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In this lesson, we explore the changing geopolitical situation in seventeenth-century Europe. As Spain’s power lessened, other powers such as France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands vied to replace Spain as the preeminent power of Europe.

Decline of Spain and Emergence of Competing Powers

In the modern stock market, real-time trading means companies can grow and devalue in the blink of an eye.

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A good earnings report here, an executive scandal there, and a company’s valuation can change radically the same day that the news breaks. In the seventeenth century, the fortune of countries changed, only at a much slower pace. For example, the seventeenth century saw Spain’s clout and prestige among Europe’s main powers fade. In turn, Spain’s decline created a power void in European politics for emergent powers like France and Great Britain to fill.

Background

Spain entered the seventeenth century as arguably the most prosperous nation in Europe. It had spent the sixteenth century amassing territories and colonies all along the coasts of the Americas, Africa, and in the south Pacific. Spain expanded its European holdings into parts of southern Italy and, in 1580, Spain successfully invaded its neighbor Portugal, uniting all of the Iberian Peninsula under the Spanish crown.

Moreover, in part because of the mines in their South American colonies, Spain had amassed a fortune of gold and silver.

Bureaucratic and Economic Issues

However, Spain’s expansion abroad had been completed with little attention paid to the political and social apparatuses at home. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Spain’s taxation system was outdated and fell disproportionately upon the poorest of the Spanish population, who could barely afford to pay anything.

What money was paid rarely made it to the Spanish Crown, as local governors and councils siphoned off funds for their own expenses.Spain’s bureaucracy was as stilted and ineffectual as its tax system. The system was highly centralized, with all territorial councils and ministers reporting directly to the crown, and the pace of seventeenth-century communication made meaningful actions and orders to the far flung provinces of the Empire painfully slow and often outdated upon arrival.The Spanish Crown could weather a poor bureaucracy so long as South American gold and silver continued to flow into its coffers. Unfortunately, the amount of bullion shipped to Spain from the Americas dropped precipitously early in the seventeenth century.

The Crown was forced to take out loans and even debased the currency in an attempt to pay its bills, but these measures only exacerbated the problems.

Bad Wars, Bad Kings

The evaporation of the Spanish treasury occurred at the very moment when it needed money the most: in the midst of foreign wars and internal rebellion. Spain fought to hold on to the rebellious Dutch provinces until they were finally forced to concede defeat in 1648. Spain similarly lost territory to France after two decades of fighting as part of the Thirty Years’ War. To make matters worse, Spain had to contend with revolts in both Portugal and Catalonia.

Though the Catalonian insurrection was successfully put down, Spain was forced to recognize Portuguese independence in 1668.Spain had enough problems in the seventeenth century without being cursed with a succession of ineffectual monarchs. Philip III, who reigned from 1598 to 1621, has been famously dubbed the ‘laziest king in Spanish history’ and his son Philip IV was no better, caring more for food, horses, and women than governing. Charles II was so mentally challenged, likely because of generations of inbreeding, that Spain’s councils and territories were largely left to their own devices. Charles left no heirs when he died in 1700, and his death touched off a war to decide who would become king of Spain.

Filling the Void: France

The decline of Spain created a vacuum in European politics that was filled by French, English, and Dutch interests. Whereas Spain suffered under a lack of direction from its royals, France was ruled in the second half of the seventeenth century by arguably the most successful French monarch ever: Louis XIV, the self-named ‘Sun King,’ who reigned from 1643 to 1715.

France was similarly blessed with excellent advisors to the king, as Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert proved successful politicians and able economists. Under Louis’ reign, France expanded its territories in Europe via wars with the Dutch and Spanish. Abroad, France expanded its American holdings from Canada and Louisiana to include most of North America east of the Appalachians and west of the Mississippi River.

Filling the Void: Great Britain

Though Great Britain had many of their own problems in the seventeenth century – a seven-year Civil War was fought in the 1640s that culminated in the trial and execution of King Charles I – Britain emerged from the chaos and tumult with a strong constitutional monarchy based on social contract theory, largely codified in the teachings of seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke. Great Britain’s large navy and colonial holdings on the Atlantic coast of North America further poised the nation to be Europe’s best answer to French superiority in the following century.

Filling the Void: Dutch Republic

The Dutch Republic was similarly poised to vie for European supremacy after it completed an 80-year struggle to throw off the shackles of Spanish hegemony in 1648.

The second half of the seventeenth century saw the Netherlands grow into an economic superpower, with commercial outposts in East Asia, North America, and in the South Pacific. Dutch society was similarly unique, in that it featured a thriving middle class of merchants who dominated society and politics rather than the traditionally powerful noblemen.

Lesson Summary

In closing, Spanish decline was due largely to internal political and economic dysfunction.

The monetary demands of external wars and its monarchs’ inability to manage the issues at hand only deepened the crisis. As Spain’s international power faded, the emerging European powers of Great Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic stepped up to fill the void. The story of the following century, both in Western Europe and in colonial America, would largely turn on the rivalries between these European powers.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe political and economic factors that led to Spain’s decline in the seventeenth century
  • Identify Spain’s rulers during this time frame
  • Explain how France, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic filled the void created by Spain’s decline

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