Mad Men? Hugh Thomas Tells Paul Lay about His Unparalleled Research into the Lives of the Extraordinary Generation of Men Who Conquered the New World for Golden Age Spain

By Lay, Paul | History Today, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Mad Men? Hugh Thomas Tells Paul Lay about His Unparalleled Research into the Lives of the Extraordinary Generation of Men Who Conquered the New World for Golden Age Spain


Lay, Paul, History Today


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Hugh Thomas first came to public prominence in 1961 with his acclaimed study, The Spanish Civil War. Thirty years later the former Professor of History at the University of Reading and political colleague of Margaret Thatcher produced a masterly account of a more distant though no less controversial episode in Spanish history, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. In 2003 came Rivers of Gold, the first in a monumental trilogy on the Spanish Empire, the second volume of which, The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V, was published in November. No other historian has managed to portray so completely the terrible endeavours of the Conquistadors.

'It was an extraordinary achievement', says Thomas as we sit before a warm fire in his spacious drawing room in west London. 'The conquests of the New World reflected some kind of combustion in Spain that made it all possible. The union of Aragon and Castile had taken place [in 1479] and Navarre had been brought in. You had some very bright monarchs involved: Ferdinand and Isabella were the most intelligent rulers Spain had had--up to Juan Carlos, anyway', Thomas laughs. 'They knew how to organise a country. They travelled a lot, as did Charles V Jr. 1516-56]; they were never stationary. We know where they were on every day of their reign. This enabled them to meet people who could be of use to them, either as civil servants, bishops or as generals.'

What motivated the Conquistadors. Was it simply a matter of greed?

'The pursuit of material wealth is something you can't push aside; Thomas replies. 'Especially when you are talking about people from Extremadura, which is a very poor part of Spain, even now. But they had other motives. The desire for some kind of glory, to cut some kind of dash in the world, played a part. They were Renaissance men and they thought they were doing the right thing so far as the Church was concerned and for the religious fortunes of the conquered peoples. That was especially the case in Mexico, where there was a powerful state-driven religion that did have some horrible aspects to it. The Spaniards genuinely believed they were replacing it with something benign and good. You can't challenge that fact.

'The mental world they inhabited is difficult for us to access. They were not rebels. Hernando Cortes [1485-1547] was rebellious by nature but he was anxious to keep to the rules that he thought the Spanish crown would like him to maintain. They kept to those rules by giving the crown a percentage of their findings and of their loot. They accepted the crown's nominations for governors, viceroys and, to some extent, generals. They were not medieval characters anxious to create a territory of their own. They thought of themselves as loyal subjects of the king of Spain and would do what the crown in Salamanca or Valladolid wanted them to do. There was the exception of Peru, where Gonzalo, the brother of Francisco Pizarro [c. 1471-1541, the conqueror of the Inca empire], tried some kind of unilateral declaration of independence. But he was destroyed eventually.

'In many ways the Conquistadors were the products of the centralisation that began with Ferdinand and Isabella. For example, Charles V had a committee, the Council of the Indies, which was meant to guide him on what he should do with his New World empire. It was the body that decided on nominations, especially civilian administrators. In the late 1540s it was plainly necessary to send someone new to Peru. The old guard, represented by the Duke of Alba [1507-82], wished to send an aristocrat to rule. But the other members of the board, university-educated civil servants, wanted someone of their own kind, the newly made men of a unified Spain. They got their way and defeated Gonzalo Pizarro and had him executed, quenching the most serious rebellion to affect the Spanish empire until the 18th century.'

New World of opportunity

How was the creation of this enormous empire perceived in Spain itself? …

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