Battle of Lepanto, on October 7, 1571, by Paolo Veronese
In 1555 the Turks seized two of Spain’s North African strongholds, Tripoli and Bona. In 1559, Philip permitted his viceroy of Sicily and the Knights of Malta to attempt the recovery of Tripoli. They failed and suffered heavy losses in men and shipping. In 1562 storms cost Philip a squadron of galleys and forced him to dun the Cortes for money to build more. When the Turks besieged Malta in 1565, Philip organized a powerful relief armada in time to drive them away. The next year, Suleiman the Magnificent, Charles’s implacable foe, died, and Philip had a brief respite. He needed it to deal with mounting troubles in the Netherlands and the rebellion of the Moriscos of Granada. To the Netherlands he dispatched an army under the duke of Alba to impose order. To subdue the Moriscos, who controlled a remote and rugged part of Granada known as the Alpujarras, he appointed his twenty-three-year-old half-brother, Don John of Austria, an illegitimate son of Charles V, who overrode rival local authorities and pacified the Alpujarras by the end of 1570. In the aftermath, the Moriscos of Granada were dispersed throughout Old and New Castile in an effort to assimilate them into the Old Christian majority of Spaniards.
The Morisco rebellion was still aglow when in 1570 the new Ottoman sultan, Selim II, invaded the Venetian possession of Cyprus. Turks had already seized control of Tunis, although the fortress of La Goleta held out. Venice sought allies through Pope Pius V, who turned to Spain. After contentious negotiations, Pius, Spain, and Venice formed a Holy League. Philip agreed to foot half the costs and obtained the supreme command for Don John. Through him Philip meant to direct the League’s strategy. For Cyprus it was too late, although at the Battle of Lepanto, on October 7, 1571, Don John and the League armada of over 200 galleys and six heavily gunned galleasses defeated the Turks’ near 300 lighter and less well-gunned galleys. After achieving little in 1572, mainly because Philip was distracted by developments in France and the Low Countries, the League broke up in 1573, when Venice defected. Later that year, Don John recovered Tunis, but the Turks retook it in 1574 and kept it. Don John was preoccupied with Genoa, where he assisted the government of Philip’s allies to maintain control. Genoa did Philip’s banking and was troubled by his skyrocketing debts, incurred to maintain a big army in the Low Countries and a big armada in the Mediterranean. In 1575 Philip had to declare bankruptcy and renegotiate his debts with his Genoese creditors. He summoned the Cortes of Castile and cajoled them into tripling the basic tax rates. He was fortunate to see his revenues slightly more than double. None doubted that the burden on Castile’s tax base had become dangerous, but the wars, which Philip believed justifiable in defense of religion and his patrimony, demanded it.
The revolt in the Low Countries would lead to the division of the region between the Spanish Netherlands (today’s Belgium and Luxembourg) and the Dutch Republic. For five generations of Spanish soldiers it meant “trailing a pike in Flanders.” The seeds of the revolt were many and included national differences and resistance to taxation over endless dynastic conflicts with France. However, the chief problem was religion. Before he returned to Spain, Philip learned of the spread of Calvinist Protestantism among the Low Countries’ population. To check it, he had Rome establish fourteen new bishoprics, in addition to the four long there, and assign two inquisitors to each. Traditionally the Low Countries had been relatively tolerant and held small numbers of Lutherans and Anabaptists, as well as Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal.
Most of the Low Countries’ population opposed the new bishoprics, despite the efforts of Philip’s governor-general and half sister Margaret, an illegitimate daughter of Charles V and duchess of Parma, to establish them. The principal nobles, led by William the Silent, prince of Orange, joined the opposition and demanded an end to the inquisition and a moderation of penalties for heretics. Although Philip temporized, he did not give in. In 1566 riots erupted in most of the chief towns. Calvinist mobs looted Catholic churches and preached from their pulpits. Local authorities were slow to react, and on receiving the news, Philip was stunned. He knew that he ought to visit the Low Countries and settle matters with the States General, but he agreed to the duke of Alba’s plan that an army precede him to ensure order. He put Alba in charge of what history knows as the Army of Flanders and reluctantly prepared to follow.
His main worry was his son, Don Carlos. Now twenty-one, Don Carlos had proved to be unstable and erratic in his behavior. Most, save his indulgent father, thought him unfit for the business of kingship. In 1568, Philip learned that Don Carlos meant to flee court and confined him. He died of fevers six months later.
Alba found the situation in the seventeen provinces that comprised the Low Countries worse than he expected. Margaret resigned and left him with the government. He subdued the opposition, but it cost money; Philip told him to find the money locally. Alba browbeat the States General and tried to impose new taxes unilaterally. Rebellion revived on land and sea. Protestant Queen Elizabeth I grew nervous about Alba’s big army and Catholic talk of invading England, and aided the rebels, who were mainly Protestants. French Protestant Huguenots also aided them. Philip tried amnesty to win peace and replaced Alba, but he would not yield on the matter of keeping the Low Countries Catholic. The revolt raged on, “a voracious monster,” according to one minister, “that devours the men and treasure of Spain.” With a simultaneous war against the Turks, Philip could not pay his soldiers, who mutinied and ran amok and drove Catholics to join the rebels. Don John, the hero of Lepanto, became governor and dismissed the army. Failing to appease the rebels, he again resorted to arms. Distressed, Philip became involved in scandal when he permitted his secretary Antonio Perez to have Don John’s secretary murdered as a security risk.
But religious division also plagued the rebel ranks, and Don John’s successor, Alexander Farnese, Margaret’s son and, after 1586, duke of Parma, won the Catholics back and established an obedient “Spanish” Netherlands that consisted of the ten southern provinces. The seven northern provinces formed the Dutch Republic (which we often call Holland, from its richest province), under its States General and the House of Orange.
At first Philip had little money and few men for Parma, because the death in 1578 of King Sebastian of Portugal, on a mad crusade against Morocco, opened the succession to the Portuguese throne. Philip claimed Portugal by right of inheritance through his mother and made his claim good with an army led by the duke of Alba and an armada commanded by the marquis of Santa Cruz. In early 1581 Philip entered Portugal and summoned its Cortes to acclaim him king. Portugal retained its laws, institutions, and the administration of its empire in Asia and Brazil. When Philip left in 1583 for Madrid, he made his nephew Archduke Albert his viceroy in Lisbon. In Madrid he established a Council of Portugal to advise him on Portuguese affairs.
Once Portugal and its empire were added to his worldwide dominions, Philip regularized the pay of Parma’s Army of Flanders. While Parma recaptured Antwerp, Queen Elizabeth signed a treaty of alliance with the Dutch, which led to open war. Already some of her subjects, like Sir Francis Drake, had raided Spanish commerce in the Caribbean and the Pacific. In 1586 Drake ravaged the Caribbean and in 1587 struck Cadiz as Santa Cruz struggled to form an armada. Concerned about costs, Philip devised a complicated scheme whereby Santa Cruz would cover the passage to England of Parma and the Army of Flanders. By February 1588 Santa Cruz had assembled a vast but motley armada of Spanish, Portuguese, and Mediterranean ships, but then he died. The duke of Medina Sidonia, a naval administrator rather than a sailor, took command and with the assistance of his admirals got the armada into the English Channel. The English fleet proved more maneuverable and far better at gunnery and frustrated the armada’s attempt to “join hands” with Parma. Forced into the North Sea, Medina Sidonia returned to Spain by sailing north of Scotland and around Ireland. Storms slammed the battered armada, and nearly half its ships and more of its men were lost, the men mostly to disease.
Philip ascribed the defeat to God’s punishment of sin, then pressed on. A siege mentality grew in Madrid. The Dutch held on, Parma reconquered little more, and after his death in 1592, his successors lost a bit. France under its new king, Henri IV of the Bourbon dynasty and once a Huguenot but now a Catholic, declared war on Philip. With his people fighting in France, too, Philip rebuilt his armadas and renewed his attacks on England. His armed forces were stretched thin, his royal officials scrambled to maintain them, and to sustain Spain’s war effort, he had to enlist the cooperation of local powers whose enthusiasm would not last. To foot the bills, he summoned the Cortes and appealed to their loyalty to him and to God. They voted him money on stiff terms that allowed urban governments to dump more of the tax burden onto ordinary folk. The amounts were reckoned in millions of ducats and known as the millones. Although treasure from the Indies managed to get through English blockades, rising taxes and war costs began to impair the economy of Castile. Major epidemics in the years round 1600 added to Spain’s woes.
Yet during Philip’s reign, Spanish Golden Age culture flourished. Lope de Vega commenced writing for the Madrid stage. El Greco, born on Crete and trained in Venice, painted his masterpieces in Toledo. St. Theresa of Avila inspired religious reform and revival, while St. John of the Cross wrote perhaps the finest mystical poetry in any language.
Before Philip died in September 1598, he obtained peace with France. He tried to solve the dilemma of the Low Countries by transferring them to his daughter Isabella, sometimes called the Great Infanta, and her husband Archduke Albert. But when Albert died in 1621 they had no heir, and the Low Countries reverted to the Spanish crown. Isabella continued to govern the ten obedient provinces until her death in 1633. The Dutch Republic persisted in its independence.
Philip III (1598-1621), an indolent youth of twenty when he became king, allowed his favorite minister (valido), the duke of Lerma, to run the government. Spain made peace with England in 1604 and a Twelve Years’ Truce with the Dutch in 1609. The power of Spain still seemed awesome, and a few years of peace did the economy no harm. Yet many feared that things had gone seriously wrong, and men known as arbitristas bombarded the government with proposals of what might be done to improve matters. Little was done save to expel the Moriscos, who had not assimilated into Old Christian society. After 1609 over 200,000 Morisco men, women, and children were dumped on the beaches of North Africa.
Four years earlier in Seville a novel appeared, the first part of Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes. The complete novel is one of those rare great books into which we can read almost anything. Cervantes fought at Lepanto, where his left hand was maimed. Later captured by Algerian corsairs, he spent five years as a slave. When ransomed and returned to Spain, he took up writing plays, with little success. He landed a government job collecting taxes for the armada. An audit of his accounts put him in jail, where he supposedly conceived Don Quixote. The gaunt old don, pursuing his chivalric dreams, seems a fit symbol for an exhausted Castile, persisting in wars it could not afford.
But Castile protested through its Cortes and, increasingly, through tax evasion and resistance to recruiting. It was the Habsburg dynasty, its dependent ministers, and a handful of loyal grandees who persisted in the struggle. The Count-Duke of Olivares, the valido of Philip IV (1621-1665) becomes the archvillain. An intelligent but overbearing man, determined that his sovereign should be the world’s greatest, Olivares took up with energy the wars that began to sputter out in Philip III’s last months. In the Holy Roman Empire, the Army of Flanders intervened in support of the Viennese Habsburgs in what would become the Thirty Years War. Then the Dutch War resumed. Olivares mobilized Spain’s resources, and in 1625 the Spaniards won a spate of victories. But the French, guided by the brilliant Cardinal Richelieu and fearful of revived Spanish power, played the role of spoiler, aiding the Habsburgs’ enemies and bringing the Swedes into the conflict. In 1628 near Havana, Cuba, the loss of a silver fleet to the Dutch proved a setback. With desperate effort Olivares gathered new forces, and in 1634, Philip IV’s younger brother, the Cardinal-Infante Don Fernando, defeated the Swedes at Nordlingen in Germany. In 1635, France entered the war openly. The array of powers against Spain became overwhelming, while in Spain opposition to Olivares mounted. Spain’s best admiral called him a fat, desk-bound bureaucrat without knowledge of war and got thrown into prison. In 1639, the Dutch virtually destroyed Spain’s last major armada in the Battle of the Downs.
Olivares had long urged that Spain’s kingdoms form a Union of Arms for common defense, but Aragon, Catalonia, and Portugal opposed him. When he lodged Castilian troops in winter quarters in Catalonia, close to southern France, the Catalans in 1640 rose in revolt. As more Castilian troops marched against Catalonia, Portugal took the opportunity to rebel and proclaim the duke of Braganza as King Joao IV. Soon after, Olivares nipped in the bud a conspiracy to make the ninth duke of Medina Sidonia king of Andalusia. The whole peninsula seethed with revolt and sedition.
Surrender of Breda. La rendición de Breda (English: The Surrender of Breda, also known as Las lanzas – The Lances) is a painting by the Spanish Golden Age painter Diego Velázquez.
In the Netherlands, in 1643 after the Cardinal-Infante died, the French at the Battle of Rocroi inflicted on the Army of Flanders its greatest defeat. When the gun smoke cleared, most of its Spaniards lay dead, still in their ranks. In Spain Philip IV dumped Olivares, who soon went mad and died in 1645. A new ministry sought peace, and to end the war with the Dutch, Philip IV acknowledged the republic’s independence in 1648. Before he died in 1665, he also acknowledged the independence of Portugal. He did recover Catalonia. His last portraits, painted by Diego de Velazquez, reveal a broken but still proud man. Velazquez is arguably Olivares’s greatest legacy to Spain. Olivares brought the promising young Sevillian painter to court in the 1620s. There Velazquez painted portraits of the king and royal family and the bombastic Olivares. He painted the remarkable Surrender of Breda, one of the Spanish triumphs of 1625. In it, the commander of the Army of Flanders, Ambrogio Spinola, a Genoese banker turned Spanish general, graciously receives the surrender of the Dutch. While the Dutch pikes droop, those of the Army of Flanders stand upright, causing Spaniards to call the painting Las lanzas (the Lances). The most charming of Velazquez’s paintings is called Las Meninas (the ladies-in-waiting). While the artist stands at his easel, painting the king and queen-whose reflections can be seen in a mirror-their daughter Margarita and her ladies-in-waiting burst into his studio. A court dwarf, her son, and a pet dog also appear in the picture. When Margarita left for Vienna to marry Emperor Leopold I, Philip had the huge canvas hung in his small office as a memento of a happy moment.
At his death, Philip IV was hardly a happy man. He had yielded the northern Netherlands and Portugal and had seen Spain broken by war. He had given his eldest daughter, Maria Teresa, as bride to Louis XIV, king of France and arbiter of Europe. She had renounced all rights to Spain for herself and her heirs, though most legal experts thought she could not justly renounce the rights of her heirs. Philip’s only other surviving child was Prince Carlos, who succeeded to the Spanish throne in 1665, not quite aged four.
The reign of Carlos II is often considered the low point of Spain’s long history. With the death of playwright Calderon de la Barca in 1681, Spain’s cultural Golden Age ended. Yet sometime in the later 1680s the economy and population began to show faint signs of recovery. Carlos II, a product of excessive inbreeding between the Habsburgs of Madrid and Vienna, never knew good health. He had an indifferent education, and people in the streets believed that his mother, Mariana of Austria, regent during his minority, cast him under a spell: He is thus known as Carlos el hechizado (the bewitched).
His uncle, Don Juan Jose de Austria, provided some energy to government and Spain’s meager war efforts. Son of Philip IV and an actress, he was ever at odds with the queen-mother and her lowborn valido, Fernando de Valenzuela. Don Juan Jose led a faction of grandees, who again became active in government. When he finally got the upper hand in 1676, he had Valenzuela exiled and initiated a series of needed reforms. He died at age fifty in 1679 and was followed in office by a string of grandees who survived in office through intrigue and made use of government professionals. The best was the count of Oropesa, chief minister between 1685 and 1691, when he fell victim to infighting. The government’s main achievement was reform of the currency, which had become so debased as to be nearly worthless.
As the sickly Carlos grew up and in 1679 married a niece of Louis XIV, rumor grew that he was impotent. The question of the Spanish succession became the overriding issue of European diplomacy. Spain’s former enemies, England and the Dutch, did what they could to prop up sagging Spanish fortunes against the mounting power of Louis XIV. After the death of Don Juan Jose, Spain took little initiative abroad. Shipments of silver from the New World became intermittent as pirates and enemy fleets infested the Caribbean. In 1697, a French fleet in combination with a force of buccaneers sacked Cartagena de Indias, capital of the Spanish Main.
Making peace in 1697, Louis XIV and his chief foe, William III, king of England and leader of the Dutch Republic, developed a plan to partition Spain’s empire between the Bourbon and Habsburg dynasties to avoid another ruinous war. The Italian share would go to Louis’s second grandson, Philip, duke of Anjou. Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, and the overseas possessions would go to Emperor Leopold’s younger son, Archduke Charles. Leopold strenuously objected, claiming all belonged to the Habsburgs. In Madrid, Louis’s and Leopold’s ambassadors intrigued for influence with Spanish ministers of state and members of the royal household. The queen mother died in 1696, but the pro-Habsburg faction at court continued under the direction of Carlos’s second wife, Mariana of Neuberg, and her German entourage. To dominate the king, she implied that she was pregnant with the heir he so desperately wanted. But when Carlos died on November 1, 1700, and his will was read, France had won. The Spaniards around Carlos, led by Archbishop Portocarrero of Toledo, wanted their world empire to remain intact. Though humiliated on the battlefield and the high seas by the French, they preferred the Bourbon candidate to the Habsburg candidate. Louis XIV not only had Europe’s most powerful army; he also had a strong navy, which Emperor Leopold did not. The will stipulated that Philip of Anjou had to accept the entire inheritance, which meant that Louis would have to reject the partition agreements. If Philip did not, then Spain and its empire would pass to Archduke Charles. Charles hardly intended to reject the offer; if he did, the whole would pass to the duke of Savoy. A week after Carlos II died, the news of his will reached Louis XIV at Versailles. After weighing his options and giving Leopold a chance to agree to partition, Louis dispatched Philip to Spain. In February 1701, seventeen-year-old King Philip V arrived in Madrid. His House of Bourbon replaced the House of Habsburg on Spain’s throne.
From the reign of Charles V into the reign of Philip IV, the Spanish Monarchy–as contemporaries called Spain, the king’s other European dominions, and Castile’s overseas empire-had seemed the greatest power in Europe. Philip II had been the first sovereign in world history on whose dominions the sun never set. However, when he died in 1598, the structural weaknesses of a world monarchy that depended overmuch on Castile and American treasure had become apparent to many. The treasure did not cover the gap between revenues and expenditures, and the other kingdoms of the monarchy did little more than pay their own ordinary expenses. In any emergency, Castile covered the difference, to the detriment of its own fragile economy.
Outside Madrid, the chief architectural monument of the Habsburg era, the Escorial, built by Philip II, rises on the slopes of the rugged Sierra. Geometric and austere, it looks over the stark Castilian countryside rolling southward. Part palace and part monastery, it is above all a mausoleum to Spain’s kings since Charles V, and its vastness resounds with echoes of faded glories.