The Revolt of Aragon was a pivotal point in the monarchy of Philip II. Potentially the Revolt of Aragon was far more serious than the Revolt of the Moricos and the way the revolt was handled at the end by Philip showed the aging king in a good light.
In 1579, Granvelle had been appointed the King’s Secretary after the Perez Affair. He distrusted the Castilian nobility as he did not know what was the extent of their ambition and how it would affect Spain. The nobility of Aragon also detested the power, wealth and prestige of the Castilian nobility. Aragon was proud of its past and their major concern was that Philip would attempt to ‘Castilise’ Aragon and severely undermine their heritage and their traditional rights (fueros).
By the 1580’s, Aragon had become one of the most ungovernable of Philip’s possessions. Aragon continually objected to the intrusions of the Castilian government yet Philip could not allow his rule over his whole kingdom to be challenged. He had to assert his rule over Aragon.
In the mid-C16, Aragon’s agricultural system was breaking down. Feudal relationships were cracking up and more friction was caused by 50,000 to 60,000 Moriscans working for the ecclesiastical landlords. The established “Old Christians” were angered by the fact that the Moriscans cultivated the most fertile land along the banks of the River Ebro. Most “Old Christians” grazed sheep in the Pyranees which was essentially an unskilled job. The ecclesiastical leaders were pleased with the hard working Moriscans and gave them protection which only further angered the “Old Christians”. At this time they were paying very high feudal taxes and in 1585 the power of the lords over their vassals was greatly increased.
All this barely worried Philip as the region was poor and a low source of income for him. The nobility in Aragon got into the habit of doing effectively what they liked in the region. The power of the Aroganese nobility was based around the Cortes of Monzon and the vassals of the Aroganese nobility had no recourse to Aroganese law but traditionally they could appeal to the king to hear their grievances. The law as it stood gave the king the right to incorporate the vassals of Aragon into royal domain (which would have been a major advance for them) and this Philip had done in 1585 with the vassals of the Barony of Monclus – to settle a dispute between the barons and the vassals that had been going on for 95 years. The baron got 800 escudos a year in compensation.
The largest barony in Aragon was Ribagorza. This region included 17 towns and 216 villages. The region had great strategic importance and it appealed to Philip who wished to add this to royal territory.
The region was owned by the Duke of Villaharmosa who wanted to come to an arrangement with Philip as he was blighted with rebellious vassals. Philip refused to pay a large settlement and the Count of Chincon, Treasurer-General of the Council of Aragon, who had been appointed by Philip, deliberately hindered a settlement. Chincon had a personal vendetta against Villahormosa and he actively encouraged vassals in the barony to rebel. These vassals were aided by Castilian bandits. The king’s principal minister in Aragon was engaged in a powerful duel with Aragon’s most powerful nobleman – a potentially explosive combination.
To find a solution to this problem, Philip decided to appoint a viceroy to the region who was not Aragonese and who had no vested interest in the situation. In 1588 he sent the Marquis of Almenara to meet the Justicia of Aragon, Juan de Lanuza. Philip hoped that both men would be able to come to a solution. He wanted to be seen to be working within the legal framework of Spain. However, his choice of Almenara was both a good and a bad one. Almenara was a capable man who was well thought of in Castille but he was also the cousin of Chincon. Was it possible that he could be impartial? The position of Lanuza was to uphold the liberties (fueros) of Aragon and when he agreed to meet Almenara it seemed to others that these liberties were being undermined. The meeting was seen as a further attempt to Castilise Aragon and rather than help the situation as he had intended, Philip found that the situation got a lot worse.
How did Philip react to this situation ? In 1590, the news was announced that Almenara was to return to Aragon with increased powers. A few days before Almenara’s arrival, Perez had escaped from prison in Madrid and had fled to the relative safety of Aragon. Perez received what was called manifestacion. He was put in a safe prison of Lanuza’s and he was to remain there until Aragon had passed sentence on him. The family of Perez was Aragonese and when on trial he made public many royal secrets. Perez proved that Philip had been involved in murder. Philip decided that Perez should not be tried in a normal court but that he should be tried in an Inquisition court. This court was outside of Aragon’s judicial powers and Perez would almost certainly have been found guilty by a court that was loyal to Philip.
In May 1591, Perez was moved to an Inquisition court but a mob from Zaragoza released him and severely beat up Almenara who subsequently died of his injuries. This was an example of gross defiance regarding royal authority. Philip had to be seen to be doing something. His choices were not many given the circumstances Spain found itself in. He had military commitments against the Dutch and English. Portugal was barely stable. There was a great risk in sending in an army – what if it lost ? Philip received differing advice. Some wanted leniency while others advised repression. Philip decided to threaten the latter. He planned to send an army to the borders of Aragon and effectively bully the region into submitting to his authority. Philip stated that he had no intentions of eroding the fueros of Aragon – he merely wanted to punish those responsible for defying royal authority.
In September 1591, there was a further attempt to remove Perez to an Inquisition prison. Once again, the Zaragoza mob rescued him. This event finally convinced Philip that force was needed. In October 1591, he sent 12,000 men under Alonso de Vargas. Lanuza, the Justicia, urged the people of Aragon to defend their liberties. But the majority of peasants saw the royal army as liberators, freeing them from the feudal repression of the Aragonese nobles. Perez fled to France.
In December 1591, Lanuza was beheaded. In January 1592, Philip issued a general pardon for all others involved in the revolt – except Villahormosa who was sent in exile to a castle where he died in curious circumstances. Perez tried to organise an invasion of Aragon but it received little public support in Aragon and he fled to England where he wrote “Relaciones de su vida” which greatly contributed to the ‘black’ legend of Philip.
What was the significance of the revolt?
1) it proved that Spain was far from united. Regionalism plagued Spain and Philip feared that the Catalans would help the Aragonese – they did not but his fear was genuine.
2) the revolt showed that a breakdown in feudal relationships was taking place. The word “feudal” shows how backward Spain was – in England it is a word associated with Medieval times.
3) Philip could not assert his authority without using force in those regions which challenged his rule. The revolt proved how jealously fueros were guarded.
There were benefits from the revolt for Philip. The peasants of Aragon associated their position with the Aragonese nobility not Philip. Hence Philip was seen by many Aragonese peasants as a liberator not an oppressor.
Philip responded very positively to the revolt. The military had to assert his authority but Philip was sympathetic to legal niceties. Philip could have viewed all Aragonese as being guilty but this would have left the region in anger and ready for further problems in the future. In June 1592, the Cortes of Aragon was reformed but the changes were moderate and done within the letter of the law. A motion could be passed in the Cortes by a mere majority – previously any change had to be voted in unanimously. Also the Justicia could be removed by the king. The king was given the right to appoint a non-Aragonese viceroy. Despite these changes, Aragon kept a great deal of self-rule within Spain and the solution must have been successful as the region never rebelled again under his rule.
In 1558, the poet Henando de Acuna wrote “One monarch, one empire, one sword” as a testament to Spain’s power in Europe and the known world. By 1598, there was one king, but her empire was in tatters and non-Castilian regions greatly resented paying into the treasury of Castille so that Spain existed on paper but not as an entity by itself. These provinces resented a king who had ceased “to be their own”. As a military power, Spain was disregarded by the rest of Europe’s main powers by 1598.