Spanish Empire—Hapsburg Spain

1520 to 1700
Reign of Charles V to Last Spanish Hapsburg

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Hapsburg Spain

Spanish throne descends to the Habsburgs—Ferdinand and Isabella had five children, and under Isabel's guidance, all were raised with the utmost care and rectitude. Their son John, the intended heir to the throne, however, died soon after he was married, and two of their daughters and a grandson also died young, leaving their daughter Juana of Castile, and her sons as the rightful heirs to the throne. After much palace intrigue, the throne passed to her eldest son Charles I of Spain, better known as Charles V (of Austria), who was also the sole heir to the Habsburg empire in the east, inherited from his father.

christian spain
The vesting of so much power in one throne was bound to cause division and sure enough, the reign of Charles V was an endless series of wars. Some of these wars accomplished worthy goals, such as opposing Turkish advances in the Balkans and defeating the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean, but others were mainly intrigue. The Wars of Italy, for example, were fought between France and Spain for control of Italy, and during the seventy year conflict, virtually every power in Europe was at some point drug into the fray.

The Protestant Reformation occured during the reign of Charles V, but he dealt with the problem much more as a political difficulty than a theological one. He saw his primary enemies as the Ottoman Turks and Catholic France, so to a large extent he tolerated the dissentions in Germany. One of the prominent popes early in Charles's reign was Clement VII, who allied himself with France against Spain and failed to support the idea of a Council to reform problems in the Church. For these reasons, Charles V, the supposed protector of the Church, did not hold the Pope in high regard and allowed his army to sack Rome and take the Pope prisoner.

Also during the reign of Charles V, large quantities of gold and silver were found in the New world colonies, and development of the region expanded rapidly. Likewise, the Portuguese settlements in the far east became firmly established. In a relatively short period, therefore, the Iberian Peninsula became the wealthiest region in Europe.

Reign of Philip II of Spain—Charles V was succeeded by his son Philip II, who is often portrayed by Protestant historians as a narrow minded bigot for his stalwart defense of the faith. Although he is best known as the Catholic antagonist of Elizabeth I of England and William the Silent of the Netherlands, the most significant military accomplishment of his reign was a crushing victory against the Ottoman Turks. At the Battle of Lepanto, Philip's half-brother, Don John of Austria, demolished the Turkish navy, who in league with the Barbary pirates, threatened all the Christian kingdoms of the Mediterranean.

The Netherlands War of Independence, and the Anglo Spanish Wars also occurred during his reign. Although both these wars are generally thought of as religious conflicts, there were political and commercial aspects as well. The nemesis of Dutch Protestants during the Dutch Revolt was the Duke of Alva but he only served for a few years, and even the Spanish leaders came to see that his heavy-handedness was counter-productive. All following Spanish governors of the Netherlands took a more diplomatic approach, and succeeded in bringing much of the region back to Catholic Spanish control.

Even though Spain eventually lost the struggle against Protestantism in both England and Holland, she remained at the height of her power for several generations, due largely to the vast wealth inflowing from her American colonies. Unfortunately, the inevitable corruptions that follow sudden wealth were soon to bring about her downfall. The Spanish crown received a percentage of revenues from the colonies, but there were many operators involved, including private interests, and the common people benefited very little from the colonial wealth.

Both Charles V and Philip II governed directly with very few ministers, but their descendants, including Philip III, IV, and Charles II were much weaker leaders who left the kingdom in the hands of favorites. During the late Hapsburg era, Spain's American provinces suffered from piracy and smuggling, mainly at the hands of her Protestant enemies. This was the hey day of the 'Pirates of the Carribean', and English privateers such as Francis Drake and Henry Morgan took a toll on Spanish commerce.

Even more destructive, however, was the internal corruption and inefficient bureaucracy that arose around colonial government. There was more money to be made in trade, taxes, and government offices, than in industry or efficient agriculture. Over-indulgence and corruption were as destructive to Spain as conflicts with outside enemies, and during the 17th century she fell from being the leading power in Europe to an inept lackey of France.

The last Habsburg King of France was Charles II, and because he was severely deformed, it was understood even before his death that he was unlikely to produce an Habsburg heir. At this time, France was at the height of her power, and all of Europe feared what would happen if France and Spain were united under one crown. The Austrians, therefore, put forth the claims of a Habsburg cousin, and almost every independent country in Europe joined forces against the behemoth France. The resulting War of the Spanish Succession drug on for 14 years and consumed the whole continent in conflict. Although the allies failed in their objective of placing a Habsburg on the throne of Spain, the conflict curtailed the power of France and stripped Spain of many of her European provinces.

Leaders of the Counter Reformation—Aside from political realignments during the Habsburg era, several important religious developments are worthy of note. The Spanish kings tended to see Protestantism primarily as a political threat, and dealt with it in that manner. They perceived religious divisions as a threat to the unity of the empire and a harbinger of civil war.

There was, however, a tremendous need at the time for genuine reform of the Catholic church and several Spanish religious orders, most notably the Jesuits, took a leadership role in defining Catholic doctrine and clearly establishing the role of the Papacy. Ironically, many of the early Jesuits were descended from converso families and the official Papal theologians of the Council of Trent, most notably Diego Laynez, Alfonso Salmeron, and Juan Polanco were of Jewish heritage. Other prominent leaders of the Catholic reformation from converso families included Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

Characters—Hapsburg Spain

Character/Date Short Biography

Political and Military leaders

Juana of Castile
Daughter of Isabel, mother of Charles V, and heir to the throne of Castile. Deposed by Ferdinand due to insanity.
Charles V
16th century Hapsburg Emperor who ruled Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and parts of Italy.
Don Carlos
Eldest son of Philip II. Mentally unbalanced prince of Spain who was imprisoned and possibly murdered.
Duke of Alva
Tyrannical Governor of the Spanish Netherlands who opposed Protestants during the Dutch Revolt.
Don John of Austria
Illegitimate son of Charles V. Hero of the naval Battle of Lepanto. Briefly governed Spanish Netherlands.
Philip the Handsome
Heir to the Burgundian and Hapsburg estates, and married to Juana of Spain. Their son was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
Philip II
Catholic king of Spain during Netherland revolt and Anglo-Spanish Wars. Great enemy of Protestant Reformers.
Grand Master of the Knights Hospitallers who defended Malta from the siege in 1565.
Charles II
Invalid King of Spain. Last of the Spanish Hapsburgs. His death precipitated the War of the Spanish Succession.


John of the Cross
Carmelite priest, poet and author associated with St. Teresa of Avila.
Teresa of Avila
Mystic Nun who reformed the Carmelite order, and wrote books on prayer. Doctor of the Church.
Francis Xavier
Jesuit Missionary to India. Said to have converted thousands to Christianity.
Ignatius of Loyola
Founder of the Jesuits order, dedicated to the Pope. Important counter-reformation figure.
Bartholomew de Casas
Early settler in New Spain who became a Friar, and advocated on better treatment of natives. Wrote ' Account of the Destruction of the Indies'. Later became bishop of Chiapas.
John of God
Dedicated his life to helping the Poor. Founded order of Hospitallers, which cared for the sick.
Juan Polanco
Spanish Jesuit of Jewish descent who served as secretary and advisor of Ignatius Loyola and later superior Generals. Wrote the early history of the Jesuits.
Diego Laynez
Spanish Jesuit of Jewish descent, served as papal theologian and secretary during the Council of Trent. Second Superior General of the Jesuits.

Artists and Authors

Spanish artist who painted during the reign of the Spanish Habsburgs. Best known for his religious works.
Author of the classic Don Quixote, the most famous novel in the Spanish Language.

Mexican Conquistadors

Hernando Cortez
Conquistador who landed in Mexico with a small army, and allied with local tribes, conquered the Empire of the Aztecs.
Diego Velasquez
Conquered Cuba for Spain, and was its first governor. First a supporter, then a rival of Cortez.
Panfilo de Narvaez
Spanish explorer who opposed Cortez, and later led a disastrous expedition to Florida of whom only 4 of 600 survived.
Ponce de Leon
First Spanish governor of Puerto Rico. Explored inland regions of Florida while searching for the fountain of youth.
Hernando De Soto
Adventurer who aided in conquest of Peru, then explored Southwestern United States. Discovered Mississippi river.
d. 1540
Choctaw chieftain who resisted de Soto at the Battle of Mauvila during his expedition through the southwest.
Francisco de Coronado
Spanish explorer who was a governor in Mexico, and explored regions of the Southwest United States.
Pedro Menendez
Spanish explorer who founded St. Augustine and was the first Spanish governor of Florida.

Peru Conquistadors

Francisco Pizarro
With only 160 men, conquered six thousand Inca and took control of Peru.
Gonzalo Pizarro
Brother of Francisco Pizarro; led an expedition from Quito across the Andes and discovered the Amazon.
Cabeza de Vaca
Explorer who survived the ill-fated Narvaez expedition and captivity by Indians, then wrote of his adventures.

Timeline—Hapsburg Spain

AD YearEvent
1516 Charles V ascends the throne of Spain.
1517 Protestant Reformation breaks out in Germany.
1521-1526 First Italian War against Francis I of France.
1526-1530 Italian War: League of Cognac, against France, Papal States, Venice.
1527     Charles V sacks Rome and imprisons the pope.
1521 Conquest of Aztecs in Mexico by Hernando Cortez.
1521 Diet of Worms—Lutheran doctrines condemned as heresy.
1525 Council of the Indies is established to govern American territories.
1529 Solyman leads a Turkish army against Vienna.
1532 Conquest of Incas in Peru by Francisco Pizarro.
1534 Ignatius of Loyola founds the Society of Jesus.
1535 Charles V leads the Spanish navy to victory at the Conquest of Tunis.
1545 First Session of the Council of Trent.
1555 Peace of Augsburg—Lutheranism tolerated in Holy Roman Empire.
1556 Charles V abdicates all office and retires to Monastery at Yuste.
Hapsburg Empire divided between Philip II (Spain, Netherlands, New Spain), and Ferdinand (Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Holy Roman Empire).
1556 Philip II ascends to the throne of Spain and Netherlands.
1560 Holy League naval fleet organized under Andrea Doria.
1562 Teresa of Avila begins reform of the Carmelite religious order.
1566 Spanish Treasure fleet to New Spain/Philippines sails on regular schedule.
1568 Beginning of the Revolt in the Netherlands
1569 Morisco rebellion in Catalonia put down by Don John of Austria.
1571 The Battle of Lepanto detroys the Ottoman fleet in the Mediterranean.
1579 Union of Utrecht—Northern Netherlands declare independence from Spain.
1580 After death of heirless king, Portugal is united under the Spanish Crown.
1584 William the Silent, Protestant patriot of the Netherlands is assassinated.
1588 Spanish Armada sent to invade England is defeated.
LATER HAPSBURGS (Philips III, IV, and Charles II)
1604 Anglo-Spanish War brought to end after death of Philip II and Elizageth I.
1605 Cervantes publishes Don Quixote
1609 Expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain
1640 Catalonia allies with France, rebels from Spanish crown
1640 Portuguese usurper declared John IV; War of Portuguese independence.
1635-1659 Franco-Spanish War ends with Treaty of the Pyrenees.
1700 Death of Charles II, last Habsburg king of Spain
1700-14 War of the Spanish Succession: England, Austria, vs. French Bourbons.

Recommended Reading—Hapsburg Spain

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Ober - Spain: A History for Young Readers   Charles I and Philip II to The Seventeenth Century (3)
Horne - Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain   Spain Under the Hapsburgs (1)

Supplemental Recommendations

Abbott - The Romance of Spanish History   Charles V and his Son Philip to Philip II, III, and IV. (3)
Morris - Historical Tales: Spanish   A King in Captivity to Henry Morgan and Buccaneers (9)
Baldwin - Stories of Don Quixote    entire book
Macgregor - The Netherlands    entire book
Duncan - Mexico    entire book
Stockton - Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coasts    entire book

Religious Interest

Forbes - Life of St. Ignatius    entire book
Forbes - Life of St. Teresa    entire book