Why did the Iberian Union Fail?


the iberian peninsula is the home to two once upon a time colonial empires that have survived as strong and sovereign nations side by side for many centuries often though many wonder how this actually happened and particularly how spain never managed to take over its smaller neighbor who was locked between spain and the north atlantic ocean well in reality this actually almost happened at one point although not in the way most may have expected.

Why did the Iberian Union Fail

the monarchs across the iberian peninsula were in fact in favor of uniting the amalgamation of kingdoms the thought behind this was an attempt to revive the once powerful visigoth kingdom and it wasn’t just the spanish leaders who hoped to do so the portuguese were also open to the idea and kings such as miguel de paz would strategically inherit the crowns of portugal leon castile and aragon as a result of diplomatic marriages as well as alfonso of portugal.

who would have married the daughter of the de facto spanish monarchs isabella and ferdinand if not for his unexpected death this sets the precedent for the creation of a unified peninsula and the events that followed hastened the process in 1578 the contemporary king of portugal sebastian the first was slain at the battle of alcacer quebec against the sultanate of morocco which left the portuguese throne without an heir eventually sebastian’s 68 year old grand uncle cardinal henry would fill the void but only for a short two years before his own unexpected demise.

this now left the throne open to claims from three former king manuel the first’s grandchildren who all insisted upon their right to become the ruling monarch infanta caterina duchess of pogranza philip ii of spain and antonio prior of krato were the claimants but only one antonio would be chosen and subsequently crowned in 1580 still some backed philip instead and decided to leave the country for spain in response with the support of multiple members of the council of governors of portugal philip decided to invade portugal and attacked the champions of antonio.

at the battle of alcantara philip came out victorious and was soon proclaimed the new king of portugal which now united the crowns of the iberian peninsula under the house of habsburg in the first step toward the anticipated union after two years though philip left portugal to return to madrid where he formed the council of portugal to maintain affairs across the border he also left his nephew albert of austria.

as viceroy of lisbon to assist with this leadership for the most part the habsburg monarch wanted to maintain almost total autonomy for portugal and simply viewed the government back in madrid as a type of supervisor to the matters of portugal both local and overseas possessions and authority of portugal were left to the portuguese for the most part although this would quickly prove to be insufficient in many ways prior to uniting with the iberian neighbor portugal was an impressive and actively expanding colonial empire with its own set of enemies and allies but after coming under.

the crown of the spanish king the enemies of spain became the enemies of portugal this meant that even one of portugal’s oldest allies england whom it had been locked in a treaty with since 1386 was suddenly no longer friendly towards portugal or its overseas possessions and neither were the french or dutch who began repeated attacks on portuguese colonial interests and territories this stirred up significant concerns about the efforts of the union in portugal and the death of philip ii in 1598 showed the portuguese that their fears may have been more valid than they realized following.

the monarch’s passing his son philip iii took the throne of both portugal and spain as anticipated while the new philip wasn’t necessarily a bad king he was not quite a good one for the union it was apparent from early on that he favored spain in many ways and he failed to even visit portugal himself until 1619 he also raised taxes on the portuguese to help with spanish expenses and these tax hikes had a significant impact on portuguese merchants who were understandably displeased with the monarch.

The Iberian Union Fail


previously a vast number of portuguese nobility and politicians had been in favor of the union supportive of the habsburg rulers but now under philip iii portuguese members of the governing council were replaced by spaniards and even the pro-union nobility began to be alienated by the crown making matters worse the spaniards were pushing an agenda to make portugal equally as financial and militarily responsible for participation.

in spanish wars as the spaniards themselves despite the early promises of autonomy now portugal was expected to act as another limb of spain which was something that the distancing portuguese were far from willing to do the spanish had failed to protect portugal’s oversea interests from spain’s own enemies so this demand from the crown was surely step too far the portuguese people of all classes were now united in the fact that they must regain independence simultaneously the spanish were trapped in the 30 years war as the catalan revolt erupted at the other end of the peninsula.

this prompted a sudden reaction from the portuguese who knew that now would be the perfect time to make their own move against the monarchy presently in 1640 a group of portuguese nationalists known as the 40 conspirators and led by anteovas jalmalda miguel de almeida and joe pinto hibero planned what would be done next as december rolled around the revolution began and the spanish were caught weakened and unprepared violence broke out.

as the portuguese demanded their freedom from what would later become known as spanish captivity and the crown’s secretary of state miguel givascon celos was killed in the chaos as the unrelenting portuguese pushed on they managed to capture the current viceroy of portugal and cousin of the king margaret of savoy and quickly crowns jon the duke of braganza as the new king of portugal john swiftly declared portugal’s sovereignty.

which triggered the portuguese revolution war against the newly single spain the war would last until the signing of the treaty of lisbon in 1668 and it was made up of repeated small border skirmishes occasionally interrupted by important battles such as the ones at the lines of elvis amatio castelo rodrigo montes carlos villanova berlingas and montijo most of these larger clashes resulted in portuguese victories and it didn’t take long for the new king john to begin consolidating portugal’s sovereignty and power.


of course spain did fight back in an attempt to maintain the iberian union due to the lack of consequences it seemed to create on that end but this was to no avail spain was run thin from the catalan revolt and 30 years war and not only was portugal a challenging opponent at the time but they also had support from england and france throughout the war the spanish people were similarly furious at the crown for wasting so much money.

on the conflict and gaining nothing from it resulting in protests across madrid eventually spain was forced to accept defeat the iberian union was unsalvageable and by february of 1668 the war was concluded and the spanish crown recognized the independence of its neighbor so why did the iberian union fail the reasons mostly lie with the portuguese although initially the habsburg monarchs had promised to maintain autonomy for portugal over time this just didn’t prove to be true the pressure from spain for portugal to act with them in unity while also replacing portuguese.

in the government with spaniards was a direct contradiction to such autonomy and the increased taxes in an attempt to burden portugal with spanish spending was a further disrespect the loss of portuguese allies was incredibly damaging to both the former empire and the union as a whole as spain’s enemies became portugal’s enemies the latter was losing colonial possessions and trade dominance overseas.

which was a major blow to the nation this revealed an immediate flaw in the existence of the union and the lack of immediate defense from the spanish created animosity and alienation overall the habsburg monarchs seemed to have favored spain far too much causing the portuguese to feel more as though they were under the occupation of spain.

as opposed to being united as one possibly if the kings had done a better job at creating a fair and equal relationship more than just financially and militarily when it benefited spain the union could have worked or at least lasted longer than it did it appears that the ultimate failure of the union boils down to portuguese grievances with the governing system and attitude of the crown.


although there would have still been the issue of portugal losing allies and suddenly having to protect its oversea assets from the english french and dutch nonetheless this may have been viewed as less of a concern in the case that the other problems faced by portugal in the union had not existed had spain come to the aid of portugal in response to its adversaries attacks this alone may have also kept the union running a bit more smoothly with less bitterness regardless though these are the factors that eventually and somewhat predictably led to the demise and dissolution of the iberian union.

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