How did the perception of Spain as the centre of a mighty European empire change to a lame state in the early-modern period? Essay

‘Generations of English-speaking historians have considered Spain worthy of attention mainly in respect of one single theme- the ‘decline of Spain”1 Historians disagree as to the point of the decline of Spain- Kamen, for instance, states that your conclusion depends on your ‘political and moral views’2, although he is sure that ‘between 1450 and 1714 Spain underwent a more extensive political evolution than probably any other European state of the time’3 and points out that the Spaniards themselves tended to view the period as one of ‘tyranny, bigotry and racism’4, and not as a magnificent empire.

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella is often seen as the high point of Spain, bringing together Castile and Aragon, and truly uniting the two into one country. William E. Wilson states that: “The few decades which immediately preceded her golden age had seemed to promise a future of increasing power and wealth for Spain. With the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabel in 1469 unified rule was established in the nation for the first time in centuries. “5 Very different monarchs ruled over Spain in the period from 1500 to 1670.

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Their ruling styles were often drastically different from the predecessor. Ferdinand and Isabella, the uniting force of Spain were famous for their dedication to their country, and their determination to unite it in all aspects, most particularly that of religion, forcibly converting Jews and Muslims to their own Catholic religion. Charles V took a very casual attitude towards Spain, unsurprising, considering the size of his empire, which was divided between his brother and his son upon his abdication in 1556.

Spain, and particularly Castile, was important to him in a mostly economic sense, taxation providing the funds for the rest of his empire, and the Spanish military serving in his campaigns as Holy Roman emperor. He is, after all, known far more as the Holy Roman Emperor, as Charles V, than as the king of Spain, Carlos I. He was, by birth, from the Low Countries, born in Ghent in 1500, and did not enter Spain at all until 1517, although his brother, Ferdinand, had been ‘born and bred in Spain, and for this reason, a number of the Spanish Grandees considered him a more suitable successor than Charles.

Philip II took a completely different attitude to his father, making Spain his central governance and main concern. Whilst Charles had been Spanish only in name, identifying himself as Dutch and making his position as the ‘champion of Catholicism’ his main concern, Philip was entirely Spanish. He seemed to view the Netherlands as something of an inconvenience, and concerned himself far more with the affairs in the Iberian Peninsula. Whilst he still viewed himself as a ‘champion of Catholicism’, his success was far less than that of his father.

Whilst Charles V had the battle of Lepanto to his credit, despite the other forces involved and his many other failures, Philip’s great historical military memory is in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The Hapsburg family as a whole seem to have inspired little confidence: Victor-L Tapii?? maintains that those of the Hapsburg dynasty were affected by “sickliness and ugliness, the degeneration evident in the projecting jaw or the abnormally thick lower lip, the blood deficiency caused by inbreeding. 7 It is true that a strain of mental instability was said to run through the family, Charles V’s mother being known as ‘Joanna the mad’. Indeed, when visiting her in 1517, he declared that she must not be seen by any but her attendants, as he deemed her harmful.

Charles II is believed to have been so susceptible to mental instability that he was utterly incapable of rule. Geoffrey Parker points out that, throughout the ruling classes of Europe, ‘because of inbreeding, the number of outstandingly successful, intelligent and sympathetic hereditary rulers remains fairly small. 9 Tapii?? also believes that the Hapsburgs as a whole ‘depended on the alliance they are supposed to have formed with the forces of repression. 10 Power in Europe in the sixteenth century was determined by military might, with war being the deciding factor in the perception of a nation in many cases. Henry VIII of England tried to present himself as a chivalric king of old, fighting in battle, in order to be seen as ruler of a powerful nation, almost bankrupting the country to fund his wars with France.

Philip II did bankrupt Spain twice in order to fund wars with France. After the moratorium of 1557, taxation in Castile was increased to four times the level it had been at in order to fund Philip’s military spending. 11 Thompson points out that ‘The decade after 1580 changed not only the size but also the nature of military expenditure. ’12 Warfare was moving away from the traditional chivalrous nature, and moving towards a more modern idea of conflict. ‘The increasing professionalism of war was in danger of making traditional nobility a military anachronism.

Charles, too, relied heavily on Spain in order to enable his battles, particularly against the Ottoman threat, using the Spanish revenues and military to his advantage as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Spain was, at best to him, a way to fund his role as ‘Champion of Catholicism’. His son, on the other hand, treats Spain as the centre of his empire. His controlling nature brought the empire to a grinding halt through lack of any efficient system of decision-making.

Whilst Charles looked after a large empire, spanning the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Netherlands and the Americas, Philip does not have to rule over the Holy Roman Empire, Charles having left that part of his empire to his brother, Ferdinand. However, he still had something of the problems of religious discontent that his father had faced with Martin Luther, which was, for Philip, centred in the Netherlands. However, his controlling attitude to his empire made communications over the great distance between the Netherlands and Spain difficult.

Philip infamously had all decisions regarding his empire made personally by him, and his notes are often seen in the margins of the papers which crossed his desk. Despite the fact that there were several ministers serving under Philip, he tended instead to keep only his own council, and even to try to extract decisions from those ministers without furnishing them with the information required, and even playing those ministers against each other with regard to the knowledge he allowed them of state affairs, afraid of anyone but himself having control.

He was described as ‘conductor to players in an orchestra’14, afraid to let anyone else take control, fearing, perhaps, some sort of undermining to his power. The geographic nature of the Spanish empire had an impact on the ability of rulers to make decisions: a message from the Netherlands would take months to reach Spain, and the situation with the New World was worse. This was worsened in the reign of Philip II, despite the empire having been split on the abdication of Charles, since his decision-making process was slower.

Fernand Braudel claimed that Philip II ‘was not a man of vision: he saw his task as an unending succession of small details. ’15 By the time news had reached Philip, and he had made a decision, and returned his instructions, the situation had often changed so much as to be unrecognisable, and as such, needing different council or solutions to that which Philip offered. This was a major reason for the rapid progression of the Dutch revolt, spreading from scattered iconoclasm to full scale rebellion. Philip’s controlling, jealous nature caused his empire to slow down to the extent that its ability to function was severely impaired.

Philip at times seemed more a secretary than a King, our vision of him being a man who ‘sits silently reading at his desk, annotating reports, far from other men, distant and pensive. ’16 Kamen states that ‘after Philip’s death his weaker successors tended to put more authority into the hands of ministers’17, although he points out that even then, the government did not undergo any radical change until the rule of Philip V. Spain, the great Empire, was being left behind by progressions in government, unable to keep up with the rest of Europe.

It has been presented as having a ‘romantic image of a nation living in the past. ’18 Spain is famous for being something of a Catholic bastion, Charles I, as previously mentioned, having been known as the ‘Champion of Catholicism’ and his son attempting to carry on the title in his war with the Ottoman empire. From Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista of 1492, recapturing the last Muslim stronghold in Granada, Spain was a staunchly Catholic country, known for forced conversions and deportation of Muslims and Jews.

Sixteenth century Spain is perhaps best know, indeed, for the inquisition. Indeed, Spain can be seen as somewhat isolationist, keeping themselves separate from developments, particularly in religion. Kamen holds them as having ‘extreme religious zeal, exaggerated concepts of honour and a perverse pride in poverty’19 and suggests that these qualities separated them form the rest of Europe. Whilst both Charles and Philip struggled with Protestantism, in the form of Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire, and Calvinism in the Netherlands, both kept a tight Catholic reign on Spain.

Philip was so determined not to allow Protestant ideas to invade, or for Islamic ones to recapture Spain that he placed the Inquisition in charge. Many books were banned; indeed, Ronald E. Surtz claims that the idea of the Inquisition raping or molesting women came from then making sure that women were not hiding forbidden texts in their bodices or skirts. ‘The resistance the women offered often resulted in a double symbolic violation, namely a violation of both their bodies and their homes.

Philip was so determined to protect Spain from outside influences that he held the country in the past. In refusing to let in outside influences, or in doing his best to stop them, he also refuses to move with new developments, and so removes Spain from its position as a great power, and leaves it nothing but a historical relic. Tales from Spain left the Iberian Peninsula, however, most notably that of the ‘Black Legend’ of the Inquisition. Spain was increasingly seen as a somewhat barbarous, inhumanitarian country.

Poor harvests were a problem experienced throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, and Spain was no exception. Whilst the Mediterranean had once been a huge producer of grain, they now required imports in order to feed the population and meet demand. 21 The poor harvests caused the poorer people to have to spend more of their income on food. Parker alludes to a criminal underworld that existed in many cities, such as Seville, in times of hardship in order to survive, and that infanticide was not an unheard of option to poorer families.

This underworld of crime was seen as a parasitic drain on an already unstable economy. 23 Spain existed for years on a reputation not due to the country. The grand age of Ferdinand and Isabella, where their aims were clear, and their dedication to those aims absolute, was not carried through into subsequent rulers. Military victories which were attributed to Spain, such as that at Lepanto in 1571, were, in actual fact, only partially belonging to them. Lepanto was, in fact, fought, not by Spain, by the Holy League, a coalition of not only Spain, but also Genoa, Venice and the Papacy.

The view of Spain as ‘great empire’ was really little but an illusion left from earlier ages. As Spain failed to live up to this expectation, producing instead uninterested rulers, madmen and secretaries, the European notion of them as a great power crumbled. Certainly by 1588, the attack of the Spanish Armada on England, and subsequent defeat, Spain was seen as something of a failure. Other powers emerged to take its place, as the world continued on its pattern of change.