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buber.net > Basque > History > Power, Authority and Sovereignty in 16th Century Bilbao
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Power, Authority and Sovereignty in 16th Century Bilbao

by Jill Walsh


Power, authority, and sovereignty in 16th century Bilbao

Jill Walsh December 1999


Introduction *

Influence over a hinterland *

Artisans and Diversity of Occupations *

Consulado and Center of Exchange *

Regular Links to Other Centers of Exchange *

Political Organization *

Taxes and Troops *

Conclusion *





Today in the Basque Province of Vizcaya in Spain, a member of Jarrai (the youth movement of the Basque National Liberation Movement, MLNV) is pasting a poster to the wall that says "Euskal Herria Askatu!" (Freedom for the Basque Country). Members of the separatist party Herri Batasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom, HB) are discussing business in a city council. A businessman might be kidnapped and held by ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna, Basque Homeland and Independence) for both the ransom and the political currency of a dramatic action. Members of Gesto por la Paz (Action for Peace) discuss how to stop the political violence in their province or town. Spain’s "Basque Problem" is a daily reality for the inhabitants of the autonomous region within Spain. A majority of ethnically Basque Spanish citizens identify themselves as not Spaniards, and many favor an independent Basque Country completely separate from Spain. Despite hundreds of years of political affiliation that included both cooperation and coercion, Spain has not successfully integrated the Basque region when measured by criteria for a modern nation-state.

This paper is not concerned with exploring why this is so today. It is mentioned only to note that much of the ideological underpinnings of the patriotic political parties from the Marxist revolutionary HB to the Christian Democrat Partido Nacional Vasco, have their genesis in the myth of a vigorous and independent Basque Country conquered by Castile at some time in the past. The primary evidence for this is the Fueros, the customs and traditions of law and governance in the Basque speaking areas, written down. The black and white on the paper is not in dispute. Nevertheless, their origin, legitimate uses, and significance are interpreted today according to the ideological bias and political objective of the interpreter. One question is, who was the legitimate holder of authority, the democratic Juntas Generales of the provinces who governed by a form of popular sovereignty by right of primogeniture, or the monarch of Castile and later Spain? Another is, how well integrated the Basque Country was into the Spanish political structure of the sixteenth century, as measured by the political criteria of the time? An example of how this question is relevant to today’s concerns comes from the Manual de Premilitancia of Jarrai. After stating the organization’s ideology, "we (Basque young people) belong to an oppressed and occupied nation," the manual gives a bit of history to support this view. Then it continues with concrete actions, under Spanish law illegal, to correct the situation. According to this manual, the Fueros were a result of the Basque Country’s struggle against Castile.

"Concretaban la organizacíon politica en la federacíon de municipos, emanando la voluntad politica de estos, no del rey castellano. Las leyes que establezca el rey castellano quedan sujetas al pase foral, pudiendo no cumplirse… El Padre Larramendia sostuvo que el Fuero era el resultado de un pacto y deducía que solo podía haber sido posible entre dos estados soberanos."

This idea of two sovereign states is complex and compelling. The focus of the second part of this paper is to explore how power, authority and sovereignty were distributed in the Basque city of Bilbao in the sixteenth century. Did Castile or the Basque Provinces have the authority and the power? Perhaps it is more realistic and true to the political reality of the time to let the question of "if the Basque provinces were sovereign" fade and be replaced by a less black and white exploration of how political and judicial decisions were made. Alexander Cowan writes that, "State building was a process of negotiation, procrastination, and covert resistance." How did this happen in the Basque Country? What issues were in play? What were the disagreements and negotiations about and how were they resolved? Negotiation for taxes and other revenue, troops and political offices reveal a range of political behavior including cooperation, dependence and defiance. The Crown used the threat of force and grants of privileges to achieve their desired outcome. The city council and the council of the Casa de Contratacíon of Bilbao used non-payment of taxes and the moral and legal authority of the Fueros as bargaining currency.

This first part of the paper will sketch how Bilbao functioned as a town in the 1500’s. Cowan puts forward a checklist of the functions of an early modern European city. These functions are 1) influence over a hinterland 2) center of exchange 3) presence of many artisans 4) occupational diversity and 5) regular links with other centers of exchange. By 1400, Bilbao was strong in each of these areas. It developed into the principal city in Vizcaya on the northern coast of Spain and as such had considerable influence on trade patterns and served as the center of government for the province. It was an important center of exchange locally, regionally and internationally. Its merchants traded heavily with many parts of Europe and with Spain’s overseas possessions. Because of its function as an administrative and commercial center, it exercised considerable influence over the surrounding countryside and towns. Because of the wealth created by trade and manufacturing there was a thriving market for the goods produced by the many artisans of the city.

Bilbao was given its town charter by the Lord of Vizcaya in 1300. Status as a town (villa) was desired because it secured, optimally, liberty of buying and selling, more personal security and freedom, and stabilized industries and agricultural output. For these reasons, the residents of Bilbao petitioned the Lord for the status of official town. In 1300, Bilbao’s principal economic activities were shipbuilding, fishing, and iron production. Two centuries later its most important role was as an import-export center for the Basque Provinces and Castile. The city is located on the Nervion River that flows into the Atlantic on the Cantabrian Coast of the Iberian Peninsula. By the early modern period, the Camino Real connected it to Burgos. The churches of San Lazaro and La Magdalena had been a stop on the Pilgrimage route to Santiago since the Middle Ages. Many cities have one principal function that can classify them as ceremonial, industrial, or administrative. Bilbao was a commercial, industrial port city built around a natural deep harbor on the river. Many other towns on the Basque coast had good harbors able to accommodate large ships. Why did Bilbao become the principal port despite early competition from other equally suited towns? For example, in the fifteenth century Bilbao eclipsed the town of Deva, the largest exporter of wine and wool in the fourteenth century. Part of the explanation for why Bilbao grew and prospered were the iron foundries and dense forests supplying the wood to work the iron used in building large ships. A reliable supply of iron and one of Europe’s largest shipbuilding industries contributed to Bilbao’s dominance. One Spanish historian believed that Bilbao’s prosperity was due to its exclusive use of the river and the exemptions it enjoyed for its traffic on the Highway of Castile.

The population is estimated at 5,200 persons in 1514. In 1500 the city had seven hundred citizens, vecinos. As in many other European towns, the citizens had privileges that residents (moradores) outsiders (foresteros) and foreigners (extranjeros) did not. In the middle of the same century, the estimate is 20,000 inhabitants including the suburbs. The city also had a relatively large number of non-residents and foreign merchants. To give an idea of the size and importance of Bilbao relative to the surrounding area, all of Vizcaya is estimated to have had 70,000 inhabitants in 1560.

Influence over a hinterland

The interests of the urban population were often in conflict with the peasants and petty lords (jauntxok) in the countryside surrounding the city. The anteiglesias were the foundation of the political structure in the countryside. Groups of vecinos from farmsteads gathered in front of the local church to resolve local issues and elect delegates to the regional governing body, the Juntas Generales. Their government was an open council, autonomous in local matters. The leader, el Fiel, was the executive authority, leader of the local militia, administrator of funds, and delegate to the Juntas Generales. He was selected by various methods including being the most recently married, by rotation through all baserriak, or appointed by the outgoing Fiel.

Many anteiglesias evolved into municipalities in response to changing economic conditions. Before there were charted towns, all of the Señorío of Vizcaya was designated Tierra Llana because it was open land, not a walled town. The land was also called infanzona because its inhabitants were infanzones or hidalgos. Every Fuero included the affirmation of noble status possessed by all Basques. The text of the Fuero of 1526 reads, " all the citizens and residents of the said Señorío of Vizcaya, tierra llana, towns and city are hidalgos and enjoy all the privileges of noble men." The vecinos owned the land, not the Lord of Vizcaya. The residents were free, not part of an "estate" or subject to military obligations. When a town was chartered it functioned under different legislation and separated from the Tierra Llana. However, the residents of the town were still Vizcainos and so remained under dual laws.

The farmers in the countryside and residents of towns outside Bilbao had different economic interests, some different political and jurisdictional structures, and distinct cultural and social horizons. In her study of late twentieth century Basque nationalism in a small Guipuzkoan town, Marianne Heiberg states that one of the most visceral social distinctions is between those that live on a farm (basseritarrak) and city dwellers (kaletarroak). Kalea means street in Basque. The distinction goes beyond geographical definitions. A Basque living in a city that speaks only Basque and retains close ties to the family farmstead would not be a kaletarroa. An urban resident that speaks Spanish and votes for a Spanish political party candidate would be a kaletarroa. This same distinction was true in sixteenth century Bilbao. Those that lived in Bilbao were much more likely to speak Castilian, usually acquired outside the home through education, as well as Basque. These education and language skills opened opportunities for appointment to political positions in the Castilian monarch’s administration both within and outside Vizcaya. Other men designated as kaletarroak were large merchants in Bilbao. They were viewed as anti-traditional capitalists and thereby opposed to the values of peasants and owners of medium sized farmsteads. These values were evoked by the nineteenth century rallying cry of "Juan Goiko eta Larri Zaga" (God and the Old Law, meaning the Fueros).

Enrique III created an Hermandad in 1342 to combat the Oñacino and Gamboino bands that were engaged in an almost constant struggle for control of the countryside. The bands claimed the Castilian institution violated the Fueros, but the merchants of Bilbao insisted, and were granted the charter for the policing organization. This is a good example of the conflict between Bilbao and the inhabitants of the countryside. It is significant to note that the merchants used the authority of the Crown to gain power in an internal struggle. The Hermandad again appealed to the Crown in 1449 for the authority to police two leagues beyond the walls of the town. In 1514, representatives of several towns of the infanzona asked the Corregidor not to take prisoners to Bilbao for imprisonment and trial.

Artisans and Diversity of Occupations

The social structure of Bilbao showed similarities to contemporary Spanish cities, but also possessed characteristics unique to the Basque Provinces. Universal nobility affected less the internal social structure of Bilbao than its inhabitants activities outside the town. Noble status was quite valuable in the Spanish social structure. Basques could move easily into positions that required hidalgo status in the service of the Church and Crown. Basques were highly represented in the administration of the Crown in the Peninsula and the Americas. In this and other ways, men from Bilbao were involved in international enterprises that brought wealth and new ideas into the city.

Craftsmen and professionals alike belonged to the guilds that regulated and encouraged the practice of their respective trade. The guilds functioned as mutual aid societies and facilitated social and occupational exchange; what today is known as networking. In Bilbao, as in other Catholic cities, artisans, professionals and merchants also belonged to a religious society or Cofradia. The wine makers were members of the Cofradia de San Gregorio de Nacianceno, the doctors to San Cosme y San Damian, the cobblers to San Crispin y San Crispiniano and so forth for each line of work. The members attended masses, funerals, and baptisms and organized other religious observances and celebrations.

Daily life in the city was diverse and active. Men and women carried out a number of occupations. Industrial and mercantile occupations were well represented including silversmiths, anchor makers, armor makers, sword makers, and sack makers. Over one hundred vendors sold their goods in the central plaza. Visitors were impressed with the variety of imported wares for sale. The many merchants of the town imported wine, textiles, spices and fruit. The import-export warehouses were quite numerous and employed many workers exporting Castilian wheat and wool, and Basque wine and iron. Ship building yards employed many workers building fishing boats for local and long distance fishing and large ships for merchant or military activities. The iron industry employed many men in the forests and forges around Bilbao. Iron was vital to the economic growth and prosperity of the town. In 1550, Bilbao could have produced 25% of the total iron in Europe. By the thirteenth century, special courts and laws governed this industry. The Crown confirmed the jurisdiction of these special courts in 1483 and in 1524.

Consulado and Center of Exchange

The Crown also granted special jurisdiction and a court to the Consulado of Bilbao. The Consulado, also called the Casa de Contratacíon, was a group of merchants, ship owners and captains that promoted the interests of its members. The Bilbao Consulado was similar in structure to other Consulados of Spain. In fact, it was part of the Consulado de Burgos until the early sixteenth century and adapted its internal structure even after gaining its charter. The Consulado grew out of Bilbao’s merchant guild that was active by the fourteenth century. All captains, masters of ships, merchants and traders residing in Bilbao were members of the guild. This Gremio de Capitanes, Maestres, Mercaderes y Hombres de negocios influenced affairs in the city. The Crown gave this guild the constitutional charter for the Consulado.

Consulados originated as courts to resolve all manner of lawsuits and cases arising out of trade on the sea. This expanded to include trade on land. By the early 1500’s, the Consulado de Bilbao possessed original jurisdiction over all cases arising from trade and commerce. The decisions of the court could be appealed to the Corregidor of Vizcaya. The court did not make the final decisions in all cases for they exercised their judicial authority only through the royal grant of a privilege.

The charter of the Consulado and the Fueros also granted special trading privileges and fiscal exemptions to Vizcayan merchants. They were not required to pay bridge tolls, tolls for the passage of mules or turn pike tolls. These were typical trading exemptions granted by the monarch to encourage trade, economic growth and increase royal revenue. Lowering the cost of transportation facilitated the export of Castilian wool and wheat to the North Atlantic trade. The Crown also had the right to regulate trade. Early in the sixteenth century, the Office of Registry was created in Bilbao to enforce the laws against the export of horses, cattle, money and other goods. The Consulado protested without success. It is interesting to note that they did not protest on the grounds of violation of the Fueros.

The Vizcayan merchants did enjoy some privileges that other Consulados did not, most notably the Consulado in Burgos, being the closest non-Basque Consulado to Bilbao. The merchants of Bilbao had the privilege of being outside the tariff zone of Castile. Goods were not assessed duties until they crossed the Ebro River, roughly the boundary of the Basque territory. In 1543, the Crown asked the Bilbao Consulado for two thousand ducats while Burgos was asked to contribute seventy thousand ducats. Smith notes that, "…by and large the regional statues, of Fueros, of Vizcaya stopped forced loans as well as other impositions from the Spanish Crown."

By the sixteenth century, the Consulado had assumed an expanded role in the public area. While the municipal government of Bilbao had no say in the internal affairs of the Consulado, the merchants were actively involved in the city council. The Consulado elected procuradores to represent their interests before the council. Guiard stated, "It could be said that occasionally Bilbao was its Consulado." There is no doubt that the interests of the town and the Consulado were the same. Bilbao was a commercial and manufacturing city; the Consulado regulated and encouraged commerce. The merchants of the city controlled both Bilbao’s ayuntamiento and the executive council of the Consulado.

Robert Smith qualifies Guiard’s statement by noting that the identities of the City Council and the Consulado were distinct and separate. The city government planned and financed certain public works and controlled taxes, sanitation, poor relief and public health. These were out of the scope of what the Consulado could or would concern itself. Smith’s conclusion of the Consulado’s role is that is was "an important department of municipal government enjoying considerable autonomy in finances, internal organization and business policies." The Consulado did take control of public works necessary to ensure successful navigation of the Nervion River. It planned, constructed and paid for virtually all improvements and aids to navigation. The City Council of Bilbao and the Consulado of Burgos contributed to the upkeep of the moles at the mouth of the river.

Regular Links to Other Centers of Exchange

The merchants of Bilbao were very active in international trade. Basque traders established a commercial "consulate" called the Lonja, in Bruges by 1348. This predates even the English and Venetian lonjas. In the middle of the fifteenth century, a dispute arose between the merchants of Bilbao and Burgos who shared space in the Lonja. The resolution was that the Basques would retain control over the naming of the judges of the commercial house.

The shipbuilding industry of the Basque coast made possible this trade with Bruges and entry into the North Atlantic markets. Large ships were being built by the twelfth century. In the fifteenth century, there were almost five hundred ships from Bilbao trading with Portugal, Cataluna, France, England and the Low Countries. By 1500, at least fifty ships of two hundred tons or more were sailing the trade routes to Northern Europe with wool and iron. In 1474, Edward IV of England granted the merchants of Bilbao a trading alliance. They could trade with English merchants and sell their wares in England. In 1529, Charles V named Bilbao one of nine Spanish cities whose merchants could trade directly with the American colonies. This privilege was modified in 1573 when ships from Bilbao bound for the Indies were required to sail with the official flota from Seville.

Political Organization

"The oligarchy did not yet determine the movements in the Señorío because the people did not live indifferent or removed from politics, just the opposite, they participated personally and in mass." This was the opinion of the Basque historian Guiard y Laurri of the political situation in the province of Vizcaya in the early modern period. The personal participation in politics began at the level of the anteiglesias, where all households sent representatives. These bodies elected representatives to the regional assemblies and the Juntas Generales.

The Codice de Meya in the tenth century makes the first mention of the Señorío of Vizcaya. In response to the Visgoth threat, Iñigo Lopez was elected by the Juntas Generales to be their military leader with limited powers. The assembly could dismiss him at any time. His principal function was the administration of justice. The Señorío did not have the feudal structure common in much of Europe at this time. The Señor did not have jurisdiction over persons, land or property. The land belonged to the vecinos who lived on it, farmed it and grazed their livestock on it. To reinforce that the authority emanated from the people the Señor was required to swear at four different sites to uphold the Fueros. These were in Bilbao, at the Church of Santa Eufemia in Bermeo, at a church in Larrabezua and under the Oak of Guernika. If the Señor had not sworn in over a year the people did not feel obligated to obey his orders or pay him taxes (derechos y censo)

The Fuero was actually several documents written over an extended period. The precursors were the "uses and customs" which were the private rights of the inhabitants of Vizcaya. The first Fueros were written in 1237 at the same time that the Kingdom of Navarre lacked a ruler and asked Theobald of Champagne to be their King. Previously, when the Lord was from Navarre, writing the laws had not seemed necessary. The legal security of a written document was desirable when the ruler was "a man from another land, from a different place and a strange language." Codifying the laws was a way to protect the privileges and liberties the residents had traditionally enjoyed.

The Juntas Generales wrote the 1342 Fuero at the request of the Vizcayan Señor Don Nuñez de Lara, to institutionalize the penal code as an aid to stopping the violence of the Oñacino and Gamboino bandos. The constant strife was hindering commerce. Corregidor Moro referred to the Fuero of 1394. This was primarily a penal code with the same view in mind, stopping the violence of the bandos. The Juntas Generales wrote a new Fuero in 1452 that was revised and expanded in 1526.

Gregorio de Balparde offers a three-point analysis of the theoretical structure of the Fueros as an expression of the Basque people’s right to self-governance. Individual Basques had the right to independence as property owners of a free farmstead (baserria). The Basque people collectively, possessed authority as the first occupiers and organizers of the land. The Juntas Generales was the legitimate governing body because it was the grantor of the prerogatives of the first Lord of Vizcaya. When it was in their interest to uphold the Fueros, Spanish monarchs did not refer to any of these reasons. Instead, the Fueros are framed as the granting of a particular privilege. In 1520, King Carlos sent a letter instead of going personally to swear to uphold the Fueros. He makes clear that he is swearing because they are good subjects. He mentions their loyalty and fidelity to the Crown "…and how you have been in our service with much tranquility and peace. All this is reason that you receive many gifts, especially the confirmation of your privileges…" There is no mention of the natural right of Vizcayans to govern themselves. The Fueros were disregarded just as easily. The crown reminded officials to keep within the limits of the laws of Castile.

In 1370, Don Juan the Infante and later King of Castile inherited the Señorío of Vizcaya. In this way, Vizcaya became perpetually linked to that kingdom. In theory, however, Vizcaya retained her independence, as the union was purely personal. The forms of alliance were kept to preserve this idea. A royal document of this time says, "mi señorío es apartado sobre si en sus fueros y libertaded" The political union was not that of a unified kingdom nor was it supposed to be a dependency. The foundations of the laws were supposed to be the will of the inhabitants as expressed through the democratic Juntas Generales. The 1452 Fuero advises that all who crossed the will of the Juntas Generales would be killed.

Into this political structure of a strong tradition of republican self-governance, King Juan of Castile sent the first Corregidor to Bilbao in 1370. The title of Viceroy was used after 1475. He was required to be from south of the River Ebro. His assistants could be from the other Basque Provinces, but not from Vizcaya itself. There were one hundred and thirty three corregidores appointed until the Fueros were taken away in 1842. The Fueros obligated the corregidores to act on the wishes of the Juntas Generales. In a letter to the Juntas Generales in 1394, Gonzalo Moro wrote about his obligations, "cuando quire que me dijese Vizcaya, o la mayor parte de ella, que en este dicho cuaderno habia algun capitulo que fuese contra Fuero, que lo quitaria y lo tiraria dende, e lo daria por ninguno."

The Crown’s administration included a veedor general (inspector), a provedor (general supply master) and a provedor de la armada (supply master of provisions and munitions for the navy). By 1500, the crown also had enough power and authority to order the Juntas Generales to create twelve new positions in its executive council. In addition to two letrados, two diputados, two escribanos (notaries) and two procuradores (supply officers), twelve regidores were to be elected. In the letter ordering the Juntas Generales to do this, the monarchs added, "We order that the said governors serve personally the said offices and may not substitute or put other people in their place. The Crown did not appoint the office holders; they were elected by the mechanisms already in place. Even so, the fact that this interference was accepted tells a lot about the relative power of the competing institutions at this time. Although the language of the documents preserved the forms of independence, for example calling Vizcaya "una nacion seperada" in fact there existed a close relationship.

The city government of Bilbao included the camara de consejo, escribanos and procuradores led by a mayor. In 1435, there were eight merchants on the council. Each of the seven principal streets sent one, and one appointed by the Lord. When the post of preboste in the city council became vacant, the Crown had the right to appoint a new officer. In 1505, there was a controversy over whether the city council or the administration of the Crown had the authority to name the escribanos of the City Council. Only vecinos or sons of vecinos were eligible for office. Later when there were more vecinos; it was restricted to only vecinos. Their holders sold the notary positions and the city council would then appoint the buyers to the office. The price in this particular court case was five thousand maravedis. In this case, a notary died and King Ferdenand gave the position to his Master of Horse, Antonio Esquide. The city council appointed Ochoa de Larrinaga, a vecino of Bilbao. The Supreme Council of Castile heard the case in 1506, and ruled in favor of Bilbao’s council. The precedent cited in the ruling were the privileges given to Bilbao in 1416 by Queen Catalina and confirmed in 1485 by Ferdenand and Isabel. The council had the authority to appoint the escribanos as long as they stepped down in their lifetime. The positions were not inherited. Another example of royal interference in the city council is the struggle over the composition of that body in the middle of the sixteenth century. The Crown ordered the Council to double the number of seats from six members to twelve in 1543. The council refused and had to be ordered again in 1551. Although I was not able to find any other documents concerning this matter, it is likely that this was a way for the crown to have more influence at the local level.

Taxes and Troops

The inhabitants of Bilbao paid fewer taxes than the residents of Castile did. This was because of the protection of the Fueros and their status as an autonomous region and as a result of bargaining. For example, in 1247 King Fernando gave "freedoms and exemptions" to the people of Vizcaya in return for ships from Bilbao to help him in a war. The people of Bilbao did pay taxes however. The Juntas Generales received a request for money and was free to collect it however it chose. The residents of Bilbao paid diezmos (tenths) on fish, houses, lands, mountains, and churches among other commodities and property. Import and export taxes were paid on ship cargo. The council initiated lawsuits when it believed the taxes were outside the limits set in the Fuero. In 1576, the crown decreed that residents of the Señorío did not have to pay taxes to finance the construction and repair of bridges outside of their territory. The Burgos merchants complained that the Bilbao merchants were able to use the bridges and camino real for less than what they had to pay.

The Crown paid for a few of the expenses of the town. More often, the Crown would authorize the town to raise the money it needed for itself. In 1516, when Bilbao asked for money to repair streets, the Queen allowed the city council to use the revenue generated from legal fines for that purpose indefinitely. In 1527, the King granted permission to impose an excise tax (la sisa) to raise funds to repair the city’s walls and enlarge the central plaza. In 1532, it reimbursed the city council for what it had spent during the plague of the previous year. After a fire in 1572 that severely damaged the Church of Santiago, the Crown ordered the City Council to loan the church one thousand ducats. The extent to which the crown was interested in the most mundane aspects of the town is evident in the royal imposition of limits on the height of the buildings reconstructed after the fire.

When the monarch wanted troops, he had to both ask and pay for them. To prepare for war with France, Queen Isabel sent a formal request in 1503. This was separate from the 1502 call for troops in the other provinces. The request stated this was in recognition of Vizcaya as a "separate nation." The Juntas Generales met to fulfill the request for two thousand soldiers among them four hundred archers and eight hundred infantrymen. The Juntas Generales distributed the conscription among the towns and anteiglesias and in addition offered to arm four war ships.

In 1521 during the war with France in Navarre, Bilbao sent troops to Pamplona. The Crown sent a letter saying it could not pay the troops and the Señorío was required to pay for them just this once. The letter was careful to state that this one instance of non-payment did not negate the Fueros and that they would always be respected in the future. This may or may not have been true in practice. Only three years later in 1524 the city of Bilbao raised 573,705 maravedis to send three hundred and three troops to the siege of the border city Fuenterrabia occupied by the French. There is no record of the Monarch asking for the troops; it might have been done on the initiative of the citizens of Bilbao. Fuenterrabia is less than one hundred miles away and a quick defensive response warranted. They raised the money by going door to door and by accepting large donations or loans from wealthy citizens.


Historical documents of the interactions between Castile and Vizcaya do not support the interpretation favored by the radical Basque nationalists. Although enjoying more privileges than other regions, Vizcaya was not a sovereign state. In the political context of the sixteenth century, Vizcaya was as integrated as other regions into the Spanish system. One aspect of building the Spanish State required gaining control over local policy and decisions. How a particular region was managed and persuaded to identify with the State was influenced by how Castile acquired each region. In the case of Vizcaya, the acquisition of the position of Señor in the late fourteenth century inserted the Castilian monarch at the top of the existing system of authority. The Basque provinces, with certain privileges recognized by the Crown, were well integrated in the Spanish monarchy by the sixteenth century. The crown used the strategy of gradual accumulation of sovereignty to involve Vizcaya in its defense and taxation structures.

Vizcaya and the other Basque Provinces negotiated for authority and power much like the other regions in the Spanish monarchy. Nevertheless, Bilbao could bring unique resources to bear on the outcome of the negotiations. The extensive commercial activity, capital of the merchants, shipbuilding capacity and iron production generated wealth and resources for the Kingdom. Several long-functioning institutions each claimed jurisdiction and rights of political participation. The local anteiglesias and the regional Juntas Generales participated actively in the government of the province, and evoked the Fueros in an attempt to stop the ever-widening control of the Monarch. The City Council and Consulado of Bilbao constantly asked for privileges, exemptions or recognition of existing conventions of local control.

The extent and historical depth of its strong Fueros further reinforced Vizcaya’s negotiating position. Fueros are into two broad classes; those given as a concession from an agency higher up in the recognized hierarchy or those claimed as a right. The Basque Fueros originated as laws and rights of a self-governing region, but were transitioned into the status of concessions from the Monarch. The Basques have never forgotten how the Fueros originated. Today the Fueros remain a historical justification for immediate and long-term goals of more autonomy now and independence in the future.


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Jauersti Linacero, Joseba. La Estructura Urbana de Vizcaya. Bilbao: Univ. del Pais Vasco, 1985.

Lafarga Lozano, Adolfo. Aportacion a la Historia Social y Politica de Vizcaya (Siglos XVI a XIX). Bilbao: Ed. Vizcaina, 1971.

Lynch, John. Spain Under the Hapsburgs. New York: NY UP, 1981.

Nader, Helen. Liberty in Absolutist Spain: The Hapsburg Sale of Towns 1516-1700. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Payne, Stanley G. Basque Nationalism. Reno: Univ of Nevada, 1975.

Ringrose, David. Spain, Europe and the "Spanish Miracle" 1700-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Smith, Robert Sydney. The Spanish Guild Merchant A History of the Consulado, 1250-1700. New York: Octagon Books, 1972.

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