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Iberian Peninsula

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Iberian Peninsula

As Europe came out the middle ages, the fragmentation of geographical areas due to war, religion, and social divisions was common. The Iberian Peninsula is an exemplary case study on the fragmentation of kingdoms and border disputes that characterised Early Modern Europe. From Roman to Visigoth to Muslim and then back to Christian, the Iberian Peninsula underwent dramatic transformations before becoming the Spain and Portugal we know today. This article will explore the political, social, economic, and religious conditions of the Iberian Peninsula from 1469.

The geopolitical landscape of the Iberian Peninsula

A space indelibly marked by its diverse communities, the Iberian Peninsula refers to the areas of modern-day Spain and Portugal. In the early modern period, it was a fragmented region that consisted of independently run districts under Catholic and Muslim rule. In 1469, the Iberian Peninsula consisted of independently ruled territories and had a population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews living in what was termed convivencia.

Convivencia

A Spanish term meaning ‘co-existence.’ It referred to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities that resided together in the Peninsula until 1492.

Iberian Peninsula map

The Iberian peninsula is located in the West of Europe where modern-day Spain and Portugal are.

Iberian Peninsula Modern day Spain and Portugal StudySmarterMap of modern-day Spain and Portugal, created with mapchart.net - StudySmarter Originals.

Fun fact! - The longest river in the Iberian Peninsula is the Tagus River. The main cities that the river passes are Aranjuez, Toledo, Talavera de la Reina (Spain), and Abrantes, Santarem, Almada and Lisbon (Portugal). The river was often utilised as a strategic tool of security for the empires of Portugal and Spain as it guarded the entrance to Lisbon.

Dynastic developments of the Iberian Peninsula

Dynastic politics were an important instrument of change in Early Modern Europe. The Iberian Peninsula was well known for prevalent dynastic changes. This section will give you a historical understanding of the dynastic developments which laid the foundation for the eventual unification of Spain. Below is a simplified timeline of the different kingdoms that occupied the region.

Iberian Peninsula Dynastic developments StudySmarterSimplified timeline of the different dynasties that ruled the Iberian peninsula - StudySmarter Originals.

Dynasty

A succession of people from the same lineage or family tree.

Muslim conquest and Al-Andalus

Early medieval Spain was ruled by the kingdom of Arianist Visigoths, a Christian Germanic tribe, which conquered the Iberian Peninsula after the Romans and converted to Catholicism in the late sixth century. In the eighth century, the Muslim Umayyad caliphate conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, forcing many of the Catholic Visigoths to retreat to the North of Spain.

Caliphate

A government ruled by a chief Muslim ruler (a caliph).

The Muslims then established a territory called Al-Andalus that, at its peak, controlled most of Spain, Portugal, and even part of Southern France.

This area was split into five different administrative units:

  • Andalusia

  • Portugal and Galicia

  • Castile and León

  • Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia

  • Languedoc-Roussillon (Southern France)

Iberian Peninsula, Map of the Umayyad Dynasty at its greatest extent StudySmarterMap of the Umayyad Dynasty at its greatest extent, Wikimedia Commons.

What was the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula?

Reconquista

Spanish word for 'reconquest', the action of conquering a place or people again.

From the eighth century onwards, the Christian groups in the North attempted to reconquer lands from the Muslims. This resulted in a 700-year war in which the Christians gradually gained more strength and acquired more territories. By the thirteenth century, major Muslim strongholds had fallen to the Christians, who had acquired almost the entire peninsula apart from Granada, ruled by the Nasrid Dynasty.

Nasrid Dynasty

A long-ruling Muslim dynasty in Spain.

Iberian Peninsula, Map of the Emirate of Granada StudySmarterMap of the Emirate of Granada. Amitchell125, CC-BY-SA-4.0, commons.wikimedia.org

The Reconquista of Granada

From 1482–92, King Ferdinand II of Aragon (joint ruler of Spain with Isabella I) directed a series of campaigns against the Muslim kingdom of Granada, aiming to reconquer it as Christian territory. Internal conflict and civil war had left the Granadans weak, but the Christians were generally unified, giving them the advantage. A long siege in January 1492 forced Sultan Muhammad XII to surrender the city and Spain was brought under Catholic rule.

Sultan

A Muslim ruler.

How did the Iberian Peninsula change under the Catholic Monarchs?

The rule over the kingdoms of the peninsula changed dramatically under the Catholic Monarchs. The five independent kingdoms were eventually ruled by one king in the late sixteenth century.

The independent kingdoms

Although the Reconquista had returned the states to Christian rule, this did not mean Spain was unified. It was split into different kingdoms, ruled by family dynasties. Unifying or establishing power in another kingdom meant invading or setting up a marriage alliance, which was not necessarily the peaceful compromise you would expect. These alliances frequently resulted in wars of succession due to multiple rulers having a right to the throne. For example, when Isabella I ascended the throne, a war broke out in Portugal over another potential accessor.

Ferdinand and Isabella partially united the peninsula with Ferdinand's invasion and absorption of Navarre into Aragon in 1512. This anexation transformed the geo-politics of the area once again, consolidating three kingdoms: Castile (with Granada), Aragon (with Navarre), and Portugal. These regions were independent of each other and run locally rather than by the Crown.

Charles I

Under their grandson, King Charles I of Castile and Aragon, the two regions of Castile and Aragon united. Charles also had hopes of bringing Portugal under his reign and married the Portuguese princess Isabella of Portugal to produce an heir to the Spanish and Portuguese throne.

Religion

The population of the Iberian Peninsula consisted of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, who had lived in convivencia up until the late fifteenth century. However, the Catholic Monarchs brought religious honour with them into their reign. This evolved into the Spanish Inquisition, which forced many Muslims and Jews to convert or leave the peninsula. While many people still observed Islam and Judaism in secret, the dynamics of the peninsula changed. A large proportion of the Jewish and Muslim population emigrated from the region as a result of persecution but their legacies in the form of architecture, language, and culture remain to this day.

How did Spain and Portugal’s relationship change?

The story of Spain and Portugal and their respective dynasties is similar to bickering siblings. You unite on issues that benefit both parties (for Castile and Portugal, the Reconquista) but argue viciously to maintain your respective spaces (i.e. the War of Castillian Succession). Although they are on the same peninsula and were eventually ruled by the same Crown, Spain and Portugal were two separate countries. Arguments over succession or maritime conflicts led to wars between the two during the early modern period.

The War of Castilian Succession

When Isabella I ascended to the throne in 1474, a plot to install Henry IV’s daughter as the rightful queen led to a war between Castile and Portugal. This was known as the War of Castilian Succession. The Catholic Monarchs achieved a great victory at the Battle of Toro in 1476, establishing Isabella as a strong leader and securing her position as Castile's Queen.

The war continued until 1479 with Castile winning on land and Portugal winning at sea. Whilst the win on land constituted a victory for the Catholic Monarchs, the Portuguese acquisition of exclusive right to navigation in the Atlantic represented a major loss of potential wealth and power for Spain. Christopher Columbus’ discoveries later changed this situation.

Overseas expansion and the Treaty of Tordesillas

The expansion of the Iberian Peninsula’s ‘imperial’ borders occurred during the European Age of exploration. One of the most notable Iberian explorers, Christopher Columbus, travelled to the Americas thinking he had discovered a new commerce route with India and claimed the ‘discovery’ of the West Indies in 1492. Columbus insisted in many of his records that these areas were part of the Asian continent, hence the labelling of the ‘West Indies.’

Contrary to popular opinion, Columbus did not ‘discover’ the Americas neither did the other European explorers of the time. Columbus’ navigation to the Americas did define a virulent period of colonisation, conquest, enslavement, and empire that transformed the world and brought the Iberian Peninsula to the forefront of that global stage.

The Spanish laid claim to the islands they had ‘discovered’ as well as mainland South America with the Inter caetera of 1493, a papal bull that was issued to give Spaniards the right to these areas. As Portuguese sailors were also exploring these areas, the Spanish and Portuguese rulers decided that they needed a division of influence to prevent conflict between them.

Papal bull

An important letter or document by the Pope (here, issuing something by law).

The Treaty of Tordesillas was thus established in 1494. The treaty divided the territories between the two powers: the Portuguese received everything east of the Cape Verde Islands (giving them Africa, Asia, and part of Brazil) and Spain received anything west of this line (giving them control over the western part of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean islands). The treaty would be beneficial for Spain later in the sixteenth century with the discovery of Mexico and Peru as their part of the divided territories was actually bigger than what they had thought.

Iberian Peninsula Map of the demarcation line under the Treaty of Tordesillas StudySmarterMap of the demarcation line under the Treaty of Tordesillas, Wikimedia Commons.

King Philip II

The death of King Sebastian of Portugal in 1578 triggered a succession crisis as he did not have an heir. Phillip II of Spain claimed the throne and António, Prior of Crato, was acclaimed King of Portugal across many cities. In the end, Philip was crowned on account of the considerable support base he had accrued.

Philip II marched into Portugal and defeated António's troops in the Battle of Alcântara. He then assumed the Portuguese throne in 1580 and was crowned Philip I of Portugal in 1581. This united Spain and Portugal under one crown, a unity that was continued by his successors.

The Conquest of Portugal

An example of a possible exam question may be:

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

For this exam question, you will need to look to explore contrasting arguments and come to your own conclusion. Have a look at the table below to see some examples of for and against arguments:

For (beneficial)Against (not beneficial)
  • The Iberian Peninsula was fully unified for the first time since the Roman occupation, which brought incredible prestige to Philip II.
  • Portugal had key overseas colonies, that benefitted Spain commercially.
  • Portugal could be used as a barricade, protecting Spain on its western side.
  • Portugal had a strategic position for later wars such as the Eighty Years’ War, which Spain utilised.
  • It was unpopular amongst Portuguese people and the Spanish crown had to pay out bribes to the nobility for compliance.
  • Portugal was a financial burden for Spain. Spain did not impose taxes or benefit from Portuguese trade profits as Portugal stayed autonomous.
  • The cost of trying to protect the Portuguese empire also brought with it great financial difficulties to Spain.
  • It was seen as a strategic base to extend Spanish influence in Northern Europe, leading to disastrous foreign policies with England.

Iberian Peninsula - Key takeaways

  • The Iberian Peninsula consisted of modern-day Spain and Portugal.

  • The region was indelibly marked by its religious, social, and political diversity.

  • The history of the Iberian Peninsula can be traced back to the Arianist Visigoths, who conquered the Romans.

  • A Muslim invasion in the eighth century led to the Visigoths retreating to Northern Spain.

  • Over the next 700 years, the Christian Visigoths in the North battled with the Muslims to reconquer Spain (the Reconquista). By the thirteenth century, they had reconquered everything but Granada.

  • In 1492, Ferdinand conquered Granada and Castile and absorbed them to create a Catholic-run peninsula.

  • Ferdinand’s invasion of the Kingdom of Navarre created three kingdoms: Castile (with Granada); Aragon (with Navarre) and Portugal.

  • The population of the Iberian Peninsula consisted of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but the Spanish Inquisition led to the expulsion or death of much of the Jewish and Muslim populations.

  • Portugal and Spain went from warring countries to establishing treaties and eventual unity under the crown of King Phillip II.

Frequently Asked Questions about Iberian Peninsula

The Iberian Peninsula is the area of modern-day Spain and Portugal in southwestern Europe.

The Iberian Peninsula is the name given to the area in southwestern Europe, which consists of modern-day Spain and Portugal.

Modern-day Spain and Portugal make up the Iberian Peninsula.

Final Iberian Peninsula Quiz

Question

Who were the Arianist Visigoths?


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Answer

The Arianist Visigoths were a Christian Germanic tribe who conquered the Iberian Peninsula after the Romans. They converted to Catholicism in the late sixth century.


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Question

Which regions were part of Al-Andalus? 


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Answer

Northern Spain


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Question

What had happened to Spain and the Reconquista by the thirteenth century?


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Answer

By the thirteenth century, major Muslim strongholds had fallen to the Christians, who had acquired almost the entire peninsula apart from Granada, ruled by the Nasrid Dynasty.


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Question

Why was Ferdinand’s reconquest of Granada so important?


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Answer

The Conquest of Granada brought Spain under Catholic rule and was a huge success for Isabella and Ferdinand. The region of Granada was absorbed by Castile, further uniting Spain. It also made Christopher Columbus’ voyages possible as Spanish rulers could devote more time to overseas exploration now that internal disputes and territories had been settled.

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Question

To what extent was Spain unified after the Reconquista?


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Answer

In terms of geographical rule, Spain was unified after the Reconquista as the Catholics had reconquered all of the Muslim kingdoms. However, each kingdom was ruled independently and was culturally and politically very different. Whilst Catholicism ruled, Muslims and Jews still lived in convivencia, meaning that religion was not fully unified (later leading to the Spanish Inquisition). Essentially Spain was superficially unified after the reconquest of Granada. It would take marriage alliances and more invasions to unify the country.


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Question

What three kingdoms existed after 1512?


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Answer

Castile (with Granada)


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Question

How did the Spanish Inquisition affect Jews and Muslims living in the Iberian Peninsula?


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Answer

Jews and Muslims living in Spain were asked to convert to Christianity or face expulsion from the country. Many chose baptism but still practised their faith in secret. The Spanish Inquisition sought to use judicial institutions to find these ‘heretics’ (often Marranos/ Conversos and Moriscos) and either jailed, exiled, tortured or killed them. Many fled Spain.

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Question

How did the War of Castilian Succession affect Isabella?


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Answer

Isabella’s victory during the War of Castilian Succession, where she put down a plot to oust her from the throne, strengthened her power as ruler. In particular, the Catholic Monarchs’ victory at the Battle of Toro in 1476 established her as a strong leader.


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Question

Why did Portugal’s victory at sea represent a major loss for the Catholic Monarchs?


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Answer

It meant the Portuguese had the exclusive right to navigation in the Atlantic where they could acquire wealth and power from conquering new lands.


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Question

How did the Treaty of Tordesillas prevent conflict between Spain and Portugal?


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Answer

Spain and Portugal were both exploring the New World and there was potential for disputes over the territories. The treaty divided the territories between the two powers. The Portuguese received everything east of the Cape Verde Islands (giving them Africa, Asia, and Brazil) and Spain received everything west of this line (giving them control over the western part of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean islands).


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Question

What led to Philip II becoming the King of Portugal in 1581?


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Answer

The death of King Sebastian of Portugal in 1578 triggered a succession crisis as he did not have an heir. Phillip II of Spain claimed the throne and António, Prior of Crato, was acclaimed King of Portugal across many cities. In the end, Philip was crowned on account of the considerable support base he had accrued.

Philip II marched into Portugal and defeated António’s troops in the Battle of Alcântara. He then assumed the Portuguese throne in 1580 and was crowned Philip I of Portugal in 1581.


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