This very well written and interesting biography is a narrative of the career of the Count-Duke of Olivares, the royal favorite who was the principal minister of the Spanish crown for the first half of the reign of Philip IV. Essentially a description of Olivares' ministerial career, this book provides considerable insight into both Olivares himself and the nature of early modern states. Olivares came to power when the teenage Philip succeeded his father. He had previously established himself as the royal favorite and seems to have had a paternal relationship with Philip. An intelligent and very diligent individual, Olivares seems to have been motivated to pursue political power by a combination of personal ambition, ambition for his family's status, a sincere devotion to service to the Crown, and a strong sense of religious devotion to the Catholic cause. Olivares assumed power under challenging circumstances. The Spanish Hapsburg state, bolstered by the riches of the Western Hemisphere, had been the most powerful polity in 16th century Europe. By the 17th century, however, Spain was challenged by the Dutch and the French, and was entangled in the complex politics in the low countries, Germany, and Italy. Along with many other intelligent Spaniards, Olivares recognized that coping with the decline of the Spanish state required considerable reform.
Over the course of his dominance of Spanish politics and foreign policy, Olivares attempted multiple reforms. These included attempts to overhaul the creaky tax structure, find a reliable currency, revive Spanish trade, and ward off the challenges of the Dutch, the French, and threats to Catholicism in the Holy Roman Empire. Like other early modern states, Spain was an assemblage of kingdoms united under the crown without uniform government, taxation, and with considerable social and economic barriers. The crown depended disproportionately, both financially and for administrative manpower, on the Castilian heartland. Ultimately, Castile was unable to sustain the burden. Olivares attempted unsuccessfully to develop more uniform government and encourage a more diverse service nobility and this period of dominance was terminated by the revolt of Catalonia and Portugal.
Elliott shows well that Olivares attempts at reform were frustrated by large magnitude of the tasks, the sometimes contradictory nature of the needed reforms, and particularly by the demands of Olivares' foreign policy. The latter was an attempt to maintain Spanish power throughout Europe and Spain's colonial possessions. The enormous burden of this effort, particularly the high costs of financing war on many fronts, required continuous resort to expedients that frustrated many aspects of the reform program. The end result was failure of reform and progressive loss of Spanish power in Europe and the colonies. In many ways, this is a very well documented and described case study of the challenges of governance in early modern Europe.
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