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The Don Quixote of Diplomacy

The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline

by J.H. Elliott
Yale University Press, 733 pp., $29.95

The Count-Duke of Olivares dominated Spanish domestic and foreign policies for twenty-two years. When Philip IV acceded to the throne in 1621, Olivares, already his mentor, soon became his chief minister and, as such, steadily increased his grasp over the cumbrous machine that attempted to govern Spain. Professor Elliott sets out to chronicle his intentions and his failures in a political biography some seven hundred pages long. It is a monument of scholarship almost unique in our time: there are 2,676 footnotes, almost all to sources in archives and intractable sources at that. Recent fashions in historiography have segmented history; Professor Elliott sees in the political biography of an eminent statesman an approach to “total history,” reintegrating the disjecta membra strewn about by the specialists. Above all, Professor Elliott’s narrative, by examining in scrupulous detail how and why decisions were taken, restores power politics to their proper place in history; and it was Olivares who took the decisions until he was worn out by the cares of office, sick in mind and body, and Philip IV allowed his servant to retire in January 1643. Elliott’s book restores drama, tragic drama at that, to history, a discipline that has recently so often fallen into the hands of those whom Edmund Burke dismissed as “sophisters, economists and calculators.”1

The book’s subtitle sets his theme. What can a statesman do to restore a powerful monarchy threatened by its enemies abroad, by economic decline and moral decay at home? The Spanish Hapsburg monarchy that Philip IV inherited in 1621 was, in territory, the greatest empire the West would see until the British Empire in the nineteenth century: it embraced Portugal, Mexico and South America, the Netherlands, Milan, Naples, and the Philippines. Given the possessions of the Austrian Hapsburgs in Germany and central Europe, it seemed that such a concentration of power in the hands of one dynasty must excite the jealous hostility of lesser powers. The parallel with Rome surrounded by the barbarians was fixed in contemporary minds, immersed in the great historians of antiquity.

Yet this vast monarchy was a ramshackle agglomeration of diverse units, including Portugal, Catalonia, Aragon, and the South American colonies, each with its peculiar and separate constitutional relationship with the Spanish crown. It was what contemporary political thinkers called a “dispersed” monarchy and, as such, was fraying at the edges. In retrospect we can see that Spain since the reign of Philip II was hopelessly overcommitted, as world empires are apt to be. But Spanish statesmen had their own version of the domino theory; to lose one province was to imperil the whole. Should one piece of the imperial jigsaw escape, the contagion of secession would spread like a malignant disease. In the seventeenth century such biological metaphor informed political discourse as the handiest device to explain the cycles by which empires rose and fell.

Philip III gave up being the kind of king his father had been. At his desk in the Escorial, Philip II had struggled to keep his scattered possessions together by conscientiously responding to the state papers sent up to him by his counselors. Philip III handed over the running of his kingdoms to his favorites, the Duke of Lerma, astute, lazy, and, after him, to his son. In 1621 Philip III died in his gloomy palace in despair at his own shortcomings. The new reign opened up the path of power for new men. Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, son of a father whose obsessional pursuit of a grandeeship had failed, was determined to establish the fortunes of his house in the only way possible: by court favor. To this end he had cultivated the heir apparent. By the time Philip IV came to the throne Olivares’s ascendancy over a boy of eighteen was firmly established.

Professor Elliott traces the ways by which this dominance over the mind of his king was secured and maintained. It was the essential basis of Olivares’s power. In the world of court intrigue to maintain personal influence demanded the exercise of constant vigilance of one’s rivals—it is surprising that Olivares had friends when he had to devote so much time to his enemies—and the courtier’s capacity for self-abasement and flattery. Olivares, when rebuked, once kissed the young prince’s chamber pot. The worst consequence of royalty is that it inspires obsequious behavior however unworthy the recipients. Sir Walter Scott wished to preserve as a family heirloom the wine glass that had touched the lips of his king—the awful George IV.

The qualities of a courtier would have counted for little had not Olivares possessed the self-confidence that derives from a mastery of administrative detail. After years of working side by side with Olivares on state papers—Olivares and his wife lived in the royal palace—Philip IV, who watched the deliberations of the Council of State from a concealed window, could scarcely imagine how to rule by himself. Olivares professed to believe in an active kingship; in theory he sought to train the king in his trade so that he would be able to dispense with a “favorite,” a title Olivares consistently rejected. If seriously intended this was a piece of royalist romanticism, for no king could rule without a favorite unless he was prepared, like Philip II, to become a martyr to paper work. The monarch must rely on a favorite to bring forth a coherent policy out of the mountains of position papers (in Spain, consultas) that a multiplicity of advisory councils and a jumble of committees submitted for the king’s decision. Favoritism was not so much a result of the personal inclinations of the king. It was written into the system.

The favorite was both the king’s factotum and his publicity agent. Olivares, whose sense of duty to his monarch never faltered, saw it as his task to establish Philip IV in his new palace as the “Planet King,” the dazzling patron of the arts to be praised and painted by the greatest talents of the age. Here, it seems to me, Professor Elliott has administered a self-inflicted wound. His work, with Professor Jonathan Brown, on the Buen Retiro Palace is a superb piece of cultural history.2 An unduly modest fear of regurgitation of work done before, or perhaps a desire to save his reader’s patience in what he confesses is a long haul, has led Elliott to treat what was a splendid period in the arts as an appendage to political history: Quevedo appears as a political pamphleteer; the Buen Retiro as a strain on the budget.

The task that his devoted servant set before the king was to “resuscitate the monarchy” which contemporaries saw as dilapidated and exploited by Lerma and his Sandoval clan. The Count-Duke’s relations, the Guzmáns and Haros, would take over and clean up the mess left by years of neglect and corruption. The first days of Philip IV’s reign were thus a period of hope. All recognized that the monarchy was “sick”; but sickness implied that a cure could be administered by what later Spanish reformers were to call “an iron surgeon”; and in the seventeenth century this surgeon could only be the absolute monarch—well counseled it is true—as the “nerve of reform.” As Elliott observes, “the corollary to a pessimistic view of the world was therefore an authoritarian conception of the state.” All seventeenth-century monarchies saw themselves as facing a crisis—Count Oxenstierna’s correspondence from Stockholm sounds notes of gloom as deep as those of Olivares in his pessimistic moments. What was perhaps peculiar to Spain was the universal perception of the depth of that crisis. As Elliott has remarked elsewhere, it was “not only a time of crisis but a time of the awareness of crisis—of a bitter realization that things had gone wrong.”3

How was the crisis to be resolved and the monarchy to be “resuscitated” and restored as the greatest power in Europe? The immediate threat was the Dutch—the United Provinces had revolted against Philip II and Lerma had patched up a truce with the Dutch heretic rebels in 1609 under Philip II. The first decision the new reign had to make was whether to renew what Olivares and his uncle, now installed at court, regarded as a dishonorable truce—it gave Catholics no status in the heretic state and left the American empire in the East and in Brazil open to Dutch penetration. Or should they renew the war for an “honorable peace”? They decided on war. The key concept was “reputation.” “The true support of this monarchy which is little less than collapsing,” the Mantuan ambassador wrote in March 1621, “lies in maintaining reputation.” The word “reputation” occurs again and again in the correspondence of the time: it meant that respect for a state’s interests must be based on the assumption that it possessed the power to enforce that respect. It was the appearance as much as the reality of power that counted; “reputation,” Olivares concluded, could be sustained only by what he called “a good war.” Victory would subdue the United Provinces and establish Hapsburg power in Germany.

From the beginning, the plans of Olivares for a “good war” suffered from two weaknesses. First, to defeat the Dutch he hoped to bring in Philip’s cousins, the Austrian Hapsburgs; but while the Hapsburg emperor was willing to accept Spanish subsidies to achieve victory in the Thirty Years’ War, he showed no inclination to fight the Dutch. Secondly, success against the Dutch depended on the neutrality of France. Professor Elliott shares the view of the Count-Duke’s enemies that his support of a Spanish candidate against the French for control of Mantua was a blunder. War with France was always on the cards; the “Mantuan question” made it a certainty and brought him up against his great rival Richelieu.4

Interest in the day-to-day twists of the diplomatic game in early modern Europe is an acquired taste that many readers may not share. For Professor Elliott it is a passion. To him only detail can reveal both the strength and weaknesses of Olivares’s statesmanship. While Olivares perhaps alone among the King’s servants had a concept of global strategy—he loved looking at maps—he was apt to cherish ambitious projects. For example, his great scheme of a Baltic naval and commercial base that would cripple the Dutch was probably impractical. Time and time again his schemes ended in disaster; his resilience in the face of disappointment, and the fertility of his imagination, make him the Don Quixote of European diplomacy: a knight errant, beaten up by ruffians on one day, may become emperor on the next. “When one door shuts,” Don Quixote tells Sancho Panza, “another opens…. All these squalls which greet us are signs that the weather will soon clear and things go well with us.”

Olivares’s “good war” to reestablish the monarchy’s “reputation” demanded a huge military effort in Flanders, Germany, Italy, and, once at war with France, an army on the Pyrenean frontier. How was the money to be found to “content the troops” who mutinied if they were not content, and whose pay abroad had to be found in silver? It was to find the money to finance the wars, which never ceased during his rule, that Olivares devoted the energy and capacity for desk work that astonished his contemporaries. Each year there was the grind of negotiating the asientos (contracts) with Genoese bankers or Portuguese Jews that would give Olivares the foreign exchange to satisfy the troops and buy naval stores.

Olivares could no longer rely, as Philip II had done, on regular silver shipments from America. This flung the burden of war on Castile, the heartland of the monarchy, exhausted by the existing taxes and its plight worsened by the extensive minting of a copper coinage (vellón). Minting of vellón, the seventeenth-century equivalent of paper money, to pay the bills at home was a device Olivares abused; it led to inflation which impoverished noble and peasant alike. Either the tax system of Castile had to be reformed—not merely in order to produce higher tax returns but also to lift some of the burden from the peasantry or the other kingdoms of the monarchy above all Aragon and Catalonia—must be made to bear some of the burden of a common defense budget. The premise of the Count-Duke’s “good war” was fiscal reform. The connection between the successful conduct of foreign wars and the necessity of domestic reform is the leit-motif of Professor Elliott’s book.

Seventeenth-century Spain swarmed with promoters (arbitristas) with remedies for arresting economic decline, evident in a dramatic drop in the population, in deserted villages, in towns, like Burgos, once prosperous and now decayed. Olivares was a promoter with power.

Many of the Count-Duke’s projects for increasing the royal revenues centered on reviving the depressed economy of Castile, reversing population decline, and thus augmenting what a modern economist would call the tax base. They ranged from the technically correct to the merely ingenious: the establishment of barks to absorb vellón; simplification of the tax system; restrictions on royal gifts to the nobility; the founding of trading companies on the model of the Dutch; repeated attempts to change idle Spaniards into industrious entrepreneurs; the encouragement of immigration and tolerance for economically useful Jews. But these efforts applied only to overburdened Castile. And they achieved little. Professor Elliott shows in convincing detail how the municipal oligarchs and the grandees used every device—and Spain was rich in such devices—to block reform from above when it hit their pockets or diminished their privileges.

What irked Olivares, as he strove to find means to finance his wars to uphold the monarchy’s “reputation,” was that the constitutional privileges of Catalonia, Aragon, and Valencia allowed them to escape taxes for wars which he conceived as fought to defend the interests of “Spain.” These provinces saw themselves not as part of a Spanish “nation,” but as connected with the Castilian monarch by a contract that bound the king to respect their fiscal privileges. True, Catalans and Aragonese were denied office in “Spain” by Castilian exclusiveness; but once they shared the spoils of office—and it was Olivares’s intention to abandon Castilian exclusiveness though he failed, once more, to achieve his aim—they must, he held, contribute to the common defense. As early as 1622 he argued that “Your Majesty should not be content with being King of Portugal, Aragon and Valencia and count of Barcelona but should work and scheme secretly to reduce these kingdoms of which Spain is composed to the style and laws of Castile.” This was Olivares’s persistent ambition: a union of arms where equality of privilege entailed equality of obligation.

This grand vision failed. Then, as today, Catalans distrusted the centralizing designs of the politicos of Madrid; the politicos were exasperated by Catalan provincialism, its selfish indifference to Spanish interests. Olivares remains a bête noire of Catalan nationalists.

The attempt to billet troops in Catalonia, threatened by French armies, drove the Catalans to rebellion and a treasonable alliance with the French. Coupled with the revolt of Portugal, this was the final defeat. The Catalan revolt was greeted in Madrid with stunned surprise, a surprise that reveals the weakness of a system centered on the hieratic, hermetic court in Madrid. How could “the tight little circle of overworked officials and palace sycophants,” as Elliott calls them, judge the reaction of “the people” to policies? ^5

While it is astonishing that Olivares’s devices produced as much revenue as they did, the Count-Duke’s attempts to underwrite a victorious campaign that would secure his monarch’s “reputation” in Europe with an honorable peace ended in catastrophe. His failure showed the limits of social engineering in a society of the ancien régime that distrusted “innovation” as such and relied on traditional privileges to resist innovation when it hurt either pride or pocket. Thus Olivares’s attempt to cure the vellón inflation, which he himself had helped to cause, and to cut back interest rates on state bonds, impoverished rentier aristocrats and municipal oligarchs and they reacted accordingly. His inclination to use Portuguese Jews because they gave the crown lower interest rates offended a society steeped in anti-Semitic notions of “purity of blood,” a prejudice that the Count-Duke did not share, at least in business matters.

Grandees resented the Count-Duke’s ambitions for his own family and his indifference to their rights in a society obsessed by precedence and fed on patronage. Olivares ended up as the most hated statesman in modern Spanish history; to aristocrats, plebs, and peasants alike he was a tyrant who had bewitched his royal master in order to destroy his kingdoms. To overcome the bureaucratic inertia of the councils, in which the great aristocrats could exercise their influence to build up their family fortunes, Olivares created a vast network of ad hoc working committees, stuffed with his sycophants. Not surprisingly, he found that he was left with no cabezas, no great statesmen and soldiers to whom he could entrust the affairs of state.

The Count-Duke was seen as a tyrannical favorite by his contemporaries and so he remained for subsequent historians. The great conservative statesman of Restoration Spain after 1875, Cánovas del Castillo, did something to vindicate his reputation; so in the 1930s did the liberal physician Dr. Gregorio Marañón. But it has been left to Professor Elliott to give the definitive portrait. Marañón tended to reduce his subject’s psychological makeup to a single urge: the passion to command, as powerful a drive as sexual passion. Elliott is not reductive; he sees a more complex pattern than Marañón did, and a more moving one, and does not fall for the terrible simplifications that can bedevil psychohistory.6

A man of astounding energy and capacity for work—ever “tied to the oar” of state business as he frequently complained in his favorite metaphor—Olivares was nevertheless loquacious and long-winded. As Professor Elliott suggests, he often seems to hide in verbose speeches and muddled memoranda an incapacity to make up his mind on central issues of policy. His unremitting labors affected the balance of his unstable mind. Like many hypochondriacs he was, for much of the time, a sick man, though not above using his health to blackmail his master by repeated threats of retirement that would leave him without a prime minister—for, like Bismarck, the Count-Duke had eliminated his rivals. He passed from euphoric optimism to despondent pessimism: “I can do no more I am all alone.” Yet both states drove him on to greater efforts to find some new project that would reverse decline and reestablish Spain’s “reputation” as it had been under the Prudent King, Philip II.

Writers of panegyrics saw Philip IV’s monarchy in its early days as another Roman Empire. Others may have sensed that Rome itself had declined, that great empires suffer from incurable organic complaints. All Spaniards saw Spain’s rise to empire as the work of divine providence; reverses were therefore a punishment for the nation’s and its statesmen’s sins which lost it the mandate of heaven. It was this providential interpretation of history as the unfolding of divine purpose that made defeats, and they were many, a personal torment for Olivares and his king, and made a reform of manners and morals an essential plank of their reform program. “I consider that God is angry with me and my kingdom for our sins,” wrote Philip IV when the news of the fall of Bois-le-Duc reached him. All efforts seemed in vain: Spain’s “reputation” seemed increasingly like the light that comes from a star that has died. Olivares’s reform projects—some as absurd as those of the most utopian projectors of the age—stand as heroic efforts to cure the sickness of Spain. But the patient did not respond.

Supposedly a nation of individualists, Spaniards are curiously indifferent to personal character and its development. The drama of the Golden Age is strong on plots but the dramatis personae are stock types and little more. The paucity in Spain of political biography and autobiography—until, that is, the recent flood of modern memoirs—has always puzzled me. Now Professor Elliott has written what must rank as the finest biography ever written on a Spanish statesman.

  1. 1

    This is not to imply that Elliott is unaware of the problems that have interested economic historians: for example see his “The Decline of Spain,” Past and Present 20 (1961), pp. 52–75.

  2. 2

    Jonathan Brown and J.H. Elliott, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (Yale University Press, 1980).

  3. 3

    J.H. Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469–1716 (St. Martin’s, 1963), p. 294.

  4. 4

    This rivalry is the subject of Elliott’s Richelieu and Olivares, reviewed by H.R. Trevor-Roper, The New York Review (September 24, 1984).

  5. 6

    Marañón’s biography El Conde-Duque de Olivares, published in 1936, is an astonishing achievement given the state of Spanish historiography at the time and given Marañón’s commitments as a doctor and his cultural and political activities in general. Only an early riser, which he was, could have done it. Marañón’s work exposes one of the perils of biography based on current psychological and medical theories. It dates because the theories are superseded and go out of fashion.

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