Family and Empire: The Fernández de Córdoba and the Spanish Realm

Family and Empire: The Fernández de Córdoba and the Spanish Realm

Family and Empire: The Fernández de Córdoba and the Spanish Realm

Family and Empire: The Fernández de Córdoba and the Spanish Realm


In the medieval and early modern periods, Spain shaped a global empire from scattered territories spanning Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Historians either have studied this empire piecemeal—one territory at a time—or have focused on monarchs endeavoring to mandate the allegiance of far-flung territories to the crown. For Yuen-Gen Liang, these approaches do not adequately explain the forces that connected the territories that the Spanish empire comprised. In Family and Empire, Liang investigates the horizontal ties created by noble family networks whose members fanned out to conquer and subsequently administer key territories in Spain's Mediterranean realm.

Liang focuses on the Fernández de Córdoba family, a clan based in Andalusia that set out on mobile careers in the Spanish empire at the end of the fifteenth century. Members of the family served as military officers, viceroys, royal councilors, and clerics in Algeria, Navarre, Toledo, Granada, and at the royal court. Liang shows how, over the course of four generations, their service vitally transformed the empire as well as the family. The Fernández de Córdoba established networks of kin and clients that horizontally connected disparate imperial territories, binding together religious communities—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—and political factions—Comunero rebels and French and Ottoman sympathizers—into an incorporated imperial polity. Liang explores how at the same time dedication to service shaped the personal lives of family members as they uprooted households, realigned patronage ties, and altered identities that for centuries had been deeply rooted in local communities in order to embark on imperial careers.

Yuen-Gen Liang teaches history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.


Sometime during the first years of the sixteenth century, Leonor Pacheco and Martín de Córdoba y de Velasco celebrated their wedding. the bride and groom had grown up on neighboring estates in the verdant Andalusian countryside in southern Spain. the adjacency of their properties reflected the close blood ties that united their two families; Leonor and Martín were cousins who belonged to two interrelated branches of the up-and-coming noble lineage known as the Fernández de Córdoba. Their marriage, like those of other premodern elites, was crafted with biological, social, economic, and even political calculations in mind. in many ways, Leonor and Martín’s match was arranged to meet the expectations of the country gentry. the bride brought a handsome dowry to augment her husband’s estate. She bore him eight heirs, and with her management skills organized his hearth, properties, and finances. Her father, Diego Fernández de Córdoba, the first Marquis of Comares, even used his influence with the Catholic Monarchs Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to secure the crown’s favor, including royal offices for his new son-in-law. in turn, Martín de Córdoba provided Leonor with the creature comforts that suited the wife of the future Count of Alcaudete I. His political ambitions brought her into contact with other ladies and lords, some at the glamorous court of the Spanish sovereigns. His sizable income enabled her to live well beyond the means of most people.

The story of Leonor and Martín richly illustrates the comfortable life of provincial nobles. Marked by the conventions of pedigree, property, wealth, and status, the couple seemed to typify the affluent security of the elite. Their lives, however, also tell a more important history of the early Spanish empire. the couple and their family formed the nexus of an administrative network of officers that helped create and sustain the expanding polity. Leonor’s father, Diego, had pioneered what came to be the family’s tradition of service . . .

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