The Reconquista is a period in the history of the Iberian Peninsula dominated by almost constant warfare between Muslims and Christians and followed by the Spanish Inquisition.
Explain how the Reconquista led to Spain’s increasing commitment to Catholicism
- The Reconquista is a period in the history of the Iberian Peninsula, spanning approximately 770 years, between the initial Umayyad conquest of Hispania in the 710s and the fall of the Emirate of Granada, the last Islamic state on the peninsula, to expanding Christian kingdoms in 1492.
- By 718 the Muslims were in control of nearly the whole Iberian Peninsula. The advance into Western Europe was only stopped in what is now north-central France by the West Germanic Franks at the Battle of Tours in 732.
- The Kingdom of Asturias became the main base for Christian resistance to Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries. Medieval Spain was the scene of almost constant warfare between Muslims and Christians.
- By 1250, nearly all of Iberia was back under Christian rule, with the exception of the Muslim kingdom of Granada—the only independent Muslim realm in Spain that would last until 1492.
- Around 1480, Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile (known as the Catholic Monarchs) established what would be known as the Spanish Inquisition. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms.
- In the aftermath of the Reconquista and the Inquisition, Catholicism dominated the politics, social relations, and culture of Spain, shaping Spain as a state and the Spanish as a nation.
- the Catholic Monarchs: The joint title used in history for Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. They were both from the House of Trastámara and were second cousins, both descended from John I of Castile; on marriage they were given a papal dispensation to deal with consanguinity by Sixtus IV. They established the Spanish Inquisition around 1480.
- Kingdom of Asturias: A kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula founded in 718 by the nobleman Pelagius of Asturias. In 718 or 722, Pelagius defeated an Umayyad patrol at the Battle of Covadonga, in what is usually regarded as the beginning of the Reconquista. It transitioned to the Kingdom of León in 924 and
became the main base for Christian resistance to Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries.
- Visigothic Kingdom: A kingdom that occupied what is now southwestern France and the Iberian Peninsula from the 5th century to the 8th century. One of the Germanic successor states to the Western Roman Empire, the kingdom maintained independence from the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. During its existence, Catholicism coalesced in Spain.
- Battle of Covadonga: The first victory by a Christian military force in Iberia following the Islamic conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711–718. It was fought most likely in 722. The battle was followed by the creation of an independent Christian principality in the mountains of Asturias that became a bastion of Christian resistance to the expansion of Muslim rule. It was from there that the return of Christian rule to the entire Iberian peninsula began.
- Alhambra Decree: An edict issued on March 31, 1492, by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and its territories and possessions by July 31 of that year.
- Arianism: A Christian belief that asserts that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was created by God the Father at a point in time, is distinct from the Father, and is therefore subordinate to the Father. Arian teachings were first attributed to Arius (c. 250–336 CE), a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. They gained popularity in the Iberian Peninsula before Catholicism became the predominant religion of the region.
The Reconquista (“reconquest”) is a period in the history of the Iberian Peninsula, spanning approximately 770 years, between the initial Umayyad conquest of Hispania in the 710s and the fall of the Emirate of Granada, the last Islamic state on the peninsula, to expanding Christian kingdoms in 1492. Historians traditionally mark the beginning of the Reconquista with the Battle of Covadonga (most likely in 722), and its end is associated with Portuguese and Spanish colonization of the Americas.
The Arab Islamic conquest had dominated most of North Africa by 710 CE. In 711 an Islamic Berber raiding party, led by Tariq ibn Ziyad, was sent to Iberia to intervene in a civil war in the Visigothic Kingdom. Tariq’s army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and won a decisive victory in the summer of 711 when the Visigothic King Roderic was defeated and killed at the Battle of Guadalete. Tariq’s commander, Musa, quickly crossed with Arab reinforcements, and by 718 the Muslims were in control of nearly the whole Iberian Peninsula. The advance into Western Europe was only stopped in what is now north-central France by the West Germanic Franks at the Battle of Tours in 732.
A decisive victory for the Christians took place at Covadonga, in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, in the summer of 722. In a minor battle known as the Battle of Covadonga, a Muslim force sent to put down the Christian rebels in the northern mountains was defeated by Pelagius of Asturias, who established the monarchy of the Christian Kingdom of Asturias. In 739, a rebellion in Galicia, assisted by the Asturians, drove out Muslim forces, and it joined the Asturian kingdom. The Kingdom of Asturias became the main base for Christian resistance to Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries.
Warfare between Muslims and Christians
Muslim interest in the peninsula returned in force around when Al-Mansur sacked Barcelona in 985. Under his son, other Christian cities were subjected to numerous raids. After his son’s death, the caliphate plunged into a civil war and splintered into the so-called “Taifa Kingdoms.” Medieval Spain was the scene of almost constant warfare between Muslims and Christians. The Almohads, who had taken control of the Almoravids’ Maghribi and al-Andalus territories by 1147, surpassed the Almoravides in fundamentalist Islamic outlook, and they treated the non-believer dhimmis harshly. Faced with the choice of death, conversion, or emigration, many Jews and Christians left.
The Taifa kingdoms lost ground to the Christian realms in the north. After the loss of Toledo in 1085, the Muslim rulers reluctantly invited the Almoravides, who invaded Al-Andalus from North Africa and established an empire. In the 12th century the Almoravid empire broke up again, only to be taken over by the invasion of the Almohads, who were defeated by an alliance of the Christian kingdoms in the decisive battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. By 1250, nearly all of Iberia was back under Christian rule, with the exception of the Muslim kingdom of Granada—the only independent Muslim realm in Spain that would last until 1492.
Francisco Pradilla Ortiz, The Capitulation of Granada (1882)
The Capitulation of Granada shows Muhammad XII confronting Ferdinand and Isabella.
Despite the decline in Muslim-controlled kingdoms, it is important to note the lasting effects exerted on the peninsula by Muslims in technology, culture, and society.
Around 1480, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, known as the Catholic Monarchs, established what would be known as the Spanish Inquisition. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and to replace the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control. It covered Spain and all the Spanish colonies and territories, which included the Canary Islands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and all Spanish possessions in North, Central, and South America.
People who converted to Catholicism were not subject to expulsion, but between 1480 and 1492 hundreds of those who had converted (conversos and moriscos) were accused of secretly practicing their original religion (crypto-Judaism or crypto-Islam) and arrested, imprisoned, interrogated under torture, and in some cases burned to death, in both Castile and Aragon. In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella ordered segregation of communities to create closed quarters that became what were later called “ghettos.” They also furthered economic pressures upon Jews and other non-Christians by increasing taxes and social restrictions. In 1492 the monarchs issued a decree of expulsion of Jews, known formally as the Alhambra Decree, which gave Jews in Spain four months to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. Tens of thousands of Jews emigrated to other lands such as Portugal, North Africa, the Low Countries, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire. Later in 1492, Ferdinand issued a letter addressed to the Jews who had left Castile and Aragon, inviting them back to Spain if they had become Christians. The Inquisition was not definitively abolished until 1834, during the reign of Isabella II, after a period of declining influence in the preceding century.
Most of the descendants of the Muslims who submitted to conversion to Christianity rather than exile during the early periods of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, the Moriscos, were later expelled from Spain after serious social upheaval, when the Inquisition was at its height. The expulsions were carried out more severely in eastern Spain (Valencia and Aragon) due to local animosity towards Muslims and Moriscos perceived as economic rivals; local workers saw them as cheap labor undermining their bargaining position with the landlords. Those that the Spanish Inquisition found to be secretly practicing Islam or Judaism were executed, imprisoned, or expelled. Nevertheless, all those deemed to be “New Christians” were perpetually suspected of various crimes against the Spanish state, including continued practice of Islam or Judaism.
The Inquisition Tribunal as illustrated by Francisco de Goya (1808/1812)
Although the period of rule by the Visigothic Kingdom (c. 5th–8th centuries) saw the brief spread of Arianism, Catholic religion coalesced in Spain at the time. The Councils of Toledo debated creed and liturgy in orthodox Catholicism, and the Council of Lerida in 546 constrained the clergy and extended the power of law over them under the blessings of Rome. In 587, the Visigothic king at Toledo, Reccared, converted to Catholicism and launched a movement in Spain to unify the various religious doctrines that existed in the land. This put an end to dissension on the question of Arianism. The period of Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition that followed turned Catholicism into the dominant religion of Spain, which has shaped the development of the Spanish state and national identity.
The Spanish Habsburgs
Under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty, Spain became the first modern global empire and the most influential state in Europe, only to be reduced to a second-rank power by the time the last Spanish Habsburg died in 1700.
Explain why the Spanish Habsburgs grew increasingly feeble as a family
- Spain was ruled by the major branch of the Habsburg dynasty over the 16th and 17th centuries. In this period, it dominated Europe politically and militarily, but experienced a gradual decline of influence in the second half of the 17th century under the later Habsburg kings.
- When Spain’s first Habsburg ruler, Charles I, became king of Spain in 1516, Spain became central to the dynastic struggles of Europe. Under Charles I, Spain colonized big parts of the Americas and established itself as the first modern global empire.
- Under Philip II, the Spanish empire included territories on every continent then known to Europeans. During his reign, Spain reached the height of its influence and power.
- Under Philip III, a ten-year truce with the Dutch was overshadowed in 1618 by Spain’s involvement in the European-wide Thirty Years’ War. Additionally, paying for the budget deficits by the mass minting of currency caused an enormous economic crisis.
- Under Philip IV, much of the policy was conducted by the minister Gaspar de Guzmán. Portugal was lost to the crown for good; in Italy and most of Catalonia, French forces were expelled and Catalonia’s independence was suppressed.
- Charles’ II
mental and physical disabilities, caused most likely by the generations of inbreeding among the Spanish Habsburgs, enabled power games on the court and meant that Spain was essentially left leaderless and gradually reduced to a second-rank power.
- consanguinity: The property of being from the same kinship as another person. In that aspect, consanguinity is the quality of being descended from the same ancestor as another person. The laws of many jurisdictions set out degrees of consanguinity in relation to prohibited sexual relations and marriage parties.
- Spanish Armada: A Spanish fleet of 130 ships that sailed from A Coruña in August 1588 with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. The strategic aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Tudor establishment of Protestantism in England.
- Spanish Golden Age: A period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain, coinciding with the political rise and decline of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. It does not imply precise dates and is usually considered to have lasted longer than an actual century.
Spain under the Habsburgs
Spain was ruled by the major branch of the Habsburg dynasty over the 16th and 17th centuries. In this period, “Spain” or “the Spains” covered the entire peninsula, politically a confederacy comprising several nominally independent kingdoms in personal union: Aragon, Castile, León, Navarre and, from 1580, Portugal. At the time, the term “Monarchia Catholica” (Catholic Monarchy) remained in use for the monarchy under the Spanish Habsburgs. However, Spain as a unified state came into being by right only after the death of Charles II in 1700, the last ruler of Spain of the Habsburg dynasty.
Under the Habsburgs, Spain dominated Europe politically and militarily, but experienced a gradual decline of influence in the second half of the 17th century under the later Habsburg kings. The Habsburg years were also a Spanish Golden Age of cultural efflorescence.
The Global Power
When Spain’s first Habsburg ruler, Charles I, became king of Spain in 1516, Spain became central to the dynastic struggles of Europe. After becoming king of Spain, Charles also became Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and because of his widely scattered domains was not often in Spain. As he approached the end of his life he made provision for the division of the Habsburg inheritance into two parts. On the one hand was Spain, its possessions in Europe, North Africa, the Americas, and the Netherlands. On the other hand there was the Holy Roman Empire. This was to create enormous difficulties for his son Philip II of Spain.
The Aztec and Inca Empires were conquered during Charles’s reign, from 1519 to 1521 and 1540 to 1558, respectively. Spanish settlements were established in the New World: Mexico City, the most important colonial city established in 1524 to be the primary center of administration in the New World; Florida, colonized in the 1560s; Buenos Aires, established in 1536; and New Granada (modern Colombia), colonized in the 1530s. The Spanish Empire abroad became the source of Spanish wealth and power in Europe. But as precious metal shipments rapidly expanded late in the century this contributed to the general inflation that was affecting the whole of Europe. Instead of fueling the Spanish economy, American silver made the country increasingly dependent on foreign sources of raw materials and manufactured goods.
Philip II became king on Charles I’s abdication in 1556. During his reign, there were several separate state bankruptcies, which were partly the cause for the declaration of independence that created the Dutch Republic in 1581. A devout Catholic, Philip organized a huge naval expedition against Protestant England in 1588, known usually as the Spanish Armada, which was unsuccessful, mostly due to storms and grave logistical problems. Despite these problems, the growing inflow of New World silver from the mid-16th century, the justified military reputation of the Spanish infantry, and even the quick recovery of the navy from its Armada disaster made Spain the leading European power, a novel situation of which its citizens were only just becoming aware. The Iberian Union with Portugal in 1580 not only unified the peninsula, but added that country’s worldwide resources to the Spanish crown.
Europa Regina, associated with a Habsburg-dominated Europe under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Habsburg (Charles I of Spain)
Map of Europe as a queen, printed by Sebastian Munster in Basel in 1570. Europe is shown standing upright with the Iberian Peninsula forming her crowned head.
The Gradual Decline
However, economic and administrative problems multiplied in Castile, and the weakness of the native economy became evident in the following century. Rising inflation, financially draining wars in Europe, the ongoing aftermath of the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain, and Spain’s growing dependency on the gold and silver imports combined to cause several bankruptcies that caused an economic crisis in the country, especially in heavily burdened Castile.
Faced with wars against England, France, and the Netherlands, the Spanish government found that neither the New World silver nor steadily increasing taxes were enough to cover their expenses, and went bankrupt again in 1596. Furthermore, the great plague of 1596–1602 killed 600,000 to 700,000 people, or about 10% of the population. Altogether more than 1,250,000 deaths resulted from the extreme incidence of plague in 17th century Spain. Economically, the plague destroyed the labor force, and created a psychological blow to an already problematic Spain.
Philip II died in 1598, and was succeeded by his son Philip III. In his reign (1598–1621) a ten-year truce with the Dutch was overshadowed in 1618 by Spain’s involvement in the European-wide Thirty Years’ War. Philip III had no interest in politics or government, preferring to engage in lavish court festivities, religious indulgences, and the theater. His government resorted to a tactic that had been resolutely resisted by Philip II, paying for the budget deficits by the mass minting of increasingly worthless vellones (the currency), causing inflation. In 1607, the government faced another bankruptcy.
Philip III was succeeded in 1621 by his son Philip IV of Spain (reigned 1621–1665). Much of the policy was conducted by the minister Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares. In 1640, with the war in Central Europe having no clear winner except the French, both Portugal and Catalonia rebelled. Portugal was lost to the crown for good; in Italy and most of Catalonia, French forces were expelled and Catalonia’s independence was suppressed.
Charles II (1665–1700), the last of the Habsburgs in Spain, was three years old when his father, Philip IV, died in 1665. The Council of Castile appointed Philip’s second wife and Charles’s mother, Mariana of Austria, regent for the minor king. As regent, Mariana managed the country’s affairs through a series of favorites (“validos”), whose merits usually amounted to no more than meeting her fancy. Spain was essentially left leaderless and was gradually being reduced to a second-rank power.
The Spanish branch of the Habsburg royal family was noted for extreme consanguinity. Well aware that they owed their power to fortunate marriages, they married between themselves to protect their gains. Charles’s father and his mother, Mariana, were actually uncle and niece. Charles was physically and mentally disabled and infertile, possibly in consequence of this massive inbreeding. Due to the deaths of his half brothers, he was the last member of the male Spanish Habsburg line. He did not learn to speak until the age of four nor to walk until the age of eight, and was treated as virtually an infant until he was ten years old. His jaw was so badly deformed (an extreme example of the so-called Habsburg jaw) that he could barely speak or chew. Fearing the frail child would be overtaxed, his caretakers did not force Charles to attend school.
The Habsburg dynasty became extinct in Spain with Charles II’s death in 1700, and the War of the Spanish Succession ensued, in which the other European powers tried to assume power over the Spanish monarchy. The control of Spain was allowed to pass to the Bourbon dynasty.
Philip II and the Spanish Armada
Extreme commitment to championing Catholicism against both Protestantism and Islam shaped both the domestic and foreign policies of Philip II,
who was the most powerful European monarch in an era of religious conflict.
Describe Philip II’s convictions and how he attempted to carry them out
- During the reign of Philip II, Spain reached the height of its influence and power, and remained firmly Roman Catholic. Philip saw himself as a champion of Catholicism, both against the Muslim Ottoman Empire and the Protestants.
- As the Spanish Empire was not a single monarchy with one legal system but a federation of separate realms, Philip often found his authority overruled by local assemblies, and his word less effective than that of local lords.
- When Philip’s health began failing, he worked from his quarters in the Palace-Monastery-Pantheon of El Escorial, which he built with Juan Batista de Toledo and which was another expression of Philip’s commitments to protect Catholics against the raising influence of Protestantism across Europe.
- Philip’s foreign policies were determined by a combination of Catholic fervor and dynastic objectives. He considered himself the chief defender of Catholic Europe, both against the Ottoman Turks and against the forces of the Protestant Reformation.
- Wars with Dutch Provinces, England, France, and the Ottoman Empire all had the undermining religious aspects of protecting Catholicism in increasingly Protestant Europe or protecting Christianity against Islam.
- Because Philip II was the most powerful European monarch in an era of war and religious conflict, evaluating both his reign and the man himself has become a controversial historical subject.
- Catholic League: A major participant in the French Wars of Religion, formed by Henry I, Duke of Guise, in 1576. It intended the eradication of Protestants—also known as Calvinists or Huguenots—out of Catholic France during the Protestant Reformation, as well as the replacement of King Henry III. Pope Sixtus V, Philip II of Spain, and the Jesuits were all supporters of this Catholic party.
- Spanish Armada: A Spanish fleet of 130 ships that sailed from A Coruña in August 1588 with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. The strategic aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Tudor establishment of Protestantism in England.
- Eighty Years’ War: A revolt, known also as the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), of the Seventeen Provinces against the political and religious hegemony of Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands.
- Morisco: A term used to refer to former Muslims who converted, or were coerced into converting, to Christianity after Spain outlawed the open practice of Islam by its Mudejar population in the early 16th century. The group was subject to systematic expulsions from Spain’s various kingdoms between 1609 and 1614, the most severe of which occurred in the eastern Kingdom of Valencia.
- jure uxoris: A Latin term that means “by right of (his) wife.” It is most commonly used to refer to a title of nobility held by a man because his wife holds it suo jure (“in her own right”). Similarly, the husband of an heiress could become the legal possessor of her lands jure uxoris, “by right of [his] wife.” Jure uxoris monarchs are not to be confused with kings consort, who were merely consorts of their wives, not co-rulers.
Philip II of Spain
The son of Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and his wife, Infanta Isabella of Portugal, Philip II of Spain was born in 1527. Known in Spain as “Philip the Prudent,” his empire included territories on every continent then known to Europeans, including his namesake the Philippine Islands. During his reign, Spain reached the height of its influence and power, and remained firmly Roman Catholic. Philip saw himself as a champion of Catholicism, both against the Muslim Ottoman Empire and the Protestants. He was the king of Spain from
1556 to 1598.
Philip was married four times and had children with three of his wives. All the marriages had important political implications, as they connected Philip, and thus Spain, with powerful European courts. Philip’s first wife was his first cousin Maria Manuela, Princess of Portugal. She was a daughter of Philip’s maternal uncle, John III of Portugal, and paternal aunt, Catherine of Austria. Philip’s second wife was his first cousin once removed Queen Mary I of England. By this marriage, Philip became jure uxoris king of England and Ireland, although the couple was apart more than together as they ruled their respective countries. The marriage produced no children and Mary died in 1558, ending Philip’s reign in England and Ireland. Philip’s third wife was Elisabeth of Valois, the eldest daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. Philip’s fourth and final wife was his niece Anna of Austria.
The Spanish Empire was not a single monarchy with one legal system but a federation of separate realms, each jealously guarding its own rights against those of the House of Habsburg. In practice, Philip often found his authority overruled by local assemblies and his word less effective than that of local lords. He also grappled with the problem of the large Morisco population in Spain, who were forcibly converted to Christianity by his predecessors. In 1569, the Morisco Revolt broke out in the southern province of Granada in defiance of attempts to suppress Moorish customs, and Philip ordered the expulsion of the Moriscos from Granada and their dispersal to other provinces.
Despite its immense dominions, Spain was a country with a sparse population that yielded a limited income to the crown (in contrast to France, for example, which was much more heavily populated). Philip faced major difficulties in raising taxes, the collection of which was largely farmed out to local lords. He was able to finance his military campaigns only by taxing and exploiting the local resources of his empire. The flow of income from the New World proved vital to his militant foreign policy, but nonetheless his exchequer faced bankruptcy several times.
During Philip’s reign there were five separate state bankruptcies.
Whereas his father had been forced to an itinerant rule as a medieval king, Philip ruled at a critical turning point toward modernity in European history. He mainly directed state affairs, even when not at court. Indeed, when his health began failing he worked from his quarters in the Palace-Monastery-Pantheon of El Escorial he had built. El Escariol was another expression of Philip’s commitment to protect Catholics against the raising influence of Protestantism across Europe. He engaged the Spanish architect Juan Bautista de Toledo to be his collaborator. Together they designed El Escorial as a monument to Spain’s role as a center of the Christian world.
Turismo Madrid Consorcio Turístico, Madrid, Spain
A distant view of the Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. In 1984, UNESCO declared The Royal Seat of San Lorenzo of El Escorial a World Heritage Site. It is a popular tourist attraction—more than 500,000 visitors come to El Escorial every year.
Philip’s foreign policies were determined by a combination of Catholic fervor and dynastic objectives. He considered himself the chief defender of Catholic Europe, both against the Ottoman Turks and against the forces of the Protestant Reformation. He never relented from his fight against what he saw as heresy, defending the Catholic faith and limiting freedom of worship within his territories. These territories included his patrimony in the Netherlands, where Protestantism had taken deep root. Following the Revolt of the Netherlands in 1568, Philip waged a campaign against Dutch secession. The plans to consolidate control of the Netherlands led to unrest, which gradually led to the Calvinist leadership of the revolt and the Eighty Years’ War. This conflict consumed much Spanish expenditure during the later 16th century.
Philip’s commitment to restoring Catholicism in the Protestant regions of Europe resulted also in the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604). This was an intermittent conflict between the kingdoms of Spain and England that was never formally declared. The war was punctuated by widely separated battles. In 1588, the English defeated Philip’s Spanish Armada, thwarting his planned invasion of the country to reinstate Catholicism. But the war continued for the next sixteen years, in a complex series of struggles that included France, Ireland, and the main battle zone, the Low Countries.
Two further Spanish armadas were sent in 1596 and 1597, but were frustrated in their objectives mainly because of adverse weather and poor planning. The war would not end until all the leading protagonists, including Philip, had died.
Philip financed the Catholic League during the French Wars of Religion (primarily fought between French Catholics and French Protestants, known as Huguenots). He directly intervened in the final phases of the wars (1589–1598). His interventions in the fighting—sending the Duke of Parma to end Henry IV’s siege of Paris in 1590—and the siege of Rouen in 1592 contributed to saving the French Catholic Leagues’s cause against a Protestant monarchy. In 1593, Henry agreed to convert to Catholicism. Weary of war, most French Catholics switched to his side against the hardline core of the Catholic League, who were portrayed by Henry’s propagandists as puppets of a foreign monarch, Philip. By the end of 1594 certain league members were still working against Henry across the country, but all relied on the support of Spain. In 1595, therefore, Henry officially declared war on Spain, to show Catholics that Philip was using religion as a cover for an attack on the French state and Protestants that he had not become a puppet of Spain through his conversion, while hoping to take the war to Spain and make territorial gain.
The war was only drawn to an official close with the Peace of Vervins in May 1598; Spanish forces and subsidies were withdrawn. Meanwhile, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes, which offered a high degree of religious toleration for French Protestants. The military interventions in France thus ended in an ironic fashion for Philip: they had failed to oust Henry from the throne or suppress Protestantism in France and yet they had played a decisive part in helping the French Catholic cause gain the conversion of Henry, ensuring that Catholicism would remain France’s official and majority faith—matters of paramount importance for the devoutly Catholic Spanish king.
Earlier, after several setbacks in his reign and especially that of his father, Philip had achieved a decisive victory against the Turks at the Lepanto in 1571, with the allied fleet of the Holy League, which he had put under the command of his illegitimate brother, John of Austria. He also successfully secured his succession to the throne of Portugal.
Portrait of King Philip II of Spain, in Gold-Embroidered Costume with Order of the Golden Fleece, by Titian (around 1554)
Philip was described by the Venetian ambassador Paolo Fagolo in 1563 as “slight of stature and round-faced, with pale blue eyes, somewhat prominent lip, and pink skin, but his overall appearance is very attractive.”
Because Philip II was the most powerful European monarch in an era of war and religious conflict, evaluating both his reign and the man himself has become a controversial historical subject. Even in countries that remained Catholic, primarily France and the Italian states, fear and envy of Spanish success and domination created a wide receptiveness for the worst possible descriptions of Philip II. Although some efforts have been made to separate legend from reality, that task has been proven extremely difficult, since many prejudices are rooted in the cultural heritage of European countries. Spanish-speaking historians tend to assess his political and military achievements, sometimes deliberately avoiding issues such as the king’s lukewarm attitude (or even support) toward Catholic fanaticism. English-speaking historians tend to show Philip II as a fanatical, despotic, criminal, imperialist monster, minimizing his military victories.
The Siglo de Oro
The Spanish Golden Age (Spanish: Siglo de Oro) was a period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain, coinciding with the political rise and decline of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty.
Identify some works of art from the Spanish Siglo de Oro
- The Spanish Golden Age (Spanish: Siglo de Oro, “Golden Century”) was a period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain, coinciding with the political rise and decline of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. El Siglo de Oro does not imply precise dates and is usually considered to have lasted longer than an actual century.
- Spanish art of the era contained a strong mark of mysticism and religion that was encouraged by the counter-reformation and the patronage of Spain’s strongly Catholic monarchs and aristocracy. Spanish rule of Naples was important for making connections between Italian and Spanish art.
- The most influential Spanish painters of the era include
El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
- The same period produced some of the most important works of Spanish architecture. These include the Palace of Charles V, El Escorial, the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Granada Cathedral, and the Cathedral of Valladolid.
- Spanish literature of the period flourished, producing the first European novel, Don Quixote, and revolutionizing Spanish drama and thus theater.
- Music of the era revolved largely around religious forms and themes.
- Mannerism: A style in European art that emerged in the later years of the Italian High Renaissance, around 1520, lasting until about 1580 in Italy, when the Baroque style began to replace it. Northern Mannerism continued into the early 17th century. Where High Renaissance art emphasized proportion, balance, and ideal beauty, it exaggerated such qualities, often resulting in compositions that are asymmetrical or unnaturally elegant.
- Herrerian: An architectural style developed in Spain during the last third of the 16th century, under the reign of Philip II (1556–1598), and continued in force in the 17th century, but transformed by the Baroque current of the time. It corresponds to the third and final stage of Spanish Renaissance architecture.
- The Spanish Golden Age: (Spanish: Siglo de Oro, “Golden Century”) A period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain, coinciding with the political rise and decline of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. It does not imply precise dates and is usually considered to have lasted longer than an actual century.
Siglo de Oro
The Spanish Golden Age (Spanish: Siglo de Oro, “Golden Century”) was a period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain, coinciding with the political rise and decline of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. El Siglo de Oro does not imply precise dates and is usually considered to have lasted longer than an actual century. It began no earlier than 1492, with the end of the Reconquista, the sea voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New World, and the publication of Antonio de Nebrija’s Grammar of the Castilian Language. Politically, it ended no later than 1659, with the Treaty of the Pyrenees, ratified between France and Habsburg Spain. The last great writer of the period, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, died in 1681, and his death is usually considered the end of El Siglo de Oro in the arts and literature.
The Italian holdings and relationships made by Queen Isabella’s husband, and later Spain’s sole monarch, Ferdinand of Aragon, launched a steady traffic of intellectuals across the Mediterranean between Valencia, Seville, and Florence. Luis de Morales, one of the leading exponents of Spanish mannerist painting, retained a distinctly Spanish style in his work, reminiscent of medieval art. Spanish art, particularly that of Morales, contained a strong mark of mysticism and religion that was encouraged by the counter-reformation and the patronage of Spain’s strongly Catholic monarchs and aristocracy. Spanish rule of Naples was important for making connections between Italian and Spanish art, with many Spanish administrators bringing Italian works back to Spain.
Some of the greatest artists of the era:
- Known for his great impact in bringing the Italian Renaissance to Spain, El Greco (“The Greek”) was influential in creating a style based on impressions and emotion, featuring elongated fingers and vibrant color and brushwork. His paintings of the city of Toledo became models for a new European tradition in landscapes, and influenced the work of later Dutch masters.
- Diego Velázquez is widely regarded as one of Spain’s most important and influential artists. His portraits of the king and other prominent figures demonstrated a belief in artistic realism and a style comparable to many of the Dutch masters. Velázquez’s most famous painting is the celebrated Las Meninas, in which the artist included himself as one of the subjects.
- The religious element in Spanish art grew in importance with the counter-reformation. The austere, ascetic, and severe work of Francisco de Zurbarán exemplified this thread. The mysticism of Zurbarán’s work—influenced by Saint Theresa of Avila—became a hallmark of Spanish art in later generations.
- Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s works were influenced by realism. His more important works evolved towards the polished style that suited the bourgeois and aristocratic tastes of the time, demonstrated especially in his Roman Catholic religious works.
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1656), Galería online, Museo del Prado.
The painting’s complex and enigmatic composition raises questions about reality and illusion and creates an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted. Because of these complexities, Las Meninas has been one of the most widely analyzed works in Western painting.
The same period produced some of the most important works of Spanish architecture. These include:
- The Palace of Charles V located on the top of the hill of the Assabica, inside the Nasrid fortification of the Alhambra. The project was given to Pedro Machuca, who built a palace corresponding stylistically to Mannerism, a mode still in its infancy in Italy.
- El Escorial: a historical residence of the king of Spain. It is one of the Spanish royal sites and functions as a monastery, royal palace, museum, and school. Located in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, it comprises two architectural complexes of great historical and cultural significance: El Real Monasterio de El Escorial itself and La Granjilla de La Fresneda, a royal hunting lodge and monastic retreat. During the 16th and 17th centuries, they were places in which the temporal power of the Spanish monarchy and the ecclesiastical predominance of the Roman Catholic religion in Spain found a common architectural manifestation. Philip II engaged the Spanish architect Juan Bautista de Toledo to be his collaborator in the design of El Escorial.
- The Plaza Mayor in Madrid: A central plaza in Madrid, Spain. Juan de Herrera was the architect who designed the first project in 1581 to remodel the old Plaza del Arrabal, but construction didn’t start until 1617, during Philip III ‘s reign. Nevertheless, the Plaza Mayor as we know it today is the work of the architect Juan de Villanueva, who was entrusted with its reconstruction in 1790 after a spate of big fires.
- Granada Cathedral: Foundations for the church were laid by the architect Egas starting from 1518 to 1523 atop the site of the city’s main mosque. By 1529, Egas was replaced by Diego de Siloé, who labored for nearly four decades on the structure.
- The Cathedral of Valladolid: Like all the buildings of the late Spanish Renaissance built by Herrera and his followers, it is known for its purist and sober decoration, its style being the typical Spanish clasicismo, also called “Herrerian.”
The Spanish Golden Age was also a time of great flourishing in poetry, prose, and drama. Regarded by many as one of the finest literary works in any language, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was the first novel published in Europe. It gave Cervantes a stature in the Spanish-speaking world comparable to his contemporary William Shakespeare in English. Don Quixote resembled both the medieval, chivalric romances of an earlier time and the novels of the early modern world. It has endured to the present day as a landmark in world literary history, and it was an immediate international hit in its own time.
Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605), original title page
Don Quixote, the first European novel, has endured to the present day as a landmark in world literary history, and it was an immediate international hit in its own time.
A contemporary of Cervantes, Lope de Vega consolidated the essential genres and structures that would characterize the Spanish commercial drama, also known as the “Comedia,” throughout the 17th century. While Lope de Vega wrote prose and poetry as well, he is best remembered for his plays, particularly those grounded in Spanish history. In bringing morality, comedy, drama, and popular wit together, Lope de Vega is also often compared to his English contemporary Shakespeare. Some have argued that as a social critic, Lope de Vega, like Cervantes, attacked many of the ancient institutions of his country—aristocracy, chivalry, and rigid morality, among others. The other great dramatist of the 17th century was Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681). His most famous work is Life Is a Dream (1635). Born when the Spanish Golden Age theater was being defined by Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca developed it further, and his work is regarded as the culmination of the Spanish Baroque theater. As such, he remains one of Spain’s foremost dramatists and one of the finest playwrights of world literature. Other well-known playwrights of the period include Tirso de Molina, Agustín Moreto, Juan Pérez de Montalbán, Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, Guillén de Castro, and Antonio Mira de Amescua.
This period also produced some of the most important Spanish works of poetry. The introduction and influence of Italian Renaissance verse is apparent perhaps most vividly in the works of Garcilaso de la Vega, and illustrate a profound influence on later poets. Mystical literature in Spanish reached its summit with the works of San Juan de la Cruz and Teresa of Ávila. Baroque poetry was dominated by the contrasting styles of Francisco de Quevedo and Luis de Góngora; both had a lasting influence on subsequent writers, and even on the Spanish language itself.
Tomás Luis de Victoria, a Spanish composer of the 16th century, mainly of choral music, is widely regarded as one of the greatest Spanish classical composers. Like Zurbarán, Victoria mixed the technical qualities of Italian art with the religion and culture of his native Spain. Francisco Guerrero’s music was both sacred and secular, unlike that of de Victoria and Morales, the two other Spanish 16th-century composers of the first rank. He wrote numerous secular songs and instrumental pieces, in addition to masses, motets, and Passions. De Victoria’s work was also complemented by Alonso Lobo, whose work stressed the austere, minimalist nature of religious music.