Lessons from History: Aragon, Catalonia and Portugal by Perez Zagorin (from Vol II of ‘Rebels & Rulers 1500-1660’)

After Velázquez’s Don Gaspar de Guzmán, conde-duque de Olivares

“… The Scottish revolution of 1638 introduces a last group of provincial rebellions in which the external aspect was decisive. Despite their many differences, all shared the fundamental common property of originating in the grievances of subordinate or provincial kingdoms within dynastic unions. Either the absentee ruler and paramount state were guilty of unaccustomed demands and innovations that violated the autonomous liberties of the provincial kingdom, or they inflicted upon it an increasingly repressive government that finally became intolerable. Whether the one or the other, or some combination of the two, rebellion erupted.

“We see such cases in both the Spanish and the English monarchies. The revolt of Aragon in 1591 and the revolutions of Catalonia and Portugal in 1640 were alike a resistance to the pressures and intrusions of the central regime in Madrid. The several revolts of Ireland and the Scottish rebellion of 1638 were directed against subjugation or domination by England. We need pause for only a brief glance at the revolt of Aragon against Philip II to see how it fits into the picture of provincial rebellion. In its kingdom of Aragon, the Habsburg monarchy was confronted by a Cortes and other indigenous institutions that restricted its powers in considerable ways. With Aragon was also associated the famous (although historically fictitious) oath, according to which subjects were bound to render obedience only if their prince observed their privileges, otherwise not (si no, no).71 These privileges, or fueros, often served as a cover for local misgovernment and aristocratic oppression; however, they also stood as a real obstacle to royal absolutism.

“Philip II first offended patriotic sentiment in Aragon by appointing a Castilian in 1590 as viceroy, contrary to the privilege that all royal officials should be natives. Shortly after this, the case of Antonio Perez stirred up further provincial outrage. Perez, one of the famous men of his time whose writings helped make the revolt of Aragon widely known, was Philip Il’s former principal secretary, minister, and confidant who, after being disgraced and imprisoned in Madrid, escaped and took refuge in Aragon.72 There he placed himself in the custody of the Justicia, a high court whose judges controlled royal jurisdiction and stood between the crown and subjects. When the king ordered the seizure of Perez in defiance of the Justicia’s authority, violence broke out in the capital, Zaragoza. These events initiated the rebellion of 1591, which Perez helped to incite and of which he later wrote, whose aim was the defense of provincial liberties. As Francis Bacon noted of it just a few years later, “Only upon the voice of a condemned man that cried Fueros, which is as much liberties or privileges, there was raised a dangerous rebellion which was suppressed with difficulty.”73 The movement did not spread widely and apparently centered mainly upon Zaragoza; yet it is interesting that the rebels entertained the idea of separation from the monarchy. By early the next year, the king had crushed the revolt with an army from Castile, executing the ringleaders, while Pérez fled to France. Then summoning the Cortes, Philip was able to remodel Aragon’s constitution so as to curtail its privileges and render the realm far more subservient to the commands of sovereign authority.74

“The Spanish monarchy was at its zenith when Aragon’s revolt occurred; it had sunk dramatically in power when faced with the revolutions of Catalonia and Portugal in 1640. The latter were quintessential conflicts of the provincial type whose outbreak threatened the whole imperial structure. Each of them launched out on the path of separatism in which Portugal regained its independence, and Catalonia was recovered for Habsburg sovereignty only after a protracted struggle. Save only that Catalonia’s resistance, starting earlier in May—June, encouraged the same development in Portugal in December, the two rebellions were unconnected. What related them was their common background of imperial rule and the similar grievances arising from their subjection to the Spanish monarchy in this period of its decline as the greatest of European powers.

“The elements of this decline are already familiar to us. Staggering imperial burdens, the growing weakness of the Castilian economy, and prolonged war and military reverses against France and the Dutch were draining Spain’s strength. War, above all, was Spain’s curse. Because of it, the monarchy was driven to a heavier exploitation of its possessions, which in turn made it more oppressive to provincial subjects. We have already seen the effects in Palermo and Naples in 1647. The events of 1640 in peninsular Spain were only an earlier manifestation of the identical underlying problem.

“Since the beginning of Philip IV’s reign in 1621, his favorite, the count-duke of Olivares, had determined Spain’s policy. The dynamic minister, whose big, heavy body and florid face look out at us from Velazquez’s wonderful portraits, had to manage in the steadily worsening circumstances of the time. In 1625, he advised his master in a secret memorandum that he should become king of Spain, meaning, he said,

“That Your Majesty should not be content with being king of Portugal, of Aragon, of Valencia and count of Barcelona, but should secretly plan and work to reduce these kingdoms of which Spain is composed to the style and laws of Castile, with no difference whatsoever. And if your Majesty achieves this, you will he the most powerful prince in the world.75

“Despite these striking words, it is doubtful that Olivares ever tried to weld the disparate realms of the Iberian peninsula into a unitary state based on Castile. Such an enterprise would have run into insuperable obstacles in Spanish regionalism. But he was clearly determined to bring them closer together in unity of purpose and to make them bear a larger share of the burdens of war and defense as an interest common to them all. Toward this end, he proposed in 1626 his scheme of a Union of Arms, a project occupying the following years that provided for larger contributions and mutual assistance by the provincial states in support of the monarchy’s war needs.76

“This policy led in due course to Catalonia’s revolt. The details comprising its preliminaries may be left aside, as they were merely a version of the general phenomenon of conflict between the aspirations of centralising authority and an independent province.77 An appendage of the crown of Aragon, the principality of Catalonia possessed a keen spirit of local patriotism and vigorous traditions of autonomy and contractual limitations upon the ruler embodied in its constitucións. For the Catalans, it was axiomatic, as a native writer declared in 1622, that “the supreme power and jurisdiction over the province belongs not to His Majesty alone but to His Majesty and the three estates of the province.”78 The nobility and the oligarchy that dominated the great commercial city of Barcelona were in accord in their defense of provincial liberties. Before, the province had been but lightly governed and taxed, and now the monarchy’s sudden intensification of demands upon it could only incite rising opposition among the population and governing class. In 1626 and 1632, the Cortes refused to grant the king the financial contributions he required. A deadlock prevailed between provincial interests and imperial needs. How were the two to be reconciled if the Catalans found rule by and from Castile more a liability than an advantage?

“After 1635, difficulties multiplied, as Spain entered into full-scale war with France on several fronts. Catalonia, a strategic frontier province, soon became a theater of hostilities, and the crown expected it to cooperate fully in its own defense along with forces from Castile. But even now the Catalans remained obstructive and invoked their liberties, as if the monarchy’s quarrel were not their own. Olivares wrote in despair to the viceroy of Catalonia, “The devil take the constitutions and whoever observes them For no man can observe them who has not been abandoned by God, and who is not an enemy of His Divine Majesty, of his king, and of his fatherland.”79

“At this critical juncture, Olivares was resolved more than ever to reduce the province’s independence and compel it to join in sustaining the monarchy’s military and financial necessities. In the winter of 1640, the government decided to station an army of nine thousand men in Catalonia, both as a necessary measure against the French and to quash Catalan opposition. This action in violation of provincial liberties and the clashes following between the soldiers and native population proved the catalyst to revolt. Resistance exploded in May with attacks by bands of peasants and town crowds against royal officials and rich citizens. A wild outburst of disorder struck the principality, paralysing all authority. In Barcelona, mobs reinforced by rural laborers ran riot and murdered the viceroy, the count of Santa Coloma. Viceregal administration collapsed before the popular fury, and Catalonia was given over to anarchy and violence.

“Thus far the revolt rather resembled the contemporary French plebeian insurrections against the royal state and its agents such as we have observed in preceding chapters. But then the provincial authorities, themselves alarmed by the dangers of this mass outbreak from below, took over the direction of the movement. The key institution of Catalonia’s autonomy was the Deputation (Diputación), a standing committee of the Cortes consisting of six delegates representing the three estates of clergy, nobility, and towns. Its members, the deputies, were the supreme representatives of the Catalan nation and its constitution, responsible for the guardianship of native liberties and laws. Led by its president, the priest Pau Claris, the Deputation in the summer of 1640 placed itself at the head of the resistance. This step revealed the extent of Catalonia’s alienation from Madrid and how much anger had been provoked by royal policy in the subject realm. The conflict thereby acquired legitimacy and became a rebellion of the whole provincial society. Despite dissensions, it embraced both the dominant class and the inferior orders — part of the nobility, provincial functionaries, the municipal councils and bourgeoisie of Barcelona and other towns, and the clergy. It was a rebellion, too, that was conducted by Catalonia’s own government because the Deputation, an organ of the representative assembly of the province, stood as a dual power that had displaced Madrid and the viceroyalty. Events rapidly advanced to a further denouement. As Madrid showed itself intransigent and Olivares prepared to crush the revolt, the Catalan leaders sought French aid. Thus, in January 1641, after first declaring Philip IV deposed as count of Barcelona, the Deputation placed Catalonia under the sovereignty of Louis XIII of France.

“Before the calamitous year 1640 ended, Portugal also broke free of Madrid’s authority. For sixty years, ever since its annexation in 1580 by Philip II, Portugal had been incorporated in the Spanish monarchy. The crown was pledged to respect native autonomy and liberties, and for a period Portugal benefited considerably from its union with Spain. Nevertheless, Castile’s preeminence reduced it more and more to the position of an inferior dependency.80

“From the 1620s the balance of gain and loss from association with Castile turned increasingly negative. Subject to the Spanish monarchy, Portugal had to take part in its wars, yet Spain was unable to defend Portuguese overseas possessions from invasion and conquest by the Dutch. Castilian protectionism in the Americas during a time of growing economic adversity was also injurious to the Portuguese. Although Portugal was less harassed than Catalonia by Olivares’ attempts to impose the Union of Arms, it too was roused to opposition against Madrid’s policy. The popular resentment of new demands was demonstrated in an outbreak of antifiscal rioting in 1637 in Evora and other towns. In a relationship that was necessarily very complex, the interests of Portugal and the monarchy seemed steadily more divergent. It was this, and the survival of the spirit of independence, that led to the revolution of 1640. Portugal was restive, and considerable estrangement from Spanish rule existed in the governing class, the merchant community, and the mass of the population. The rebellion of Catalonia, by pinning down Spain’s forces, gave Portuguese disaffection its opportunity. In December 1640 in Lisbon, following some previous plotting, an influential group of the nobility proclaimed one of their number, the duke of Braganza, king as John IV This act, which evoked broad support, announced Portugal’s secession from the union of crowns and the restoration of its independence under a native sovereign.81

“The revolutions in the two provincial realms offered tempting possibilities of great power intervention, as France’s relation to them showed. In the same way as France later tried to aid the revolt of Naples in 1647, so it also supported the earlier rebellions of Catalonia and Portugal. With the second, it allied itself and sent assistance; with the first, its involvement was even closer. The Catalan leaders turned to the French crown because they felt the province would be unable to survive alone and unaided against the Spanish monarchy’s determination to recover its possession. Early in 1641, when a Castilian army attacked Barcelona hoping to end the revolt, the city was successfully defended by a joint force of Catalans and French. In 1642, the French gained further victories and captured Perpignan. Under French sovereignty, however, the Catalans soon discovered that they had only exchanged one bad master for another, and they became increasingly disenchanted. But the French crown profited considerably by its intervention. By accepting Catalonia’s rule, it increased its territory and extended the war into a province of the Spanish monarchy, thereby adding greatly to the latter’s burdens. The advent of the Fronde undermined France’s ability to maintain its involvement in the rebellion, but in the final peace with Spain in 1659, it retained the counties of Rousillon and Cerdagne, which it had acquired in Catalonia during the insurgency.82

“Amid all the disasters experienced at this period, the Spanish monarchy struggled to regain its rebel provinces. Along with other reverses, the defection of Catalonia and Portugal was responsible for the downfall of Olivares. The favorite was forced to retire in 1643 after his long tenure of power and died, crazed and infirm, two years later. Meanwhile, the two provincial rebellions dragged on, neither one giving rise to any outstanding leaders or heroic achievements. Portugal fought off Spain’s attempts at reconquest and eventually won formal recognition of its independence in 1668. The Catalan revolution, having renounced the possibility of independence at its outset, disintegrated into division and strife between the partisans of France and Spain, and the principality endured all the miseries and disorders brought by the war onto its soil. To multiply afflictions came the plague in 1650, the worst of the century and estimated to have caused thirty-six thousand deaths in Barcelona alone. In October 1652, a Spanish army forced Barcelona to surrender after more than a year’s siege. Philip IV granted an amnesty and vowed to respect Catalonia’s traditional liberties. This was the defeat of provincial secession and the rebellion’s finale, and Catalonia, minus the parts that remained permanently in France’s possession, returned to its former allegiance…”