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Ferdinand II of Aragon and the Creation of a Global Empire

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(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, Reference Specialist in the Hispanic Division.)

Ferdinand the Catholic. 1839. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452-1516), who with his wife, Queen Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504), contributed greatly to the unification of Spain. During their reign (1474-1504) their two kingdoms, Aragon and Castile, were united (although, strictly speaking, each remained supreme in their own region and did not interfere in the other). The Re-conquest ended with the defeat of the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, the kingdom of Granada, in 1492; and the imposition of religious uniformity through the expulsion of Jews, many of whom had lived in Spain for centuries. By supporting Christopher Columbus, the Catholic Kings, as they are known in Spanish history, contributed to the creation of the Spanish empire in America and a global empire in the person of their grandson Charles (1500-1558). He inherited both their crowns, and became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 and emperor of the Hapsburg Netherlands in 1506 through his paternal grandfather, Maximilian I. Charles reigned as Charles I of Spain and as Charles V of Germany.

Columbus greeted by Ferdinand and Isabella
Retour de Christophe Colomb / lith. de Turgis. Paris : Vve. Turgis, éditeur, [between 1850 and 1900]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Ferdinand may have been overshadowed by Isabella, but many policies implemented during their reign were as much Ferdinand’s as they were hers. He preferred working behind the scenes to get what he wanted, which was probably  wise, considering the complicated politics of the period, including dynastic rivalries, competing territorial and commercial interests, both in Spain and in the rest of Europe, such as the Spanish  competition with France over territories in Italy. There is an apocryphal story in which the French ambassador told Ferdinand that his king was very upset because he had lied to him twice, to which Ferdinand supposedly told the ambassador that he was wrong, that he had already lied to his king six times!! It is said that that one day, Philip II (the son of Charles, and great-grandson of Ferdinand), while staring at a portrait of Ferdinand said, “We owe everything to him!”

[Charles V, King of Spain and Emperor of Germany, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right] / Jacques Reich. c1902.
[Charles V, King of Spain and Emperor of Germany, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right] / Jacques Reich. c1902.
Many aspects of Ferdinand’s life, however, are the stuff of legend. An idealized picture of Ferdinand may have arisen due to a lack of contemporary sources, and  overly flattering portrayals of him by writers such as Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658) in his “El político don Fernando el Católico” (The Politician, don Ferdinand, the Catholic)(1640). In this and other studies, writers praised Ferdinand as a consummate politician and an excellent administrator, in short, as a model to follow. According to Gracián, for example, Ferdinand was blessed with all the attributes needed to be a great king and a great statesman (p. 65). He is described as having “accomplished more than forty kings put together” (p. 80) and being “courageous, magnanimous, political, prudent, wise, loved, righteous, happy, and a universal hero” (p.102).

Niccolò Machiavelli. [1851?]
Niccolò Machiavelli. [1851?]
Outside of Spain, it was Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), a great admirer of Ferdinand, who made the Catholic king such a well- known historical figure. In his famous work “The Prince” (1532), Machiavelli showered Ferdinand with praise for his accomplishments and personality traits: “Nothing wins a ruler respect like great military victories and a display of remarkable personal qualities. One example in our own times is Ferdinand of Aragon, the present King of Spain … and when you look at his achievements you find they are all remarkable and some of them extraordinary…” (p.117). “[A man] who was able to consolidate power at the nobles’ expense without them ever noticing it…” (p.117); always keeping his people “in a state of suspense and admiration…” (p. 118); so that they were never sure of his real intentions. Some even say that Ferdinand may have been the model for “The Prince.”

Fernando V, el Catolico. ca. 15--? Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Fernando V, el Catolico. ca. 15–? Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

In Spanish history, Ferdinand and Isabella are considered the founders of modern Spain under whose reign the seeds were planted for the world’s first global empire. Their period has been greatly romanticized. For example, when General Francisco Franco became head of state after the Spanish Civil War, this idealization took new heights as he wanted to return Spain to the so-called glory days experienced under their reign. He even adopted their coat of arms with the imperial eagle as his regime’s own.

The highly acclaimed TV miniseries “Isabel” (2012-2014), produced by the Spanish National Television Network, chronicles the life of Isabella and Ferdinand and has renewed interest in the period.

For more information on Ferdinand, search the Library of Congress catalog using the subject heading Ferdinand V, King of Spain, 1452-1516 to find books like the following:

Suárez, Luis. “Fernando El Católico.” Barcelona: Editorial Ariel, 2004.

Vicens Vives, Jaimes. “Historia crítica de la vida y reinado de Fernando II de Aragón.” Zaragoza: Instituto “Fernando el Católico”, Cortes de Aragón, 2006. (Edited by Miquel A. Marín Gelabert.)

Comments (2)

  1. I had not known he was so long-lived: “(1452-1616)” in the first paragraph here and also in an e-mail announcement derived from that. A remarkable achievement!

  2. Excellent analysis of an important figure in world history.

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