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Ferdinand and Isabella

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History

Between 1469–1556 the Iberian Peninsula transformed from disparate states into something far more familiar to the Spain we know today. It was a period of hopeful unity and cruel exclusion, where the empire's expansion brought power and wealth to Spain, and war and disease to the New World.

With their strong authority, Ferdinand and Isabella led Spain’s transition from a weak medieval fragmented peninsula to a more united Spain, and a centralised government. This new period began with their marriage in 1469.

What changes did Spain go through under the Catholic Monarchs?

This period is characterised by the creation of the Spanish Inquisition and the discovery of the New World. The new state of Spain encompassed a united Spain and its territories in the New World, and was set up by Ferdinand and Isabella’s efforts to unify the country as well as the discoveries of the explorer Christopher Columbus. The economic and political turmoil under Henry IV of Castile and Léon, the King at the start of this period, was subsequently smoothed over by the union of Isabella and Ferdinand and their joint governance.

The Iberian Peninsula in 1469

The Iberian Peninsula refers to the areas of modern-day Spain and Portugal and was a fragmented region, consisting of independently run districts under Catholic and Muslim rule. By 1469, however, many changes had happened across the region that would lay the groundwork for a united Spain.

Reconquista

By the 1400s, the Christians on the Iberian Peninsula had been fighting against the Muslim invaders (Moors) for centuries. These battles were labeled the Reconquista because their focus was the Christian reconquering of the land that the Moors had controlled since the eighth century. In 1469, only one territory remained for the Christians to reconquer: Granada.

However, although the Reconquista had returned the states to Christian rule, it did not mean Spain was unified. It was split into five individually ruled areas: the Kingdom of Portugal, the Kingdom of Castile and Léon, the Kingdom of Navarre, the Kingdom of Aragon, and the Emirate of Granada (Muslim ruled until 1492).

Reconquista

A Spanish word meaning the reconquering, used specifically to describe centuries of battles by Christian states to expel Muslim invaders from Spain.

Henry IV of Castile

Catholic Monarchs of Spain Modern depiction of Henry IV of Castile StudySmarterModern depiction of Henry IV of Castile, Wikimedia Commons.

In 1469, Henry IV of the Trastámara Dynasty was coming towards the end of his rule as King of Castile. During his reign, he had married Joan of Portugal to secure an alliance with the country, unsuccessfully invaded Granada, and established peace with France. During this period, his spending had weakened the Crown’s finances and allowed the nobles (the League of Noblemen) to become far too powerful.

Trastámara Dynasty

A dynasty of kings and queens in Spain and Italy, which governed Castile from 1369.

The nobles’ power in the Crown’s decision-making weakened the monarch’s position. For Henry IV, this became evident in 1465 when they refused to accept his daughter as heir to the throne (due to disputes over whether he was her father) and crowned his brother Alfonso instead.

The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain

Alfonso died in 1468, leaving Henry’s half-sister Isabella as the heir to the throne. Henry begrudgingly accepted this, providing she would allow him to arrange a strategic marriage alliance for her with Alfonso V of Portugal. Isabella refused and secretly married her cousin Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, creating a union between Castile and Aragon rather than Portugal. A war with Portugal ensued as Alfonso V of Portugal married Henry’s IV’s daughter, Joanna, and tried to claim Castilian succession. However, Isabella emerged victorious from this conflict, which established her as a strong and legitimate ruler.

The restoration of royal authority and government

Isabella’s rocky but successful accession to the throne marked the beginning of royal authority being restored. It also established her as a powerful leader from the very start. She then utilised this reputation to build structures to support her.

Isabella’s accession and the war with Portugal

As we already mentioned, Isabella encountered one of the first problems of her reign soon after Henry IV died and left her the throne. A plot to install Henry’s daughter as the rightful queen led to a war between Castile and Portugal: the War of Castilian Succession. The Catholic Monarchs achieved a great victory at the Battle of Toro, establishing Isabella as a strong leader and securing her position as Castile’s Queen.

The war continued until 1479 with Castile winning on land and Portugal winning at sea. Whilst Castile’s result on land constituted a victory for the Catholic Monarchs, the Portuguese exclusive right to navigation in the Atlantic represented a major loss of potential wealth and power. Christopher Columbus’ discoveries later rectified this situation, as we will see.

Royal authority and government

Having asserted themselves as strong leaders, the monarchs made the government more centralised and powerful by establishing:

  • The Council of Finance (1480).

  • The Council of Hermandad (1476-98).

  • The Council of the Orders of Knighthood.

The Monarchs collaborated with the local justice forces, called hermandades (brotherhoods), and used them to control and dispense justice in the towns and districts. The nobility had formally dispensed local justice and so a general Hermandad was established for Castile, Léon, and Asturias to give the crown more power and control.

Foreign relations with France

After Isabella died in 1504, Ferdinand married Germaine of Foix, the daughter of the claimant to the Kingdom of Navarre’s throne. This meant any children from this marriage would have a claim to the throne of Navarre. The relationship also briefly strengthened Spain’s relationship with France before the Italian Wars (French-Spanish battle for power over Italy) in 1512 when relations deteriorated again.

In an attempt to send troops into France, Ferdinand invaded the Kingdom of Navarre and established control over the region. Aragon, then, subsumed the Kingdom of Navarre, making an even more united Spain.

Social issues and policies

Isabella and Ferdinand worked hard to reverse some of the social issues that had arisen under Henry IV. The power that the nobles had amassed was dangerous to the Crown’s authority, as demonstrated by their rejection of Joana as the rightful heir. Furthermore, peasant rebellions also threatened the stability of the realm and could increase dissent against the monarchy. During Isabella and Ferdinand’s reign, urban towns and industries developed, some of the peasants’ concerns were addressed, and power shifted for the nobility.

The nobility

Isabella and Ferdinand had to be cautious in their treatment of the nobles. They had held too much power during Henry IV’s reign and been able to control the royal succession. Although the monarchs had revoked some of their lands, most of their estates remained intact. Isabella and Ferdinand reduced their power by removing them from the royal administration.

The peasantry

In Castile, the peasants were impoverished. The land was arid and agriculture underdeveloped, and Castile got a lot of money from its exports of raw wool. This gave the sheep shepherds power. They travelled hundreds of miles from summer to winter pastures, spoiling the peasants’ cultivated land.

The Iberian Peninsula, like many of the European countries, had a feudal system in place. This meant that the peasants had to pay fees and perform duties for the nobles whose land they lived on. The conditions had become progressively worse for peasants in the fourteenth century after the rise of Catalan cities, the Black Death, and bad harvests that led to a decline in the rural population and agriculture. Nobles enforced stricter seignorial rights, subjecting them to cruel money levies and harder working conditions.

Seignorial rights

The rights nobles had over the peasants.

In Barcelona, there had been violent social movements called the Wars of the Remences. The Catalan remença peasants and the lower classes revolted against the nobles because they were badly mistreated. In 1486, Ferdinand appeased the peasants with the Sentencia Arbitral de Guadeloupe, a legal decree, which abolished serfdom and some of the peasants’ feudal obligations in return for monetary compensation for the lords.

Historical context

Whilst this decree did not completely abolish the feudal system or the cruel treatment of the peasants, it did lead to better conditions and the right to develop rental agreements with landowners. The Catalonian countryside enjoyed general prosperity and the peasants enjoyed freedoms that other peasants in the Iberian Peninsula or across Europe would not experience until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Religion

Isabella and Ferdinand were Catholics and believed that Catholocism should be the only religion in Spain. Their strong views led to them establishing the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, which tried anyone who was accused of heresy (non-Catholicism). The Inquisition would long outlive the Catholic Monarchs and cause the deaths, expulsions, and tortures of thousands over the next few centuries.

Ferdinand and Isabella Reconquest

In 1482–92 Ferdinand directed a campaign against the Muslim kingdom of Granada, aiming to reconquer it as Christian territory. He was successful: a long siege in January 1492 forced the sultan Muhammad XII to surrender the city.

The Conquest of Granada unified Spain under Catholic rule and was a huge success for Isabella and Ferdinand. It also made Christopher Columbus’ voyages possible, as Spanish rulers could devote more time to overseas exploration now that internal disputes and territories had been settled.

Economic stagnation and change

Spain made its first discoveries in the New World in the late fifteenth century. This alleviated the issue of the Portuguese monopoly on the Atlantic and paved the way for great power and fortune.

Discovery of the New World

When Christopher Columbus, an inexperienced but determined seafarer, came to Spain to ask for support, the Crown agreed (after rejection in 1486) to sponsor his expedition in 1492.

On his expedition, Columbus found the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola and then returned several times to discover Trinidad, mainland South America, and Honduras. The Crown laid claim to these countries with the Inter caetera of 1493. These discoveries began the Spanish Empire and paved the way for future explorers.

Spanish and Portuguese rulers decided a division of influence was necessary to prevent conflict over areas of exploration. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas was established, dividing the Americas between the two powers.

Whilst these discoveries were beneficial for Spain, they were detrimental to the inhabitants of these countries. Spain colonised the countries, enslaving them and forcing Spanish culture (language, Catholicism) on them. Many inhabitants died because of Spain’s exploration and the warfare, forced labour, and diseases that accompanied it.

The accomplishments of Ferdinand and Isabella

Ferdinand and Isabella centralised Spain under the dominance of the Crown and established themselves as authoritative and popular leaders. They had reformed finances, weakened the powers of the nobility, and established controlled justice systems.

Spain had certainly become more unified geographically too. By the end of Ferdinand’s reign, the five major powers had become three: Castile conquered Granada and Aragon acquired Navarre. Hence, in 1516 only Castile, Aragon, and Portugal remained as independent kingdoms.

However, whilst the crowns were united, the two kingdoms of Aragon and Castile remained vastly different in their institutions, traditions, and language. The Crown had limited power in these two kingdoms and a lot of the governance was still local. Although this period is associated with political unity, the marriage never led to a concrete political, economic, or institutional union of the Iberian Peninsula.

When looking at the successes and failures of Isabella and Ferdinand’s rule, you might come across questions asking you whether a specific policy was successful or not. Here is an example of what you might be asked and how to approach it:

‘Ferdinand and Isabella failed to deal effectively with domestic challenges to the Spanish

Crown’. Assess the validity of this view of the years 1474 to 1504.

When answering this, you will need to explore the arguments that support and oppose this statement, and then come to your own conclusion with these as evidence. Here are some of the arguments you could look at:

For (they failed)Against (they were successful)
  • The nobility represented a constant challenge and Ferdinand and Isabella had to constrain them through bribes and concessions.
  • Divisions between Castile and Aragon made government difficult.
  • The Crown faced financial challenges, which increased after 1504 with the advent of war, inflation, and corruption.
  • Despite the introduction of the Spanish Inquisition, Isabella and Ferdinand failed to transform the Iberian Peninsula into a solely Catholic region. Isabella's will in 1504 revealed she felt she had failed to deal with some of these domestic challenges.
  • Isabella and Ferdinand significantly improved royal government after Henry’s reign.
  • The monarchs’ absolute power reduced the power of the nobility.
  • The Conquest of Granada strengthened the Catholic Monarchs and their prestige.
  • There were no major revolts in Isabella and Ferdinand’s reign.
  • They made attempts to bolster the economy and reverse some of the Crown’s financial difficulties.
  • They successfully dealt with all challenges, won the conquest of Granada, secured Navarre, and mollified religious threats.

Ferdinand and Isabella - Key takeaways

  • In 1469, the Iberian Peninsula was split into five different areas: the Kingdom of Portugal, the Kingdom of Castile, the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Navarre, and the Emirate of Granada (Muslim ruled).
  • Isabella and Ferdinand’s marriage united Castile and Aragon under the Crown but the kingdoms remained largely independent.
  • In 1492, Spain’s power on the global stage changed drastically when Christopher Columbus discovered America and began Spain’s colonisation.
  • Isabella and Ferdinand centralised the government and weakened the power of the nobles.
  • Ferdinand’s reconquering of Granada in 1492 re-established Catholic rule over Spain.
  • Ferdinand’s invasion of Navarre resulted in Spain only being divided into three Kingdoms: Portugal, Castile, and Aragon.

Ferdinand and Isabella

Spain was considered united under Catholic rule after Ferdinand's conquest of Muslim ruled Granada in 1492. The kingdoms of Spain still remained distinct, however were united under Catholic hegemony.

Ferdinand and Isabella were renowned for wanting to establish strong Catholic rule in Spain. They did this through the conquest of Granada and the Spanish Inquisition, which rooted out suspected heretics from society. Isabella and Ferdinand's support for exploration also demonstrated their desire for Spain to have a stronger position in the world.

Isabella ruled until her death from natural causes in 1504. Ferdinand continued to rule and remarried the King of France's niece, Germaine de Foix, in 1505. Ferdinand then died in 1516.

Aragon is the historical region of northeastern Spain, now an autonomous community. Castile is a large area in central northern Spain.

The name Castile comes from the number of castles in the region.

Final Ferdinand and Isabella Quiz

Question

With which two married rulers is the ‘New Monarchy’ associated? 


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Answer

Isabella I

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Question

What does the Iberian Peninsula refer to?


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Answer

The areas of modern-day Spain and Portugal.


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Question

What did the Reconquista mean?


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Answer

Reconquista is Spanish for ‘reconquest’ and refers to the battles of the Christians in the North of Spain against the Muslims that controlled the other territories. It was labelled the reconquest because the Christians believed they were reconquering their old territories from Muslim rule.


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Question

Which of these did Henry IV of Castile achieve during his reign? (Choose two) 


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Answer

The successful invasion of Granada


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Question

Why did Isabella I stand out at the time of her rule?

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Answer

Isabella was a strong female leader in a time where the monarchy was largely dominated by men. She challenged gender norms, establishing herself as authoritative and wielding power over Ferdinand, who came to her about decisions. She represented a new kind of Queen and is frequently compared to Queen Elizabeth I of England, the other great exemplar of female sovereignty in early modern Europe.

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Question

What were the effects of the War of Castilian Succession? (Choose two) 


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Answer

 Isabella I established herself as a strong leader


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Which of these institutions did Isabella and Ferdinand establish? (Choose three) 


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Answer

The Council of Comuneros


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Question

What were the effects of the Sentencia Arbitral de Guadeloupe? (Choose three) 


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Answer

Some of the peasants’ feudal obligations were abolished

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Question

What effects did the Conquest of Granada have on Spanish expansionism? 


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Answer

Granada’s conquest meant that Spain was more unified and could focus on overseas exploration rather than internal disputes and territories. This meant that when Christopher Columbus came to ask for support for overseas exploration, the Crown granted it. Whilst exploring, he discovered the New World. This would eventually lead to Spain colonising the Americas. 


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Question

Which titles did Charles I take on? (Choose three) 


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Answer

Charles I, Archduke of Austria


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Question

To what extent were the rebels successful in the revolt of the Comuneros?


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Answer

Whilst royal forces suppressed the revolt of the Comuneros in 1552, the rebels were somewhat successful in achieving their aims. Charles removed unpopular, ineffective, and corrupt officials from government. He also positioned the Castilian elite in government, like the rebels had desired. He had fulfilled their demands and the lack of future revolts suggests they were satisfied with this.

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Do you agree with McElwee, that Charles’ reign marked a ‘disastrous period for Spain’?


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Answer

When answering this question, you can argue either way, as long as you back up your argument. You might cite his unpopularity, taxes on the Spanish people, and losses in foreign wars as arguments to support McElwee. Or you might cite his successful suppression of the Comuneros (and the subsequent internal peace), his wins in foreign wars, the successes of exploration to argue against him.


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Which Kingdom did Granada become subsumed by after the conquest?

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Answer

Castile

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Which three of these areas were administrative units in Al-Andalus?


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Answer

Portugal and Galicia

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Which dynasty ruled the Emirate of Granda?


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Answer

The Nasrid Dynasty

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What did emir Abu ‘l-Hasan Ali refuse to pay in 1477?

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Answer

The tributes that Granada was expected to pay to the Crown of Castile.

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What event spurred Queen Isabella I to commence a war against the Emirate in 1482?


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Answer

Abu ‘l-Hasan Ali launched a surprise invasion of the city of Zahara de la Sierra (on the Western border of Granada) in 1481. During this invasion, forces killed and enslaved unarmed Christian Zaharans.

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Which of these territories did the Christians take between 1487 and 1489 (choose three)?


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Answer

Baza

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What happened to Granada after the Reconquista?


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Answer

In legal terms, Granada was not actually ‘conquered’ but agreed on capitulations. The Catholic Monarchs received the keys to the city, but Granada kept their own officials, who were supervised by Castilian governors. The Mudéjars were initially allowed to keep their customs, property, laws, and religion until 1502 when they were forced to either convert to Christianity or be expelled.

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Where did the Catholic Monarchs obtain funding from?

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Answer

Cruzadas

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Why was Granada significant in terms of warfare?


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Answer

The conquest of Granada was particularly significant as it marked a new period of Christian warfare. This period was far more destructive and aggressive than that of the medieval Reconquista and marked the beginning of the brutal suppression of non-Catholic religion on the peninsula.

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Roughly how many Moors emigrated during the conquest and why did that have an economic impact?


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Around 200,000 emigrated, meaning the Iberian Peninsula lost a large number of its workforce.

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What moved to Granada in 1526, and what were its effects?


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The Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478, moved to Granada in 1526 and tortured or imprisoned many Muslims suspected of heresy.

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From which sources did Ferdinand supply his army?


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Soldiers raised by the crown

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How did the Conquest of Granada consolidate Isabella and Ferdinand’s image as strong Catholic monarchs?


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Answer

It took on the status of a crusade, hence they were seen as the protectors of Catholicism and celebrated for this by many Christians. They were also credited with unifying Spain under Catholic rule.

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Question

What effect did the Conquest of Granada have on overseas exploration?


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The conquest of Granada freed up the Catholic Monarchs to invest resources and energy into overseas exploration. When Christopher Columbus, an inexperienced but determined seafarer, came to Spain to ask for support, the crown agreed (after rejection in 1486) to sponsor his expedition in 1492, no longer having to concentrate their funds and energy on Granada. This decision would result in the expansion of the Spanish Empire into the Americas throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

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Question

What does the term heresy mean?

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Answer

A belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine (in relation to the Spanish Inquisition, that doctrine was Catholicism).

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Name two movements that the Medieval Inquisition targeted.

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Answer

Catharism and the Waldensians.

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What did convivencia refer to?

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Convivencia (co-existence) referred to the Christians, Muslims and Jews living on the Iberian Peninsula.

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What was the Pogrom of 1391?

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Answer

The Pogrom of 1391 refers to antisemitic mobs that flooded Spain's streets and committed violence against Jews.

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What did Pope Sixtus IV do in 1478?

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Answer

He issued a papal bull that allowed Ferdinand and Isabella to choose inquisitors to investigate heresy.

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Which areas were placed under the power of the inquisition in 1483? (Choose three)

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Answer

Castile

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How did creating the inquisition help Isabella assert her power?

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Answer

The Spanish Inquisition not only controlled religion across Spain but also allowed the Catholic Monarchs to assert their dominance over formerly independently-run regions. 

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What were people given to confess their heresies?

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Answer

A 30 to a 40-day edict of grace that offered those who confessed a reduced punishment.

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What were the autos-da-fé?

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The term, Portuguese for expressions of faith, was the name of the ceremonies to try those accused of heresy.

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Why was Tomás de Torquemada renowned?

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Answer

Due to his reign of terror, reportedly having burnt 2000 people at the stake.

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What did the Alhambra Decree order?

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Answer

The Alhambra Decree ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain.

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Whose appointment changes the inquisition's focus to moriscos?

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Answer

Francisco, Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros 

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How did the inquisition prevent internal wars in Spain?

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Answer

The Spanish Inquisition removed Protestantism quickly, meaning that Spain did not face the same religious wars as other countries such as France.

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How did the Spanish Inquisition influence the Eighty Years' War?

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King Philip II's use of the inquisition to quell Protestantism in the Netherlands caused dissent and anger about Spain's interference in internal affairs. Revolts over the harsh treatment of Protestants there led to a resistance movement, which evolved into the Eighty Years' War, fighting for Dutch independence.

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Which islands did Spain begin colonising in 1402?

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Answer

The Canary Islands

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What was the name of the seafarer that came to ask for support from the Spanish crown in 1492?

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Answer

Christopher Columbus

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Question

What was the Treaty of Tordesillas?

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Answer

The Treaty of Tordesillas divided some territories between Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese received everything outside Europe east of a line of demarcation in the Atlantic Ocean. This line cut through Brazil, meaning Portugal received east Brazil, the Cape Verde Islands, Africa, and Asia. Spain received anything west of this line (giving them control over the western part of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean islands.)

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Which explorer landed on the coast of Mexico in 1519?

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Answer

Hernán Cortés

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What disease killed large numbers of indigenous Mexicans?

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Answer

Smallpox

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Which explorer arrived in Peru in 1526?

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Answer

Francisco Pizarro

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Question

Which of these were other Spanish settlements?

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Answer

New Granada

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Question

Why did Spain and Portugal have to sign the Treaty of Zaragoza?

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Answer

Spain began exploring in the Far East in the early 1500s, hoping to gain control of the Moluccas. Portugal argued that this violated the Treaty of Tordesillas, and the two signed a new treaty establishing a new boundary.

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Question

What happened in 1492 to free up Spain's resources and energy for exploration?

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Answer

The Conquest of Granada. Spain had been engaged in internal battles against Christians and Muslims over territories. When Ferdinand and Isabella gained control of Granada, it freed them up to focus on exploration.

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Question

What did the conquistadors do to introduce Catholicism in the New World?

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Answer

The conquistadors promised the native people salvation and eternal life if they converted to Christianity and built churches in the middle of towns. 

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