Spanish Power in the 16th Century

Jordan Rocke, Dickson College, 2012

The following essay was written as part of The Renaissance unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2012. It was written in response to the following question: 'The sixteenth century could be described as the ‘Spanish century’ because of Spain’s power and influence at this time. Is this a fair assessment? Examine one or two specific events which support the view expressed by the statement: the reign of Charles V; the Spanish leadership at the battle of Lepanto; the conquest of the Aztecs or the Incas, the Spanish Armada, and the Spanish leadership of the Counter-Reformation.'

The 16th Century can be called the Spanish Century due to the power exhibited by the empire of Spain. This power can be divided into three distinct categories. Influence was the first of these elements, especially in regards to religion. The second was military might, exemplified in regards to the Turkish invasion and the battle of Lepanto. The third element was financial strength, which allowed the empire to expand and fight wars. These elements all demonstrate just how powerful Spain was during the 16th Century.

In regards to religious influence, Spain was the one of the most powerful nations in Europe during the 16th Century. This religious power is shown most rigorously in Spain itself. While religious conflict was breaking out all over Europe, Spain’s strictly Catholic values were upheld with the aid of the Inquisition, Protestantism never obtaining a foothold in Spain (p 214-215, European Civilization: Protestantism and Catholicity, Balmes, 1850). In the rest of Europe, however, Spain was attempting to exercise its own beliefs in regards to the Reformation. This is demonstrated in a letter from Emperor Charles V, a Spanish king who had become the Holy Roman Emperor, to his brother Archduke Ferdinand (later Emperor Ferdinand II) on March 26, 1526: "…no innovations whatever should be permitted against the obedience due to the Church" (Stirling-Maxwell, 1856, p 240). This quote clearly demonstrates just how strong religion was valued at the very top of the leadership of Spain. This strength of values exhibited by the Spanish empire was also clearly demonstrated in their participation in the Battle of Lepanto, in which Charles V’s own (illegitimate) son took command of the Spanish naval forces (Dyer, 1861. p. 195). The battle of Lepanto contained very clear religious aspects, especially in the perception of Europe, as will be discussed later. Although Spain’s religious influence required a large degree of military might and financial strength, Spain’s religion allowed them to form alliances throughout Europe, the most obvious location being with the Papal States. The Alliance between the two was formed by Pope Julius II during the 16th Century (A history of the papacy, political and ecclastical, p 571), and maintained for many years afterwards, clearly based on the fervor with which the Spanish defended their religion. As all of these points demonstrate, Spain’s religion had both positive and negative effects, but overall allowed Spain to prove its strength to all of Europe.

Related articles: 15th Century Spanish and Portuguese Exploration; Columbus, Governor of the New World; Don Quixote and the Decline of Spain
During the 16th Century, Spain was one of the wealthiest countries in Europe. One of the most important ways in which Spain maintained their military and (to a lesser degree) their religious influence was by maintaining their extraordinary wealth. The chief source of this income is foreign possessions. An estimate claims that Phillip II's income from the Americas in he year 1593 amounted to around two million Scudi (an Italian currency introduced during Charles V's rule) (Ranke, 1843, p 96). As the Americas were only part of the Spanish possessions, this number would have been increased with the income drawn from the Spanish Netherlands, the Spanish holdings in Italy and other overseas possessions. This source of income was reliant on military aid, as almost all Spanish foreign possessions bordered land controlled by unfriendly nations. The necessity of using military power to ensure the safety of Spanish possessions is explored in a document from 1580 regarding Phillip II’s plans for an “Invincible Armada” to invade England. The key part of the document is the motivation. Among others, "securing the complete domination of the Indies (America)" (Maggs & Maggs, 1925, p. 43) is the key demonstration of just how much military power was necessary for maintaining control of Spain’s foreign possessions. Another significant source of income for the Spanish empire was the Inquisition, where the property of anyone deemed guilty by the Inquisitors was seized by the state (Llorente, 1826). This is the way in which Spain’s religious influence was most important in their own land, allowing them to obtain funds from those who would also possibly cause a threat to their religious unity in the future, thus managing to solve two problems with a single simple action. The idea of the Inquisition having two true goals is best surmised in a quote from the writer Segni, who claims that "the Inquisition was invented to rob the wealthy of their property and the powerful of their influence."(Ranke, 1843, p 62) The total of these sources of income combine to make Spain one of the richest nations in Europe at the time.

The military might of Spain was one of the most formidable in Europe during the 16th Century, which is possibly the most tangible measure of Spain’s power. The military strength of Spain was used repeatedly to create and enforce their religious influence, most notably in the battle of Lepanto. The battle of Lepanto was clearly perceived to have very religious meaning, most notably amongst the Catholics. The best example of this is in the painting The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese, painted in either 1571 or 72 (Carboni, 2007). This image is split in two: the lower half portraying the naval conflict of Lepanto, with the top half depicting a series of saints and angels debating the conflict. The element of this painting that reveals the most about how Lepanto was viewed can be seen at the far right of the painting, which depicts an angel actually firing burning arrows at the Turkish fleet below. Several other elements, including the use of shading and depiction of the weather, are used to depict the Turkish fleet as almost ungodly. The Spanish contributed seventy-seven ships to the battle, which was not the largest navy, but still made them a considerable fraction of the entire Catholic fleet. The Catholic victory at Lepanto, and thus the Spanish victory, demonstrates both the religious fervor of the Spanish, but more importantly, it demonstrated how willing they were to back up their beliefs with actions, even volunteering ships in a battle which was fought largely over religion. This same protection of religious values would eventually result in the disastrous attack on England with the Spanish Armada which resulted in embarrassment for the Spanish, but still remained to prevent Spain from internal religious conflict.

The Spanish empire was the most powerful in Europe during the 16th Century. The most significant display of this power was in Spain’s religious influence. The wealth of the Spanish empire demonstrates how they were able to field such military might and wield such religious influence. The military might of Spain, funded by Spain’s monetary wealth allows Spain to enforce their religious influence. These points all show how the naming of the 16th Century as the “Spanish Century” is more than justified.


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Primary Sources:


Stirling-Maxwell, Sir William & Badoer, Federigo (1856). Notices of the Emperor Charles the Fifth. London: Philobiblon Society.

Stirling-Maxwell, Sir William (1883). Don John of Austria or Passages from the history of the sixteenth century. London: Longmans, Green & Co.


Veronese, Paolo (1571-72). The Battle of Lepanto.

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Balmes, Rev. J, (1850). European Civilization: Protestantism and Catholicity. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co.

Carboni, Stefano (2007). Venice and the Islamic World: 828-1797. France: Editions Gallimard.

Dyer, Thomas Henry (1861). History of Modern Europe: Volume II. London: John Murray.

Elliott, J.H., 1963. Imperial Spain 1469-1716. 2nd ed. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.

Konstam, Angus, 2003. Lepanto 1571: The greatest naval battle of the Renaissance. 1st ed. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Llorente, D. Juan Antoine (1826). The History of the Inquisition in Spain. London: Geo B. Whittaker.

Maggs, B. D. & Maggs, E. U. (1925). Bibliotecha Americana Et Philippina: Part IV. Leamington Spa: Courier Press.

Nardo, Don, 2008. Miguel De Cervantes: Novelist, Poet, and Playwright.1st ed. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books.

Ranke, Leopold (1843). The Ottoman and Spanish Empires, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. London: Whittaker & Co.