Catastrophic effects of the Union

The cause of the Count Duke of Olivares' fall from power in 1643 has generally been seen to originate from the catastrophic effects of the Union of Arms, seventeen years earlier. The argument proposed by J. H Elliot in the 1960s maintained that without the Union, there would have been insufficient opposition to the Duke to challenge his position. Unsurprisingly, revisionism has brought forth a separate angle from which to view the demise.

Historians such as Henry Kamen believe that other causative factors must be considered if one does not wish to oversimplify the events of the reign of Philip IV and his Valido. There is little doubt that the proposed scheme of unification was viewed with unmasked contempt, garnered little to no support outside Castile and instigated a period of domestic turmoil that culminated with the loss of Portugal. Elliot is correct in saying that "it was the most radical of all his reforming schemes"1.

Prior to its proposal in 1625, Elliot argues that Olivares held a secure position, respected and influential among the nobility and supported by the King's subjects for his wish "to preserve the Spanish empire intact"2 and maintain its reputacion. He does not deny that other extraneous factors were involved but the Union of Arms was "the one which finally was to be his undoing"3. It incited and gave a basis to those in positions of authority around him from which to manipulate Philip IV against his first minister.

In short, it is Elliot's belief that had the Union not been introduced, it is likely that Olivares would have retained his position. When he rose to power in 1622, a number of deeply unfavourable long-term trends were working against Spain. Financially, the war-hungry government of Philip II had created a need to anticipate resources for several years to come and, unlike Lerma; Olivares did not have the luxury of operating "on borrowed time"4.

He failed to see domestic affairs as anything more than a means to an end and "possessed a quixotic imperialism that belonged to the Golden Age of Charles V and Philip II"5 but only proved to complicate matters in the government of Philip IV. He was essentially trying unsuccessfully to balance "on one side the massed ranks of Spain's enemies moving into action, and on the other hand, a penniless King and a ramshackle Spanish monarchy"6 and despite all good intentions, was going about it unrealistically

The scheme, which originated from his Great Memorial in 1625 intended "to curb provincial autonomy"7, reduce tariff and political barriers, and produce some uniformity particularly in the Iberian Peninsula itself through involving set quotas of troops from each province and territory. Olivares was aware that the fragmentary nature of Spain was central to the domestic problems it faced and as a "natural activist" and passionate reformer, simply could not ignore it. European influence relied on domestic unity and Spain's reputacion on the European stage was his central objective. Olivares did not stand alone with his ambition for Spain's unity.

Castilian Arbitristras had long-lamented the fact that Castile shouldered the financial burden for the rest of the empire The Finance Minister wrote in 1618, "Everything is met out of the resources of Castile and out of what comes from the Indies and literally nothing is contributed by Aragon, Catalonia, Portugal and Navarre". Furthermore, the peripheral regions, themselves, harboured discontent that they were not receiving equal benefits and resources. Kamen contests; "set in its context [the union] represents not an attempt to Castilianise the peninsula but a visionary scheme to create brotherhood and co-operation"8

However, Castilian exploitation is exactly what the Union was viewed as and the result led to greater disintegration in contrast to the national integration it was intended to create. In the eyes of the Cortes, it could potentially damage delicate legal framework governing the regions. For example, Aragon "had extremely rigid laws regulating the recruitment of troops and their use beyond the frontiers"9. The Union would run counter to this law and upset regional balance. Furthermore, Philip IV's involvement in the scheme challenged the traditional passivity of the monarch with regards to other provinces.

Resentment towards the Union was especially marked in Catalonia and Aragon, areas that had long-standing grievances with the Castilian government. They believed that prior to the scheme; Philip had deliberately neglected their interests and now wished to divest them of their rights. Despite the fact that "reform was in the air"10 during Philip IV's reign, the plan challenged entrenched interests at both state and personal levels, especially the influence held by high-ranking figures. Above all, the vested interests of the nobility were to prove obstreperous to the Count-Duke's mission.

Measures introduced, beginning with the 1622 Junta de la Reformacion, were designed "to eliminate corruption, luxury, extravagance and immorality"11 at court. He imposed stricter control on the king's use of Crown revenue for special royal favours, royal expenditure and other sources of financial exploitation that had accrued in the large and "parasitic"12 court of Philip III. Unsurprisingly this won him enemies from within the oligarchic infrastructure of the Spanish nobility. The wealthy were "cut off from royal grants but actually made to contribute to taxation"13.

Olivares further exacerbated the animosity building against him by creating favourites, himself. The Dukes of Gaudia and Cordona were used as central constituents in the scheme and were rewarded with similar 'special favours' to those, which he had just prohibited. In and out of court, Olivares had "come to symbolise a tyrannical determination"14 which inevitably led to tension in his relationship with the King. The decision to execute the Union came in 1638 when France invaded Catalonia. The idea behind this was that the utility of this "firm and perpetual Union"15 would only become fully appreciated during a crisis.

Catalonia, however, seemingly reluctant to repel the enemy, signed a separate treaty with the King of France, in 1640 and handed him Philip's title of Count of Barcelona. It became obvious that the strategy was inherently flawed as it presumed that all areas of Spain were equally endangered from the same common threat. The other provinces did not see it as such and the dispatch of the army to Catalonia by Olivares and Philip led to huge losses. Catalonia was relieved, however, but at the cost of great devastation and financial consequences.

It is likely that if this new perceived policy of 'Castilianisation' had not been introduced, Catalonia would not have felt threatened enough to refuse to contribute military effort. As it was, extreme Catalan hostility saw one royal official being burnt alive in Santa Coloma de Farnes and there was aggregate disregard for Olivares' demands for military aid. After sacking Santa Coloma de Farnes in retaliation and ignoring the Catalan Audencia's condemnation of the Union as unconstitutional, Olivares had gained a steadfast reputation as a ruthless bully with solely Castilian interests.

The Union had expedited Spain's decline and fiscal ruin and Olivares bore the responsibility. His enemies, now encouraged by his failure, began plotting to remove him while relations between Castile and the rest of Spain became distant, reticent and caught up in revolt, prompting further fragmentation. Catalonia was not the single blow dealt to Castile in the wake of the Union. Elliot believes that the distrust in Olivares judgement was further exacerbated by revolts in Portugal in 1640. Philip's refusal to acknowledge, once again, their opinions over the Union of Arms had caused outraged nationalism.

Exhausted after Catalonia, Spain simply did not have the resources to recover Portugal. The loss was grave; Portugal had a valuable Navy that was essential to mobilisation of Spanish troops. Furthermore, Olivares refused to resign himself to the loss and drained Spain's financial resources further by spending around three million ducats annually trying to reclaim the territory. The outflow of resources hit Spain's economy hard and the outcome was so severe that Olivares retired just three years after the revolts began, due to failing loyalty; "by a bitter irony it was Olivares, the symbol of Spanish strength, who sparked off the revolts.

"16This supports Kamen in that "the revolt precipitated the fall of Olivares and contributed to the collapse of Spain's military hegemony. "17 Olivares attempted to make further reforms to domestic life but it only resulted in further disaster and disappointment. He suggested making a new silver coinage18 to solve Castile's inflation but debasement of the Vellon19 caused serious inflation and poverty became widespread. "In effect", states Elliot, "[Olivares] was advocating that Castile should export its inflation"20 and this was unsurprisingly met with further enmity.

Elliot also claims that this illustrates how the Union of Arms led to problems not just for higher authorities but also for almost every individual. Olivares' reputation penetrated through all levels of the populace and caused different sectors of society to gradually withdraw their support. Disobedience to the Valido, at this time, was neither unusual nor condemned. Elliot also argues that the Count of Castrillo was the person most interested in removing Olivares; "Castrillo assiduously cultivated the Queen, laying foundations of a power-base of his own…. by undermining any lingering support for Olivares"21.

The Union of Arms was the perfect opportunity for Castrillo to establish himself with little threat from Olivares and his deteriorating reputation. Olivares' judgements "revealed little awareness of the likely reactions to his project"22. So much so that the Imperial Ambassador warned the King that the Union of Arms had caused such discontentment that the monarchy would be ruined unless he modified his government. Elliot concludes with crediting the Queen as playing a prominent role in the Count Duke's demise. She was able to use unpopularity created by the Union to manipulate her husband into relieving him.

Since the fate of all ministers was dependent on the King's opinion of them, it was equally essential to have the support of the Queen, especially once she had grown in self-confidence and authority through experience of government. More recent research has, however, approached Elliot's belief that the Union is singularly to blame, with caution. Revisionists such as Kamen agree with Elliot's view but believe it to be overly simplistic. It was perhaps not the concept of the Union that caused such discontent, but the forceful way it was executed; it would have been wiser to "give the programme a solid support basis.

"23 Had the Union been properly explained and discussed, with more contributions from all the various provinces, it may have had a better chance of acceptance but "Olivares showed little finesse in trying to get the proposal accepted"24 Darby goes further, regarding his inability to compromise as a major defect and believing that "Olivares was a failure and he failed on a monumental scale. "25 Darby suggests that the underlying problem was that Olivares was not wise enough to foresee the problems ahead, most notably the greater emphasis it was to have on regionalism26.

Had Olivares been more prepared to compromise then the outcome might have been a success. One can deduce, therefore that Darby detects fundamental flaws in Olivares' character, rather than in the concept of the Union. It is foreign policy that Kamen and the revisionists believe to be largely responsible for Olivares' downfall. The seventeenth century began with Spain still nominally a great power. By 1643, however, any inkling of the once "redoubtable infantry of the Spanish army"27 had been snatched away at Rocroi, along with Olivares' much prized international reputacion.

Munck believes that in 1927, there was "a real possibility that Olivares might succeed in improving Spain's financial position and securing necessary reforms. "28 However, any such opportunity was lost when the decision was made to support an intervention in Mantua in 1928, described by Kamen as "Spain's Vietnam. It is not fair to argue however, as some have, that Olivares was the instigator of all foreign policy disaster, Spain was already committed through the expiration of the 12-year truce as Kamen asserts, "Spain, while not actively expansionist, was drawn into conflicts by the obvious need to protect its interests.

It would be unjust to consider its policies uniformly aggressive"29 Nonetheless, Spain had a lot to contend with on entering into foreign affairs; "by 1625, it appeared that there was a formidable anti-Hapsburg coalition in the making. "30 This had to be dealt with very prudently by Olivares, considering his lack of resources and fragile domestic situation. In 1625, Spain managed a "triple success"31 although it cost over fourteen million ducats, which was simply unaffordable in Spain's position.

In 1626, the Dutch declared 'peace with honour' with unconditional ceasefires when they captured Grol and Oldenzal. On both occasions Olivares was offered the opportunity to enter negotiations for peace, but he refused as he saw Spain's pride being challenged. This seemed unwise to many who understood that Spain could not support the burden of war, especially in financial terms. Lockyer believes this to be significant, as Olivares, "wanted to stimulate the economy and rationalise the financial structure of the state, but could not do so while the demands of war"32 were so fierce.

The Count-Duke could not abide the loss of Spain's once unrivalled reputacion whether or not this placed economic and domestic issues in jeopardy. After the triple success, Olivares planned a united Spanish-imperial action to establish a naval base on the German coastline to wrest from the Dutch their lucrative trade of timber and grain. This proactive approach was a costly mistake and "demonstrated [Olivares] capacity for broad vision in the grandiose scheme, but little grasp of what was really possible.

"33 This essentially, was the crux of Olivares' problem; he set his ambitions too high and did not deal with domestic issues that needed attending to. Good examples of this are, of course, the failure of the Mantuan succession in 1631. This is particularly significant for the downfall of Olivares as it signalled a shift in power towards Spinola. Spinola, immensely successful as a Spanish military leader convinced Philip and the Council of State to disobey Olivares' advice and argued forcefully against involvement in Mantua, in favour of peace with the Dutch.

This transition strongly implies that the King and his advisors had lost faith in Olivares and he no longer monopolised the King's attention. Olivares had made too many mistakes on the international front, which had only led to Spain's decline when in fact he had been offered many opportunities to negotiate and stabilise Spain's position. Up to this point Olivares had been careful to blame all of Spain's disasters on Spinola, to maintain the security of his status. After his death in 1630, however, the Count Duke no longer had a scapegoat.

"The declaration of war by France in 1635 caused widespread dismay amongst Spaniards"34 Olivares, however, continued to be heavily involved in international affairs and humiliating defeats came at the Downs and Rocroi in 1639 and 1643, respectively. The French showed that they were better trained and a more effective power against the poorly equipped, disorganised Spanish forces. After this last battle, Olivares was dismissed and Kamen and Darby argue that this was because, "disasters were blamed on Olivares, who found himself under increasing criticism.

"35 These criticisms were severe enough to enable is enemies to dispose of him. Kamen does strongly emphasise that Olivares could not have predicted the internal innovation that France underwent to emerge as a much stronger power. He also argues that timing was unfortunate for Olivares, as the problems resulted from long-standing structural flaws that could no longer be avoided. Olivares should therefore have paid greater attention to these problems. The economy could no longer support Olivares' pro-active foreign policy.

With a collapsing economy and wars being lost, people blamed Olivares, as Spain had been the most powerful country and they believed that Olivares was responsible for its decline. Olivares did not fully understand how the success of foreign policy was reliant on a strong economy. He was aware that the "tax system was both inequitable and grossly inefficient"36 and he should, therefore, have made it a priority to correct this imbalance and weakness. When Olivares was at the height of his power he was responsible for almost all administrative aspects,37 so everything that subsequently went wrong was laid at his door.

The irony is that Olivares was blamed for the mistakes, which were perceived as arising from all power being centralised, and which was his objective, when in fact the provinces and the nobility would not allow this to happen. Without a Spain domestically and economically strong, Olivares could not achieve his international plans. Whilst he may have seen the link between the two, he never brought about the former and therefore failed on the international front as well. It can be argued that the administrative and governmental problems of Spain are what made the Union of Arms unsuccessful.

Unfortunately, this was Olivares' responsibility so when the Union failed he was criticised and consequently in a vulnerable position. If the Union of Arms had not been implemented then maybe Elliot's idea is correct, as the criticism may not have caused so much commotion and his popularity would not have diminished. It is, however, just as plausible that Kamen and Darby's arguments are valid; had foreign policy and other factors been effectively dealt with, the Union would have had a greater chance of acceptance. This is why Kamen disputes that the Union of Arms bears sole responsibility for Olivares' fall.

It should be noted, in Elliot's defence and to Kamen's credit, that more recent research analyses Union in a far broader context. At the time when Elliot was writing, he had fewer available resources from which to make his deductions. Kamen and the revisionists look beyond and prior to the reign of Philip IV, at Spain's position on European and imperial fronts as well as its social, economic and financial circumstances. Clearly this offers the historian a far greater idea of the Union in a contextual sense and Kamen consequently argues that there was a crisis at the international as well as national level.

He believes the response helped to bring "regionalism to birth"38 and this is what contributed to Olivares' downfall and then escalated to the disintegration of his government. Elliot's research focuses more on the events that happened solely during Olivares' time in power, rather than within the larger context, which is why his argument is now viewed with less confidence; "people must be warned off by every possible means from considering the action of any one cause…. without taking account of the others whose effects are commingled with it.

"39 Kamen's research, which incorporates factors indirectly related to the Union of Arms and from a wider variety of causative factors and distils "so much of the experience of the past as is accessible to him, that part which he recognises as amenable to rational explanation and interpretation, and from it draws conclusions, which may serve as a guide to action"40 Elliot appears to have overlooked the less obvious aspects surrounding the Union of Arms and in doing so, placed undue importance on its role in the fall of the Count Duke of Olivares.


Atkinson, William C. A History of Spain and Portugal (1960) Darby, Graham. Spain in the Seventeenth Century (1994) Carr, E. H. What is History? (1961) Cowie, L. W. Seventeenth Century Europe (1970) Elliot, J. H. Richelieu and Olivares (1984)