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Introduction; Land and Resources of Spain; People and Society of Spain; Culture of Spain; Economy of Spain; Government of Spain; History of Spain
After their marriage, Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded in combining Castile and Aragón into an effective political unit. But they were less preoccupied with the task of unification than with stabilizing their authority and building reliable political alliances at home. It was a union of crowns, rather than of kingdoms. The two rulers ruled jointly, collaborating on religious and foreign policies but retaining distinct parliamentary and administrative institutions in each kingdom. Castile and Aragón also kept their different outlooks toward the world. Castile was oriented to Africa and the Atlantic Ocean, while Aragón, the smaller and poorer kingdom, looked toward Italy and the western Mediterranean.
Above all, Ferdinand and Isabella sought to establish law and order in their realms. For much of the 15th century Castile and Aragón were convulsed by civil war. A unified crown and stronger monarchy could help the rulers defend their lands from enemies, especially from non-Christians. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, royal power emerged as the greatest authority in the land. In Castile they reformed the judicial system and weakened the upper nobility by limiting their access to the royal administration. Both these steps laid the basis for royal absolutism. They also developed an efficient bureaucracy by favoring the selection of university-educated candidates as royal officials. This helped make Castile one of the largest and most modern European states of its time. Royal power was further enhanced with the conquest of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, in 1492. This completed the Christian reconquest of Spain.
For the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos)—a title given to Ferdinand and Isabella by Pope Alexander VI for their religious devotion—religious observation was central to achieving domestic peace. The Spanish monarchs, like their European counterparts, were believed to rule as trustees of God. This direct link to divine authority is what made rulers legitimate in Europe. It also made non-Christians or heretics dangerous because their rejection of Christianity implied that they did not accept the monarch’s right to rule.
In 1478 Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition under the leadership of Dominican monk Tomás de Torquemada. The Spanish Inquisition was originally founded to ensure the sincerity of former Jews and Muslims who had recently converted to Christianity, known as conversos and Moriscos respectively. Insincere converts were suspected of disloyalty and punished. As an institution that operated in both Castile and Aragón, the Inquisition was an important source of unity in Spain. It brought both monarchies closer to the Roman Catholic Church and it helped guarantee that Spain would remain a profoundly Catholic country.
In its first decades the Inquisition tried and punished thousands of people, including many conversos involved in commerce and trade. People judged to be heretics were executed, often by burning at the stake. In 1492 all unconverted Jews were ordered to leave Spain, and many thousands emigrated to North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and other parts of Europe. In the early 17th century the Spanish inquisitors turned their attention to Muslims. Between 1609 and 1614 more than 250,000 Spanish Muslims were driven out of Spain. Later, the Spanish Inquisition sought to discipline persons suspected of practicing Protestantism.
At the time, many Spaniards considered the Inquisition a triumph for Roman Catholicism. However, the costs of the Inquisition were high. Spain expelled many of its most economically important citizens, depriving the crown of a source of much-needed tax revenue. The church, with royal cooperation, also censored books, and students were prohibited from studying abroad to prevent the importation of Protestant ideas into Spain. These practices eventually cut Spain off from intellectual developments in Europe and turned Spanish universities into academic backwaters. This isolation made it more difficult for Spain to modernize in later centuries. In addition, the urge to protect royal legitimacy, power, and prestige led Spain to fight wars it could not win, at great cost to Spain’s society and economy.
Spain rose from a partnership between two Iberian kingdoms to the status of world power in a short time. The new strength of Castile soon became evident to the world. The consolidation of a strong government at home allowed Castilian monarchs to focus the crown’s resources on overseas expansion. At the same time, a series of strategic alliances and military initiatives permitted Spain to achieve dominance in Europe.
Christopher Columbus’s westward voyages aroused great excitement in Spain, even if the results were at first disappointing. Castile was determined to follow the lead of neighboring Portugal, whose mariners had already traveled around the southern end of Africa and opened a sea route to Asia. Although Columbus did not succeed in finding a westward route to Asia, Castile annexed the islands he found in the West Indies upon his return from his first voyage. The Castilians gradually settled colonies in the Caribbean, beginning with Santo Domingo (in present-day Dominican Republic), and established their first settlement in Cuba in 1509. Then Spain’s stunning expansion in the Americas began.
Over the course of the next century generations of adventurers and explorers, known as the conquistadors, traveled to the Americas on behalf of the Spanish crown. Hernán Cortés destroyed the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire in Peru. Explorers such as Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Ferdinand Magellan, and Hernando De Soto were chartered by Spain. Spain eventually laid claim to all of Latin America, except for Brazil, and also claimed the southern part of the United States from Florida to California, as well as Jamaica and the Philippine Islands.
At first the conquerors sent home gold and silver accumulated by the Aztec and Inca empires. These riches were soon exhausted, and little moveable wealth remained in the Americas that could bear the costs of shipment to Europe and still be sold for a profit. The conquerors then turned to the land and the labor of indigenous peoples to create wealth in ways that were familiar in Spain. They imported Spanish crops and livestock and attempted to build productive, largely self-contained, colonies.
Spain’s empire in the Americas entered a new phase in the mid-16th century when extensive silver deposits were discovered, first in Mexico and then in Bolivia. By 1560 large amounts of American silver were flowing into the Spanish treasury annually. At the same time, European diseases had decimated native peoples in the Americas. To keep the silver flowing, Spanish colonizers forcibly moved shrinking numbers of indigenous peoples to new towns where they could be put to work in the mines. As native peoples died, Spain imported African slaves to work in its colonies. Spain also organized a system of seaports and regular transatlantic fleets with naval protection to control trade between Europe and the Americas. By the late 16th century American silver accounted for one-fifth of Spain’s total budget. This silver allowed Spain to build a huge structure of credit and to fight many wars. When Spain’s monopoly on American silver broke down after 1630, Spanish power quickly collapsed.
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