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Lesson 3: The 16th Century Superpower

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The Spanish Empire served as the world's only superpower during the 16th century. While the discovery of the New World played a vital role in the rise of Spanish dominance, numerous other factors contributed to its success. However, the empire overstretched its resources and became involved in numerous conflicts throughout Europe, which eventually led to its decline. This activity has students consider the major factors that influenced the Spanish Empire's rise and decline. As an optional extension of this lesson, students can compare Spain with other historical empires.

Main Tasks

  • Create a series of three visual representations that illustrate the relationship among factors that led to the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire.


  1. To introduce this project, show the Spanish monarchs' policies toward Muslims and Jews in Spain video clip. Review as a class the main factors that led to the rise of the Spanish Empire, including the consolidation of Spain, reconquest of Granada, and the discovery of the New World. Analyze the importance of each factor and ask students to categorize these ideas into political, economic, and cultural categories.
  2. Break the class into groups of 3 to 4 students, with each group labeled Cluster 1, Cluster 2, or Cluster 3.
  3. Each cluster number represents one of the monarchs that ruled during the height of the Spanish Empire: Isabella and Ferdinand (Cluster 1), Charles V (Cluster 2), or Philip II (Cluster 3).
  4. Ask students to use the provided resources to research each of the factors as it related to their monarch. In a short summary they should:
    • identify the importance of the event or idea
    • explain how it contributed to the rise or fall of the empire
    • categorize it as a political, economic, or cultural factor.
  5. Now, have students create a visual representation of the factors with a graphic organizer or mind map. They should use a large piece of paper or a computer-based graphic organizer application, such as Inspiration ( (client), Webspiration ( (online), or Gliffy ( (online). Label each item as contributing to Spain's rise or fall AND as a political, economic, or cultural factor.
  6. Students should indicate the relationship between factors AND make connections across the three cluster groups.
  7. After the students have completed the graphic organizer, discuss their findings. Use the following questions to start the discussion:
    • How was Spain's eventual decline based upon factors during Isabella and Ferdinand's reign?
    • If you were an advisor to each monarch, what advice would you give that might have helped prolong the empire?
    • Which one factor most influenced Spain's rise? Its decline?
  8. Show the The true consequences of Spain's New World wealth video clip. Finish the discussion about the historical implications of the fact that the people of Spain ultimately gained little from their nation's empire.


Video Clips
Learn about the Spanish monarchs' policies toward Muslims and Jews
Examine the legacy created by the transfer of riches from the New World to the Old
Discover how Phillip II's religious faith justified the power of his monarchy
Learn about the mine at Potosi, "the richest mountain in the history of the world"
How silver powered the Spanish empire
The true consequences of Spain's New World wealth
Related Links:

Optional Extension

The fall of the Spanish Empire illustrates how a superpower can become a victim of its own success. This optional extension activity asks students to compare and contrast the fall of empires in world history, as well as to analyze the future of the United States as a superpower based upon their findings.

  1. In groups, students select or are assigned a major superpower in world history (e.g. Ottoman Empire, the Mongols, the Soviet Union, the British Empire).
  2. Research and identify the major factors that led to each empire's collapse as a superpower.
  3. Using a Venn diagram, compare those causes with the decline of the Spanish Empire.
  4. As a class, discuss the commonalities and dissimilarities between the different empires.
  5. As a class, analyze the current condition of the United States. Are there any factors present that have been attributed to the decline of Spain or the other empires? Discuss the importance of these potential issues and whether or not that may have an impact on our future. What must we do to maintain our current status as a world power?

Cluster Group #1: Isabella and Ferdinand
  • Development of racial hierarchies
  • Crusader mentality
  • Marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand
  • Support of Columbus
  • Reconquest of Granada
  • Founding of the Holy League
  • Arranged marriage of children
Cluster Group #2: Charles V
  • Death of Philip I, Ferdinand, and Maximilian I
  • Charles crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor
  • Ottoman siege of Vienna
  • The "juro"
  • Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean
  • Defeat of the Mexica and Incas
  • Spanish settlement in the New World
  • Founding of the Potosi mine in Peru
  • War with the Schmalkaldic League
Cluster Group #3: Philip II
  • Conquest of the Philippines
  • Revolt in the Netherlands
  • Defeat of the Spanish Armada
  • Spanish debt to German and Italian bankers
  • Silver (treasure) fleets
  • Harvest declines
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