A young Spanish nobleman
decline of Spain
The seventeenth century was one of decline for Spain. Many factors
contributed to the failure of Spanish society to answer the economic
and political challenges it faced.
|The Spanish state had been created by the marriage of Ferdinand
of Aragon to Isabella of Castile in 1469. Although future monarchs
of Spain ruled both Aragon and Castile, little was done to unify
the administration or legal systems of the two. Indeed, Aragon
itself was divided into Aragon proper, Valencia, and Catalonia -
each with its own institutions, customs, and identity.|
|During the later sixteenth century Spain acquired a massive
overseas empire, chiefly in the Americas, but also in the Far East
(the Philippines were named for Philip II). Both the Spanish and the
Portuguese established trading posts on the coasts
of Africa and Asia that maintained a degree of independence from
The Hispanic World in about 1600
Spain also controlled large parts of Italy (including Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and Milan), and much of the southern Netherlands
(Flanders) as well as Franche Comté (bordering east central France).
In 1580, Philip II successfully invaded Portugal, claiming to have inherited
it along with its possessions in
the East Indies and Brazil.
|This vast array of possessions was
administered by viceroys, governors, the Council of the Indies, and
various other officials created piecemeal as each territory was
The empire had considerable resources but it was often difficult to
exploit them, not least because local interests were reluctant to pay
for the costs of other territories.
The basic Castilian tax was
the alcabala - a sales tax of 10% - but many towns had agreed to a fixed
sum which fell far below the theoretical 10% as a result of inflation. Moreover, in many places the receipts went to local nobles
not the crown. As
its yield fell, the Cortes of Castile agreed to the
servicios ordinario y extraordinarios (which also fell in value) and from
late in the sixteenth century to the millones (a tax on basic foodstuffs,
including meat and wine) became more important.
The crown was also able to obtain some income from the church.
Income from the silver mined
in the New World fell after a peak in the late sixteenth century.
Registered Bullion Imports in kilos
Imports declined still further during the later seventeenth century. Remittances of silver from the Lima (Peru)
treasury, for example, fell gradually from 14.8 million pesos in 1631-40
to 1.2 million in 1681-90.
Spain in the Seventeenth Century
The Spanish tax burden was
very unevenly distributed: it fell more on the poor than the rich,
heavily on the agricultural sector, and on Castile far more than
Aragon or the Basque country. But the Spanish government's expenditure
continued to climb: - in the first twelve years of Philip III's reign, he spent
over 40 million ducats on the Low Countries' wars alone (a ducat is a small gold
coin weighing about 3.5 grams.)
cover the shortfall, the Spanish government both borrowed money - by
the issue of juros (interest-bearing state bonds) - and
assigned the revenues from future years to the bankers if they would
pay the defense contracts for the present year. |
By 1607 the government had a debt of almost 23 million ducats and had
assigned away all its revenue for four years ahead.
By 1644 the crown's income was pledged to 1648; and by 1664 the crown
owed more than 21 million ducats.
Lacking any real money the
government periodically had to pay the interest owed on the juros
by issuing more juros - but people were not overly keen to buy these new juros
since they were none too confident that the interest would be paid.
A sixteen maravedis copper coin of Philip IV
Another extreme expedient was the issue of "vellón" coins -
vellón was worthless copper, sometimes with a tiny amount of
silver added. The government forced its employees and creditors to
accept this token currency, and the issues of 1636, 1641, and 1654
each made about five million ducats profit for the crown. But the
simply produced inflation and confusion in the economy.
With Spanish finances in so
parlous a state, a misfortune such as Piet Heyn's seizure of the
Spanish treasure fleet in 1628 became a disaster. The only
beneficiaries from the weakness of Spanish government finances were
Spanish noblemen, from whom the crown borrowed so heavily that they
held an effective stranglehold on the monarchy.
El Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del
From his vast palace outside
Madrid, the Escorial, (which included a monastery, a church, a
library, and more) the ever-conscientious Philip II created a system
of councils to help him govern his vast empire. One type advised him
on the formulation of policy, another dealt with particular
Within each territory, a viceroy implemented the orders of, and
reported back to, the Council. In the New World colonies, judicial
tribunals (audiencias) exercised both legal and political functions,
limiting and checking up on the powers of the viceroy.
The system was highly centralized, painfully slow, and totally reliant on the
king for its efficient functioning. Philip II spent his whole life processing
the paperwork; the idle Philip III and the self-indulgent Philip IV left control
to their Councils of State. Under the mediocre Charles II, the councils became
the sinecures of wealthy aristocrats (despite various attempt at reform.)
The councils also relied on the viceroy and other local officials to
implement and enforce central decisions. When - as for example in Peru
under Philip IV - offices were sold to local grandees, central control
gave way to corruption and incompetence.|
Kings of Spain
Genealogy of the Kings of Spain
(not all offspring and marriages shown)
The historian John Lynch
described Philip III as "the laziest king
in Spanish history," "unable to escape his own mediocrity". Pious,
generous, and fond of food and hunting, Philip III fathered eight
children in 12 years before his wife, Margaret of Austria, died in
childbirth in 1611.
IV was only sixteen at his accession, and was "a jaded voluptuary
well before middle age" (Lynch.) Less idle than his father, he did
decide some major policies. But he was also less interested in
administration than in the good life - art, horses, women (he fathered
5 illegitimate children,) bull fights, &c.
(Carlos) was only four years old when he acceded to the
throne. The product of generations of inbreeding, he was so mentally
unstable and physically ill that he was nicknamed El Hechizado "the
"This last pallid relic
of a fading dynasty was left to preside
over the inert corpse of a shattered monarchy, itself no more that a
pallid relic of the great imperial past"
(J. H. Elliot.)
The sterile, crippled king died aged 39,
having lived longer than many expected. (The children of his
half-sister Maria Teresa, wife of Louis XIV, then
held the best claim to the Spanish crown.)
The role of validos (or
chief ministers) of the kings of Spain was created partly because of
the idleness of Philip III, but it was also a reflection of the
difficulties of a monarch ruling directly over so complex and
extensive a system of government.|
The first valido, appointed by Philip III, was
Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma. Philip placed him in
charge as soon as he acceded in 1598, and left Lerma there until 1618.
Lerma was appointed because Philip liked him, not because he had much
experience in government. He used his position to enrich himself and
Philip IV's valido was
Gaspar de Guzmán, Duke of Olivares.
From 1643 to 1661,
Luis de Haro was valido - a modest and amiable man, he
spent most of his time trying to stave off government bankruptcy. (He
failed. The crown defaulted on its debts in 1660.) He did recognize
that Spanish attempts to regain the Dutch Netherlands must be
abandoned, and helped bring that hopeless war to an end.
Mariana of Austria
Since Charles II was too young at his accession to take any active
part in government, his mother Mariana of Austria at first chose Johann Everard Nithard as her agent, but this Austrian was so generally
distrusted that she dismissed him in 1669. From 1673, Mariana's
favorite was Fernando Valenzuela, the "duende de palacio"
(ghost of the palace). He lost his place in 1675 to a palace
intrigue organized by Don John of Austria, but managed to return. In
1678, another palace revolution erupted and Valenzuela was ousted. He
was imprisoned in the Philippines and then exiled to Mexico. Don
John (1629-79) who also edged Mariana out of power was
supposedly an illegitimate son of Philip IV by
Maria Calderona (an actress so
promiscuous that the issue could not be certain) although he looked
nothing like his purported father. He died soon afterwards.
Castille, Navarre, and Aragon
had Cortes (Aragon proper, Valencia, and Catalonia each had individual Cortes) - Courts
or representative assemblies that the king was meant to consult and ask
for taxation. Aragon's Cortes were traditionally more powerful
than Castile's but all lost power during the 16th and 17th
The Castilian Cortes
represented only eighteen of the towns, and only the social elite of those towns at
that. In voting taxation they favored their own interests over those
of the population as a whole, particularly as many of their members
were corrupted by government kick-backs. Elsewhere, the Cortes included nobles
and high clerics, as well as representatives of towns.
The Cortes did present
grievances to the king, but they never became representatives of the
Spanish political class (as Parliament did in England) and after 1665,
the Cortes of Castile effectively ceased to exist.
century Spanish society was extremely inegalitarian. The nobility were
not only richer than ordinary people but had special legal privileges.
They were, for example, exempt from many taxes.|
Titulos - dukes, marquises, counts & viscounts
In Spain high social status was closely associated with leisure. Work
- particularly manual labor - was considered undignified and
demeaning. Even merchants who became wealthy tried to buy land and
titles and invest in juros, so that they would no longer have
to work for a living.
Large numbers of Spaniards entered the church: - there were perhaps
100,000 clergy in the 1620s and 150,000 or more in the later seventeenth century. Others spent long years in
college education - 21 new universities were founded during the
sixteenth century. This increased the proportion of Spaniards in
economically unproductive activities.|
Political commentators, "arbitristas", bemoaned the inverse
correlation between productive work and high status, but could do
little to change such a widespread social attitude.
The prevalent contempt for retail trading was reinforced by its associations
with Spain's ethnic minority groups - Marranos (Jewish converts to
Christianity) and Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity.)|
During the Middle Ages, Spain had been conquered by Muslims invading from Africa.
The Christian Spanish re-conquered all of Spain by the end of the fifteenth
century - finally retaking Granada in 1492. Initially tolerant towards
the Jews and Muslims, the Spanish government had grown increasingly
wary and in the sixteenth century had offered a hard choice
between expulsion and conversion.
Many Spaniards were highly suspicious of how genuine the "conversion"
of Moriscos had been. They feared that the Moriscos were secretly
in favor of Islamic reconquest. The Spanish Inquisition was established
in order to ascertain whether converts or their children were
backsliding. All those with Jewish or Moorish blood tended to be
suspected - this emphasis on limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) had a
pernicious influence on Spanish society.
Suspicion of Moriscos increased after the Rebellion of the
Alpujarras in 1570, when Andalusian Moriscos had rebelled
against attempts to make them abandon the use of the Arabic language
and of Muslim customs. Spain was almost continuously at war with the
Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean at that time, and the Spanish
government saw the Moriscos as a seditious fifth column.|
"Fundamentally, the Morisco question was that of an
unassimilated - and possibly unassimilable - racial minority
which had given endless trouble ever since the conquest of
Granada." (J. H. Ellliott.)
In Valencia, where Moriscos made up about one third of the
population, and in Castile where many Moriscos displaced after
the Alpujarras rebellion had drifted into casual labor, there was
strong popular feeling against them.
On 9 April 1609, Philip III issued a decree of expulsion and over the
course of the next five years about 275,000 Moriscos were
forcibly deported (of a total Morisco population of 319,000.)|
The expulsion was as widely popular as it was economically disastrous.
The exactions of noble landlords and the high levels of taxation drove
the Spanish peasantry into poverty. The peasantry were typically
tenants on estates who had to give a large proportion of their output
to the landowners. This discouraged hard work and innovation in
agricultural methods, as the rewards went to the landlord not the
Rural poverty provoked migration to Spain's cities and to the New
Another group of migrants to the New World consisted of the younger
sons of noble families - primogeniture commonly gave all the real
estate to the eldest son.
Another reason for the decline of agriculture was the sheep. Spain's
merino sheep produced some of the highest quality wool in the
world, and from it was made expensive, luxury cloth. The grandees
dominated the Mesta - an organization representing
sheep-owners. They were able to obtain special privileges from the
crown: - sheep-farming was less labor intensive than arable
production, and this meant more men were available for the Spanish
army. Furthermore, the profits from wool and cloth production were
easily taxed by the government.
Unfortunately, during the seventeenth century these profits began to
fall. The English and Dutch began to sell the new draperies -
lighter cheaper textiles that soon cut into the demand for Spanish
600 textile looms were operating in Segovia in 1580 - only 159 in
The debasement of the coinage also contributed
to inflation and industrial decline.
A contrast to the general story of economic weakness was Catalonia,
where the peasants held secure tenure and property rights, and the
Cortes showed a real determination to protect farmers' rights.
Here agriculture prospered, until the Catalan revolt and the 1650-54
plague in Barcelona (killing 36,000 of its inhabitants) undermined the