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Le Portugal au temps du comte-duc d’Olivares (1621-1640)

Jean-Frédéric Schaub



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1There are a number of peculiar features which set Portugal apart from other non-Castilian territories of the Spanish monarchy in the late 16th century. The dynastic union lasted sixty years. From 1580 to 1640, three kings of Castile —Philip II, Philip III and Philip IV— were also kings of Portugal. Thereafter, Portugal would never again share its monarchs with other crowns. Close but separate are the terms that best describe the imperfect union of the Peninsula. Common traits there were —the shared experience of Catholic victory over Islam in Spain; oceanic ventures peppered with instances of emulation and cooperation; and a cultural and political identity forged by the defence of orthodox Catholicism, whose extreme manifestation was the Inquisition. As to the language difference, this could not have been an absolute barrier to judge by the persistence of linguistic plurality in contemporary Spain.

2The dynastic union of 1580 was founded upon a marriage contract in which the partners’ assets were kept strictly separate. The essential core of Portuguese institutions was strictly autonomous under the monarchy, which meant that no matter concerning Portuguese lands or subjects could be examined by non-Portuguese magistrates. In other words, only Portuguese officials could act in Portuguese territory. None of the bodies which the house of Avis had created to help it govern was dissolved. Under the political pact hammered out in 1581 at the Cortes of Tomar and the political criteria followed by the magistrates of all three Habsburg monarchs of Portugal, the Portuguese jurist Antonio de Sousa de Macedo felt justified in writing in 1631 that Portugal was an independent kingdom. Three hundred and sixty years were to pass before Portuguese historians would finally take his analysis seriously, thanks to an outstanding critical effort to dismantle the ideological fabrication which had coloured the history of the dynastic union from 1640 through to the Salazar regime.

3The paradox leading to an analysis of the restoration of an independence which had never been lost originates first and foremost in the fact that for us, the concept of autonomy has lost much of its original substance and in contemporary political parlance tends to be used to designate a lesser or truncated form of independence. However, it will be well to restore its full original import. For a republic, the power to live under its own laws signifies the possibility of existing without having any superior temporal power dictate its legal organization or restrict its privileges and immunities —that is, without any constraints on its social identity. It is precisely on this point that contemporary political notions fail adequately to account for historical socio-political structures. In fact it was the emergence of the sovereign state that later brought about the hierarchical distinction between (limited) autonomy and (unlimited) independence. Unquestionably, at the time of the dynastic union there was no place for Portuguese national sovereignty in the European or world political stage; however, the true significance of this assertion only becomes clear if we ask the question: what national sovereignty had a place within the framework of the Spanish monarchy? The answer is, none. There was as little room for Castilian sovereignty as for Portuguese, and for a very simple reason —i.e., in neither case could sovereignty be embodied by a nation, given that no such political entity as yet existed.

4The preservation of Portuguese autonomy under the Spanish monarchy is unique in political, institutional, legal and social terms in the contemporary age. At the same time, this unusual political structure demands analysis as a peculiar feature of Portuguese society and as a distinctive trait of the Spanish monarchy. Any discussion of the political evolution of the Portuguese crown during the ministry of Olivares therefore raises questions about the political organization of territories under separate sovereignty in the Ancien Regime, and about what kinds of decision could be perceived as violating the established rules of the game in such circumstances.

5The Count-Duke of Olivares, the minister par excellence, was a successor rather than an originator, assuming the habits of King’s favourites already tried and tested by the Dukes of Lerma and Uceda in the reign of Philip III. He expedited urgent matters by summoning Juntas (courts both ad hoc and permanent), a method widely used at least since the reign of Philip II. And again, in the use of extraordinary taxes, symbolized by the millones of the Prudent Monarch, don Gaspar de Guzman was no innovator. Nonetheless, Olivares’ ministry did introduce one undeniable innovation —for the first time, a king’s favourite, the only person apart from the monarch with simultaneous access to the activity of all the monarchy’s Councils and Juntas., drew up, presented and distributed (albeit only in the Court) a political programme. This point may seem trivial today, but it is in fact absolutely crucial.

6In the sphere of politics, the drawing up of a programme transcends the bounds of attention to the dictates of Providence and of submission to the verdicts of courts of whatever jurisdiction. From the standpoint of the Christian theory of political authority, the act of drafting programmes is allied to the arbitrio vouchsafed by a subject to his king, or to the will expressed by the king —the royal discretion— as opposed to the arbitral or passive function of the monarch as provider of justice. Internally, what Olivares propounded, from the Gran Memorial to the Unión de Armas, was a strengthening of the political, jurisdictional, financial and military ties that bound the monarchy’s territories together. Olivares’s discourse is performative inasmuch as it sanctions the emergence of a political ministry parallel to the ordinary jurisdiction of the monarch. It embodies the triumph of delegated jurisdiction at the supreme level. At the same time, the favourite becomes the target of all discontent. The slogan «Long live the King, down with the dirty minister» was never more pertinent than when applied to Olivares, who suffered every possible form of eschewal, from aristocratic conspiracies, court boycotts, popular revolts and pamphleteering to final disgrace. However, this rejection was also a response to material decisions. He was the author of a number of outstanding measures such as the second exaction of the millones, the media annata tax, the salt tax and government stamped paper. His reputation, especially among the Portuguese, was blackened by the accusation of complaisance with New Christian financiers.

7The political history of Portugal in the years 1621-1640 provides a yardstick of opinion on the policies of Olivares as seen from one of the monarchy’s non-Castilian lands. At the same time, the Count-Duke’s Portuguese policy is a good basis for an analysis of the status of a peripheral crown territory within the Habsburg system.

8In fact, little attention has been paid to this subject. With the exception of some fundamental studies now in progress, there has been no global study of Habsburg Portugal in general, and the Olivares period in particular. There are two explanations for this silence. The first is ideological and reflects Portuguese reluctance to address a period perceived as a shameful loss of independence. The second is more substantial and derives from the state of available sources. To date, no complete correspondence has been found from any of the major courts or governmental bodies recording the principal decisions concerning the Crown of Portugal —the Council of Portugal in Madrid, or the Conselho de Estado or Desembargo do Paço in Lisbon. What we have, then, is a series of documentary sources which are isolated and as such incomplete, distributed mainly in archives in Portugal, Spain and England.

9According to the traditional historiographic interpretation, the entire history of this period is dominated by its fateful conclusion with the separation of 1640. There would be little point to the present work were we to maintain such a viewpoint. To get away from this, it was necessary to abandon the amalgamation method whereby documents are gathered together without any reference to the conditions in which they were produced, disseminated or even preserved as sources. Let us therefore begin by distinguishing the various types of document: printed or manuscript texts intended for circulation are examined in the first part. The intention is, without necessarily prejudging the reliability of the notion of «political literature», to identify certain views of the monarchy and to determine how frequent or common they are, in order to help resist the sometimes overwhelming temptation to attribute a measure of originality to the discourses maintained in royal correspondence. Such an approach is not purely negative in that it also seeks to reveal part of the political alphabet which the protagonists understood and used in common. In the second part we look at the correspondence exchanged between the principal institutions of the monarchy and the Portuguese crown, the king, the favourite, the secretaries of state, the Council of Portugal, the Conselho de Estado and the viceroys, and also magistrates’ reports and instructions to governors. With a study of this kind, we can offer a political history of the major decisions concerning the organization of Portuguese government in the period. This is completed by another key source —namely, documents from the political business of the Secretary of State Diogo Soares. And finally, the third part assembles as much documentation as possible on the Castilian institutions that were called on to exercise a part of their jurisdiction in Portuguese territory. This last part has enabled us to examine a type of correspondence whose purpose was to report on day-to-day political practice.

10Such an arrangement of sources generates different levels of observation. Starting with the vocabulary and cultural milieu, we move on to general decisions and from there to detailed analysis of the routine exercise of power. And indeed we gain a different view of the monarchy at each of these levels.

11Who wrote about politics? Research shows that in this corporative society, it is the jurists —and also the theologians— who have the privilege of legitimately expounding on the nature of monarchy. In this sense they are-different from and opposed to the free-wheeling schemers known as arbitristas. At one end, the lawyers dominated the field of textual output inasmuch as they were the authors of almost everything written about politics. And at the other end, at least as far as the circulation of printed matter is concerned, they were partly in control given that they shared with the Church and the Inquisition the task of censoring or authorizing the publication of texts.

12The discourse of the jurists originated in the law faculties and was exercised in the courts of the monarchy. It is therefore hazardous to try and circumscribe a specific political sphere within legal literature as separate from the jurisprudential practices on which they are a commentary. The dynastic union, the temptation of tyrannicide, the notion of contract, the position of the prince as above the law, or the hierarchy of jurisdictions —these are some of the fields on which learned dissertations were produced, adorned with quotes from the most eminent authorities and reflecting the legal practices of the time. The field of politics is expressed in terms of jurisdiction, a fact which far from confining research to the realm of scholastic abstraction, allows us a better understanding of how political decisions were made in that age. Indeed, dialectic subtlety and erudite virtuosity were no parlour games but weapons with which to wield power. In writing as jurists about politics, these authors went full circle, building up a sphere of governance entirely encompassed by the law of which they were the interpreters and creators. An examination of the discourse of jurists is in fact germane to a history of Ancien Regime politics, since in the polysynodical system it was these same jurists who submitted the Councils’ consultas to the king and who issued the decisions of Audiencias, Chancillerías and Relações.

13Armed with a set of conceptual tools enitrely removed from the notions and vocabulary of contemporary administrative, public and constitutional law, the historian is able to read new meaning into the political correspondence exchanged between Madrid and Lisbon in this period. Such an analysis makes it possible to place each polemic episode in context rather than simply consigning it to the catch-all of Portuguese disgruntlement.

14Fine-tuned institutional research focusing more closely on real mechanisms and competences qualifies the scope and the boldness of the reforms promoted by Olivares and his Portuguese agents. Moreover, detailed examination of the exchange of letters between Portuguese elites and the court at Madrid belies the existence of a national opposition. In fact, from the outset of the dynastic union many Portuguese grandees had networks of agents and relatives in Madrid working in clan interests.

15There is no doubt that the appointment of Diogo Soares as Secretary of the Council of Portugal in Madrid in 1631 marked a qualitative change. For the first time, a Portuguese financial official established a monopoly on the distribution of Portuguese gifts and pensions from his office in Madrid, thus providing Olivares with a lever on the Portuguese elites, Diogo Soares became in a sense a Portuguese favourite of the Spanish favourite. Miguel de Vasconcelos, his brother-in-law and later his father-in-law, was secretary to the Conselho de Estado at Lisbon, and between them they wove a web of influences linking the two capitals in a manner unknown since 1580. The system that they established possessed the virtue of clarifying the positions of either party with respect to policy on extraordinary taxation.

16This attempt at clarification led to a political event with major consequences. In 1638, the majority of prelates, nobles and senior magistrates were summoned to Madrid following the failure of a partial meeting of the Cortes called in 1634 and the outbreak of revolts in 1637. So vast a migration raises suspicions that Olivares sought to neutralize the «fathers of the country» and thus clear the way for the faction controlled by his secretaries of state. Moreover, in 1635 the viceroyal government of Margaret of Mantua began to be affected by internal divisions. The Marquis of La Puebla, cousin to the Count-Duke of Olivares and designated advisor to the new queen viceroy, realized that the Vasconcelos-Soares group controlled the most important decisions and went over to the opposition group. In other words, a Castilian and a close relative of Olivares became the official leader of the anti-Olivares party. In the Portugal of the Count-Duke, then, there was no clear division along national lines.

17The political interplay between the two capitals in the Olivares period seems to be far more complex than a simple Portuguese/Castilian division with proponents of taxation, extraordinary levies and tyranny opposed to the guardians of ordinary taxation and the pacts drawn up in 1580. Thus, the metropolis/colony division does not stand up, given that neither the law, the language nor the currency of Castile were operative in Portugal; and the notion of a divide between an administrating centre and an administered periphery again falls down given that Portuguese political society did not relate to the monarchy in a passive way. Also, insofar as all decisions concerning Portugal passed through the Council of Portugal (which was a law court) and had to be registered by the Portuguese Chancery and the various courts of the polysynodical system in Lisbon, the discourse of decision-making falls into the categories identified in our examination of the political literature —that is, mercy and justice continue to be exercised by the king of Portugal. In other words, governmental quarrels are conflicts between jurisdictions.

18Our research is therefore oriented towards the application of Castilian jurisdiction in Portugal. Within certain limited spheres, the action of Castilian and Portuguese officials in Portugal was hierarchically dependent on Castilian jurisdictional institutions. The first example of this is the military magistrates responsible for administering Castilian garrisons on the Portuguese littoral, which were entrusted in the name of the monarch with coastal defence against Algerian, English, Dutch or French piracy, but also with the non-Portuguese contribution to common fleets. Two more activities share these characteristics: customs inspection, whose purpose was to enforce trade embargos, and lastly inspection of the exportation of salt, a raw material essential to the Portuguese economy. In both cases, the function consisted in inspecting, fining and levying duties on foreign traders arriving on Portuguese coasts, and never the collection of taxes from Portuguese subjects.

19In this way we can observe the day-to-day work of officials. We can see how, each on his own scale, they set up networks of informers, financiers and acolytes, without which their work would be impossible. We also find that the opposition to their activities was effective and above all highly complex, but never such as to constitute a national line of opposition. With the discovery of the correspondence of Francisco Leitão, a Portuguese magistrate and administrator to whom Castilian courts entrusted a wide variety of missions, it is now possible to analyse in detail the invention of new procedures, the informal creation of ancillary networks and at the same time the absolute necessity of submission to routine Portuguese procedures. Such an official was totally absorbed by day-to-day tasks. What was new was the activation of thoroughly traditional structures of power and influence —namely, family and personal loyalty. This provides a measure of the degree to which the public administration was subject to private influences in a jurisdictional system which, unlike its counterparts at the Vatican or in France, could give the impression of opposing generalized venality in public offices.

20However, if support for the financial reforms depended on membership of a pressure group, opposition to them was likewise determined by very specific factors. The same people who supported the reforms as ministers of the king were perfectly capable of opposing any attempt at change in specific application to their own lands and in towns where their influence was predominant. The forms of opposition varied very widely; popular uprising was only one of its possible manifestations, very often encouraged if not actually directed by local elites. The correspondence that has been unearthed reflects the astonishing capacity of society to respond to initiatives promoted by the commissioners responsible for increasing the crown revenues for the benefit of the monarchy. Ought one to be surprised at this in a corporative society —that is, a society composed of universitates possessing privileges and bailiwicks?

21In the 1630s, many Portuguese corporations felt their interests threatened by financial programmes devised or simply embodied by Diogo Soares and Miguel de Vasconcelos. The clergy waxed indignant at the campaigns for disentailment of landed property in the form of chaplaincies. Local magistrates balked at increasing the part of the direct tax that they levied on their fellow citizens. Those noblemen not in favour at court or whose appetite for royal bounty was unappeased, conspired. In the country and in the towns, people saw how the price of grain soared and sardine fisheries were hampered by orders for surveillance of maritime traffic. Senior magistrates on the royal tribunals were offended to see the secretariats of the Council of Portugal and the Conselho de Estado turned into special vehicles for negotiation between the king of Portugal and his subjects, sidestepping the normal hierarchy of higher jurisdiction. In a word, there is no need of a hypothesis of precocious national feeling to explain the convergence of grounds for discontent in complex and unstable combinations.

22Although tentative and fragile and although not applicable to Portuguese subjects, the exercise of Castillan jurisdictions in Portuguese territory became the focus of opposition. But above all, the principal weakness of the political system established by Olivares was that his policy was purely programmatic. This weakness reduced the favourite to the condition of an arbitrista, an unenviable status for the ethics of the time, and he thus became everyone’s enemy, an intruder in the world of proper royal jurisdiction.

23The revolution that won for the crown of Portugal the independence that it had never lost need not therefore be seen as paradoxical. The conspirators of 1640 exchanged one king of Portugal for another whom they saw as the means of preserving the traditional organization of jurisdictions and regaining control of the distribution of pensions for their beneficiaries. The fact that the Habsburg king was foreign —namely, Castilian— was of no more importance in mobilizing Portuguese society than was the fact of Mazarin being Italian in France, and that was certainly not one of the essential causes of the Fronde. Seen in this way, the Restauraçao ceases to appear a matter of providence. For historiographers, its very success made it seem inevitable, and we would wager that had the restoration movement failed, it would seem every bit as complex and uncertain as the Fronde. What makes the event comprehensible on a very tiny scale —the clash of a centrifugal national sentiment and a centripetal imperial design— is precisely what makes it incomprehensible on a much larger scale, i.e., the day-to-day administration of the most humdrum political decisions. When the eye ceases to focus, the glass ceases to magnify, clouds over and eventually inverts the image.

24The greatest defect of the mainstream tradition in the history of Portugal and the Spanish monarchy was, then, that it constructed a political history into which the research and discoveries in the social history of these societies did not fit. It was only the vast fresco of Vérperas do Leviathan by Antonio Manuel Hespanha that revealed the deeply formative influence that the dispersal of the sources of authority and the ways of exercising power exerted, in a society like the Portuguese, on the very definition of these basic political units —the king, the court and the government of the people. The combination of complex socio-political interests, and the dynamics that sustained, fuelled or broke up that combination according to the times, are the real keys to a proper understanding of the unparalleled political structure of the Spanish monarchy from the Catholic Monarchs up to the 18th century. The binding of Portugal to Castile for sixty years, which was no more fated than was the subsequent unloosing, furnishes some unusual political configurations and allows the historian to test a number of hypotheses regarding the exercise of political authority under the Ancien Regime.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2001

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