The Golden Ages: Spain (2/?)

In the previous post we have briefly introduced and discussed a concept of the ‘Golden Age’ and how it is understood by those who study early-modern Spanish history. As promised, in the next few posts we will be diving more in depth of how the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ came to be and what kind of cultural artefacts it produced. This specific post will focus on the developments and strengthening of the Spanish government that allowed for relative political stability within the European part of the realm.

Think like a Historian:

What makes a strong government? Can you give historical or contemporary examples of situations where you think a government has been either strong or weak? Why do you think so?

The role of Isabella and Ferdinand

Given that Isabella and Ferdinand assumed their respective Crowns after a period of major political instability they had to focus on establishing strong, long-during, political ties with their subjects. A key element of this was the establishment of a stable relationship between the Spanish Crown and Spain’s nobility, which was mainly done by the Crown’s attempts to impose a higher degree of royal authority on the nobility throughout the course of their reign. The Crown’s attempts to foster such relationships mainly took a form of surrounding the Royal Court with prestige. For example, the power of nobility was limited by switching their attention from inner rivalries to pursuing the knightly culture and chivalric activities, such as jousts and tournaments as well as participating in motto writing competitions[1]. Furthermore, the majority of the nobles, who had fought against the Crown, were pacified by being granted various pardons by the monarchs[2]. Various actions, such as the ones mentioned above, allowed the Crown to establish a more positive image in the minds of the ex-rebels as well as the supporters of the Crown.

This is a brief video that explains the concept of chivalry and its role in a Mediaeval society.
This is another video that focuses on explaining what Mediaeval Romances were and places them within a literary context.

Just as Isabella and Ferdinand had to control various individuals to lay foundations to political stability, they also had to impose their royal authority onto the contemporaneous Institutions. One of such Institutions was the Cortes which had attempted to disregard the monarchy at the start of their reign.  In order to secure their power over the Cortes, the Crown employed the corregidores from 1480[3]; replaced all nobility within the Council of Castile with letrados, educated lawyers; and extensively used the royal progress[4]. This reform proved to be efficient as the revenue from Castilian lands increased from 800 000 maravedís in 1470 to 22 million in 1504[5], thus demonstrating that people accepted the royal authority of the Crown and therefore allowing the Crown to strengthen their control of the localities. Consequently, Isabella and Ferdinand managed to lay down the foundations for political stability as they mostly subdued the Spanish nobility and the local governing bodies.

The role of Charles V

Nevertheless, despite Ferdinand and Isabella vastly increasing the authority of the Crown in the eyes of the nobility, their successor, Charles V, was faced with a major revolt at the start of his reign. This revolt, led by the Communeros, challenged Charles’s authority as king.

Yet, due to the revolt disintegrating as soon as Charles met some of the demands, such as employing Castilians in governmental bodies, it was highly likely that Charles did indeed benefit from the previously established foundations in the relationship between the nobility and the Crown. As a result, Charles continued to extend his royal authority further.

Although the Crown and the Cortes continued to borrow extensively from foreign investors for his military campaigns despite the despite the 1530s influx of bullion from the New World, Charles was mostly successful at continuing to control the Cortes. This was achieved by predominantly by Charles employing skilful locals, such as Cobos, that constituted the majority out of pre-existing letrados[6]. Such personnel was able to effectively govern multiple councils, including the Council of Finance, created in 1523. Success of such changes was evident by the Cortes supporting Charles’ extensive military campaigns as in 1528 when the French forces besieged Milan and Naples, the Cortes willingly approved a subsidy of 533,333 ducats for Charles to utilise in the war[7]. Consequently, Isabella and Ferdinand certainly contributed for laying the foundations to the ‘Golden Age’ as the Crown relied on its stable authority, thus allowing Charles to have greater control of his empire.

A short video about Charles V’s foreign policy as well as some bits of his domestic policy. Don’t be alarmed at the fact that the video’s description says that he was a Holy Roman Emperor. He held two titles- that of the Spanish monarch and the Holy Roman Emperor.

The role of Philip II

As a result of the internal political efforts of Isabella and Ferdinand and Charles, Philip felt more secure in terms of his state’s unity than any of his predecessors. This could be seen in Philip’s preference of the centralised system of government throughout his reign, rather than continuing to utilise the peripatetic kingship. The Royal Court, having settled in Madrid in 1561, became the centre of Philip’s conciliar system. Such an approach allowed Philip to become personally involved with the matters of his Empire as all of the information about it went through Philip’s hands. Although such a process was a time-consuming one, it was nevertheless highly effective. This was mainly due to Philip’s continuing to use skilful letrados who performed both executive and legislative roles. This was beneficent for Philip because he was able to dictate his own rules to the Cortes, thus changing the prior trend. For example, despite the backward nature of the Council of Finance and Spain’s reliance on foreign bankers, the Spanish Crown was still able to collect triple number of ducats in 1590s in comparison to 1559[8]. Consequently, the fact that Philip managed to slightly alter the style of rule and to utilise it to his advantage demonstrates that he was working on already pre-established foundations, which were laid by Isabella and Ferdinand. 

SOURCE TIME: This is a portrait of Philip II’s son, Prince Don Carlos. This portrait provides an idealised image of the Prince and it was painted after his very mysterious death at a young age. Why do you think this portrait was painted? Also think about what it shows what Philip II saw as an important part of the government. (photo cc: Rimma)

Think like a Historian:

Do you think a conciliar government is useful for a monarch? Do you think conciliar government still exists today?

Important vocabulary

  • Chivalric (n. chivalry): a way of behaviour that was followed by Medieval knights, that placed emphasis on honour and courage
  • The Cortes: One of the key administrative institutions within the Spanish government
  • The corregidores (pl.): A Spanish government official
  • Letrados (pl.): A lawyer or a judge in early-modern Spain
  • Maravedís: A system of currency in early-modern Spain
  • Peripatetic kingship: A method of governing a country, that was popular amongst Mediaeval rulers. It is mostly characterised by the Royal Court continuously moving around the country, from one location to the other.
  • Conciliar system: A system of government that functions on many councils being responsible for an individual aspect of government, such as finances or education.

To explore this topic further…

  • If you’re interested in exploring the Spanish ‘Golden Age’, then I would recommend reading Henry Kamen’s Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (Great Britain, 2005). It is a very neat discussion on how the ‘Golden Age’ of Spain came to be as well as its cultural implications.
  • If you’re interested in the roles of Isabella and Ferdinand, J. Edwards’ Ferdinand and Isabella: Profiles in Power is a very comprehensible source to begin with.
  • This is a quick link to the narrative of events of what had happened to Don Carlos.
  • To keep things interesting, there even is an opera that is based on these events. It’s called Don Carlos (surprising turn of events, we know).
This is an entire opera that was recorded in Vienna in 2015.

Footnotes

[1] J. Edwards, Ferdinand and Isabella: Profiles in Power (2013, USA), 136

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert S. Chamberlain, ‘The Corregidor in Castile in the Sixteenth Century and the Residencia as Applied to the Corregidor’ in The Hispanic American Historical Review (1943), pp. 222-257

[4]Henry Kamen, Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (Great Britain, 2005), p.17

[5] Robert S. Chamberlain, ‘The Corregidor in Castile in the Sixteenth Century and the Residencia as Applied to the Corregidor’ in The Hispanic American Historical Review (May, 1943), pp. 222-257

[6] Aurelio Espinosa, The Empire of the Cities: Emperor Charles V, the Communero Revolt and the Transformation of the Spanish System (Netherlands, 2009), p. 211

[7] Aurelio Espinosa, The Spanish Reformation: Institutional Reform, Taxation, and the Secularization of

Ecclesiastical Properties under Charles V, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2006), pp. 3-24

[8] John Lynch, Spain Under the Habsburgs in Volume 1: Empire and Absolutism, 1516-1598 (Oxford, 1981), pp. 188-89

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