Spain History - 1st Decline - (1598- 1700)

With the death of King Felipe II in September 1598 his son and heir gave little hope for the future of Spain. It appears that these particular ruling Habsburgs showed a tendency for family incest and his fourth wife of King Felipe I, who was Anna of Austria, was both King Felipe’s niece and also the daughter of his first cousin. King Felipe III inherited a bankrupt throne but with its possessions still virtually intact. As he preferred hunting, the theatre and religious festivals to matters of state, the administration of Spain was given to the Duke of Lerma. The 17th Century was to prove very sad for the proud Spanish with the loss of much of their Empire. The imperial glories of the earlier period became memories as Spain attempted to fall into step with the dramatic changes.

The century opened with a vain Spanish attempt to balance accounts with her enemy England. In 1600 a Spanish force landed in Ireland and over a period of two years failed in the attempt to start a rebellion. The death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 and the entry of King James I to the English throne improved the previous sour relations and shortly afterwards Spain formally accepted the Independence of Holland. During this reign there was one final expulsion in 1609 of the Moriscos whom had built up their control of Valencia. A reason given for this decision was that these people were active as pirates controlling the Spanish coastline. The estimate of the number of expelled people ranges from 150,000 to 500,000 and piracy considerably declined.

The Duke of Lerma was given to his pleasures and organized for the king's entertainment many extravagant events. The costs were ignored alongside with most state matters of importance. The Spanish currency was devalued with the introduction of copper into the coinage. Social life became paramount with loose morality in contrast to the severity of religion. The playwright Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) left in his work Don Quixote a powerful statement as to the confusion of the times.

The next King was King Felipe IV from the union of Felipe II and another wife who was also another one of his cousins. This new King was considered more capable than his cousin but was also subject to being controlled, this time by the wily and powerful Gaspar de Guzman, the Conde-Duque de Olivares. Whilst the Duke manipulated to his benefit the King spend his time with countless mistresses and sired over 30 illegitimate children. The end result of his reign was no better when the Portuguese successfully revolted and and gained back their own independence, the population offering the crown back to the Duke of Bragança. Disastrous battle defeats were suffered at different times by the King against the Dutch, English and French. Regardless of these woes, war and terror, the population of Spain had during the same period continued enjoying their social life with the emergence of some very notable cultural figures in painters and the playwrights Lope de Vega (1562-1635) and Calderón (1600-1681).

Olivares was of a different quality to his predecessor Lerma. For 22 years he tried his utmost with little success to keep all the many Spanish possessions as one state and juggle the nation’s finances at the same time. Under his guidance Spain once again found itself at war with England, France and the Netherlands. To pay for the expense more taxes were applied on the population - a tax on salt in Catalonia caused riots. An expedition sailed from England in 1625 at the orders of King Charles I to attack Cádiz but it was soon defeated. In 1630 Spain managed to make peace with both France and England, but in 1635 when the Netherlands once again declare war on Spain the French decided to join them against their old enemy. In 1640 the Catalonians murdered the Castile Viceroy and claimed King Louis XIII of France as the new Count of Barcelona. After some bitter fighting the Castilians returned to the fold and with the fall from power of Olivares the path was cast for future problems. On the western side of Spain they were not so fortunate as in the same year the Portuguese turned to their Duke of Bragança to save them from the ruling Spanish. In Lisbon a mere 400 armed supporters took one of the Royal Palaces and declared the Duke as their new King João IV. By the next year Dom João was enthroned and five years later survived an assassination plot by the Spanish and from 1662 until 1664 managed to repel a Spanish invasion. Spain had waited some 27 years before officially granting recognition to the existence of the Portuguese King. Troubles at home also continued, and in 1652 a rebellion by Catalonians only ended after Barcelona had been besieged for a year. In 1655 the English took Jamaica from the Spanish and the following year they seized loaded treasure ships off the port of Cádiz and war was once again declared against England.

The Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 marked the end of Spanish power in Europe which was taken up by France under Louis XIV. To prove his superiority the French King Louis XIV allowed himself to be married to Maria Teresa, the daughter of the Felipe IV in a ceremony that took place at the town of Elvas in Portugal. It is from this marriage contract that there exists in the south of France and just north of the Spanish border a small Spanish state named Llivia.

During these reigns the Spanish rulers and the nobles in general maintained their distain for labour and with self-vanity ignored the need to generate commerce and productivity both in farming and industry. They seem to maintain the belief that all financial problems could be solved and there was always the magical bounty from the Americas. Deeply instilled remained their preoccupation with religion with constant religious festivals and processions which required time consuming attention.

During the reign of King Felipe IV a Spanish School of Painting came to the fore with names such as Diego de Silva y Velazquez (1599-1660), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), and Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652). Without question Velazquez was to make a marked record of the royal family in oils for posterity. These painters went beyond the thinking of their northern brothers in Europe bringing to the canvas a realism which became a visual statement of the high born down to peddlers in the street. Equally, the Spanish sculptures turned to wood as a softer more expressive media to present the pain and suffering in the carved faces. Besides the previously mentioned Cervantes there were creative writers like Lope de Vega who produced 1,800 known plays. Tirso de Molina (1584-1648), created the famous lover Dom Juan in his popular classic about a friar from Seville. It is remarkable that during this period the hold over culture held by the Inquisition was still very strong.

In 1665 King Felipe's son inherited the throne at the age of four as King Carlos II (The Bewitched), and reigned 35 years regardless of his questionable sanity as a result of the family interbreeding. His mother was also his first cousin and she acted as Regent until he became 15 years old. Again the court was ruled by another person, the Queen's confessor, an Austrian Jesuit named Nithard. History has recorded nothing notable about King Carlos II except with the losing battle over the possession of the Netherlands, the warring with both England and France (With the Treaty of Dover in 1670 the French and English made a pact to support the Netherlands against Spain). In 1676, Don Juan the bastard elder brother of King Carlos II, lead an unsuccessful revolt against the King as being incompetent as a ruler. In 1678 through the Treaty of Nijmergen the Netherlands kept its territories and France gained land in Flanders, but by 1683 Spain and France were back at war, and in 1686 the League of Augsburg joined the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Saxony and Palatine against France. Upon the death of King Carlos in 1700 and leaving no offspring he brought the long rule of the House of Habsburgs to its end. The long succession of weak Kings left the nation in a bankrupt state, reduced possessions and little earning power, a population that had decreased during the last century from about nine million to six million due to revolts, wars, expulsions, plagues and high infant mortality.


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