Early Modern Spain - Philip II - History of Spain
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Early Modern Spain

Philip II of Spain
Philip II of Spain

February 2017 - As the great-grandson of Isabella, who had sent Columbus to America, Philip II ruled Spain in the mid-1500s AD. Philip also controlled huge Spanish territories in South and Central America, Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Texas. Philip also ruled the Netherlands and Flanders (now part of Belgium), north of France. As if that wasn't enough, Philip's cousin ruled Austria, Hungary, and a lot of Italy as the Holy Roman Emperor. Philip's empire was the most powerful empire in the world. Spanish ships carried European salt, steel, glass beads, and paper to West Africa, where they sold those things and bought enslaved people and gold. Then they sold those slaves in Brazil and picked up silver, sugar, coffee, and pearls. They brought the silver to China and sold it for porcelain and silk, or in India for cotton cloth and pepper, and sold the porcelain and silk, cotton, pepper, coffee, sugar and pearls back in Europe. The Spanish got richer and richer, as the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia, and India became poorer.

But Philip II spent a lot of time worrying about how to keep his empire powerful. The Ottoman Empire had been growing very quickly, and people thought Suleiman might conquer all of Europe, as the Romans once had. Philip's cousin had to pay tribute to Suleiman to keep the Ottoman army from invading Austria. But in 1566, Suleiman died, and then in 1571, Spain and Venice destroyed the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto. Philip's navy could afford a lot more guns than the Ottomans. After that Spain was safe from the Ottomans.

But Spain still had big problems. Spanish ships had brought tons of silver to Europe from South America. China needed silver to make coins with, so Spanish traders were able to buy a lot of Silk Road stuff with their silver. At first the rich families of Spain got super rich. They bought all sorts of fancy stuff like silk from China. But then Silk Road traders realized that silver wasn't so rare anymore, and silver got less valuable. Philip had spent a lot of money on his wars, and he couldn't pay his debts.

Mariana of Austria
Mariana of Austria, Queen of Spain
(by Velazquez, ca. 1652)

Also, Philip had been able to do whatever he wanted in Europe without worrying about England or France. Catherine de' Medici in France and Mary and Elizabeth in England were busy with civil wars between Catholics and Protestants. But in 1588, only three years after Philip defeated the Ottomans, Queen Elizabeth of England defeated the Spanish Armada, and the next year Henry IV became king of France. Philip realized he had to fight inside Europe as well as outside it. The British navy was getting to be stronger than the Spanish navy. British pirates attacked Spanish ships and took their pearls and silver.

When Philip II died of cancer in 1598, his son Philip III took over, and after him his son, Philip IV (Philip III's daughter Anne married Louis XIII of France). Starting in 1618, Spain fought in the Thirty Years War in Europe. After Philip IV died in 1665 AD, his wife Mariana of Austria ruled Spain as regent for their four year old son, Charles II, just as her cousin Anne of Austria had recently ruled France for her four year old son, Louis XIV. Mariana's brother Leopold was the Holy Roman Emperor. Because Charles was disabled, his mother Mariana ruled pretty much for the rest of her life, until she died of breast cancer in 1696. But she didn't do as well as Anne of Austria had in France: Portugal became independent, taking Brazil with her, the Pueblo Revolt got the Pueblo people their independence and brought horses to many Native Americans, and Louis XIV of France took control of more and more of the Netherlands.

When Charles died in 1700 AD, at 39 years old, he left no sons. He was the last of the Hapsburg family to rule Spain. After Charles II died all the European countries fought the War of the Spanish Succession to see who would rule next. By this time, Britain had taken over most of the trading that the Spanish had done before, and it was Britain that was getting rich.

Thirty Years War
War of the Spanish Succession

Bibliography and further reading about early modern Spain:

Anne of Austria
Early Modern England
Ottoman Empire
Europe Home Page
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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