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    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies


    Figure 3. Europe in the Sixteenth Century

    Ferdinand and Isabella

    The marriage in 1469 of royal cousins, Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516) and Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), eventually brought stability to both kingdoms. Isabella's niece, Juana, had bloodily disputed her succession to the throne in a conflict in which the rival claimants were given assistance by outside powers--Isabella by Aragon and Juana by her suitor, the king of Portugal. The Treaty of AlcaƧovas ended the war in September 1479, and as Ferdinand had succeeded his father in Aragon earlier in the same year, it was possible to link Castile with Aragon. Both Isabella and Ferdinand understood the importance of unity; together they effected institutional reform in Castile and left Spain one of the best administered countries in Europe.

    Even with the personal union of the Castilian and the Aragonese crowns, Castile, Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia remained constitutionally distinct political entities, and they retained separate councils of state and parliaments. Ferdinand, who had received his political education in federalist Aragon, brought a new emphasis on constitutionalism and a respect for local fueros to Castile, where he was king consort (1479- 1504) and continued as regent after Isabella's death in 1504. Greatly admired by Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Ferdinand was one of the most skillful diplomats in an age of great diplomats, and he assigned to Castile its predominant role in the dual monarchy.

    Ferdinand and Isabella resumed the Reconquest, dormant for more than 200 years, and in 1492 they captured Granada, earning for themselves the title of Catholic Kings. Once Islamic Spain had ceased to exist, attention turned to the internal threat posed by hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in the recently incorporated Granada. "Spanish society drove itself," historian J.H. Elliot writes, "on a ruthless, ultimately self-defeating quest for an unattainable purity."

    Everywhere in sixteenth-century Europe, it was assumed that religious unity was necessary for political unity, but only in Spain was there such a sense of urgency in enforcing religious conformity. Spain's population was more heterogeneous than that of any other European nation, and it contained significant nonChristian communities. Several of these communities, including in particular some in Granada, harbored a significant element of doubtful loyalty. Moriscos (Granadan Muslims) were given the choice of voluntary exile or conversion to Christianity. Many Jews converted to Christianity, and some of these Conversos filled important government and ecclesiastical posts in Castile and in Aragon for more than 100 years. Many married or purchased their way into the nobility. Muslims in reconquered territory, called Mudejars, also lived quietly for generations as peasant farmers and skilled craftsmen.

    After 1525 all residents of Spain were officially Christian, but forced conversion and nominal orthodoxy were not sufficient for complete integration into Spanish society. Purity of blood (pureza de sangre) regulations were imposed on candidates for positions in the government and the church, to prevent Moriscos from becoming a force again in Spain and to eliminate participation by Conversos whose families might have been Christian for generations. Many of Spain's oldest and finest families scrambled to reconstruct family trees.

    The Inquisition, a state-controlled Castilian tribunal, authorized by papal bull in 1478, that soon extended throughout Spain, had the task of enforcing uniformity of religious practice. It was originally intended to investigate the sincerity of Conversos, especially those in the clergy, who had been accused of being crypto-Jews. Tomas de Torquemada, a descendant of Conversos, was the most effective and notorious of the Inquisition's prosecutors.

    For years religious laws were laxly enforced, particularly in Aragon, and converted Jews and Moriscos continued to observe their previous religions in private. In 1568, however, a serious rebellion broke out among the Moriscos of Andalusia, who sealed their fate by appealing to the Ottoman Empire for aid. The incident led to mass expulsions throughout Spain and to the eventual exodus of hundreds of thousands of Conversos and Moriscos, even those who had apparently become devout Christians.

    In the exploration and exploitation of the New World, Spain found an outlet for the crusading energies that the war against the Muslims had stimulated. In the fifteenth century, Portuguese mariners were opening a route around Africa to the East. At the same time as the Castilians, they had planted colonies in the Azores and in the Canary Islands (also Canaries; Spanish, Canarias), the latter of which had been assigned to Spain by papal decree. The conquest of Granada allowed the Catholic Kings to divert their attention to exploration, although Christopher Columbus's first voyage in 1492 was financed by foreign bankers. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia, a Catalan) formally approved the division of the unexplored world between Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tordesillas, which Spain and Portugal signed one year later, moved the line of division westward and allowed Portugal to claim Brazil.

    New discoveries and conquests came in quick succession. Vasco Nunez de Balboa reached the Pacific in 1513, and the survivors of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition completed the circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. In 1519 the conquistador Hernando Cortes subdued the Aztecs in Mexico with a handful of followers, and between 1531 and 1533 Francisco Pizzaro overthrew the empire of the Incas and established Spanish dominion over Peru.

    In 1493, when Columbus brought 1,500 colonists with him on his second voyage, a royal administrator had already been appointed for the Indies. The Council of the Indies (Consejo de Indias), established in 1524 acted as an advisory board to the crown on colonial affairs, and the House of Trade (Casa de Contratacion) regulated trade with the colonies. The newly established colonies were not Spanish but Castilian. They were administered as appendages of Castile, and the Aragonese were prohibited from trading or settling there.

    Data as of December 1988

    NOTE: The information regarding Spain on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Spain THE GOLDEN AGE information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Spain THE GOLDEN AGE should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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