As we contemplate the vast historical changes unfolding around us, there is a certain fascination in looking back to earlier ages, when old empires were seen as threatened with collapse, while new ones took their place. This, too, was happening in the seventeenth century, when contemporaries speculated on the long-term prospects for the increasingly ossified Spanish empire, and on what would happen in the event of its collapse. One of them, Sir Francis Bacon, sagely reflecting on the rise and fall of states, drew a not very comforting conclusion from his reading:

Upon the breaking and shivering of a great state and empire, you may be sure to have wars. For great empires, while they stand, do enervate and destroy the forces of the natives which they have subdued, resting upon their own protecting forces; and then when they fail also, all goes to ruin, and they become a prey. So was it in the decay of the Roman Empire; and likewise in the empire of Almaigne, after Charles the Great, every bird taking a feather; and were not unlike to befall to Spain, if it should break.1

If, in the long run, Bacon’s prediction was to be largely fulfilled, the Spanish empire whose “shivering” he foresaw proved in the shorter run a great deal more resilient than might have been anticipated. But the suspicion that it might “break” was reasonable enough for a man who could remember Spain and its empire during the high noon of Philip II. This was the empire on which, in the words of Ariosto, the sun never set—an empire whose dominion extended from Italy to Peru, and thence across the Pacific to the Philippines.

Its acquisition was owed in the first instance to the foot soldiers of Castile, men whose toughness and determination had earned them their reputation of being the best soldiers in the world. Once conquered, it was sustained by a regular supply of silver from the mines of America, which helped to pay the costs of a large bureaucracy and a formidable military and naval apparatus designed to defend it from its enemies and to keep its scattered territories subservient to the center of empire in Madrid.

We can trace something of the first stages of its development, at least on its transatlantic fringes, in the lavishly illustrated volume of essays First Encounters, designed to accompany the Florida Museum of Natural History’s current traveling exhibit of the same name. These essays, although placed between two chapters of a more general character—one on the background to Columbus’s voyages and the early Spanish penetration of North America, and the other on the encounter of Europeans and native Americans—are largely concerned to provide readers with some idea of recent historical and archaeological findings about the arrival and first settlement of the Spaniards in the Caribbean and on North American soil. As such, the essays are good on detail but restricted in scope. But for readers who want to know at what point Columbus may, or may not, have made his landfall, or the exact route taken by Hernando de Soto’s expedition through the southern United States, this is a good place to turn, although they should be warned that these are matters on which controversy rages unabated, and every old, or new-old, hypothesis calls forth a refutation.

The book does, however, usefully document the way in which archaeological evidence is now being brought to bear on the history of Spanish conquest and settlement, whether on the northwest coast of Hispaniola, at Puerto Real, or at St. Augustine, or along the inland routes taken by de Soto and Tristán de Luna y Arellano. The coins, horseshoes, and pottery shards are vivid testimony of a Spanish presence that was to devastate the lives of the indigenous peoples, like the Coosa, whose fate is discussed by Marvin T. Smith in one of the more suggestive essays in a rather scrappy book.

One of its photographs, showing an Indian’s skull cleft by a sword blade, is a grisly reminder of the realities behind the so-called encounter of Spaniard and American. But as one reads about these expeditions far into the interior of an unknown world, carried out by small groups of Spaniards moving at a rate of perhaps fifteen miles a day for weeks and months on end, it is not hard to see why the King of Spain’s power evoked such fear and respect. That power was to be consolidated by spectacular victories on the battlefields of Europe, but, as the sixteenth century drew to a close, what had hitherto seemed an irresistible military machine showed the first signs of losing its momentum.

In the first place, the formidable army assembled by the Duke of Alba proved unexpectedly incapable of preventing the spread of revolt in the Netherlands. Then, in 1588, six years after a brilliantly planned amphibious operation in the Azores had brought Philip’s power to its apogee by completing the annexation of Portugal and its overseas empire, the Invincible Armada failed against England. The commemoration in 1988 of the fourth centenary of the Armada campaign spurred the launching of a veritable flotilla of books.2 Now, belatedly, one last great vessel has come home to port. Unlike other ships in the broken fleet, this one completes its lengthy voyage with an undeniable panache, as befits the flagship of the supreme commander, Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, seventh Duke of Medina Sidonia and grandee of Spain.


After so many accounts, old and new, of the “Enterprise of England,” it may reasonably be asked whether a whole volume devoted to the Armada’s hapless commander can add anything very much to what we already know. The answer must be that it can, although unfortunately not quite as much as one would have hoped. Peter Pierson’s Commander of the Armada is splendidly up-to-date. As the author of a useful brief survey of the reign of Philip II,3 he knows his way around the court of Philip II and is fully informed on the scholarly literature on the Europe of his time. He also proves himself a knowledgeable participant in the current debate about ships, guns, and naval tactics. He clearly has his doubts about the validity of the most controversial of the arguments put forward by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker in their splendid The Spanish Armada,4—that the Spanish fleet was placed at a grave disadvantage by having its guns mounted on two-wheeled gun carriages, as against the four-wheeled carriages in the English fleet. He has shrewd judgments to offer on various aspects of the naval campaign, of which he gives an admirably graphic account; but his most original contribution is to relate the enterprise and its aftermath to the general organization of fleets and fortifications in Medina Sidonia’s native province of Andalusia, where he held the post of Captain General of the Coast.

On the basis of letters and registers, some of them drawn from the archive still housed in the castle of the dukes of Medina Sidonia at Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Pierson succeeds in building up a portrait of the seventh duke as at once grandee and bureaucrat. Traditionally there has been much puzzlement about why Philip II should have chosen Medina Sidonia to take command of the Armada on the death of the Marquis of Santa Cruz. “He knew nothing of the work which he was sent to do,” was Froude’s scornful verdict.5 But Pierson’s careful study makes the king’s selection appear comprehensible, if hardly inspired. He shows persuasively how narrow was the field from which the king could choose. But he also shows how Medina Sidonia’s social status, as the premier duke of Spain, was an important requirement for the command of a vast military and naval operation, whose captains and commanders were obsessed by questions of precedence and rank. Above all, he shows that, in turning to Medina Sidonia, the king turned to a man with wide experience in questions relating to military organization and the fitting out of fleets. That experience was not, however, accompanied by a comparable experience of actual war at sea.

We may well wonder whether a man with so little confidence in himself or his mission was the man for the job. But given the nature of the king’s instructions to Medina Sidonia and the enormous logistical difficulties involved in the whole operation, Pierson seems justified in his verdict that the duke did all that could have been expected of him, and was perhaps more successful in preventing total catastrophe than a more dashing commander would have been. It is hard, though, to generate much personal feeling for this gray and conscientious figure; and this may be partly because Pierson has not been able to give us more sense of the private side of the man, and of the kind of life he led in his little ducal court. What we have here is the grandee as bureaucrat, poring over the figures for barrel staves and ships’ biscuits, a version in miniature of the master whom he served.

Those who think of Spaniards as more full-blooded can therefore be expected to turn with some relief to The Adventures of Captain Alonso de Contreras, which is well designed to confirm them in their prejudices. Contreras was a Spanish soldier of fortune who was born six years before the defeat of the Armada, and settled down for a few days in 1632 to write the memoirs of an action-packed life. Rendered into racy English by Philip Dallas in an edition innocent of all scholarly pretensions,6 the memoirs make for splendid, if gory, reading. Contreras has no hesitation in running his sword through his wife and her lover when he finds them together in bed, laconically recounting the episode with the words “they died.” These memoirs read like a picaresque novel. They also give sudden and unexpected insights not only into the personality of a soldier with all the characteristics of a conventional adventurer who yet at one moment turns his back on the world to become a hermit, but also into garrison and naval life in the Mediterranean world of the seventeenth century, with occasional interludes at the Spanish court.


Neither the bravery of Contreras nor the organizational skills of Medina Sidonia proved adequate in the end to overcome the challenges faced by Spain during its troubled seventeenth century. The most dangerous and intractable of all these challenges was the one posed not only to Spain’s power, but to the whole mentality and way of life of Spanish society, by the spectacular successes of those Dutch rebels whom its military machine had failed to crush. From the 1580s the rebel provinces of the northern Netherlands, saved by their own efforts and the defeat of the Armada, were on the way to transforming themselves into a major economic power.

The development and culmination of this process is traced at length and in powerful detail by Jonathan Israel in his impressive Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585–1740. Professor Israel, whose energy knows no limits, has mastered an enormous range of primary and secondary sources to produce the most comprehensive account we have of Dutch commercial activity not only in Europe, but across the world, from Brazil to the Moluccas.

Professor Israel has little use for the brilliant but sometimes perilous schematizations of Fernand Braudel, whom he likes to describe as the grand maître. Instead, he adopts a fiercely chronological approach, dividing the rise and eventual decline of Dutch economic primacy into a series of carefully defined periods, most of which tend to start with a process of what he calls “restructuring.” This treatment has its longueurs, but it also has the great merit of restoring to center stage those political events that Braudel dismissed as of secondary importance when compared with the vast economic forces whose cosmic movements he so loved to contemplate.

Israel also gives more weight than is customary to the active role of the Dutch state in the advancement of its commerce. This, too, is salutary, although “state” remains an ambiguous term when applied to the peculiar structure of the Dutch Republic. His concern is essentially with the process and mechanism by which the Dutch secured for themselves an economic primacy without political domination—the exact reverse of Spain, with its political domination without economic primacy. He therefore leaves on one side any attempt to assess and analyze those special characteristics of Dutch civilization that may have helped to stimulate its remarkable industriousness and entrepreneurial skills. Of the dynamism and range of those skills, however, and of their transforming effects on the life of seventeenth-century Europe, he leaves us in no doubt; and by documenting them with such precision, he has produced a book whose value will endure.

The most reform-minded minister in seventeenth-century Spain, the Count-Duke of Olivares, was well aware of the dangers posed by Dutch economic dominance to Spanish hegemony, and he paid the Dutch the sincerest form of compliment by attempting to imitate them. “We must devote all our efforts,” he wrote, “to turning Spaniards into merchants.” But given the priorities of Madrid, and the way in which those priorities had stunted many of the tendencies in Spanish life potentially conducive to economic enterprise, this was easier said than done. With its heavy military expenditure, its vast budget deficits, its top-heavy bureaucracy, and its entrenched oligarchies, Spain had become a society deeply resistant to reform. This made it difficult, if not impossible, to change course rapidly when a change of course was needed. Nemesis came in the 1640s, when a series of revolts gave every sign of precipitating the “shivering” process that Bacon had foreseen.

Yet Spain and its empire surmounted the crises of that dreadful decade, displaying in the process a capacity for survival that at first sight seems astonishing. But survival was less the consequence of any spectacular change in the policies of Madrid than of the continuing appeal of certain traditional ideas and values embodied in the Spanish monarchy to those social groups in Spain, Italy, and the Indies which stood to lose most from upheavals and reform.7

These ideas and values, clustered around devotion to the crown and the faith, were customarily expressed in their most solemn form on great royal occasions, and especially royal exequies. The death of Philip IV in 1665, after a reign of over forty years, provided the occasion for one such set of exequies, and Steven Orso, in his Art and Death at the Spanish Habsburg Court, had the ingenious idea of examining the ceremonial surrounding the event. The book, which is appropriately lugubrious, starts with a vivid account of Philip’s final hours, and then examines in close detail the staging of the exequies and the construction and decoration of the catafalque erected for the deceased monarch in the Convent of the Encarnación.

Readers less interested than the author in the exact number of candles used to light a catafalque may well feel that one funeral, however impressive, does not make a book; and it is a pity that Dr. Orso passes up the opportunity to consider contemporary attitudes to death, or even to relate the 1665 exequies to other royal exequies in the Habsburg and other European courts. But his minimalist approach is counter-balanced by the opportunity which it affords to cast, if not a searchlight, at least a flickering candlelight, on the forty-one hieroglyphs with which the courtyard and the nave of the convent were adorned. These hieroglyphs were engraved by a contemporary for a published account of the exequies, and are here reproduced in full, accompanied by a commentary explaining their mottoes and emblems for a modern world that has lost the art of reading such texts and images.

The hieroglyphs, it must be admitted, are not great works of art, and most of the messages they seek to convey by way of their crowns, sepulchres, resurgent phoenixes, and gnarled trees are standard to the point of banality. But it is precisely this banality that gives them their interest, as a kind of repertoire of expected responses to the death of a monarch. The seventeenth-century author who published them commented only that they combined beauty and sadness, and left it at that. Orso, taking us through them one by one, is more helpful than his predecessor. In the midst of the many conventional images, one or two recurrent themes among the hieroglyphs allude directly to the unhappy situation in which Spain found itself on the death of Philip IV. The deceased king himself is represented by the sun, as befitted a ruler who had adopted the solar image long before it was appropriated to greater effect by his nephew and son-in-law, the eponymous Sun King.

Philip’s widow, Mariana, had been named as regent for their sickly son. Her image in these hieroglyphs is that of a moon, its crescent protectively embracing the small and still rising sun of the young Carlos II, one day, it was hoped, to blaze forth in a glory comparable to that of his deceased (and far from glorious) father.

The reality, unfortunately, was to be far removed from the image. For thirty-five years Carlos II, reigning but not ruling, clung precariously to life. But he proved incapable of performing his primary dynastic duty of securing the succession, and as his mournful life drew to its close Europe’s princely vultures gathered, each of them prepared to seize a feather, as Bacon had predicted, from the dying Habsburg eagle. In the War of the Spanish Succession, from 1701 to 1714, the bird was indeed stripped of some of its finest plumage, in Italy and the Netherlands, but enough remained to suggest that under its new French dynasty it might yet rise once more to life, like the phoenix in the hieroglyphs.

The history of the resurgence, or semiresurgence, of eighteenth-century Spain, is the subject of John Lynch’s new book, the first to be published in a multivolume history of Spain under his general editorship. His survey of Bourbon Spain at once takes its place as the best general book in any language on the Spanish eighteenth century—a century whose inner history is full of puzzles and still little understood. Professor Lynch presents the story with great clarity, embellishing it with some telling quotations from little-known sources, especially from the correspondence of Spanish intendants and British diplomats. While there is nothing sensationally novel in what he has to say, his careful judgments on controversial issues command respect. Above all, he widens the scope of his picture by paying constant attention to the Spanish empire in America and its relationship to Spain.

This is exactly as it should be, for the American empire was, and was perceived to be, the key to Spain’s revival. The facts of demography are themselves eloquent witness to the nature and potential of the relationship: thirteen-and-a-half million inhabitants of Spanish America to ten-and-a-half million in metropolitan Spain. Moreover, America had vast riches still to be exploited, while the Spanish treasury, under the new dynasty as under the old, staggered from one crisis to the next. But the wealth of America and the American trade, much of it in the hands of the Dutch, the French, and the English when the century began, was perceived by ministers in Madrid primarily as a means for restoring Spanish power in Europe. In other words, while the dynasty had changed, the old cast of mind remained. The territories lost as a result of the War of Succession had somehow to be recovered, and Spain had to be restored to its global primacy.

War, therefore, was the stimulus to ambitious programs of reform both in Spain and America, and reform in turn helped to pay for the revival of Spanish military and naval power, and a return to war. The extent and success of the Bourbon reforms is still a subject of intense debate, recently revived by the exhibition held in Madrid to commemorate the bicentennial of the death of Carlos III, whose reign saw the most systematic attempt of the century to institute reform from above.8 Lynch takes a rather cynical view of the process of “enlightened” reform, and presents a fairly negative image of the century as a whole. Yet, as he freely recognizes, there are signs of a new economic vitality, most obviously, but not exclusively, in Catalonia; and as the whole process of industrialization in eighteenth-century Europe is subjected to historical revision, the Spanish record may come to look better on a comparative scale than it looks in isolation.

A similar objection may be leveled at Lynch’s verdict on the equally controversial topic of the impact of reform in America, to the effect that the Bourbons, by implementing their reform program, “gained a revenue and lost an empire.” The British, however, succeeded only in achieving the second without the first. Reform in ancien régime societies is always fraught with danger, and we cannot know what would have happened if metropolitan Spain had not been overwhelmed at the opening of the nineteenth century, first by the crown’s financial crisis, precipitated by its wars, and then by the invading armies of Napoleon. In the cataclysmic events of that period many of the hard-won gains of the eighteenth century were dissipated, the slow process of recovery was set back for many years, and the colonies were lost.

Yet Professor Lynch is right to emphasize the deeply rooted obstacles to reform in Spain and its American colonies alike. Powerful conservative forces, and an entrenched bureaucracy, did everything in their power to prevent real change; and the reformers themselves shrank from pursuing their policies to their logical conclusion. In consequence, metropolitan Spain remained a largely unreformed society, while the last relics of its empire were shivered beyond repair.

This Issue

March 1, 1990