Revolt of the Comuneros

Revolt of the Comuneros
Two men and a priest stand in the center, overseeing the proceedings. A dead body lies on the ground; a man triumphantly lifts up his severed head in the background. A bearded man with hands bound is being brought forward to be executed next.
Execution of the Comuneros of Castile, by Antonio Gisbert (1860)
DateApril 16, 1520 – October 25, 15211
ResultDecisive royalist victory
Comuneros rebelsRoyalist Castilians
Commanders and leaders
Juan López de Padilla Executed
Juan Bravo Executed
Francisco Maldonado Executed
María Pacheco
Antonio de Acuña Executed
Pedro Girón
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
Adrian of Utrecht (Regent of Castile)
Íñigo Fernández (Constable of Castile)
Fadrique Enríquez (Admiral of Castile)
1February 3, 1522 is also used as an end date; see 1522 revolt.
A tall stone building, topped with a cross.
San Pablo Church in Valladolid, seat of a Cortes held in 1518. Protests emerged when the Flemish adviser Jean de Sauvage was named its president, presaging later troubles.

The Revolt of the Comuneros (Spanish: Guerra de las Comunidades de Castilla, "War of the Communities of Castile") was an uprising by citizens of Castile against the rule of Charles I and his administration between 1520 and 1521. At its height, the rebels controlled the heart of Castile, ruling the cities of Valladolid, Tordesillas, and Toledo.

The revolt occurred in the wake of political instability in the Crown of Castile after the death of Queen Isabella I in 1504. Isabella's daughter Joanna succeeded to the throne. Due to Joanna's mental instability, Castile was ruled by the nobles and her father, King Ferdinand II of Aragon, as a regent. After Ferdinand's death in 1516, Joanna's sixteen-year-old son Charles was proclaimed king of both Castile and Aragon. Charles had been raised in the Netherlands with little knowledge of Castilian. He arrived in Spain in October 1517 accompanied by a large retinue of Flemish nobles and clerics. These factors resulted in mistrust between the new king and the Castilian social elites, who could see the threat to their power and status.

In 1519, Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor. He departed for Germany in 1520, leaving the Dutch cardinal Adrian of Utrecht to rule Castile in his absence. Soon, a series of anti-government riots broke out in the cities, and local city councils (Comunidades) took power. The rebels chose Charles' own mother, Queen Joanna, as an alternative ruler, hoping they could control her madness. The rebel movement took on a radical anti-feudal dimension, supporting peasant rebellions against the landed nobility. On April 23, 1521, after nearly a year of rebellion, the reorganized supporters of the emperor struck a crippling blow to the comuneros at the Battle of Villalar. The following day, rebel leaders Juan López de Padilla, Juan Bravo, and Francisco Maldonado were beheaded. The army of the comuneros fell apart. Only the city of Toledo kept alive the rebellion led by María Pacheco, until its surrender in October 1521.

The character of the revolution is a matter of historiographical debate. According to some scholars, the revolt was one of the first modern revolutions, notably because of the anti-noble sentiment against social injustice and its basis on ideals of democracy and freedom. Others consider it a more typical rebellion against high taxes and perceived foreign control. From the 19th century onwards, the revolt has been mythologized by various Spaniards, generally liberals who drew political inspiration from it. Conservative intellectuals have traditionally adopted more pro-Imperial stances toward the revolt, and have been critical of both the motives and the government of the comuneros. With the end of Franco's dictatorship and the establishment of the autonomous community of Castile and León, positive commemoration of the Comunidades has grown. April 23 is now celebrated as Castile and León Day, and the incident is often referred to in Castilian nationalism.


A young Charles V.
A 1516 portrait of King Charles I of Castile and Aragon, later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, by Bernard van Orley. Charles would rule one of the largest empires in European history—through his father Philip, Burgundy and the Netherlands; through his mother Joanna, Castile, Aragon, and Naples; and through his grandfather Maximilian and his election in 1519 as Holy Roman Emperor, Germany, Austria, and much of Northern Italy.

Discontent had been brewing for years before the Revolt of the Comuneros. The second half of the 15th century saw profound political, economic, and social changes in Spain. Economic growth created new urban industries and offered a route to power and wealth not tied to the aristocracy. Support from these urban elites was critical to Ferdinand and Isabella's centralization of power, and they acted as a counterweight to the landed aristocracy and the clergy.[1]

However, with Isabella I's death and Joanna's accession in 1504, this alliance between the national government and the budding middle class faltered.[1] The Castilian government decayed with each successive administration, becoming rife with corruption.[2] Joanna's husband, Philip I, reigned briefly; he was replaced by Archbishop Cisneros as regent for a short time, and then by Isabella's widower Ferdinand who ruled from Aragon.[3] Ferdinand's claim to continue ruling Castile as regent was somewhat tenuous after Isabella's death, but no plausible alternatives existed as the sovereign, their widowed daughter Joanna, was mentally unfit to reign on her own.[3] The landed nobility of Castile took advantage of the weak and corrupt Royal Council to illegally expand their territory and domain with private armies while the government did nothing.[4] In response, the towns signed mutual defense pacts, relying on each other rather than the national government.[5]

The budgets of both Castile and Aragon had been in poor condition for some time. The government had expelled the Jews in 1492 and the Muslims of Granada in 1502, moves that undercut lucrative trades and businesses.[6] Ferdinand and Isabella had been forced to borrow money to pay troops during and after the Reconquista, and Spanish military obligations had only increased since then.[7] A large number of troops were required to maintain stability in recently conquered Granada, threatened by revolt from the maltreated moriscos (former Muslims who had converted to Christianity) and frequent naval raids from Muslim nations along the Mediterranean.[8] Additionally, Ferdinand had invaded and occupied the Iberian part of Navarre in 1512, and forces were required to garrison it against Navarrese revolts and French armies.[9] Very little money was left to pay for the royal army in Castile proper, let alone service foreign debts. The corruption in the government since Isabella's death only made the budget shortfalls worse.[7]

Succession of Charles

In 1516, Ferdinand died. The remaining heir was Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson Charles, who became King Charles I of both Castile and Aragon in coregency with his mother Joanna. Charles was brought up in Flanders, the homeland of his father Philip, and barely knew Castilian.[10] The people greeted him with skepticism, but also hoped he would restore stability. With the arrival of the new king in late 1517, his Flemish court took positions of power in Castile; young Charles only trusted people he knew from the Netherlands. Among the most scandalous of these was the appointment of the twenty-year-old William de Croÿ as Archbishop of Toledo. The Archbishopric was an important position; it had been held by Archbishop Cisneros, the former regent of the country.[11][12] Six months into his rule, discontent openly simmered among rich and poor alike. Even some monks began to agitate, denouncing the opulence of the royal court, the Flemish, and the nobility in their sermons. One of the first public protests involved placards posted in churches, which read:

You, land of Castile, very wretched and damned are you to suffer that as noble a kingdom as you are, you will be governed by those who have no love for you.[13]

With the unrest growing, Charles' paternal grandfather Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I died in 1519. A new election had to be held to choose the next emperor. Charles campaigned aggressively for the post, vying with King Francis I of France to bribe the most prince-electors.[14] Charles I won the election, becoming Emperor Charles V and cementing the power of the House of Habsburg. He prepared to head to Germany to take possession of his new domains in the Holy Roman Empire.[14]

New taxes: The Cortes of Santiago and Corunna

Charles had already stressed the treasury to its limit with his extravagant Flemish court, and over 1 million florins were spent in bribes for the election.[12] Taxes[note a] had to be raised to cover the debt, but any new taxes had to be approved by the Cortes (Castile's own parliamentary body). Thus, in late March 1520, Charles convened the Cortes in Santiago de Compostela. Charles ensured the Cortes would only have limited power, and further attempted to stack the Cortes with pliable representatives he could bribe.[12] Support for the opposition only increased in response, and the representatives demanded that their grievances be heard first before any new tax was granted.[15]

A group of clerics soon circulated a statement in protest of the king. It argued three points: any new taxes should be rejected; Castile should be embraced and the foreign Empire rejected; and if the king did not take into account his subjects, the Comunidades themselves should defend the interests of the kingdom.[16] It was the first time where the word comunidades (communities, communes) was used to signify the independent populace, and the name would stick to the councils later formed.[16]

At this point, most of the members of the Cortes in Santiago intended to vote against the king's requested duties and taxes, even with the Cortes stacked with royalists. In response, Charles decided to suspend the Cortes on April 4.[17] He convened them again in Corunna on April 22, this time getting his program passed.[12] On May 20, he embarked for Germany, and left as regent of his Spanish possessions his former tutor, Adrian of Utrecht (better known as the future Pope Adrian VI).[18]