In what ways, and to what extent, does the concept of Spain's 'Golden Age' apply more specifically to the reign of Philip II than to the whole period 1474-1598?

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In what ways, and to what extent, does the concept of Spain’s ‘Golden Age’ apply more specifically to the reign of Philip II than to the whole period 1474-1598?

Justify your answer by reference to the similarities and differences between the periods before and after the accession of Philip II in 1556? 

Philip II’s reign as king of Spain is often referred to as the ‘golden age’. A time where government was further centralised, where the economy benefited from being the centre of increased trade with the New World and where according to Geoffrey Parker ‘the Spanish empire was the largest and richest in the world’. To an extent Philip’s reign was exclusively ‘golden’ he was the first to set up administrative functions of government in a single capital, Madrid, gold bullion reached a record level and he was successful in defending his territory. However, it is difficult to view Philip as a great monarch due to the unsustainability of his empire, which undermined his reputation, yet in respect of the whole period it is arguable whether this period was ‘golden’ either as there were great consistencies between the four rulers. 

The El Escorial in Madrid is a remnant from a time of great cultural prosperity where both the arts and literature flourished. This impressive façade of 16th century Spain constitutes a ‘golden age’ and is, to an extent, more relevant in describing Philip than the other monarchs of the period. Contrary to popular thought, Spain, through Philip, enjoyed cultural prosperity. Jocelyn Hunt states that in comparison to the other rulers of this period ‘Philip achieved much more as a builder’ as shown by his improvements of the old palaces and his new buildings constructed for the state archives in Simancas. Philip was also a great supporter of the arts, being a patron to Flemish artists Van der Weyden and Bosch. Evidently this supports the argument that Philip’s reign culturally flourished and can be perceived as ‘golden’.

However, not all the credit should go to Philip for over the whole period as well, Spain prospered. Isabella like her European counterparts was committed to intellectual development. Reliance on the letrados increased the demand for educational establishments and Universities were set up at Alcalá in 1508 and at Cuenea in 1510. The reputation of the Inquisition as an over-zealous and domineering institution is a fallacy as on many occasions it was impossible to deal with the amount of literature that crossed the borders (Andrés Ruiz imported 1,012 bales of books alone). It was merely a judicial body, in fact as Kamen says, the ‘censorship of books was erratic and often only symbolic’. This reputation of cultural despondency, is on the whole unjustified as Spain was not only culturally ‘golden’ during Philip’s reign, but also throughout the whole period

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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 ...

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