Spain: The Golden Age and Decline

The Golden Age and Decline

When Charles I (elected Holy Roman emperor in 1519 as Charles V), first of the Hapsburg kings (who ruled Spain from 1516 to 1700), succeeded Ferdinand V, Spain was still divided into separate kingdoms and principalities, united chiefly in the person of a common ruler. Each kingdom had its separate Cortes and its own customary law. The cities, which had retained their individuality since Roman times, enjoyed great privileges and independence. Charles had to be acknowledged by each individual Cortes at his accession. Castile was nominally ruled jointly by Charles and his mother, Joanna, until Joanna's death. The centralizing policies of Charles's predecessors had curtailed some of the local powers, particularly in Castile, but Charles's efforts to continue the centralizing process and his fiscal policies resulted in an uprising of the cities—the war of the comunidades (see comuneros)—in 1520–21. The rising was suppressed, and its leader, Padilla, was executed.

By the time Charles abdicated (1556) in Spain in favor of his son Philip II, Spain was on its way to becoming a centralized and absolute monarchy. Under Philip II the process was continued, although Catalonia, Navarre, Aragón, Valencia, and the Basque Country still maintained a considerable degree of autonomy. During the 16th cent. the church enlarged its already dominant position in Spanish life. The Spanish Inquisition, organized by Tomás de Torquemada in the late 15th cent., reached its greatest power in the 16th cent. under Philip. At the same time the Counter Reformation was advanced in Spain by St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Theresa of Ávila, and St. John of the Cross.

With Spain, Philip had also inherited Sicily, Naples, Sardinia, Milan, Franche-Comté, the Netherlands, and all the Spanish colonies. His religious policies, fiscal demands, and high-handed rule precipitated the Dutch struggle for independence (see the Netherlands). The northern provinces of the Netherlands shook off the Spanish yoke, but the southern provinces (see Netherlands, Austrian and Spanish) were again subjugated. Spanish military power, which achieved its greatest successes against France, leading to the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), and in the naval victory at Lepanto over the Turks (1571), was on the decline. As the champion of Catholicism in Europe, Spain unsuccessfully intervened in the French Wars of Religion by sending an army to support the League against Henry IV. The rivalry on the seas between Spain and England culminated in the attempted conquest of England by the Spanish Armada (1588); its complete failure at immense cost weakened Spain for a decade.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Spanish and Portuguese Political Geography