Spain: The Decline of Spain

The Decline of Spain

Under Philip II's successors, Philip III and Philip IV, Spain was drawn into the Thirty Years War (1618–48), prolonged by war with France until 1659. The peace treaties (see Westphalia, Peace of; Pyrenees, Peace of the) made France the leading power of continental Europe. The wars of Louis XIV of France (see Dutch Wars (3;) Devolution, War of; Grand Alliance, War of the) cost Spain further territories and military prestige. Portugal, united with Spain by Philip II in 1580, rebelled and regained its independence in 1640. In the same year a serious revolt began in Catalonia over the province's autonomous rights. In the end (1659) the Catalans retained most of their privileges.

The political weakness of Spain was complicated by the absence of a direct heir to Charles II, who succeeded Philip IV in 1665. The chief claimants to the succession were Louis XIV of France and Archduke Charles of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI). The pro-French party at the Spanish court ultimately won out when Charles II designated Louis XIV's grandson, Philip (later Philip V of Spain), as successor. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) broke out upon Charles's death. The Peace of Utrecht (see Utrecht, Peace of) confirmed Philip V on the Spanish throne, but it transferred the Spanish Netherlands, Milan, Naples, and Sardinia to Austria and Sicily to Savoy. Another result of the war was that Catalonia, Valencia, and Aragón, which had opposed Philip, lost their political autonomy.

Attempts to recover the lost possessions and to revive Spanish prestige were fostered by Philip's ambitious queen, Elizabeth Farnese, and his chief minister, Alberoni. These attempts merely led (1718) to the formation of the Quadruple Alliance, which in 1720 imposed upon Spain a but slightly more favorable settlement in Italy. Spain under its Bourbon kings came increasingly under French influence after the Family Compact of 1733 and its successors.

With the support of France, Spain regained (1735) Naples and Sicily in the War of the Polish Succession. These two kingdoms, however, were no longer administered by Spanish viceroys but were ruled independently by a cadet branch of the Spanish Bourbons. In the Treaty of Paris of 1763 (see under Paris, Treaty of), Spain lost Florida to Britain but was compensated with Louisiana by France. In the American Revolution, Spain sided with the United States and France and recovered Florida in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. These, however, were short-lived successes.

The economy of Spain had steadily deteriorated since the reign of Philip II. The influx of precious metal had long ceased, and little of it remained in Spain. The colonization of the vast Spanish Empire and the many costly wars had impoverished the country. Inflation led landowners to increase their holdings. The population had greatly increased and the peasants lived in misery, some of them on the inefficiently run estates of the grandees. The court and government had decayed in an atmosphere of bigotry, incompetence, and corruption. The church, exhausted by the struggle between the popes and the kings, had largely ceased its political role as a constructive force and was using its influence for the perpetuation of the existing order. The towering artistic and intellectual achievements of the 16th cent. had given way, by the mid-18th cent., to meaningless convention.

Under Philip V's successors, Ferdinand VI and Charles III, the ministers Ensenada and Floridablanca made basic reforms. Internal transportation was improved. Agricultural colonies were formed for better utilization of the land. The colonial trade was freed of centuries-old regulations and restrictions. Trade and commerce, especially in Cádiz and Barcelona, were stimulated. The Jesuits were expelled from Spain in 1767 as part of an effort to subordinate church to state. Charles IV, who succeeded Charles III, was an incompetent monarch, dominated by his wife, María Luisa, and their favorite, the able but unscrupulous Godoy.

Drawn into the French Revolutionary Wars and the Wars of Napoleon I, Spain suffered its greatest humiliation in 1808 with the successive abdications of Charles and his son, Ferdinand VII, the installation of Joseph Bonaparte (see under Bonaparte, family) on the Spanish throne, and the occupation of the country by French troops. However, the rigor and heroism displayed by the common people of Spain in their struggle against the conqueror (see Peninsular War) was an important factor in the eventual downfall of Napoleon. By 1814 the Spanish resistance forces and the British under Wellington had expelled the French, and Ferdinand VII was restored under a constitution drawn up in 1812 at Cádiz by the first national Cortes of Spain. The constitution restricted the power of the Spanish monarch and did away with the special representation of the nobility and the church in parliament. It also formally ended the Inquisition.

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