What taints the ‘golden’ nature of Spain’s cultural acheivements is the image that Spain was isolated and culturally distant from the rest of Europe. Dr Johnson explained ‘No less country was known to Europe’. It is true that Spain was quite poor for between 1530 and 1560 the proportion of people registered as poor in the towns was 23%, and poverty was deeper in comparison to other Western economies, due to the chronic and structural inefficiencies. Similarly in art, the empire was seen as dull as exposed by Charles V’s melting of the golden art he acquired due to their connection with heathen idolatry. The Inquisition also gave a negative image of arts in Spain throughout this period as seen when Philip adhered to the Papal Index of Prohibited books in 1559, and it is correctly thought that there was a dominance of Catholic and Castilian culture. Nevertheless, contrary to the illusion that Spain was culturally backward, all the rulers of this period should be applauded for cultural development similar to Western Europe.
This imperial façade draws a veil over the Peninsula economic problems that were apparent due to the unsustainability of empire. Yet to a certain extent, the economy thrived throughout this whole period. Many historians think that Philip was the most successful in managing his economy due to the huge amount of gold bullion coming in to his empire during his reign. Between 1591-1594, 42,221,835 ducats came in to Spain. These figures gave the impression, especially to her European neighbours, that Spain had a ‘golden’ economy. Despite this immense wealth, Philip was plagued with economical problems and you could argue that he was in a weaker position than his predecessors. His bankruptcies in 1557, 1560, 1575 and 1596 were brought on by his expensive defensive wars like the Dutch revolt, for not only did it cost 80 million ducats, but revenue was lost from decreased trade.
However, both successes and failures of Philip’s economy owe more to the whole period. Trade that was flourishing under Philip started when Ferdinand and Isabella experienced a rising population and growth in the wool trade. Cities like Burgos grew from 8,000 to 21,000 and Seville became increasingly important as all American trade came through the city before entering or leaving Europe. The House of Trade on the Guadalquivir River represented a time of boom in the mid 15th century as merchants flocked to the area, which saw more gold added to the crown’s coffers. Charles V continued with these successes and therefore benefited from the increased level of gold to finance his extensive wars.
Philip’s failures were also a result of the previous monarchs of the period. The juros, which were set up by Ferdinand and Isabella to fund their wars, was responsible for Philip’s huge debt, just as Charles was responsible for Philip’s need for an expensive defensive war and inflation. Throughout the period Murphy describes Spanish economic policy as ‘counter-productive’. For example: Wool was exported to the textile factories of the Netherlands instead of supporting the domestic textile market and the huge amount of gold entering the country simply added to inflation that was apparent due to low food supply and a rising population. Ultimately both the successes and failures of Philip’s economy were due to his predecessors. According to Kamen ‘the course of Spain’s economic history shows few significant divergences from the experience of other nations in Europe’ suggesting that, even if you perceive Spain as successful in terms of economy, before and during Philip’s reign, it was as ‘golden’ as the rest of Europe.
Like the economy, monarchical control was held back by the inability to maintain an expansive empire. The desperate state of finance, as well as the backward nature of contemporary communications, limited the extent of absolutism in Spain. In spite of this, Philip had a reputation as an absolute monarch that led many to believe that he reigned during a period of strong royal control. Geoffrey Woodward talks of Philip, saying that ‘he came to control all clerical appointments, disposed of ecclesiastical wealth and mobilised the Inquisition as an instrument of royal authority’. It is true that Philip insisted that all decisions were to be passed through him, he effectively centralised government in Madrid and he limited the power of the cortes. Similarly, royal authority was strong throughout the whole period. Referring to the government of Ferdinand and Isabella, Cellorigo wrote in 1600, ‘there can be no monarchy in our Spain as there was then’. Above all, it is Ferdinand and Isabella who should be applauded for their implementation of law and order through the reconquista, leaving their successors in an stronger position. Through the increasing importance of their own laws or pragmáticas, Ferdinand and Isabella were less reliant on the cortes. Royal control expressed itself through the use of various groups like the Santa Hamandad and the appointment of more letrados as town councillors. Charles V further enhanced government influence through the various councils he set up the most important being the Council of Finance which instituted tax rises throughout the 16th century.
However there are inherent limitations, which inhibited all the rulers during this period like that of inefficient communications and constantly being indebted. Despite what Kamen calls ‘a more sophisticated system’ under Charles, any increases in revenue would have to be allocated to the juros repayments. These repayments were also particularly awkward for all the monarchs had to further rely on the cortes to grant servicios. The cortes could then use this to exert influence over the monarchy showing how royal control was limited. In the provinces throughout the period the power of the monarchy was not apparent as shown by the fact that 2928 posts of city councillor were sold between the years 1543 and 1584. John Lynch effectively summarises ‘Monarchy was absolute. But its absolutism was qualified by conditions and its powers were less imposing in practise than it was in theory’. This was definitely true of Philip as seen by the disaster of the Armada, as 16th century communications were desperately slow especially as every decision had to go through the king. Theoretically the monarchy of Spain was ‘absolute’ yet practically, there was the fundamental weakness of the backward nature of communications and the power of the cortes, which limited royal control.
The Spanish language is one of the most widespread languages in our world today, due to the legacy of the immeasurably vast and diverse empire. Surely this is the benchmark for Spain’s ‘golden’ status, but paradoxically it was also the reason why the imposing reputation was undermined. Traditionally the ‘golden age’ of Spain is most specifically associated with the vast nature and diversity of Philip’s empire. Francisco Ugarte de Hermosa boasted in 1655 that ‘Since God created the world there has been no empire in it as extensive of that of Spain’. The acquisition of Portuguese territories in 1580, not only increased Spanish influence in the New World, but also united the Iberian Peninsula for the first time. From this evidence Philip can be justifiably described as a ‘golden’ ruler.
Nevertheless, the empire was built up from Ferdinand’s acquisitions in North Africa, Italy and the New World, discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1494. Ferdinand and Isabella arguably succeeded in managing a controllable empire and unified Castile and Aragon, completing the reconquista. Ferdinand, through a series of marriages, succeeded in ensuring a substantial empire for his grandson Charles V. Therefore Charles has an empire spanning from the territories of the New World to parts of Flanders, Italy and Germany reinforcing the argument that Spain was ‘golden’ throughout the entire period.
As Philip’s successes of empire could be attributed to his forebearers, so could the fundamental weaknesses. The financial crisis that Philip found himself in was started by the unsustainability of Isabella and Ferdinand’s foreign policy. Even though they had a comparatively small empire they could not sustain it as shown when Ferdinand had to transfer his resources from occupying North African ports to Naples in Italy which was of a greater priority for him. Charles V’s Habsburg connections, which gave him this vast empire, also meant he could never be considered as a King of the ‘golden age’ of Spain. Charles himself spent only 7 years in Spain and the country was simply a part of his monarquia, rather than the most important. This can be seen in the ‘Spanish’ victory at St Quentin in 1557 which was essentially a Dutch army commanded by the Duke of Savoy and the Earl of Egmont. Philip was successful in defending his empire, but only at a great cost, which even the huge imports of bullion could not cover. The costs of defending Spanish lands coupled with the inflation caused Philip to claim bankruptcy on four occasions in 1557,1560,1575 and 1596. The empire was the largest in the world but the lack of resources to sustain such a monarquia undermines the ‘golden’ reputation.
The Spanish Armada epitomises the state of Spain during this whole period. Like the Armada Spain appeared imposing and powerful and was feared by the rest of Europe. Yet no other enterprise could have been so mismanaged with a great lack of communication and innate structural weaknesses, which caused the ultimate failure. It was this paradox that tainted Spain’s ‘golden’ reputation. The unsustainabilty of the country’s policies throughout the whole period undermined the reputation too, as Kamen says: ‘Spain, with it's small population and weak economy did not have the resources to create or sustain great-power status status’. Despite the great façade of an impressive empire, Spain during the whole period from 1474-1598, can never be described as a ‘golden age’.