Comuneros Revolt (1520–1521)

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COMUNEROS REVOLT (15201521). The Comuneros Revolt was originally fomented by some of the eighteen cities in the crown of Castile represented in the Castilian Cortes. The immediate cause of discontent was the new heir to the throne, the Habsburg Charles of Ghent. When the young Charles I made his first visit to Spain in 1517, he spoke little Spanish and was dominated by the Flemish courtiers of his native country, many of whom obtained lucrative Castilian appointments. Then, in 1519, Charles was elected to succeed his paternal grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman emperor, an honor that alarmed many Castilians, who foresaw an absentee ruler and a greater involvement in European affairs that would drain money, resources, and manpower from Castile. Charles, anxious to secure his new title and in need of cash to do so, convened two meetings of the Castilian Cortes in April and May of 1520. His heavy-handed efforts to force the deputies to vote him a large subsidy, and his impending absence from Castile, many of whose cities he had never visited, caused still more resentments. When Charles departed Spain in May of 1520, leaving a foreigner, Adrian of Utrecht (later Pope Adrian VI), as regent, the rebellion had already begun in several cities.

When a city declared for the comunero cause, a commune was established, the crown-appointed corregidor was exiled, and the taxes usually remitted to the crown were kept by the rebels. Many comunero leaders formed part of the minor nobility. In the active comunero city of Toledo, for example, the leaders included Pedro Laso de la Vega and Juan de Padilla, both regidores ('town councillors') and members of notable families; many clerics of the cathedral chapter and of the regular religious orders also favored the rebellion. Not all the city's leaders supported the comunero cause, but those who actively represented the Royalist party were exiled.

Adrian tried to put down the rebellion by calling out an army, but as the Royalists attempted to take ordnance at Medina del Campo, the city was burned, inspiring still more adherents to the comunero cause. The comuneros formed a national council, the Santa Junta, which took charge of organizing events and fielding an army. They also sought to legitimize their actions by gaining the support of Charles's mother, the mentally unstable Queen Joanna, confined in the town of Tordesillas. The comuneros gained control of the town and the queen, but she refused to sign any documents for them. With this threat to his authority, and with the comunero forces increasing and winning battles, Charles wisely appointed two Castilian grandees, the constable and the admiral of Castile, to govern with Adrian. Eventually the Royalist party assembled an army of experienced veterans.

Meanwhile, schisms regarding leadership and goals occurred in the comunero ranks. The moderates, such as Pedro Laso de la Vega, lost to the extremists, who favored attacks against the aristocracy. With this threat to the established social order, the comunero revolt lost whatever support it might have had among the titled aristocracy. The issue was ultimately resolved on the battlefield where the comuneros were no match for the royalist forces led by the constable. On 23 April 1521, the comuneros were defeated at Villalar; captains Juan de Padilla and Juan Bravo, from Segovia, were executed the following day.

After the defeat at Villalar, many cities and towns were eager to return to the royal fold. Toledo, however, held out, thanks to two resolute leaders. One was the warrior bishop of Zamora, Antonio de Acuña, who led his own army of two thousand men in defense of the comunero cause. With the death of the young Fleming Charles had appointed as archbishop of Toledo, Acuña determined that he would occupy the see and marched his army south. After a few skirmishes in the region, Acuña had himself installed as archbishop, but when news of the defeat at Villalar reached Toledo, the prelate again took to the road and was captured by Royalist forces. Still Toledo still did not surrender, thanks to the formidable María Pacheco, widow of the recently executed Juan de Padilla. While a truce was implemented in October 1521, it was not until February 1522, when María Pacheco sought refuge in Portugal, that the comunero revolt ended in Toledo.

Whether the comunero movement was a true revolution or a mere revolt, as well as the causes and long-term effects of the uprising, are much-debated questions. But it was the last uprising against the Habsburgs in the crown of Castile.

See also Charles I (Spain) ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) .


Haliczer, Stephen. The Comuneros of Castile: The Forging of a Revolution, 14751521. Madison, Wis., 1981.

Maravall, José Antonio. Las comunidades de Castilla. Una primera revolución moderna. 2nd ed. Madrid, 1970.

Pérez, Joseph. La revolución de las comunidades de Castilla (15201521). Translated from the French by Juan José Faci Lacasta. Madrid, 1977.

Seaver, Henry Latimer. The Great Revolt in Castile. A Study of the Comunero Movement of 15201521 (1928). Reprint, New York, 1966.

Linda Martz