Spanish Empire

World empire from the 16th to the 19th century
Imperio español
Monarquía universal Española
official name
Imperio español (spanish)
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point in time
20,000,000 square kilometre
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Spanish Empire
dissolved, abolished or demolished
Gregorian calendar start date
October 15, 1582
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The Spanish Empire (Spanish: Imperio Español; Latin: Imperium Hispanicum), historically known as the Hispanic Monarchy (Spanish: Monarquía Hispánica) and as the Catholic Monarchy (Spanish: Monarquía Católica), was one of the largest empires in history. From the late 15th century to the early 19th, Spain controlled a huge overseas territory in the New World, the Asian archipelago of the Philippines, what they called "The Indies" (Spanish: Las Indias) and territories in Europe, Africa and Oceania. The Spanish Empire has been described as the first global empire in history, a description also given to the Portuguese Empire. It was one of the empires described as the most powerful of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish Empire became known as "the empire on which the sun never sets" and reached its maximum extension in the 18th century. Castile became the dominant kingdom in Iberia because of its jurisdiction over the overseas empire in the Americas and the Philippines. The structure of empire was established under the Spanish Habsburgs (1516–1700), and under the Spanish Bourbon monarchs the empire was brought under greater crown control and increased its revenues from the Indies. The crown's authority in The Indies was enlarged by the papal grant of powers of patronage, giving it power in the religious sphere. An important element in the formation of Spain's empire was the dynastic union between Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, known as the Catholic Monarchs, which initiated political, religious and social cohesion but not political unification. Iberian kingdoms retained their political identities, with particular administration and juridical configurations. Although the power of the Spanish sovereign as monarch varied from one territory to another, the monarch acted as such in a unitary manner over all the ruler's territories through a system of councils: the unity did not mean uniformity. In 1580, when Philip II of Spain succeeded to the throne of Portugal (as Philip I), he established the Council of Portugal, which oversaw Portugal and its empire and "preserv[ed] its own laws, institutions, and monetary system, and united only in sharing a common sovereign." The Iberian Union remained in place until in 1640, when Portugal reestablished the independence under the House of Braganza. Under Philip II (1556–98), Spain, rather than the Habsburg empire, was identified as the most powerful nation in the world, easily eclipsing France and England. Furthermore, despite attacks from Northern European states, Spain retained its position of dominance with apparent ease. Philip II ruled over the greatest maritime powers (Spain, Portugal, and the Low Countries), Sicily and Naples, Franche-Comté in France, the Rhineland in Germany, an uninterrupted tract of the Americas from the viceroyalty of New Spain bordering modern-day Canada all the way down to Patagonia, trading ports throughout India and South Asia, the Spanish East Indies, and select holdings in Guinea and North Africa. He also had a claim on England by marriage. The Spanish empire in the Americas was formed after conquering indigenous empires and claiming large stretches of land, beginning with Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean Islands. In the early 16th century, it conquered and incorporated the Aztec and Inca empires, retaining indigenous elites loyal to the Spanish crown and converts to Christianity as intermediaries between their communities and royal government. After a short period of delegation of authority by the crown in the Americas, the crown asserted control over those territories and established the Council of the Indies to oversee rule there. The crown then established viceroyalties in the two main areas of settlement, New Spain (Mexico) and Peru, both regions of dense indigenous populations and mineral wealth. The Spanish Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation — the first circumnavigation of the Earth — laid the foundation for the Pacific oceanic empire of Spain and began the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The structure of governance of its overseas empire was significantly reformed in the late 18th century by the Bourbon monarchs. The crown's trade monopoly was broken early in the seventeenth century, with the crown colluding with the merchant guild for fiscal reasons in circumventing the supposedly closed system. In the seventeenth century, the diversion of silver revenue to pay for European consumer goods and the rising costs of defense of its empire meant that "tangible benefits of America to Spain were a moment when the costs of empire were climbing sharply." The Bourbon monarchy attempted to expand the possibilities for trade within the empire, by allowing commerce between all ports in the empire, and took other measures to revive economic activity to the benefit of Spain. The Bourbons had inherited "an empire invaded by rivals, an economy shorn of manufactures, a crown deprived of revenue... [and tried to reverse the situation by] taxing colonists, tightening control, and fighting off foreigners. In the process, they gained a revenue and lost an empire." The Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian peninsula precipitated the Spanish American wars of independence (1808–1826), resulting in the loss of its most valuable colonies. In its former colonies in the Americas, Spanish is the dominant language and Catholicism the main religion, enduring cultural legacies of the Spanish Empire.
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