Spain in the 1500s

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Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Spain in the 1500s

Queen Isabel died in 1504; although Juana inherited the throne of Castile, she was not mentally or emotionally stable enough to perform her duties. Knowing of her daughter’s condition, Isabel had arranged for Ferdinand to serve as regent until Juana’s son Charles of Ghent, born in 1500, was old enough to rule.

Ferdinand died in 1516; on his grandfather’s death, Charles of Ghent inherited both Castile and Aragon and was crowned King Charles I of Spain. He also inherited all Hapsburg lands in central Europe, which put him in possession of more territory than any one individual had ever ruled in Europe. At first, Charles was much more interested in the Holy Roman Empire than in Spain; his Spanish subjects interpreted his long absences as disrespect, and rebelled. Once his loyal supporters had put down the rebellion, Charles agreed to reform his habits. He returned to Spain and remained there for the balance of his life, overseeing his responsibilities as his subjects had expected.

Charles had several sisters, all of whom married heirs to various thrones in Denmark, Hungary, Portugal, and France. These marriages solidified alliances between Spain and these European states. In 1519, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor, making him Charles I of Spain and Charles V of Germany.

A devout Catholic like all the Spanish monarchs, Charles engaged in a series of wars to try to wipe out Protestantism and reunite Europe under the Catholic faith. These efforts were costly, time-consuming, and ultimately unsuccessful. With the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which established that each elector in the empire could choose the religion of his own state, Charles abdicated. He turned the Holy Roman Empire over to his brother Ferdinand and abdicated the throne of Spain in favor of his son Philip, who would rule as Philip II.

Philip II and the Fall of Spain

Philip II inherited perhaps the most prosperous and powerful kingdom in Europe. By the 1550s, Spain boasted a thriving wool industry, a powerful navy, a stable aristocracy, religious unity (albeit enforced), and great wealth coming in from the American colonies. In addition, Philip’s close family ties to several rulers in Austria and central Europe created strong national alliances for Spain.

By the time Philip inherited the throne, Spain had reaped tremendous prof- its from trade with its American colonies. Spain had always been a shipping economy, since it had long stretches of coastline and its ships were accustomed to navigating the Mediterranean as well as the Atlantic. This high degree of maritime skill was one reason Spain had been the first nation to sponsor transatlantic voyages.

Philip established Spain’s first national capital in the city of Madrid. Until his accession to the throne, the royal court had traveled throughout the provinces, settling first in one city, then another. Philip, whose natural bent was for administration rather than war, preferred a stable working environment and thus a stationary court. He chose Madrid because it had two advantages. First, it was centrally located in the realm. Second, it was an insignificant town at the time; by choosing Madrid, Philip did not create regional rivalry among the more established centers of learning, industry, and culture. Had he chosen a city such as Seville, it might have created resentment among the wealthy residents of the cities he rejected.

Like all the Spanish monarchs, Philip was a devout Catholic. Unlike Henry IV of France, who had converted for reasons of political expediency, Philip had no religious tolerance in his nature. He refused to allow the practice of any religion except Catholicism anywhere in his realms, including the distant American colonies.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Europe in 16th Century Practice Test

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