Spanish Imperial Institutions

Spain as a Composite Empire

The most important thing to know about Spain in 1700 is that there was no Spain. At the time the Spanish empire consisted of a rather large collection of crowns, kingdoms, principalities, duchies, counties etc. etc. The most important of these were the crown of Castile and the crown of Aragon brought in one hand by the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. The crown of Castile consisted of: the kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Galicia, Toledo, Murcia, Grenada and Navarre; the Principality of Asturia; the seigneries de Molina de Aragon and de Biscaya; and the Basque provinces of Guipuzcoa and Alava. The crown of Castile also ruled over the Americas and Oran and Melilla. The crown of Aragon consisted of: the kingdoms of Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca and Sardegna; and, most important, the principality of Catalonia.

Outside of the Iberian peninsula his Catholic Majesty ruled over: The Spanish Netherlands, that had once consisted of 17 territories, but by 1700 only comprised a territory roughly equal to that of present day Belgium; The Italian part of the Spanish empire consisting of the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, the duchy of Lombardy, the marquisate of Finale and the fiefdom of Piombino. For the purposes of administration one can say that all these territories were completely separate entities. There was e.g. a real border between Castile and Aragon, and in an administrative sense inhabitants of one entity were foreigners in the other.

Institutions of central government

The role of the sovereign

The role his catholic majesty played as an institute depended on the constitution of the territory governed. In e.g. Aragon the only thing relevant about his person was his dignity as king of Aragon, his other dignities did not matter for what he could do there. On the constitutional level the only bond between all these territories was the person of its king, duke, count etc. It is therefore not surprising that in official communications the ruler of the Spanish empire was mostly called His Catholic Majesty, and never King of Spain.

On the level of politics his catholic majesty was however also an institute as sovereign of the Spanish empire. This was especially true for those people depending upon him in that capacity. People in the military were part of a Spanish army. People working in the government apparatus in Madrid were to a large extent working in an imperial burocracy. In international politics foreign powers also perceived and recognized his government as one entity. Unlike the case of William III's personal union foreign countries only sent an ambassador to one capital: Madrid. Because of the decentralized construction of the empire the sovereign can be said to be only the executive power on the level of the empire.

The central Councils in Madrid

The aspects of the king's rule that were considered from an imperial point of view demanded some imperial institutions. These matters were those of international policy, warfare and imperial finance, but also affairs like royal marriages and the nomination of vice-roys. For these subjects there were councils in Madrid that worked on subjects concerning the whole empire. These were the Council of State (Conseil d'Etat), The Despacho Universal (Council of Dispatches), the Council of War (these two can be considered as true institutions of central government.), the Council of Finance of Castile and the Council of the Inquisition.

The Council of State

The Council of State (Conseil d'Etat) was the highest ranking council of the Spanish empire. The king was president of the council, but that did not mean he attended at each meeting. Member of the council of state were those that were invited to attend. These were (often experienced) men chosen from the higher aristocracy and the military and the confessor of the king was normally also a member. Matters treated by the Council of State were: international relations, treaties of peace, alliances, war, royal marriages, important appointments and the correspondence with the ambassadors.

The Despacho Universal

From the time of Felipe IV onwards this council handled daily affairs. When someone succeeded in dominating this council and thus have overbearing influence in deciding on daily affairs he would be called 'favorite' or prime minister. During the succession war we therefore see a struggle to gain entrance to the Despacho with the French ambassador, Des Ursins and Mary Louise all wanting to enter.

The Council of War

The council of war was composed of the same members as the council of state with the addition of military experts, and at some times secretaries specifically responsible for the army and navy. In this council the king also presided. Its tasks were the administration of the army and navy and in general seeing to the execution of everything related to warfare. The council was also a supreme judge in crimes committed by military personnel.

The Council of Finance of Castile

The Council of Finance of Castile had originally been only responsible for the finances of the crown of Castile. From the time of Charles V onwards it had however also managed the loans of the empire that were secured on the income of Castile. As regards credit this led to the integration of Spanish imperial and Castilian finances, but of course this council also kept its Castilian responsibilities. The most important officials of the Council of Finance were the Head treasurer and the secretary of the council. The council was checked by a chamber of accounting. In 1687 Charles II had placed a general 'surintendance' of royal revenues above this council.

The Council of the Inquisition

The council of the Inquisition was a council that treated crimes against religion in the whole of the empire. The Inquisitor General headed this council. His powers rested on the authority of the pope, but he himself was appointed by the king. The other members were part of the Spanish clergy, two were from the Council of Castile. The tasks of the council were the defense of the Catholic faith against heresy. This task they achieved by burning heretics and or their writings, but e.g. also by forbidding the possession of certain books.

Institutions of regional government located in Madrid

Regional centralization of his power

On a regional level the catholic majesties had however centralized the use of their power. In e.g. the Netherlands they had been able to make some laws that were applicable for all provinces. They had combined this with a centralization of executive and judicial powers. This meant that one council decided on certain affairs for all the territories in the Netherlands. For judicial matters it meant that there was one institute (Grote Raad van Mechelen) where one could appeal sentences of local courts.

The regional councils in Madrid

After the king settled in Madrid he had founded the Council of Flanders there to assist him in exercising his powers in the partly centralized government of the Netherlands. In Madrid there were also comparable councils for other regional affairs like the Council of Italy, the Council of Castile (described in the chapter about Castile), the council of the Indies and the Council of Aragon. In my opinion these regional councils should not be considered as Spanish imperial institutions, but rather as relocated parts of local government.

All the Councils

Just to get a good overview of the councils centralized in Madrid here is the list: