The Catholic Kings

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon married in 1469. They acceded to their thrones in 1474 and 1479 respectively and the dynastic union of the two territories was complete. However, their marriage did not create modern Spain. Castile and Aragon retained separate laws and political systems. Although governed separately, their foreign policies were united by Fernando, who also attempted to impose Castilian policies in Catalonia. This resulted in an assassination attempt on the king in 1492.


Chapter 9: The Catholic Kings

The reign of Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon, who are known as the Catholic Kings or Monarchs, is considered by many Spaniards to mark the moment when modern Spain can be unquestionably described as a united country. Once again this is wishful thinking.

The Crowns of Castile and Aragon remained politically and culturally distinct and both Isabel and Fernando ruled their respective kingdoms separately. Their reigns obviously brought the two kingdoms closer together but the result wasn't a united Spain. Even within the Crown of Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon retained their own administrative and legal identities.

When Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile married in 1469, the term Catholic Kings was 25 years away from being invented. Alexander VI, the first Pope of the Valencian Borja family, bestowed the title of 'the Catholic' on each of them individually in 1494 in recognition of their defence of Catholic dogma within their realms. This practice was common at the time and many monarchs received the honour.

Initially Fernando and Isabel's marriage had caused some concern for Pope Sixtus IV. As closely-related members of the Trastámara family, they were both descended from Juan I of Castile and a papal dispensation was required.

From a Catalano-Aragonese point of view, the reasons for the marriage were obvious. In 1469, Catalonia was in the midst of a civil war and Fernando's father Juan II the Faithless reasoned that a dynastic marriage with the larger, richer and more militarily powerful Castile would help him bring the war to an end.

The Accession of Isabel

The reasons why Isabel chose to marry Fernando are more complex. She was the sister of the reigning monarch Enrique IV of Castile and her claim to the throne was contested by his daughter Juana la Beltraneja. This disparaging name was due to the suspicion that Juana was in fact the daughter of a Castilian noble, Beltrán de La Cueva.

With a view to a dynastic marriage, various husbands were mooted during Isabel's adolescence. Carles de Viana, Fernando's older brother who died in 1461, was an early candidate. Another strong possibilty was a dynastic union with Alfonso V of Portugal, which would have secured the Western part of the Iberian peninsula. Pedro Girón Acuña Pacheco, brother of one of the king's favourites, offered a large dowry, and Edward IV of England was also considered.

When Isabel acceded to the Castilian throne in 1474 already married to Fernando, spurned suitors Pedro Girón Acuña Pacheco and Alfonso V of Portugal continued their bid for power by supporting Juana la Beltraneja's accession claim. The War of the Castilian Succession broke out and raged for 5 years.
In 1479, the same year as Fernando was crowned King of Aragon, the stalemate between Castile and Portugal was formalised at the Treaty of Alcovas. Portugal gave up its claims to the throne of Castile in return for or a very favourable share of the Atlantic territories disputed with Castile. The Portuguese also received a generous war compensation of 106,676 dobles of gold.

These were turbulent and expensive times and both Fernando and Isabel needed an ally so the dynastic union of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon was a marriage of convenience. The alliance created a powerful monarchy capable of expelling the Muslims from the peninsula and conquering the north of Africa, Ethiopia and Jerusalem for Christianity.

Hopes For A Union

It is not surprising that many Spaniards consider the reign of the Catholic Kings as the beginning of modern Spain. Commentators of the time were aware of the historic importance of the union. When Fernando the Catholic inherited the Crown of Aragon in 1479, some members of the Royal Council even suggested that Fernando and Isabel should adopt the title of Kings of the Spains. They refused. Both monarchs were concerned with consolidating their own power base and were jealous of external interference, even from a spouse.

Castilian writer Diego de Valera is quoted as addressing Fernando and Isabel with these words. "You have the monarchy of all the Spains and you reform the imperial throne with the blood of the Goths from which you descend and which for so long has been spilled and spread." Catalan humanists such as Cardinal of Girona, Joan Margarit i Pau, said "Hispaniam restaurate et recuperate" and in the dedication of his Paralipomenon Hispaniae wrote, "In coming to the throne of your fathers and progenitors you have returned with your matrimonial bond to the Hispanias Citerior and Ulterior the unity which since the time of the Romans and the Visigoths had been lost".

However, all contemporary commentators refer to the plural Hispaniam or Spains. This embodied the Roman concept of separate provinces of Hispania, rather than a singular Spain of the modern state we know today. As J.H. Elliot states in his Imperial Spain "The union itself was purely dynastic: a union not of two peoples but of two royal houses. Other than the fact that henceforth Castile and Aragon would share the same monarch, there would, in theory, be no change either in their status or in the form of government. It was true that, in the person of Fernando, their foreign policies were likely to be fused, but in other respects they would continue to lead the lives they had led before the Union."

Just like the Reconquista mentioned earlier, the idea of a united Spain under the Catholic Kings is a much later, probably 19th century concept, created when national consciousness and nation-states were developing in most modern European countries. The analogy with the union of England and Scotland is again useful. When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, the two countries remained separate under a single monarch until the Act of Union in 1707. Fernando and Isabel were husband and wife but ruled their respective realms separately. Castile and Aragon were not even united under a single monarch.

The citizens of the two kingdoms had no sense that they were part of a unified whole, either politically or culturally. The Crowns of Aragon and Castile had different laws, tax systems, political institutions, coinages, cultural traditions and languages.

It is difficult to appreciate from a modern perspective but for a Catalan, Castile was as much, if not more, a foreign country as much of what is now Italy. Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Naples had been part of the Crown of Aragon for centuries. For a Castilian, Catalonia was at least as foreign as Portugal. In the time of horse travel, Portugal was much more accessible from Castile than Catalonia was and there were no natural borders such as the mighty Pyrenees to divide the two territories.

The reasons why Castile began to dominate the union were two-fold. The political model that Castile had developed was more favourable to autocratic rule than that developed by the constituent parts of the Crown of Aragon. In Castile, the monarch had more legislative and fiscal power. The kings of Aragon had to make pacts with the various parliamentary bodies before taking any decision.

Furthermore, the dynastic union of the Crown of Aragon and the Crown of Castile wasn't a union of equals. The Catholic Kings made Castile into the political pivot of the new monarchy because it was bigger and more centrally positioned in the peninsula. It had a much larger population and was also going through an economic boom. The Crown of Aragon, in general, and Catalonia, in particular, had fallen on hard times due to war, plague and failed harvests. In fact, by the late 15th century Valencia was a more prosperous Mediterranean port than Barcelona.

Fernando in Catalonia

One of the first acts of the newly-crowned King Fernando in 1479 was to swear to observe the Catalan laws and privileges at the Corts of Barcelona of 1480, where he signed the Constitució de l'Observança. This Constitution of Observance established the primacy of the Diputació del General or Generalitat de Catalunya and Reial Audiència de Catalunya over the king in their capacity to define the constitution of the country.

However, Fernando's authoritarian behaviour was soon to bring him into conflict with the Catalan institutions, particularly the Consell de Cent in Barcelona. In 1478, the Catholic Kings had created the Santa Inquisición, known in English as the Spanish Inquisition, in Castile initially in order to root out Jews and false converts to Christianity.

Despite a papal prohibition, Fernando introduced the Inquisition to the Crown of Aragon in 1484. Its first act of note was to destroy all copies of the recently published Bíblia Valenciana, the first bible in Catalan. In Barcelona, the inquisitors set to work on the Jewish neighbourhood of El Call, where most of the city's bankers and many merchants lived. Over the next few years, almost the whole of Barcelona's Jewish community fled taking their money with them. The already hard hit Catalan economy was forced even further into a downward spiral.

On a positive note, Fernando brought the peasant conflicts to an end by introducing a new system in the Catalan countryside known as emfiteusis. This system apparently would make the Catalan peasantry the most privileged in Europe. However, when the Catholic Kings arrived in Barcelona to meet Christopher Columbus on his return from the first voyage to the Americas in 1492, Fernando suffered an assassination attempt.

A few days before Columbus's arrival, Joan Canyamars a Remença peasant attacked the king with a knife as he walked down the steps of the Saló del Tinell into Plaça Reial. The reasons for the attack, which resulted in a knife wound in Fernando's neck, are unclear and Joan Canyamars was duly imprisoned.

The incident suggests a high degree of discontent against the Catholic Kings in general and Fernando the Catholic in particular. The Catalans weren't at all happy about the authoritarian style of their foreign ruler and the imposition of Castilian officials in positions of government. Whether Canyamars was acting alone or had been sent by conspirators has never been revealed.

Now Read Chapter Ten of Catalonia Is Not Spain - Was Christopher Columbus Catalan?

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