Castilian Institutions

The King of Castile

In Castile the king was absolute. What this basically means is that law-making power and more importantly the power to levy taxes lay with the king. Even the absoluteness of his catholic majesty did however have its limits. Reading the chapters about the Cortes and Spanish taxes the conclusion should be that the king of Castile was absolute in the sense that he made the law and had the right to permanently levy heavy taxes that had once been granted to him. His fiscal authority was however not so great that he could levy taxes at will or raise the taxes that had been granted to him without consulting some of his subjects.

Even a sovereign who has law-making as well as executive and judicial powers does however have to make a clear distinction as to the capacity in which he acts. Otherwise his subjects would not know whether a royal decision is generally applicable or is only applicable to an individual (i.e. sets a rule, applies a rule, or decides on the application of a rule). For example: at a certain time a previous king wanted to stimulate the production of wool in order to have more export of clothes. In order to achieve this he made a law by which all lands that had once been used to herd sheep could only be used to herd sheep. When the next king's officials then enforce that landowner Johnson does not have to let sheepherders pass over his lands without telling the people the basis of their actions chaos follows. Do the officials mean that Johnson's land has never been used to herd sheep? (an executive decision that applies the law, the sheepherders can go to court to claim the contrary), do they mean that the judges and or the king have studied the case and decided that sheep have never grazed on those lands? (a judicial decision, the sheepherders can appeal), or do they mean that the king has abolished his father's law? (a law-making decision).

In a situation where hundreds of laws exist and some of those are very old it is of course impossible for any king to know all laws. Even an absolute king therefore needs expert assistance to know whether an action can be based on existing laws, require new laws, or simply cannot be taken. To give this assistance the King of Castile had the Council of Castile. Next to not being able to know all laws a king is however also not able to personally decide on every issue or read all government papers. This meant that the vast majority of the royal acts and decisions were taken by his delegates, and these were bound by the law. In theory these delegates were not only there to assist the king, but also represented the kingdom. The following description of the Castilean royal institutions is therefore also a description of the organisation of the executive.

The Executive: The Council of Castile

The Council of Castile was also named Royal Council or simply 'Our Council' when the king referred to it. It was the oldest and most important council of Castille. Apart from its president it counted 20 members taken from the Letrados* these were joined by an expert on taxes and some other officials. Its president (often referred to as the: 'President of Castile') was the second man in the kingdom and was also president of the council of orders and president of the Cortes when these were convened.

In its daily routine the Council of Castile worked in five chambers. The first chamber consisted of the president and 5 counsellors. Its prime task was the execution of decisions taken by the council in full session. Here one has to think about: the economic policy and administration; the supervision of religious policy; the administration of the court and the supervision of the universities. It was also the highest judicial instance of Castile, it supervised the correct application of the law by the government, and decided in conflicts about competencies in the government and state apparatus. The second chamber of the council of Castile checked some of the work of the first. The third chamber was about the noble rights on territories. The fourth chamber was the superior instance in criminal cases. The fifth chamber was about appeals on acts and decisions taken by the Sala de Alcades de casa y corte that ruled the court and its surroundings.

As mentioned above the Council of Castile also had a task in aiding the king in excercising his executive and law-making power. This was done in a weekly or biweekly session at friday where the king and all the council met and 'discussed' the most important topics. Practically this meant that after the full session the king and the president discussed and decided on the sensitive subjects in private. These full and private sessions were also the stage on which the king made laws after the Cortes were no longer convened. The king then no longer made laws in the Cortes, but only by himself, with the assistance of the Council. As regards the judicial and executive decisions the judgements of the Council were (or were not) approved by the council and called Autos Acordados.

The Executive: The Chamber of Castile

The name Chamber of Castile implies an institute like a chamber of representatives but was in fact derived from the fact that it met in the king's chamber. The chamber of Castile was an institute born from the Council of Castile, it was composed of the president and six councillers and concerned itself with all matters depending on royal grace. That means all decisions by which the king could ignore the law, but also all executive affairs that were not judicial. One here has to think of affairs like appointments, noble titles and naturalisations. In short this Council advised on the affairs that were most important for courtiers.

The Executive: The Council of Finance (of Castile)

Just like the Chamber of Castile the Council of Finance was derived from the Council of Castile. Because it was also concerned with Spanish Imperial finances, I here repeat the text mentioned under the Spanish Institutions: 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.

'People's' Institutions: The Cortes of Castile

The cortes of castile had been convened for the last time in 1664. One could therefore be tempted to think that a description of this Cortes would be superfluous, but it is not. Just like most European états the Cortes of Castille was originally composed of the three classes of the kingdom of Castille, meaning the nobility, the clergy and the third class (represented by the cities). In time the Cortes of Castile had however evolved to a body where only the cities of Castile were represented.

This representation of towns only must not be seen as a generous representation of the third class. In the majority of the cities of Castile town offices were divided equally between nobles and commoners, and in some of the greater cities the nobility had a monopoly on communal offices. One got into such an office either by inheritance or by appointment by a local seigneur. All this made that city government was dominated by the nobility. By the last meeting in 1664 the Cortes of Castile counted representatives from 15 cities (each also representing a district) and three regions (Galicia, Estremadura and Palencia).

Well before 1700 it had however been accepted that the king made the law on his own, and that a law (ordonnance) he made by himself was even superior to a contradicting law he had made earlier in joint session with the Cortes. The power to randomly levy new taxes was however not included in this law-making power. This limit on his power became clear when he negotiated the millones in 1590 after the disaster of the Armada. In a situation where fiscal pressure was already high the Cortes placed conditions on granting this additional tax. Furthermore the king had to renegotiate after each term. This ended after the last meeting in 1664 proved that the Cortes were unable or unwilling to bring in substantially more money. From then on the king went directly to the capitals of the 20 provinces in order to get these taxes granted to him in this last session. The king could thus levy taxes without the consent of the Cortes, but the price for this was that the amount of 1664 became the fixed height of the Millones.

*Letrados: Men who had achieved a judicial grade at a university