Spain History - House of Habsburg - (1517 - 1700)

In 1517, Queen Juana's son Carlos I, arrived from Flanders and proceeded immediately to lock her away until her death in 1555. By marriage and inheritance King Carlos I of Spain (also to be known as Emperor Charles V as from 1519), possessed not only Spain as a co-ruler with his mad mother, but also the states of Netherlands, Austria, some parts of Germany, half of Italy, parts of France and the Spanish Colonies in the Americas. His reign is marked by wars and internal strife, including massive spending and the near constant bankruptcy of his Empire. The Castilian nobles resented the influx of Flemish outsiders and rebelled only to be defeated in battle in 1521 at Villalar. At the same time he had overcome another threat in Valencia from a leader who claimed to be the illegitimate grandson of King Fernando. During his long reign he only spent some sixteen year in Spain due to constant wars or friction in his various possessions. He made more enemies when he decided to sack Rome in 1527 and England ended their mutual non-aggression pact the same year. In the north of Europe he suffered the spreading influence of Martin Luther and Protestantism whilst to the east and south he was constantly defending against warring Ottoman Turks.

The popularity of Carlos 1 with his Spanish subjects began to improve with his fight as defender of the Catholic faith and then improved even more with his marriage to Princess Isabel the daughter of the King of Portugal. He insisted on learning to speak and write in Castilian. In 1535 he organized a massive fleet which successfully attacked Tunis releasing thousands of Christian slaves and bringing more popularity. On the death of the last in line of the Sforza family he inherited the Kingdom of Milan in 1535. During his many absenteeism Spain was administered by the very capable and loyal Francisco de los Cobos who the king had appointed as his Secretary of Finance. Although King Carlos won a great battle against the Protestants at Muhlburg in 1547 it took another five years for his forces to retreat forever from the invaded German soil.

The Spanish in the vast majority were not interested in Protestantism but there was one small sect that appeared called Illuminists lead by a woman. One of her followers, a Basque by the name of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, was later to write a great book named Spiritual Exercises which was to become the creed of the military-style Order of the Jesuits founded in 1534 and officially recognized by the Pope in 1540. The Humanists Movement made some brief inroads into Spanish literature and architecture during the reign of Carlos I but his successor was quick to suffocate the intrusion. Having failed in nearly all of the many things that he had attempted in his life King Carlos gave up the throne in 1556 in favour of his son Felipe II. Having lived a full and very indulgent life (he was a member of the elite Order of the Golden Fleece composed of European aristocrats who held glutinous and lengthily banquets), he retired quietly to the Yuste Monastery in Estremadura. He left the stage leaving his Empire split between the Spanish and the Austrians having already made a present of the Low Countries and Spain to his son. He had ruled Spain for 40 years but he had only be officially King of Castile for nine months and died in 1558 at the age of fifty-eight.

Felipe II built to the north of Madrid the world famous El Escorial Palace with its 134 kilometres of corridors, over 2,500 windows, 1,200 doors, 86 staircases and 15 cloisters. Juan Bautista and Juan de Herrera as the architects reflected in their creation exactly the character of their time of which the King emphasized. Many versions exist as to the reason for its creation and shape but there is little doubt that the Spanish victory of Saint Quentin in 1557 was the cause. Completed in 1584 it reflected King Felipe's deep and sombre religious feelings. In the vast building his royal quarters are extremely small and modest, the view from his room look directly to the altar in the main church.

His reign in 1556 commenced in league with the French and in conflict with Pope. However, the Habsburg policy was always to encircle France when possible with his allies and when his wife died giving birth to his son Carlos, his father had then married him in 1554 to the Catholic Mary Tudor of England at Winchester Cathedral. This proved to be a childless marriage and when Mary died both England and Spain was pleased that there union was broken regardless of King Felipe's persistent pursuit of the hand of Queen Elizabeth I of England. With the previous loss of Austria by inheritance to his brother Ferdinand he suddenly made an unexpected move by marrying Elizabeth of Valois, the 14 year old daughter of the King of France. In making this union he immediately placed Spain as an enemy of England.

Meanwhile, back in Spain he found not only that the royal coffer was empty but it was also owing large sums to the banks. The crown's income (a fifth), from all the imported American treasure was insufficient to meet his needs so he raised the taxes and sold off his father's collection of jewels. King Carlos saw himself as the champion of the Catholic religion and all his efforts went in stimulating the faith and removing any threat to Spain or any of its possessions, especially in the newly conquered Americas. It is at this time that the Spanish Empire gained their title of the Black Legend reflecting their cruel oppression on cultures outside their own narrow vision. However, some historians protest that this title is not justified as the rule of the Spanish was no worse than any history of other Empire builders. This legend had persisted through Anglo-Saxon history and even today it is still used as a profitable scapegoat through media such as films and books.

King Felipe II was an unsmiling person who trusted extremely few people and disliked powerful personalities but at the same time he earned the love of most of his Castellan subjects by his devotion and his sincere preoccupation for their general morale and well being. Most of the time he buried himself in royal paperwork and avoided attending court, also he avoided as much as he could strong personalities such as the Duke of Alba and his half-brother Don Juan of Austria. This charismatic brother was to prove a great leader in various campaigns against the Portuguese for the sake of the kingdom and King Felipe made sure he was kept busy and presented no threat to his throne. In private Felipe was a cultured man and liked music, often playing chess, and gathered the largest private library of 14,000 books. He worshiped his second wife Queen Elizabeth until her early tragic death going on later to marry Anna of Austria in the hope of producing an heir for the throne. Felipe II reign was followed by his successor Carlos II and in his reign the the painter Diego Velázquez da Silva (1541-1614) painted some of his most famous works.

In contrast to the above his hate of heretics was intense so he revitalized of the Inquisition and at the beginning of his rule he showed his position to all concerned by staging a impressive auto de fe at Valladolid where a number of heretics were burned. It is to be remembered that the Inquisition was used as a useful tool to rid the ruler also of the power of the church. One of the principal reasons for the capital of Spain being moved from Toledo to Madrid in Felipe's reign was to escape the ever-powerful church barons. The Archbishop of Toledo was found himself incarcerated and under religious scrutiny in the dungeons for 18 years until his death. Another problem emerged from the south when the Mouriscos in Granada revolted against new restrictions to their faith in 1567 and the open abuse of local power by the priests. An army was sent south under the leadership of Don Juan of Austria which resulted in some 60,000 subjects losing their lives before the rebels were finally beaten. In 1571 the same General, now twenty-four years old, defeated the powerful fleet of the Ottomans at Lepanto in Greece. Involoved in this battle was the later to be famous author Miguel de Cervantes.

In 1581 the United Provinces of the Low Countries (with the exception of Belgium), declared their Independence under the leadership of William of Orange. In 1592 William was assassinated and then the Provinces entered into a pact with England. Felipe ordered the seizure of all English ships so Queen Elizabeth ordered Sir Francis Drake to singe the beard of the Spanish king and in 1587 by successfully attacking the Spanish fleet anchored at Cadiz. When the Spanish learnt of the execution of the Catholic Queen of Scots, Felipe commenced his plans for The Great Armada. Offshore to La Coruña at the beginning of this huge fleet's departure a sudden storm damaged one third of the ships. It was in July of 1588 that some 130 ships and 29,000 men finally sailed off to the English Channel. After they had been severely beaten and harried by the fleet of England they eventually arrived home with a loss of 63 ships and 9,000 men. Felipe planned two more such Armadas in 1596 and 1597 but each time the storms at sea defeated his plans.

In the main Felipe's decisions proved costly, politically dangerous and humiliating to Spain. By his first marriage the King had forcibly annexed the Kingdom of Portugal which was to present him with constant problems as the Portuguese were generally not pleased with the attitude and the different style of administration by their Spanish cousins. In 1565 he nominated Willem of Orange to govern royal interests in the Netherlands but Willem promptly championed the cause of Protestantism which caused a war in 1567 between the two countries. The conflict eventually ends with the Union of Utrecht in 1579 which binds the northern counties together to drive out the Spanish. In 1580 Spain invaded their neighbour Portugal and after winning the battle of Alcantara Felipe places the Portugal and its possessions under Spanish rule for the next 60 years. The failure of the famous Great Armada against England in 1588 typified the King's lack of success in most everything he attempted. His heir and son Dom Carlos was physically malformed and considered as being of questionable sanity. His offending public behaviour soon forced his father to forcibly confine him which subsequently resulted in an early and suspicious death. It is this same Dom Carlos who is questionably made into a hero in the opera by Verdi.

With the many demands on the thrones finances Spain swung from one crisis to another trying to meet payments without sufficient funds. The disdain by the noble classes for being associated with trade had moved business into the hands of foreign merchants whilst the middle class and the poor were being bled by taxes and the church. Agriculture was being smothered by the aristocratic land owners who preferred the less tiresome rearing of sheep for the wool trade. The spoils from the Americas which still arrived in Seville and regardless of romantic stories they only very occasionally fell into the hands of pirates - it is calculated from old records that 95 percent of all vessels arrived safely. However, as fast as it arrived it was sold to pay the burdening debts. A Spaniard with ambition in the 1600s was left with only a choice between the church, royal service, or go to sea. To be poor was considered no dishonour but it was to soil one's hands with work as it was publicly associated to being a poor Moriscos (converted Moors to Christianity). The ever increasing numbers of poor became an honourable burden to the many monasteries that prided themselves on their own generous charity to the needy. This unbalanced and unhealthy society was to create an even poorer Spain in the immediate future.

  
 

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