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  Countries: Spain Historical Overview

By Marechal

Spanish Town Center

Spain is one of the most famous (well-known) of the European powers at the time of Cossacks: European Wars. If one remembers one thing from world history class, it was that the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and Incans. Everyone is familiar with Cortes and his muskets conquering the mighty Central American cultures. We all know of Pizarro and his destruction of the Incan Empire in South America. Some of us even remember King Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who sent Columbus on his voyage in 1492 to discover the New World. As important and influential as the Spanish conquest of the New World was, we forget and overlook the events and actions that took place on the Continent, where Spain was as active as ever.

One thing a person needs to keep in mind is that Spain was more like a federation than a unified state, like France. Each of the large Spanish provinces, acted as though it was an independent state. The states of Aragon, Castile, Granada, all of them had there own history, peoples, culture, and language even. Spain had experienced an invasion by the Moors and it was not until 1492 that they were driven out of Spain, ending in the final conquest of Granada. It was as late as 1479 that Spain was finally united, under one crown: Ferdinand II. It was Ferdinand II and Isabella who held court and sent Columbus out West with some Spanish ships and finances to cover his expedition. With the discovery of the New World, Spain immediately began claiming the lands therein. A dozen expeditions were launched, each made up of explorers, missionaries, and troops sent over to explore and conquer these vast lands in the name of God and Spain.

Soon, all the other European powers were trading and conquering in the New World. The Portuguese amassed a fortune quickly, but in 1580, Spain annexed Portugal. It wouldn't be until 1640 that Portugal regained her independence. Such men as Hernando Cortes, Ponce de Leon, Narvaez, de Vaca, and Pizarro led expeditions covering the domains from the southwestern United States to central South American mountains. In this New World they found minerals in abundance. Ships by the dozens carried loads of gold and silver from the Americas to Spanish ports. However, there trade did not go unspoiled, piracy became more and more abundant in the late 1500s as England and France encouraged pirates to seize Spanish galleons on their way to Spain.

In 1516, Charles I became the King of Spain. Charles I was from the Habsburg royal family line. His father, Emperor Maximilian I, had arranged his marriage into Spanish royalty. He began what was known as the Spanish Habsburg line. In 1519, Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor upon his father's death, making him Charles V. A series of wars with the Turks ensued and conflict developed between the German Lutherans and Catholics. By 1556, he had had enough, and abdicated his Spanish throne to his son Philip II, the Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian domains were passed onto Ferdinand I, his brother. Charles V moved into a monastery were he lived until his death in 1558.


Spanish 18th Century Barracks

The reign of Philip II was of a more mediocre note. He launched several campaigns of his own, but almost all of them proved to be dismal failures. His war with the Turks ended in stalemate. Philip's war against France was a costly defeat. He is most famous for ordering the Spanish Armada to invade England in 1588, and as we all know, this ended in a fiasco. Philip encouraged the Inquisition, which was a powerful Church organization that sought to Christianize the entire Spanish population and condemn any who would profess a faith contrary to that of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps his worst move was his lack of understanding for the Dutch, whose lands were under Spanish authority (the Netherlands). In 1581, they revolted and declared their independence. Philip's army was unable to prevent the rebellion or stop their independence. However, Spain retained a lower territory, which later became the Spanish Netherlands. This territory was under Spanish rule until 1713, when it was ceded to the Austrian Habsburgs.

In 1700, a crisis began when Charles II could not produce an heir to the throne. Charles then chose the Duke d'Anjou to be his successor. He was to be crowned as Philip V of Spain. Philip V was a grandson of Louis XIV, and his ascension as King Philip V meant the Habsburgs lost their Spanish dynasty, and the Bourbons began theirs. The Austrians wanted to install the archduke Charles as the new king. This conflict quickly erupted into the War for Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The war itself was fought almost entirely between the French against the English and Germans. France was unlucky for the most part; Marlborough cleaned them up in his campaigns. However, by 1710, the Allies began to split in interests. Charles's limited conquest of Catalonia failed to establish any respectable power in Spain. Upon his father's passing, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor and Emperor of Austria. The British, seeing that it would be foolish to fight on and make him King of Spain as well, concluded peace with Spain and France. Charles had to give up his claims to the Spanish throne and the Bourbon family replaced the Spanish Habsburgs. The Bourbons would remain in power until 1808, when briefly ousted by Napoleon until 1814 (the Peninsular War).

The Seven Years' War proved to be another territorial shuffling match. The Treaty of Paris (1763) forced the concession of almost all the French territories in America. Spain lost the southern United States lands, but gained Louisiana. Spain carried out little policy with its new acquisition, it tended to concentrate on Florida and it's Central and South American dependencies. In 1800, Spain transferred the Louisiana territory back to France at the Treaty of San Ildefonso. By another treaty three years later, Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the United States of America.

For all the gold and silver and minerals brought in from her colonies and empire, Spain itself remained largely poor. The government, run by the landowner's and those who had run the trading with the colonies, were fabulously rich. The Spanish court was one of the wealthiest in Europe. However, such extravagant spending of wealth on palaces, the court, and diplomatic bribery was wasteful and unproductive. The majority of the population was poor and never saw the benefits of the vast quantities of gold and silver shipped in from the Americas. The unity of the Spanish was not by blood, or by wealth, or social status, it was by religion. Almost every citizen was a Catholic. The Jews and Muslims were driven and exiled from Spanish soil, or converted. The staunch Catholicism of the Spanish was the single factor unifying their nation. The Catholic religion remained in power for many years to come.

By the close of the eighteenth century, Spain's power in European affairs had declined drastically. Internationally, Spain still had some exertions over her American domains. But even these would be taken away within a few decades. Spain had initially declared war on the French Republic (1793), but she was too weak to wage a war and France came out with several gains in territory by 1795 when peace was made. This uneasy peace would last until 1807. The events that would follow Napoleon's conquest of Spain and the revolution that again freed it, were yet another sad chapter Spain's history. The Peninsular War (1808-1814) directly contributed to the rapid decline ending with the destruction of Spain's colonial empire in the Americas. The story of Spain has always been one of great sadness and great power. The years 1500 through 1800 were no different.

Related Links:
» Spanish Building Gallery


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