A brief history of Spain, Part 9: Los Reyes Católicos

by Lorraine Williamson
Los Reyes Catolicos

In the 15th century, the territory of the Iberian Peninsula was divided among four Christian kingdoms, Navarre in the north, Portugal in the west, Castile (finally united with León in 1230) in the centre and Aragon on the eastern Mediterranean coast.  

Los Reyes Catolicos

The kingdom of Granada in the south was Islamic. But Spain owes its origin to the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469 (Los Reyes Catolicos, the Catholic Kings). The title Reyes Catolicos was bestowed upon them by Pope Alexander VI in recognition of the completion of the Reconquista.  

Successful marriage 

Through the marriage, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon came together. Moreover, now they owned most of the territory of the Iberian Peninsula. However, Portugal would remain independent except between 1580 and 1640. Basque Navarre remained an independent principality until the early 16th century. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabela has been successful. Together they guided Spain through a turbulent time. During their rule, Spain was for the first time united as a nation and America has been ‘discovered’. According to many, Isabela was the brain and driving force behind this successful collaboration. 

Powerful position for Catholic Church 

1492 is a pivotal year in Spanish history. With the completion of the Reconquista, the Islamic empire on Spanish territory comes to a definite end. Spain becomes a Catholic kingdom. The Catholic Church gains a powerful position and the country is purified as much as possible of Jewish and Islamic influences. The close symbiosis between the monarchy and the church is also apparent from the fact that some of Ferdinand’s illegitimate daughters made it to be mother superior in a monastery. 

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Voyages of discovery as a Catholic crusade 

In 1492 Columbus sets sail and discovers America. The mission of Los Reyes Catolicos to spread the Catholic faith around the world was an important motive for them to support this journey. They used the voyages of discovery as a crusade against the ‘infidels’. The South American Indians were forcibly converted and robbed of their gold and silver, bringing Spain immeasurable prosperity. 

Expelling Moors and Jews 

In Islamist Spain, the foundations were laid for the Renaissance. In that sense, the Moors eventually had a major influence on the further development of Christian Western Europe. While Europe was absorbed in that Renaissance in which a middle class developed that made prosperity accessible to many, Spain in her isolation behind the Pyrenees was mainly concerned with expelling important groups in society. Namely those groups that represented almost the entire middle class and related know-how: the former Moorish rulers and the often socially successful Jews. 

Wealth and dichotomy 

With the discovery of the Americas, gold came to Spain in shiploads. Consequently, the absence of a middle class was hardly economically. Much of the money earned from the colonies was spent on wars outside Spain in defence of the Catholic Church. Spain’s prosperity was not a result of changes from within but was largely the result of the efforts of a small group of “conquistadores” and a powerful fleet. The elimination of the middle class and the great influx of gold led to a strong dichotomy in Spanish society, rich and poor, and is reflected in the Spanish economy to this day. 

Also read: A brief history of Spain, Part 8: Catholic domination

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