Imperial Spain I

An elderly Karl V (also known as Don Carlos I of Spain), ruler of the Holy Roman Empire

Carlos I of Spain is better known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Of the Habsburg dynasty, he was born in 1500 in Ghent, Flanders, of today’s Belgium. His advent to the Spanish throne was the unforeseen result of Ferdinand’s foreign policy. Ferdinand had disputes with France over Catalonia’s borderlands and Navarre and conflicting claims in Italy. He sought allies among France’s foes, and in the diplomacy of the times, he arranged for the marriages of their children to his. He and Isabella had five, a son and four daughters. Isabel, the eldest, married King Emmanuel the Fortunate of Portugal. In 1497, Prince Juan and the second daughter, Juana, married the daughter, Margaret, and son, Philip, of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. An Austrian Habsburg, Maximilian had differences with France over the Low Countries, which Philip had inherited from his mother, Mary of Burgundy. Maximilian also differed with France over interests in Italy. Yet another ally of Ferdinand was Henry VII Tudor of England, whose son Henry VIII married the youngest of Ferdinand’s daughters, Catherine of Aragon, in 1509. The next youngest, Maria, married Emmanuel of Portugal after her sister Isabel died.

Prince Juan died in 1498, only eighteen. His lovely tomb at Avila evokes thoughts of what might have been, had he lived. When his sister Isabel died in 1500, followed by her infant son, Juana became the heiress of her parents. A high-strung princess, she desperately loved Philip, known as “the Handsome.” He philandered, and she came mentally unraveled. Dutifully she bore him six children. After Queen Isabella died, Juana and Philip claimed Castile and embarked from Flanders for Spain. They left their heir Charles in Brussels with his widowed aunt Margaret. Ferdinand reluctantly vacated Castile to Juana and Philip and withdrew to Aragon. All admitted that Queen Juana seemed too unstable to rule, but the Castilian Cortes hesitated to grant regency power and the title of king to Philip, a foreigner surrounded by foreign cronies. Philip suddenly took sick and died, shattering his pregnant wife’s feeble composure. She had his coffin opened as the body was transported across Castile to be placed near Isabella’s coffin in Granada. Ferdinand hurried back to Castile, where the Cortes granted him regency power to act for his distraught daughter. He confined her to a rundown palace at Tordesillas, where she gradually lost touch with the world round her. History knows her as Juana la loco (Joan the Mad). Ferdinand, occupied by the affairs of Aragon and Italy, left Cardinal Cisneros to serve as lieutenant general of Castile.

Ferdinand did not fancy the idea that Charles, growing up in Brussels, would succeed to Aragon, Sicily, and Naples, as well as to Castile, and so he married Germaine de Foix. Despite the use of love potions, she did not produce an heir. When Ferdinand died in 1516, Queen Juana and her son Charles were accepted as heirs to Aragon.

From the Low Countries, Charles, aged sixteen, set sail for Spain with a tribe of greedy Flemish nobles, headed by the Sieur de Chievres. Cardinal Cisneros awaited Charles to give him good advice but died before they met. The Castilian Cortes acknowledged Charles as king alongside his mother but insisted that both sign all decrees and laws to make them valid. When Charles rewarded his Flemish followers with choice Spanish plums, consternation ensued. Chievres played chief minister and nominated his teenaged nephew to be archbishop of Toledo. Charles’s Dutch tutor, Adrian of Utrecht, became bishop of Tortosa, while Charles’s popular brother Ferdinand was dispatched to Austria.

After receiving a grant of money from Castile, Charles traveled to Aragon and was acclaimed king in Zaragoza. Some confusion exists about the legendary coronation oath. It was claimed that Aragonese nobles accepted their king by swearing “We, who are as good as you are, accept you, who are no better than we are, as our lawful sovereign so long as you uphold our laws, rights and privileges; and if not, not.” It took eight months’ haggling to get money. Charles headed for Barcelona to meet the Cortes (Corts) of Catalonia. Early in 1519, he learned that his grandfather Emperor Maximilian had died. Charles inherited the Habsburg Austrian lands, while Maximilian’s bribes to the seven German electors won him the imperial title. Now Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he postponed visiting Valencia and at the beginning of 1520 hurried back to Castile to get more money. The Castilian Cortes proved reluctant so he dragged them with him to Santiago, near La Coruna, where his fleet waited. A sermon by Bishop de la Mota of Badajoz about the benefit of Charles’s imperial destiny to Castile did not impress them. By a scant majority of eight to seven, with one abstention and neither Toledo nor Salamanca represented, they voted Charles the subsidy he requested. Despite news that Toledo had revolted, Charles sailed and left Adrian of Utrecht as his regent to keep order.

Charles was acknowledged emperor at Aachen, and in April 1521, at the Diet of Worms, he held his fateful confrontation with Martin Luther. Luther stood his ground, and Charles responded that he would support the Church of Rome, even if it cost him his life’s blood. At that moment blood was spilling in Spain. The delegates to the Cortes of Santiago had returned to angry constituencies. Several were mobbed; one was lynched. Throughout Castile rebellion erupted. Instigated by urban communal governments, it is known as the Revolt of the Comuneros. The rebels formed a national junta, headed by Juan de Padilla of Toledo and Juan Bravo of Segovia. They denounced government by foreigners and a king who abandoned Spain for Germany. They urged Queen Juana to resume her throne. They only confused Juana and they alienated the nobility when their revolt spread to villages under noble jurisdiction. When Charles brought the constable and the admiral of Castile into the regency government, and decreed the twenty-five most powerful to be grandees of Spain, the nobles rallied to him. In April 1521, royalist cavalry routed the Comunero host at Villalar and had Bravo and Padilla executed. Inspired by Padilla’s widow, Maria Pacheco, Toledo held out until early 1522. Another revolt had erupted in Valencia and was put down by nobles. Soon afterward Charles returned to Spain, mastered the Spanish language, and pardoned most of the rebels. He met with the Cortes, improved the administration of government which he staffed with Spaniards, and in 1526 married a redheaded Portuguese princess, Isabel. When she gave birth in 1527 to their son, Philip, in Valladolid, Spaniards believed they again had one of their own to inherit the throne. The couple had two other children who survived, Maria and Juana.

Charles matured through the decade of the 1520s, guided by the suave Italian hand of his chancellor, Mercurino Gattinara, and came to be admired in Spain in his own right. Queen Juana was almost forgotten in her rooms at Tordesillas. The years 1522 to 1529 were the most he spent in Spain, where his ministers refined its system of government by councils. To advise him on grand policy, he had his Council of State. For administration there were the councils of Castile, the Indies, and Aragon. A Council of War managed his armed forces, and a Council of the Hacienda (Treasury) oversaw his finances. Each council had its secretaries, who formed a budding bureaucracy.

Charles had a war with France, which his generals waged in the Low Countries and Italy, where they captured King Francis I at Pavia in 1525. Shipped to Madrid to make peace, Francis went back on the terms when he reached home. The pope joined him when he renewed the war, and in 1527, Charles’s soldiers got out of hand and sacked Rome. Francis disputed Charles’s inheritance at every turn, including Castile’s claim to monopoly in the New World. “The sun shines on me as it does on your master,” he told Charles’s ambassador, “and I should like to see the clause in Adam’s will that allots him ownership of the world.” Two sensible women prevailed, Charles’s aunt Margaret, and Francis’s mother, Louise of Savoy. They hammered out “the Ladies’ Peace” of 1529. By its terms Francis married Charles’s sister Eleanor, widow of Emmanuel the Fortunate.

More ominous to Charles than war with France was the threat posed by the expansion of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1520 Suleiman captured Belgrade and, in 1522, drove the Knights of St. John from the Island of Rhodes. In 1530 Charles gave the Knights the island of Malta as a new base. The great disaster came in 1526, when Charles, on his honeymoon at Granada, learned that his brother-in-law, King Louis of Hungary and Bohemia, had been killed and his army annihilated by the Turks on the distant Danube. The Holy Roman Empire lay open to attack, and in 1529, the Turks besieged Vienna. Vienna held out, but in 1530 Charles embarked for Austria, accompanied by many Spaniards. At Bologna in Italy the pope crowned him emperor. He would be the last Holy Roman Emperor to receive the crown from a pope’s hands. In Germany he temporized with the Protestants so he could assemble an army in which Spaniards marched beside Germans. In 1532 he and his brother Ferdinand paraded along the Hungarian border. Charles had conceded Austria to Ferdinand, who also became king of Bohemia and unoccupied Hungary. When Charles returned to Spain, he organized a Spanish-Italian expedition against Tunis, in order to isolate Algiers, where Suleiman’s admiral Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa had driven the Spaniards from its waterfront citadel. In 1535 Charles’s vast armada, commanded by Genoa’s Andrea Doria, landed an army that conquered Tunis. To govern Tunis, Charles selected a Muslim prince hostile to the Turks. To intimidate its Muslim population, he had his engineers build the fortress of La Goleta, which he garrisoned with Christian soldiers.

In triumph Charles returned via his kingdoms of Sicily and Naples, then proceeded to Rome. He lectured the pope and cardinals in Spanish about his services, the need for an ecumenical council to deal with Lutheranism, and the perfidy of Francis I, who allied with the Turks. A brief war erupted between Charles and Francis before Pope Paul III arranged a shaky truce and brought the two together for personal meetings.

In 1539, Charles lost his wife, Empress Isabel, but found little time for grief. In 1540 he traveled to the Low Countries to deal with troubles there. The next year he proceeded first to Germany, where again he failed to settle the Lutheran issue, then on to Genoa, to coordinate an expedition against Algiers. The army had scarcely landed in late 1541 before the weather turned foul and scattered the fleet. Over the objections of Hernan Cortes, conqueror of Mexico, the bedraggled army reembarked and a humbled Charles returned to Spain.

Francis I declared war on Charles in 1542. In 1543 Charles made his sixteen-year-old son Philip his regent in Spain, then headed for the Low Countries to coordinate the war against France. To guide Philip, Charles chose Fernando de Valdes, archbishop of Seville and Grand Inquisitor; the duke of Alba, his best general; and Francisco de los Cobos, his financial expert. Before sailing, he sent Philip a set of remarkable secret instructions about government and the people who served it. He warned Philip that nobles tended to seek gain at the crown’s expense, while bureaucrats tried to line their own pockets, and he named names. He advised Philip to guard his thoughts and to flatter people as necessary but give nothing away. He warned Philip that women might be employed to win his favor. Worried that sex might tempt the teenaged prince, Charles arranged that he marry a Portuguese princess, Maria, who was his own age. Two years later she gave birth to a son, Don Carlos, then two weeks afterward, she died. In time Don Carlos would prove a problem.

In 1545 Charles obtained a truce with France while Pope Paul assembled an ecumenical council at Trent. The council clarified the religious issues for Charles, who marched against the German Lutherans. In April 1547, his army, which included a large Spanish contingent under Alba, smashed his enemies at the Battle of Muhlberg. A great equestrian portrait by the Venetian painter Titian, now in Madrid’s Prado, commemorates the victory. Charles assembled the Germans at Augsburg in 1548 in hopes of putting the religious issue to rest and arranging the imperial succession to allow Philip to succeed his uncle Ferdinand. In neither quest did Charles succeed.

Early in 1552 a revived league of German Protestant princes struck a secret deal with Henri II, the new king of France, and chased Charles from Germany. While Ferdinand patched up a truce in Germany that led to the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555), Charles failed against Henri II. Embittered, he withdrew to Brussels but saw a chance to get England back as an ally when his cousin, Catholic Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, succeeded Edward VI to the English throne. He arranged for her to marry Philip, though she was thirty-eight. Dutifully Philip embarked in 1554 for England and left his nineteen-year-old sister Juana as regent. Juana was the widow of Prince Joao of Portugal, whose posthumous son Dom Sebastian she had just borne.

As husband of Queen Mary, Philip became England’s titular king. With England again an ally, Charles signed a truce with the French king and took the opportunity to abdicate his inheritance to Philip. Early in 1555 Queen Juana had died, leaving Philip’s succession unimpeded. In January 1556 Philip became king of Castile and Aragon.

Leaving Philip to settle matters in the Low Countries, Charles sailed to Spain. For his retirement he selected the monastery of Yuste in the wild Sierra de Credos. He had a small dwelling built against its chapel and could hear Mass through a special door from his bedroom. There he prayed and ruminated, though he still followed the affairs of the world and showered advice on Regent Juana and Philip. In September 1558 he died.

Philip had been successful in the north. With England as an ally, his armies defeated the French at the Battle of St. Quentin in 1557, and in 1559 he made peace with Henri II at Cateau Cambresis. Queen Mary of England had died in 1558, without child, and England passed to her half sister, Elizabeth 1. Although Philip feared that Elizabeth would return England to Henry VIII’s Protestantism, he preferred her to her Catholic rival, Mary Queen of Scots, wife of the Dauphin of France. He did not trust France, but for the sake of peace, he married Henri’s daughter, Elisabeth de Valois, aged thirteen. He was ready to return to Spain, above all to repair his finances. In 1557 he had been forced to declare bankruptcy and renegotiate the huge debts he had inherited from Charles, to which the last war added more. War required, Philip admitted, “money, money, and more money.”

Philip faced not only money problems on his return to Spain. In Seville and Valladolid the Inquisition had discovered cells of people harboring Protestant ideas. When Charles learned about them from Regent Juana, he thundered back that Protestant heresies had to be uprooted at first sight, lest they disturb the community and lead to rebellion, civil war, and the loss of the kingdom. Juana and Philip agreed. She presided over a major auto defeat Valladolid in the spring of 1559, and Philip presided over a second after his return in the autumn. Others were held in Seville. Some 60 people went to the stake, and perhaps 200 were given other punishments. Having nipped Spanish Protestantism in the bud, the Inquisition stepped up its assault on the writings of the great Dutch humanist scholar Erasmus, which seemed too critical of Church institutions and traditional theology. To protect Castilian collegians from dangerous ideas, Philip forbade them to study outside the peninsula, save for the universities of Rome and Bologna in the Papal States. It mattered little, since most Spanish students were career oriented, with law school, which led to government jobs, the favorite choice. Serious, if sporadic, efforts were made to limit access to universities, and church and government posts to those of “pure” Old Christian descent. While the Inquisition worried about religious controversies and backsliding among conversos, it paid little heed to science. The idea of Copernicus, that the earth went round the sun, did not bother the Spanish inquisitors. Spanish students showed little interest in abstract science, and those pursuing medical degrees took no more than they had to.

To find money Philip first tried to make tax collection more efficient and to recover revenues from mineral rights, salt flats, and customs houses conceded to grandees during the previous century. Yet during his reign he sold land s and other jurisdictions to them and to municipalities for hard cash. He received generous grants from the Cortes of Castile, pleased to see him in Spain again, and lesser sums from the Cortes of Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia. Steadily increasing during his reign were revenues due him from the New World.

The mines of the New World had become a significant source of income and a major prop of Spain’s power in Europe. Most lucrative were the mines of Potosi, a virtual mountain of silver discovered in 1545 in Upper Peru (today’s Bolivia) and made immensely productive by the employment of mercury brought from Spain. In its peak years, 100,000 people, white, black, and Indian, free and slave, worked Potosi. Almost from the start, pirates, and in wartime privateers, threatened the transatlantic routes that brought American gold and silver to Spain’s coffers. Spain made its merchant ships sail in convoy. In time two fleets a year sailed, one to New Spain, as Mexico was called, and the other to Tierra Firme, the Spanish Main (the coast of today’s Venezuela and Colombia). To escort the fleets and chase pirates from the Caribbean, Philip established an armada of it dozen galleons, the principal warships of the age. The stiff tax imposed on merchant ships to pay for their escort would over time contribute to the decline of Spain’s merchant marine.

Philip would have preferred to concentrate on providing good government for his subjects and took particular care in making judicial and episcopal appointments. He established separate councils for Italy and Flanders, as the Low Countries were called in Spain. However, larger problems involving the defense of his imperial interests occupied too much of his time (see Map 3). Though Philip preferred diplomacy, he became engulfed in costly wars. The religious wars against the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean and North Africa were popular with Spaniards, and the Cortes were willing to find money for them. Wars against Catholic France were less popular, though they had a long tradition. What posed the chief drain on Spain’s resources, the Revolt of the Netherlands, was perceived as a dynastic rather than Spanish concern, and as the original determination to combat Protestants as heretics faded, finding money to suppress the revolt became thoroughly unpopular.

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