Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt

Introduction and Impressions

When most of us think of the 16th century, we think of Tudor England. This is the country with whose history we are most familiar and it served as the foundation for much of the SCA as we know it. Many historians characterize the last half of the 16th century as the Elizabethan Age. Yet, England was not considered one of the "Great Powers" during these years. Instead, it was seen as one of the major, but somewhat less important players on the world stage. England was perceived as considerably less powerful than her historical enemy France, the expansion-minded Ottoman Empire or, even, Portugal. In fact, England was often classed with some of the larger German states of the Holy Roman Empire.

It was, instead, Hapsburg Spain that towered over the landscape of Renaissance Europe like, in the words of Shakespeare, "a mighty colossus". It was Spain's Age, Throughout most of the 16th century she had no real rival on the world stage. Her armies, sweeping from victory to victory, were not to taste defeat once between the years 1512 and 1601. On battlefields as far afield as the Netherlands, Greece, north Africa, the Philippines and the New World, Spanish arms ruled supreme.

Her ships spanned the globe connecting the distant outposts of her world empire with the homeland. Spain discovered, colonized and exploited the New World. She made it her special reserve and brooked no interference there from lesser powers. Her navies brought to Seville immense wealth in the form of gold, silver and spices from the four corners of the world.

Her mode of clothing and manners were imitated throughout the courts of Europe. Castiglione, in his definitive guide to courtly behavior, declared that the courtier should imitate the Spanish style of dress with its dark and somber colors. Spanish black, he said, was to be preferred above all other colors. It was a time of tall stately galleons and conquistadors. It was the era of Cortez, Cervantes and El Greco.

But it was also a time of darkness, partly lit only by the bonfires of the Inquisition. This arm of the CounterReformation was particularly strong in Spain and enjoyed the support of the crown in its search for heretics and other nonbelievers. Spain's conquistador's carried Christ to the New World with fire and sword, devastating the rich and bloody civilizations there, plundering them and enslaving their peoples. If it was the age of Cervantes and El Greco, it was also the age of Torquemada and Pizarro.


As the warm glow of the Renaissance spread outward from the Italian city-states, Spain unified herself and destroyed the last Moorish state on the Iberian peninsula. Their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, sent out Spanish ships across the Atlantic that discovered a New World. This New World would eventually render up such wealth as to make it possible for their grandson, Charles I to stand but a step away from the domination of Europe. The Most Catholic Kings began Spanish intervention in Italy, a stage that was to see the march of Spanish armies for the next century In short, Ferdinand and Isabella prepared the way for Spain's future greatness. Charles I (also known as Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) and his son, Philip II, were to give Spain this greatness.

Charles I held the titles of Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sardinia, King of Naples and Sicily, Duke of Burgundy and King of' Spain. The vast wealth and lands of the Aztec, Mayan and Incan Empires came under Spain's control during his reign. As Charles looked across a map of Europe, he could not help but believe that God had gifted him with the lands, armies and wealth to bring unity to Europe. Had it not been for a discontented priest in Germany, he might have succeeded. But Luther was able to win many of the German princes to his new religion and much of Charles' energy was spent in suppressing these rebellious subjects.

At the same time, Charles continued Spain's involvement in Italy. This brought him into conflict with Valois France for control of Italy. Charles defeated Francis I at Pavia in 1525, bringing the French King home to Madrid as a prisoner. But he lost much prestige when his troops rebelled and sacked Rome in 1527. The Italian wars between France and Spain were to continue even after the death of Francis I in 1547. The struggle was to expand into the Empire where it became allied to the cause of the German Protestant princes. For Spain this meant the involvement of her military units in central Europe.

Charles also felt it his duty to war against the Moslem infidels and he was fortunate enough to have two theaters of engagement from which to choose. The Turks were militarily active in the Balkans and their forces marched northward to lay siege to Charles' western capital of Vienna. He chose, however, to put the main part of his effort in attacking the Moslem pirates and other powers along the North African coast. He was successful in securing several rather short lived Spanish footholds in that area.

In the years between 1556 and 1559 Charles, exhausted by forty years of rule and warfare, divested himself of his many titles. He wisely separated the rule of the Holy Roman Empire from that of Spain drawing from his own experiences on the difficulty of ruling an empire with so many diverse regions with such divergent goals. He gave the Holy Roman Empire to his brother Ferdinand and his heirs. Spain, its colonies, the Spanish Netherlands, his feud with France over Italy and a crushing war debt he left to his dutiful son Philip II.

Philip declared bankruptcy almost immediately. He would be forced to do so twice more during his reign. Philip was a conscientious ruler much loved by his Spanish subjects. He had been raised to rule, serving as governor of Milan at 13 and regent of Spain at the age of 16. In 1554 he had been made governor of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. The weight of his responsibilities and the legacy of his ancestry made him a bigoted, hardworking, strong and religiously rigid man. Philip was also ably served by relatives such as Don Juan of Austria, his illegitimate halfbrother, and Alexander Farnese, the Duke of Parma. Under Philip II Spain reached her summit.

The only power on earth who could truly vie with Spain militarily was the Ottoman Empire. These two giants skirmished for several years before their combined fleets met at Lepanto in 1571. The young Don Juan of Austria commanded a combined Spanish, Venetian and Geneose fleet (which also contained ships from the Knights of Malta and other states) in a great victory over the Turks in history's last great galley battle. Although the Ottomans rebuilt their fleet the next year, they were never to threaten the Spanish in the western Mediterranean again.

In 1580, after the death of the last legitimate claimant to the Portuguese throne, Philip II fell heir to Portugal and her vast overseas empire. He secured his claim to the throne by seizing control of the country militarily. "Spain's control of Portugal added Brazil and extensive holdings in Africa, the Near East and the Far East to Spain's vast empire in Europe, the New World, north Africa and the Far East. Spain now truly stood unrivalled as master of Europe.

From this pinnacle, Spain's fall from greatness was precipitous. Revolt in Holland and at home, the failure of the First Armada against the English (due by far more to the weather than English actions) and the crippling cost of warfare and poor economic decisions all combined to force Spain to a final bankruptcy in 1597. And, though no one knew it at the time, the passing of Philip II in 1598 also marked the waning of Spain's greatness.

Spain in the New World

It was an Italian explorer in the pay of Spain that discovered the New World in 1492 and the Spanish were not slow in gaining control of much of that New World. By 1517 the Spanish had viable colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola. In that year creditable rumors of the wealth of the inland empires of the continent led to the formation of an expedition under the command of Hernan Cortez.

Cortez landed at Vera Cruz in 1519 and moved quickly inland, gathering allies against the rich and powerful Aztec Empire as he went. He arrived at the capital city of that empire, Tenochtitlan and, taking advantage of the belief of the Aztecs that he was one of their returning gods, Cortez secured control of the emperor Montezuma. The Spaniards were driven from the city during the "Noche Triste" with heavy casualties but returned and were successful in retaking the city in 1521. The wealth of the Aztec Empire and its outlying dependencies would now flow into the coffers of Spain.

Cortez and his lieutenants spent the 1520's and 1530's expanding the borders of New Spain to the north and south. The decadent Mayan states of the Yucatan were brought under Spanish control and Spanish power was felt as far south as Panama.

A second native American empire, that of the Incas, now awaited the Spanish. Larger, wealthier and more powerful than the Aztec state, the Incan empire fell even more quickly to the Spaniards and to a force that wag smaller and less well equipped than that of Cortez. By 1535 Pizarro had secured the Incan capital and the states wealthier provinces. These would form the heartland of New Granada and the wealth of the Incans, coupled with the ore from South Americas fabulous silver mines, would further fill Spain's imperial coffers.

Large Spanish settlements were built in the New World. The chief city during the first half of the 16th century was Santa Domingo. In the latter half of the century Cartagena, on the northern coast of present-day Venezuela gained a position of dominance. Not far behind was La Ciudad de Mexico, Panama and Santiago. All initially based their wealth upon the mineral wealth being brought forth from the New World but, over time, they became trading centers that exchanged goods produced in the Old World for agricultural products from Spain's New World empire.

The Spaniards refused to believe that the Mayas, Aztecs and Incans had the only wealthy and powerful states in the New World. Drawn on by rumors of such states to the north, Coronado, de Soto, Cabeza de Vaca and other conquistadors took expeditions across much of the south and central United States. They found little in the way of wealth. But the Spaniards did establish settlements at Santa Fe and Taos in the late 1590's and these were to serve as the northern limits of Spanish control in the New World for many years to come.

Spain's acquired wealth in the New World was a double-edged sword. It allowed Charles V and Philip II to finance their many European wars but these monarchs often did so by borrowing against future gold and silver shipments from the New World. When this flow was interrupted by pirates or natural disasters, the rulers found themselves further in debt. Even when the money arrived on time the vast majority of it flowed quickly through Spain to Dutch, German and Italian bankers from whom the Hapsburgs had borrowed. Adding to this problem was the fact that so much gold and silver, flooding the market over such a short period of time led to massive inflation--what has come to be known as the Price Revolution. In two generations the cost of living for the average European increased by a factor ranging from three to eight times and his wages did not come close to matching this rise. The New World wealth was wreaking havoc with national and personal economies. It was to eat at the national fabric of Spain and, ironically, help to impoverish Europe, noble and peasant alike.


Philip was followed on the throne by his son, the weak and pious Philip III. This Philip had no ability to command and turned over the governing of the realm and the execution of foreign policy over to the Duke of Lerma. The war with England dragged on with the sending of two more Armadas against England in 1599 and 1601. Both failed because of weather and were greater disasters than even the Armada of 1588 had been. With the death of Elizabeth I of England in 1603 and the accession to the throne of James I, peace between Spain and England became possible. It was signed in 1604.

It was not apparent to the rest of Europe that Spain was past her prime. Her armies suffered defeats and her fleets were no longer successful in all that they did. But she was still powerful and wealthy. No one had looked beneath this veneer of might to see the economic and military decay that wag taking place beneath it. The tide had already turned against the land of Cortez and Cervantes while more farsighted and vigorous powers passed it by. Spain wag able to survive on the laurels of her past victories until her tercios were annihilated on the field of Rocroi by the French in 1643.


1492--Conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella. Discovery of the New World by Columbus.

1517--Charles I of Hapsburg becomes King of Spain. The Reformation begins in Germany.

1519--Charles I becomes Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Cortez conquers the Aztec Empire.

1521--Cortez conquers the Aztec Empire.

1522--Magellan circumnavigates the world.

1525--Charles defeats Francis I at Pavia and captures the French King.

1527--Charles' army sacks Rome.

1533--Pizarro conquers the Incan Empire.

1556--Charles I abdicates in favor of his son Philip 11.

1563--Philip II builds the Escurial as his palace/monastery/ administrative center.

1568--Moriso revolt in Andalusia. Put down by Don Juan of Austria

1571-Don Juan of Austria defeats the Turks at Lepanto

1572--The Netherlands revolts against Spain.

1580--Philip II conquers Portugal, adding its vast overseas empire to his own.

1588--The First Armada fails to conquer England

1598--Death of Philip II.

1599--Philip III sends the Second Armada against England.

1601--Philip III sends the Third Armada against England.

1604--Peace is signed between Philip III of Spain and James I of England.


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