Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
The Emperor Charles V adopted as his emblematic device the pillars of Hercules decorated with scrolls bearing the motto: Plus Ultra. When the device was first invented in 1516 it was essentially a humanist conceit designed to suggest that there would be no limits to the power and dominions of the young Charles of Ghent; but increasingly, as more and more of the New World was discovered and subjected to his rule, the device acquired a special kind of geographical appropriateness as the symbol of global empire.
Spain's conquest of America created the possibility of the first genuinely world-wide empire in human history, as Hernán Cortés was characteristically quick to perceive when he wrote to Charles from Mexico that it now lay within his power to become ‘monarch of the world’. Indeed, for Cortes, impressed by the might of Montezuma, Mexico constituted an empire in itself: ‘one might call oneself emperor of this kingdom with no less glory than that of Germany, which, by the Grace of God, Your Sacred Majesty already possesses’. For Charles V and his advisers, however, there could be only one empire in the world, the Holy Roman Empire; and even after Spain and the Empire were separated on the abdication of Charles in 1556, Philip II respected this convention by retaining the style of ‘king of Spain and the Indies’. Yet it became increasingly obvious that America had added a new, imperial dimension to the power of the king of Spain. Philip II and his successors might officially be no more than kings of the Indies, but that great chronicler of the New World, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, had written of ‘this occidental empire of these Indies’ as early as 1527, and the recurrent appearance, especially in the seventeenth century, of the phrase imperio de las Indias, and even of emperador de las Indias, testified to an underlying consciousness of American empire.