhabitants paid a heavy toll for the hegemony in Europe” .
The lack of economic unity by the Catholic Kings meant the burden fell on Castile whilst in essence Aragon and Navarre played no greater role than the rest of “Spain’s” overseas territories. “As Spain’s significance declined in Europe, Castiles significant declined in Spain” . Besides the difficulties of unproductive soils the Catholic Kings faced a second fundamental economic problem; in Castile the aristocracy had an unhealthy dominance over the economy particularly agriculture.
Castile was divided into “an extreme contrast of rich and poor” facing, as Kamen suggests a “structural crisis” . At the start of the 16th century 95% of the land was in the hands of the aristocracy, who under law where entirely exempt from taxation except from the “Alcabala”; sales tax that amounted to 5% of all trades, (10% in 1574 and 7. 5% in 1577 ) All other ordinary revenues including the “servicios” where financed by taxing the laity which doubled in real terms between 1500-1600 .
When Phillip told his father in 1545 “the common who have to pay the subsidies are reduced to such distress and misery that many of them walk naked” he blamed the “ordinary and extraordinary taxes” it was to no avail to the common man who saw even harsher taxes under his Phillip II reign. The Catholic Kings like their successors made no attempt to reform a tax system that was both inefficient and socially unjust. The only significant social-economic reform was the abolishment of the six evil customs, in Aragon that weakened the “economic domination of ruthless lords with extremely fractured land holdings” .
Yet no such changes occurred in Castile where by the nobles, “despite their enormous wealth did not make any contribution towards the cost of government” . In fact many of there polices can be blamed on worsening the situation. The “de-politicisation” of the noble class had the adverse effect of alienating the aristocracy from the laity as they no longer felt enthused to help their lesser subjects. The aristocracy where pacified as a political threat, but economically contributed to the disease of the age; the craze for hidalguia, which “dominated the social aspirations of the inhabitants of Castile” .
These titles which bought nobles their way up the social ladder as well as an exception from taxation where in broad supply, Charles’s role as Holy Roman Emperor as well as Phillip II’s vast Spanish Empire meant there were no shortages of titles and offices, and whilst running vast government deficits there was certainly an incentive to sell them. The benefits of the de-politicisation of the nobles indeed pacified a nation (excluding the Morisco problem) but also helped perpetuate a social outlook ill equipped to cope with Spain’s economical structural problems and those the empire brought with it.
Adding to this structural problem was that Castile, (in line with Poland as of 1569) had the greatest numbers of noble class; 10%, hugely disproportionate to Europe (England 2-3%, France 1%) and the rest of the peninsula i. e. Catalonia (only 0. 33% ). This “craze for hisalguia” on such a wide scale therefore helped remove vast quantities of wealth from the productive side of the economy so that Spain lacked “people of the middle sort” , as a result, lacking investment both privately and from the “public sector” output suffered.
This is best indicated in the agricultural industry where Labour productivity fell by around 15% to just over half that of the Netherlands, and less than even Italy between 1500-1600 . Government debts only worsened this problem by both draining wealth from the country and crowding out investment in the Spanish economy. As the council of finance once commented “censos and juros offer better interest rates than those gained from investment in trade, agriculture or industry” . Even under the Catholic kings it was quite possible for wealthy nobles to live off interest earning juros.
The Catholic kings, like their successors borrowed huge amounts to fund government expenditure amounting to roughly 650,000 ducats in 1516 (including grants and pensions) which considering inflation would have filled even the largest of annual deficits in the late 16th and early 17th century under Phillip II and III . However these figures where dwarfed by that of Charles I and Phillip II, it was a substantial figure and showed that the Catholic Kings like their successors where prepared to borrow to finance an extensive foreign policy.
The Catholic Kings had established the practise of borrowing that would become far more damaging in the reign of Phillip II. In the five years prior to the first royal bankruptcy in 1557 the average rate of uncollateralized borrowing was at 48. 8% , and under Phillip this reached as high as 109% . Prior to the final bankruptcy of Phillips reign in 1596 68% of ordinary revenue was devoted to interest payments benefiting largely foreign bankers from Genoa, Italy, Netherlands and Germany whilst Spanish Bankers financed less than 10% of Phillips debts .
It was only because of bullion imports from the new world that enabled Phillip to borrow at his height in 1598 roughly seven times the annual income of his empires . Yet the relationship between Spain and her colonies was “unnatural and damaging” , an opportunity laid out by the Catholic Kings for the Golden Age to bring prosperity to all orders of society was fundamentally wasted. Instead of using the expanding markets in the new world to develop the domestic economy, merchants and traders imported foreign goods because of the “inelastic supply of domestic production” at home.
This “Dutch disease” ultimately led to a reduction in the manufacturing industry. The royal share of the new world, collected though the royal fifth (20% tax on the monopolise port of Seville) – most notably bullion (accounting for 80% of exports from the new world, and peaking at 95. 6% . ), was spent on building monumental monasteries, pursuing a string of wars all over Europe and running up unprecedented amounts of debt.
Under Charles bullion contributions where small; less than 3,000,000 Ducats annually whilst under Phillip they reached above 12,000,000 or 29% of royal expenditure – this was significant because unlike taxation it was reliable collateral for lenders. By mortgaging imports of bullion Phillip and Charles were able to shore up their lenders to continue lending. Between 1580-1626 roughly a third of all bullion imports where directly exported to foreign bankers. Whilst the royal share was racking up debts, the private sector was being no more responsible.
The Castilian economy was running a severe misbalance of payments being supplemented by bullion imports which caused severe inflation that further derailed the domestic economy. Between 1500-1600 inflation was at roughly 400% due, as Hamilton’s work suggests; bullion imports. Naturally those most affected by the price rise were the lower orders of society who relied heavily on foodstuff products that were most affected by the price rise; between 1500 and 1600 wheat prices quadrupled.
The bullion of the new world, a golden opportunity for Spain economically had been turned into a “resources curse” As a Spanish economist of the time, Gonzalez de Cellorigo identified in 1600: “Our Spain has set her eyes so strongly on the business of the Indies, from where she obtains gold and silver, that she has forsaken the care of her own kingdoms; and if she could indeed command all the gold and silver that her nationals keep discovering in the New World, this would not render her as rich and powerful as she would have otherwise been” .
The discovery of the new world inevitably bankrolled the Golden Age of foreign policy for Phillip, but like many of the Catholic Kings foundations contributed to the economic decline that brought home the crushing reality that in the eloquent words of J. H. Elliot; “by the end of the reign (of Phillip II) it was apparent that one monarch remained to few, that the one empire was a divided empire, and that the sword was fatally blunted” . The Catholic Kings laid the foundations for the Golden Age in Spain though unification in foreign policy and absolute monarchy within Castile.
By dynastic ties with Aragon, the completion of the reconquista and the conquest of Navarre, Spain was transformed into a strong federation of states. On the European Stage; Castile, Aragon and Navarre would be known as Spain. The stronger foundations however were to lie in the state of Castile where the monarchies long struggle against the aristocracy was transformed from factional division and infighting into an absolute monarchy suited too the role of leading an empire.
The Catholic Kings last and most important foundations was the succession of Charles who would lead a great cultural regeneration of Spain bringing the imperial experience home to the Spanish aristocracy. The most important regional assets of a universal empire where left to his Castilian son Phillip, who for a few glorious decades ruled over the greatest power on earth; imperial Spain. Inevitably the seeds of decline were sown as soon as Castile embarked on its imperial role.
The new world was typical, founded by the Catholic Kings it bankrolled Phillips lavish military expenditure whilst contributing to the decline of the domestic economy. The Golden Age was intangible to the common man who worked the land whilst facing rising inflation, food shortages, unemployment and poverty. For the aristocracy it was an age of wealth, glory, religious zeal and the sauntering of a truly Spanish identity which survived though the great art, architecture and literature of the 17th century.