Historians of the reign of the Catholic Kings have long accepted the thesis that Ferdinand and Isabella made a remarkably successful effort to reduce the political importance and economic power of Castile’s great aristocracy. According to this thesis, the creation of a national militia (the Santa Hermandad) reduced the overall importance of the feudal levies upon which the nobility based its military power, while exclusion of the great magnates from voting rights on the reconstituted Council of Castile after 1480 meant that the “traditional offices of some of the proudest families of Castile were transformed into empty dignities.” Meanwhile, military commands and diplomatic and administrative offices were allegedly conferred upon “new men”—members of the lesser nobility and clergy.1 The aristocracy (such at least is the traditional view) also saw itself deprived of revenues through crown resumption of more than one-half of all mercedes of juros (liens on crown revenue purchased and held either for the life of the holder or in perpetuity) issued between 1464 and 1474.2

The thesis of a rapid decline of the aristocracy’s political significance needs to be reexamined very carefully. To be sure, Ferdinand and Isabella continued the policies of their predecessors John II and Henry IV and employed many letrados and lesser nobles in administrative positions. But they continued to turn to the great magnates in order to fill key positions that required incumbents of great social prestige or administrative experience. When heavy responsibilities during the Granada war sometimes made it impossible for her to attend to internal administration, Isabella turned to Admiral Alonso Enríquez for assistance and assigned the government of all of northern and central Castile to a council under his direction.3 The Catholic Sovereigns also used members of the great nobility as diplomats especially for important missions, such as the 1486 negotiations in Rome that were handled by the Count of Tendilla.4 In the last analysis, Ferdinand and Isabella had to take account—as did their successors in dealing with the rising Creole aristocracy of the Indies—of the massive entrenched power of the Spanish aristocracy, a class, moreover, to which the Catholic Kings were themselves linked by strong ties, and to which they were deeply indebted.

The notion of aristocratic political decline during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella has recently been subjected to criticism by Marvin Lunenfeld. In his detailed study of the Hermandad, Lunenfeld argues that as long as the magnates respected royal authority Isabella was willing to support them, and that even after the acceptance of the Santa Hermandad throughout Castile “little was lost by the aristocracy.”5

This article seeks to enrich the discussion of the role played by the great nobility during the reign of the Catholic Sovereigns by considering one neglected aspect of the traditional thesis—the issue of mercedes reduction, frequently cited as a major proof of the loss of economic power by the aristocracy.6 I will suggest that the financial reform decided on at the Cortes of Toledo was part of a much more comprehensive financial reform that was already underway and that it was intended both to help merced holders by guaranteeing their best and most valid holdings and to increase royal revenues.7 Indeed, the major thrust of the treasury reform was not aimed at merced holders but at solving a major problem that faced the Castilian treasury at the beginning of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella—the central treasury’s loss of control over payments made by tax-farmers from the accounts that they collected. These officials, taking advantage of the lax auditing procedures and general confusion characteristic of the central financial administration during the reign of Henry IV, were ignoring the instructions given them when they assumed responsibility for collection of an account. They falsified their records and claimed that they paid the mercedes listed in their instructions when, in fact, they were simply taking the money for themselves; in other cases they refused to pay merced holders unless they received part of the merced.

Henry’s prodigality in issuing new mercedes, especially after 1463, created additional confusion. So many new grants were issued that the obligations attached to revenue accounts were not properly recorded at the treasury. As a consequence some revenues were burdened with so many liens that all could not be paid, while the treasury had no idea of the actual disposable income that it could expect to receive from the account. By the mid 1470s the situation had become so critical that merced holders were fighting among themselves in order to establish their claim to payment, while tax-farmers and high treasury officials were defrauding both merced holders and the Crown on a vast scale.

Demands for a reform of treasury procedures relating to the payment of mercedes had been voiced many times in the Cortes. In return for more efficient treasury procedures that would guarantee payment on their best and most valid holdings merced owners were more than willing to surrender their rights over a part of what they possessed (probably the part on which they had been unable to realize anything). Complaints by merced holders gave the Crown a chance to institute a broad treasury reform of which, as I noted above, the recovery of mercedes was only a part. The reform program clearly aimed at reasserting central control over tax-farmers by instituting strict auditing procedures and rationalizing the operations of treasury departments.

The political effect of such a program, if successful, must have differed considerably from that proclaimed by traditional historians, for the great magnates, some of whom depended heavily on revenue from mercedes, must certainly have welcomed any treasury reform that guaranteed payment of some of their claims even if it involved the sacrifice of their rights to part of them. Therefore, the mercedes reform program of 1480, I suggest, should not be regarded as a continuation of the anti-aristocratic policies that characterized the War of Succession period (1475-1479); instead it should be viewed as marking the beginning of a policy that aimed at converting the great Castilian magnates into loyal servitors of the Crown.

In point of fact, the financial reform proved largely ineffective. The hopes of the merced holders who came forward to declare their holdings, and of the royal officials who sought to bring order out of the chaos of the royal treasury and impose effective controls on tax-farmers, were frustrated in part as a result of politically motivated violations of the guidelines for suppression of mercedes and by collusion between holders of suppressed mercedes and high treasury officials. However, in the long run the reform failed because it conflicted with the interests of tax-farmers and the small group of officials who controlled the royal treasury. The former frequently ignored the new regulations and continued to deal with merced holders in the same way as before, while the latter soon let the new auditing procedures that they themselves were supposed to enforce fall into disuse. The two sets of officials were closely linked and both stood to benefit from ineffective accounting, treasury disorganization and the nonpayment of mercedes to merced holders.

Any attempt to understand more fully the treasury reform program must begin with a description of the Castilian treasury as it developed during the last half of the fifteenth century. At the apex of the system was the mayordomo mayor, an official whose origins go back to the mid-thirteenth century. Originally he was responsible for overseeing collection of all royal revenues and for auditing the accounts of those in charge of collection. By the end of the thirteenth century the office had become a largely honorary though highly lucrative sinecure, since the mayordomo mayor collected a fee for every letter of payment issued by the treasury as well as a percentage of the taxes that were collected.8

The contadores mayores were the officials who took over the active management of the treasury from the mayordomo mayor. By the early fourteenth century these officials were heading highly specialized departments divided into sections. The Contaduría Mayor de Hacienda had charge of recording all royal obligations: mercedes, salaries, and subsistence payments to royal pensioners as well as the sums owed to the Crown from taxes and other sources. After properly recording this information, the department issued the official documents that authorized the payment of royal debts and the collection of royal revenue (recudimiento). Notification of the issuance of documents authorizing payment and collection was then sent to a second specialized department, the Contaduría Mayor de Cuentas, whose responsibility it was to audit the accounts of all tax-farmers each year and then transmit the audited accounts to the Contaduría Mayor de Hacienda.9

Due to the fact that the staff of both of these departments travelled with the court, and because of the inevitable losses that would be sustained through high transportation costs and theft if royal taxes were transported to a central treasury, the actual system of payments was based on local tax-farmers. These were individuals who bid for the right to collect a tax in return for a percentage of the gross return, and they were then committed to pay the obligations that burdened the account, as well as meet the royal demands that were relayed to them through the Contaduría Mayor de Hacienda.

The efficiency of these operations depended heavily on a complete and accurate listing of all the payments burdening each account and the maintenance of tight central control over local tax-farmers by the Contaduría Mayor de Cuentas, which would ensure that authorized payments were made.

However, lack of a central archive had serious consequences for treasury operations. Since the contadores mayores de hacienda did not have all the relevant account books at hand when they came to draw up a tax-farmer’s authorization to collect, they could not be expected to be able to put down all the payments that he was expected to make. As a result, tax-farmers could claim to have made payments that were valid and listed in record books, even though they had not been written into his collection order. Since the central treasury did not have a complete set of records at its disposal it was virtually impossible to check these claims.10

Another grave consequence of inefficient record-keeping was the treasury’s inability to know exactly what mercedes burdened a revenue account and therefore what free income could be expected from it. This situation led to some accounts being heavily overburdened with fixed obligations, all of which could not be met at once.11

Furthermore, in an obvious attempt to limit the effects of his own prodigality, Henry IV issued two kinds of mercedes; some were issued but left unrecorded in the official books kept by the contadores mayores de hacienda, while others were granted and officially recorded. Although there is evidence that mercedes of the first type were never meant to be honored by the treasury, some persons were able to obtain payment by making an arrangement with tax-farmers.12 Obviously, the tax-farmer would have no way of knowing if a claim for a merced that was presented to him locally was recorded in central administration records, since he knew they were in a chaotic state. The merced might well have been fully recorded but listed in a record book not available to the contador who made up his collection order.

Problems created by inadequate record keeping were compounded by a breakdown in the auditing procedures followed by the Contaduría Mayor de Cuentas. Under John II, tax-farmers were obliged to render account to the contadores mayores of all payments that they had made during their collection period. This rendering of accounts usually took place at the end of the first year of their collection period or during the first third of the following year. Although the local tax-farmer usually worked under a two-year contract, he would have to obtain a special document that allowed him to collect for each individual year. This document would only be issued after his books had been audited and approved by the Contaduría Mayor de Cuentas.

Discontinuance of these auditing procedures was typical of the declining efficiency of royal government in all areas of public administration during the reign of Henry IV. Sometime after 1464 local tax-farmers were permitted to make their collections and payments freely without rendering any detailed account to their superiors in the treasury. Instead of having to vouch for every payment with a receipt, a general summary of their payments was considered sufficient to allow for the issuance of a document allowing them to continue their collections for another year.13

The consequence of having a weak central treasury was that local tax-farmers gradually gained complete control over payments in their area. As early as the Cortes of 1442, delegates (most of whom were drawn from merced-holding urban oligarchies), were complaining that many merced holders only realized a fraction of the face value of their grants.14 Similar complaints were voiced at the Cortes of Valladolid in 144715 and repeated at the Cortes of 1451,16 145317 and 1476.18

In a number of their petitions for redress the delegates indicated that the major cause of the merced-holders’ plight was the disorganization and inefficiency of the treasury. Local tax-farmers, taking advantage of the fact that treasury officials frequently overloaded a revenue account with so many fixed obligations that not all of them could be paid, were forcing merced holders to bribe them if they wished to realize anything on their holdings.19 In some cases tax-farmers were simply ignoring merced holders’ demands for payment and were taking the money for themselves.20 As a result, many merced holders found their holdings were valueless, while others were forced to accept whatever the tax-farmer wished to pay out without hope of successful appeal to the Contaduría Mayor de Cuentas.21

Confirmation of the complaints voiced in the Cortes can be found in the results of investigations that were carried out during the initial phase of the mercedes reform. These investigations were undertaken in order to determine if merced holders had obtained payment during the years 1477, 1478, and 1479.22 They demonstrated that in a great number of cases involving both large and small accounts the grant had either not been paid at all, been paid only in part, or paid in only one of the three years.

Beneficiaries whose merced had not been paid at all included Alfonso de Medina with 5,000 maravedís on the revenues of Ubeda,23 María de Mendoza with 40,000,24 Gómez de Rojas with 20,000 on Baeza,25 Michel de Moxica and Juan de Velasco with 5,000 and 4,000 respectively in the Merindad of Allende de Ebro.26 Some 32,000 maravedís in the 140,000 maravedí account of María Enríquez, the Duchess of Alba (of the family of the hereditary Admirals of Castile), was also left unpaid during those three years.27 Even the family of D. Pedro Fajardo, the immensely powerful governor of the Kingdom of Murcia, could not obtain payment on a 150,000 maravedí merced that encumbered the sales taxes of the city of Murcia and the neighboring town of Lorca.28

In other cases, merced holders were able to realize something on their holdings but only sporadically. Merced holders who only collected in one of the three years included García de Jaen, whose por vida merced (held for the life of the original purchaser only) was paid only in 1479,29 Juan Carus, who collected on his 5,400 maravedí grant only during 1478,30 and Betris de Valencia, who collected on her 33,500 maravedí merced only in 1479.31

The final stage in the deterioration of the financial machinery seems to have been reached just at the beginning of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. At their first Cortes, which was held in Madrigal in 1476, delegates complained that the contadores mayores de cuentas had entirely ceased to audit tax-farmers’ accounts and abandoned even the pretense of checking payments to merced holders.32 In desperation, some merced holders were either resorting to the seizure of property of persons residing in the places where the merced was to be paid or were attempting to collect out of the tax-farmers’ own property.33

In Seville, where the tax on olive oil (diesmo de aceite) was particularly overburdened with fixed obligations, merced holders, with the support of city officials, broke into royal storehouses to seize the oil collected there and even imprisoned tax-farmers and their assistants in order to force them to pay the mercedes attached to their accounts.34

In response to the demands for reform that were voiced by delegates at the Cortes of Madrigal, the Crown proceeded to issue a series of ordinances that regulated the functioning of treasury departments and were intended to restore tight central control over tax-farmers. Under the new procedures, a royal cédula (a type of chancellery document most frequently used to order contadores mayores to pay out mercedes and other payments)35 was issued by the monarchs themselves and went directly to the contadores mayores. This document specified the quantity and type of merced (perpetual or for life only), and the revenue from which it was to be collected.36 After it had been copied into the proper record book by the appropriate subsection of their department, the contadores mayores would issue a copy of the cédula for the merced holder and a payment order to the tax-farmer who was responsible for the account to which the merced was attached.37

To deal more effectively with the confirmation of privileges, the office of the Escribanía Mayor de los Privilegios y Confirmaciones was given full departmental status with its own officials, the concertadores and escribanos mayores.38 Upon presentation of a merced issued by one of Ferdinand and Isabella’s predecessors the concertadores would investigate its validity. If satisified, they would pass the original on to the escribanos, who would then copy it into the record books of the department. A copy of the confirmed merced would be sent to the Contaduría Mayor de Hacienda, where it would be placed in the records that were kept by a special subsection of that department the office of Las Confirmaciones de Privilegios.39

In order to put a stop to the massive nonpayment of mercedes that was the major cause of demands for treasury reform, new and strict procedures were laid down for the Escribanía Mayor de Rentas, which had charge of supervising the work of local tax-farmers. These new regulations, as set forth in the cuaderno of 1484 (this was a series of official books of administrative ordinances relating to treasury functions issued periodically), prescribed very strict time limits within which the local tax-farmer would have to pay the mercedes credited to his account.40

The Catholic Sovereigns then moved to restore the tight auditing procedures that were practiced during the reign of John II. The cuaderno of 1483 specified that before the contadores mayores issued the document that allowed the tax-farmer to collect during the second year of his term, they should list all the fixed payments that were scheduled from the account. A copy of this document would then be placed in the proper records (libros de las relaciones) kept by the contadores mayores, and a copy would be issued to the tax-farmer. When the tax-farmer completed collection of his account, the contadores mayores de cuentas audited the account and saw to it that he had paid out all the listed obligations and any other authorized payments and then he passed the audited account on to the contadores mayores de hacienda. The tax-farmer was held personally responsible for the payments that were credited to his account, and he could not obtain authorization to collect for the following year without receiving an official fin y quito (notification of his having fully satisfied all official requirements and that his account was officially closed) from hacienda.41

The next step in the reform was taken after the 1480 Cortes of Toledo. There, procuradores of the towns, as well as representatives of the clergy and aristocracy, demanded that the Crown take action to settle the mercedes issue.42 In response to their petition, the Crown stopped payment on all mercedes obtained since September 15, 1464 and then sent commissioners to all parts of Castile to take declarations from merced holders concerning the privileges they claimed to possess.43 These investigators were charged with finding out if the mercedes claimed by holders had been paid during the years 1477-1479.

The results of the investigations were turned over to Fernando de Talavera, prior of the monastery of Santa María del Prado (near Valladolid), Isabella’s confessor and confidant, who was charged with reviewing the validity of mercedes listed in the investigations and clearing the way for the confirmation by the issuance of new certification.44

The Crown had instructed Talavera to judge the validity of mercedes by a rigid set of criteria. Some were listed in the preface to the libro de las declaratorias (the official summary of the amounts “declared” by merced holders and the reductions ordered by Talavera), others were contained in various documents related to the reform program.

First of all, the Crown was unwilling to issue a new privilege to any merced holder whose grant had never been paid: “since it is our will that the persons that did not fully receive the sums stated in their mercedes should not be granted new privileges for the entire sum contained in their declaration but only for that amount that the said persons received during any one of the three said years.”45

Talavera was also supposed to eliminate or reduce in value, the mercedes granted without monetary compensation to the Crown by recipients (unless earned by the performance of exceptional services), those given for an insignificant service or a service that benefited the merced holder alone, those granted through the intercession of an influential third party, and mercedes purchased for excessively low prices.48

A later document entitled “carta de declaración e pragmática sanción sobre las declaratorias de Toledo del año de ochenta” gives us other criteria used to suppress or reduce mercedes. One ordinance found in this document provided that no por vida holdings should be made perpetual, nor should such grants be transferred to other persons, reverting instead to the Crown upon the death of the owner. Another ordinance stated that all grants not presented to investigators in 1480 and not brought in for consideration within one year after that date were to lapse without compensation.47

In line with the Crown’s general policy of seeking to exploit more fully its rights over mineral resources and raw materials, Talavera was instructed to suppress (with compensation) all grants credited to revenues from the exploitation of salt mines, iron mines and iron foundries.48 Mercedes attached to the servicio y montazgo (tolls collected on the passage of migratory sheep) were to be transferred to other sources of revenue.49

Using these guidelines and the results of the investigations Talavera and his associates ordered the suppression of some 32,171,878 maravedís in mercedes.50 At the conclusion of his work, the libro de las declaratorias was complete, since it now listed the names of merced holders, their “declaration” of the amount of merced that they held, and the reduction that had been ordered. The final step was to issue a royal cédula, which directed the contadores mayores to issue new privileges to approved merced holders listed in the libro.51

However, despite the impressive list of suppressed mercedes recorded in the libro de las declaratorias and the seemingly heavy reductions experienced by the fifteen great Castilian magnate families (reduced from 20,616,202 maravedís to 12,002,381), it is very difficult to assess the real effects of mercedes reduction on the fortunes of the nobility. Since the libro de las declaratorias infrequently specifies the reasons why a merced was suppressed or reduced, we have no way of knowing whether it had ever been actually collected. As I noted above, if the reform program ensured that the magnates could actually collect on their best and most valid grants, they could well afford to dispense with others of more doubtful validity—grants whose proceeds may have ended up in the hands of tax-farmers. Certainly, the great magnate families preserved (and even improved) their position as the largest single class of merced holders, their proportion of total holdings rising from 34.9 percent before the reform to 43.9 percent after.52

Moreover, in line with the more conciliatory attitude taken by the Crown toward the aristocracy shortly after the conclusion of hostilities with Portugal, important aristocratic families were later able to obtain new privileges for mercedes that were suppressed in the libro de las declaratorias.53 Later investigations by treasury officials revealed that some nobles even received new privileges for mercedes to which they never had any original legal claim (e.g. the Count of Benavente).54

In its willingness to accommodate politically powerful members of the aristocracy, the Crown was prepared to directly violate its own ordinances, calling for suppression of specific kinds of mercedes. Despite the fact that the Duchess of Infantado, Isabel Enríquez, fraudulently increased her dowry grant by some 100,000 maravedís in her first declaration, the Crown ordered a new privilege to be issued in her favor.55 Even though a merced of 132,000 maravedís held by the Marquis of Coria had never been paid, she, too, secured a new privilege for the full amount.56 Some important members of the urban oligarchies also received special treatment from the Crown. Juan (Japata, a Madrid city councillor, received a new privilege for the collection of various revenues in villages near Madrid, though official investigations demonstrated that his claim was false.57

Powerful nobles also proved difficult to eject from the possession of mercedes credited to royal assets situated in seignorial lands (or in places where such nobles enjoyed great influence). An anonymous memorial written in 1494 tells us that Diego de Rojas, who supposedly lost control of the revenues from the salt flats of Poza during the 1480 reform, was still collecting them as before,58 while the Count of Salvatierra continued collection of a merced situated on the revenue of Ampudia, which were supposed to have reverted to the Crown after the death of his father Gil López de Ayala some ten years earlier.59 The house of Velasco, which was already strongly entrenched in the merindad of Castilla La Vieja (near Burgos), not only continued to collect many of the district’s sales taxes, despite revocation of their rights to them in the libro de las declaratorias, but even managed illegally to extend their control over others in the same area.60

However, if the aristocracy’s political power made it impossible to fully collect on the mercedes revoked in the libro de las declaratorias, it was collusion between merced holders and treasury officials that really undermined the financial benefits that the Crown hoped to gain from the suppression of mercedes. The memorial written in 1504 by Juan de Porras, Treasurer of Vizcaya and indefatigable investigator of financial corruption, stated that vast sums owing the treasury were left uncollected because many mercedes revoked in the libro de las declaratorias had simply been illegally reissued by the treasury.61

Around the same time, an anonymous memorial was addressed to Ferdinand, complaining that the official record of a council decision establishing the Crown’s exclusive right to collect duties on the import and export of products from Andalusia (a decision that prejudiced the claims of many powerful nobles) had disappeared from the records and was not being enforced.62 Furthermore, another memorial entitled “advertencias de lo que se había de baser para conservación y acrecimiento de las rentas y derechos reales” alleges widespread collusion and confusion in treasury departments, specifically involving illegally reissued mercedes being listed in official account books and taking precedence over new mercedes for payment by tax-farmers.63

Another major reason for the treasury’s ultimate failure to control the payment of mercedes was that the reform left control of tax collection and payment of merced holders to tax-farmers, who thus continued to enjoy a great deal of autonomy and freedom of action on the local level. A treasury memorial written in 1501 complained that the tax-farmers who controlled the collection of the special silk taxes (diezmo de la seda) levied in the Kingdom of Granada were themselves conspiring with silk producers to evade royal taxes. According to royal regulations, silk was to be sold only at three special markets set up in the cities of Granada, Málaga, and Almeria.64 However, the tax-farmers who were supposed to enforce this system found that it was far more profitable for them to purchase silk directly from producers and then, by using their legal authority, transport it outside the Kingdom of Granada for sale. When reproached for their conduct, they simply claimed that since they had sole authority to enforce the provisions of the royal order regulating sales of silk they themselves were exempt from the obligation to observe them.65 Despite the treasury’s decision that tax-farmers had no special rights enabling them to ignore the laws relating to the sale of silk, it seems that they continued to do so since very similar complaints were voiced during the reign of Philip and Juana.66

The continued power of tax-farmers over local collection and payments, combined with defects in the reform machinery itself, tended to place merced holders at their mercy. The reform did not provide for the ordering by date of issue of mercedes situated on accounts so that tax-farmers could themselves determine which merced holders were to be paid first.67 Also, since the reform was confined to those mercedes issued since 1464, it was easy for tax-farmers to slight an “approved” merced holder in favor of one holding a previously issued grant.68 The Catholic Sovereigns themselves compounded the confusion by frequently issuing new mercedes that specifically provided for payment before older grants. As a result many “approved” merced holders complained that they were still not receiving payments, while many others found it necessary to bribe tax-farmers in order to collect the amounts that they were owed.69

Even powerful officials of the central administration found it more convenient to come to terms with local tax-farmers than to rely on Crown enforcement and auditing procedures. Dr. Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, a member of the royal council and an official of the Escribanía de Confirmaciones, had to pay the tax-farmers of the province of Salamanca some 350,000 maravedís and 10,000 bushels of grain before they would pay out the sums they owed him from their accounts.70

It is hardly surprising, therefore, in the light of the formidable local power of tax-farmers, that many merced holders never came forward to declare their mercedes for inclusion in the successive editions of the libro de las declaratorias, despite the Crown’s apparent willingness to waive earlier provisions for the confiscation of all undeclared mercedes.71 Juan de Porras, one of a group of investigators sent to look into undeclared mercedes in the province of Guipuzcoa in 1498, discovered numerous merced holders who had not come forward at the time of the reform but had collected a substantial portion of their grants by coming to terms with local tax-farmers.72 In addition to the mercedes reported by Juan de Porras, another document, entitled Relación de mercedes mal gozadas, mentions the payment of undeclared mercedes to Diego Martínez de Zamora and to the contador mayor Rodrigo de Ulloa.73 Those undeclared mercedes for which we have direct evidence account for only a tiny fraction of the 2,417,924 maravedís in por vida and 23,637,783 maravedís in juro de heredad issued between 1464 and 1474, and whose owners’ names are not included in the Libro de las Declaratorias; those owners obviously felt that it was far better for them to come to arrangements with local tax-farmers than trust to the Crown’s enforcement machinery.74

Moreover, the reform program did not attempt to deal with the critical need for an archive where financial records could be kept. Until the establishment of central archives for the Crown of Castile at Simancas in the 1540s, financial records and the books of ordinances that formed the body of administrative law relating to royal revenue were scattered all over Castile. The royal letter that named Antonio Catalán first archivist of Simancas (May 5, 1545) spoke of the inadequate precautions that had been taken to conserve financial records in the past noting “the little care and order that there has always been in guarding and conserving the said manuscripts.”75 In order to bring together a collection of documents dealing with the royal patrimony, Catalán had to go to the archive of the Audiencia (high court of appeals) in Valladolid and the Castle of La Mota in Medina del Campo; he even had to request documents from past and present officials of the treasury, members of the royal council and other officials.76 That the situation was no different during the time of Ferdinand and Isabella is attested by a memorial that was addressed to them sometime after 1487. The anonymous author calls for the compilation of a single book containing all current ordinances and laments the confusion that has resulted from storing records in such locations as the Alcazar of Segovia or the Castle of La Mota in Medina.77

Taking advantage of this chaotic situation, the high officials of the treasury were able to sabotage the reform effort at the level of the central administration. The writer of an important memorial addressed to Cardinal Cisneros bitterly assailed those high treasury officials who conspired to sabotage every effort to maintain “good order” at the treasury and who were presently working to undermine the Cardinal’s own reform efforts. The author went on to state that certain treasury officials had deliberately hidden the originals of royal ordinances relating to the collection of taxes so that many ordinances were not being copied into the books of ordinances presently in use by current contadores mayores and, therefore, were not enforced.78 Juan de Porras, in the memorial that he wrote requesting compensation for his services in ferreting out corruption, lists the “discovery” of supposedly nonexistent treasury books as one of his most important accomplishments.79

Even the new central auditing procedures whereby the contadores mayores de cuentas would take the accounts of tax-collectors, audit them, and then pass them on to the Contaduría Mayor de Hacienda was largely abandoned. An anonymous treasury official, writing long after the reform, declared that since 1482 no complete and proper audit following the procedures laid down in the reform had been carried out by the Contaduría Mayor de Cuentas and that most of the accounts closed since that date contained numerous frauds and errors. He went on to declare that a royal investigation should immediately be undertaken into accounts that showed a deficit, charging that these deficits were artificially produced by the contadores mayores and their officials, who had stolen more than 5 million maravedís.80 By the time of Cardinal Cisneros’s first regency (1507) the extent of the frauds perpetrated by high treasury officials through issuing false payments alone was estimated at one million ducats.81

As far as the collection of suppressed mercedes was concerned, a royal investigation of 27,906,814 maravedís owed by tax-farmers from suppressed mercedes revealed that of the 14,920,368 that remained after deducting payments scheduled from the account, nynguna cosa reached the treasury. The report went on to recommend that an investigation be held because it was believed that even then (long after 1480) “five or six millions could be recovered for the Crown.”82

Although the subject of the relations between Ferdinand and Isabella and their aristocracy requires much research, I believe I have demonstrated that the financial reform program that was initiated in 1476 was not intended to damage aristocratic economic interests. Ideally, the reform would have benefited both the merced-holding class (among whom the fifteen great magnate families were most important) and the Crown. Merced holders would have lost their rights to a portion of what they had obtained between 1464 and 1474 but would have been given an absolute guarantee of collecting the remainder. The Crown would have gained through increased revenues collected not from merced holders but from the tax-farmers who had enriched themselves by not paying mercedes, and who were going to be subjected to more stringent regulation and control.

The actual results of the reform varied substantially from the ideal. Powerful nobles were stubbornly reluctant to surrender their rights to mercedes even in return for guarantees on the remainder and were able to collect even on mercedes listed as revoked in the Libro de las Declaratorias. Moreover, since the reform left intact the real power of tax-farmers who continued to control local collections and payments there was every incentive for many merced holders to make deals with them in order to realize something on their holdings instead of running the risk of “declaring” them to royal authorities.

High treasury officials, who worked closely with the tax-farmers, also moved to sabotage the basis of the reform by quietly shelving the new auditing procedures that would have served to guarantee payment of approved mercedes. By the end of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, therefore, the reform had collapsed and the treasury reverted to a state of extreme disorganization and confusion, with frauds of unprecedented dimensions. The drastic failure of the reform program should not, however, be allowed to obscure its real objectives, which were to obtain the support of the merced-holding aristocracy by guaranteeing collection of the juros that constituted one of their most important investments.


J. H. Elliott, Imperial Spain (New York, 1966), p. 88.


A. Matilla-Tascón, Declaratorias de los reyes católicos sobre reducción de juros y otros mercedes (Madrid, 1952), p. 17.


Miguel Ángel Ladero Quesada, Castilla y la conquista del reino de Granada (Valladolid, 1967), p. 23.


Tarsicio de Azcona, Isabel la Católica (Madrid, 1964), p. 577.


Marvin Lunenfeld, The Council of the Santa Hermandad (Miami, 1970), p. 55.


Elliott, Spain, p. 87; Azcona, Isabel, p. 359.


Unpublished sources for this paper come from the Archivo General de Simancas (hereafter cited as AGS) in the following sections:Diversos de Castilla (hereafter cited as DC), Expedientes de Hacienda (hereafter cited as EH), and Mercedes y Privilegios. Diversos de Castilla is an artificial section probably formed by archivist Thomas González in 1821 and incorporating the old sections Diversos de Castilla and Leyes y Pragmáticas. Expedientes de Hacienda, which was formed by González around the same time, consists of correspondence, transcripts of cases, and dispatches coming from the Contaduría Mayor de Hacienda. Mercedes y Privilegios contains documents concerning grants of money and vassals and confirmations of these. Ángel de la Plaza Bores, Archivo General de Simancas, Guía del Investigador (Valladolid, 1962), pp. 56, 139, 145.


María de la Soterraña Martín Postigo, La Cancillería Castellana de los Reyes Católicos (Valladolid, 1959), p. 193.


Ibid., p. 194.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fob 32; Lib. 5, fob 99.


Ramón Carande and José de M. Carriazo, eds., El Tumbo de los reyes católicos del Concejo de Sevilla, III (Sevilla, 1968), 201; AGS, DC, May 25, 1475 and Mar. 7, 1482, Lib. 4, fol. 116.


Carande and Carriazo, El Tumbo I, 71-72; AGS, DC, May 25, 1475, Lib. 4, fol. 39.


Cortes de los antiguos reinos de León y Castilla (Madrid, 1882), IV, 70-71.


Cortes de los antiguos, III, 421.


Ibid., p. 546.


Ibid., p. 578.


Ibid., p. 671.


Cortes de los antiguos, IV, 71.


Cortes de los antiguos, III, 546-547. In article 41 the delegates complain of the “muchos baratos e cohechos que hazen vuestros recabdadores e arrendadores.”


Ibid., p. 578.


Ibid., p. 578.


Matilla-Tascón, Declaratorias, p. 15.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 329.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 297.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 319.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 227.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 370.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 360.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 308.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 387.


AGS, EH, leg. 15, fol. 316.


Cortes de los antiguos, IV, 71.


AGS, March 23, 1478, Registro General del Sello, fol. 336.


Carande and Carriazo, El Tumbo III, 33-34.


Postigo, Cancillería Castellana, p. 137.


Ibid., p. 257-258.


Ibid., p. 259-260.


Ibid., p. 261.


Ibid., p. 262.


Ibid., p. 205.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 87.


Fernando del Pulgar, Crónica de los Reyes Católicos (Madrid, 1943), I, 417-419.


Matilla-Tascón, Declaratorias, p. 46.


Later in the reign Talavera had charge of the Crusada, probably the most important account that was developed during the Granada war. Azcona, Isabel, p. 532.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 105.


Matilla-Tascón, Declaratorias, p. 13.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 94.


AGS, DC, Lib. 4, fol. 94.




Matilla-Tascón, Declaratorias, p. 17.


AGS, DC, Lib. 4, fol. 39.


What follows is a list of named merced holders broken down into categories: AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 82.

Since our knowledge of the finances of the fifteenth and sixteenth century Castilian aristocracy is still in its infancy, it is almost impossible to arrive at an accurate assessment of the importance of mercedes to aristocratic incomes. In her study of the houses of Medina-Sidonia and Arcos, Emma Solano Ruiz demonstrates the relatively small importance of mercedes to these families and the far-greater revenues that they derived from taxes levied on the commerce and agriculture of their territories. See Emma Solano Ruiz, “La hacienda de las casas de Medina-Sidonia y Arcos en la Andalusia del Siglo XV,” Archivo Hispalense 2a Epoca (Enero-Abril 1972), 85-175.

However it would be wrong to make assumptions about all the Castilian nobility from these two examples. Ruiz herself appears not to have found the 250,000 maravedís in royal mercedes held by the Medina-Sidonia, and listed in the libro de las declaratorias, Ruiz, “La hacienda,” p. 109.

Furthermore, there were important differences between the nobles who possessed larger and more homogeneous estates and those nobles of the center whose possessions were scattered over many hundreds of miles (Estuniga, Enríquez, Mendoza). The fact that the nobility of the center and north therefore could not “manage” their holdings as efficiently as the great magnates of Andalusia made them much more dependent on royal mercedes. In fact, the magnates of central and northern Castile held much greater amounts in mercedes than those of the south at the time of the mercedes reform, e.g., the Mendoza—4,749,202; the Manrique—2,833,000; the Velasco—2,172,000, in contrast to southern nobles; the Medina-Sidonia—-480,000; the Ponce de León—873,000. See Emilio Mitre Fernández, Evolución de la nobleza en Castilla bajo Enrique III (1396-1406), (Valladolid, 1968), for the possessions of the Castilian nobility.


Pedro Fernández de Velasco, Iñigo López de Mendoza, AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 82; Sancho de Rojas, AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 32.


The Count of Benavente received a new privilege for a merced of 220,000 maravedís, despite Juan de Porras’s Investigation, which demonstrated that it was counterfeit. AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fob 3.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fob 82.




AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fob 32.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 29.




AGS, DC, Lib. 4, fob 94. In fact, it was during the reign of the Catholic sovereigns that the Castilian nobles consolidated their hold on the royal taxes of their possessions. In a document issued late in the reign, the monarchs declared that the Count of Salvatierra shall have the right to collect the sales taxes of his lands “como a los otros cavalleros del reyno.” AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fob 140. See Salvador de Moxo, “Los orígines de la percepción de alcabalas por particulares,” Hispania, 18 (1958).


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fob 84.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 141.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 94.


Francisco Bejarano, La industria de la seda en Malaga durante el siglo XVI (Madrid, 1951), p. 18.


AGS, DC, Lib. 4, fol. 79.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 87.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 32.






AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 104.


AGS, DC, Lib. 4, fol. 39.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 104.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 103.


This total was arrived at after tabulation of all the mercedes issued during the period. The names of merced holders were checked against the list in the libro de las declaratorias, AGS, Mercedes y Privilegios, leg. 1-127.


Ángel de la Plaza Bores, Archivo General de Simancas; Guía del Investigador (Valladolid, 1962), p. xxxiii.


Ibid., p. xxxiv.


AGS, DC, Lib. 4, fob 39.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 82.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 84.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 104.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 82.


AGS, DC, Lib. 5, fol. 104.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History, Northern Illinois University.