Spain – Decline OUTLINE THE FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO A DECLINE IN SPANISH POWER BY THE MIDDLE OF THE 17TH CENTURY The general perception of the historical world is that Spain, once a powerful nation, declined from its period of grace around the commencement of the seventeenth century. However, more recently a number of historians have come to refute such a claim. One of the leading figures in the study of this period is Henry Kamen who argues that no such decline occurred at all. Contemporary historians, for example Gonzalez de Cellorigo, often believed the opposite, in that Spain was indeed suffering a decline in status which may have been the result of such characters not wishing to face the possibility that Spain never enjoyed hegemony at all. Kamen’s main area of dispute is that he believes there to have been no economic decline at all, whilst still agreeing that there was indeed a political decline, he states “we cannot question the obvious fact that there was a decline in imperial and military power”, the likes of which can be backed up by the events in 1637 and 1643 – the battles of the Downs and Rocroi respectively. His argument is that for Spain to suffer an economic decline they must have been financially strong in the first place, thus providing the platform from which to fall. Jeronimo Fernandez de Mata claimed “it is said that when empires reach their peak, they begin to decline”. Indeed this is correct but peaks can only be highlighted when examining events in hindsight and contemporaries would have been blissfully unaware of such a downfall.
Kamen’s ideas can certainly be supported by little more than common historical knowledge. Even as early as the reign of Philip II, Spain experienced frequent bankruptcies mainly due to multiple foreign wars which could be supported by income from taxation and a monopoly on trade from the Indies alone. In conclusion Kamen believes that Spain was simply incapable of economic decline because “Spain never rose”. He also claims that no real timing can be identified for the precise moments of decline, a point refuted by Professor Israel. Israel claims that the majority of belief is now pointed towards a decline beginning in the early years of the reign of Philip III and ending in the mid-seventeenth century.
The key obstacle that barred Spain’s path in the eyes of Israel, is that of unavoidable natural disasters such as plague and famine, the latter of which can be partly blamed on the financial crisis itself as well as poor agriculture. In a period of approximately twenty-five years at the start of the seventeenth century, the population of Spain fell by over one and a half million. Such adversities counter-balanced against efforts to improve Spanish finance in the sixteenth century through industrial growth, particularly in textiles. However, before Kamen’s theories began to cause disagreement, historians of the early to middle twentieth century had moulded the foundations for his hypothesis. Historians such as Ranke and Hume pointed out that the ignorance and foolhardy toils of the leaders of Spain themselves had brought decadence onto their empire. With the advent of Earl Hamilton’s article in 1938, the economic dimension was introduced, but it was not until Professor Elliott published his article in 1961 that each idea began to materialise together. Until now the idea of a general decline had been accepted but now Elliott had highlighted the difference between a political and economic fall, which could only lead on to each other and not occur simultaneously.
Whilst agreeing that international trade difficulties were indeed partly responsible he made it clear that internal problems were the key to Spanish failure. Similarities can easily be drawn with Professor Israel’s theorem, particularly regarding the importance of agricultural and demographic crisis in the eventuality of the decline itself. It was made clear that the economic decline, occuring at the turn of the sixteenth century, came before the political fall, which he pinpoints to 1640. It is such evaluation which conflicts with Kamen, who must surely agree that in the second half of the sixteenth century Spain was undoubtedly the most powerful nation in Europe. If this is so then the fact that this hegemony was lost in the seventeenth century obviously requires a decline of some description to enable the Spanish to reach such a position at all. The foundations for the decline, however serious they are believed to be, can not be disputed but merely quarrelled over the importance of each area.
To truly evaluate the scale of an event it needs to be determined the condition of the country both after and prior to its existence. It must be remembered that throughout this period Spain was almost always involved in international wars which were constantly a burden on both economic and political factors. The demographic loss from 1580 was arguably the largest strain on the empire. A great proportion of the population was lost due to famine and pestilence, particularly in Castile and Naples, the former providing the majority of taxation and other finance throughout this period. Such events harming Castile itself would undoubtedly have greatly affected Spain at this time. As a result agricultural output fell dramatically, thus affecting trade and industrial output as Spain cascaded economically.
The decline in the number of the taxpaying population and overall decline in wealth are largely responsible for this. Historians such as Dr Stoye and Professor Elliott highlight the need to not concentrate solely on economic decline so as to overlook the efforts of political survival on behalf of the Spanish leaders. Graham Darby tells of the “remarkable resilience showed by the Spanish monarchy”. This conflicts with the theory offered by Ranke and Hume who indicate Spanish leaders as the main cause of decline, showing that the aforementioned events may have been simply misfortunes rather than the direct result of poor governing. Olivares can indeed be praised for his capability at raising tax levels in spite of the fall in population and also amassing an unmatched level of military numbers.
However, were it not for Olivares’ unrivalled need for physical conflict, such levels would have not been required and efforts aimed elsewhere in the empire. His Union of Arms plan ensured that the national debt grew prodigiously, prompting Darby’s quote, “The government paid for defence in the present by mortgaging the future”. It was at this time that Darby believes the paths of the economy and politics were to cross. Lerma actually attempted to eliminate the burdens of war by making peace and alliances with his enemies. However, this suffered a backlash as contemporaries viewed Spain to be losing its grip.
Regardless of differing interpretations, the facts of history are visible to everyone. As has been shown, many of the worlds leading historians whilst studying exactly the same period of time, have decided upon completely different thesis entirely. Kamen’s belief of there being no decline at all can be strongly argued with. Whilst it is true that Spain was indeed never financially supreme, power can only be issued over the failings of others. Everything has to balance out without exception.
It can be argued that Spain found itself in much the same position in 1650 as it was in 1580, economically particularly. However it is the politics of the world that shape the power of a nation, hence affecting its economy, and vice versa, with both factors being complexly intertwined. Had France been anywhere near the stature it held in the seventeenth century as it had in the sixteenth then the fact of Spain’s economic torment would have ensured that such a decline would have occurred far earlier. The difference was that in 1650 Spain could not afford to continue its financial difficulties in the light of increased foreign political power. It is this factor that creates the question of whether it was a Spanish decline, or more a case of a rise from other European countries that caused their hegemony to fall.
It is the failings of an economic system that allow a political problem to materialise at all. European History.