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General Council (14th-17th centuries)

Colourful wood carving showing the Catalan Courts (edition of the Constitutions of Catalonia, incunabulum dated 1495).

Colourful wood carving showing the Catalan Courts (edition of the Constitutions of Catalonia, incunabulum dated 1495).

As its name indicates, the General Council (“Deputació del General”, as it was called then) permanently and ordinarily represented the “general” or “generalitat” of Catalonia. In the historical context of the medieval period, “generalitat” referred to the entire community of subjects of the Aragonese monarch in the territories belonging to the Principality of Catalonia and the Counties of Roussillon and Sardinia.

The General Council originated from the General Court, which was made up of the king and representatives of the different estates of society. Its mission was to implement certain decisions—basically tax-related—that required more time than that allowed at the short parliamentary meeting where they were decided upon and which, in the feudal system’s spirit of deal-making, were the responsibility of the different estates.

The fiscal jurisdiction of the General Council was a determining factor in establishing the precise boundaries of Catalonia. The Val d’Aran, an independent territory governed by a royal lord, voluntarily joined the Principality in 1410 and committed to paying taxes to the treasury of the General Council in return for military protection.

The history of the General Council has three stages:

The formation of the General Council was the result of a gradual historical process that spanned eighty years from the end of the 13th century to the late 14th century. In 1283, the Court of Barcelona, presided by King Peter the Great, formalised a deal-making system which prohibited the sovereign from promulgating constitutions or levying general taxes without the authorisation of the three estates—military, ecclesiastical and noble—in the Courts. At each session, parliamentary negotiations between the monarch and the representatives of the estates of society would conclude with the approval of new legislation on the administration of land, redress of grievances and compensatory donations to the monarch.

Since more time was required to collect this donation than that allowed at the Court, estate commissions were appointed to carry out the collection. The first such commission was created in 1289. This commission (or council) and those formed well into the 16th century—which normally included only the noble estate, as it was the sole giver of donations—were ad hoc organisations that disappeared as soon as the agreed payment had been made.

In 1348, the Black Death ushered in a period of economic and demographic decline. The long reign of Peter the Ceremonious was characterised by a series of internal conflicts and costly foreign wars, which required a sustained financial effort by all of the estates. This situation irreversibly ensured the continuity of the estate council and the formation of a public treasury of the kingdom.

In 1359, the Court of Cervera appointed two commissions: one for the noble estate and one for the ecclesiastical and military estates. In 1362-1363, the General Courts of Montsó created taxes on trade (entries, exits and lead stamps) in Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia. These were called “generalitats” or taxes for the entire community of subjects. In 1364-1365, faced with the problem of insufficient revenues, the Court of Barcelona-Lleida-Tortosa created a consolidated debt by selling the right to receive an annuity or pension paid out of the taxes on trade. As a result, a single, exclusive General Council was definitively established for Catalonia. Its offices, which were set up on Carrer Sant Honorat in Barcelona, formed the initial core of what would become the Palace of the Government of Catalonia.

The estates viewed the creation of the General Council as a necessary evil that would prevent the extraordinary taxation from falling under the control of the royal tax authorities—as had happened in France, Castile and even parts of England—and hoped to dissolve it as soon as possible. However, the royal requirements continued—in particular, the need to continue paying the annuities and pensions. As a consequence, taxes needed to be raised above the requirements of the donations, making it impossible to dissolve the organisation. In any event, the prudent differentiation between taxes levied by the General Council and those imposed by the king was the source of the prominence and longevity of the Council. It survived well into the Modern Period and the establishment of the absolutist monarchy.

Minutes of the General Court of Catalonia held in 1359 in Cervera, where Berenguer de Cruïlles was elected as the first President of the Generalitat de Catalunya (19 December 1359)

Minutes of the General Court of Catalonia held in 1359 in Cervera, where Berenguer de Cruïlles was elected as the first President of the Generalitat de Catalunya (19 December 1359)

The extinction of the House of Barcelona in 1410, the exceptional interregnum that ended with the Casp Compromise in 1412, and the establishment of a new dynasty presented the opportunity to increase the power of the General Council at the expense of the sovereignty of the monarch. The changes were specified at the Court of Barcelona in 1413. With its new political functions, the institution fell deeper and deeper into debt and was poorly managed. Its activities were then expanded and a series of conflicts ensued, ultimately resulting in a civil war that pitted the General Council against King John II (1462-1472).

The war wreaked havoc on the economic order of Catalan society and highlighted the shortcomings of the General Council’s operations, as well as its oligarchic nature. The monarchy emerged victorious and Ferdinand II, the son of John II, made major changes to the Catalan institution, including the introduction of external restraint mechanisms that were controlled by monarchical authorities.

After these adjustments in the early 16th century, the monarchy expanded and captured a diverse range of territories. As a result, the regime depended less on the financial contributions of the General Council and was more interested in giving it greater responsibilities within the government of the Principality that were in keeping with the monarchy’s plans. However, the members of the Council systematically opposed this means of strengthening their political role in the leadership of Catalonia. In any event, the economic reconstruction of the country after the civil war allowed the General Council to strengthen financially and build up its institutional network over the course of the 16th century.

This period consisted of two different stages:


Political prominence, 1410-1472

The General Council was created to meet the financial needs of the monarchy and became the administrator of a public treasury—one of Europe’s oldest. In the early 15th century, it was the most important permanent representative institution in the Principality. The death of King Martin the Humanist in 1410 created a void. Because of the Council’s prominent position, its members were obliged to play an openly political role in dealing with the interregnum and the succession to the throne. The General Parliament of 1410-1412 was a constituent period, led by the desire to expand the Generalitat’s administrative and political organs and regulate the procedures and controls, by means of supervising campaigns and the formation of a private archive for the institution.

Following the enthronement of Ferdinand I, head of the new Trastàmara dynasty, the 1413 Barcelona Cort was the scene of the pact-making offensive by the Braços which, followed by other similarly inspired reforms between 1422 and 1424, and between 1433 and 1455, consolidated the institution without really altering its character of representing the privileged classes, very often exercised to the detriment of popular interests. On the one hand, the three general members of parliament and the three account auditors – one per class - , renewed by co-optation every three years (a mixed system of co-optation and drawing of lots by ballot was introduced in 1455), governed the institution autonomously and set up a court of law without appeal in causes related to the legal arrangements of its officials and the collection and administration of taxes. On the other, the same 1413 Cort added political functions of defence of justice and control of the observance of the general right by the monarch and his officials, with avoidance of the infractions or violations of the agreed laws.

The frequent absenteeism of the new dynasty kings – who delegated the local exercising of their power to lieutenants – was the background to the growth of the political functions of the Generalitat. In reaction to the imprisonment of the royal firstborn Charles of Viana by his father John II in 1460, the Braços set up a Council of the Principality made up of the Generalitat’s six members of parliament and auditors, and an equal representation of the classes, which was first composed of 27 members and then of 54. Recognised by the monarchy in the Vilafranca Concorde of 1461, which prohibited the king from entering the Principality without the Council’s authorisation, this reinforced Generalitat assumed the political administration of Catalonia during the 1462-1472 Civil War, a conflict that marked the apogee and end of the Braços’s political foray.

During the war, John II was declared “an enemy of the land” and dethroned by the autonomous institutions, and the Catalan crown was bestowed successively and with little fortune on three foreign princes, descendants of the House of Barcelona on the female side: Henry of Castille, Peter of Portugal and Renat of Anjou. John II’s alliance with Louis XI of France – the price of the ceding of Roselló and the Cerdanya, later returned – was one of the elements that tipped the balance in a war that caused great damage in the Principality where the oligarchy had to confront popular demands stirred up by the king.

In 1469, John II held a Cort at Cervera and his faction approved the establishment of new taxes, different to those of the generalitats, which, from that moment on, were relegated to second place as a basic economical source for the monarchy in Catalonia. The final triumph of John II, which consolidated and increased this new royal tax structure on the fringes of the Generalitat, was endorsed in the Pedralbes Surrender in 1472, by which the principality was returned to the sovereignty of the king of Aragon, who, in addition, revalidated the Principality’s institutional order and the functions and obligations of the Generalitat.


Adjustments and growth of the administration (1472-1593)

In the General Corts of Barcelona in 1481, King Ferdinand II reaffirmed his respect for the system constructed by means of pacts in the aforementioned Observance constitution, which began with the words: “Of little use will Laws and Constitutions be if we and our Officials do not observe them” Yet in a general sense, from this time on, the complex legislation that he pushed through until the end of his reign in 1516, was designed to reinforce the power of the monarch, with the introduction of new institutions with royal dependence, such as the Inquisition – which immediately created conflict with the Generalitat and the other Catalan guilds – and the Catalan High Court (until then the Royal High Court was itinerant and shared by all the realms of the Crown of Aragon), or by reforming those already existing, such as Barcelona’s Council of One Hundred or the Generalitat itself.

The point that would permit royal intervention in these guilds was poor economic administration and especially lack of punctuality in payments to those purchasing government debt bonds, a problem that interested the upper classes of Catalan society, and where the king could therefore count on a general consensus if he were able to improve these finances. Ferdinand II kept all the posts of the Generalitat sequestered over the period from 1488 to 1493, and introduced the system of balloting (drawing of lots) for the election of the six members of the consistory, with the aim of breaking the monopolising of these posts by an oligarchy that was becoming increasingly restricted and corrupt.

Furthermore, infraction processes, and complaints in general coming from the Generalitat had to be settled by the New Royal High Court, and in fact this meant the annulment of guarantees of justice, since this organism emanating from the king never condemned any royal official, thereby making the “Poc valria” constitution a worthless document.

Throughout the 16th century, the absenteeism of the Spanish monarchs was permanent, and if under Charles I, Corts were held more or less every five years, under Phillip I (II of Castille) they were called more and more rarely. In this context, the Assemblies of Arms came to be held with increasing frequency, meeting in the same Generalitat House, and entailed an important if disordered expansion of social representation. This new role of the classes in the reinforcement and control of the Generalitat, which neutralised to a certain extent the ballot system, was consolidated at the Cort of 1585 with the formalisation of the Eighteenths or commissions emanating from the Assembly of Arms with the aim of carrying out the political decisions arrived at regarding the affair that had caused the assembly to be called.

Towards the end of the 16th century, the organic structure of the Generalitat was headed by three members of parliament and three account auditors (one per Braç), with a purely ceremonial presidency always favouring the ecclesiastic member. The central administration, established in the Generalitat House in Barcelona- extended and enlarged by the new St Jaume Square frontage – consisted of a head clerk, an accounts administrator and an officer, who had various clerks working under them. Tax collection was entrusted to the landlords and the collectors of the different taxes. With regard to fiscal operation, a stable network of local representatives of the Generalitat was gradually built up, which coincided approximately with the royal regions known as vegueries and covered two hundred and thirty four towns and villages, with around five hundred agents and another five hundred ‘warblers’ or informer spies. This institutional deployment was a clear indication of what the main function of the Generalitat continued to be, while at the same time it reflected directly the profitability of the tax system itself, and indirectly the substantial increase in income from the reconstruction of social wealth in Catalonia once the crisis of the end of the 15th century had been overcome.

Title page of the compiling of the Constitutions and other rights for Catalonia in 1588.

Title page of the compiling of the Constitutions and other rights for Catalonia in 1588.

In 1593, the king unilaterally suspended an important part of the agreements made by the 1585 Cort, and from that moment on, a period of conflicts began, that were intermittent but increasingly serious, between the Catalan institutions holding to the agreed regime, and an internationally established monarchy with an imperial outlook, which not only nursed a tendency towards the exercise of absolute power and the equalising of the regimes of the different States of the Crown, but also continual and very serious military commitments on various fronts. As a consequence, the monarchs of the first half of the 17th century put intense pressure on the Generalitat, in a context of social crisis that would continue to deepen.

The conflict escalated dramatically in 1640 and led to a new civil war which echoed that of the 15th century: the separation of Catalonia with regard to the Spanish Monarchy, the alliance and then direct linking with France, exhausting of the experience and return to the sovereignty of the King of Spain, and as a final balance, the strengthening of royal power in Catalonia from 1652 onwards and definitive cession of the county of Rosselló and part of Cerdanya to France in 1659.

The Generalitat’s irreversible subordination to the power of the monarchy was in part compensated by the organisation of the Conference of the Three Commons – the Generalitat itself, the Barcelone Council of One Hundred and the military Braç – which worked to defend the interests of the Principality during the latter part of the 17th century, and which, following the succession of Charles II in 1700, would lead the Principality from the initial acceptance of Phillip V of Bourbon until the change of sides under the protection of the pact of Genoa in 1705. The unfolding of the War of Succession, with the siege of Barcelona and its surrender on September 11th 1714, led to the abolition of the Generalitat and the two other institutions making up the Conference of the Three Commons.


Conflict with the Spanish monarchy, 1593-1652

Entre 1599, a l'inici del regnat de Felip II (III de Castella), i 1701, arran de l'entronització de Felip IV (V), primer rei de la dinastia borbònica, no hi hagué altra celebració de Corts que la de l'any 1626, interrompuda, i represa el 1632, però finalment inconclusa per manca de possibilitat d'acord entre la monarquia i els representants de la societat catalana. En molts aspectes, doncs, la darrera pedra de l'edifici constitucional de Catalunya fou posada a la Cort General de Barcelona de 1599. Abans de quedar, de fet, interromput el funcionament polític normal de Catalunya, aquesta Cort, que comptà amb la presència prescriptiva del monarca, posà ja en evidència el conflicte constitucional que esclataria a l'inici del següent regnat, el de Felip III (IV) l'any 1622: els reis, allunyats físicament de Catalunya, pretenien que les institucions catalanes acceptessin els delegats del poder reial -lloctinents i capitans generals- abans que el nou monarca hagués jurat les constitucions. El 1623, després de llarga resistència, fou acceptat un lloctinent interí que durà més de tres anys, fins que el monarca complí el requisit constitucional del jurament en ocasió de l'inici de la Cort frustrada de 1626.

Encara que el 1599 va quedar en suspens la intenció de cobrar la cinquena part dels ingressos dels municipis, la pressió fiscal de la monarquia sobre Catalunya anava augmentant, i els intents de cobrar el quint reprengueren el 1611 i afectaren la ciutat de Barcelona el 1620. La resistència dels municipis fou emparada per la Diputació de la Generalitat, que va declarar insconstitucionals tant l'impost en si com els procediments dràstics per cobrar-lo. Igualment, fou considerada contrafacció el reiterat intent virregnal de prohibir la possessió de determinades armes, argumentat pel greu problema del bandolerisme i la necessitat d'establir la seguretat pública, mentre que la Diputació instava les localitats a formar cossos defensius propis. Un altre motiu de dissensió era la defensa externa del país i la cooperació amb els designis militars de la monarquia. El mateix 1599 la Diputació va armar dues galeres per defensar les costes catalanes, però aviat es va trobar amb què la Capitania General les utilitzava per al transport de tropes a Itàlia i, després d'haver quedat preses a mans dels algerians el 1623, la representació catalana a la Cort de 1626 aprofità per insistir en la jurisdicció privativa del rei en matèria de defensa. En aquesta reunió parlamentària, la part catalana s'oposà al projecte de la Unió d'Armes del ministre Olivares, que preveia el sosteniment estable d'un exèrcit de 16.000 homes pagats per la Diputació. El fracàs de les negociacions parlamentàries, motivat per aquests i altres conflictes, deturà l'aprovació de

El pas de la guerra latent a la guerra oberta amb França convertí Catalunya en frontera militar i base logística el 1635. L'allotjament dels soldats del rei, així com les lleves encobertes, l'increment de la pressió fiscal i altres abusos, a més de la prohibició del comerç amb França, foren el rerefons de l'exercici triennal iniciat l'estiu de 1638 pels diputats Pau Claris (eclesiàstic i, per tant, president de la institució a efectes cerimonials), Francesc de Tamarit (militar) i Josep Quintana (popular). Les acusacions de contrafacció per motiu dels allotjaments van ser considerades responsables de la revolta pagesa de 1640, que donà lloc a l'empresonament de Tamarit i que, al seu torn, encengué més la revolta, que entrà a Barcelona el dia 22 de maig per alliberar-lo i, en el curs de l'avalot del dia 7 de juny (Corpus de Sang), acabà amb la vida del virrei, comte de Santa Coloma, enmig de la passivitat de diputats i consellers. Aquest acte precipità l'inici de la Guerra dels Segadors.

La Diputació nuà amb França el pacte de Ceret el 7 de setembre de 1640, pel qual Catalunya havia de rebre suport militar, se separaria de la Monarquia Hispànica i quedaria constituïda com a república lliure sota la protecció del rei francès. Pau Claris convocà la Junta General de Braços, que s'erigí en la institució rectora de la nova situació, va fer oficials els compromisos amb França i la secessió i va emetre deute públic per finançar les despeses militars. L'avanç victoriós de les tropes castellanes per Cambrils i Tarragona féu que la Junta cedís a les pressions franceses i proclamés Lluís XIII comte de Barcelona 23 de gener de 1641, tres dies abans de la batalla de Montjuïc, que deturà l'atac a Barcelona. Encara que el pacte de Péronne de 19 de setembre de 1641 respectava les constitucions i el pactisme, els abusos sobre la població catalana i sobre les seves institucions, no sols no minvaren, sinó que s'incrementaren greument al llarg dels anys de domini francès, mentre que la guerra es perllongava sobre els territoris catalans, fins que la feblesa ocasionada per la minoria d'edat de Lluís XIV i la fractura institucional de la mateixa Diputació van facilitar els èxits de l'ofensiva castellana de 1651-1652, dirigida per Joan Josep d'Àustria, que entrà a Barcelona. La guerra s'allargà encara fins que el tractat dels Pirineus de 1659 sancionà la annexió a França del Rosselló, el Conflent, el Vallespir i part de la Cerdanya.


La decadència institucional, 1652-171

The return of Catalonia to the Spanish Monarchy meant that the Generalitat was subordinated to the Crown by the establishment of new balloting rules and the obligation to participate in the upkeep of military garrisons based on Catalan territory, while royal taxation continued to expand. The constant risk of financial collapse and the absence of the Corts imposed extraordinary restrictions on the Generalitat, which was unable to cope with the persecution of tax fraud nor to modernise the taxation system. In general it became a largely docile instrument in the hands of the King’s delegates, although protests and complaints about the continuing infractions could not be suppressed. The decline of the Generalitat as an institution contrasts, in the second half of the 17th century, with the increased vigour and protagonism of the Barcelona Council of One Hundred, owing to the less constricted financial situation and the recovery of the urban economy.

In the final years of the century, an informal association between the Generalitat, the Council of One Hundred and the military Braç took on an increased importance in what was known as the Conference of the Three Commons, in which the Generalitat showed itself to be the part that was in general most in favour of following the indications of the Crown. Following the death of Charles II in 1700, the Three Commons accepted the interim continuity of the practising lieutenant, and they were also asked to accept Phillip of Anjou as king – and his lieutenant – before the swearing in of the constitutions, which took place in Barcelona on the occasion of the Corts of 1701-1702, the first to be held for a century. In addition to measures favouring Catalan commerce, these Corts were fruitful in constitutional matters, especially in the establishing of a Court of Infractions.

However, the practical violation of the constitutions by the viceroy Velasco and the mistrust towards the Bourbons as a result of the awful experience of 1641-1659 and Louis XIV’s military attacks on Catalonia in the final years of the century, together with the pressures applied by the British, Dutch and Austrians, who in 1702 chose Archduke Karl of Habsburg as a successor to Charles II, inclined the Catalan institutions towards breaking their allegiance to Phillip V. In the Pact of Genoa signed on June 20th 1705, the British promised to land an army in Catalonia and to respect the constitutions. The other realms of the Aragon Crown also opted for Austria and became the main support for the allies in the peninsula. Karl III of Habsburg held Corts in Barcelona from 1705 to 1706, ratifying and developing the concessions made previously by Phillip V and recognising the Three Commons organisation. After the battle of Almansa, which opened up the gates of Valencia for the Bourbon, and the occupation of Aragon in the spring of 1707, the two realms’ charters were abolished, heralding what would happen to Catalonia in the event of Phillip V being triumphant. Although in the War of Succession there would still be spectacular turnarounds on the fields of battle, Catalonia’s fortunes were sealed by a political occurrence, the accession of Karl of Habsburg to the imperial throne in 1711, since the risk of a great continental power seemed to British eyes less desirable than the bestowing of the Crown of Spain on Louis XIV’s grandson. Contacts were immediately begun which would finally lead to the Treaties of Utrecht and Rastatt (1713-1714).

In 1712, the allied armies withdrew from the peninsula and Catalonia was left to its own devices. In July of 1713, the Assembly of Braços decided, under pressure from the royal Braç, to resist the Bourbon armies, however these gradually occupied the territory. In April of 1714, the siege of Barcelona began, with the city defended by companies created by the guilds and under the orders of Antoni Villarroel and Rafael Casanova. The final assault on the city took place on the 11th of September: Casanova fell wounded and Villarroel called for surrender. The last pocket of resistance, Cardona, surrendered a few days later.

map of the siege of Barcelona in 1697

map of the siege of Barcelona in 1697

Update:  20.02.2018