Socyety in Spain

In the 15th century, there were five kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula: Castile, Aragón (which included Catalonia, Valencia, the kingdom of Naples, Sardinia and Sicily), Granada, Navarre and Portugal. By early in the 16th century they had been reduced to two: Castile/Aragón and Portugal.

Portugal had been an independent kingdom since the 12th century; Castile and Aragón were united in the late 15th century through the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón, and tiny Navarre was swallowed by Aragón in 1513.  Insofar as Castile and Aragón were concerned, Castile was more densely populated and more powerful than its neighbour, and it was Castile that took the initiative in subsequent political developments both in and beyond the peninsula.

The marriage between Isabel and Ferdinand took place in 1469; she was 18 and he was 17! Isabel succeeded to the throne of Castile in 1474, and Ferdinand to that of Aragón in 1479. Their marriage was essentially an alliance of two royal houses, with the two monarchs being simply consorts in the other’s kingdom. Each kingdom retained its own institutions, coinage and customs etc.  To complicate matters even further, within Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia had their own laws and parliaments!

Granada, being the last Muslim kingdom/emirate of the once powerful al-Andalus, was an anomaly, and an early target for Isabella and Ferdinand who saw its conquest as a necessary step for consolidating their political power and for religious uniformity in the peninsula. By January 1492, Granada was in their hands.  The terms of surrender were generous and included freedom of religion. Religious conformity, however, was still the overall objective of the Christians. Already on March 31, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabel signed an edict giving Jews four months to accept baptism or go into exile; by 1501 the Muslims faced the same choice.

Christianity was now the common bond that held Spaniards together. Nevertheless, the religious conformity of baptized Jews (Conversos) and converted Muslims (Moriscos) was frequently tested and there was widespread suspicion that their conversion was not genuine.

Only the Muslims of Aragón escaped the
forcible baptisms of 1501, but they too were
obliged to convert in 1525 owing to civil
conflicts in Aragon.

This was not a new phenomenon; the 15th century had seen an explosion of Jews accepting baptism.  Many were sincere in their new faith, many others continued to practice their Judaic faith in secret. It was to investigate the suspicion of heresy amongst Conversos that the infamous Inquisition was introduced into Castile in 1478. Long dormant in Aragón, the Inquisition was established in Castile at the request of Ferdinand and Isabel. What distinguished the Castilian Inquisition was that although it was an ecclesiastical institution, control over appointments to it and over its finances was granted to the Crown, a secular body. This meant that its function overlapped both political and religious spheres, and its impact on Spanish society was felt for centuries as its power quickly extended beyond Castile into all areas of the country.

At the beginning of the 16th century, there was a general feeling of pride and self confidence in the political and religious accomplishments of the Catholic Monarchs.

 This pride extended also to other fields. For example, new universities were founded, reflecting the fresh air of humanism from Italy. Queen Isabel encouraged the study of Latin, which opened up new avenues of thought. There was pride in the achievements of the Castilian language as evidenced in the publication of the first Spanish grammar book and Spanish-Latin dictionary (both in 1492) and in collections of popular poetry.

Further impetus to the general air of confidence was given by two far-reaching events: the fortuitous “discovery” of America (Las Indias) by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and the accession in 1516 to the Spanish throne of the powerful Hapsburg family of central Europe. With the discovery of Las Indias and the acquisition of vast new lands, Spain embarked on its transatlantic imperial adventures.  With the accession of the Hapsburg Charles (Carlos) to the Spanish throne, Spain suddenly acquired large swathes of land in central and northern Europe (Austria, the Netherlands, Burgundy and chunks of Germany).  These were heady times, the beginning of the so-called Golden Age, both politically and culturally. From the modest marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469, then, there grew within about 55 years an imperial power –more properly called monarquía española— whose possessions encompassed large areas in Europe and America, and even stretched across the Pacific (under Spanish auspices, the first voyage around the world was completed in 1522).

Internationally, too, Spain was making its mark in Europe, with Ferdinand being particularly active in this field. Spain’s main rival was France, and much of Ferdinand’s efforts went into political alliances to contain French ambitions on Spanish territory (along the Pyrenees and in Italy). Marriage was one expedient way of creating alliances. Probably the best known in the English-speaking world is the marriage of Catherine (of Aragón) to Henry VIII of England,

Actually, Catherine was first betrothed to
Arthur, Prince of Wales and Henry’s older
brother.  It was only after Arthur’s death
that Catherine married Henry.

but for the future of Spain the most significant of the several arranged marriages was that of Ferdinand and Isabel`s youngest daughter, Juana, to the son of the Hapsburg emperor, Maximilian I. It was their son, Charles, who established the Hapsburg dynasty in Spain.


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