Home » How far did the policies of Olivares represent realistic solutions to the problems of Spain

How far did the policies of Olivares represent realistic solutions to the problems of Spain

‘The view is rapidly gaining currency that not only did Olivares’ policies for Spain and its empire not differ markedly from those of earlier Spanish statesmen, but that by and large the results of his manifold endeavours were both few and modest. ’ This understanding of the historiography of Olivares’ effectiveness from Israel, makes Olivares look unoriginal and ineffectual.

However other historians, such as Elliott have been far more sympathetic. the first and the last ruler of Hapsburg Spain who had the breadth of vision o devise plans on a grand scale for the future of a world-wide monarchy: a statesman whose capacity for conceiving great designs was matched only by his consistent incapacity for carrying them through to a successful conclusion. ’ Were Olivares’ policies a realistic way out of Spain’s difficulties or did they aggravate the situation? To understand this I am going to look at both Olivares’ foreign policy and domestic policy. Within foreign policy I propose to see how far Olivares pushed the reputacin of the state before domestic crises forced him to seek peace.

Among others the best areas to examine would be Olivares’ policies during the Thirty Years War from 1622; the Mantuan War 1628-31 and the great revolts of Catalonia and Portugal in 1640. As for domestic policy I will need to look at Olivares’ initial reforms of 1623, why they fell through and the effect this had. Furthermore it is important to look at the areas where domestic policy coincides with foreign policy (in a efensive sense) in the Great Memorial, including the Union of Arms. I will also have to find out if Olivares’ policies were consistent, or whether they became more and more drastic during his term of office.

Firstly though, to understand if the policies were realistic or not, I will have to look into the real problems of Spain. Where exactly did these problems lie and what areas required alteration to keep Spain afloat? From this point I will go on to see the policies in action and from this I will gather whether or not they were realistic. On an international scale, Spain between 1580 and 1620 was at the crest of her wealth and power. Her supremacy was the dread of all other nations, and therefore its destruction was the cherished object of statesmen for a century. Her galleons ruled the seas and her rmies were feared.

Yet due to the internally bad reputation that industry and commerce had, Spain’s economy was faltering. In comparison with her European neighbours, Spain was industrially, agriculturally and commercially stagnant and wallowing in her old-fashioned militarism. With a vast and newly acquired empire, Spain was rapidly propelled to the front of the world stage, but the costs of maintaining this empire proved crippling. She manufactured very little that her neighbours required, apart from treasure. Yet with the mass influx of gold and silver from the colonies, treasure prices collapsed nd in the long term led to rampant inflation.

Yearly Spain had to acquire more and more wealth to maintain equilibrium and so yearly she spiralled closer and closer to bankruptcy. When silver mines had nothing more to yield or treasure fleets were lost at sea, Spain was forced to borrow on a tremendous scale with foreign bankers. Taxes were raised on an already overtaxed private sector. In some years, all the merchants’ profits were seized in order to pay off debts, which either ruined the merchants or forced them to leave the country. Therefore Olivares came to his ministry at a time when there was an xpress need for reform.

During this time, ideas for reform were mostly forwarded by the arbitristas; literally proposers of reform. However the bulk of their proposals criticised what was directly in front of them. To find the real source of Spain’s problems a more global perspective is required. It was not the corrupt pensions and favours sapping Castile of its life and blood; it was military expenditure. The protection of such large and scattered territories was the heart of Castile’s difficulties. From the above one can identify four areas in which reform was desperately required.

These areas were: internal corruption; finance; trade and the burden of the empire and military expenditure upon Castile. Inevitably, under the influence of the arbitristas, Olivares saw the desperate need for change in order to preserve Spain as a world power. Reform was generally seen as a means to this end, but if reform threatened to upset the balance of power within Spain it would probably be dropped. It was very easy for Olivares to come up with grand-scale plans for reform, but he found it impossible to implement them. Furthermore attempting to implement reformacin, while still trying to win reputacin hrough war, was impracticable.

There were definite limits as to how far one could reform an early modern government, steeped in imperfection that had become a habitual part of life. Many historians have illustrated that Olivares’ inability to see this limit, due greatly to his energy and impatience, was the key reason for his failure both as a reformer and a maintainer of Spain’s reputacion. ‘…he tried to take shortcuts to objectives which required a more elaborate approach. His vision of a greater Spain was too ambitious for the period of recession in which he lived. ’ (Olivares was) very inclined to novelties, without taking into account where they may lead him.

Olivares’ first attempt at reform is a chief example of his over-ambitious nature, as well as his grandiose plans. The Junta Grande de Reformacion had given various recommendations; a Junta re-established by Olivares and his uncle, Zuniga, in August 1622. Its main aim was to eradicate corruption. Some of the recommendations, embodied in a letter of October 1622, were: the abolition of municipal offices; a national banking scheme, to be funded by 5% of all wealth; abolition of the milliones and alcabala taxes, o be replaced by the institution of a single consolidated tax.

Lynch believes that Olivares may have used Juntas to side-step the councils. However Olivares called the Cortes to seek approval, when the proposals for reform became Twenty-three Articles for Reformation in February 1623. It was evident by their actions that the proposals hurt too many vested interests, for example the abolition of offices was naturally opposed since the members of the Cortes were all officeholders. Furthermore closing all the brothels and preventing emigration was simply impractical. These areas of reform show that Olivares was ell aware of many domestic problems which needed addressing.

However domestic reform was not Olivares’ first priority. ‘His prime concern was the preservation of Spain as a world power, and this he conceived as a problem not of internal resources but of foreign and military policy. ’ Hence when the need for money became absolute, Olivares simply retreated on many proposals. A good example of this was the reversion to the Milliones in 1624; the end of Olivares’ attempts to put the crown finances into a sounder state. Olivares returned to the idea of reform again in the Great Memorial, given on Christmas ay 1624. Many of his previous ideas were resurrected with a vital new angle; that of unity.

Olivares saw the monarchy as too varied within Spain, and that the other kingdoms were not pulling their weight. In the Great Memorial, Olivares advised the king to… ‘…reduce these kingdoms…to the style and laws of Castile, with no differentiation in the form of frontiers, customs posts, the power to convoke the Cortes of Castile, Aragon and Portugal… if Your Majesty achieves this, you will be the most powerful prince in the world. ’ Taken out of context this may seem like an attempt to get rid of the privileges (jueors) eld by the non-Castilian kingdoms.

However it seems Olivares’ intentions in this case were to have a mutual and integrated partnership with benefits for all the kingdoms. ‘I am not nacional, that is something for children’. However action went in the opposite direction of intention; for example there was no effort to break the Castilian monopoly of offices, or to open up trade with the New World. His first step for unity was in the Union of Arms; a form of collective defence where a large army of 140 000 men would be supplied through a quota system from the constituent parts of the monarchy.

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