The event which prepared Spain for her Golden Age was the arranged marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile which created a joint monarchy and which led to a single monarchy in 1516. But it was the Muslim presence in Spain for some 800 years which was a most potent influence in shaping 16th century Spain.
In the 8th century the expansionist Muslim empire based in Damascus began to conquer and settle lands with a Mediterranean coastline. As well as establishing a hold in North Africa, in 711 they began to occupy the Iberian peninsula and set up a Muslim state in Spain, known as Al Andalus and ruled from Damascus.
At the beginning of the 12th century the Reconquista – the reconquest of Spain by Christians - commenced. From the north of Spain, the reconquest gradually pushed southwards until in 1469 only the Muslim kingdom of Granada in southern Spain remained outside Christian control. For Europeans the influence of Islam was perceived both as a religious and political threat. This was the impetus behind launching the First Crusade.This fear of Islam, which constantly was at the back of European minds, remerged subsequently in 1453 with the Fall of Constantinople and in 1529 with the siege of Vienna.
Such a long occupation by Muslims has left its mark on Spain. Most obvious are the magnificent buildings such as the Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Mosque at Cordoba, entirely Muslim in their design and construction but thankfully not destroyed by the Christian conquerors . Spain is unique in Western Europe because of its Muslim heritage. This can be traced in language – words beginning with ‘al’ e.g. alcohol, algebra, albatross, alchemy – being Arabic in origin. The Flamenco is associated with Spain, yet the rhythms and dance steps come from the Middle East. Spain’s arid climate and poor soil made agriculture difficult but the Muslim construction of aqueducts provided a sophisticated irrigation system, particularly in Aragon.
Perhaps the most important influence was the introduction of Muslim knowledge into Western Europe. This encompassed mathematics and architecture, navigational skills, advanced medical knowledge, the use of paper and the establishment of libraries. This was consolidated in the 12th and 13th centuries by the ‘Toledo Translators’, a group of Christian scholars who translated from Arabic into Latin and Spanish, providing a sort of early Renaissance. It is a paradox that whilst the Muslim presence in Granada was viewed as an affront by Ferdinand and Isabella, in many ways it was this body of advanced knowledge which helped to propel Spain into its Golden Age.
By 1469 the Christians controlled almost all of Spain. There was the large kingdom of Castile and the smaller kingdom of Aragon (which had annexed the regions of Catalonia and Valencia). The Royal families of both kingdoms were related and were rival branches of the Trastamera family. In October 1469 an arranged marriage between Ferdinand and Isabella took place, largely brokered by John II, King of Aragon. Ferdinand was sixth in a line of political suitors considered for Isabella. The initial agreement provided for a dual sovereignty – highly unusual – which managed to maintain the traditional privileges of each kingdom. It was not a union of the two kingdoms. Isabella would have no power in Aragon, nor Ferdinand in Castile. Ferdinand would live in Castile and any children of the marriage were to be brought up there. He agreed to acknowledge the supremacy of his wife in Castile. In 1475 it was declared that both their images would appear on coinage. If Isabella was absent from Castile then Ferdinand would exercise full authority. Four years later it was announced that they would rule both kingdoms jointly.
It was not until 10 years after the marriage that Isabella became undisputed Queen of Castile. Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of Aragon whilst the succession to Castile was unclear.
Isabella was the half sister of Henry IV, king of Castile. Henry was widely believed to be impotent, known as ‘Il Impotente’ and although he had a daughter Joanna, it was rumoured that her father was a courtier, Beltra de la Cueva. This perceived illegitimacy weakened her claim. There were rival supporters of Joanna and Isabella’s claims. When Henry died in 1474, Isabella proclaimed herself Queen of Castile. A five-year civil war began until Isabella was victorious in 1479 and Joanna was consigned to a nunnery.
From 1479, Ferdinand and Isabella were able to secure their kingdoms. Loyalty of the nobility – the grandees - was ensured by confirming their titles to the lands, which they held. The traditional right of the grandees’ exemption from paying tax was confirmed. Crown appointments – corregidores – were placed in towns and cities in the more remote regions to represent royal authority. From this date Ferdinand and Isabella were able to stabilise Spain and lay the foundations of the Golden Age.