Don Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma (Seville, 1552/1553 — Valladolid, 1625), the favourite of Philip III of Spain and minister, was the first of the validos ('most worthy') through whom the later Spanish Habsburg monarchs ruled. After his fall from grace in 1618 he was succeeded by Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, Count-Duke of Olivares.
The family of Sandoval was ancient and powerful. Lerma was raised at Seville, where his uncle was archbishop and his father the marquis of Denia. As long as Philip II lived, the nobles had little effective share in the government, with the exception of a few who were appointed viceroys or commanded armies abroad. The future duke of Lerma passed his time as a courtier, made himself a favourite with the young prince, and was in fact one of the incapable men who, as the dying Philip II foresaw, were likely to mislead the new sovereign. The old king’s fears were fully justified after his death.
No sooner was Philip III king than he entrusted all authority to his favourite, who amassed power unprecedented for a privado or favorite and became the "king's shadow," the filter through whom all information passed. Philip III, preoccupied with piety and indolence, soon created him duke of Lerma (1599), pressured the papacy to create his other uncle Bernardo a cardinal the same year, and lavished on him an immense list of offices and grants, even authorizing him to affix the royal signature to documents.
Gifts poured in from outside the royal court. From the Medici in Florence in 1601 came an over-lifesize marble of Samson and a Philistine by Giovanni da Bologna, presented as a diplomatic gift. It had been made for a Medici garden, and though it had recently been in storage, it was a princely gift (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Lerma assembled a vast collection of paintings. Duke Mario Farnese sent over a Fra Angelico Annunciation (it was a little old-fashioned), which Lerma passed on to the Dominicans of Valladolid and is now at the Prado, Madrid.
As chief minister Lerma's ideas of foreign policy were firmly grounded in feudal ideas about royal patrimony. He cemented Spanish rule by many marriage alliances with the Austrian Habsburgs and then with the French Bourbons. Lerma's administration began with a treaty with France Treaty of Vervins 1598, declaring peace, but he persisted in costly and useless hostilities with England till 1604, when Spain was forced by exhaustion to make peace. Lerma used all his influence against a recognition of the independence of the Low Countries. The fleet was neglected, the army reduced to a ‘remnant', and the finances ruined beyond recovery.
Though in 1607 the monarchy declared itself bankrupt, Lerma carried out the ruinous measures for the expulsion of the Moriscos, officially Christianized Moors, in 1609-14, a decision affecting over 300,000 people. A policy motivated by religious and political considerations, in which no economic consideration played a part, the expulsion secured him the admiration of the clergy and was popular with the mass of the nation. Lerma's financial horizons remained medieval: his only resources as a finance minister were the debasing of the coinage and foolish edicts against luxury and the making of silver plate.
Lerma's trusted and unscrupulous secretary was Rodrigo Calderón (d. 1621), a greedy, ambitious upstart, attracted some of the enmity that Lerma earned, as Lerma's agent. At Lerma's fall from power Calderón's torture and execution for witchcraft and other crimes, but actually as a scapegoat when Lerma's enemies could not touch Lerma, demonstrate what would have been Lerma's fate, if a cardinal's hat hadn't protected his head.
Lerma was also responsible for the appointment of Don Pedro Franqueza to reform royal finances, but who managed to embezzle enough funds to purchase the title of Count of Villalonga. He was placed on trial and forfeited his riches.
At a time when the state was practically bankrupt, he encouraged the king in extravagance, and accumulated for himself a fortune estimated by contemporaries at forty-four million ducats.
On the hilltop overlooking the village of Lerma in Old Castile that provided his grand title, the duke built a palace (1606-1617, by Francisco de Mora) capped with corner towers, on the site of a fortification, ranged round a double-arcaded courtyard facing an arcaded square and linked to the rebuilt church of San Pedro with a private passageway. Lerma was pious, spending lavishly on religious houses.
In the end, Lerma was destroyed by a palace intrigue carried out by his own son, Cristóbal de Sandoval, Duke of Uceda, manipulated by Olivares. It is probable that he would never have lost the confidence of Philip III, who divided his life between festivals and prayers, but for the domestic treachery of his son, who combined with the king’s confessor, Aliaga, whom Lerma had introduced. After a long intrigue in which the king was silent and passive, Lerma was at last compelled to leave the court, on October 4, 1618.
As a protection, and as a means of retaining some measure of power in case he fell from favour, he had persuaded Pope Paul V to create him cardinal, the previous March, 1618. He retired to his palace in Lerma, and then to Valladolid, where it was reported that he celebrated mass every day "with great devotion and tears". When the dying Philip III was presented with a list of prisoners and exiles to be forgiven, he granted grace to all except the cardinal-duke of Lerma. When Lerma learned the news, he started from Valladolid to Madrid but was intercepted on the road and commanded by Olivares, favorite of the heir to the throne, who professed an implacable hatred for the cardinal, to return to Valladolid. The cardinal was in Villacastin and remained there until he learned of the death of the king. Then he went back to Valladolid to celebrate the requiem in the church of San Pablo. He was ordered by the count of Olivares to reside in Tordesillas but he did not obey and appealed to the pope. Gregory XV and the Sacred College defended him, considering his banishment an attempt against ecclesiastical freedom and the prestige of the cardinalate.
Under the reign of Philip IV, which began in 1621, Lerma was despoiled of part of his wealth. The cardinal was sentenced, on August 3, 1624, to return to the state over a million ducates. Lerma died in 1625.
In the picaresque novel Gil Blas (chapter iv), the hero ingratiates himself with the count Olivarez, his new patron:
Gil Blas ruminates ironically upon the cardinal's hat that Paul V gave the Duke of Lerma: "This pope, wishing to establish the inquisition in the kingdom of Naples, invested the minister with the purple, and by that means hoped to bring King Philip over to so pious and praiseworthy a design. Those who were best acquainted with this new member of the sacred college, thought much like myself, that the church was in a fair way for apostolical purity, after so spiritual an acquisition."
Young Mikhail Lermontov associated his surname with Lerma's title, which is an obvious fiction; even the family legend traced back the name to Thomas Learmonth the Rhymer from Scotland, but not to Lerma. The poet painted an imaginary portrait of the "Duke of Lerma" and created some other works featuring Spaniards.
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