The First Modern Revolution for Liberty: The Comuneros vs. the Holy Roman Empire

The Coumneros revolted against an arrogant and power-hungry king.

Historical anniversaries with big, round numbers catch my attention, as I believe they do that of most people. We often mark a 10th or a 50th anniversary, or the centennial of an important person’s birth or a signature event, with special commemoration. It’s less common to note something that dates as far back as half a millennium, but I’ve got a good one for you.

Today—April 16—is the 500th anniversary of the start of the fascinating Revolt of the Comuneros. The uprising played out largely in Castile, which in 1520 was the lion’s share of what we know today as Spain (Aragon being most of the rest). The more I’ve learned about the rebels, the more I believe that I would have eagerly joined them had I been a Castilian of that day.

The name, comuneros, derives from comunidades (“communities”) in English. This was a rebellion of the citizens of towns against the encroachments of national authority. The models the rebels looked to were “free cities” to the east, such as Ragusa and Genoa. Many historians regard the Revolt of the Comuneros as the first modern liberal (in the classical sense) revolution.

The object of rebel disdain was King Charles. He had ascended to the throne in 1516 as Charles I, the first King of Spain (over a unified Castile and Aragon). Born in the Netherlands, he showed up in Castile knowing neither the language nor much of the culture, and with a retinue of Flemish nobles and clerics in trail—three strikes against him right from the get-go. In 1519, he was elected Emperor by the loose confederation of European mini-states known as the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), after which Charles V was his official title. Overnight, independent-minded Castile and Aragon became little more than principalities of a larger jurisdiction.

The lands Charles ruled by 1520 were vast—from most of Europe to colonies as far away as Africa and America. Centuries later, Britain presided over an empire on which “the sun never set” but that’s a label employed earlier to describe the HRE of Charles’s day.

From the start, Charles didn’t mix well with the Castilians but he worsened matters by turning his attention elsewhere upon his selection as Holy Roman Emperor. He jacked up taxes to pay for his lavish court and his ambitious plans for imperial expansion. Then in 1520, he departed for his royal lands in Germany and put a Dutch cardinal (who later became Pope Adrian VI) in charge of Spain. It didn’t take long for Spain to erupt in violent protest, and for Charles to mobilize his troops to fight back.

Cities within Castile, such as Toledo, Madrid, Salamanca, Valladolid and Segovia, organized their own militias and alliances. The demands of the comuneros included a rollback of taxes and reform of the feudal order with its rigid system of hereditary privilege and government-granted favors. They hated the arrogance and concentrated power of Charles’s Flemish inner circle. And they vociferously opposed the spending of public money on foreign adventures. Referencing Stephen Haliczer’s The Comuneros of Castile: The Forging of a Revolution, 1475-1521, economist Peter C. Earle writes in a 2011 essay:

In city after city throughout Castile between April and May 1520, royal representatives, bureaucrats, and staffers were ejected as the comuneros made good on their threat to form provisional governments. The individual comuneros subsequently united to form a junta (a union, or board) and sent a letter outlining their intentions to the absentee monarch.

The implicit goal had been reform, but perhaps recognizing the inherent contradiction in notions of “good government,” comuneros in Toledo furnished the most radical idea yet: to move forward with “no legal government”; a proposal to form a “congress of cities” in a “radical programme” characterized by a “spirit of compromise” in place of coercion. The comuneros would create a network of self-governed, independent city-states which would trade freely among one another, bound by a loose mutual-defense pact, emulating the small, autonomous microstates of the Italian Republic.

Charles rescinded his tax hikes in an effort to quell opposition, but to little avail. In the fall of 1520, rebel forces clashed with royal troops in battle after battle. The comunero cause was handicapped when its partisans failed to discriminate between nobles loyal to Charles and nobles sympathetic to reform. Robert Wilde writes,

The rebellion spread into the countryside, where people directed their violence against the nobility as well as the king. This was a mistake, as the nobles who had been content to let the revolt carry on now reacted against the new threat. It was the nobles who exploited Charles to negotiate a settlement and a noble-led army which crushed the comuneros in battle.

A year after it started, almost to the day, the Revolt screeched to a halt when the comuneros were vanquished at the Battle of Villalar. Its most important leaders were beheaded. All resistance to Charles V’s dictatorship ended shortly thereafter. In Aragon, adjacent to Castile, Charles also wiped out a similar insurrection known as the Revolt of the Brotherhoods.

The good guys lost this one but elsewhere, the spirit of the comuneros inspired revolts against tyranny over the next three centuries. “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, and I tend to agree. Jefferson maintained that even unsuccessful but noble insurrections send a message that all tyrants need to hear:

What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?

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More by Lawrence W. Reed