On the verge of dismantling: Spain in the 17th century


Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) finished the war between Spain and France. According to the treaty, Spain lost Northern Catalonia in the south and some parts of Flanders in the north.  In the picture, Louis XIV and Philip IV are meeting on the Isle of Pheasants in 1660. In the wake of the meeting, Marie Theresa of Spain (daughter of Philip IV) got married to Louis XIV.
peter robert campbell ile ilgili görsel sonucu
Professor Peter Robert Campbell

This paper is written for HIST 241 (The History of Early Modern Europe) class for Prof. Peter Robert Campbell. He wrote a wide range of articles about the Early Modern French History. He also published a variety of books like  Louis XIV (1661-1715) in 1993 and Power and Politics in Old Regime France (1720-1745) in 1996. 

He currently gives lectures on European History at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul.

For his Curriculum Vitae: https://hist.boun.edu.tr/sites/hist.boun.edu.tr/files/Campbell%20CV%20Bogazici%20June%202015%20.docx


The Spanish Empire is one of the major European powers during the sixteenth century. Its Habsburg emperors like Charles I of Spain could control that vast empire with considerable politic and economic achievements in continental Europe as well as newly-discovered America. At its zenith, Habsburg Spain had a well-equipped army and formidable navy. However, this situation began to change in the seventeenth century. France challenged Spanish domination over Europe during the Thirty Years’ War and that triggered the long-lasting series of wars (1635-1659) until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in which Spain confirmed its territorial loss. Next to Franco-Spanish War, England defied and defeated the Spanish Armada with success in naval battles. Furthermore, the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) paved the way for the independence of the Netherlands. Along with that struggle, the Portuguese Restoration War (1640-1668) also marked Spanish retreat from Portugal. Habsburg emperors (Philip III (1598-1621), Philip IV (1621-1665), and Charles II (1665-1700)) were unable to deal with their enemies and ultimately their rule ended with the death of Charles II without an heir in 1700. This led to the Spanish Succession War and the rule of Philip V of Bourbon. In short, Spain could not sustain its European empire in that regard. Why the Spanish Empire faced such catastrophes need to be explained in order to understand the fall of its strength in the 17th century. In this respect, it is necessary to analyze socio-economic factors as well as geographic conditions together that created a territorially fragmented empire within that time framework. In a social sense, the decrease in Spain’s population due to social policies like immigration, and infectious illnesses consumed the strength of Spain against their enemies. Additionally, suffering from Spain in economic terms (like high inflation) because of mainly the decrease of coming American silver and insufficient taxation policies as well as the fall of agriculture in rural areas is a considerable reason of its loss of power. Furthermore, Iberian Peninsula’s natural structure restricted Spain to move effectively against its enemies. Along with those elements, governments could not manage the country’s affairs. That is to say, Spain’s inability to rule Europe stemmed from various problems that deeply undermined its ruling role in Europe.

A map of Spain from the 17th century
king philip iv of spain ile ilgili görsel sonucu
Philip IV (1621-1665) by Velazquez

I-Illnesses, Expulsions, and Migrations: A socially suffered empire

In the first place, population decline in Spain owing to infectious illnesses primarily plagues, migrations through the Spanish dominions of New World to settle and towards Madrid to find a job in the capital city, the expulsion of Muslim-origin recently converted Morisco society from Spain, and the decrease of birth rates because of wars and battles would be considered destroying social problems for Spanish Empire. First of all, the contagious plague crashed Spain at the beginning and at the middle of the 17th century. According to reports, 600.000 Spaniards already lost their lives after the first wave of five-year epidemics in 1602. 1 Henry Kamen remarks that most of the affected cities were

“in the heartland of Old Castile, where the principal towns lay. The tragedy was a grim opening to a century of population reverses which struck at the roots of Spanish resources and imperial power.” 2

And in some centers

“the mortality rate was ten times higher than the average.” 3

45 years later a new epidemic wave came and it killed 250.000 people in another five years. This horrifying case did not recover itself until the 1750’s.4

In addition to this, the expulsion of Moriscos’ who were descendants of Spain’s Muslims even though they accepted Christianity later affected the population. Nonetheless, their ancestors became a reason to be dealt with in Spain’s point of view. Henceforth, approximately 175.000 people were forced to leave Iberia in just five years by the governmental decree.  In 1614, there was no one to remind Islamic origin in the “purified Catholic” peninsula. Nathaniel Platt underlines that the Habsburgs

“thought that this social policy of religious intolerance would help them to bring about political unity in Spain. Actually, this policy hurt Spain economically by robbing it of its most skilled merchants and manufacturers.”5

Their inexistence deeply harmed Spanish social life and their expulsion

“en masse was clearly disastrous”6


“their absence could lead to grave economic dislocation. In community after community tax returns fell and agricultural output decayed. Rents drawn from Morisco tenants disappeared: the income of Saragossa fell by 40%, that of Valencia by 30%”7.

After all, about more than one million people lost their lives and the general population of Spain terribly declined.

Other than these two factors, the population declined due to migrations in two directions. Firstly, people from rural areas moved to the capital city, Madrid, for seeking a better life. While urban areas developed in terms of economic and social ways, agriculture fell and therefore so did the production of even basic commodities. Elliott argues that this exodus to the towns made Castile

“a land of deserted villages, with tragic consequences for the country’s agrarian development.”8

To illustrate, there were subsistence crisis in Castile and Andalusia three times in the 17th century that brought about hunger, famine, and the rebellions of locals in each crisis.9  González de Cellorigo in 1600 commented that “

we can only expect shortages of everything, because of the lack of people to work in the fields and in all the manufactures the kingdom needs’”10

Due to the lack of products, the reality of the agrarian crisis made the urban vitality declined in turn. Briefly, “such patterns of adjustment” did not work well for people11. Finally, the Migration to the New World must be examined to explain the depopulation of Spain. In this context, people had the same goals as the immigrants through Madrid. Henry Kamen writes that

“migration to the Indies, on average, drained 4–5,000 people each year from the Spanish economy”

and Trevor Davies argues that

“Multitudes, consequently, emigrated thither at their most productive age, leaving Spain the poorer…the yearly loss to Spain by emigration”

fell Spanish population from 8.5 to 7 million.12 Due to that decline, one of the results is that as Kamen detects

“the birth rate began to stagnate and fall…a nation with a falling number of births…could ill afford to sustain”13

II-Silver is melting and taxes are crushing:
A sinking economy under the rule of inflation

spanish real 1650 ile ilgili görsel sonucu
A Spanish Mexican Real from the era of Philip IV (1621-1665). Royal and dynastic symbols can be identified from this piece of money.

Apart from social problems, Spain experienced economic problems like the soaring of silver and gold mines from its American dominions, the addition, and application of new taxes to compensate mines issue. These unsolved issues prepared a dangerous ground for high inflation and respectively higher prices. According to Plat, Spain

“believed that the colonies existed to enrich Spanish royalty and nobility with gold, silver, and high taxes”14.

Elliott emphasized that

“the apparently inexhaustible stream of silver from the Indies had tempted the King to embark on vast enterprises which swallowed up his revenues and added to his mountain of debts”15.

Spain’s expenditure rose up to 12 million ducats a year to realize its imperial goals16. However, that profitable stream was disrupted by the Dutch’s rebellion. They could intrigue the Spanish Caribbean and break up Spain’s mainland maritime communications with its colonies.  This disruptive step damaged Spain’s overseas monopoly and Spain had to defend itself in the continent without much revenue from its American possessions. England also assisted the Dutch rebellion by defeating Spain’s “invincible armada”. Thus, Spain

“began receiving less silver from America. Peak receipts of 13.17 million ducats for the crown in the five years 1596–1600 dropped to two million in 1646–50”17.

For preserving itself against audacious attacks,

“the Spanish government ordered Spanish ships to sail only to and from certain fixed ports on certain fixed days”.18

This tough government regulation on the New World; however, cut the Spanish market’s connections. Besides this, a conflict between Spain’s center and periphery rose emerged. This is because periphery colonies had

“to produce raw materials for Spain at low prices and to purchase Spanish manufactured goods at high prices. But there were few customers for Spanish goods in the colonies…. Indians were poor customers for Spanish cloth”19.

As such,

“the goods which Spain produced were not wanted by America; and the goods that America wanted were not produced by Spain.”20.

To be precise, Spain’s bullion exports and imports (from 4 to 1.5 million) 21 collapsed and it

“began to experience economic problems that can be identified as a ‘depression.”22

Ultimately, much of the mines were taken by not Spanish but Dutch or English manufacturers.23 Davies highlights that

“without the steadily expanding stream of silver from America…disaster was almost inevitable.”

For instance, this rise in prices

“was as rapid as ever. If the index-figure for the decade 1571-1580 is taken 100, 118.77 for 1591-1600. Broadly speaking… prices had quadrupled.”24

Furthermore, even Spain’s own trade passed into the hands of foreigners that became a factor in price rises. Simón Ruiz, a merchant, complained that

“these foreigners do with us as they wish”.25

248 a society. During that time only 1 in 4 of ships was controlled by Spanish traders. Foreign merchants sold their products too expensive to make a living. That is, Spain depended on external demands’ dictations even in the bulk of their commercial cities such as Seville, Navarre, and Aragon.26 Although the Spanish government tried to recover the economic situation with adjustments, the consequences of these endeavors were more painful and severe. To illustrate, Kamon stated that

“gold and silver were driven out of circulation by the debased currency (vellon)…thereby creating a dual currency and completely dislocating all market prices. The government itself suffered from the disparity between vellón and silver.”27

The premium on a silver coin of the same nominal value rose from 4% to 200% in about 20 years. This uninterrupted monetary inflation and coinage manipulation made the price level the highest in Europe. In 1650, Spain did not have almost gold or silver in circulation, and copper made up over 98 % of coinage. The value of vellon (currency) became so low that

“in the 1650s a six-pound bag of vellón, irrespective of the number of coins it contained, became the normal price for ten pounds of cheese.”28

Furthermore, debt repayments could be made in silver in that age. Due to that deficit in silver, Spain declared its first bankruptcy in 1607 and the second one came in 1647. As for its debt, it escalated from 85 million to 112 million in a quarter century29.

The mistakes in the distribution of taxes among its subjects and the adjustment of taxation policies accelerated the fall of the Spanish economy in this context. It would be remembered that the nobility and clergy were tax-exempt. Therefore, other people had to pay high taxes to get wanted revenue. Moreover, the unfair burden of taxation demonstrates itself with the distribution of regions. While Castile contributed 73% of all taxes, Aragon just satisfies 1% of it30. These conditions triggered the Spanish government to make tax reform. However, Spain failed to apply the reform because people rebelled in Catalonia and Aragon due to new higher taxes speeded the expenditure of Spain up instead of reducing monetary disorder31. After this failure, Spain resorted to other solutions. Philips Jr. indicates that

“the government simply heaped additional excise taxes and other fees onto the ungainly array of levies that already existed, lurching from one fiscal crisis to another”32.

For example, the unwillingness of nobles to get military service

“created the lances tax….the media anata, or ‘half-year’ of income from all official posts, was introduced; and a new salt tax was created…. a stamp tax on paper (…) was introduced, as well as a tax on playing-cards. Most important of all, the national debt of juros was itself taxed.”33

Nonetheless, neither the large issue of copper coinage to debase the money supply nor the additional taxes were not able to solve rampant inflation and the slumping economy. As Philips Jr. puts it,

“a budget forecast showed that 12.7 million ducats were needed for the coming financial year but only 3.2 were available”

in 1646.34 In short, fiscal measures deepened Spain’s economic depression that ruined its objective to be a powerful state in the western hemisphere.

III-The Power of Natural Barriers: The Labirent of Iberia


       Iberia’s physical and geographic structure, as well as unstable and changing geographic conditions, became a limited dimension for the Spanish Empire to overcome its problems in time. As Fernand Braudel put it in the Mediterranean,

“the fundamental reality of any civilization must be its geographical cradle. Geography dictates its vegetational growth and lays down often impassable frontiers… which both confine man and undergo constant change through its efforts.”35

In the geographic scale, the Iberian Peninsula played a key role to make political unity and economic advancements slower in Spain. To exemplify, navigable rivers are scarce to be got benefit from and coastlines are too regular to provide enough harbors. Drummond pays attention that

“a plateau almost like a desert separates the north from the south. Rocky mountains and narrow canyons cut up the country and make the building of roads costly.”

From this point, he also denotes that

“Spain might have shared in France’s progress if the Pyrenees Mountains did not limit contacts.”36

In addition to this, Spain was unable the production of edible food since its land surface hardly cultivable. Iberia is a highly elevated area and many zones of it are arid and high with the widespread droughts. Kamen indicates that

“the major rivers… tend to dry up precisely when most needed, in the summer…and the rich lands of Andalusia were very vulnerable to climatic changes”37.

Elliott also remarks that

“this meant that improvements – such as irrigation schemes or engineering projects – demanded a co-operative Endeavour and the investment of considerable funds”38.

Presumably, Spain did not find “considerable funds” because its annual expenditure was over 8 million ducats with an annual deficit of about 4 million due to produce pieces of equipment for long-lasting wars.


File:Velázquez - de Breda o Las Lanzas (Museo del Prado, 1634-35).jpg
The Surrender of Breda (1624-1625) is an early Spanish victory in the Eighty Years War that finished with a devastating defeat for the Spanish side. This is drawn by the famous painter Diego Velázquez in 1635. Philip IV saved many artists including Velazquez via patronage.

As far as those multi-layered causes are concerned, Spain’s dominator and controller place in European scale disappeared and never gained its primary role again in that era39. There was no vigorous monarch in Spain during that time and the state was run by elites like the Duke of Lerma (Francisco Gómez de Sandoval) (1599-1618) and the Duke of Olivares (Gaspar de Guzmán) (1621-1643). Their failure to find remedies against social, economic, and geographic issues narrowed the vision of Spain from the first colonial empire to a loser state whose future determined by other Western states. Dynastic succession to French origin Bourbons did not terminate this crisis and eventually, Spain became a kingdom under Napoleonic France. In conclusion, it is necessary to take multi-dimensional reasons into account to grasp how a state lost its position like Spain in historical analysis.


  1. Henry Kamen, “Spain’s people in an age of crisis”, Spain: 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict, (Longman Publications, 2005), 242.
  2. Nathaniel Platt & M. Jean Drummond, “Crossing the Bridge to Modern Times”, Our World through the Ages, (Prentice Hall Inc, 1954), 242.
  3. Ibid., 242.
  4. R. Trevor Davies, “Chapter Ten”, The Golden Century of Spain, (Macmillan Publications, 1961): 264.
  5. Plat & Drummond, “Crossing the Bridge”, 269.
  6. Sir Charles Petrie, the History of Spain, ed. Edward Allworth (Eyre & Spottiswoode Publications, 1956), 263.
  7. Kamen, A Society of Conflict, 234-235.
  8. J.H. Elliott, “Splendor and Misery”, Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, (Penguin Publications, 2002), 146?.
  9. Kamen, A Society of Conflict, 243.
  10. Ibid., 244.
  11. William Phillips, Jr. & C. Rahn Phillips, “Spain as the First Global Empire”, ?.
  12. Davies, “Chapter X”, 264.
  13. Kamen, a Society of Conflict, 242.
  14. Plat & Drummond, “Crossing the Bridge”, 269.
  15. Elliott, “Splendor and Misery”, 142.
  16. Ibid., 143.
  17. Kamen, a Society of Conflict, 228.
  18. Ibid., 228.
  19. Plat & Drummond, “Crossing the Bridge”, 269.
  20. Elliott, “Splendor and Misery”, 145.
  21. Davies, “Chapter Ten”, 263.
  22. Kamen, a Society of Conflict, 242.
  23. Plat & Drummond, “Crossing the Bridge”, 270.
  24. Davies, “Chapter Ten”, 266.
  25. Kamen, a Society of Conflict, 248.
  26. Ibid., 249.
  27. Ibid., 228.
  28. Ibid., 228.
  29. Ibid., 229.
  30. Ibid., 236.
  31. Philips & Philips. Jr. “Spain as the First Global Empire”, 109.
  32. Ibid, 109.
  33. Kamen, a Society of Conflict, 230.
  34. Philips & Philips. Jr. “Spain as the First Global Empire”, 109.
  35. Fernard Braudel, the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II: Second Volume, (The University of California Press, 1996), 773.
  36. Plat & Drummond, “Crossing the Bridge”, 271-72.
  37. Kamen, a Society of Conflict, 245.
  38. Elliott, “Splendor and Misery”, 146.
  39. Dennis O Flynn. “Fiscal Crisis and the Decline of Spain”, (The Journal of Economic History, 1982), 139.
  40. Fisher, Douglas. “The Price Revolution: A Monetary Interpretation”, (The Journal of Economic History, 1989), 894.
  41. Flynn, “Fiscal Crisis”. 142.

*  Maps were taken from The Golden Century of Spain: 1501-1621and A Concise History of Spain


Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II: Second Volume. The University of California Press. 1996.

Davies, R. Trevor. The Golden Century of Spain: 1501-1621. Macmillan Publications. 1961.

Elliott, J.H. Imperial Spain: 1469-1716. Penguin Publications. 1990.

Fisher, Douglas. “The Price Revolution: A Monetary Interpretation”, the Journal of Economic History, (1989): 883-902.


Flynn, Dennis O. “Fiscal Crisis and the Decline of Spain”, The Journal of Economic History, (1982): 139-147.


Kamen, Henry. Spain: 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict. Longman Publications. 1996.

Platt, Nathaniel and Drummond, M. Jean. Our World Through The Ages. Prentice Hall Inc. 1954.

Phillips, Jr., William and Phillips, Carla Rahn. A Concise History of Spain. Cambridge University Press. 2010.

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