Spanish Empire facts for kids

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Spanish Empire

Imperio Español
Flag of Spanish Empire
Cross of Burgundy Flag
Coat of arms of Spanish Empire
Coat of arms
Spanish Empire Anachronous 0.PNG
Capital Toledo (1492-1561) Madrid (since 1561)
Common languages Spanish
Roman Catholic
Government Monarchy
• 1516-1556
Charles I
• 1886-1902
Maria Christina of Austria, Regent during the minority of king Alphonse XIII
House of Habsburg
House of Bourbon
• Discovery of the Americas
• Conquest of the Aztec Empire
• Conquest of the Inca Empire
• Loss of the Spanish Sahara
Currency Spanish real, Spanish escudo
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Catholic Monarchs

The Spanish Empire was one of the largest empires in history, and one of the first global empires.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain was a very powerful country. It led European exploration of the world, building the largest colonies in the New World at the time. Spain also created trade routes across the oceans. The Spanish traded goods across the Atlantic Ocean, between Spain and its colonies in the Americas. They also traded across the Pacific Ocean, between Asian-Pacific countries and Mexico.

Spanish Conquistadors destroyed the Aztec, Inca, and Maya Empires. They took large territories in North, South America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Spain made these territories into colonies. Spain, especially the kingdom of Castile, became much more powerful. Also, through marriage, the Spanish monarchs created alliances with the Crown of Aragon (and later on, temporarily, Austria). This allowed the Spanish Empire to gain control of many territories in Europe. With all of these territories and colonies across the world, the Spanish Empire became the greatest and richest empire in the world.

For a time, the Spanish Empire was a great power in the oceans, with its experienced navy. It was also very powerful in European land battles, with its well-trained infantry. Spain enjoyed a cultural golden age in the 16th and 17th centuries.

However, eventually, the French, Portuguese, and British Empires gained power and land in the New World. Starting in the second half of the 17th century, the Spanish Empire began to suffer bankruptcies, and its military began to lose battles and colonies. Finally, in the 19th century, Spain lost its last major colonies in the Spanish-American War.


Invincible Armada
The Spanish Armada leaving the Bay of Ferrol (1588)

The Spanish Empire was very big, and was scattered all over the world. It was constantly fighting with other powers about territories, trade, or religion. For example, the Spanish Empire fought:

Many of these different powers fought constantly, often at the same time, for long periods. They fought about both political and religious differences. Each empire wanted to be the most powerful and to control the most colonies and trade.

In Europe

The Spanish Empire slowly lost power, as it gradually lost territory to other empires. In 1648, Spain and many other powers signed the Peace of Westphalia, which ended both the Thirty Years' War and the Eighty Years' War. In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees ended fighting between France and Spain. With these treaties, Spain began to lose its status as one of the world's greatest powers.

In 1713, Felipe V signed the Peace of Utrecht. In this treaty, Spain gave up its territories in Italy and The Netherlands. Spain was no longer Europe's greatest power. However, it would still have an important role in European politics.


However, during this time, Spain kept its large overseas empire, and even made it larger. The Spanish Empire fought with the British Empire, which was trying to take over more of America; the French Empire; and the Dutch in the New World. Spain remained a major economic power until it lost its colonies in the Americas through revolutions.


Spain kept control of two colonies in its empire in America: Cuba and Puerto Rico. It also held onto the Philippines and some preserved islands in Oceania, including the Carolinas (including the Palau Islands) and the Marianas (including Guam). However, when Spain lost the Spanish-American War of 1898, it lost almost all of these last territories. Spain kept control only of the small islands of Oceania (not including Guam). Spain sold these islands to Germany in 1899 .

Spain tried to make up for these losses by creating a second colonial empire in Africa. Spain controlled Morocco, Western Sahara, and Equatorial Guinea, until decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s. The last colony to gain its independence was the Sahara, in 1975.


The Spanish Empire generally means Spain's overseas colonies in the Americas, the Pacific, and elsewhere. But it is not clear what is exactly part of the Spanish Empire. For instance, traditionally, territiories such as the Low Countries or Spanish Netherlands were included as they were part of the possessions of the King of Spain, governed by Spanish officials and defended by Spanish troops. But the British historian Henry Kamen writes that these territories were never part of a "Spanish" state and instead formed part of the wider Habsburg estate. Therefore, many historians use both "Habsburg" and "Spanish" when they speak of the empire of Charles V or Philip II. However, the Low Countries were effectively part of Spain during that period.

Philip II's realms in 1598
Philip II's realms in 1598, showing its administrative structure during the Iberian Union, 1580-1640.

Portugal was occupied by Spanish forces and was ruled by the same monarch in "personal union", but Portugal remained a separate state. The Portuguese empire continued to be ruled from Lisbon during this period. Therefore, there was a joint Spanish-Portuguese rule for some time. These jointly run empires have sometimes been called the Spanish-Portuguese Empire, but they were not parts of one state.

Aragonese Empire
Historically incorrect map of the Aragonese Crown

The 1469 marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile created a personal union of Aragon and Castile.

La Rendición de Granada - Pradilla
Surrender of Granada's king in the presence of the Catholic Kings.

In 1492, Spain drove out the last Moorish king of Granada. This unified the Iberian peninsula, except for Portugal. After their victory, the Spanish monarchs allowed Christopher Columbus to try to reach India by sailing west. Columbus instead "discovered" America. That was the start of the Spanish colonization of the continent.

Columbus Taking Possession
Christopher Columbus taking possession of La Española.

By the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, the globe was divided into two hemispheres between Spain and Portugal. Therefore, Spain had the right to start colonies in all of the New World from Alaska to Cape Horn (except Brazil), as well as Asia. The Castilian Empire was the result of a period of rapid colonial expansion into the New World, as well as the Philippines and colonies in Africa: Melilla was captured by Castile in 1497 and Oran in 1509.

Results till today

The Spanish language and the Roman Catholic Church were brought to the Americas and to the Spanish East Indies (Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Marianas, Palau and the Philippines) by the Spanish colonization which began in the 15th century. Together with the Portuguese empire, the Spanish empire laid the foundations of a globalised trade by opening up the great trans-oceanic trade routes. Modern International law has its roots in the Spanish colonial expansion and bad experience with imperialism as well.

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