The marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand II of Aragon produced a dynastic union of their kingdoms and laid the foundation of a united Spain that, building upon Aragon’s European experience and Castile’s Iberian culture, became the dominant Atlantic power by the middle of the 16th century.
The unique character of Spanish culture is partially explained by the confrontation of European and Middle Eastern civilization in the physical isolation of the Iberian peninsula from 711 to 1492. There were three significant consequences of this contact.
Moorish culture. Despite their animosity toward the Moors, the more backward Spanish unconsciously drew from the reservoire of classical and Eastern learning brought by the Moors from the eastern Mediterranean. The greatest transfer of knowledge came in philosophy, science and architecture.
Catholicism. Catholicism was the psychological weapon used to rally the divided Spaniards against the Islamic invaders. As a result, Christian orthodoxy became a test of patriotism, and the two ideas were fused in Spanish consciousness. Though this served as a force for national unification, it is also bred religious intolerance.
The reconquista. This counterattack to drive the Moors from the peninsula raged for centuries and produced a political system much different from the feudalism in the north. The nobility retained its role as a warrior caste far longer than its northern counterparts. In return for their military service, nobles received grants of land rather than estates bound by feudal tenure. Their long military service and their economic independence made them virtually independent of royal control.
The Kingdom of Spain
By the middle of the 12th century, four Christian kingdoms existed in Spain: Navarre, Portugal, Aragon and Castile.
Though one of the first states to regain its independence from the Moors, Navarre gained no territorial advantage from the reconquest because it was cut off by Castile and Aragon from expansion to the south. It was ruled by Frenchmen from 1234 until 1513, when its Spanish provinces were annexed by Ferdinand of Aragon.
Portugal was liberated from the Moors and granted to Henry of Burgundy by the king of Castile (1093). It continued to participate in the military crusade and took part in the decisive defeat of the resurgent Moors at the battle of Rio Salado (1340). Henceforth the greatest danger to Portuguese independence came from Castile. By right of descent, the crown of Portugal should have passed to Castile upon the death of Ferdinand I in 1383, but the Portuguese retained their independence through force of arms at Aljubarrota (1385). Portugal’s greatest contribution to Iberian grandeur and European expansion came during the 15th century. Portugal took a lead in oceanic exploration under the leadership of Prince Henry, “The Navigator” (1394 – 1460).
During the Middle Ages, Aragon was part of a heterogenous state that stretched along the Mediterranean coast of what is today northeastern Spain and southern France. Although James I (r. 1213 – 1276) abandoned his French possessions, he drove the Moors from Valencia (1245) and at the same time developed Barcelona into a trade rival of Genoa and Pisa. Through statecraft and conquest, the Aragonese carved out a Mediterranean empire that at its full expanse included the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and Naples. The nobility and bourgeoisie balked at bearing the expense arising from these new obligations, and, they maintained their privileges through the cortes (assembled estates). Chronic depression and diplomatic reversals during the 15th century led John II to link the fortunes of Aragon to Castile through the marriage of his son Ferdinand to Isabella.
Castile encompassed the heartland of Spain. Its union with Léon (1230) made it by far the most powerful state on the peninsula. The Castilians took the lead in the reconquista. The forces of Ferdinand III drove the Moors from Cordova (1236) and Seville (1248), thus confining them to the enclave of Granada. Although the monarchy had ended the Moorish menace, it had created a powerful and uncontrollable nobility in the process. Through the Mesta, an association of sheep raisers with vast holdings, the grandees dominated the rural economy, and with their martial experience, they posed a political threat.
The crown was able to maintain its position only with the assistance of the towns, which preferred royal dominance to aristocratic anarchy. The towns provided their support in two ways. First, as the third estate in the Castilan cortes, they were much more willing to grant revenues than either the church or the nobility. In this manner the sales tax (alcabala) was introduced under Alonso XI (r. 1312 – 1349). Second, Urban brotherhoods (hermandades), first organized in the 13th century, provided the king with militia to back him in confrontations with the nobility. Under Henry IV (r. 1454 – 1474) the monarchy nearly dissolved in a protracted struggle for the throne. Queen Isabella won the crown (1474) and set Spain on the road to European dominance.
Unification of Spain
Ferdinand and Isabella married secretly in 1469. Ferdinand raised an army to back Isabella’s claim to Castile in 1474, and he became king of Aragon in 1479. Throughout their reigns the kingdoms were united only by virtue of this dynastic marriage and were ruled as separate political units. The Catholic kings were not united in their views. Isabella’s outlook was primarily Castilian: She was determined to rebuilt royal power, complete the reconquest and establish rigid Catholic orthodoxy. Ferdinand was a Renaissance prince, reared in the more cosmopolitan court of Aragon and vitally interested in European power politics. The combination of these two views in a single household provided the catalyst for Spanish predominance in the 16th century.
Ferdinand and Isabella proceeded warily against their entrenched opposition. Because Aragon had a long tradition of local rights that the Crown could not usurp, the work of consolidation proceeded mainly in Castile. The towns played a vital role in this task. The Santa Hermandad, a confederation of towns, was organized to resist aristocratic threats. Through their representative in the cortes, the cities provided crown revenue, which was collected by royal officials (corregidores) who was also enforced the law. Sources of royal revenue were also expanded to include confiscations from recalcitrant nobles, the treasures of religious knightly orders, and “contributions” from the Church and the Mesta. The crown also received huge sums from the empire after the first decades of the 16th century and used this money to consolidate its position and expand its influence in Europe.
Since Christianity supplied the basic values of Western civilization, orthodox religious views were considered a prerequisite for a stable political body. Nowhere was the equation of non-belief with treason carried further than in Spain. Isabella was determined to enforce orthodoxy. The Inquisition was established in 1478 to track down deviationists, and under the terms of the Concordat of 1482, control of the Spanish church passed to the crown. The queen accompanied her army in the destruction of the last Islamic stronghold of Granada (1492). The expulsion of an estimated two hundred thousand Jews in 1492, followed in 1502 by expulsion of Moors who refused to abandon their religion, was a high price to pay for religious conformity. Those non-Christians were the backbone of Spanish commercial life, and many historians trace modern Spain’s economic backwardness to their departure.
The reordering of Spain’s domestic life left Ferdinand and Isabella free to pursue dynastic interests outside the peninsula. They entered an arena in which the internal anarchy of the late Middle Ages had given way to the international anarchy of expansionist dynasty. Friction with France over rival claims in Italy led Ferdinand into war that continued intermittently for half a century after his death. Isabella had taken a slight interest in an enterprise that proved to be far more rewarding. Columbus’s voyages of discovery opened a possibility of vast overseas empires.
Isabella’s only child, Juana, married Philip of Habsburg, archduke of Austria. Juana became incurably insane, and upon Ferdinand’s death (1515) the entire Spanish inheritance passed directly to their grandson, Charles I (r. 1515 – 1556). In his lifetime Charles would hold title to a continental and overseas empire larger than that of the Roman caesars. As a result of war and shrewd dynastic marriages, Charles inherited a vast domain that stretched from the New World to central Europe.