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Ferdinand and Isabella

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  • Pages: 10
  • Word count: 2433
  • Category: War

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Upon becoming the joint monarchs of Castile and Aragon, one of the main challenges that Ferdinand and Isabella faced was to extend the crown’s authority over the Iberian peninsula thus increasing the stability of the kingdom and power of the crown. This was a daunting task, especially given the power of grandees such as Mendoza and Carillo at the time. The Catholic kings had some considerable success in consolidating royal authority, but there were limitations on this success and compromises were made; especially in the kingdom of Aragon. This will largely be an essay on Castile, as Castile was the dominant body in Spain, but I will consider the substantial differences in the administration and other areas of Aragon which, arguably, meant that the monarchs were considerably less successful at consolidating their authority there.

One key area in which the monarchs were successful is in extending the prestige of the crown and international respect for it. One way in which they did this was via the direct use of strong personal authority. Particularly in the first half of their reign, a critical era for the crown when the civil war was coming to a close, the monarchs traveled across Spain carrying out various official duties such as administering justice. The fact that there were two monarchs effectively doubled the sense of personal presence that they could create. This was a source of morale in the civil war; lending somewhat of a feeling to loyal towns and villages that the queen was with them. This had a peace-time effect too: it has been remarked that “Few residents did not see Isabella at some time in their lives”. This created a strong sense of ubiquity helping to instill a sense of loyalty in subjects and demonstrating, through the personal dispensation of justice, that there is a higher power than the regional noble for people living in noble territory. However perhaps the effects of this were limited for the grandees; the real centre of 15th century power in the Iberian peninsula.

However; perhaps more important for the crown’s prestige were the victories in the civil wars, and more importantly, in Granada. The success of the civil war campaign played a factor: although with the benefit of hindsight neither France nor Portugal were sternly “defeated” as such in the civil war, both the French and the Portugese backed down from the conflict. Overcoming the era’s superpower; France and Portugal simultaneously was sure to build respect for the new monarchy in both the national and the international community. The war in Granada also had an effect on prestige: in the early modern era it was hugely beneficial for any regality to win prestige and honour in successful foreign wars, least of all against the Moors. At a time when the Ottoman empire was expanding in the East, success in the reconquista of Granada marked out the Catholic kings as being uniquely successful and also illustrated that the crown would not back-down from the ominous message “we no longer mint gold, only steel”.

That term itself very effectively shows the international gains in the increase of prestige for the crown: the fact that it was the pope Alexander VI who conferred the title upon them is indicative of the international respect that Ferdinand and Isabella gained by recommencing the reconquista. This international and domestic respect inevitably meant that people were more likely to take notice when the crown did something and meant that the crown was given a more powerful position in dealings with the nobles; allowing it to take a more powerful position in the approach of pactista.

Another key way in which Ferdinand and Isabella successfully consolidated royal authority was in their dealings with the towns. They had won popular support from the towns in the civil war by promising protection from grandees looking to extent their estate, but this merely made the towns favourable to them rather than actively exerting control over them. One way in which Ferdinand and Isabella sought to control the towns was through the appointment of regidores and corregidores. The town sought to influence local government through regidores, but more importantly, it sought to supervise various aspects of a town’s political, social and economic life. Additionally, the appointment of regidores and corregidores helped reduce tension as it provided a mediator for conflicts and a central column of royal power rather than a situation in which control of the towns was fought for by a number of urban oligarchies.

Despite opposition, the queen informed the Cortes of Toledo in 1480 that she wished to send corregidores to all cities and villages. Whilst the number of corregidores did increase significantly giving the crown an effective voice in local decision making, the crown was not prepared to force corregidores where there was extensive opposition to them; so most appointments were made in coastal towns, Granada and Old Castile. The crown can be regarded as unsuccessful in this aspect as it failed to control the towns in quite the way that it hoped; however it is successful to some extent here as it does exert considerable control over the towns through the appointment of corregidores.

One must also see the policy of compromise in effect: the “urban elites” emerging in the towns were quite influential, and were thus consulted often and allowed to collect tax independent of the government to minimize feelings of the crown intruding in their regions. It is important to note that rather than decrease the power of this middle-class, a policy of compromise in many ways increased their power and confirmed them as key political players in Castile; perhaps providing an alternative source of power to the grandees.

A military source of power, the hermandades, was effectively employed in the towns. Whilst expenses were minimised by making the towns themselves pay for these, an effective method of restoring order to the country was employed. A regency cannot effectively control a country in a state of civil disorder, and the hermandades did much to assert order in the towns and the countryside. There were also advantages in the creation of the Junta: this acted as a forum of co-operation for the towns as a place where they could all meet. This was also somewhere where Isabella and Ferdinand could get money for the war in Granada; and moreover the hermandades helped form the basis for an effective royal army.

Arguably one of the most important aspects of the crown’s policy in Castile and Aragon is in how the crown deals with the grandees. The grandees were a very important party: combined, they could easily overpower the crown. The crown could not simply take land from or otherwise impeach the power of a single grandee as that would cause other grandees to fight against the crown. Whilst many grandees sided with Isabella in the civil war (and ultimately caused her victory) several did not showing that not all of the grandees were in favour of the new monarchy, and this division also represents a hostile kingdom where nobles fight each other for personal gain and power. The goal of most of the grandees was to further their own interests: arguably one of the main reasons that the Mendoza family switched sides in the civil war was to help them gain a cardinal’s hat rather than genuine loyalty to the crown.

The relationship of the crown with the nobles was one of a compromise, pactista. Whilst the crown was very cautious in any move that might provoke the grandees, they were very careful not to extent the grandees’ power: now senorios were very rarely created and the crown was careful to protect behetrias (free-towns) from noble expansion. The nobles were kept relatively happy: they were guaranteed their ability to extract tax from their subjects for instance and were compensated when the crown seized certain important coastal towns. Two issues on which the crown dealt skillfully are the sentence of Guadalupe and on the issue of alienated royal lands. Not only did the crown regain some tracts of land in 1464 with the act of resumption, but it gave nobles peace of mind that they would be allowed to keep the more significant earlier gains. In the sentence of Guadalupe the peasants were allowed substantial (but not excessive) liberties keeping them and the nobles happy, and the crown obtained a substantial payment as a fine for the revolt as an additional bonus.

The crown made some effort to reduce internal tensions within the nobility: the war in Granada drew attention away from domestic issues and the crown was careful not to favour any one particular party. Later, the assimilation of the main masterships into royal power further reduced domestic tensions. The crown can be regarded as successful in how it prevented any extension of noble power and largely kept its grandees happy; however it may be regarded as unsuccessful in that it did not take much noble power for itself, though it is difficult to see how this might have been possible in Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign.

One area in which the crown helped to ensure domestic order via changing noble practice was through the masterships of the three primary military orders. Mastership of one of the three main military orders meant significant wealth, power and prestige. The issue of election to the masterships was therefore a source of significant conflict between some of the most powerful grandees. By vesting them in a council of orders from 1489, and by trying to get Ferdinand elected as the head of the orders (although this process was not fully completed by the end of the time period specified for this essay). In addition to pacifying conflict between the nobles, these were also a significant source of wealth for the crown. The steps taken in 1476 to establish royal control over the Order of Santiago were perhaps preludes to the act of resumption and the refashioning of the royal council of Castile at the Cortes of Toledo in 1480.

To fully answer the question we must consider the different aspects for the consolidation, the securing and strengthening, of royal authority in the Iberian peninsula. One key contrast that one can make is of the contrast of civil disorder at the beginning of Isabella’s reign in the wake of the problem of succession leading to civil war. With a civil war going on and the subsequent invasion of Portugal, as well as opposition from grandees such as Carillo, Isabella inherited a country in which civil disorder was rampant. This desperately needed to be controlled for the crown to have any semblance of royal authority. This was one area in which I believe Ferdinand and Isabella were very successful: both traveled extensively to ensure that their presence was felt and the Santa hermandades proved very effective in restoring and keeping order.

All the while the potential for grandees to take advantage of the situation was avoided and the approach of pactista skillfully ensured that the largest potential sources of disorder, the towns and grandees, were largely kept at bay. Once order was restored to Castile, the crown made sure that it stayed this way through gradual acquisition of the masterships and skillful dealings with the nobles along with the aid of the royal councils in ruling and corregidores to supervise the towns. Once order was ensured, prestige was substantially increased through skillful political decisions and, in large part, through the war in Granada.

Little was done by the crown to actually extend its power over Castile: their policy was one of pactista with the grandees and a similar policy with the towns to ensure any flaring of further conflict. Whilst the masterships and the act of resumption provided not insignificant gains, the grandees fundamentally controlled much of the power in both Castile and Aragon.

Thus we can assess Ferdinand and Isabella’s success in consolidation of royal power on two levels: how far they advanced the security and stability of their kingdoms greatly aiding any gradual on-going process, and how far they actually fundamentally increased the crown’s power. There is no doubt that the crown was successful under the first criteria; as explained the monarchs did much to make Castile and Aragon far more stable as well as ensuring reasonable relations between the crown and the grandees. However, the crown did not extend royal authority over its kingdom in any fundamental way: it merely laid a foundation on which for future monarchs to rule a secure and stable kingdom and turn Spain into the world’s greatest superpower.

It is necessary to consider the differences between successes in Castile and Aragon under these criteria. The most important aspects of policy; i.e. those of pactista with primarily the grandees and secondarily the towns. The main difference between Castile and Aragon in terms of royal authority is that in Castile we see much more evidence of a powerful monarchy, whereas in Aragon we see constitutionalism in a federation, requiring balancing, of Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon. In Aragon the king has many constraints placed on him and the king has to pay significant attention to feuros. Many reforms which were important in Castile simply did not happen in Aragon because of this political system: Ferdinand attempted to introduce both the hermandades and corregidores system to the towns in the kingdom of Aragon, but was not able to institute either. It was therefore much more difficult for Ferdinand to introduce reforms into Aragon similar to those seen in Castile.

However, his politics in this area were competent: the use of a royal council ensured that the kingdom was ruled effectively and by the appointment of Aragonese viceroys he managed to evade possible concerns of powerful parties in Aragon who wanted to maintain their strong individual Aragonese national identity. Despite the potential for conflict between peasants and nobles, and between the Diputacion and the king, Ferdinand managed to evade this. Therefore we see a similar story to Castile: order was maintained (although it did not have to be restored from a dire state in the same way that it did in Castile) but the crown did little to fundamentally extend its power. Ferdinand spent most of his time in Castile (and later in Naples) where Ferdinand had much more power rather than Aragon. It is therefore perhaps slightly unfair to evaluate his success in Aragon when primarily his goal was to help consolidate royal power in Castile; definitely the dominant partner in the relationship.

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