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10.6: Spain

  • Page ID
    12501
  • Practically every other kingdom in Europe saw at least an attempt by a king or queen to reorganize the state along the absolutist lines followed by France. From Sweden, to England, to Spain, monarchs tried to consolidate royal power at the expense of their nobles and on the backs of their peasants. Those efforts were at least partly successful in places like Sweden and Denmark, but were disastrous failures in places like Spain and England.

    Spain had been the most powerful kingdom in Europe in the sixteenth century. Thanks to its takeover of Central and South America, it had enormous reserves of bullion in the sixteenth century, and thanks to shrewd marriages by the Habsburgs, Spain was part of the largest dynastic system in Europe. However, both the failed invasion of England in 1588 and the ongoing debacle of the Dutch Revolt resulted in enormous losses of both wealth and prestige by the Spanish. By the 1620s and against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War, the monarchy was bankrupt and Spain itself was divided between numerous small but mostly independent kingdoms and territories. Spain became almost like a smaller version of the Holy Roman Empire, with the Spanish king only directly ruling the central territory of Castile (it was the Castilian dialect, centered on Madrid, that became the official Spanish language).

    Spanish nobles came to hold their own kings in contempt and asserted their own sovereignty against the pretensions of the monarchy. Attempts by royal officials to enact reforms similar to those undertaken by Richelieu in France met with failure; even as Spain was losing the Dutch Revolt, it was trying to bankroll the Catholic forces of the Thirty Years’ War, thereby undermining its own financial reserves and stretching its military power to the breaking point. The regional parliaments of various Spanish territories revolted against the central monarchy in the mid-seventeenth century, with Portugal achieving complete independence in 1640.

    Simultaneously, there was little economic dynamism in Spain. There was a small middle class, and Spain’s conservative nobility succeeded in preventing non-nobles from achieving positions of authority within the Spanish royal bureaucracy. The earlier assaults on Jews and Muslims had already driven out the most dynamic economic elements from Spain, and the attack on the Moriscos and Conversos (descendants of the Muslims and Jews who had converted to Catholicism) drove many of them away as well. Spain’s vast empire continued to produce great wealth, but relatively little of that wealth ended up in the coffers of the monarchy, and the sheer scale of the slave-based extraction of precious metals from the New World ran up against simple economics laws: by the seventeenth century this bullion-based system was in dire straits thanks to the inflation silver imports introduced to the European economy.

    There was a strong mood of depression and nostalgia among elite Spaniards of the time, most memorably expressed in one of the great works of Spanish literature, Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote (published in two parts, 1605 and 1615), portraying a delusional minor nobleman trying to live out a glorious tale of fighting giants and dragons while actually attacking windmills. Especially as its royal line grew moribund in the second half of the seventeenth century, and following the inconclusive end of the Thirty Years’ War Spain had largely financed, the power of the Spanish state grew ever weaker.

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