Largely forgotten and overshadowed by later worldwide Empires such as Britain, Spain was in fact arguably the first great European Empire. It had prominent forces in North America, South America, the Pacific and even the Far East. Only beaten by the Portuguese to colonial practices the Spanish consolidated Portuguese explorations and claimed much of the land which had not been planted by their own forces. They rank 5th in the largest Empires of all time – at it’s largest extent [Wikipedia Statistics] and at one point embraced just over one eighth of the worlds population. Why then do we lack substantial historical writings on such a powerful and expansive Empire?
This could possibly be due to the ultimate decrepitude of the Empire itself; forged under the ‘Catholic Kings’ Ferdinand and Isabella at the end of the 15th Century, Spain was a real global superpower in the 16th Century under the Habsburg rulers Charles V and Felipe II (Philip when anglicized) however entered steep decline under a series of inept Philip’s. After this there was some revival under Bourbon rule, however the Spanish Empire would never again hold the prestige of superpower status. Surely these dramatic turns of events would lead to serious consideration by modern historians. But no, only British historian Henry Kamen offers writings on Spain to the modern audience. Upon reading of the feats of Pizarro and Cortés i found myself dreaming of that long forgotten time when the land of opportunity formed a great lure for many a European; for God and for Country.
Still the question of why…Possibly the fact that the Empire can be claimed to have never had a peak, during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella it appears to be in the making and when Ferdinand eventually leaves the scene in 1516 we can already seen the strain upon Charles of Ghent to administrate the bloated beast of an Empire. Of course at this point the Habsburgs have succeeded to the throne of Spain and thus Charles is administrating all the lands of Spain, Austria, the Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire, a colossal task, which despite his unquestionable ability was ultimately impossible. It could be claimed that this neglect of Spain as an entity on it’s own was the reason it flattened out into static growth instead of hurdling further down the path that was followed by later European Empires. However, when Philip secured the throne after his father’s bequeathed the lands of Spain and the Netherlands to him he could focus his efforts on consolidating the borders of the Empire and possibly further them. But, like his father before him he struggled to grapple with the immense task of running such a large country with inefficient bureaucracy and riddles with communication problems. For it’s time Spain was indeed slightly behind most European nations in bureaucratic development and communication, but not that far. Surely with some tinkering the bulk of these problems could be overcome by a determined ruler?
Philip was such a ruler, although he encountered little success. Sadly Spain was destined to forever be the Forgotten Giant, an Empire that never really was…