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Councils and juntas in early modern Madrid

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to think of meetings as a time-consuming chore, and it was no different in the seventeenth century. During the 1660s, the count of Castrillo would complain to his wife about the long hours that he had to spend in committees. He was sometimes too busy even so much as to go to Mass, and when he was finally allowed out of the palace it might not have been until the early hours of the morning.

The count’s experience was in many ways typical. Habsburg officials seemed to spend more time discussing problems, than resolving them. Their government was broadly collegial in organization. Below the king, public affairs were officially the responsibility of a dozen or so councils in Madrid, along with a variety of similar institutions in Milan, Brussels, Naples, and the other principal cities that made up what English diplomats were accustomed to describe as “the Spanish Monarchy.” The system worked reasonably effectively, but the councils tended to be slow in operation, and suspicious of attempts at reform and modernization.

So, from the reign of Philip II “ad hoc” committees (or “juntas”) began to be used alongside the councils. They existed for all manner of purposes—from the management of the royal households to the supply of the armies and fleets; from the development of new sources of revenue to the introduction of reforms in government and society. Their purpose was to provide an element of executive direction that was lacking in the formally instituted councils, and the latter often found themselves excluded from the discussion of significant matters. There was nothing particularly Spanish about the practice. One of the members of the English Privy Council during the 1640s was the duke of Newcastle, who complained of how: “every letter and book of news we gravely deliver our opinions thereof, but first wipe our mouths formally with our handkerchers, spit with a grace, and hem aloud, and then say little to the purpose.” Cited by Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, The Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, ed. Charles H. Firth (London, 1906)—The words of this English grandee would have struck a chord with his Spanish counterparts.

Painting of Elisabeth of Bourbon, attributed to Juan Van Der Hamen. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

During the reign of Philip IV between 1621 and 1665, the matter went to extremes. His principal minister, the count-duke of Olivares, was accused of running a regime of “juntas” whose contempt for legalities and due process had led to the outbreak of revolts in Catalonia and Portugal. When he fell from power in 1643, many of his committees were suppressed, but not before a special “junta” had been set up to recommend which ones should be the first to go! Thereafter, the king continued to be advised by a private committee that accompanied him to Zaragoza on his summer campaigns to suppress the revolt in Catalonia. Meanwhile, the queen remained in Madrid and ruined her health by the long hours that she spent chairing meetings—to the concern of everyone, including her 13-year-old son Baltasar Carlos. Foreign affairs were entrusted to an exclusive committee of state in an arrangement that gave its name to the English “Junto” that would later come to prevail under William III.

Yet, busy attendance of “juntas” was not always an index of real influence. Officials in Madrid lived out their lives enclosed in discussion of matters about which their advice often went unheeded. During the late 1650s Friar Nicolás Bautista, a renowned Carmelite preacher, was regularly invited to attend committees on matters of taxation, which might lead one to think that he was a government man. Yet, the fiery sermons that he delivered from the pulpit of the royal chapel suggest an attempt to use an alternative and more public platform to distance himself from the unpopular and controversial decisions being made in his name.

Committee-work could thus be a sign of impotence, as well as of influence. Some “juntas” appeared to serve no other purpose than to enhance the status of the person responsible for convening them—as was the case with the count of Monterrey who liked to summon meetings to his house, only to cancel them after everybody had arrived. Others provided a forum for collective irresponsibility where the presence of many would allow blame for mistakes to be evenly spread. Often, the establishment of a “junta” might just as easily have been a means of kicking a contentious matter into the long grass as of reaching a quick decision. Supplicants bemoaned that committee members were usually too old, or too busy to attend, and when someone fell ill, a month would go by with no meetings, and when he got better, somebody else would be sick, or some other accident would intervene, with the outcome that months, years, and lifetimes could be wasted in frenetic, but ineffectual petitioning.

And, yet for the standards of the era, the Spanish administration was remarkably effective at doing its job of ensuring the defence of Philip IV’s possessions from his enemies. For all the time-serving working groups that wasted the hours and days of the governing elite, there were some committees that played a very important role in the Spanish Monarchy’s survival, and the count of Castrillo was one of the half-dozen effective decision-makers during the closing years of the reign. Yet he still didn’t like attending meetings. Whether influential or irrelevant, seventeenth-century “juntas” were exasperating for everyone.

Featured image credit: “Equestrian portrait of Philip IV” by Diego Velázquez. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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