John Elliott

1999 Balzan Prize for History, 1500-1800

For his outstanding contributions to the history of Spain and the Spanish Empire in the early modern period. He has transformed our understanding of the problems confronting Spain and its leaders in the age of its incipient decline; his scholarly and elegant writings have brought the history of the Iberian peninsula back into the mainstream of European and world history.

Sir John Elliott (*1930 – †2022) is a British historian who has become the world’s leading authority on the history of early modern Spain. His studies of the Iberian peninsula and the Spanish Empire have transformed our understanding of the problems confronting Spain in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and of the attempts made by the country’s leaders to avert its decline. He has brought the study of Spain into the mainstream of European history and has inspired a generation of pupils. All his writings are marked by exceptional clarity, elegance and panache.

Elliott’s first major work, The Revolt of the Catalans: A Study in the Decline of Spain 1598-1640 (1963) was the result of an extended period of research in Catalonia, where he met with Catalan historians and came under the influence of the distinguished historian Jaume Vicens Vives. In this book he showed that a basic weakness of Spanish monarchy in the seventeenth century was the incomplete unification of the Iberian territories over which it rules. This would be a continuing theme of his later work. He followed this study with a model textbook, Imperial Spain 1469-1716 (1963), which remains a standard work for college use both in the Anglo-Saxon world and in Spain. In these two volumes Elliott demonstrated that Spanish history, despite its individuality, bore marked similarities to that of other contemporary European states. “To gain the maximum yield from his knowledge of Spain and its history, politics and culture (he wrote later), the Hispanist must be capable of tracing the links between the peninsula and events in the wider world and to draw parallels and comparisons which will themselves help to clarify the Spanish situation.”

Then came two books which, without specifically concentrating on the history of Spain, allowed him to explore the interaction between Spain and the rest of the world. Europe Divided 1559-1598 (1969) covered the whole of Europe during forty years of Spanish pre-eminence, and The Old World and the New 1492-1650 (1970) analysed the intellectual, economic and political impact of America on sixteenth and early seventeenth century Europe. Both volumes remain unsurpassed. In 1973 Elliott moved from London to Princeton, where he embarked on a major study of the ministerial career of Olivares, the principal minister and favourite of Philip IV of Spain. In collaboration with José Francisco de la Peña, he compiled two volumes of Memorials and Letters of the Count-Duke of Olivares (1978-81), an important selection of documents, accompanied by a scholarly commentary.

Then, he and an art historian, Jonathan Brown, jointly produced a scholarly and delightful study of the palace built by Olivares for Philip IV and the paintings commissioned for it: A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (1980). Next came Richelieu and Olivares (1984), a comparative study of the two contemporary statesmen, who were confronted by very similar problems. Finally, in 1986, there appeared the masterpiece which had been in gestation since Elliott began research in 1952, The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline (1986). The result of visits to almost every national archive in Europe, this majestic work of scholarship brilliantly illuminated the history of Spain in an age when the traditional foundations of her power were being eroded. Its analysis of the problems facing political leaders at a time of national decline evoked obvious, if unstated, resemblances to those confronting the leaders of post-imperial Britain.

Sir John is now working on a comparative study of Spanish and British colonization in the New World. Sir John Elliott’s work has been of a consistently distinguished standard. It is not methodologically innovative, but exemplifies traditional historical scholarship at its very best and is outstanding for its balance, judgment and clarity. Elliott’s writings have influenced many scholars, both in Europe and America. He has revitalised and reframed the study of the history of Spain, a remarkable achievement for a British scholar.

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