Spain in the 1400s

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012


North African Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the early 700s and controlled much of the territory for more than seven hundred years. It was only toward the end of the Middle Ages that Christian armies began to drive them from power. During the 1400s, the expansion of the Spanish military led to success in this venture. This retaking of the lands that would eventually become the nations of Portugal and Spain is known as the Reconquista.

At this time, Spain was not a unified nation but a collection of principalities. The two strongest were Aragon in western Spain and Castile in eastern Spain. Each of these provinces had annexed others until they achieved the status of kingdoms. In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabel of Castile, uniting the crowns and consolidating Spanish power. Both were monarchs in their own right, but there was no European tradition of female monarchs; therefore, Isabel considered it politically expedient to share some of her authority with Ferdinand. Isabel was queen of Castile, where Ferdinand had limited author- ity but could not act without her counsel and consent. Ferdinand was king of Aragon, where Isabel had no power or authority except as his consort.

The major goal of the Spanish monarchs can be summed up in one word: control. Control over the nobility would make their position on the throne secure. Control over the population would prevent any threats of uprising or civil war. Control over the other Spanish provinces would unite the kingdom and give the monarchs greater power and authority in Europe.

Control of the Nobility

Relations between the Spanish monarchy and the aristocracy were based on an exchange of favors for loyalty. The monarch needed to control the hereditary nobles, quelling any desire they might have to depose, assassinate, or rise up against royal authority; on their side, the nobles depended on the monarch for privileges. Isabel and Ferdinand offered the nobles major privileges: salaried offices and the titles that accompanied them, substantial rewards for military service, and grants of land that they could pass on to their heirs. In exchange, the Spanish nobles were remarkably loyal to the throne; as was usual in an absolute monarchy, the nobles were conservative, with no incentive to alter a system that brought them rich rewards in return for relatively little effort.

Control of the People

In 1478, Isabel and Ferdinand established the Spanish Inquisition, which reported directly to the monarch rather than operating under the authority of the Church. Although the Muslims had been driven from power, many Muslims still lived in Spain; the peninsula also had a substantial Jewish population. The monarchs believed that for the good of the state, the people should all have the same faith. This would prevent civil unrest, conflicts, and possible uprisings. A homogeneous nation, according to the monarchs’ way of thinking, would be more peaceful.

Jews and Muslims were faced with three choices: convert to Christianity by choice, convert by force, or leave the country. In 1492, all Jews were ordered to convert or leave Spain; in 1499, the same order was issued against Muslims.

Naturally, many Jews and Muslims chose to convert, not wishing to give up home, friends, livelihood, and family. They remained objects of suspicion in the eyes of the Inquisition, which questioned the sincerity of their conversions; by Spanish law, it was a crime to practice any non-Christian religion, even in the privacy of one’s home. If someone observed that the Jewish converts next door never ate pork, for example, the neighbor could denounce the family to the Inquisition on suspicion of practicing Judaism. The Inquisition would arrest such people, then use a variety of interrogation techniques to find the facts. In cases of high crimes, the Inquisitors used torture, which had been standard under the Roman laws on which the Inquisition was based. The Inquisition was an enormously effective royal tool for maintaining control by means of fear.

Control of the Lands

In 1492, the Spanish army completed the Reconquista by capturing Granada, the last Muslim stronghold. With the war over, Isabel could turn her attention to her longstanding interest in establishing a viable sea route to Asia. Her sponsorship of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus marked the beginning of the cultural exchange between Europe and the Americas. After Isabel’s death, Ferdinand continued to acquire more land; he annexed provinces in Italy and France and even expanded as far as Oran in North Africa.

Isabel and Ferdinand cemented or established important foreign alliances by arranging dynastic marriages for their children. Princess Catherine of Aragon married Arthur of England; when he died, she married his younger brother Henry, who would rule as Henry VIII. Princess Juana married Philip of Ghent (sometimes called “Philip the Handsome”), son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. By birth, Philip would inherit all the considerable Hapsburg lands in central Europe; he was also the likely successor to his father as Holy Roman Emperor.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Europe in 16th Century Practice Test

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