Golden Age Of Spain

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In what ways, and to what extent, does the concept of Spain’s “Golden Age” apply more specifically to the reign of Philip II than to the whole period 1474-1598? Justify your answer by reference to the similarities and differences between the periods before and after the accession of Philip II in 1556.

The term “Golden age” suggests a clear comparison between the periods of time before and after a period of greatness. Times, which in comparison, fail to match the standards of this era. With regards to the above question, it is therefore essential to assess the reigns of the monarchs who preceded Philip II and the state of Spain at the end of his reign. Before 1474, Spain was nothing more than geographical expression. The area was made up of five divided states, Castile, Aragon, Portugal, Navarre and Granada, often at war with each other or internally. After 1600, it has been argued that Spain entered a period of decline portrayed by defeats in internal and foreign policy, less effective monarchs, as well as economical and financial difficulties. The year 1469 is unanimously considered the turning point from which Spain would emerge as a dynamic political force that would dominate Europe and establish a new empire overseas. This emerged via the marriage of the Castilian monarch, Isabella, to Aragon’s monarch, Ferdinand. These “Catholic Kings” laid the foundations of the ‘Golden age of Spain’

The two monarchs ruled their kingdoms together until Isabella’s death in 1504, a partnership that helped to put an end to the on-going hostilities, Woodward believes they ‘brought greatness’ to the peninsula. Following their success in the civil war, Isabella and Ferdinand proceeded to conquer and Christianise the Kingdom of Granada in 1492. This year became a significant turning point as it marked the end of Moorish power in the Iberian Peninsula and welded the two realms together under a crusade backed by their people. 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. Elliot writes “Spanish society drove itself on a ruthless, ultimately self-defeating quest for an unattainable purity.” Conducted by Gonzalo de Cordoba, the holy war was deemed an overwhelming triumph and his expertise was brought into use again for Ferdinand’s Italian campaigns. It was during these campaigns that Ferdinand reaffirmed his claim to Naples, which became recognised by the defeated French in 1504. Cordoba had created Spain’s first professional army that was to win spectacular victories during the sixteenth century, another example being the absorption of Navarre in 1515 to the Castilian crown.1492 can also be considered a major turning point with regards to Spain experiencing a ‘Golden Age’ in the New World. Under the patronage of Isabella and Ferdinand, Columbus set sail on an expedition that would take him to Central and South America. This victory led to Spanish dominance in the New World, not only adding to Spanish lands, but also increasing Castilian funds due to the gold and silver mines found there.

The two monarchs gained greater strength and control over their lands by reducing the power of the nobility. In the Act of Resumption of the Cortes of Toledo 1480, the nobles were deprived of lands and revenues taken from the Crown since 1464 – a stab at the over mighty subjects and an effective way on increasing Crown revenue. Isabella and Ferdinand also took the roles of personal judges and distributed justice to their people each Friday and they insisted upon their right to intervene in jurisdiction employed by the nobility and the Church. The highly independent walled towns throughout Castile were also brought under the Crowns control by the appointment in 1480 of Corregidors who were given responsibility for law and order. Ferdinand and Isabella further enhanced their control over law and order by establishing the efficient Santa Hermandad with themselves at the head. They adapted an existing hermandad to the purpose of a general police acting under officials appointed by themselves and took control of the Catholic Church. With brutal punishments of torture and death, the Hermandad was triumphant in maintaining an ordered and lawful society in Castile.

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella saw a flourish of art, literature and intellectual development for Spain. Printing presses were established in both Castile and Aragon and education was a priority for the monarchs, witnessed through the development of new universities. Isabella is noted to have invited the scholar Peter Martyr to Spain and as a fan of his books. The Castilian language and its literature established dominance over the rest of the peninsula during this period, and was one of the reasons historian W.H Prescott called the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella ‘the most glorious epoch in the annals of Spain.’

Perhaps the least successful of Ferdinand and Isabella’s policies were those concerning the economy. During Isabella’s reign 128 ordinances were passed to control and direct the economies operation. The export of gold and silver was forbidden, shipbuilding was encouraged and the Aragonese guild system was imposed on Castile. However, with regards to industrial growth, progress was limited, partly due to the expulsion of the Jewish members of the community and poor communications. Ferdando Del Purgar wrote on this matter stating ‘over 4000 converso families fled…the Queen was informed that commerce was declining …She said that the essential thing was to cleanse her country of that sin of heresy.’ A series of bad harvests also led to a decline in agriculture and resulted in an increasing struggle to feed the population. Consequently there developed a dependence on foreign grain that was supported by the monarchs who encouraged sheep farming instead of cereal production – a decision which would have severe consequences for later generations. Nevertheless, in balance there were areas in which the monarchs used to advantage in raising royal funds. One third of all Church tithes were diverted into the royal coffers and became a permanent royal income, as did the ‘cruzada’ – a tax on the income from indulgences, both helped to bring the powerful Church further under their control.

Contemporaries of Isabella described her as virtuous, courageous and strong willed, the ‘hidden one’ according to El Encubierto, who had saved her people from anarchy by ending the civil war. Castile was the largest state in Spain, six times larger than Aragon in territory and three times larger in territory. Yet Ferdinand too had desirable traits that he brought to the partnership, namely the overseas territories. Despite the matrimonial union that brought the countries together, it is disputed to what extent the marriage between these monarchs actually united the kingdoms. Historian J.H Elliot believes ‘domestically the union of the crowns was little more than nominal.’ There was never any concrete formal agreement to unify the two kingdoms as one. Even in the seventeenth century there was no legal basis for the monarchs of Castile and Aragon to name themselves as kings ‘of the Spains.’ It must also be noted that the marriage contract between Ferdinand and Isabella can be seen to support the individual identities of the kingdoms. With regards to political aspects of policy, apart from the Inquisition there was no other joint council to join the two, and each kingdom had its own ruling council. Any new territory to be acquired was assigned to either Castile or Aragon, for example Naples was assigned to Aragon and the Indies to Castile. Notably there were no economic union. However on a personal level, the monarchs worked closely together, internally and abroad with similar foreign policy, Castilian troops and money supported Aragonese aims when needed. The two realms fought together in the war for Granada as they shared common religious attitudes. In both realms the Jews were expelled. However, it was only in Castile that Muslims were given the chance to conform to Catholicism so as to stay in the kingdom.

As an overview, the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella can be deemed a success and perhaps as a ‘golden age.’ They united Aragon and Castile and expanded their rule into overseas lands, primarily America and Naples. They also extended royal authority through council administration, weakened the power of the nobility and local Cortes and asserted their authority over the Catholic Church. By 1516 there was a sense of unity within Spain, with religious purity, based upon a powerful monarchy served by an effective system of government.

1516 saw Charles V inherit the throne. The King was only 16 years of age, ‘awkward’ and ignorant of the Spanish language. His arrival in 1517 was not a warm one, there were worries over an absentee King. These became heightened in 1519 when he was appointed as the Holy Roman Emperor and left for Germany. This resulted in the revolt of the Comuneros in 1520 due to Charles’ advisors attempts to raise financial backing from the Cortes for his new imperial responsibilities. Demands were also made by the Junta for their King to live in Spain as they felt he was neglecting their country, as well as demands for all foreigners should be expelled. The movement became extreme and led to the battle of Villalar in 1521 where the rebels were quashed. Nobles also crushed a separate movement, known as the Germania, made of radical skilled workers in 1522. 300 ringleaders were executed. Despite Charles’ ‘victories’ over these internal rebellions, the unrest of his people was worrying. Charles returned to Spain in 1522 and a general pardon was issued. He remained in Spain for the next 7 years, during which he laid the basis of his sympathy with the country and his authority was unquestioned for the rest of his reign.

For the majority of Charles reign, Spain was governed, very effectively, by Francisco de los Cobos. He was responsible for the expansion and improvement of the bureaucracy to staff the reformed Council of Castile and the new Councils of Finance and Indies. It was also his duty to meet the constant demand for money and soldiers to fund the wars in Italy and against the Turks. Though he must be recognised as bringing Spain the European recognition as a true defender of Christendom, his foreign policy resulted in Spain suffering economically. The sense of grandeur experienced as being part of the Holy Roman Empire was tarnished with the sense of being used as an economic means to an end, a definite second place. The poor economy was worsened by rapid inflation and Charles’ abdication was closely followed by Spain’s bankruptcy.

The reign of Charles did see a rise in culture. He actively promoted the development of universities in Spain and attended, in person, the lectures of Vitoria and took a close interest in the cultural artefacts brought to him from the New World. Efforts were also made with regards to architecture and Charles commissioned the erection of new government buildings such as the Chancelleria in Valladolid.

Charles was absent for 40 years of his reign in Spain, a cause of offence to many of his subjects. Yet from 1522 Spain began to accept their King and as such developments were made to enhance their country. The counciliar system grew and the expansion of the letrados helped to ensure a level of domestic content. Under the rule of Charles, Spain saw increasing tax burdens – particularly Castililans- but they been put to good use with Charles’ imperial affairs. The Sack of Rome demonstrated his dominance in Italy and the Pope in 1527. This meant that he gained complete control over the Catholic Church, following on from Isabella and Ferdinands’ tighter control of the Church in their reign.

Running alongside his power in Europe, under Charles the development and exploitation of the Americas was fully underway with the subsequent destruction of Aztec and Inca cultures. Further, by the 1540’s gold and silver exports were regularly arriving in Spain. 1544 saw the silver mines at Potasi at their peak.

Unlike his father, Phillip II’s lands, thought equal in size, were much more Iberian, especially after the acquisition of Portugal where he was made King. As such, he completed the work of Ferdinand and Isabella with the unification of Spain. He was also the first monarch to have the official title ‘King of Spain.’ Phillip himself was a Spaniard and never left the peninsula after 1559. Unlike Ferdinand and Isabella, and Charles, Philip received few internal rebellions. However, 1566 did see revolt break out in the Low Countries, which Philip had inherited as heir of Mary of Burgundy. This was due to the religious persecution and the high price of grain. This allowed for Philip to demonstrate Spain’s military power at controlling an army so far from home, but the lack of success in the long term can be seen as a small tarnish on Philips ‘golden age.’

In foreign affairs Spain saw great advancement. It eclipsed the rival powers of England and France, especially after 1580 which saw the peak of Spanish power in Europe with the acquisition of Portugal. This identified Spain with a national identity and had asserted herself as the greatest European power. He also ruled over Italy and the Low Countries. Philip had military success in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 against the Ottoman empire – a victory which has been said to give Spain a claim to being the greatest power, not just in Europe, but in the world. Plumb states, ‘he is, by any standards, one of the most remarkable men to ever sit on a throne in Europe.’ This ideal was strengthened by Philips lands in the New World which provided him with large quantities of gold and silver which he used to finance his wars against the Turks, France, England and the Dutch rebels in the Netherlands. However, Philips economy, like Charles, suffered as a consequence of these wars. During his reign Spain faced three bankruptcies in the years 1557, 1560 1576 and he was constantly in debt.

Political stability was evident throughout the country, evident through the crushing of the Moriscos and the continued expansion of the counciliar system, for example the council of Portugal in 1582. Royal power dominated the nobility and church. Philip, like Charles, had wisely distributed positions to members of the nobility with status, yet no power.

Unlike its rivals, England and France, Spain escaped from the threat of heresy. As a Catholic nation under the rule of Philip II, Spain was united in its desire to act as the leader of the Counter Reformation. Philip believed that rebellion was a sin against God and an act of treason punishable by death. As a result of the revolt in the Low Countries, 1000 people were executed. Philip saw himself as ‘champion of the Catholic Church’ and as such much of his foreign policy saw focus upon defending and strengthening the Church. This can be witnessed through his crushing of the Moriscos.

Like his predecessors, Philip’s reign saw a flourish of culture. He commissioned and purchased maps, art, lavish clothing and the erections of many architectural triumphs. He built new palaces, as well as making improvements to existing ones, but perhaps his greatest building achievement was the Escorial constructed between 1563 and 1585 which was dedicated to St Lawrence.

According to the above definition, a ‘Golden Age’ is a time of prosperity that stands out from the periods that precedes it and follows it. It appears that Spain does seem to fall into this category between the years 1474-1598. However, the decline that followed the 16th century certainly had its seeds sown in the reign of Philip II. These are highlighted in the last decade of Philips reign. For a King who viewed himself as the ‘champion of the Catholic Church,’ the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588 was quite an embarrassment. Spain was also continually menaced by the ongoing revolt in the Netherlands, which weakened the country financially. 1591 also saw the Aragonese revolt. By the 1580’s, Aragon had become one of the most ungovernable of Philip’s possessions. Aragon continually objected to the intrusions of the Castilian government and rebelled against their King, another tarnish on the ‘golden age.’

The years that followed the reign of Philip II seem to have sent Spain into a decline, however Hamilton believes ‘catastrophic changes did not occur before 1598.’ The Spanish army was overextended and weary. Its problems were further compounded by depopulation that was caused by plagues, the expulsion of Moriscoes, migrations to colonies and entry into monasteries. Furthermore, the loss of manpower led to increased wages and reduced demand, causing pressure on a weakened economy. Agriculture, which was already suffering from the poor soil conditions and landowners who were ignorant and indifferent to planting techniques, was further impoverished by the loss of men.

An important question when assessing whether a period was a ‘golden age’ is to assess for whom it was a ‘golden age’ for. Surely it could not have been a golden age for the population of Spain who had to face inflating taxes, the plague and agricultural failures? For the Jewish communities it could not have been a time of prosperity as they were expelled for their homes, and the Aztecs in America were treated with ‘pitiless and barbaric’ (Kamen) cruelty on behalf of the Spaniards. It may be more appropriate to consider this period a golden age for the nobles and Castile.

To conclude, I believe Spain did experience a Golden Age, but perhaps more evidently between the years 1492 which saw the conquests of Granada and the New World, and 1580 with Philip becoming King of Portugal. Philip ensured political stability and allowed Spain to flourish in its power, yet credit must be given to his predecessors who provided the solid foundations on which Spain’s greatness was built. It was Ferdinand and Isabella who began the unification of Spain, and each monarch enhanced the cultural side of society and improved on the political councils. While Philips last decade may blemish the golden image, he still handed his son, in terms of geographical power, more than he had inherited. Philip died in 1598 leaving a united peninsula with Castile at the head of the first empire on which ‘the sun never set.’

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