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Summary Article: Monarchs of Spain
from Iberia and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Since the dynastic unification of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon in 1479, historians have identified the sovereigns of a shifting accumulation of Iberian, European, American, and Pacific territories as the Monarchs of Spain. Alongside the plurality of these Hispanic kingdoms, the unitary ideal of a Spanish monarchy has persevered over the centuries. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century monarchs eased the incorporation of different regions into a composite Hispanic monarchy by respecting their customs, laws, tribunals, and fiscal systems. The eighteenth-century Bourbon rulers, while imposing standard laws, taxes, and administrative bureaucracies in most regions, opened up commercial relations between American and Spanish ports other than Cádiz. After the Napoleonic Wars and a brief experiment in republican government, the Spanish monarchs of the nineteenth century oversaw the loss of Spain’s overseas colonial empire, nostalgically invoked in the commemorative activities of 1929 and 1992.

Historians generally cite the personal union between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile as a cornerstone in the foundation of the Spanish monarchy. This dynastic alliance, though far from irreversible in its day, set a crucial precedent for the aggregation of different territories. The sovereigns titled themselves monarchs of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Seville, Sardinia, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, the Algarves, Algeciras, Gibraltar, and the Canary Islands, counts of Barcelona, lords of Viscaya and Molina, dukes of Athens and Neopatria, counts of Rousillon and Cerdeña, and marquises of Oristan and Goceano. In 1492, this collection of titles grew to include the Kingdom of Granada and the “islands and land of the ocean sea” that Christopher Columbus encountered. At times Ferdinand also styled himself king of Jerusalem. Although this enumeration of distinct titles headed royal decrees, the monarchs employed the abbreviated expression “kings of Spain” on coins and international treaties. The title “the Catholic Monarchs,” which Pope Alexander VI conferred upon Ferdinand and Isabel in 1493, recognized their pretensions to extend their realms alongside the Catholic faith. Isabel’s demise in 1504, leaving Ferdinand as king of Aragon and regent of Castile, led Italian ambassadors and historians to continue calling him the “King of Spain” as distinct from his daughter, Juana, and her husband, Philip (d. 1506), the monarchs of Castile. As regent, Ferdinand witnessed the Spanish conquest of strategic posts on the coast of North Africa (Mazalquivir, Oran, and Bujía) and used a combination of diplomatic pressure and military force to incorporate Navarre into the Kingdom of Castile.

The Hispanic monarchy’s territorial expansion by war and diplomacy, including marriage alliances, could produce unintended results. Hence the death of three heirs in fewer than three years led to the succession of Queen Juana, the second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel, to Castile and, following the 1516 demise of Ferdinand, to Aragon. Upon that occasion, Juana’s eldest son, Charles I (Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire), assumed the title of king of Castile and Aragon jointly with his mother, adding the Low Countries to the Iberian and American patrimony that he claimed. Charles accumulated even more territories in 1519 when elected king of the Romans and future Holy Roman emperor, a title that took precedence over those of his Hispanic inheritance. In addition to facing rebellions in Castile and Valencia in 1520–1521, Charles found his Italian patrimony contested by Francis I of France, confronted the threat of Turkish expansion in the Mediterranean, and combated the spread of Protestant creeds in Germany and the Netherlands. In 1556, Charles divided the burdensome “universal monarchy” that he had acquired and attempted to defend between his younger brother, Ferdinand, king of Hungary and Bohemia, successor to the Holy Roman Empire, and his son, Philip, thereafter Philip II of Spain (1556–1598). Meanwhile, the conquests of Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines vastly extended the Hispanic monarchy. The death of the Portuguese king, moreover, enabled Philip to press his claims to that Crown, formally incorporated into the Spanish monarchy in 1581. Upon returning to Madrid, Philip II created the Council of Portugal, which, like the Councils of Aragon, the Indies, and later Flanders, would administer those territories. Other regions, such as Navarre, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, Mexico, and Peru, had their own resident viceroys whose courts mediated between regional elites and the Spanish monarchy. Inheriting his father’s role as defender of the Catholic faith, Philip II continued to combat Turkish advances in the Mediterranean and intensified the struggle against rebels in the Low Countries. An attempt to curtail English piracy and support for the Dutch uprising led to the “Invincible Armada” beaten by the elements and the English navy in 1588.

The Spanish monarch’s role as a defender of the faith included his image as a patron of the arts, architecture, and learning. Philip II enshrined these values in the palace and monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial built outside Madrid from 1570 through 1584. His son and successor, Philip III (1598–1621), guided by his friend and favorite, the duke of Lerma, pursued a policy of peace in Europe that featured a twelve-year truce recognizing Dutch independence. On the same day that he signed the truce, the monarch decreed the expulsion of the Morisco population of Islamic origins from Spanish territory. Subsequently Philip III constructed a splendid Plaza Mayor (principal square) in Madrid, where his court had returned after five years in Valladolid. Philip IV (1621–1665) and his own favorite, the count-duke of Olivares, would sponsor another monumental project, Madrid’s Buen Retiro Palace, where they enjoyed theatrical productions and assembled a collection of the finest paintings of their day. Confronting the economic and military demands of the Thirty Years’ War, Olivares developed a plan for the fiscal and legislative unification of the Spanish kingdoms. These attempted reforms produced rebellions in Catalonia, which made its peace with Madrid in 1652, and Portugal, which regained its independence from Spain in 1668. The reign of the last Habsburg monarch, Charles II (1665–1700), initially guided by his mother, the regent Queen Mariana, featured competition between French and Austrian candidates to the Spanish throne.

Although Charles II designated the French candidate, Philip of Anjou, as his successor, the Archduke Charles of Austria received support from Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, Germany, England, and Holland in the War of the Spanish Succession that followed the death of Charles II. Concluding this war in 1713, the Peace of Utrecht confirmed Philip V as monarch of Spain and the Indies, while ceding the Netherlands to Charles of Austria, and Menorca and Gibraltar to England. Although Philip V declared his intention to govern all of “the continent of Spain” by the laws and customs of Castile, in practice he only abolished the local privileges of those territories that had favored his opponent, Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia. On the other hand, Navarre and the Basque provinces retained their own laws. The trend toward monarchical absolutism, which drew upon deep roots in Roman law, reached its height under the Bourbon monarchs of Spain and the Indies. As steps toward state centralization, Philip V created secretaries or ministers responsible for different departments (State, Justice, War, Marine, and Finance) and established a system of intendants rather than viceroys to represent the Crown in distinct provinces. To proclaim the grandeur of the new dynasty, Philip V also constructed a new palace at La Granja (Segovia) modeled on Versailles and undertook important reforms in that of Aranjuez. His successor, Ferdinand VI (1746–1759), further strengthened the state by bolstering the navy to enhance and safeguard commerce between Spain and its American colonies. Further applying his predecessor’s mercantilist principles, Charles III (1759–1788), perhaps the most famous of Spain’s “Enlightened absolutist” monarchs, introduced a new fiscal bureaucracy, tighter administrative controls, and standing armies in the Americas. He also created the Archive of the Indies in Seville as a depository for all documents pertaining to Spain’s overseas colonial empire, which included the Louisiana territory from 1762 through 1803.

Challenging any absolutist pretensions, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars overtook Charles IV (1788–1808). Charles IV and his chief minister, Manuel Godoy, had established an alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte, only to find French troops marching on Madrid in the spring of 1808. Popular uprisings around these events forced Charles IV to abdicate on behalf of his son, Ferdinand VII. Napoleon would entertain both monarchs in France while naming his own brother, Joseph, king of Spain. In the “absence and captivity” of their lawful sovereign, opponents of French rule convoked the Cortes of Cádiz and drafted the 1812 constitution of Naples and Spain for “all Spaniards of both hemispheres.” Notwithstanding the liberal aspirations recorded in the document, the Napoleonic invasion offered Creole elites throughout Spanish America an opportunity for self-rule, which many extended by rebelling against the Spanish Crown after Ferdinand VII (1814–1833) returned to Spain and annulled the Constitution of 1812. In rapid succession, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Central America, Peru, Bolivia, and Uruguay declared their independence from Spain. Peninsular turmoil and military intervention in government affairs nevertheless kept Ferdinand VII, his wife, the regent queen María Cristina, and their daughter, Isabel II (1833–1868), from fully attending to the loss of the majority of their American colonies. A climate of discontent forced Isabel II into exile in 1868 and led to Spain’s first republican government, which proved even less stable than its constitutional monarchy. Eventually, the throne was restored to Isabel’s son, Alfonso XII (1875–1885) and grandson, Alfonso XIII (1885–1931).

Dependent upon influential ministers, Alfonso XII and XIII exercised increasingly little practical authority and generally presided over a system of electoral fraud and alternation in office between conservative and liberal leaders. The loss of Spain’s remaining overseas colonies, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, in the Spanish-American War of 1898 entailed a greater blow to Spanish pride and prestige than the independence of other American territories. As a last vestige of imperial power, Morocco became increasingly important and gave the charismatic dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, a pretext to seize power with the acquiescence of Alfonso XIII in 1923. Among other costly projects, Primo de Rivera promoted an Ibero-American Exposition in Seville designed to emphasize Spain’s historical and cultural ties to its former colonies. Curtailed by the financial crisis of 1929, this Exposition coincided with Primo’s last days in power. The dictator’s fall preceded that of Alfonso XIII and the inauguration of a Second Republic (1931–1936).

After emerging as the Nationalist leader in the Spanish Civil War, a second twentieth-century dictator, Francisco Franco, made certain gestures toward monarchist sentiment without permitting a restoration of the monarchy itself until his own death in 1975. After succeeding to the throne, Juan Carlos I guided Spain’s transition toward democracy, accepting the Constitution of 1978, which considers the Spanish monarch a “symbol of the unity of the Spanish nation.” Three years later the monarch played a crucial role in quelling an attempted military coup. Although his predecessors never crossed the Atlantic, Juan Carlos has been an ambassador from Spain to Latin America before and after the five hundredth anniversary celebrations of “the Age of Discovery” in 1992 inspired debates about Spain’s historical legacy on both sides of the Atlantic.

See also:

Administration—Colonial Spanish America; Armies—Colonial Spanish America; Bourbon Reforms; Constitution of Cádiz; Cortes of Cádiz; Council of Castile; Council of the Indies; Defense—Colonial Spanish America; Habsburgs; Intendants/Intendancy System; Islam; Louisiana Purchase; Monarchs of Portugal; Moors; Napoleonic Invasion and Spanish America; Pirates and Piracy; Spanish-American War; Thirty Years’ War; Utrecht, Treaty of; Viceroyalties; War of the Spanish Succession.

  • Artola, Miguel. La Monarquía de España. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1999.
  • Brading, D. A. The First America: The Spanish Monarch, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1867. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Carr, Raymond. Modern Spain, 1875–1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Elliott, J. H. “A Europe of Composite Monarchies.” Past and Present (November 1992): 42–71.
  • Fernández Albaladejo, Pablo. Fragmentos de monarquía. Madrid: Alianza, 1992.
  • Lynch, John. Bourbon Spain, 1707–1808. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
  • Copyright © 2006 by J. Michael Francis

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