Catalonia, Revolt of (1640–1652)

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CATALONIA, REVOLT OF (16401652). The Revolt of Catalonia, in which much of what is today eastern Spain revolted against the crown of Philip IV of Spain, was motivated by fiscal, political, and long-standing historical issues. Since the Middle Ages, Catalonia had been part of the former Crown of Aragon, which essentially was joined to the Crown of Castile in 1517 with the reign of Charles V, whose parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, were, respectively, monarchs of the two kingdoms. But though they were joined, with royal viceroys from Castile overseeing the territories, the two realms retained separate representative assemblies, and Catalonia did not pay taxes for the Spanish monarchy's imperial adventures. Castile and Catalonia also spoke different languages and had different political traditions; in particular, Catalan land tenure was closer to French feudalism than to the system that emerged from the Castilian Reconquest.

In the 1620s and 1630s, Philip IV and his chief minister, Gaspar de Guzmán, the Count-Duke of Olivares (15871645), gradually found themselves engaged in three European wars: the Thirty Years' War (16181648), a renewed fight with the Dutch (beginning in 1621), and in 1635, war with France. Olivares, determined to modernize the army and state finance, insisted that all of Spain, including Catalonia, pay its fair share and be subject to the same laws. In 1625 he proposed the Union of Arms, a military levy that would have drawn conscripts from throughout Spain and its possessions in Italy. The Catalonian representative assembly, the Corts, refused to comply.

After war broke out with France, Olivares tried again to squeeze men and money out of the Catalans, who felt more affinity with the French than with the increasingly demanding Castilians. Though men were conscripted from around the peninsula, the Catalans continued to resist, and Olivares, his threats having failed, decided to convert Catalonia itself into a theater of war. He launched attacks on France from Catalonia, impressing Catalan men and billeting Castilian troops, thus (he thought) ensuring the Catalans' loyalty.

France in 1639 captured the fort of Salses (Roussillon), and a long and bloody siege ensued, which the Catalans were told to finance as well as suffer. Spain finally won the siege on 6 January 1640, but lost Catalonia in the process. Horror at the behavior of the billeted troops, grief over the loss of thousands of men, and outrage as their traditional political rights were trampled made it easy work for patriots, many of them priests, to stir the population. Chief among these patriots was Pau Claris (15861641), the canon of Urgell, who became president of the Catalan government, the Generalitat, in 1638. In March 1640, the Spanish viceroy, the count of Santa Coloma, ordered the arrest of one of Claris's government colleagues. In response, armed rebels, many of them peasants, essentially took over the countryside, staging a series of attacks, including the 22 May 1640 release of the imprisoned deputy. Olivares saw that his heavy-handed approach had backfired and tried to mollify the Catalans, but it was too late. On 7 June Santa Coloma was beaten to death by a mob, and the Guerra dels Segadors, or the Reapers War, began.

The Revolt of the Catalans was really two wars at once: a social revolution pitting rich against poor and a political revolt pitting Catalans against Castilians. As the Catalan poor turned against the Catalan rich, the elites turned to France rather than seek common cause with their neighbors, Valencia and Aragon, with whom they shared a language and many traditions. In allying with France, however, Catalonia exchanged one master for another.

In January 1641 the combined military forces of France and Catalonia defeated the Castilian army of the marquis of los Vélez in the Battle of Montjuich (Barcelona). Claris died soon after, and no similarly charismatic leader stepped forward to unite the Catalans. The aristocracy was no fonder of the French than of the Castilians, as the French Bourbon monarchy seemed even less interested in Catalan rights than the Spanish Habsburg Monarchy.

The count-duke fell from power in January 1643 and was replaced by his nephew Don Luis de Haro. In July 1644 the king swore to observe the Catalan Constitution. The following few years produced a military stalemate, but in 1648, when the Dutch Revolt ended (after eighty years) with the signing of the Treaty of Münster, and the Thirty Years' War ended with the Peace of Westphalia, Philip finally was free to devote his full attention to the home front.

Also in 1648, the Fronde broke out, forcing the French to withdraw from Catalonia, leaving the rebels to fight alone. By then, many of the leading Catalan aristocrats had reconciled with the Spanish crown, vastly preferring their Castilian peers to the Catalan rabble. Philip's illegitimate son, Don Juan of Austria, in 1651 initiated a siege of Barcelona; the city was starved into surrender on 13 October 1652.

Philip wisely decided not to humiliate the rebels. Instead, he issued an amnesty, and the Catalan laws and Corts were spared; they survived until yet another unsuccessful war against Madrid, the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714), when Catalonia chose to fight with the Habsburgs and against the Bourbons, instead of the other way around. The new Spanish Bourbon king, Philip V, took long-lasting revenge after 1714, eradicating many of Catalonia's laws and liberties.

The Revolt of the Catalans was one of a series of convulsions (including the Fronde, the Thirty Years' War, the English Civil War, and revolts in Italy, Portugal, and Holland) that historians have regarded as indicative of a wider seventeenth-century crisis. These events have also been seen as parts of larger phenomena such as the final transition to capitalism, the collapse of the old aristocracy, the emergence of modern states, and the triumphant authority of centralizing monarchies.

The revolt weakened the Spanish monarchy when it was under attack on multiple fronts, and it inspired the Portuguese to stage an ultimately successful revolt in December 1640. Remarkably, though the monarchy lost wealth, territory, and power, it survived, demonstrating that its resources and perhaps its very structure were more forgiving of crisis than has been thought. The revolt was one of the last tests of the flexibilities and peculiarities of the Spanish Habsburg Monarchy, a whole of many parts which, despite Olivares's intentions, was predicated upon considerable local autonomy and negotiation. The anthem of Catalonia to this day is "Els Segadors."

See also Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; Juan de Austria, Don ; Olivares, Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, count of ; Philip IV (Spain) ; Restoration, Portuguese War of (16401648) ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) .


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Lynch, John. The Hispanic World in Crisis and Change 15981700. Oxford, 1992.

Merriman, Roger B. Six Contemporaneous Revolutions. Oxford, 1938.

Parker, Geoffrey. Europe in Crisis, 15981648. London, 1979.

Stradling, R. A. Spain's Struggle for Europe, 15981668. London, 1994.

Ruth Mackay