Spain’s ‘Golden Age’

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Last updated: April 19, 2019

In what ways, and to what extent, does the concept of Spain’s ‘Golden Age’ apply more appropriately to the reign of Philip II than to the whole period 1474-1598? Explain your answer by reference to similarities and differences you detect between the periods before and after the accession of Philip II.The epithet ‘Golden Age’ is arguably over-simplistic, in that it implies an epoch of universal success, and thus leads to a tendency to mythologize and idealise a period. It would be na�ve to suggest that any age could be entirely ‘golden,’ for successes in one sphere are almost always counterbalanced by failures in another. In a heterogeneous society such as Spain, comprised of divergent and often oppositional political, economic and religious groups, the concepts of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ become ever more intermingled; what benefits some will inevitably have negative consequences for others.

Whilst such complexity renders the concept of a ‘Golden Age’ dependent upon historiographical interpretation, the result of which, as Kamen states, may be to a degree dependent upon ‘one’s political and moral views,’ it does not render it a useless term. A ‘Golden Age’ can most simply, and probably most usefully, be defined just as a relatively prolonged and continuous period in which a nation experienced concurrent successes in a variety of fields, and of which one judges that these successes outweighed any failures.Arguably, the principal determinant of whether a certain point in time there was ever a ‘Golden Age’ in Spain must therefore be the extent to which there were at any point numerous accomplishments in the domains most fundamental to the development of the nation – principally foreign policy, the economy, political control and the imposition of religious belief.In order to establish to what extent Philip’s reign was alone the elusive ‘Golden Age,’ it is necessary to examine his fortunes in these four areas, which were fundamental to Spain’s experience throughout the whole period. A comparison of his successes and failures to the fortunes of earlier rulers should ultimately identify to what extent Philip’s accession in 1556 prefigured fundamental and positive changes that differed significantly enough from prior reigns to allow his reign to be the sole ‘Golden Age.’The most common factor cited as evidence of a Spanish ‘Golden Age’ is the almost meteoric growth of Castile as a territorial and military power, with the reign of Philip II often perceived as the height of Spanish imperialism.

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Yet Castile’s late-sixteenth century dominance in foreign policy was ultimately little more than an illusion, as after 1516 she did not gain any territory and never actually experienced a prolonged period of military success.With regard to Spanish territorial growth, Philip’s reign was not a ‘Golden Age,’ but the continuation of stagnation that had occurred under his father. Here, the key turning point was the accession of Charles, who subjugated Spanish foreign policy interests to his other campaigns, and thus ended the territorial ‘Golden Age’ of Ferdinand and Isabella, in which Aragon annexed Naples and Castile gained sole control of the Americas. Despite gaining prestige under Charles and Philip from her association with the amassed glories of the Habsburg crown, Spain, Kamen highlights, ‘never annexed any territory.’ Whilst Castile was the dominant kingdom of the monarquia, she was not the leader of a European empire, with Philip’s territories all politically autonomous, sharing only a common sovereign.Historians, however, now generally concur with Thompson’s assertion that ‘Spain had little claim to be considered a military power in her own right until the latter half of the sixteenth century,’ and thus maintain that Philip’s accession did constitute a key turning point in the military development of Castile. Always a junior partner in Charles’ campaigns, after the succession the mantle of empire passed decisively to Castile, forcing her to adopt the military burden of Habsburg campaigns.In terms of the period as a whole, Philip’s reign is thus the only period that could qualify as a military ‘Golden Age,’ but this is less a reflection of triumph than of the fact that Spain did not become a military power until 1556.

For despite the fearsome reputation of her army, Castile experienced mixed fortunes on the battlefield, with the triumph of Lepanto in 1571 countered by the fruitless Habsburg-Valois wars and the financial drain presented by the Netherlands. Many historians concur that the disastrous Armada marked the beginning of a military decline, with Lockyer claiming that ‘the blow to Spanish prestige was enormous.’ Thus any military ‘Golden Age’ was embarrassingly fleeting, and one is tempted to conclude that the term is not an accurate description of Castile’s experience under Philip II.Financially, the period was as a whole characterised by the continuing subjugation of the economy to the monarchy’s short term religious and political advantage, and despite the vast influx of bullion was therefore hardly an economic ‘Golden Age.

‘ Ferdinand and Isabella set the precedent of manipulating the economy for short-term gain by extracting loans to finance the Reconquista, Isabella, Woodward claims, judging that ‘economic sacrifices were justified in the name of Christianity.’ Later in the period, economic sacrifices were increasingly also justified in the name of dynasticism, with Charles and later Philip both borrowing vast sums of money from German and Genoese bankers to finance imperial campaigns.Although the accession of Philip palpably saw Castilian wealth rise, as unprecedented amounts of bullion flowed into Seville, it did not mark a turning point in economic policy, as Philip, unwilling to compromise his political and religious aims, continued to use the bullion to pay off the vast debts amassed by himself and bequeathed to him by his father. Morris claims that all Spanish monarchs thought only of short-term interest, abusing the bullion ‘ in such a way as to bring little long-term benefit to the Spanish economy.’However, 1556 was not a turning point in economic policy, it did mark the start of a period when the frailty of the economy began to become all too obvious. None of the period was an economic ‘Golden Age,’ but Philip’s reign heralded the beginning of economic collapse.Economic weakness was not only a key problem for Philip, who was forced to declare bankruptcy four times, and had to sell off vast tracts of land and mortgage crown income to raise money for loan repayments, but also for Castile. The long-term diversion of bullion to foreign bankers had not enabled it to benefit the economy, and Spain’s palpable wealth merely culminated in rocketing inflation that marked the beginning of an age of mass poverty, and crippled any attempts to develop industry because Castilian goods were priced out of the international market.

Throughout the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the interests of the Spanish economy were continually subjugated to the monarchs’ political and religious aims, and the damage caused by such long-term neglect render it erroneous to claim that an economic ‘Golden Age’ ever occurred.Philip’s accession in 1556 did herald some major changes in the government of Spain. However, these developments were largely detrimental in that they contributed to administrative chaos, and they therefore cannot be said to have heralded a political ‘Golden Age.’ In addition, outward changes masked a large degree of underlying continuity.Philip’s political style did signify the beginning of the development of a modern bureaucratic state, with a permanent capital established at Madrid and a repository founded for all state papers. However, the most significant change was that, as Woodward claims ‘Philip assumed total responsibility for governing his subjects.’ He believed that, as God’s representative, he was obliged to perform such a role, and, unable to differentiate between the important and the trivial, stubbornly refused to delegate.

He was thus overburdened with information, and was, Kilsby states, ‘unable to deal effectively with every matter that came to him.’ Such a style of rule also slowed greatly the mechanics of a concilar system that had evolved to cope with Charles’ absenteeism, and was especially inefficient in administering the provinces, given that it took up to two months for communication to be received.Despite his theoretical autocracy, Philip was thus in practice no more absolute than his predecessors, and Spain became characterised, as J Vi�ens Vivens says, by ‘a maximum concentration of power at the apex and its minimal diffusion towards the base.

‘ Even in Castile, vast tracts of land were still controlled by the aristocracy and the Church, and Philip’s orders throughout the monarquia were often weakly imposed or ignored.Fundamentally, Spain was governed throughout the period along the lines pioneered by Ferdinand and Isabella, with the kingdoms of the monarquia existing as politically separate entities. At no point in the period were there decisive moves to impose unity and Woodward claims that in Philip’s reign, the Iberian peninsula still ‘consisted of a series of individual autonomous kingdoms, each with its own laws, languages, customs and economic barriers.’No point during the period was truly a political ‘Golden Age,’ given that central control was limited, administration was largely chaotic and inefficient, and no moves were made towards political uniformity.

Philip’s reign was in practice largely a continuation of his predecessors’ policies, and arguably his own style of rule rendered the management of Spain even less effective.Throughout the period, Spanish achievement, and, indeed, identity, was underpinned by two key religious objectives – the continuation of the crusading tradition started by the Reconquista, and the expurgating of any heterodoxy within royal domains. These aims retained abiding importance in Philip’s reign, and coloured many of his policies, from the wars against the Ottoman Turks to the continued suppression of Islam and Protestantism within Spain through the use of the Inquisition, the dispersal of the Moriscos, and the imposition of censorship.

However, an additional religious dimension of Philip II’s reign was provided by the counter-reformation, in which attempts were made to increase the spiritual knowledge and Christian zeal of the Spanish populace through reform of the Church. Although the impact of the Catholic Reformation varied across Spain, it did, Woodward claims, generate a ‘new spirit of Catholicism’ that culminated in a “Catholic Renaissance”, embracing both the artistic works of artists such as El Greco and the spiritual zeal of reforming saints such as Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola.Assessment of whether the period as a whole constituted a religious ‘Golden Age’ is ideologically contentious, for although fundamentalist Catholicism was the motivation for much Spanish achievement during the period, it also endowed the country with an unhealthy streak of religious bigotry, and – although the terror of the Inquisition is partially myth- led to the persecution and suffering of racial and religious minorities. Ultimately, the abundance of destructive consequences of Spain’s uncompromising faith militates against the use of the epithet in this context.

Ultimately, Philip’s reign was ultimately marked more by continuity than by change, and thus the division of the sixteenth century at 1556 is misleading, pointing to an imaginary antithesis . Whilst the accession of a new sovereign, particularly in a period where the monarch was endowed with absolute power, inevitably caused some changes – in Philip’s case notably the move towards centralised rule and the development of Castile as a military power – instances of continuity outweighed the differences. Bequeathed large amounts of his father’s patrimony and a firm believer in both imperialism and militant Catholicism, Philip was, as Lockyer claims, ultimately committed not to change, but to the ‘maintenance of the status quo.’ This he achieved, but his reign signalled little forward, positive development for Spain, and is thus not distinctive enough from the preceding period to merit the epithet of a ‘Golden Age’ in its own right.

Indeed, attempting to demarcate solely one reign as the elusive Spanish ‘Golden Age’ is largely a futile exercise, for although there are evidently changes and developments both positive and negative throughout the period, the underlying characteristics of the age, namely political diversity, economic mismanagement and rampant imperial ambition underpinned by a militant religious zeal, are manifest from the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and essentially change little. Ultimately, whether one feels that such an age deserves the appellation ‘golden’ is, as Kamen claims ‘dependent upon one’s political and moral views…and on the perspective one takes of history.’

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