Castile has made Spain, and Castile has destroyed it

Imperial Spain is a history of the rise and decline of Imperial Spain between the years 1469 and 1716. It opens with the union of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, and ends with the final abolition of the Crown of Aragon and of the historic rights and privileges enjoyed by the people therein, an abolition the effects of which still resound in Spanish politics to this day. From another perspective, it starts with the creation of Spain as more than a geographical concept, and ends with the further creation of Spain as a unified state.

Imperial Spain was originally published by JH Elliott in 1963, the Penguin edition which I read was a reprint dated to 1990 and is I believe still the current version. Despite its age, it is widely regarded as a classic work in relation to the history of imperial Spain and JH Elliott (who held chairs at King’s College London, Oxford and Cambridge) is a very highly regarded academic who specialises in this period and culture.

It is an academic work, rather than a popular history. That said, it is designed as a general overview of the period, covering near 250 years in a little over 400 pages (including afternotes), and so is easily accessible to the lay reader (such as me). Elliott has a clear style, some might even say dry, which requires some attention but which is ultimately a pleasure to read provided you are able to give his work the attention it merits.

And it does merit attention, this is a sweeping work which provides a good grounding in the origins, successes and ultimate failures of imperial Spain and which in doing so sheds much light on trends that continue to remain relevant in modern Spain. Elliott brings a number of key figures to life, explains clearly and simply that which we know enough about to be able to explain but refrains from speculation where evidence is lacking. Elliott is quite happy to confess that we do not know how or why a certain thing happened, or to note that other later historians will need to elucidate some detail which was at the time of writing closed to him. It is partly this humility, this willingness to confess ignorance, which gave me as a reader confidence where he did speak to events. Elliott is a scholar quite aware of the limitations of his knowledge, but it would be an error to conclude from this that his knowledge is not both wide and deep.

In many ways this is very traditional historical writing, Elliott creates no imagined dialogues or internal monologues, he sticks to that which we know or can deduce. Personally, I prefer my history as Dragnet would have liked it, and therefore Elliott’s approach is one that I find both refreshing and reassuring. Elliott does not disguise the truth that history is a moveable feast, with the explanation that convinces one generation failing to convince another, he makes arguments but is at pains to let the reader know when a thing is known for certain and when it is his conclusion and as such challengeable by later academics (as he challenges some earlier ones).

The history of imperial Spain is essentially the history of the creative tension between the centre and the periphery of the Spanish state, such as there was. If there is one central theme to Elliott’s work, it is that. At the time of the union of Castile and Aragon in the persons of Isabella and Ferdinand, these were utterly disparate cultures. Castile was an autocratic and militarised nation, crude and emerging from the long struggle of the Reconquista. The Crown of Aragon by contrast was a decentralised federation of trading states, Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia, of which Catalonia was the dominant. It was this union, of a large militaristic state with a much smaller but far more commercial federalised kingdom, which gave imperial Spain its unique character, its years of glory and ultimately its undoing.

The nature of the Crown of is best captured in an apocryphal oath sworn by its people to their king (the oath captures the spirit of the time, but was likely coined much later):

“We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws, but if not, not.”

As Elliott goes on to say:

“Consequently, the medieval empire of the Crown of Aragon was far from being an authoritarian empire, ruled with an iron hand from Barcelona. On the contrary, it was a loose federation of territories, each with its own laws and institutions, and each voting independently the subsidies requested by its king.”

Accordingly, the monarch of Castile had direct powers of taxation over his kingdom and was able to levy troops from within it as needed. The monarch of the Crown of Aragon had only such powers of taxation and troop raising as the constitutional bodies of the different principalities within the kingdom were willing to vote him. When the two crowns were unified by the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand, the rights of the people of the Crown of Aragon were preserved and therefore each kingdom continued to operate under wholly different legal systems under which the rights of the monarch in later centuries would be far greater in respect of the central element of his realm (Castile) than they would be in respect of the peripheries (Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia).

As Elliott puts it:

“The new Spain was therefore a plural, not a unitary, state, and consisted of a series of separate patrimonies governed in accordance with their own distinctive laws. The Spain of the Catholic Kings continued to be Castile and Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia. Moreoever, the existing legal and political structure of these various states remained largely unaltered.”

Equally important as this tension between centre and periphery, between military state and commercial federation, was the role of hidalguia, the concept of the hidalgo. The hidalgo was a nobleman, and as such exempt from many taxes by Castillian law, to be an hidalgo was to be a man of honour, a man not subject to the burdens of an often punitive system of taxation. The highest nobility ranked above the hidalgo, he is closer to a Knight or Chevalier than anything more elevated, but the exemption from fiscal duties was of real value and given the widespread poverty of much of the people of Castille (including a great many hidalgos) the ability to pass down the status of hidalgo to one’s heirs was often the only meaningful beqeauthal that a man could make.

The hidalgo was ideally a man of arms, a warrior. He did not earn his living by the sweat of his brow, he gained riches through conquest rather than work. His honour was everything to him, more important than life itself. The status of hidalgo was however, for much of imperial Spanish history, purchasable, and as such a man could were he successful purchase his family’s way into the nobility and so exempt them from the need to pay taxes going forward. This combination, of honourable warriors disdainful of labour but exempt from taxation, was to drive much of Castile’s desire for conquest and its inability to pay its way as its empire expanded.

Elliott tells us that at the time of the union of the crowns the Crown of Aragon was exhausted, its drive flagging. Castile by contrast was a young and vibrant country. The combination therefore brought together centuries of commercial and international experience with a large, young and militaristic state. That combination proved the perfect one from which to create an empire, and in the golden age of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella that empire fell to them in the form of Spain’s American possessions.

Elliott quotes Bernal Diaz del Castillo, companion to Cortés, in relation to the conquest of the Americas as follows:

“We came here to serve God and the king, and also to get rich.”

And get rich they did, Elliott takes us through the creation of the golden age of Ferdinand and Isabella, illustrates its successes but also its failings, in an even handed assessment of their achievements. They broke the power of the great nobility, but expelled the Jews and with them much commercial drive and experience. They united the crowns, but not the peoples. They reformed the Church in answer to widespread corruption, but founded the Inquisition with consequences that were much later to prove very damaging. Overall though, their achievements outweighed their failures, this was Spain’s golden age, as Elliott notes:

“Out of their long experience, the Aragonese could provide the administrative methods which would give the new monarchy its institutional form. The Castillians, for their part, were to provide the dynamism which would impel the new state forward. … The Spain of the Catholic Kings is essentially Castile: a Castile, overflowing with creative energy, which seemed suddenly to have discovered itself.”

Elliott writes at length about the humanist reforms of the golden age and of its cultural richness. He is detailed in his description of the new bureacracies which were to prove so critical to administering the most far flung empire the world had then ever known, and in how that empire was financed. Indeed, in general Elliott concentrates on matters of bureacracy, finance, culture and faith, and while he places wars and conquests in their wider context he does not dwell on them overly. This is a history of Spain, not of its adventures or possessions.

Elliott takes us past the death of Isabella, the reign of Ferdinand alone and the constant tensions experienced between the powers of the monarchs and the rights of the peripheries. He takes us to the Habsburg succession, and the civil war it sparked, the consequences of which were to ripple down through Spanish history for generations. He talks of the spread of the ideas of Erasmus, and years later of the suppression of those same ideas by the Inquisition. He talks of Spain’s sense of mission, of manifest destiny, and of where that was to lead them.

With the coming of the Habsburg’s, Spain became part of a larger empire, and another strand emerges in Elliott’s narrative. The conflict between the desire of each part of the Spanish state to see its king and have him spend time in their lands, and the needs of an emperor whose domains extended far beyond Spain’s borders. As Elliott says:

“To the Aragonese, Charles was King of Aragon; to the Castillians, King of Castile; to the Flemings, Count of Flanders; and if they occasionally allowed themselves a certain feeling of pride that their King was also the ruler of many other territories, this was generally outweighed by annoyance at the demands made upon him by those territories, to the consequent neglect of their own particular interests.”

Or as a Seventeenth century jurist quoted by Elliott put it:

“the kingdoms must be ruled and governed as if the king who holds them all together were king only of each one of them”.

Habsburg Spain then, and the larger empire of which it formed part, was golden age Spain writ large, with those same tensions of centre and periphery continuing and the same tensions of differing legal and constitutional settlements coexisting under a common monarch, whose territory extended far further than it could ever be possible to personally oversee.

Under the Habsburgs, Elliott shows us how the bureaucracy continues to expand, filling the need created by this large and heterogenous state. He also shows however how the combination of hidalguia and the rights of the periphery acted to increasingly concentrate the tax burden on the merchant and labouring classes of Castile. The hidalgos and greater nobility were exempt from taxation, the principalities of the Crown of Aragon unwilling to vote against their own fiscal interests in the support of what they regarded as unnecessary overseas adventures. Increasingly then, the tax burden fell on just one part of the population, and as it did so Spain grew poorer and the impetus on achieving success to use it to purchase the status of hidalgo rather than reinvesting the fruits of that success grew stronger. Habsburg Spain grew more powerful, but increasingly the costs of that power were borne by fewer people each of whom was over time being taxed more and more heavily.

Worse yet, in order to meet the growing deficits, the Emperor had to turn to forms of deficit financing which to a modern reader appear eerily familiar. Lucrative government bonds were issued, creating a whole class within society of people able to live purely on their investments without the need themselves to generate real wealth from trade or industry. Vast loans were taken out with foreign bankers, the government mortgaged its future to pay for the glory and always pressing needs of the present. More and more government income was pre-hypothecated to servicing debt, such that as the treasure fleets arrived their wealth flowed out to bankers and investors barely filling the government’s coffers, so causing the need for more debt and more taxes on those in Castile who were not exempted from paying them. This was a society fuelled by debt, in which financial investments were of greater value than commerce or manufacturing, in the longer term this was not to prove a successful strategy for the Spanish state.

This problem of debt financing replacing real investment continued for the remainder of imperial Spain’s history, and Elliott quotes one Gonzales de Cerrigo as follows:

“Money is not true wealth. … [Wealth is being] dissipated on thin air – on papers, contracts, censos, and letters of exchange, on cash and silver, and gold – instead of being expended on things that could yield profits and attract riches from outside to augment the riches within. And thus there is no money, gold or silver in Spain because there is so much; and it is not rich, because of all its riches…”

As the complex system of wealth creation through financial instruments began to unravel, so too did the Spanish hegemony, and in the absence of a strong underlying real economy (as a modern politician would put it), it was a decline that attempted later reforms were wholly unable to reverse.

Together with these financial crises, Elliott also introduces us to such concepts as limpieza de sangre, purity of blood. A highly politicised law to prevent men with Jewish blood serving in government, which acted to promote the fortunes of those of lower birth whose families were less likely than those of the nobility to have interbred with the rich conversos – descendants of Jewish families that had converted to Christianity rather than be expelled from Spain. The doctrine of purity of blood gave men locked out of traditional sources of honour – family history and lineage – a weapon with which to challenge the dominance of their social superiors. Elliott is excellent on this type of highly politicised intrigue, showing who developments served and why they were pursued. This doctrine damaged the power of the nobility badly, and formed part of the closing of Spain to foreign influences that marked its period of decline from the 1620s onwards.

Elliott also takes us, where facts are known, deep within court intrigues such as the murder of royal secretary Escobedo in 1578 and the destruction of his murderer and the faction of which he was part in the following year. The Habsburgs, after Charles, proved ill-suited to rulership and so Spain became awash with conspiracies, factions, power struggles and men seeking to exercise the powers of the throne by influencing those who sat upon it.

The brief glory and extended decline of imperial Spain gave birth to its two greatest artists, Velasquez and Cervantes, each of whom straddled both periods and so were keenly aware of the contrasts between the two ages. They saw Castile increasingly divided between the super-rich and the very poor, as the middle classes were taxed out of existence and the peasantry increasingly chose to abandon their farms in the hopes of a less precarious existence in the cities (the existence of price caps but not price floors on agricultural products did not help this process). Increasingly church or state (including military) service was the means to survival, commerce or industry viewed with contempt as a fool’s choice. The interests of the rich and the masses became unaligned, with predictably disastrous effects.

By the 1680s the French envoy to Madrid was commenting that one could see Spain’s power diminishing from year to year. The decline was irreversible, the failure to create a unified state, the succession of weak monarchs, the massive national debt, these had acted together to cripple the Spanish imperium. Elliott however shines particularly here in pointing out how much that is obvious to us today would not have been obvious then, and how many of the choices faced by the more talented within the Spanish state were invidious ones permitting of no wholly positive outcome. He notes that they were faced with then unprecedented internal racial and religious diversity, with an empire of geographical scope that the technologies of the time were quite unequal to managing, the later closing of their borders to foreign ideas and the increasing religious dogmatism were attempts to maintain a state in the face of challenges never before experienced and which perhaps at that time were incapable of solution.

Elliott does not, however, exempt individuals from sharing blame. Vested interests prevent reforms, collectively the ruling classes experience a loss of nerve which leads to them protecting their own interests while the ship of state slowly sinks around them. Spain’s failure for Elliott is a mix of the unavoidable, and of the mediocrity of an entire generation of its elites as they do nothing to ward off the collapse that even then many were plainly foreseeing.

Elliott takes us through the reform attempts, shows us the men who sought to reverse the tide of decline and why they failed. He brings to life the courts of the later kings, each more disastrous than the last, and shows how the triumph and tragedy of the Spanish state was reflected in the work of its greatest artists as a people tried to understand how they had moved from seeming invincibility to the apparent withdrawal from them of the blessings of God. This is a detailed work, as this blog entry probably shows, and I have barely touched on its contents. It is a work filled with compassion for a people who failed and knew they were failing, but who had poor choices before them and who along the way created glories of art that remain with us and created an empire the likes of which the world had not before known.

This is a fascinating work of history, a tremendous starting point for an investigation of this period, and is a work of considerable scholarship which remains both humble and compassionate and which avoids confusing what we know now with that which they knew then. Having read it, I feel I have a far better understanding of Spain’s imperial past than I had before, and I fully expect in future to deepen my reading based on the understanding Elliott has given me.


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