Spain During The Conquest
The discoveries of Columbus opened to Spain the opportunity to found a great colonial empire in the new world. For this work Spain had been prepared by the welding of the nation which was perfected during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella.
The Christian reconquest.—In the eighth century the Mohammedan Berbers had overthrown the Visigothic kingdom, the unconquered Christian princes retiring to the mountain regions of the north. Gradually they reconquered the country. By 910 they had established the kingdoms of León and Navarre, and the county of Barcelona. By 1037 León and Castile had united and conquered a wide tract south of the Douro River. Aragon, originally a Frankish country, had also become an independent kingdom. By 1150 almost two-thirds of the peninsula had been conquered; Portugal now extended from the Minho River to the Tagus; Castile occupied the central region, and Aragon had incorporated Barcelona and Catalonia. During the next two centuries the rest of the peninsula, except the small kingdom of Granada, was conquered, and Aragon established her power in the Balearic Isles, Sardinia, and southern Italy. In 1469 Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, thus uniting the two great states. In 1481 they made war upon Granada, completing its conquest in the year of the discovery of America. All of these changes had been chiefly of rulers, the great body of the people remaining of the original Iberian stock.
Lack of unity.—But there was neither unity of speech, customs, nor institutions. There were three main religious groups, Christians, Mohammedans, and Jews. The people were also divided into social classes, nobility, clergy, common people, and slaves. The ranks and privileges of the nobility varied greatly, some having immense estates and almost sovereign powers, others being landless soldiers of fortune. Castile was the land of castles. The nobles were turbulent and warlike. They delighted in chivalry, which probably attained a higher development in Spain than in any other country. Furthermore, there were three great military orders, which had grown in strength during the Moorish wars; these were the Knights of Santiago, of Calatrava, and of Alcántara, at the head of each of which was a grand master. The orders, the landed nobility, and the church owned about one-third of the land and controlled large military forces. The cities were also powerful; they were strongly fortified, regulated their own affairs, and many of them had great fleets and extensive commerce. Life outside of the cities was largely pastoral, wool, growing being the principal industry. Both Castile and Aragon contained governing bodies called Cortes, to which some of the larger cities sent representatives, but they were of little importance, most of the work of lawmaking being done by the sovereign acting with his Council of State.
Establishment of unity.—To bring the entire country into religious and political unity was the great task of Ferdinand and Isabella. This was accomplished partly through the Hermandad and the organization of several royal councils. The Hermandad, originally a local police, was organized as a state police; captured offenders were punished before local officers of the crown called alcaldes. Turbulent nobles and brigands were made to feel the long arm of the royal power. The nobles were also curbed by transferring the grand masterships of the military orders to the crown and the sovereigns resumed control of many estates which had been granted to churches and nobles. The royal council of twelve had been the principal governing body. Under Ferdinand and Isabella it was divided into three councils, justice, state, and finance. Other councils were added from time to time; among these was the Council of the Inquisition, whose business it was to stamp out heresy. By its efforts unbaptized Jews and Moors were expelled. The rulers also sent royal officers called corregidores into the local communities, who gradually extended the powers of the crown at the expense of local government. Thus were laid the foundations of an absolute monarchy, which, in the sixteenth century, became the most influential in Europe.
The Unification of Spain. (Based on Maps in Shepherd, W.R., Historical Atlas, pp. 82-83.).
Charles V.—The prestige of Spain was greatly enhanced in the sixteenth century by the Emperor Charles V, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. From his mother he inherited Spain, Naples, and Sicily, and possessions in the new world and the Far East; from his father the Netherlands; from his grandfather, Maximilian I, the Hapsburg inheritance in Germany. By election he became Holy Roman Emperor. The larger part of the reign was occupied by three great European contests; a series of struggles with Francis I of France for the control of Italy, the Reformation in Germany, and the curbing of the westward advance of the Turks. The almost constant wars of the Emperor kept him away from Spain nearly his entire time, but he used the centralized system of Ferdinand and Isabella to supply him with soldiers and money. The constant drain of treasure overtaxed the resources of Spain, but the rich mines of the new world furnished the surplus for his vast undertakings. The fact that Charles was successful in retaining his power in Italy, coupled with his struggle against the Protestants and the Turks, made him the recognized protector of the Catholic church. His reign, marked by many sad failures in Europe, witnessed a phenomenal expansion of Spain's colonies.
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