255 Europe XI The Spanish Century

By 1600, the Spain and her Empire was acknowledged as the richest and most powerful state in Europe. the hardworking Phillip II worked into the night deep in his massive palace of El Escorial to keep the wheels turning. But by his death in 1598, the seeds of her fall were already apparent.

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Philip II of SpainPhilip II’s Empire

Was, enormous – even when Ferdinand inherited the Imperial German possessions and Hapsburg lands. This is a lovely map produced from the website Let’s know about Spain website. You can see the outlines of the Spanish Road – by Sea from Spain to Italy, through Ferdinand’s Hapsburg lands to the Franche Comte, thence to the low countries again with the help of Ferdinand and his successor.  It’s a long, complicated journey.

Empire of Phillip II

Population Growth in Europe

Two sets of figures; the detailed figures were published in ‘Fontana Economic History of Europe’ by Carlo M Cipolla in 1974. Then just for comparison are European history figures taken from Wikipedia.

16th Century Population



Anyway, back to European history, the last of 3. Last week we covered the French religious wars, and the story of the Huguenots. The French Huguenot of course were not the only story of religious war and rebellion in the 16th century; we have a particularly stirring story yet to come, greatest of them all maybe. But to put that in proper context, we should consider the most powerful man in the western World, Phillip II of Spain, and the country and Empire that made him so.

Philip was brought up by his mother Isabella of Spain, and was 31 when his father abdicated. He was a great lover of the arts, and possessed a religious faith, onto which was bracketed an unshakeable belief in the divine will. He had the humanist based education of his age, along with languages, he had a rather temporary passion for the guitar, which he probably lost a bit like me when he realised he was rubbish despite billions of hours of practice, and finally his wife told him to throw the blessed thing away or she’d burn it. Maybe. Phillip was reported to be a good looking man, courteous and gracious. He was conscientious in the extreme, but despite the size of his job, a very poor delegator. At the height of his reign, deep in the massive palace of El Escorial he worked late into the night in his office, everything coming across his desk to be reviewed and considered, slowing decision making to a crawl. He held a high sense of his and his dynasty’s honour, and this would be a powerful motivator – in 1588 he would launch the Armada against England, despite knowing that he should take more time to prepare; but he felt his reputation would suffer if he did, and so his pride clouded his judgement. Equally strongly, he felt himself to be the defender of the Catholic faith. Pride, dynasty, religion, obsessive control – together Philip would allow these four to impoverish his country and destroy Spanish hegemony despite the incredible wealth of his empire in both the new world and the old.

It is also worth noting that it is difficult to evaluate both Philip and Spain; there is a lot of reputation and propaganda to work your way through first, especially if you are English. Spaniards complain with some justice of a Black Legend, a tendency to interpret Spanish history in the most negative possible way – to describe their colonial history as exceptionally brutal, their defence of catholic religion as fanatical, and everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition. While the English tend to get blamed for this, it was a tradition that probably started in Italy; rather remarkably Pope Pius IV in 1555 described the Spaniards as

heretics, schismatics, accursed of God, the offspring of Jews and Marranos, the very scum of the earth

which is bizarre given the debt his church would owe to Spanish military and financial support, but may owe something to his irritation that even Philip would seek to exercise control of the church in Spain. Philip may have been a staunch champion of Catholicism, but he was no fool, and was quite bright enough to keep a firm control of the church in Spain, rather than allow the Pope to have free reign. Another tradition has Germany as the origin of the black legend, driven by religious conflict. But wherever it started, from the later 16th century a wave of protestant propaganda from England and the Netherlands would seize on Spain’s colonial history, lit by the fires, of course, of religious and political opposition. Now I suspect that the pendulum has swung away rather over the last 50 years or so, as the historiography of the British Empire in particular has shifted, and is now rather more in the firing line, but Spain’s history is still there to be dealt with. One of the reasons for writing these European episodes is to make sure we see England’s history in proper context; the rigor should be applied to Spain – Spanish history must be seen in the context of the time, when the drivers and attitudes all over Europe had far more in common than they differed.

In the episode 209 on Exploration some time ago, I think we covered the early years of Spanish and Portuguese expansion overseas; and the story of the 16th century is one of the continuing growth of those colonial Empires. Here I must be really, really disciplined or we’ll seriously disappear down the rabbit hole. You might remember the treaty of Tordessilas in 1494 in which the Pope had carved the world up between Spain and Portugal based on a line of latitude in the west; then of course inconveniently the likes of Da Gama went all the way round the other way, and so in 1529 they had to create a line in the East as well. In the west, Cuba and the islands of the Carribbean came first with Columbus’s discoveries, by the 1520’s Cortes had defeated the Aztec Empire in North America; by the 1530s Pissaro had done the same in Peru to the Incan Empire, and gradually between 1531 and 1572 all of Peru was brought under the Spanish crown. The Portuguese similarly developed her possessions in Brazil. In the East, the Spanish were centred on the Phillipines, and Manila became their great trading base from which to trade with China and Japan. The situation in the East was very different to the West, with societies in China and Japan supremely indifferent to the goods the backwards Europeans had to offer them in trade. But there was one commodity they did value that Europe could provide – silver and gold. And with the stream of bullion coming from South America, merchants were able to make enormous profits by bringing home spices to Europe; from 1540, the lords of Japan allowed the Portuguese access to trade with Japan for the first time. By the 1560’s, part of the Spanish silver fleet would sail direct to Manila to fund Spanish trade in the East. In China, traders were helped by the fact that the relative values of silver and Gold were very different there – the Chinese valued silver far more highly, and for a while it was possible to make a profit simply by selling silver and buying Gold.

So, the later 16th century then was much about the continuing growth and expansion of these Spanish and Portuguese empires. In the territories of South and central America, all native inhabitants were declared by the Spanish crown to have equal legal status. There’s no doubt that of course the crown saw colonisation as a great opportunity, especially of exploiting the mining of silver, but also the wider economic output. The way they tackled this was the encomienda system, which was modelled on that first established in the Caribbean. This gave the rights over the labour of specific groups of native people to specific conquistadores. Encomenderos were to ensure the native people were given instruction in the Christian faith and Spanish language, and protect them, while the natives in return would provide tributes in the form of metals, or agricultural produce. Whatever the intentions, the results were disastrous, though it was probably European diseases which caused the most horror, childhood diseases in particular. The numbers are constantly and hotly debated, but usually dramatic. Estimates in Mexico vary. At one end, a fall in native population from 27 million in 1500 to 1 million in 1600; at the other end of the estimates, population decline was as low as 25%. I say as low as, you know what I mean, in comparison to the higher estimates. In Peru, the native population is said to have fallen from between 9 and 16 million in 1500 to 500,000 in 1620. Against these falls, dramatic even at the lowest end, the number of Spaniards and Portuguese who emigrated to the new world was relatively small, maybe around 200,000 in the 16th century, and overwhelmingly male. As a result, although initially discouraged, there was a large amount of mixing between the populations.

The plight of the native south Americans is part of a well known narrative, and this partly because there were Spaniards who tried to highlight what was going on, notably Bartolome de las Casas, who bravely and loudly fought for the rights of the native people. There were attempts by the crown to prevent enslavement, and to limit the rights of the encomenderos to lifetime for example to maintain the crown’s direct authority and ability to protect the natives; but it is not clear this materially affected native conditions positively. The lure of profit was too great, or the distance to the mother country too far. Nor is it clear that anyway Las Casas won his argument even in theory at the time, during a famous debate called the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551 to identify if the natives were capable of self government.

These catastrophic population falls meant that by the mid 16th century and onwards, native labour simply disappeared; where they could, the locals just ran away when faced with the prospect of working in places like the Potosi mines. And so the Spanish and Portuguese found themselves in want of labour. This combined with the growth of the sugar industry, which would have appalling consequences.

The Sugar cane was a native of the South Pacific, taken to India in ancient times, then to China and the Mediterraean. Crete, Sicily, and Cyprus had the right kind of warm, wet climate for growing sugar, and also the Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa, where sugar industries were established; the earliest sugar plantations in Europe and Africa were worked by both free and slave workers from many ethnic groups, but by the 1480s the workers in many sugar plantations, especially those on the Atlantic islands, were all black African slaves. Sugar needs expensive refining machinery, and large numbers of workers to cut the cane. So it was labour intensive, and tended very strongly to large scale plantations, since small producers could not turn a profit on the investment needed.

The potential for sugar production in the Americas was identified early – Columbus established production in 1515 in what is now the Dominican republic, then in Cuba and in Jamaica in the 1520s. Parts of Brazil was ideal, and by 1600, Brazil was Europe’s largest source of sugar. When the Spanish and Portuguese producers were faced with the problem that they could not find enough workers, the solution illustrated by those Atlantic islands presented itself. In 1513, the Spanish crown formally licensed the Portuguese to transport slaves to the Spanish colonies, but under pressure of the demand, regulation began to break down. By 1600 as many as 200,000 Africans had been forced into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic, and by 1650 predominantly Portuguese ships had shipped maybe 800,000. While this is of course an enormous number, it is worth remembering that it is a fraction of the millions that would be shipped by the English and British in the 18th century as the size of the sugar trade grew and the British took over. It would take some time for this to happen, later in the 17th century, but the first signs of English involvement are there; both Hawkins and Drake tried mightily hard at various times during Elizabeth’s reign to take a piece of the slave trade.

At some point I will need to do a fuller episode on the Atlantic slave trade, but now is not that time. But I talk about colonisation and Atlantic trade here for a few reasons. The first is to note that despite it’s constant disunity at home, Europeans were remarkably consistent and united in their attitudes to the New worlds they had uncovered, in both west and East. This attitude was one of European superiority. Las Casas’s writing and courage in fighting the cause of the Native Southern Americans had an unfortunate side effect. Even in his works, the natives are presented as harmless and passive, and it encouraged the development of a stereotype in the west at least, of the simple, undeveloped savage. Take the work of the delightfully open minded French Philosopher Montaigne while arguing the case against the brutality of the colonisers, he still managed to ignore all the richness, sophistication, bravery, and culture of local nations, and build a picture of simple innocence, such as

For the wonder of the glistening of a looking glass or of a plaine knife would have changed or given inestimable riches in gold…

Of course, black slavery massively encouraged and embedded this sense of racial superiority. You might wonder how this could be transferred to the East, where the relationship was so different. In the 16th century in particular, Europeans had to fight hard to gain attention and the right to trade. And it’s true that there was more respect shown for the Chinese and Japanese. The tract entitled the Natural and Moral History of the East and West Indies for example was written by a Spanish Jesuit theologian José de Acosta, written sometime before 1600. He helpfully arranged world cultures into a hierarchy, with Europeans, Chinese, and Japanese at the top, Aztecs and Incas in the middle, and Africans and other people he described as “savages” at the bottom. Nonetheless, belief in cultural superiority, and the mission to impose Christianity throughout the world was an almost universally held European belief from the mid 16th century. It also must partly explain how so many European societies and individuals became involved and complicit with slavery. Slavery was not invented by the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Islam or whoever, it had of course been around in ancient and traditional societies. The Islamic and North African slave trade may well have put over a million into slavery. Nonetheless, even doing our best to adjust for different values of different ages, to judge people by the standards of their own day, it still seems incredible that anyone could cram all these black African people into a tiny sunless holds where a third would probably die. And the lure of profit does not seem enough. The fact that most accepted slavery as just a part of the way of things, still seems insufficient to explain it. So maybe some were just bad people, a vast number were too remote from the brutality of the process, but part of it must have been that Black Africans simply became viewed by Europeans as in some way less than human.

A second point then is the economic impact of all of this. It’s not just about pounds shilling and pence of course. There was the famous Colombian exchange as it was called, with the arrival in Europe of exotic new products that would have such an impact on economics, trade, culture; the potato from 1536, by 1600 coffee and Chocolate was becoming widespread, Tobacco started as snuff in France, and so on. I am told that about 30% of what we eat and drink in the west originated in the Americas. I have no idea, I have not been counting, so I leave that with you, but if we start with the potato it’s up in the 95-906%s for me personally. It’s difficult to get through a day without a potato I find. But what I should focus on is the economic impact of a system that had become thoroughly reliant on interconnected world systems; the Black Ship taking Silver to the Phillipines, to bring spices back to Europe, and then wine and manufactured goods to the colonies; slaves carried from Africa to the Americas, sugar and other goods to the Netherlands to produce bullion to pay the debt of the Spanish crown. It is generally agreed that this very substantial trade made Spain by 1600 the most powerful country in Europe. What is very less clear is how much genuine benefit it brought Spain, and how well she deployed and managed her new found riches. It’s also unclear how much impact this influx of gold and silver from the new world had in Europe. But look, let us try to have a hack, you would not forgive me if I did not. Well, you might actually be quite relieved, but I would not forgive myself.

As far as Spain Crown was concerned then, she took one 1/5th of all American bullion produced by her Empire and colonies, in addition to all the traditional taxes and customs dues. During the course of the 2nd half of the 16th century, the royal 1/5th increased from 250,000 ducats to 2 million Ducats, while extraordinary revenue doubled and normal revenue failed to even keep up with inflation. I have no way of translating that into the incomes of other countries. The points you might take, however, from the figures is are these. Firstly, that income from the colonies was rising, and rising fast. Unsurprising fact number 1 I hear you say, professor of the bleedin’ obvious. Secondly, it’s rising while the rest of Spanish revenue, normal revenue, is rather stagnant, reflecting the slightly unhealthy bias all this bullion produced, as Spain overstretched her normal resources and economy. Finally, although it’s difficult to translate, historians agree that Spain’s wealth was extraordinary, exceptional, and with the brief union between the Portuguese and Spanish crowns in 1580 was boosted even further. Through whatever crises, the Spanish currency was the European standard in quality, and remained so into the 17th century. And the bullion from the colonies was remarkably reliable income; every year, the treasure fleet brought the richest of the Americas into Seville in the form of bullion. I am sure a fair proportion of my youth was spent reading about Drake and Hawkins hunting down the fabulous wealth of the Spanish treasure fleets, and yet despite all that fame and effort, they never managed it. Nor did almost anyone else, by the way. The Dutch managed it once, in 1628. This enormous inflow of money financed massive and conspicuous building in Spain, a nobility newly enriched by service to the crown flaunting its wealth, and an army that was the envy of Europe, not just in its size but its peerless quality.

And yet, for some reason as much as Spain earned, the more their financial problems seemed to multiply. In 1559 for example, new onto the Spanish throne, his Dad not long dead, Philip faced an invasion from an Islamic army from North Africa. It was crucial he raise a fleet to combat its threat. But his revenues that year amounted to about 1.5 million ducats. Sounds great! But sadly, he needed 4.2 million for defence and servicing debt alone; and his total debt stood at 25 million ducats in total. Mr Micawber might have said ‘Annual income 1.5 million ducats, annual expenditure 4.2 million ducats, Islamic invasion pending, result misery’. Now he managed it by borrowing, but he had done quite a lot of that already. In fact the entire Spanish system relied very heavily on bankers to make it work.

The bullion hardly touched the sides of Philip’s pockets. I have an image of the stately and magnificent merchant ships drawing into the bustling port of Seville, the crowds cheering its annual arrival. I imagine great cart loads of bullion and goodies on the docks. And I image them being loaded straight into waiting ships and taken swept away to foreign bankers from Germany, Genoa, Antwerp, Portugal, leaving Philip holding half a crown and a ducky poker. An exaggeration maybe; but you know, that’s the basic picture. Without a ducky poker.

In 1556 when Philip II parked his backside on the chair of state, he found that his revenues were all spoken for all the way to 1561, 5 years hence. Now, I know what you are going to say – that’s OK, income is going up, easy peasy. But of course Philip kept simply upping his outgoings; between 1572 and 1576 when he was fighting both the Dutch and the Ottomans, he was spending double his annual income, a situation which would have had Mr Micawber reaching for the Valium. By the 1660’s Crown debt was 10 -15 years of income, and servicing the debt was 70% of annual income. Without wanting to be overly critical, Phillip’s dynastic ambitions, his unbreakable pride and belief in his and his crown’s reputation, and his determination to make almost any commitment to enforce universal Catholicism, would, once again, leave his country impoverished, and specifically Castile, and to miss the opportunity to genuinely transform its economy. There was too much money, essentially. In 1600 one Spaniard wrote

‘What makes Spain poor is her wealth’

He also faced a problem common to all Europeans, the green-eyed inflation monster. Grain prices for example rose dramatically and consistently throughout Europe; by the end of the century compared to the start, grain prices in Germany were 2 ½ times higher, in Austria 3 times higher, and 4 times higher in the Netherlands, Spain, England and Poland – and 6 times in France. Remember Inflation was unknown previously. And while that was happening, Population was also going potty. I will put a chart of numbers on the website (M p51), though bear in mind we are still in an era of extremely dodgy numbers. But by one measure, Europe’s population grew by 30% over the century, from 82 to 107 million. Together this increased the pressure on land, led to a flood of landless and jobless poor, and depressed wages. Another way of looking at the consequences of these two economic trends, is to think about what poorer people could buy with the sweat of their brow – remembering that for many the bread lines was never far away. So, in 1480 in the South of France, a farm labourer could expect to earn the equivalent of 468 litres of wheat a year.  By the end of the 16th century, they could earn barely the equivalent of 150 litres. That would have had our labourer looking up at the breadline with no more than fond memories.

No-one seems quite sure what caused this price inflation; the traditional theory was the inflow of extra bullion into Europe from the New World cheapened the commodity, increased the availability of money and therefore reduced its value; and it’s been noted that silver production within Europe increased at the same time, so we are talking about a double Whammy. I was interested to note that the annual inflow of silver from the New World did not exceed the annual production of European silver mines until 1570. But others have focussed more on the rising population and land hunger as the spur for inflation; others the actions of governments, such as the debasements of the coinage in England. But whatever the cause the results were great poverty; by 1600 ¾ of a poor family’s income went on food. Itinerant beggars proliferated and disturbed the order of medieval Europe. Attitudes towards these itinerant poor seem to have been similar throughout grew harsher. Cities passed laws prohibiting begging, and many opened workhouses where the able-bodied poor were put to work at simple tasks, such as spinning wool or beating hemp. Both Protestant and Catholic cities tried to centralize and consolidate the dispensation of charity, control begging, and put everyone who could to work.

The growth in population was accompanied by a growth in cities. At the start of the century there were 5 super cities of 100,000 or more people; by the end this had grown to fourteen. The likes of Paris, Bruges, Milan and Venice were joined by many whose growth was driven by international trade – cities such as Amsterdam, Antwerp, Seville, Lisbon and London. The vast majority of people, maybe 89%, still lived in the countryside – but the percentages were changing, and the influence of cities on trade was of course out of all proportion to their relative size.

There is great disagreement about the consequences of these economic changes, which I have brutally summarised. Some have seen the start of a capitalist society and economy, though in fact centralised manufacturing rather than the medieval putting out or cottage industry model was still rare. But in some places – northern Italy, the Netherlands, London, Paris, and a few other places, wealth increasingly came from trade and manufacturing production, not land. There was a wide variety of social responses; in England and France, social mobility increased; in central and Eastern Europe it was very much the opposite. Here, the nobility took action to protect their ancient way of life and privilege by actually re-imposing serfdom newly imposed on a recently free peasantry, depressing productivity rather than leading to greater wealth.

All horribly summarised, I am sorry, and possibly confusingly so; the overall picture you might keep in your mind is one of economic growth, but in such an inflexible economic system, the growth was insufficient to absorb the extra population leading to great poverty and misery for many.

This then was the background in which Imperial Spain moved and led. Philip II was notably determined not to tolerate religious heterodoxy, and the experience of the chaos in France could have done nothing to persuade him he was wrong. And he demanded that same political obedience, demanding an unswerving loyalty to the Spanish nation under its catholic monarch. By Spain, as far as Philip was concerned, that essentially meant Castile.  The result was polarisation. The dominance of Castile meant that within Spain the kingdom of Aragon was to rebel in 1591. The focus on Catholicism meant that opponents of Spain became opponents of Catholicism, and opponents of Catholicism became opponents of Spain.  And nowhere was that more true than in the low countries, more specifically the Netherlands.

The Netherlands were vulnerable to Calvinism – independent minded cities, high levels of trade with a consistent stream of migrants and traders moving in and out. Mindful of the dangers, Phillip instituted a reform of the bishoprics in 1559, increasing the number of Bishops in the Low Countries to 18, and he thoughtfully provided 2 Inquisitors within each Bishopric to lead the and manage the pursuit of heresy. As the new bishops started their work, they managed to trample on both religious and secular sensitivities; not only was this not the broad, flexible religion people were used to, the Bishops also violated secular liberties such as the right of citizens to be tried in a local court. From Phillip’s point of view this was dandy, it was a BOGOF, two for the price of one – strengthening central and political power while rooting out heresy. What’s not to like? In 1562 alone there were some 600 prosecutions for heresy. Hang out the bunting. But from a local point of view it meant that a broad coalition emerged against Philip – both the emerging Protestants communities and Catholics could make common cause, because they could unite over their political grievance, and even Catholics disliked the new, harder confessional lines produced by the Council of Trent.

So, thoroughly peeved, in 1566, a group of 250 nobles came to the court of Philip’s regent, Margaret of Parma. They brought a petition and a list of grievances. When Margaret worried at the numbers of these nobles, one of her advisors sneeringly referred to them being nobodies, merely beggars. It was a name that would stick, the dissidents would take pride in the name, and it would become a powerful rallying cry through the following revolt.

Through the 1560’s attitudes on both sides hardened. In 1566, as Calvinism began to take hold of the country and there was a wave of iconoclasm that demonstrated to Philip that he was absolutely on the money, this lot needed to be taught a lesson and sorted out right now. Enter, stage left, the villain, twiddling wax moustaches and rolling his eyes at the audience – the Duke of Alva, the Iron Duke.

These troubles must be ended by force of arms, without any use of pardon, mildness, negotiations or talks until everything has been flattened. Then will be the right time for negotiation.

Riiight. With 10,000 soldiers at his back, the Duke, Spain’s most successful general, sought to extinguish the revolt. The infamous Council of Blood carried out trials for heresy on an industrial scale. The more conservative numbers have it that protestants suffered from 1,400 convictions for heresy, with 1,000 executions and by the time the Council was wound up, 12,000 cases were still undecided, all of those people affected presumably living in fear of their lives.

Enter William of Orange, William the Silent, around whom resistance gathered; the very same William who had leant his arm to Emperor Charles V when he abdicated. Actually, William the Silent was remarkably unsuccessful in the fight against Alba, and maybe given the comparative resources and Alba’s reputation, that’s unsurprising. But he did that most crucial of things; he survived. He survived to fight on even as the fires of revolt burnt low to be all but extinguished. By 1571, Alba had done so well that he was even managing to make the Dutch pay for their own repression, with the infamous Tenth Penny, extracting 8 million Florins compared to the 1 million he was sent from Spain. Cool. In the process though, a critical relationship had been forged; while for most Dutch, the revolt was about freedom from political tyranny, Phillip’s fierce Catholicism forced all Netherlanders to equate Catholicism with tyranny and equate Protestantism with the fight for freedom – in exactly the same way that in reverse, the Irish would view the English. But for the moment, that was pretty academic anyway; because the Dutch Revolt was over. Squished, knackered.

In April 1572, a desperate group of ships approach the Dutch harbour of Brill, calling themselves the Sea Beggars. Under pressure from Philip’s diplomacy, Elizabeth of England had refused to admit them to English ports, and now they had no home. To their astonishment, they found Brill undefended by Spanish troops. They looked at each other and decided that hey, wherever I lay my hat, that can be my home and so it was. A few days later they tried the same at Vissigien, and would you adam and eve it the same tactic worked there too. The fall of the two towns light a fire in the Netherlands for a second time, and town after town declared once more for the Beggars, and the Dutch Revolt was back in town.

The euphoria didn’t long survive the Iron Duke’s response. Town after town fell right back into Spanish hands. In this they were inspired, of that’s the right word, by Alba’s brutal treatment of the towns in his way. Mechelen was sacked over 3 days. After 7 months, Haalem was finally forced to surrender and its entire garrison butchered. But this resistance slowed Alba down, and other cities held out, like Leiden and Alkmar. By the end of 1573 Alba had fallen to court intrigues and have been replaced – the revolt was still alive.

I am told that there is an expression in Spanish when there’s something really difficult to do. Let’s say I have a bug on the website. I might wearily sigh to my other half that ‘ oh lord, it’s as hard as putting a pikeman into Flanders.’ Not sure if that really is an expression but that’s what I was told by that bloke in the pub. If so, it reflects the nightmare that was the Spanish Road, as it became known; the massive supply line all the way from Spain through the Empire to the low countries. It’s very existence reflected that by this time the Spanish could claim no automatic naval superiority against the Dutch and English, and it was draining Spain of blood. Despite heavy taxation and despite the Spanish road, most Spanish troops in the Netherlands were constantly unpaid.  In 1576, the army was at the end of it’s tether – and it simply decided to take what it was owed. The Spanish Fury of Antwerp may have claimed as many as 17,000 lives as the army went wild, The Fury at Aalst claimed many more, and over 170 places across the low countries were subjected to violence of some sort. The Spanish had lost control, and even Don John, the victor of Lepanto, was unable to then bring the Dutch to heel.

However, over the next few years a split emerged; the 7 provinces in the south were persuaded to return to the Spanish fold; the revolts of the army were finally brought under control, and a process of education convinced the majority, relatively peacefully, that they should stay with the Catholic church – though it has to be said that many simply left.  It was only the northern provinces that in 1579 agreed the Treaty of Utrecht, forming the union of Utrecht. The United provinces swore to the Spanish ‘you don’t get me I’m part of the union til the day I die’, and swore to fight what the treaty declared to be

tyrannical government and slavery.

The treaty also specifically had words about religion. It declared that

‘each individual enjoys freedom of religion and no one is persecuted or questioned about his religion’.

In practice, this did not mean open freedom of worship – the Reformed Church was made the state church, and Catholics would need to be discreet about how they went about practicing religion; but with the exception of Poland, this is the most remarkable example of toleration in the 16th century. You might like to take out membership of the History of England, which will allow you to listen to my mego-sode on Religious toleration in Europe, where this is discussed in much more depth, showing why intoleration was so widespread, the impact of the religious wars, where and how toleration starts to develop in the Netherlands and England, and how eventually people learn to live together. Just go to the history of England.com and click on become a member and pay the paltry fee. You’ll also get access to about 36 hours worth of podcast on many English topics and a History of Scotland. It’s a bargain I am sure you will agree, as cheap and chips. And that is the end of the party political broadcast.

The United Provinces had a most innovative constitutional arrangement. The States General was composed of the provinces and towns, each led by a figure called their Pensionary. To keep things fair and even, they appointed a rotating presidency to the states general. The president then presided over the meetings of the States General for a week at a time. As time went by, to keep things fair and even but also nimble, the pensionaries started acting as an executive committee. Initially, however, the idea was not to form a Republic. In fact in political and social terms, this was not the rebellion of social and political radicals; so although the formal declaration of Independence in 1581 deposed Philip II as their king – they were all for finding a new, nice and traditional monarch to top off the pyramid. Sadly they couldn’t find one, and several were tried including Elizabeth I. In 1584, William II was assassinated, and his son Maurice assumed leadership, but monarch there would be none.

The final act in a sense, although not the end of the struggle which would not finally come until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, was the appointment of the Duke of Parma to the Regency of the Netherlands by Philip. Over 3 years, Parma carried out over 30 sieges with an army of over 60,000, and re-established Spanish control over much territory. It would be this Duke of Parma that would attempt to meet the Armada in 1588 to remove Elizabeth from the throne of England. Despite his military successes, effectively the northern provinces remained independent, while the southern remained integrated into the Spanish empire; 150,000 protestants would leave and travel to enjoy the toleration in the north.

For the last 3 years of his life Philip II was strapped into a specially constructed chair that kept him almost motionless, as he suffered from gout and bouts of fever caused by malaria. On the 13th of September 1598, he finally died at the Palace of Escorial at the age of 71. It did not take long, a matter of months, for a wave of criticism from his subjects and the church for which he had fought so hard, to sweep over his reputation. Along with the vociferous, hysterical and reasonably justified fear and hatred of the protestants of England and the Netherlands, so it has been ever since – Phillip II really needed a promotional agent. He must take some blame for the atrocities committed in his name, and the financial chaos caused by his relentless and overwhelming wars. But he was a hardworking, pious and conscientious man who carried out the obligations he deeply believed that he inherited with his title, and at Lepanto can be credited with playing a major part in turning back the Ottoman tide. He faced an impossible task with an Empire of staggering complexity, and fought forces of economic, social and religious change that would have defeated anybody; and he remained determined to the end. It is worth noting that he shared some of the pragmatism about religion of his father; while in England, he appears to have been opposed to the hard line approach Mary favoured toward persecution. He was, in short, nothing more or less than a man of his time, he doesn’t deserve to be treated as a villain.

That, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the end of this series of three episodes on 16th century Europe. There’s an awful lot there, but I hope it gives you both a bunch of great stories and a framework for the English stories we will be hearing over the next few months and so on. It is a century of enormous change, and of quite hideous levels of conflict – I mean have you ever heard anything like it? Religious mayhem and quite extra ordinary persecution, in the most painful of ways. Social and economic dislocation. Colonisation and the invention and growth of the Atlantic slave trade. But it is also a century of expansion and growth; of the population, of economy, of technology, of the idea, in just a few corners of Europe that maybe toleration will be the only way forward.  Of the growth of nationhood and the state, which will be both boon and curse.

12 thoughts on “255 Europe XI The Spanish Century

  1. Odd. I was able to get to it through a link on Facebook, but it still doesn’t show up on the main website page on my computer. Oh well- I have it- thanks.

  2. Great podcast, David. One tiny mistake you made. Cortez conquered the Aztecs in Mexico which is in North America, not Central America.

    1. Oh darn, I am so sorry. A failure of my geopolitical skills. Thanks anyway for the correction – I can at least change the transcript

  3. Hello David, I’m a bit confused where is Ep # 254? It’s still not here. I just listened to it and wanted to refer to the maps? Also for the episode, The Sea Hawk would have been a better reference than Scaramouche…..the galley slave and Tripolitanian slave market scenes are more apt for this episode.


  4. Caught the Micawber reference. Very nice.
    Been listening furiously over the last year and I will catch up to current in 2020.

  5. Another great episode, David. Unless I am having a very-late-middle-age moment, I think there is one minor error: you note that Columbus did something in 1515, which is quite an accomplishment given that he died 9 years prior, in 1506.

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