The English stereotype of Spain and its people has deep cultural roots

The English stereotype of Spain and its people has deep cultural roots, based on a history of intense conflict and competition. Though not the first to suggest the existence of a phenomenon that ‘systematically denigrates the character and achievement of the Spanish people’, William Maltby’s ‘The Black Legend in England’ is the most comprehensive work on the topic of early-modern Anglo-Spanish interaction. It remains an important milestone in the study of Anglo-Spanish relations. Maltby argues that anti-Spanish sentiment was formed ‘at a time when European man was first groping toward a concept of nationhood’ and when religious conflict was high, ideas used to explain why the English view of the Spanish was so deep-seated.
Association with cruelty, particularly because of the Spanish Inquisition, has been a traditional facet of the English conception of Spanish people, though this is not the only component. Conventionally, other aspects of this anti-Spanish portrait have been seen as greed,cowardice, incompetence and an association with the devil, though contemporary writers certainly seemed to see pride as an equally important flaw. In 1598 an anonymous author succinctly summarised English opinion of the Spanish by expressing his belief that the common Spaniard was ‘malgine and perverse, so full of pride, arrogance, ambition, tyrannie and infidelitie.The form of the cruelty is also important, with a focus on torture, sexual deviancy and a penchant for unnecessary destruction being common to Elizabethan anti-Spanish writing. Another element of English portrayals of Spain takes a racial form, and English writers claimed that the Spanish are descended from Jews and Muslims, which was often used to explain their vices to contemporaries.
All of these ideas can be traced in the way that news about the Armada was presented by the media. The concept of reporting news was not understood as presenting ‘unmediated information,’ instead ‘events were infused with meaning. Added to this, the government had incentive to encourage such views of the Spanish, needing to convince Catholics within England not to side with the Spanish. A campaign of publication and censorship thus ensued, trying to denigrate the Spanish to the point that even Catholics would prefer to be ruled by English Protestants than Spanish Catholics. This is one reason that the Catholicism of the Spanish is not the sole focus of sources at this time. English media portrayals of the Spanish, therefore, are crucial to the opinions that formed in response to 1588. It is important to realise that these ideas did not arise exclusively in response to the Spanish Armada; the Inquisition and Spanish behaviour in the New World and the Netherlands were also used by English writers to disparage Spanish people. The portrayal of Spaniards as being cruel is very common, both before and after the attempted invasion Spanish cruelty consistently recurs in English descriptions of Spanish people. Contemporary sources would look to areas of Spanish success to prove their cruelty. Commenting upon their actions in the New World, Antoine Arnauld claimed that the Spanish ‘committed all the execrable cruelties, that either antiquitie could invent or the time present devise. Richard Hakluyt’s 1611 piece, ‘The Vvorthye and Famous History’, highlights that Englishmen were not only interested in Spanish cruelty directed towards England. Hakluyt’s tale of a native being tortured through being treated ‘as though they went to cast him into the fire’, combined with numerous reports of cutting off ears and hands, portrays the Spanish as terrorising a defenceless opposition.
Similar descriptions of Spanish cruelty can be found in one of the most widely read books of Elizabethan England, John Foxe’s ‘The Actes and Monuments’, however here the violence takes place on the European stage. In the 1583 edition, Protestants in Spain are ‘murthered by long torments’ and suffer ‘injuries, threates, whippings and scourginges, yrons, tortures and rackes’ before they die. In English minds, then, ‘the Spaniard was something unusual, something terrifying’ because he was ‘the cruel Spaniard. Before and after the Armada this characterisation existed, so it is tempting to downplay the role of 1588 in creating this stereotype. This does not mean, however, that the Armada event did not contribute to this widespread belief in Spanish cruelty. Due to the English victory over Spain, most demonstrations of Spanish cruelty in English texts about 1588 were hypothetical examples of what the Spanish would have done had their invasion succeeded. Official reports certainly reflect this and Elizabeth’s 1588 proclamation against papal bulls uses the language of ‘destruction’ and ‘ruine’, not just of herself but also of the ‘state and common weale’, to portray Spanish intentions as being particularly destructive. These ‘malicious and traiterous enemies’ did not seem to have a constructive motive, just desiring senseless violence and chaos to be brought upon England. William Burghley wrote a letter, supposedly sent by an English Catholic to a Spanish ambassador, that is another example of an attempted governmental orchestration of public opinion. The Spanish plan, according to this Catholic source, was to invade England in order ‘to destroy the Queene thereof, and all her people addicted to her. The English government clearly did not want to portray Spain as motivated by rational thought but by an insatiable appetite for destruction. Independent writers also conjectured at what the Spanish would do if they won, for example Anthony Marten, writing in 1588, imagined how after the Spanish had taken ‘their vile pleasure’ from ‘your wives, your sonnes and daughters’ they would ‘utterly destroy you. ‘They will execute their malice upon you without judgement’ commented Marten, adding that they will ‘destroy you without mercie. Even if the language in official sources is standard in tone in response to such a serious threat, when combined with this hypothetical cruelty, the reading public must have felt particularly scared of the threat precisely because of its Spanish origin. For contemporaries such as Marten, the imagined consequences of Spanish victory were all that was needed to leave it beyond question that the Spanish were a particularly cruel people.
The development of an unflattering stereotype of the Spanish took place over a long period of time in early-modern England. However, the years directly preceding or following 1588 were the most important in this process.


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