The Spanish Nobility
Origins of the Nobility of Spain
The origins of the Spanish nobility lie in the Visigothic kingdom, with its capital in Toledo, that arose in the early sixth century of the Christian era, following the Romanisation of the Iberian Peninsula. The first titles, duke, marquis and count, originated as officials of the Crown in particular territories of the realm.
The territorial administration of the new kingdom was based on the preceding Hispano-Roman provincial and municipal administration. It is known that in the year 653, when the 8th Council of Toledo took place, there were seven provinces. In command of the troops stationed in each of them there was a dux, who soon assumed governmental, fiscal and judicial powers.
Around the last years of the reign of Erwig (680–687), two new territorial districts were established, named ducati instead of provinciae, headed by two duces: Asturias and Cantabria. According to tradition, Pelayo, the first king of Asturias, was the son of Favila, Duke of Cantabria. This organisation was eliminated, along with the Visigothic kingdom itself, following the Muslim invasion in 711.
Many centuries later, when the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula had been consolidated and the Reconquest had begun, Fernán González, sovereign Count of Castile, had himself named Duke of the Castilians. But it was not until the dynasty of the Trastamaras that dukes acquired the status of a noble title that they still hold today. Henry II (1366–1367 and 1369–1379) created the titles of Duke of Soria and of Molina in 1370, conferring them on Bertrand Duguesclin, Constable of France, as well as that of Duke of Benavente for his bastard son Fadrique of Castile.
The same was true of the titles of marquis and count, though they were of lower status and were generally in charge of the governance of frontier territories and fortresses with a military presence. The oldest known title of marquis is that of Marquis of Villena, granted by Henry II of Castile to Alonso of Aragon in 1336.
The oldest titles of count still in existence are those of Count of Medinaceli, created by Henry II of Castile in 1368 and elevated to a dukedom by the Catholic Monarchs in 1494, and Count of Niebla, bestowed by the same king in 1369.
The Grandees of Spain: Glory, Pride and Honour of the Ancient Nobility
The status of Grandee of Spain, which still survives today, is the highest distinction that can be held by the Spanish nobility. It is a special, distinctively Spanish honour with no similar equivalent in other countries. Some scholars in this field have argued that there is a certain parallel between Spanish grandees and Hungarian magnates, but in fact they are not similar figures. Grandee is not a title of nobility, but rather a distinction different from and independent of titles. It normally goes with a particular title, as an adjunct to the title itself, but this is not a necessary condition, and a person can be a grandee of Spain without possessing a title of nobility at all.
Although the historical origin of this distinction is disputed, it is traditionally said to have arisen as a result of the privilege granted by Charles V to certain Spanish nobles who accompanied him in 1520 to Aachen (Germany), where he went to be crowned King of the Romans and subsequently Holy Roman Emperor. On that occasion Charles was faced with the dilemma of whether or not to allow the leading Spanish nobles to remain covered (that is, to wear a hat or coronet) in the presence of other European nobles, since the privilege of having one’s head covered in the royal presence was totally unknown in the rest of Europe.
Not even the most eminent members of the continental nobilities enjoyed such a prerogative. To avoid wounding anyone’s sensibilities, Charles asked the Spanish nobles to remain bareheaded, like their European peers. But from then on he began to limit the prerogative to just a few of the most distinguished nobles, rather than all of them.
This is why it has been argued that the coronation in Aachen was the birth of the Spanish grandeeship, although there are authors who reject this theory, on the grounds that it is not confirmed by documentary sources from the period. In that same year, 1520, there were twenty-five titles with the status of grandee of Spain, namely the dukedoms of Villahermosa, Gandía, Medinaceli, Medina Sidonia, Nájera, Infantado, Alba, Frías, Escalona, Segorbe, Cardona, Alburquerque, Arcos and Béjar, the marquisates of Priego, Villena, Astorga, Denia and Aguilar de Campo, the countships of Lerín, Cabra, Lemos, Melgar and Miranda and the title of Count-Duke of Benavente.
The grandees, as the pinnacle of the nobility, were used politically in the early nineteenth century to provide a parliamentary check on incipient liberalism, which the Crown viewed with mistrust. So it was that the approval of the Royal Statute, a plan for constituting the legislative assembly, provided for the creation of a so-called Estamento de Próceres (“estate of the eminent”), which was actually an Upper Chamber or Senate modelled on the British parliament, to which the grandees belonged by right, that is, purely by virtue of being grandees of Spain.
The Exorbitant Privileges of Spanish Grandees
Over the course of history, the grandees enjoyed a series of special privileges not reserved for any other member of the nobility:
- Having or keeping their head covered in the royal presence.
- Being addressed as “cousin” by the king.
- Free access in the Royal Palace as far as the portrait gallery, that is, two rooms before the Royal Chamber.
- Occupying a special position in the Royal Chapel.
- Receiving written notification of all important events that arose related to the king, his household and his family.
- Participating in war with the status of chief and the pay of a general.
- Immunity from arrest by the ordinary forces of law without a special royal warrant.
Furthermore, for most of the twentieth century grandees enjoyed the right to hold and use a diplomatic passport, like the king and members of the royal family, members of the government, ambassadors and diplomatic staff, etc. This privilege, however, was permanently withdrawn from all of them in 1984 and has not been restored.
The Institutional Sale of Nobility in Spain
During the seventeenth century Spain was continuously embroiled in wars in an attempt to maintain its political supremacy in the Europe of the time. The Thirty Years’ War, in which the Spanish sovereigns were involved together with the Holy Roman Empire, also ruled by the Habsburgs, began in 1618. From 1621 hostilities were resumed with the United Provinces of the Netherlands. The Spanish armies had no respite until 1659, when the Peace of the Pyrenees was reached.
The interminable military conflicts meant that the Crown found itself having to face constant and extremely high costs and was in a permanent state of economic shortage. One of the methods chosen to alleviate the difficult financial situation was precisely to award titles of nobility. So it was that two Royal Dispatches of Philip IV, issued on 18 August 1631 and 10 December 1632, established a tax on the granting of titles of nobility. At the same time, grants of nobility proliferated as never before, in return for financial consideration. Some of the new titles actually belonged to the highest levels of the hierarchy of nobility, such as grandeeships of Spain or titles of prince, although the latter were awarded in the kingdoms of Italy and in Flanders, since in Castile, Aragon and Navarra “prince” was a title that could only be held by heirs to the throne.
A distinctive feature of the Spanish monarchy at that time was its international nature, being composed of many kingdoms in Europe. By the end of the sixteenth century the Spanish monarchs occupied not only their own throne but also those of Portugal, Naples and Sicily. In addition, they were sovereign Dukes of Milan and of Burgundy, as well as Counts of Flanders, by virtue of which they ruled Franche-Comté and the Low Countries. This was the period of what has been called the Universal Spanish Monarchy.
In all these territories the kings of Spain granted titles of nobility to their inhabitants, in their capacity as King of Portugal or Duke of Milan. Accordingly, there are records of the following grants, among others:
- Portugal: 2 marquisates and 7 countships.
- Milan: 103 marquisates and 98 countships.
- Naples: 120 titles of prince, 231 dukedoms, 242 marquisates and 99 countships.
- Sicily: 123 titles of prince, 88 dukedoms, 125 marquisates, 45 countships, 2 viscountships and 19 baronies.
- Low Countries: 12 titles of prince, 1 dukedom, 21 marquisates, 62 countships, 14 viscountships and 101 baronies.
A further source of finance was found in cartas de hidalguía (letters patent of nobility). Hidalguía, the rank of hidalgo, was a status of untitled nobility normally acquired by right of blood, being passed down in the male line. The most famous hidalgo in history was the wonderful fictional character created by Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote de la Mancha.
However, it was sometimes granted by the king as yet another privilege of nobility. The most ancient and long-established section of the Spanish nobility despised the hidalgos, regarding them as an inferior class, for all that they were part of the nobility. In the case of hidalgos created by letters patent, however, it missed no opportunity of expressing its disagreement with the granting of such patents of nobility, both to the king and to the Council of Castile.
Angry protests against this practice of selling noble status were presented to Charles V by the Cortes (Estates General) assembled in Valladolid in 1518 and 1523 and to Philip II by the Cortes of Madrid in 1593. At the 1618 Cortes, with Philip III by now on the throne, a document submitted to the king stated that “in view of the harm suffered by poor farm workers through the sale of patents of nobility, by which the rich are exempted from paying tolls and taxes and the whole burden falls on the poor, Your Majesty should not sell, give or grant patents of nobility, either by declaration or in any other manner”.
However, the Crown was reluctant to restrict these sales, which provided it with such lucrative profits. Philip IV reached a compromise with the Cortes in 1628, by which the king would be authorised to sell a limited number of hidalguías for a set price. Once this number had been reached, no more sales could be made. The number was fixed at 20,000 patents, to be sold at 4,000 ducats each. But soon afterwards, in 1639, Philip IV ignored the agreement he himself had signed with the Cortes and continued the policy of granting patents of nobility for money.
Auctioning and Bartering of Spanish Offices and Noble Titles
Another growing trend during the seventeenth century was the auctioning of public offices by the Crown for money, some of which had personal, or sometimes hereditary, privileges of nobility attached to them. And it striking that the nobility itself also took part in these purchases of public and administrative offices. Indeed, one of the most significant historical examples involved one of the most important members of the Spanish nobility.
Pedro Nuño Colón de Portugal y Castro, 5th Duke of Veragua and Grandee of Spain, obtained the position of Viceroy of New Spain for himself in 1672 by depositing the colossal sum of 50,000 pesos, payable to the Treasury. His arrival in Mexico City, the capital of the Viceroyalty, on 20 November 1673 was met with a rapturous reception from the authorities and the public, amid great festivities, due to the fact that he donated over 1,500,000 pesos from his personal fortune to finance water canalisation works. However, fate proved inexorable in this case, and only just over three weeks after taking up his post, on 13 December 1673, the Duke of Veragua died suddenly, to the profound consternation of the populace.
Another curious facet of titles of nobility was their use as barter for public offices. Indeed, when the occupant of a public post was asked to vacate it so that it could be awarded to someone else, it was normal to offer the person leaving office a title of nobility. One of the best-remembered examples of this practice is the grant of the dukedom of San Carlos, with grandeeship of Spain, to Fermín Francisco de Carvajal y Vargas by Charles III in 1780, in compensation for his resignation as Correo Mayor (Postmaster General) of the Indies.
The Prejudices of the Spanish Nobility against Trade and Work
The Spanish nobility, unlike that of other European countries, showed no interest in pursuing or taking part in economic activities beyond exploiting its land. On the contrary, for centuries Spanish nobles regarded work as an activity incompatible with the status of nobility, as well as unworthy. Large property owners, such as grandees, could afford to adopt this way of life, as they enjoyed enormous wealth and income. But they were a minority. Most members of the nobility, hidalgos, tended to struggle along in poverty or financial hardship, and yet even so they refused to work.
The Spanish nobility’s traditional and radical rejection of all work activity goes back a very long way. A deep-rooted element of the Spanish noble ethos was the belief that all work and pursuit of a trade was inherently unworthy and base, and therefore could not be carried out by a noble, far less be the object of any rigorous intellectual system. This situation was carried to its ultimate conclusion and was even supported by law.
In the first corpus of laws of the Castilian Crown, the Partidas, drawn up in the thirteenth century during the reign of Alfonso X, Law XXV of Title II of the Second Partida considered that a noble who engaged in trade forfeited his honour. At the Cortes held in Valladolid in 1447, a provision of John II of Castile prohibited nobles from practising trades, warning of the risks of falling into baseness and degradation.
All this indicates that in Spain the status of a noble had a very deep sociological component, probably one of the deepest in Europe. The nobility had very strong class consciousness and held the view that it should live its life according to its traditional customs, above any other consideration. And at the same time, the lower orders were trying to climb the social ladder, being ashamed of belonging to the class in which they had been born.
There is an enormously revealing statement from the period which has come down to our time because it is preserved in the Castle of Simancas, the former General Archive of the Crown of Castile. It is a letter written by José González, a member of the Royal Council of Castile, to King Philip IV in 1641, which says that “the people of these kingdoms, whatever their condition, love honour and esteem more than anything else. All of them are trying to better themselves and therefore dedicate themselves to the most highly-regarded types of employment; this is obvious from the fact that no son wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps. A cobbler’s son hates being referred to as such; a shopkeeper’s son wants to be a gentleman, and it is the same at every degree of the scale”.
All these restrictions on work were part of the strict evidential requirements of the status of nobility traditionally required in Spain and they were invariably and scrupulously observed by the Military Orders of Santiago, Calatrava, Alcántara and Montesa for the admission of new knights. In fact, access to the orders of chivalry was completely closed to non-noble persons until almost halfway through the nineteenth century, in open contrast to other countries, a further consequence of the markedly closed nature of the Spanish noble class.
In France, for example, Louis XIV created the Royal Military Order of St Louis in 1693 to decorate soldiers who were not eligible for the Orders of the Holy Spirit and of St Michael because they were not of noble birth. In Spain, by contrast, it was not until 1847 that people who were not of noble blood could be admitted to the Royal and Distinguished Spanish Order of Charles III.
Only at the end of the seventeenth century did the Crown begin to promote legislation that encouraged nobles to work by not regarding work as a cause of indignity. A Royal Pragmatic of Charles II, dated 13 December 1682, declared that work and trades of all kinds do not degrade those who carry them out. But it was not until the following century that the final step was taken. It became legally possible for nobles to carry out any kind of work following a Royal Dispatch issued by Charles III on 18 March 1783.
The Obscene Wealth of the Spanish Nobility
The Spanish nobility was among the richest in Europe. Not for nothing was it the beneficiary of the most substantial flow of wealth the world had ever seen up to that time: the gold and silver from the New World that the galleons of the Indies fleet transported to Seville, and from 1679 to Cadiz. From 1520 to 1776, the system of fleets of galleons brought Spain the largest economic resources a modern state had ever enjoyed, enabling it, among other things, to pay for the armies and navies that maintained its position as the dominant power in Europe.
Every year two fleets made the crossing, reaching Spain in April and October. Their arrival was the most wonderful event of the year and it made Seville the wealthiest city in Europe. For this reason, the great noble families of Spain wanted to have a temporary residence in Seville so as to be in the city when the galleons sailed up the Guadalquivir. For example, the 6th Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Mendoza, became a regular visitor to Seville after inheriting the Palacio de las Dueñas in 1623, as a result of the death of his first wife, the Marchioness of Villanueva del Río.
Such vast wealth commonly gave rise to a taste for inordinate luxury and excessive expense on social ostentation of every kind, sometimes reaching such a level that the government itself intervened, legislating to oblige them to moderate such expenditure. There is an account from the period that very clearly reveals the real proportions of the luxury and ostentation displayed by the Spanish nobility.
A French aristocrat, Countess d’Aulnoy, visited Spain in the late seventeenth century and wrote a work entitled Memories of the Court of Spain: Account of the Voyage to Spain, in which she reports that it took no less than six weeks to draw up an inventory of the Duke of Alburquerque’s plate, comprising 16,800 gold and silver plates, 1,200 dishes and countless accessories and cutlery. At the same time, on visiting the palace of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna, Madame d’Aulnoy was greatly surprised to find that 300 maids were serving there. Faced with her astonished reaction, the Duchess replied with complete equanimity that the situation was entirely exceptional, since the king had put measures in place requiring them to live more modestly. Normally the number of female servants was not less than 600.
Not until well into the nineteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution by now at its height, did the nobility begin to play a prominent role in business. The development of the textile industry in Catalonia and of the iron and steel sector and the shipyards in the Basque provinces, soon to be followed by banking and insurance, gradually had an impact on the Spanish nobility, in two ways. Firstly, these new economic activities increasingly constituted a source of business for many noble families, with large amounts of capital available to invest.
Secondly, many wealthy entrepreneurs in the new industrial bourgeoisie spent lavishly on works for the community, or to the direct benefit of the Crown, seeking to have titles of nobility granted to themselves and their descendants. However, aside from this new nobility drawn from the bourgeoisie, the traditional nobles continued to own much of the rural land. Of the 53 largest landowners in the country in 1854, 43 held some noble title.
The consolidation of political liberalism and of a constitutional parliamentary regime from 1833, after the death of Ferdinand VII, the last absolutist king of Spain, also led to deputies in the Cortes, senators of the realm and government ministers regularly being awarded titles of nobility. It is no accident that most Spanish prime ministers over the course of the twentieth century have continued to be honoured with such titles.
The increase in titles of nobility is clear if we look at the figures. In 1833, after the reign of Ferdinand VII, there were 1,043 noble titles in Spain. By the end of Isabel II’s reign the number had risen to 1,454, an increase of 411. Under Amadeo I, Alfonso XII and the Regency of María Cristina of Habsburg, a further 298 titles were granted. Finally, during the years in which Alfonso XIII occupied the throne there were another 228 titles awarded. In short, in the space of a century, between 1833 and 1931, the number of noble titles doubled.