Spain was once the singular superpower of the world. During that time Spanish Royalty expanded their empire to include holdings on five of the seven continents and several island nations. The story of the Spanish Empire begins with the unification of Spain, but not a melting pot kind of unification. Some parts of Spain remained explicitly separate. The story might really begin with the division of kingdoms in August of 1157.
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Castile and León have been united and divided many times. The last time they were separated was in August of 1157 when King Alfonzo VII died. His son Sancho III was granted Castile and Toledo, while his son Fernando II inherited León and Galicia. This action reintroduced the separation between the Kingdom of Castile and the Kingdom of León.
Sancho’s heraldry was a light-colored castle on a darker field, and his brother Fernando’s heraldry was a dark lion on a light-colored field. Fast forward about 300 years to the early modern era of so-called Unified Spain, and the Catholic Monarchs are maintaining that separation while simultaneously building the Spanish Empire.
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Spain’s early modern era began in the mid-15th century. Three events led up to unification and the dawn of the early modern era, the first was the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal, the second was the defeat of Muhammed XII of Granada through a series of seasonal battles, and the third was the marriage of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II. From this point, historians usually agree to the use of the term, Unified Spain, to define this conquering power.
Under the direction of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Unified Spain started taking territory all around the world. Despite the social and international alliance, the kingdoms of Castile and León maintained separate laws and political ideologies. Columbus sailed for Queen Isabella I of Spain and León. The Spanish Inquisition terrorized Europe for King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Castile. The Catholic Monarch union merged the control of these lands but this union did not erase the independence of internal kingdom. The union of kingdoms can be viewed in a similar manner to modern unions of states.
Since the early days of cooperation between Castile and León, the emblematic lion and castle were found on opposite sides of coins from the region. Sometime in the early 13th century, Spanish heraldry merged the kingdoms’ arms into a unified image for use in milling coins. Variations on the unified shield theme are found on Spanish circulating coinage from as early as Alfonso X’s rule in the mid-13th century until the year 1999 as Spain switched to the Euro. The shield is still engraved on some non-circulating coins.
When Spain colonized distant lands they preferred to mint coinage there, rather than transport silver across the oceans. Piracy was a real problem. Colonial Spanish coins show a crowned Castile and León shield, centered between crowned two pillars. The festooned pillars represent the Straights of Gibraltar, also known as the Pillars of Hercules. Finding a colonial coin with a legible ribbon is a real treat. The ribbon was used by engravers as a banner, and on it they wrote, “plus ultra,” to reference the extent of the empire “further beyond” the straights.
An interesting detail on colonial coins, and on flags, is that the crowns on the pillars do not match. One is a rendering of Queen Isabella I’s crown and the other is a rendering of King Ferdinand II’s. This detail shows how devoted the colonial Spanish nation was to the separation of internal powers – it shows that they respected the autonomy of internal states under the monarchy. The lack of respect for autonomy and overreach by the monarchy contributed to the rise of both the first and second Spanish Republics.
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You can learn more about Spanish history by exploring these digitized primary sources from the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.
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