Spain was unified under the joint monarchy of Ferdinand of Aragon and devout Isabel of Castille. Their rule was so unified that everything was officially done jointly, even if they were apart: one day it was reported that "the king and queen ... gave birth to a daughter". The secret of their monarchy was that they travelled ceaselessly: their mediaeval style of monarchy depended upon the visibility of the monarch(s). In their annus mirabilis of 1492 they completed the Christian reconquest of the peninsula by capturing Granada, they expelled the Jews, and Columbus discovered America on their behalf.
But their only surviving daughter, Juana, had married a Habsburg and was mentally unstable. On the death of her husband she went completely bonkers. So the throne passed to her 17 year old son Charles who was also Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of Naples and the Netherlands. With Spanish America, Spain was now a super-power, although one whose empire was inherited rather than deserved. The heartland of Castille was simply not rich enough to sustain the imperial demands. Gold and Silver from the Americas helped Charles balance the books but a financial disaster was waiting to happen.
When Charles' son Philip (who had once been married to Mary of England) became king he immediately restructured his debts. Although he no longer ruled the Holy Roman Empire, which had been passed to Charles' brother, Philip still ruled the Netherlands which now revolted. The costs of fighting this rebellion spiralled. Despite adding Portugal to his realm (another dynastic inheritance although one he had t, briefly, fight for) Philip went bankrupt. More than once. The destruction of the Spanish Armada didn't help.
Financial instability continued under his heirs; the country continued to decline. The last Habsburg king was the victim of genetic in-breeding: his jaw protruded so much that he found it difficult to eat and he was probably infertile and possibly impotent. He had no legitimate heirs of his own body so he bequeathed the throne to the French Dauphin and so started the War of Spanish Succession. This ended with the loss of most of the rest of Spain's European possessions so the new Bourbon dynasty was able to concentrate on rebuilding the land.
Thus a patchwork of mediaeval states became an accidental empire which declined into a nation state. This fascinating tale rarely flags. There is so much of interest; much is relevant today. The concept of convivienza, for example, in which Spanish Moors and Jews coexisted with the Catholic population was replaced with the racist limpieza de sangre (cleanliness of blood); even converted Moslems and Jews were persecuted. The medieval monarchy was based upon personal rule but the Hapsburg Empire had to develop bureaucratic and ministerial rule. And a country receiving previously unheard of wealth from the New World plunged into debt and inflation.
A wonderful tale, well told. August 2013; 275 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57