European History Pt. 5 — Spanish Golden Age

Last time I was looking at some of the social and economic changes in the early modern period (from about 1500 to 1650). The close of that section talks about the differences between Eastern and Western  Europe, but not too many specifics are given, which is a shame since the division between eastern and western europe seems to run fairly deeply throughout history. The book simply mentions that landlords in eastern europe had greater power in the east. Labor was more compulsory and land owners basically reigned unchallenged on their property,  free from interference of the middle class or from monarchs.


I think that A History of the Modern World does a really good job of explaining the breadth of Spanish ambitions around 1550 and on, and then their unbelievably rapid and spectacular failure.

Starting in the mid 1500, right after the peace of Augsburg, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V retired to a monastery (perhaps in disgust, since he had been unable to preserve Catholicism in the Holy Roman Empire). He divided his eastern possessions to Ferdinand and everything else to Philip, who became King of Spain and Portugal. He was temporarily king of England he claimed sovereignty over France as well.

He had enormous resources since Spanish traders from the New World were UNCHALLENGED on the ocean. Gold, silver, and all manner of other resources poured in to Spain. With these resources, he built a heavily Catholic  nation (in fact, it was too religious, as other trades beyond the church suffered and eventually collapsed the country). He built a palace, the Escorial, which the book says  “expressed in solid stone its creator’s inner spirit.” It was part monastery, fitting with Philip’s zealous religious demeanor.

He saw his purpose as a savior for the Christian faith. He meant to smash protestantism and bring all the people of europe back under control of the church and the pope. For a while, it looked like Philip, like other rulers in European history (Louis XIV and Napoleon), would unify all of Europe.

He sponsored a catholic uprising in England, in 1571 he won the battle of Lepanto against the Turks, he put down the rebellion of the Moriscos in his own country, France — ruled at the time by incompetent children — obeyed his orders to eradicate the Huguenots (French Calvinists). However, these apparent victories disintegrated:

But none of these victories provied enduring. The Turkish power was not seriously damaged at Lepanto. In fact, the Turks took Tunis from Philip two years later. The Moriscos were not assimilated. The English Catholic rebellion was stamped out; 800 persons were put to death by Elizabeth’s government. The revolt in the Netherlands remained very much alive, as did the French Huguenots. Twenty years later England was Protestant, the Dutch were winning independence, a Huguenot had become king of France, and the Spanish fleet had gone to ruin in norther water.

Revolt in the Netherlands

This event was really key a this time, and the book covers it in some detail. At this time, there was no Dutch yet, there was only 17 provinces known as the “low countries.” They traded and enjoyed feudal liberties. The revolt began in about 1566 when various nobles (catholic and protestant) united to check intervention from Philip. They were particularly concerned that Philip would bring the inquisition to their countries (a very reasonable thing to be upset about). Philip ignored this petition and journeymen protestants revolted.

In response, Philip send the Duke of Alva to brutally repress the disturbance. These brutalities united all of the 17 provinces firmly against Spain despite their religious differences (1576). William of Orange (“the silent”) was one of the nobles whose land was confiscated by the Duke of Alva and he became the first of a long line of Dutch Williams to resist would-be universal monarchs.

SIDE NOTE (England got involved in this war, because a Spanish Admiral — Don Juan (yea, his real name) — thought that if the Netherlands was subdued, it could be used as a base to destroy heretic England. Of course, Elizabeth saw who she should support in the Netherlands’ rebellion)

However, another Spanish official, the Prince of Parma, succeeded in fracturing the Netherlands and winning 10 provinces away from the original alliance with promises that their liberties would be respected. The 7 remaining formed the Union of Utrecht in 1579.

The war ground on, and Philip decided to invade England because of its aid to the northern 7 low country provinces (called Holland going forward). In 1587, Sir Francis Drake sailed into Cadiz and burned some ships there, this act being referred to as “singing the beard” of the king of Spain. The response was the Spanish armada.

Assembled in 1588, the armada was the greatest fleet ever assembled. It was the symbolic representation of all of Spanish greatness, and it’s fate symbolized Spain’s fall from power. The English ships, outnumbered, but faster, harried the ships from the start. Then the famous “protestant wind” blew the remaining Spanish ships up toward Scotland. The cold and the Spanish inexperience led to the almost complete destruction of the fleet.

With the Spanish fleet shattered, maritime history changed forever. From this moment forward, it would be DUTCH and ENGLISH ships that sailed in Europe. The English East Company was formed in 1600 and the Dutch East India company was formed in 1602.

Spain would remain powerful for another 50 years, but it had already started its decline. No one cared about anything other than the church, the Moriscos were the only people with any skills, and they were persecuted and driven out of the country. Spain lost the sea, and so its only source of income. The riches of the new world had corrupted the Spanish culture and economy. It’s quest for universal monarchy had angered protestants and created powerful opponents in the English and the Dutch.





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