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The Spanish Sickness

Geoffrey Treasure describes how the imperial policies of Charles V and Philip II declined in the seventeenth century and Spain entered an extended period of depression.

In 1640, the year of the Catalan and Portuguese revolts, the crisis of the Spanish state became plain for all to see. A resourceful minister and a war effort that had only just begun to falter had concealed its extent from most foreign observers. After 1636, ‘the year of Corbie’, when the Habsburg armies had invaded France and nearly compelled the evacuation of Paris, the French effort had gathered strength.

In 1639 the annual Plate fleet was destroyed off the Downs by Van Tromp, a decisive blow to Spanish credit and solvency. The Dutch controlled the sea routes; the French blocked the Rhine. In the Netherlands the Cardinal Infant Ferdinand, victor of Nordlingen, began to lose ground and heart. When he died, the Spanish were fighting, not only for what remained of the fatal ‘Burgundian inheritance’, but for the survival of the Spanish empire. With Olivares, in 1645, died the imperial policy that had been the legacy of Charles V and Philip II, together with numerous projects of domestic reform.

The policy had meant in effect a war on several fronts, funded by taxes that barely provided sufficient even in peacetime, declining bullion imports, manufactures and exports: insupportable burdens upon a people lost in a demographic wasteland. The reforms did nothing to check the decline of cities, the desertion of great tracts of countryside, because of defects in the structure of government and society that would have been formidable obstacles under any conditions.

Spain was still the loose federation, dominated by Castile, that had been created by the original union of the crowns of Ferdinand and Isabella, ‘the Catholic Kings’. The shortcomings of the union were compounded by the pitifully weak, obstinately irrational rule of Philip IV, and by political errors, notably the decision of Olivares (1628) to intervene in the affair of the Mantuan succession which led directly to war with France.

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