Early Modern Spain

The early modern period is typically said to have started around the late 1400s and ended in the late 1700s. For early modern Spain, it meant the establishment of royal authority, a more unified Spain, the discoveries of the New World, and Spain’s development into a dominant European power.

Early Modern Spain Early Modern Spain

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Table of contents

    The late fifteenth to sixteenth century was a decisive period for Spain, in which the country became more unified and expanded its power around the world. However, during this prosperous period, there was also a lot of suffering. Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant Spaniards experienced harsh oppression under the force of the Spanish Inquisition, while the Spanish colonisation in the New World had deadly consequences for indigenous populations.

    Key dates

    • Late 500AD- The Arianist Visigoths convert to Christianity.

    • 700AD- The Muslim Umayyad caliphate conquers most of the Iberian Peninsula.

    • 1469- The marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon.

    • 1474- King Henry IV dies and Isabella is crowned Queen.

    • 1478- The Spanish Inquisition is established.

    • 1492- Ferdinand successfully conquests Granada; Christopher Columbus begins his expedition to the Americas.

    • 1504- Queen Isabella dies.

    • 1516- Charles I becomes the King of Spain.

    • February 1519- The conquistador Hernando Cortés and his men land on the coast of Mexico and capture Montezuma, ruler of the Aztec Empire.

    • 1520- The Revolt of the Comuneros begins.

    • 1551- Spanish rule is established in Peru.

    • 1553- Spanish rule is established in Mexico.

    • 1555- Charles I abdicates.

    • 1556- Philip is crowned King of Spain.

    • 1568- The Morisco uprising. The Eighty Years' War begins.

    • 1598- Philip dies of cancer at El Escorial.

    What was Spain like in 1469?

    The Spain we know today is very different from the Spain of the Middle Ages. The Iberian Peninsula (the areas of Spain and Portugal) was fragmented, with warring religions fighting for control. Multiple conquests had led to a diverse peninsula with Muslim, Jewish and Christian populations. Although this period, is characterised as one of convivencia, there were clashes (especially between Muslims and Christians, who were fighting for power over the different regions).


    A Spanish term meaning “co-existence”, used to refer to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities residing together until 1492.

    How did Spain change under Isabella and Ferdinand, 1474-1516?

    Isabella and Ferdinand are often credited with having unified Spain due to the reconquest of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom. However, they are also remembered for their religious fervour and the horrific consequences of this on the Muslim and Jewish populations.


    Isabella was born to John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal and was second in line to the throne after her half-brother Henry. After a tumultuous period of fighting over the throne during the War of Castilian Succession, King Henry IV died in 1474, and Isabella was crowned Queen. In 1469, she had married her second cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon, and he joined her as King in 1479, after some opposition.

    When Isabella died in 1504, Ferdinand continued to rule alone. His daughter, Joana I, became the queen of Castile but this had little effect on national policy as she was declared insane and imprisoned. After that, Ferdinand served as her regent.


    A person put in charge of a kingdom or state because the original ruler is incapacitated or absent.

    Early Modern Spain Wedding Portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella StudySmarterFig. 1: Wedding portrait of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

    Gender in early modern Spain

    In a time where the monarchy was largely dominated by men, Isabella and her sovereign rule challenged gender norms. Isabella and Ferdinand ruled as a partnership with Isabella establishing a strong authoritative rule as a Queen. Ferdinand consulted with her about policy, and she wielded power over administrative decisions.

    Some historians like Theresa Earenfight argue that former rulers of the Iberian Peninsula such as Queen Urraca of Castile (1186-1220) and Juana Enríquez of Aragon (1458-1468) provided inspiration and legitimacy for Isabella.¹ However, scholars like Elizabeth Lehfeldt doubt the actual power of these women, stating that Isabella was an anomaly and represented a new kind of Queen.²

    Scholars group Isabella and Queen Elizabeth I of England together as they were both seen as the two great exemplars of female sovereignty in early modern Europe. They differed in how they presented themselves; Elizabeth flouted convention and used virginity to acquire and maintain her position whilst Isabella took a more subtle approach.

    Ecclesiastical punishment in early modern Spain

    Ferdinand and Isabella were devout Catholics and wanted to transform Spain into an entirely Catholic country, for purposes of religious unity and to strengthen the crown. Between 1475-1479 (the modernisation period), they asked Muslims and Jews to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion.

    The Spanish Inquisition

    Many did baptise and convert; however, suspicions arose as many still practised their faith in secret. Jewish converts (known as marranos), were denounced as a danger after Isabella and Ferdinand married. And, in 1478, the Spanish Inquisition was established, supported by Pope Sixtus IV, to root out any non-converters or heretics.


    A derogatory name (in Spanish it means pig) that was given to Jews who had publicly converted to Christianity to avoid persecution but continued practising Judaism in secret.

    The Spanish Inquisition swept throughout Spain; neighbours, friends, and family members were encouraged to act as informants on each other. An edict of grace gave people 40 days to confess heresy, within which time they would be given mercy. This resulted in many groundless confessions by devout Catholics, simply through fear.

    Public ceremonies called autos-da-fé tried anyone suspected of heresy and jailed, tortured, expelled, or executed anyone found guilty. Tomás de Torquemada was the first grand inquisitor and became infamous for his brutal torture and it is reported that 2000 people burned at the stake during his tenure.


    A Portuguese term, meaning “expression of faith”, was used as the name for the public ceremonies of those brought before the Spanish Inquisition.

    Spain lost a large proportion of its population from exile too. In 1492, Jews were given the choice of exile or baptism, resulting in 160,000 Jews being expelled from Spain. The Inquisition lasted until 1834.


    A person whose views do not conform to the views of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Religious unity

    The Spanish Inquisition, whilst brutal and oppressive, is seen as having some positive effects. By 1516, there was to some extent religious unity in Spain. The Inquisition also meant that the country did not experience the same religious divisions that tore other European countries apart.

    Spain did not conduct witch trials like other countries, such as England did in the 15th-18th centuries.

    Christopher Columbus

    In 1492, when Christopher Columbus, an inexperienced but determined seafarer, came to Spain to ask for support for an expedition, the crown agreed (after rejection in 1486). Spain was not renowned for its expertise in seafaring at this time, but Columbus had been turned away everywhere else. Spain was keen to supersede its rival, Portugal, which held a monopoly on West African sea routes.

    Early Modern Spain Portrait of a man said to be Christopher Columbus StudySmarterFig. 2: Portrait of a man said to be Christopher Columbus.


    On his expedition, Columbus found the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola and then returned several times to discover Trinidad, mainland South America, and Honduras. Whilst he did not encounter anything significant at this time, the crown laid claim to these countries with the Inter caetera of 1493 and his discoveries began the Spanish Empire, paving the way for future explorers.

    The Treaty of Tordesillas

    Spanish and Portuguese rulers decided a division of influence would be necessary to prevent conflict over areas of exploration. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas was established. This divided the territories between the two powers; the Portuguese received everything outside Europe east of a demarcation line through the Atlantic Ocean (giving them Africa, Asia, and east Brazil) and Spain received anything west of this line (giving them control over the western part of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean islands). Most of Spain’s territory was completely undiscovered, later proving beneficial to Spain, in the form of Mexico and Peru.

    Early Modern Spain Map showing the demarcation of territory after the Treaty of Tordesillas StudySmarterFig. 3: Map of the meridian line set under the Treaty of Tordesillas by Antonio de Herrera.

    Effects on the inhabitants

    The discovery of these territories was beneficial for Spain. For the inhabitants themselves, they were not. Spain enslaved them, forcing them to adopt Spanish culture (language, Catholicism). Many inhabitants died because of Spain’s exploration of its newfound territories, and from the warfare, forced labour, and disease that accompanied it. Around three million native Taíno inhabitants of Hispaniola were killed between 1494 and 1508. Ferdinand issued the Laws of Burgos in 1512, designed to protect the spiritual and material welfare of the inhabitants of colonised lands, but this was a small and ineffectual gesture.


    An island in the West Indies that is now divided into the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.


    This was definitely a time of change for Spain. This meant that the way the state was administered also had to undergo modifications.


    During this period Isabella and Ferdinand utilised the pre-existing Hermandades, local peacekeeping forces in the towns, as a police force. They supplied them with arms and facilitated organisation across towns. These forces proved valuable for collecting taxes and regulating crime, something that Henry IV did very little to help.


    Isabella and Ferdinand inherited a financially bankrupt nation after Henry IV’s period of heavy spending, leaving the kingdom of Castile in great debt. To restore the Crown’s finances, the kingdom took back estates that had been gifted or undersold in Henry’s reign and took back control over the production of money.

    How did Spain change under Charles I (1519-56)?

    The accession of Charles I to the throne resulted in a new era for Spain, one that was less unified, and led by an absentee King. This contrasted sharply with Spain’s growing power abroad, as the exploration of the Americas continued.


    Charles I, grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand and the emperor Maximilian I, grew up in the Netherlands. He was set to inherit a vast empire. His childhood meant that he was an outsider in Spain as he did not know the language or customs. This made it difficult to consolidate his rule and he was largely unpopular with swathes of the population.

    Furthermore, having power over several territories made it very difficult for him to focus on one country. External threats, such as the growing forces of Protestantism and Ottoman and French pressure, kept him very busy and he somewhat neglected Spain. He rarely spent time there, leaving the population restless and dissatisfied.

    Throughout his reign, Charles I balanced Spanish domestic affairs and overseas expansion; in addition, he was occupied with maintaining the power of the Habsburg Dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire’s fight against Protestantism. His attentions were not focused on Spain, leading to the emergence of internal issues such as the Revolt of the Comuneros and Germanias. These were quickly put down by Charles but symbolised the distrust towards him.


    During Charles' reign, Spanish explorers arrived in Mexico (1519) and Peru (1526). This marked a new period for Spain's position in colonial expansionism. Although colonisation took a long time, it made Spain incredibly wealthy. However, Charles I’s foreign wars across the Holy Roman Empire meant that most of the country’s wealth was spent on the imperial armies. In addition, Spain suffered from inflation and royal debt. Nevertheless, Spain emerged as a military power.

    Imperial army

    The army of an empire.


    During Charles I’s reign, he was engaged in constant conflicts across Europe and elsewhere. Charles was part of the Habsburg dynasty and war aimed to protect and expand that dynasty. The Ottoman-Habsburg Wars were fought against the Ottoman Empire (which controlled much of south-eastern Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia). The Habsburg-Valois wars were fought against the French Valois dynasty.

    Soldiers in early modern Spain

    During Charles’ reign, the Spanish army established itself as a powerful land force, famous for its effectiveness on the battlefield. It became one of the first modern European armies and its capability was crucial to helping Charles win in foreign wars and suppress internal disputes. These military units, known as the tercios, consisted of groups of volunteer soldiers and were initially established during Isabella and Ferdinand’s reign to help conquest of Granada.

    Their legacy is long-lasting, helping Spain become one of the most dominant European powers throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

    How did Spain change under Philip II, 1556–98?

    Philip’s rule re-established stability in Spain after Charles I’s absenteeism and neglect. His reign is associated with prosperity and Spanish culture (it is sometimes called the Golden Age). It was at this time that Spain’s colonial expansion began to have demonstrably positive effects on Spanish society.

    Early Modern Spain Portrait of King Philip II of Spain StudySmarterPortrait of King Philip II


    Philip II was crowned King of Spain in 1556 (and King of Portugal in 1581) but was already experienced at running the country, having served as regent to his father Charles I intermittently since 1543. His accession to the throne marked political continuity as Charles I had given him instructions on how to rule, which he followed throughout.

    He inherited a weak financial position. His father had spent a lot of money on foreign wars and Spain was in a state of inflation. Philip had to declare bankruptcy in the first year of his reign.

    He was known as the prudent or paper King because he was incredibly cautious about any decisions and worked slowly, often to the detriment of Spain.

    Religious Threats under Philip

    Under Philip, the Spanish Inquisition continued to root out heretics, focusing particularly on Jews and Muslims. However, the threat of Protestantism grew even stronger during Charles I’s reign and into Philip’s.

    Morisco Uprising

    Philip II became increasingly concerned about Moriscos, former Muslims in Granada, and their attempts to rebel against him. They accounted for over half of the population of Granada, which had been conquered by Isabella and Ferdinand. In 1556, he banned expressions of Morisco culture.

    On Christmas eve 1568, Moriscos rebelled against Philip, resulting in a deadly two-year uprising, supported by the Ottomans. It was quelled in 1570. Philip issued a decree, expelling 50,000 Moriscos from Granada to be resettled in other regions like León and Toledo. This expulsion was harsh and over a quarter died. Between 1571 and 1614, 300,000 were expelled from Spain.


    Name given to Moors (Muslim inhabitants of Spain), especially those that had converted to Christianity.

    Wars under Philip II

    Philip continued to engage with the Wars that had dominated his father’s reign, fighting the Valois monarchy of France in Italy in the 1550s and 1590s, as well as the Ottomans in North Africa. Philip saw himself as the protector of Catholicism in Europe and intervened in states that had turned to Protestantism. These wars led to increasing financial problems for Spain.

    The Ottoman Empire

    In 1571, Philip used the Spanish navy to defeat the Ottoman Empire. This left Spain in control of the western Mediterranean, opening up shipping routes.


    Philip’s intervention in the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), between Catholics and Protestants, resulted in Spain financing French Catholic efforts. Despite Spain’s failure to suppress Protestantism in France, Henry IV did convert to Catholicism.

    The Eighty Years War

    The Eighty Years War, where the Dutch fought for independence against Spain began in Philip's reign in 1568 and continued after his death until 1648. His means of suppressing revolts in the Netherlands led to him becoming seen as a despotic and cruel figure by many in these regions.

    The Spanish Armada

    Spain went to war with England in 1585. The aim was to establish Catholicism in the country but resulted in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Despite Spain’s naval strength, England forced Spanish ships to retreat. This strengthened England’s reputation but was only a minor setback for Philip, and Spain remained a military superpower for another century.

    Early Modern Spain - Key takeaways

    • Spain was originally referred to simply as the Iberian Peninsula and was an amalgamation of independently ruled territories where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together.

    • In the 8th-century, the Muslim Umayyad caliphate conquered most of Spain and this was gradually reconquered by Christians during a 700-year war, culminating in the final capitulation of Granada under Isabella and Philip in 1492.

    • Philip and Isabella were devoutly Catholic and forced the Jewish and Muslim population to convert.

    • Concerned that their conversion was not genuine, Philip and Isabella created the Spanish Inquisition to weed out heretics.

    • In 1492, Spain’s power on the global stage changed drastically when Christopher Columbus discovered America. This initiated an era of colonisation.

    • Isabella and Ferdinand created a stable Spain, establishing dominance, sorting out the finances, regulating crime, and creating religious unity (although forced).

    • Charles I’s reign was very different, characterised as it was by financial difficulties, absenteeism, and foreign wars.

    • Charles was unpopular as he did not speak the language, know the culture, or spend much time in the country. The Revolt of the Comuneros is an example of some of the discontent which existed about his reign.

    • During Charles’ reign, Protestantism gained popularity across Europe. This encouraged Charles, as Holy Roman Emperor and member of the Protestant Habsburg dynasty, to fight wars against it.

    • The discoveries of Mexico and Peru by Cortés and Pizarro led to a further expansion of Spain’s power and a large increase in its wealth, partly due to theft from the Inca and Aztec populations.

    • Philip II’s reign was characterised by prosperity but also by war, financial problems, and prudence.

    • Philip fought against Morisco uprisings in Spain, Protestantism in the Netherlands, and Spanish Armada was defeated in a battle with the English.

    1. Theresa Earenfight, ‘Two Bodies, One Spirit: Isabel and Fernando’s Construction of Monarchical Partnership,’ Queen Isabel I of Castile: Power, Patronage, Persona, 2008.

    2. Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, ‘Ruling Sexuality: The Political Legitimacy of Isabel of Castile,’ Renaissance Quarterly 53, no. 1, 2000.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Early Modern Spain

    Which period is called the Spanish early modern period?

    The early modern period is typically said to have started around the late 1400s and ended in the late 1700s. For Spain, it meant the establishment of royal authority, a more unified Spain, the discoveries of the New World and Spain’s development into a dominant European power.

    What was Spain called before Spain?

    Modern-day Spain (and Portugal) was referred to as the Iberian Peninsula. It was divided into different kingdoms: Castile, Aragon, Granada, Navarre, and Portugal.

    Where did Spain originate from?

    Spain originated from the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal). In the late fifteenth century, Spain consisted of four kingdoms and one emirate: Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Portugal, and Granada. After Ferdinand’s conquest of Granada and invasion of Navarre, these kingdoms became three: Castile (with Granada), Aragon (with Navarre) and Portugal. The merging of Castile and Aragon under Philip II led to the more unified Spain we know today.

    Who lived in Spain before the Romans?

    Romans lived in Spain between the third century BC and fifth century AD. They replaced the Celts, who lived in Spain from the sixth century BC.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which regions did the Muslim Umayyad caliphate conquer in the eighth century? (Choose three).

    Which Religions were forced to convert under Isabella and Ferdinand? (Choose two)

    Which of these countries did Christopher Columbus 'discover'? (Choose three).


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