Reign of Philip IV

Determined to revive a declining monarchy’s fortunes, Philip IV and his chief minister guided Spain into almost fifty years of uninterrupted war. This ill-advised bellicosity exhausted Spain’s resources and accelerated its decline as a European Great Power. Philip’s patronage nonetheless nurtured the Spanish Golden Age in poetry, drama, and painting.

Summary of Event

On March 31, 1621, sixteen-year-old Philip IV became ruler of a “mixed” monarchy, which included the Iberian crowns of Aragon, Castile, and Portugal, each jealous of its constitutional liberties (fueros): the duchy of Milan and kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in Italy, the Low Countries, or Flanders (an area approximating modern Belgium), and an American empire stretching from California to Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Few contemporaries doubted that Philip had ascended the throne of the world’s greatest economic and military power. [kw]Reign of Philip IV (Mar. 31, 1621-Sept. 17, 1665)
[kw]Philip IV, Reign of (Mar. 31, 1621-Sept. 17, 1665)
Government and politics;Mar. 31, 1621-Sept. 17, 1665: Reign of Philip IV[0880]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 31, 1621-Sept. 17, 1665: Reign of Philip IV[0880]
Art;Mar. 31, 1621-Sept. 17, 1665: Reign of Philip IV[0880]
Cultural and intellectual history;Mar. 31, 1621-Sept. 17, 1665: Reign of Philip IV[0880]
Spain;Mar. 31, 1621-Sept. 17, 1665: Reign of Philip IV[0880]
Philip IV (king of Spain)

A conflux of negative socioeconomic and demographic trends nonetheless led royal ministers, self-styled arbitristas (reformers), and foreign observers to describe Spain as a monarchy in decline. Spain’s seventeenth century crisis had numerous causes, but prominent among them were its inequitable tax structure and the Crown’s chronic, insatiable need for cash. Huge sums were required to administer and defend a far-flung empire, to maintain the court in suitable splendor, and to satisfy the constant demands of a nobility that viewed royal mercedes (mercies) as its just reward for a largely passive loyalty. Castilian resources (supplemented by booming imports of American silver) had sustained Spanish arms and expansion during the sixteenth century.

By the 1620’, harvest failures and famines, epidemics of bubonic plague, and, above all, onerous taxation of an already overstressed peasantry had combined to crush Castile’s underdeveloped, primarily agricultural economy and depopulate its countryside. Silver from Mexican and, especially, Peruvian mines still provided vital infusions of ready cash, but these windfalls became progressively smaller and more erratic as the century progressed. Bullion from the treasure fleets returning from New Spain (Mexico) and Tierra Firme (South America) never provided more than 10 percent—and usually far less—of Philip’s needs in any given year. Despite the vastness of its territories, the Crown had few alternative sources of income. There was wealth, but too much of it was sheltered in and beyond Castile by noble and ecclesiastic immunities. The corporate fueros of Philip’s dissimilar subject territories all but ensured that non-Castilian receipts remained in the hands of the landed nobilities and urban oligarchies of the provinces.

Neither Philip nor his chief minister and mentor, Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimental, the count-duke of Olivares, Olivares, count-duke of understood Spain’s crisis in such straightforward, secular terms. An intensely Roman Catholic court that was also incongruously sensual regarded Spain’s earlier greatness as a divine reward for the monarchy’s militant, missionary advancement of the true faith. The withdrawal of providential favor was attributed to Spain’s loss of crusading zeal, especially during the ostentatiously corrupt and politically passive reign of Philip’s indolent father, Philip III Philip III (king of Spain) (r. 1598-1621). Philip and Olivares accordingly planned to restore the monarchy’s power and prestige (reputación) by resuming the struggle against the traditional—albeit not exclusively Protestant—European enemies of the Habsburgs and by resurrecting the military virtues of Spain’s luxuriating and self-interested nobility. The Calvinist, rebellious United Provinces (now the Netherlands) would be subjugated by military, naval, and economic pressure, while the predominance of the Austrian Habsburgs and Catholicism in Germany would be assured by decisive intervention in what became known as the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

A statue in Madrid of Spanish king Philip IV.

(George L. Shuman)

Unstinting artistic patronage and a new palace (the spacious Buen Retiro, constructed during the 1630’) propagandized Habsburg greatness and enabled Philip to live (for a time) in unparalleled splendor. Philip’s reign became associated with a golden age in Spanish poetry, drama, and painting. Golden Age, Spanish The king contributed significantly to this artistic efflorescence through lavish but discriminating patronage. The aging poet Lope de Vega Carpio Vega Carpio, Lope de (1562-1635) was succeeded as Spain’s premier writer by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Calderón de la Barca, Pedro a popular court playwright who penned more than one hundred “cloak-and-dagger” dramas and autos sacramentales (one-act religious plays). Theater;Spain Arriving at court in 1623, the portrait painter Diego Velázquez Velázquez, Diego became the foremost representative of an impressive array of commission-seeking luminaries. Painting;Spain

Olivares and his enthusiastic pupil benefited politically from a widespread aristocratic and popular clamor for restoration of the monarchy’s fortunes, as well as from reforms initiated near the end of Philip III’s reign by Olivares’s uncle and sponsor, Baltasar de Zúñiga Zúñiga, Baltasar de (d. 1622). The first years of the new reign witnessed a dizzying succession of military and naval triumphs, crowned by three widely trumpeted victories in 1625: the recapture of the Portuguese sugar colony of Bahia from the Dutch; the defeat of an English expedition against Cádiz; and a successful but staggeringly expensive siege of the Dutch fortress of Breda Breda, Siege of (1625) .

Philip and Olivares were obsessed with foreign affairs, but they failed to carry through the leveling fiscal reforms needed to sustain Spain’s military efforts. Equitable redistribution of the tax burden would have necessitated the curtailment of noble, clerical, and regional immunities, a policy understandably anathema to nonproductive elites already mortgaged beyond their means. The Crown instead invoked politically and economically damaging expedients with increased frequency. There were issues of debased copper coinage (vellón), sequestrations of private (merchants’) shares of registered American bullion, alienation of royal jurisdictions, and the creation and (sometimes forced) sale of public offices. There also were extortions of compulsory “gifts” (donativos) and sales of prorated “pardons” (indultos) to merchants who engaged in (and submitted financial estimates of) smuggling. The military strain on the monarchy’s resources was insupportable, leading the Crown to declare a first bankruptcy in 1627. Economy;Spain Fiscal crisis was compounded by the catastrophic capture of the entire American treasure fleet by the Dutch in the Cuban bay of Matanzas (1628) and an ill-conceived conflict with France over the succession to the Italian duchy of Mantua Mantua, War of (1627-1631) (1627-1631). By the early 1630’, Spain’s military prestige was again in tatters, its finances rapidly descending into permanent chaos.

Olivares obtained only limited cooperation from the separate cortes, or estates, of Aragon and Valencia (and none from the cortes of Catalonia) in imposing his project for a Union of Arms, wherein Philip’s various provinces would separately enlist, outfit, and pay troops in proportion to their estimated populations and wealth. During the 1630’—especially following the outbreak of full-scale war with France in 1635—Olivares therefore began to order select (often disliked) grandees to raise regiments at their own expense. This attempt to mobilize the resources of Spain’s greatest nobles reaped a few positive results, but it also engendered a veritable flight of alienated títulos (titled nobles from Madrid), which was a development deeply troubling to a monarch as conscious of the need for courtly “luster” as Philip IV.

Revolts in Catalonia and Portugal sealed Olivares’s political fate. Longstanding tensions between Crown and Catalans Catalans, Revolt of the (1640) exploded in a peasant jacquerie during the winter of 1640, initially directed against ill-disciplined Spanish troops billeted upon the Catalans since 1635; the municipal council of Barcelona quickly appealed to France for protection (from the mob and from expected Spanish reprisals). Late that year the small but cohesive Portuguese Portugal;independence from Spain aristocracy, disenchanted by declining prospects for advancement, took advantage of mass discontent to launch its own coup, enthroning the compliant duke of Bragança as King John IV John IV (king of Portugal) (r. 1640-1656). When it was discovered that there was a conspiracy by Andalusian grandees to secede and establish an independent kingdom, Philip could no longer deny the gathering threat to his own position. Olivares was dismissed to his estates with honor, where the spurned favorite (valido) soon went mad and died.

By now mature, thoughtful, and self-willed, Philip was doomed to spend the remainder of his life fighting to recover his patrimony. Philip invariably justified his wars as defensive (he only lamented the War of Mantua), but what was undoubtedly an aggressive attempt to restore Spanish preponderance in Europe became instead a grinding struggle for the monarchy’s survival following the disasters of the early 1640’. Buttressed by regular missives from the renowned mystic and Carmelite abbess Sor María de Ágreda, Ágreda, María de the king vowed to exercise personal sovereignty and never again place unlimited trust in a valido. Philip showed noticeable dedication, at least initially, but the reams of paperwork generated by Europe’s largest bureaucracy soon compelled him to entrust Olivares’s self-effacing nephew, Luis de Haro, Haro, Luis de with almost all the count-duke’s former duties.

Philip managed to reconcile his Castilian grandees, and he briefly benefited from public sympathy following the deaths of Queen Isabella (Elizabeth) of France (1603-1644) and the infante (heir) Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646). His hold on power remained precarious, though, thanks to Spain’s uncertain military fortunes and a spate of desperate popular rebellions from Naples to Andalusia.

The already depressed Indies trade all but collapsed in the 1640’; royal bankruptcies followed in 1647, 1653, and 1662. Determined in principle to fight on until he secured favorable terms, Philip nonetheless recognized that Spain’s parlous finances no longer permitted him to confront several hostile powers at once. He grudgingly conceded Dutch independence by the Treaty of Münster (1648) Münster, Treaty of (1648) so that he could focus Spain’s dwindling resources on the struggle with France. Concentration of effort bore fruit; Catalonia was recovered after a plague-assisted siege of Barcelona Barcelona, Siege of (1652) in 1652. Hoping to press his seeming advantage, Philip rejected peace overtures from the temporarily weakened French. The reward for Philip’s obstinacy was disaster. In 1655, a war weary Spain was attacked by Puritan England. Defeated on land and at sea, with his communications to the Americas severed and his treasure fleets shattered by roving English squadrons, Philip was forced to accept the humbling Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) Pyrenees, Treaty of the (1659) to escape from a now unwinnable conflict with France.

The incorrigibly bellicose Philip thereupon shifted his gaze to Portugal, determined not to treat with “rebels” or their English ally (from 1661). Yet Philip was able to muster only small armies of Italian and German mercenaries, while all classes (especially in Castile) groaned under the king’s unceasing demands for revenue. As his armies and health failed, Philip fell into a devastating depression. The king died in Madrid on September 17, 1665, bequeathing an empty treasury and enfeebled realm to Mariana de Austria Mariana de Austria , his second queen and the regent for their son, the sickly King Charles II Charles II (king of Spain) (r. 1665-1700). Mariana de Austria finally ended a half century of uninterrupted warfare by negotiating peace with England and recognizing Portuguese independence (1668).


Spain did not enjoy a single day of peace during the long reign of Philip IV. Committed to restoring the monarchy’s reputación, Philip and his officials sapped the dwindling resources of their vast but underdeveloped realms in a doomed effort to secure Spain’s strategic position against the growing threats posed by powerful and aggressive enemies (England, France, and the Netherlands). Unwilling to recognize that his reach exceeded Spain’s grasp, Philip exacerbated and prolonged economic, social, and demographic crises through the rapacious confiscations, conscriptions, and fiscal extortions needed to sustain his unending campaigns. He thereby ensured that a frail child, his son Charles II, would inherit a diminished and utterly exhausted kingdom, shorn of its former status as Europe’s greatest power.

Philip demonstrated artistic and intellectual sensitivity, but the material benefits of the Spanish Golden Age were enjoyed primarily by a parasitical nobility; the masses lived in a state of abject, malnourished want that astounded foreign contemporaries. Philip viewed Spain as the patrimony and instrument of his Habsburg Dynasty, dimly understanding and never addressing his downtrodden subjects’ needs. Although recent historiography has portrayed Olivares as a frustrated apostle of centralizing absolutism (and thus a modernizer), the count-duke fully shared (in fact, he shaped) his king’s dynastic views and sought means to wage war with an imperious single-mindedness that nearly destroyed the monarchy. Draining the domestic foundations of their power to pursue unrealistic dreams of imperial glory, Philip and his ministers profoundly misunderstood the roots of, and thereby hastened, Spain’s seventeenth century decline. Queen Mariana would be the one who ended decades of warfare.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Jonathan, and J. H. Elliott. A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV. Rev. and expanded ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A comprehensive history of the artistic and cultural showcase of the Spanish Golden Age.
  • Darby, Graham. Spain in the Seventeenth Century. London: Longman, 1994. Reviews the economic, political, and military conditions of the reign of Philip IV in relation to his Habsburg predecessors and successor.
  • Elliott, John Huxtable. The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A masterful account of the political strategies and personal flaws of the failed administration of the most important minister of Philip IV’s reign.
  • Kamen, Henry. The Golden Age of Spain. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. An updated version of a broad introduction to Spanish history, namely its golden age, in the seventeenth century.
  • Lobell, Steven E. The Challenge of Hegemony: Grand Strategy, Trade, and Domestic Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Lobell analyzes Philip’s reign and other topics to demonstrate how changing strategic environments influence the policies of declining world powers.
  • Stradling, R. A. Philip IV and the Government of Spain, 1621-1665. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A positive treatise on Philip’s reign, which emphasizes the king’s independence after Olivares’s dismissal.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Anne of Austria; Pedro Calderón de la Barca; Charles II (of Spain); Frederick Henry; John IV; John of Austria; Louis XIV; Marie-Thérèse; Count-Duke of Olivares; Philip III; Philip IV; Lope de Vega Carpio; Diego Velázquez. Philip IV (king of Spain)