The Hapsburg-Trastamara system, which his grandparents built to contain the might of France, brought into Charles V’s hands vast reaches of Europe and the Spanish lands beyond the sea. The system’s structural weaknesses impressed the emperor’s councilors as deeply as they do modern historians, but Charles struggled for 40 years against the truth: the union of his native Netherlands with Spain could not be defended against France.
M. J. Rodríguez-Salgado examines the Hapsburg-Trastamara system during the 1550s along three broad lines: the partition of the system between Charles’s son and his brother, which proved “more complex and acrimonious than had been suspected” (p. 2); the brutal strains which Charles’s last war and Philip’s first placed on imperial finance; and the failure of the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 to settle the outstanding imperial questions in a Spanish sense. King Philip’s decision to return to debt-wracked Spain in 1559 proclaimed his correct judgment that Charles’s fateful combination of the Hispano-Italian realms with the Netherlands “had created an indefensible empire” (p. 40).
Charles emerges from Rodríguez-Salgado’s hands as “immensely arrogant and grasping,” “stubborn, unwilling to yield to advice that did not accord with his own preconceptions and desires,” and plagued by “indecision, acute depression and long periods of self-imposed isolation” (p. 3). Philip, by contrast, appears as “a man of exquisite tact and graciousness,” who, though “extremely ambitious, aggressive, and driven by inexorable willpower to achieve his goals,” was also “conscientious, hard-working, of average intelligence and wide-ranging interests” (pp. 8-9).
The book’s most convincing and most valuable part is its reconstruction of Spanish finances. The absence of German and Dutch titles from the bibliography helps explain why the author’s larger story resurveys much of the ground marked out by Heinrich Lutz (1964) and Horst Rabe (1971). The book thus does not attain the fully international level of scholarship that the subject requires. It nonetheless tells ably and convincingly where much of the money went and helps us to understand why the mines of Peru and New Spain did not make Spain a rich country.