John of Austria’s Revolts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the leader of two armed insurrections, John of Austria was successful in forcing out Spain’s queen regent and her advisers and gaining the office of first minister, but during his two years as Spain’s first minister he was unable to enact most of the reforms he had promised or to reverse Spain’s decline.

Summary of Event

As the son of the actress Maria Calderon, Calderon, Maria who was King Philip IV’s Philip IV (king of Spain);mistress of favorite mistress, John of Austria (Don Juan José) was given privileges that were not accorded to any of his father’s other illegitimate children. Not only was he given a substantial income and a princely education, but in 1642, before going off to battle, Philip even issued a proclamation declaring John his son, thus making him the only one of the king’s illegitimate children ever to be officially acknowledged. [kw]John of Austria’s Revolts (Feb., 1669-Jan., 1677) [kw]Revolts, John of Austria’s (Feb., 1669-Jan., 1677) [kw]Austria’s Revolts, John of (Feb., 1669-Jan., 1677) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb., 1669-Jan., 1677: John of Austria’s Revolts[2360] Government and politics;Feb., 1669-Jan., 1677: John of Austria’s Revolts[2360] Diplomacy and international relations;Feb., 1669-Jan., 1677: John of Austria’s Revolts[2360] Spain;Feb., 1669-Jan., 1677: John of Austria’s Revolts[2360] John of Austria

At age eighteen, John began to establish his reputation as a courageous military leader, though not always an effective one, and also as a peacemaker, as evidenced by his popularity in Catalonia after he had put down a decade-long uprising. Even after being defeated by the Portuguese in 1663, he remained Spain’s outstanding general and obviously a far more capable leader than the heir to the throne would ever be, for Philip’s only surviving legitimate son, Charles Charles II (king of Spain) , who was the product of the king’s marriage to his niece Mariana de Austria Mariana de Austria , was both physically and mentally disabled.

With his father aging and Charles so feeble, John saw his opportunity. His ambition was to be named infante, or prince, and be made first minister. However, Queen Mariana had been working hard to turn Philip against John. When he arrived to see his dying father, Philip had him sent away. Moreover, the king did not include him in the council he set up to advise Mariana, who would be regent until Charles reached his majority. With Philip’s death in 1665, there began a bitter struggle between the many grandees who supported John and Mariana’s favorites. Among these was Johann Eberhard Nithard, Nithard, Johann Eberhard an Austrian Jesuit, who came to court with Mariana at her marriage to serve as her confessor. When Mariana made Nithard the Inquisitor General and thus an ex officio member of the council, the prince’s party decided to take action.

They began with a plot to seize Nithard. However, this scheme was discovered in October, 1668, and only a timely warning from a friend on the council saved John from being arrested. He fled to Aragon and Catalonia, where he began planning a coup with his aristocratic friends. Meanwhile, he circulated rumors among the common people about reforms he would make if he were in power. In February, 1669, John marched toward Madrid with some four hundred supporters on horses. Before Queen Mariana, he proclaimed that he would not disband his forces until she dismissed and exiled Nithard. Reluctantly, she complied, but John’s supporters were not organized enough to obtain for John the post of first minister. He had to settle for an appointment as vicar general of Aragon and return to Zaragoza.

Mariana replaced Nithard with Fernando de Valenzuela, Valenzuela, Fernando de an uneducated adventurer of obscure birth who had married one of the queen’s maids of honor and was rumored to have become the queen’s lover. The fact that he was nicknamed “the palace ghost” because of his access to the queen demonstrated that, though he held no official position, Valenzuela was the most powerful person at court.

There were many at court who secretly sympathized with John, however, among them Charles’s tutor. Although Charles was intellectually limited, he did have the Habsburg pride, and as he grew older, it was easy to develop in him a sense of his rights as a monarch. When he turned age fourteen in November, 1675, thus attaining his majority, Charles was persuaded to assert his independence by summoning John to court. However, Charles could not withstand his strong-willed mother for long. John was sent back to Zaragoza, and after being banished for a few months, Valenzuela was recalled to court in April, 1676, made a marquis, and appointed first minister.

Almost without exception, the aristocrats were finally united, not only in opposition to Mariana and Valenzuela but also in their support of John. On December 15, 1676, twenty-four of the most prominent grandees in Spain issued a manifesto, demanding that Charles send away the Queen Mother, imprison Valenzuela, and install John as his primary adviser. Galvanized into action, Charles managed to slip out of the Alcázar, and from the safety of his retreat at Buenretiro he issued a command for the banishment of Valenzuela, sent an order for his mother to remove herself to Toledo, and wrote to his half brother, asking for his help. John needed no urging. On New Year’s Day, 1677, he set forth from Zaragoza for Madrid, gathering forces on the way. By the time he reached Madrid, his army numbered fifteen thousand. There was no resistance. Valenzuela was found hiding at El Escorial and was arrested, stripped by the king of his property and titles, and sent to the Philippines to work in the mines. He never returned to Spain, but died in Mexico in 1692. Mariana was banished to Toledo, though she would return to court two years later. John became first minister and the virtual ruler of Spain.

John soon set about to implement the reforms he had promised. He demanded reports from his regional administrators, which eventually resulted in reducing taxation; he created an effective committee to deal with trade; and he enacted monetary reforms, thus halting inflation. He also strengthened ties with France by arranging a marriage between the king and Marie-Louise d’Orléans, French king Louis XIV’s niece, which brought Charles great happiness. Because of his physical disabilities, though, there would be no children. Unfortunately, John remained in power just two-and-a-half years. He died on September 17, 1679.


The reigns of the last two Habsburgs Habsburgs are generally described as a period when Spanish power and prestige reached its nadir, and certainly there was no period in history when the government in Madrid was weaker, more corrupt, and less effective. However, John’s career had broader implications for the future than many have realized. He was the first leader to unite in a common cause traditionally antagonistic groups such as the Aragonians and the Castilians, the aristocracy and the populace, and even the various factions among the grandees themselves; thus he has been called the first popular leader in Spanish history. Interestingly, John was also the first to succeed in staging a coup.

Moreover, it is significant that his rise to power was based not merely on general opposition to an unpopular regime but also on the promise of sweeping reforms. It is true that because of famine and disease in Spain and military disasters abroad, in addition to the palace intrigues fomented by the queen, many of these reforms could not be effected during his brief tenure. However, by rejecting the limitations imposed by his birth and successfully rebelling against those in power, John moved his people toward a more open-minded attitude toward intellectual and social change. Thus, his revolt can be seen as a turning-point in Spanish history, the beginning of a period of reform and renewal.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowen, Marjorie. Sundry Great Gentlemen: Some Essays in Historical Biography. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968. Bowen provides a detailed and insightful study of Charles II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamen, Henry. Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Kamen argues that Spain rose to power not by conquest but through its collaboration with other countries. Includes maps, illustrations, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamen, Henry. Spain, 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict. London: Longman, 1983. A good history of Spain that includes an excellent discussion of the revolt and its aftermath. Glossary, appendices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Livermore, H. V. A History of Spain. New York: Minerva Press, 1968. The chapter “The Later Habsburgs” is a good starting point for a study of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lynch, John. The Hispanic World in Crisis and Change, 1598-1700. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. Lynch argues that John was not a reformer but a dictator motivated by his ambition, whose death enabled Spain to return to a real government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stradling, R. A. Philip IV and the Government of Spain, 1621-1665. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. First published in 1928, this work remains the definitive study of Philip’s reign.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles II (of Spain); John of Austria; Louis XIV; Philip IV. John of Austria

Categories: History