The Political Development of Spain 1474–1598

The Iberian Peninsula experienced more intense political upheaval before the sixteenth century than almost any other part of Europe. Until the fifth century AD the region was the province of Hispania within the Roman Empire; it was then conquered by invading Germanic tribes and became the independent Visigothic kingdom between 466 and 711. The last King of the Visigoths, Roderic, was defeated by the Moors, who, inspired by the new and militant faith of Islam, had crossed over from North Africa with the intention of conquering Western Europe. By the eighth century the Moors were actually advancing across the Pyrenees, but their progress was arrested and reversed by their defeat at the hands of the Franks at the Battle of Tours (732). The Moors retreated into Spain and, for the next seven centuries, struggled to hold their conquests. Gradually, however, a series of Christian states emerged, initially in the north and then spreading their influence into central Spain. The main ambition of rulers like Ferdinand the Great (1035–65) of Castile and Alfonso the Warrior (1102–34) of Aragon, and of military commanders like Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid), was to drive the Moors out of the entire Peninsula.

Although the process of the Reconquista continued slowly and successfully, the Christian Kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, Navarre and Portugal frequently came into conflict with each other. The turning point came in 1469 with the marriage between Isabella (who became Queen of Castile on the death of Enrique IV in 1474) and Ferdinand (who succeeded Juan II as King of Aragon in 1479). Although Castile and Aragon were brought under one crown, however, they were not forced together constitutionally as a unitary state. Each retained its own possessions abroad (which meant that the foreign policies of Aragon and Castile were based on very different interests) and its own identity and character. Nevertheless, Ferdinand and Isabella ruled the Kingdoms with a common overall policy and on the basis of a shared heritage, culture and religion.

The main achievement of the new reign was the extension of royal authority. This was accomplished by more frequent use of royal councils in central government, more effective control over the nobility, the appointment of royal officials in local government, and a reduction of the powers of the legislatures of both Aragon and Castile. The whole process, however, was gradual and did not involve a revolution from above.

A widespread institution in the Middle Ages had been the Curia Regis, a Great Council possessed by many European monarchies. Composed of the leading members of the nobility, this had advised the Crown and had been an integral part of the feudal hierarchy. As the medieval period drew to a close, the Curia Regis of several countries contracted into a more specialized council, in which the King was served by a limited number of professional advisers and ministers. An example of this was the emergence of the Conseil des Affaires in France, and much the same happened in Spain. The great medieval Councils of Castile and Aragon were extensively reorganized in 1480 and 1494 respectively. Previously the highest members of the nobility had predominated, but after the reforms they lost their advisory capacity and their right to vote, both of which were assumed by letrados, royal servants who had received a legal training. The two Royal Councils, which maintained separate territorial jurisdiction, were responsible for the supervision of all internal affairs and justice. They also set a precedent for the establishment of the complex conciliar system which governed sixteenth–century Spain. Further contributions by Ferdinand and Isabella were the Council of the Inquisition (1483), the Council of Military Orders (1495) and the Council of Cruzada (1509).

The extension of royal power was accomplished, as in other countries, partly at the expense of the nobility. At first the Castilian nobles posed a potential threat. Over the centuries they had amassed considerable powers, and the constant warfare with the Moors had enabled them to set up a series of military orders capable of fighting as independent units. When the crusades against the Moors ended, the continuation of these orders presented a challenge to royal supremacy. Any attempt to disband them could well have precipitated major revolts, and the solution had to be more subtle. The Pope was persuaded to agree to a new procedure whereby Ferdinand acquired the power to fill the Grand Mastership of each of the orders (which had, of course, dedicated themselves to the papacy) as it became vacant. Overmighty subjects also faced the prospect of prosecution by special judicial commissioners, or of having their estates and financial assets confiscated by the Crown under Acts of Resumption. On the whole, the monarchy aimed at curbing the power of the great feudal lords by elevating the lower nobility and even members of the bourgeoisie as a reward for loyal service.

The aristocracy was not the only separatist element in Spain. Many of the walled cities of Castile had a long history of semi–independence and had been granted charters of liberties during the Middle Ages. Most possessed their own assembly and officials, or Regidores. Royal policy was based on a carefully considered compromise. Municipal privileges were not withdrawn, but new real officials, known as Corregidores, were appointed to assume joint responsibility with the Regidores for judicial and administrative duties. The Crown made a similar decision to retain but regulate traditional institutions in suppressing violence, especially in the areas of Galicia and Andalusia. Brigandage, a by-product of the violent era of the Reconquista, was dealt with by the revival of the Santa Hermandad (Holy Brotherhood), which was given powers of arrest, detention and summary justice. The majority of lawbreakers in rural areas passed through Hermandad courts and the incidence of banditry was greatly reduced by the end of the fifteenth century.

The major institutional casualty caused by the extension of royal authority was the legislature which, in all Spanish Kingdoms, had been accustomed to considerable power. The Cortes of Aragon, for example, insisted on a curious formula as an oath of loyalty to the King: ‘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.’1 Isabella complained frequently about this attitude and once asserted that ‘it would be better to reduce the Aragonese by arms than to tolerate the arrogance of their Cortes’.2 But such an extreme measure was never seriously considered. Instead, the Crown gradually reduced its dependence on the Cortes by building up a financial reserve through the resumption of previously alienated lands and property and through a more intensive application of the tax known as the alcabala. The Cortes of both Aragon and Castile remained in existence but their role was increasingly to confirm royal policy. Wherever possible, the Crown avoided confrontation and reduced the scope and frequency of the sessions. The first two estates of the Cortes of Castile were rarely summoned, and there were only 36 representatives of the third estate from a total of 18 cities.3 Between 1475 and 1503 the Cortes of Castile met a total of nine times and was not convened at all between 1482 and 1498.4

Ferdinand and Isabella presided over a relatively uncomplicated transition from a series of semi-feudal kingdoms into a federal state based upon a powerful monarchy which was served by an effective bureaucracy. In 1516 Spain was politically stable. The bureaucracy grew during the rest of the sixteenth century, but administration was not necessarily more efficient.

The first three years of Charles I's reign as King of Spain (from 1516) were relatively uneventful, but his decision to contest the Imperial Crown in 1519 brought many problems to Spain. When he became Emperor his priorities inevitably changed: his political ambitions increased and he came to regard himself as the secular leader of Christendom whose role was to establish a universal empire and overcome heresy. His territorial responsibilities were enormous and he found it impossible to create an overall system of government to administer Spain, the Empire, Austria, Burgundy and the Italian possessions. The result was that each of his dominions had to develop its own constitutional arrangements, the guiding principle of which was usually to maintain an administration which could function in Charles's absence.

Between 1516 and his abdication in 1556, Charles spent a total of 16 years in Spain (1517–20, 1522–9, 1533–5, 1536–9 and 1541–3).5 Yet, after the initial problem of the revolt of the communeros of Castile in 1520, Spain continued to develop a basically stable constitution. The conciliar system, used by Ferdinand and Isabella to increase the power of the Crown, was the key. This was greatly augmented but also modified so that the power of the Crown need not necessarily be equated with the personal authority of the King. To the advisory and departmental councils were added the Council of War in 1517, the Council of State (for general policy) in 1522 and the Council of Finance in 1523. The gradual acquisition of an overseas empire by Castile led to an additional territorial council. In 1524 the Council of the Indies was set up to supervise the administration of Spain's colonies in America, and was partially modelled on the Council of Castile. The Council of the Indies was responsible for the activities of colonial officials, like the Viceroys of New Spain and Peru, and of advisory councils like the Audiencias. The conciliar system thus became increasingly complex, but generally worked well because of the exceptional ability of some of the administrators to whom Charles delegated his authority during his absences; the most famous of these was Francisco de los Cobos, who held the conciliar system together in the 1530s and 1540s.

The political development of Spain during the reign of Charles V was stable but it could not be described as healthy. Bureaucracy grew very rapidly to compensate for an absentee King; the legislature continued to decline, thus reducing the scope for opposition to royal policy; finally, all Spain's institutions were subordinated to one overriding principle: that Spain should provide the resources for an ambitious foreign policy which affected most of Europe. Political development, therefore, was accompanied by rash diplomacy and severe economic problems.

With Philip II (1556–98) the Spanish monarchy came home. When Charles abdicated in 1556 he divided his dominions between his brother, Ferdinand (who became Holy Roman Emperor) and his son, Philip (who was King of Spain and Duke of Burgundy). Philip was therefore relieved of the necessity of touring one dominion after another and was able to adopt a fixed government. His main contributions to Spanish constitutional development were the establishment of a permanent capital, the increase of the personal involvement of the Crown in government, and the further extension of the range of the bureaucracy.

Being a Spaniard by birth and upbringing, Philip was determined to avoid the peripatetic habits of his father and he selected Madrid as his capital, using the Palace of the Escorial, built to his specifications some twenty miles away, as his administrative head quarters. This reduced the delay in communication between King and royal officials but it did not eliminate it altogether. Many argued that a seaport rather than the geographical centre of Spain should have been chosen as the seat of government. This assertion seems particularly appropriate to the period after 1580, when Spain acquired Portugal and a second overseas empire; Philip's foreign policy might have assumed a great maritime emphasis and been more successful against England and the Netherlands if he had moved his capital from Madrid to Seville or even Lisbon. As it was, Madrid and the Escorial became symbolic of Spain's ties to a Continental policy similar in scope to that of Charles V.

Philip II believed in close personal involvement in the process of administration and that his duties were primarily to ensure the impartial dispensation of justice, to protect the Church and Inquisition and to uproot heresy. He had a considerable capacity for hard work, a quality essential for administration. Unfortunately, he was unable to delegate responsibility; too often he concentrated on the details of administration rather than the formulation of policy, with the result that the presence of the King actually slowed the whole process down.

The conciliar system continued to expand. One example was the evolution of the Camara de Castilla, originally a core of advisers within the Royal Council of Castile, into a council within its own right in 1588. The main emphasis, however, was on councils covering an ever wider area territorially. This was strictly in line with Philip's decision to reside permanently in Spain: institutions and officials were necessary to administer Spanish territory and commitments elsewhere in Europe. Shortly before his abdication Charles V had introduced the Council of Italy (assuming the role of the Council of Aragon); this was maintained and extended by Philip II. The Council of Portugal was established in 1582 (two years after the union between Spain and Portugal) and the Council of Flanders in 1588. In addition to these Councils, the administration of Spanish possessions in Europe also involved Viceroys, who were responsible to the relevant Council and corresponded with the King and his secretaries. The Councils of Italy and Portugal were relatively successful, but the Council of Flanders was introduced far too late to stem the revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish rule. The Spanish conciliar structure is shown in Fig. 1.

Philip II's personal contributions to Spanish constitutional growth were generally negative. The administration was hampered by the decreased efficiency of a bureaucracy which had adapted itself to the need to act on behalf of an absentee King but now found itself supervised by one who made his presence constantly felt and who was too meticulous over detail. He also showed a new intensity of intolerance to opposition and to minorities, stating that he would rather resign his throne than rule heretics. His use of the Inquisition to enforce orthodoxy resulted in the rebellion of the Moriscos (1568–70) and the Dutch revolt, while the excessively Castilian nature of his Régime precipitated strong resentment in Aragon between 1591 and 1592. As a ruler, Philip II was never universally popular among his subjects, and Protestant Europe regarded him as the personification of tyranny. Perhaps he could more accurately be described as a dedicated royal bureaucrat whose lack of an overall sense of perspective stretched Spain's resources to breaking point.


Fig. 1 Spanish Councils in the sixteenth century

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