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Spanish Empire

Fragmented and in a state of continual warfare, early fifteenth century Spain could only look on enviously whilst its Portuguese rival set sail across the seas in search of riches and trade routes. But this was soon to change. In the coming centuries, Spain would amass one of the largest empires in the world, covering over seven million square miles of…

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Spanish Empire

Spanish Empire

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Fragmented and in a state of continual warfare, early fifteenth century Spain could only look on enviously whilst its Portuguese rival set sail across the seas in search of riches and trade routes. But this was soon to change.

In the coming centuries, Spain would amass one of the largest empires in the world, covering over seven million square miles of land. How did Spain's fate change?

The beginnings of the Spanish Empire

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Iberian Peninsula (the area of Spain and Portugal) was home to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations. Muslims (Moors) had conquered the region in the eighth century, forcing the Christians to the North of Spain. These Christians had been fighting back to reconquer territories in a 700-year war and, by the thirteenth century, Granada was the only Muslim stronghold left.

The Catholic Monarchs

Although the new kingdoms in Spain were Christian, they were not united. The marriage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile brought the two major realms Aragon and Castile under joint power. When Granada was conquered in 1492, Spain was further united and again in 1512 when Ferdinand invaded Navarre and absorbed it into Aragon. Although the kingdoms did remain fairly autonomous, this more united Spain was ready to expand its power across the seas.


Having the freedom to govern oneself or control one's own affairs.

Overseas exploration

Prior to the late 1400s, Spain had not engaged in much overseas exploration. In 1402, they had attempted to take over the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean but were distracted by internal affairs. After 1492, this all changed. Christopher Columbus set sail in search of a new route to India but ended up in the Americas. This discovery, as well as later explorations by conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, led to a great expansion of the empire into the New World.


‘Conquerer’ in Spanish. Used specifically to refer to the conquerors of this period.

Charles I of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire

The accession of Charles I to the Spanish throne changed Spain's position in the world. Due to strategic marriages, Charles was set to inherit a long list of titles, including that of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Spanish Empire Charles I's family tree showing the titles he inherited VaiaCharles I's family tree showing the titles he inherited. Source: created with Canva and images from Wikimedia Commons.

As a result, Charles V (or Charles I of Spain) ruled an empire consisting of the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, parts of Italy and overseas colonies. When his son, Philip II of Spain succeeded him, he did not retain the title of Holy Roman Emperor or Austrian possessions but kept the Netherlands.

Philip II and the Spanish Empire

Philip transformed the empire again under his rule. In 1580, he became King of Portugal after conquering it in the Battle of Alcântara. But while Spain gained Portugal, Philip's actions in the Netherlands led to the Eighty Years War that would eventually result in Dutch independence from the Spanish.

The Spanish Empire flag

The flag of the Spanish Empire was the Cross of Burgundy, which the Spanish adopted from the Valois Dukes of Burgundy (French) after they inherited the Burgundy Low Countries (modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). This flag was used as a naval ensign of the Spanish Empire on their voyages and served as the flag of their Viceroyalties in the New World.


A flag that is flown on a vessel to indicate nationality.


An overseas territory overseen by a ruler exercising authority on behalf of a sovereign.

Spanish Empire The Flag of the Spanish Empire VaiaThe Flag with the cross of Burgundy (Spanish Empire Flag), Wikimedia Commons.

The effects of the Spanish Empire

What were the effects of having such a large empire on Spain and what was the Spanish rule's impact on the rest of the world?

Government in the Spanish Empire

Due to the enormity of the empire that Charles and Philip had to rule, they had frequent administrative problems and faced some dissent at home. Charles' absence from Spain resulted in two uprisings: the Revolt of the Comuneros and the Revolt of the Germanias. While these revolts did not completely destabilise the country, they had to be carefully put down. Philip became branded the ‘Paper King’ as he was always hesitant to involve himself in affairs and act.

The economic rise of the Spanish Empire

In the fourteenth century, Spain's economy was stagnating and revenue was declining. Historian G V Scammell argued that 'above all, the empire meant wealth' and that it increased 'Spain's already formidable reputation.'¹ Spain's colonisation in the Americas revitalised its economy greatly, bringing 181 tonnes of gold and 16,000 tonnes of silver to Spain in the sixteenth century. By 1556, 10% of Castile's revenue came just from its colonies in America.

This money was used to expand the empire further, funding expeditions like Magellan's in 1519. During the reign of Philip II, silver funded Portugal and its empire's incorporation under the Spanish crown in 1580. Money was also channelled into the arts, technology, and innovation funding the Golden Age of Spain, a period of cultural prosperity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The economic decline of the Spanish Empire

By the mid-seventeenth century, Spain entered a period of economic and military decline, eventually losing Portugal in 1640. Charles I's and Phillip II's aggressive foreign policy lured Spain into long and difficult conflicts with the Dutch (Eighty Years War) and Italians.

The costs of such foreign wars could be astronomically high. For example, Phillip II spent 3 million ducats a year to fund the military suppression of the Dutch revolt. This aggressive policy and declining silver from the New World meant that Spain was stretched thin across Europe and the Americas. High costs of war led to Spanish tax hikes for Portugal and Catalonia, causing them to revolt and break off from Spain in 1640, widely considered the death blow to Spain's military and political ambition. The historian Pagden argued that by the 1700s, Spain's empire in the far-off Americas was seen as 'a poisoned chalice'2 - an advantage that later turned into a costly burden.

The effects of the Spanish Empire on the World

The Spanish Empire lasted up until around the eighteenth century in Europe and the nineteenth century in the Americas, with some territories only gaining independence in the twentieth century. Spain's influence was long-lasting and continues to characterise these countries today. Now more than 400 million people speak Spanish and Catholicism still dominates many of Spain's former colonies.

The colonies of the Spanish Empire

At the height of its influence, the Spanish Empire covered territories in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

Map of the Spanish Empire

Spanish Empire Spanish Empire Map VaiaThe areas in red were colonies of the Spanish Empire, Wikimedia Commons.

Below is a list of the different colonies and the dates of their independence. This will give you an overview of how extensive the Spanish Empire was and when it started to decline.


CountryYear of Independence
Belgium1714 (part of the Netherlands until 1831)
The Netherlands1714

The Americas

CountryYear of Independence
Belize1981 (taken over by the British in the early 1700s)
Costa Rica1821
Cuba1902 (taken over by the US in 1898)
Dominican Republic1865
El Salvador1821
Equatorial Guinea1968
Florida1821 (taken over by the US)
Guam1898 (taken over by the US)
Haiti1804 (taken over by the French in 1697)
Jamaica1962 (taken over by the British in 1655)
Louisiana1800 (sold to the French in 1800)
Panama1903 (split from Spain in 1821 to join Colombia until 1903)
Puerto Rico1898
Trinidad and Tobago1962 (transferred to the British in 1797)
Uruguay1825 (annexed by Brazil in 1811)


CountryTo (Year of Independence)
The Philippines1948 (taken by the US in 1898)

Did you know?

The Philippines were named after King Philip II of Spain.

In an exam, you might be asked about how beneficial the acquisition of a specific territory was to Spain. Here is an example of a question you might encounter and how to approach it:

‘To what extent was the conquest of Portugal beneficial to Spain in the years 1578 to 1598?’

In the exam, you need to compare the benefits and disadvantages of the conquest of Portugal for Spain. Here are some of the arguments you might want to consider:

  • Acquiring Portugal unified the peninsular for the first time, giving Spain considerable prestige.
  • Portugal had a considerable amount of colonies itself, giving Spain access to trading routes across India, South East Asia and China.
  • Portugal provided a Western barricade for Spain.
  • The Portuguese nobility was unhappy with the conquest and many had to be bribed.
  • Portugal became a financial burden as Spain had to pay for Portugal's defences, did not impose the same taxes or benefit from its trade profits.

Spanish Empire - Key takeaways

  • Spain was fragmented at the start of the fifteenth century, but marriages and conquests created a more united country.
  • In 1492, Christopher Columbus's voyage opened up the New World for Spain. This led to a drastic increase in the expanse of their empire.
  • Charles I's accession meant Spain became part of the Holy Roman Empire and acquired the Burgundian Netherlands as well as Austria and parts of Italy.
  • Philip II did not keep the title of Holy Roman Emperor, nor did he retain the Austrian possessions. However, he did conquer Portugal, uniting the peninsula again.
  • The Spanish Empire brought wealth to Spain but also troubles. It was hard to administer, leading to internal revolts.
  • The Burgundian Netherlands also rejected Spanish rule, resulting in the Eighty Years War and Dutch independence.


1. G V Scammell, The World Encompassed: The First European Maritime Empires, c800–1650, 1981.

2. Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology, 1982

Frequently Asked Questions about Spanish Empire

The Spanish Empire began in 1492, with Christopher Columbus' expedition. 

The rise and decline of the Spanish Empire was caused by several factors, such as wealth plundered from the Americas, foreign wars, and administrative management. 

The Spanish Empire refers to Spain's international territories in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and in North Africa. 

The Spanish Empire spread across the Americas, Asia, Europe, and North Africa. At its height, it covered over 7 million square miles of land. 

Spain lost its empire due to several factors. The over-stretching of commitments across the globe made running an empire too big a task. The declining silver from the Americas meant less revenue. Long and protracted foreign wars proved costly. 

Final Spanish Empire Quiz

Spanish Empire Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Why was Spain fragmented in the early fifteenth century?

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It consisted of independently run Kingdoms and had been home to continuous warfare against Christians and Muslims.

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Which two monarchs united Aragon and Castile?

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Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile

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When was Granada conquered?

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Why did Spain not finish colonising the Canary Islands in 1402?

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It was distracted by internal affairs.

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Which of the following did Charles inherit? 

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The Netherlands

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Which monarch united the peninsula again with the acquisition of Portugal?

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Philip II

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From whom did the Spanish Empire adopt its flag?

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The Valois Dukes of Burgundy

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Which two uprisings did Charles' absence from Spain result in?

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The Revolt of the Comuneros and the Revolt of the Germanias

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What did the Eighty Years War result in?

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Dutch independence from Spain

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What two lasting effects did the Spanish Empire have?

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Now more than 400 million people speak Spanish and Catholicism still dominates many of Spain's former colonies. 

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Which of the following was ruled by Spain? 

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