The Concept of Spain’s Golden Age Essay Sample

The Concept of Spain’s Golden Age Pages
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Justify your answer by reference to the similarities and differences you detect between the periods before and after the accession of Philip in 1556

The concept of a Golden Age is a highly contested issue among modern and contempory historians. There is debate over the dates of such an age, or even its existence at all. Working on the assumption that a golden age occurred in some form, to deduce whether it was more specifically under Philip’s reign, we must look at the condition of Spain in key areas before and after Philip’s accession in 1556. If differences arise a judgement must be made on whether they were an improvement for Spain, or signify a decline. The keys issues include religion, the military, territory, the economy, law and order and the organisation of government. The Golden Age over all should be the period where most of these concerns have reached their peak.

The point of entry into the Golden Age in terms of the army is complex, and depends on the definition, i.e. whether it is the number of troops or their individual skills, loyalty and motivation which determines it.

In the period 1525 – 1536, the army was highly thought of and comprised of members of the aristocracy fighting for social pride and religion. The soldiers, bred in a country with a very harsh climate ‘nine months winter, three months hell,’1 were physically the fittest in Europe. The period of stability provided by Ferdinand and Isabella had generated enough wealth to keep the army well supplied, and their battles were fought with a high level of organisation and good tactics. These features are exhibited with the large number of successful battles fought in this period. The army began to decline as its commitments rose. Continuous fighting, from 1536 onwards, against the Turks, the French, the Dutch and the Germans caused the condition of the army to deteriorate.

During Philips reign the soldiers were no longer highly motivated and well-trained nobles, but a mixture of conscripted peasants and hired mercenaries. However, the number of troops under Philip was immense, 20,000 stationed in Spain, 60,000 in Flanders, 15,000 in Portugal and a further 24,000 based in Naples. If the Golden Age regarding the army is to be defined on the number of troops then the term does apply more specifically to Philip’s reign. Yet the impact of financing these troops on Spain itself would have been immense. The numbers required to quash revolts in the Netherlands show how, under Philip, the Golden Empire was draining Spanish resources.

The term is also more specific to Philip’s reign in terms of naval strength, as neither Ferdinand & Isabella nor Charles had much use for a powerful fleet.

The Spanish navy probably entered its golden age following their crushing defeat by the Turks in the Mediterranean in 1563. Philip revised his naval policy, commissioned an entire new armada and in 1571, at the battle of Lepanto, destroyed the entire Turkish fleet, leaving him without a rival for naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. Upon his acquisition of the Portuguese navy in 1580’s Philip command of the seas was cemented.

Yet the navy also saw a decline under Philip as he sent it to eight consecutive defeats against England after 1588. By the end of his reign the fleet had nothing like the power and prestige of its 1560s victories.

It is difficult to compare Spanish military power in terms of the army and the navy, in that their power declines and rises in proportion to the nature of the threat Spain was facing at the time. The army was powerful under Charles because he fought most of his battles against the French and the Turks on land. However, the French Wars of Religion saw that Philip did not have to contend with the French army to the same extent that his father, and Spanish-Turkish conflicts under Philip took place mainly in the Mediterranean.

Territorially the view that the term Golden Age should apply more specifically to Philip’s reign is quite accurate, as he was the monarch who controlled the most territory in this period. His possessions included South America, Portugal, Italy, and the Netherlands, giving him the largest empire of any power at that time. It is the historian Kamen’s view that when Philip annexed Portugal in 1580 2’Spain’s empire had reached the peak of its success.’

However it is unfair to credit Philip with a territorial golden age, when nearly all of his territories were inherited from Charles. It is arguable that the Golden Age began upon Charles’ election as Holy Roman Emperor, when a large amount of territory was gained in a very short time. It is also open to question whether there was a decline under Philip, certainly he could not continue with the policy of expansion. It is probable that the term golden age needs to be applied to both Charles and Philip’s reigns, as they both were monarch of the largest empire at the time, for most of their reigns.

A Golden Age in terms of the Spanish economy can be simply defined as the period, which enjoyed the most stable economic growth, and contained fewest economic crises. It is therefore probably reasonable to deduce that it was under Ferdinand and Isabella that this age occurred.

Ferdinand and Isabella operated an extremely interventionalist system, making 128 economic decrees during their reign, most of which were concerned with improving trade communications between kingdoms, although none going so far as to attempt to unify them. There were no economic disasters during Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign, and the state in which they left the economy was much improved. Ferdinand and Isabella attempted to tackle the problem of land, reclaiming all lands lost to the nobles during the War of Succession, so that it could be used for sheep farming. It was very much a matter of laying the foundations for a strong economy for Ferdinand and Isabella, in the interest of creating political stability.

The economic Golden Age does not occur under Charles as he encountered many economic problems when he became Holy Roman Emperor. Spain simply could not fund all the military ventures Charles wished to undertake, which resulted in his deepening in debt to the Fuggers and the eventual auctioning off of Spanish lands as repayment. Charles reign caused an 80% inflation over 25 years in some areas, showing that he and his dynastic ambitions had a detrimental effect on Spain as a whole.

It could be argued that an economic Golden Age was experienced under Philip, as he benefited from New World wealth considerably more than his father did. At one point Philip was said to be the richest ruler in the world, as he had complete control over new world silver resources, and very profitable salt pans in Portugal and the Caribbean. However, his recurring bankruptcies, and incessant squandering of New World wealth on Armadas draws the conclusion that there was more of a decline than a rise in terms of the economy during Philip’s reign, and therefore that the term (Golden Age) does not apply more specifically to his reign.

Establishing a golden age regarding law and order is again a simpler notion to define, it being the period of fewest civil disturbances. However the question arises of whether revolts around the empire should be taken into account, or if judgement should be based purely on events in internal Spain. For the purposes of this question the former must be adopted, as unrest in other parts of the empire has a direct and indirect effect on Spain.

An aim of Ferdinand and Isabella’s was to create stability and order, as Spain had existed in relative lawlessness prior to this accession. A main tactic used to create this law and order was the Santa Hermandad, an organisation directly under the control of the Monarchs, and whose purpose was to dispense justice in cruel and harsh ways. It could be said that this is the point of entry into a golden age regarding law and order, as the Brotherhood was so successful it completed its task by 1498 and was disbanded. However it did little to forge political unity in its short life, as it was never successfully introduced in Aragon, only Castile.

The revolts at the beginning of Charles reign demonstrate that Ferdinand and Isabella had not created such a stable state. However, once he had quashed the Germania Revolt (1519) and the Communeros Revolt (1520) there was a period of stable peace. Historian J.H. Elliot commented that during the rest of Charles international reign the country was so stable that, 3 ‘it almost seems as if for twenty or thirty years it had no history.’ It would seem his is implying this to be the Golden Age in terms of law and order.

Philip suffered revolts at home and abroad, firstly in the Netherlands (1566 – 79), then Alpujarras (1568 – 1570) Aragon (1591) and finally a continuation of revolts in the Netherlands form 1580 to the end of Philip’s reign. The impact of these revolts on Spain was financial; Philip had to use his military to quash these rebellions, which left them unable to defend his territories as well in other parts of the empire. However, a golden age could be said to have occurred here if it can be judged on Philip’s ability to suppress unrest, in that he remained in power through all these trials, showing that the rest of his domains were stable enough to allow him to survive.

The organisation of government under the Catholic monarchs is an important issue as it is the basis through which they made their decisions as rulers. Ferdinand and Isabella did not create the systems of government in Spain, but did create a new respect for them. The justice system was given a high status, although an army was required to put many of its decisions in effect. The main problem facing Ferdinand and Isabella was the power of the nobles, and they went to great lengths to try to lessen this power, and shift it towards letrados. Charles and Philip continued this policy throughout their reigns, along with the usage of Councils, and the assertion of royal authority locally through corregidores.

Charles also introduced the system of secretaries, which Philip adopted and developed. However this was not the most effective system of government, as both Charles and Philip suffered from the rivalries between their senior advisors. The Cortes under Charles became more of a rubber-stamping body, granting Charles, and later Philip, more funds without having an input on how they were spent. In these ways the term golden age cannot apply more specifically to Philip because he used the same systems as his father, including the unsuccessful ones.

Philip did make one significant change in establishing a capital city and centralised government in Madrid. In some ways this was an improvement upon his fathers system of having the councils and advisors travel with him around Europe. However it did remove the Royal Presence throughout the empire, and even throughout Spain, that had worked so well Charles and Ferdinand &Isabella, also Philip could not trust his advisors and so made all decisions personally. The term golden age does not apply to Philip’s organisation of government because, due to his systems, bureaucracy became a major problem in decision-making.

A Golden Age in terms of religion is perhaps the most difficult concept to define, because the extreme difference between a modern and a contempory view. By modern society’s standards many would argue that the entire period 1474 – 1598 was a decline regarding religion, as the Catholic Monarchs transformed a country of religious tolerance into one of militant Catholicism. However it is unfair to judge this era on the morals accepted today, as contemporys held a very different view on what constituted a religious Golden Age, and would probably base their judgement on the success of the monarchs in creating a religiously uniform country, which was more or less independent from the powers of Rome.

Religious uniformity was a priority of Isabella and Ferdinand’s, who began the tradition of intolerance towards Jews and Muslims for example 160,000 Jews were expelled from Spain. The Inquisition, under Ferdinand and Isabella, grew into a terrifying force, executing around 2,000 Spaniards in Torquemada’s fifteen-year stint as head of the Inquisition. In the 1540s, during the reign of Charles, the Inquisition began to persecute Protestants within Spain. This possibly played a considerable role in ensuring that a powerful protestant movement never materialised in Spain.

Persecution under Philip, however, did increase dramatically. Laws prohibiting traditional Muslim dress and practices were introduced, and after the defeat of the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, Philip ordered that all Moriscos should be expelled from Spain. The increase in persecution shows a fervent desire on Philip’s part to unify religion within the country, and also illustrates the failings of Isabella and Ferdinand in this area. Philip clearly felt that the measures taken by his ancestors had not been conclusive enough, and so had to complete the task himself.

The relationship between the Papacy and the Catholic Monarchs was often contentious, but grew more distant throughout the period 1474 – 1598. Ferdinand and Isabella were often under criticism from the Pope, especially regarding motives behind the Conquest of Granada. However as the monarchy grew more stable, and Spain took further control of Italy, the Pope’s influence diminished. The Pope’s were unable to prevent the Monarchs from using the Inquisition, and gradually granted more powers of appointment to the Spanish Kings. The Council of Trent gave Philip significant new powers within the Church. It is the view of Trevor Davies that by the end of the period, the church had been subordinated to the state, and the relations between Philip and the Pope were 4 ‘those of a non-religious statesman.’

The increase in persecution, and the establishment of the Spanish Church’s independence, both achieved primarily in Philip’s reign, is the evidence for Spain’s entrance into the religious Golden Age. At the end of Philip’s reign, religion is Spain was more uniform and autonomous than ever before.

To conclude, although in many of these areas do not reach a peak under Philip, or in some cases at all, it is still my conclusion that the term Golden Age does apply more specifically to Philip. This is because these issues are not equal in importance, to contemporys the most important matters would probably be religion and the empire, and in these areas Philip did experience a Golden Age that his predecessors did not. The concept of a Golden Age can happily be applied to the entire era, whereby an obscure collection of Kingdoms became a major international power, but as this took some time to complete is it probably fair to say that it was achieved towards the end of the period, rather than the beginning.


S Barton, A History of Spain, Pangrave & Macmillan, 2004

R. T. Davies, The Golden Century of Spain, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1964

J. H. Elliot, Spain and its World 1500 – 1700, Yale University Press, 1989

H. Kamen, Philip of Spain, Yale University Press, 1997

H. Kamen, Spain’s Road to Empire, Penguin Press, 2002

J Kilsby, Spain Rise and Decline 1474 – 1643, Hodder & Stoughton, 2004

H Livermore, A History of Spain, George Allen & Unwin, 1966

C Martin & G Parker, The Spanish Armada, Penguin Press, 1988

T.A. Morris, England and Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Routlidge, 1998

C Pendrill, Spain 1474 – 1700, Heinemann, 2002

J Plaidy, The Spanish Inquisition, Fletcher & Son Ltd, 1978

W. H. Prescott, reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic, George Allen & Unwin, 1962

1 R. Trevor Davies, The Golden Century of Spain, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1964, pg 23

2 Henry Kamen, Spain’s Road to Empire, Penguin Press, 2002, pg 305

3 T.A. Morris, England and Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Routlidge, 1998, pg 119

4 R. Trevor Davies, The Golden Century of Spain, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1964,

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