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Composite monarchy

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A composite monarchy (or composite state) is a historical category, introduced by J. H. Elliott, that describes early modern states consisting of several countries under one ruler, who governs his territories as if they were separate kingdoms, in accordance with local traditions and legal structures. The composite state was the typical kind in the early modern period. H. G. Koenigsberger divides composite states into two classes: those, like the Spanish Empire, that consisted of countries separated by either other states or by the sea, and those, like Poland–Lithuania, that were contiguous.


Theorists of the 16th century believed that "conformity" (similarity in language and customs) was important to success of a composite state. Francesco Guicciardini praised the acquisition of the Kingdom of Navarre by the King of Aragon in 1512 on account of their conformità. Yet, differences could be persistent. Navarre retained its own law and customs separate from the rest of Spain down to 1841. In France, a far more unified state than Spain in the early modern period, the state was divided into different customary tax regimes, the pays d'élection and pays d'état. This was abolished during the 1789 Revolution.

The 17th-century Spanish jurist Juan de Solórzano Pereira identified the composite state as one whose components were aeque principaliter (equally important), as opposed to an "accessory" union, in which a newly acquired territory was subsumed under the laws of an already existing one, such as when New Spain was incorporated into the Crown of Castile, or when Wales was joined to England.


Composite monarchies were common during the early 15th century to the early to mid 18th century in Europe. A composite monarchy involved the unification of several diverse local territories under one ruler. There are two types of composite monarchy proposed by John Elliott, “accessory” union or “aeque principali”. The first type of composite monarchy involved a unification where the united territories share the same laws and are regarded as the same jurisdiction. The second arrangement involved the preservation of local customs and power structures. These structures were ruled by a central ruler who either only broadly created state policy with deference to local rule and respect for local religious cultural and political customs; or where there was a more significant central role, negotiated the rules for each territory separately in respect and in consideration of local traditions and customs. In the second approach each territory was governed as though “…the king who [governs them all] were king only of each one of them”. This method of rule meant intervention of the central government or ruler was infrequent or allowed diverse customs and legal arrangements to coexist. This allowed classes, ethnicities and traditions to exist peaceably in a larger political unit without significant conflict. The monarch attempted in each case to ensure the “guarantee of preserving peace, order and justice, and to care for the poor.”

Most of Europe during the early modern period was governed under arrangements that can be described as composite monarchies. Diversity in arrangements was essential to ensure the unity of composite kingdoms, as they were often very diverse. Composite monarchies in the early modern period united diverse territories, and while in some cases the unification of territories led to the establishment of nation-states in the modern world, in other cases composite territories did not become a unified nation state. Even in the most unified composite kingdom at the time, France, a majority of subjects did not speak the French language. This demonstrates the extent of diversity even in places considered homogeneous. The Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Crown of Castile, the Crown of Aragon, the Kingdom of France, and the Kingdom of England and Wales are prominent examples of composite rule.

Ottoman Empire

Remnants of the Byzantine Empire from Eastern Europe were united under Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II by 1453, and the empire incorporated a vast collection of territories surrounding the Mediterranean. The Ottoman Sultan had succeeded in “superimposing” the Byzantine empire with Ottoman Rule. Ottoman lands contained a wide variety of cultural legal and religious traditions.

The Ottomans maintained an aeque principali empire where local customs and traditional practices were perpetuated. In many cases, the Ottomans allowed subject peoples including Christians of many denominations and Jews have their own communities where their own particular laws and customs were practiced as a part of the Ottoman whole; which often included separate legal codes for each territory that included the retention of many local customs and traditions. This approach is somewhat similar to the approaches of other composite monarchies except that the Ottoman territories included a much more diverse population. The diversity of the empire was also reflected in the Ottoman ruling class. Unlike most western European examples, the Ottoman ruling class included a wide variety of people and cultural traditions. Entrance to the Ottoman ruling class was not exclusively by birth, but many other cultural and linguistic traditions were included.

The Ottoman Empire’s most striking difference with other composite monarchies in Europe was that it allowed religious freedom to a much greater extent than the Europeans did. Religious warfare proliferated in the early modern period (especially in the 16th and 17th centuries). The Ottomans did not require that their subjects adhere to the religion of the monarch, a requirement that usually was a major part of composite kingdoms. The Ottoman Empire was extremely diverse and there were relatively few restrictions on activity of minority groups. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Turks, Greeks, Hungarians, Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, guildsmen, bureaucrats and slaves were free to work and live throughout the empire. This level of religious freedom was largely alien to the rest of Europe during the early modern period. The Inquisition in Spain, and the Ghettos in Italy are examples of the religious restriction and intolerance within non-Ottoman Europe.

Spanish Composite Monarchy

Early modern Spain was an example of a composite monarchy based on the aeque principali approach. The Spanish approach involved separate administrative and taxation arrangements for each territory. Composite monarchy in Spain started with the Reconquista and the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the Catholic Monarchs in the late fifteenth century.

Throughout much of the early modern period, each region of Spain retained its own freedoms (fueros), and this included administrative and governance arrangements. Modes of taxation are an excellent example of the differing arrangements in Spanish composite monarchy. The system of taxation in Spain varied depending on the region, and sometimes even within regions there were sometimes special tax arrangements. The differing tax arrangements led to a reliance on the revenues from the Kingdom of Castile as opposed to other areas of Spain. While all of Spain was united under the same ruler, each territory was often treated very differently and was ruled by the King and central administrators in line with local customs and power structures. The king had more freedom to legislate in Catalonia than in the Kingdom of Aragón. Elites in Aragón and the Council that represented them were viewed as more powerful than elites in Catalonia. In the case of the petitions against hoarding, the King ignored the request to oppose the hoarding of grain in the case of Catalonia, while he accepted the request to oppose hoarding of grain in the Kingdom of Aragón. This demonstrates a different approach to governing each of the composite territories.

Monarchical rule in early modern Spain was a balancing act, as the monarch attempted to preserve unity and loyalty among each part, which required placating local interests. The approach toward governing each of the Spanish territories was to negotiate to determine the needs of different societal groups within the territory and then to govern based on the consensus achieved. Composite rule in Spain involved consultation and negotiation between central state officials and each territory individually, often resulting in different agreements and laws for each territory. The composite and diverse nature of monarchical rule in Spain also included the diversity of social classes and the bargaining power that they had versus the central government. Diversity of social classes further complicated Spanish composite rule. The central government had to take into account not only peculiarities in regional customs and institutions but also regional variations in social structure and the interests of the social structure. In the case of the practice of hoarding in Barcelona, the interests of the Guilds and artisan estate differed from the interests of the clergy and nobility. These differing interests also required resolution from the monarch and his central administrators.

England, Wales and Scotland

The early modern United Kingdom (England and Wales, and later including Scotland) included both an accessory union and aeque principali union. The union between England and Wales was an accessory union as English rules and laws were granted to Wales in the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1543. In contrast the union between England and Scotland involved the preservation of institutions customs and legal traditions peculiar to Scotland. In Scotland for example, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian Church) was preserved, while no separate church for Wales remained. England and Wales integrated, while Scotland retained many of its unique institutions and traditions, for example Scottish law.


Composite monarchy Wikipedia