The Quintessential Imperial Servant
Human history proves that power and wealth can be secured by force, by birth, by shrewd intelligence or by entrepreneurial instincts. History also proves that power and wealth often accrues to shrewd, intelligent and entrepreneurial individuals who are in the trusted inner circle of a powerful person. Francisco de Los Cobos of Ubeda, Andalusia, acquired fantastic power and wealth by exercising all of these traits, save force, by twice insinuating himself into the highest circles of power of Castile.
His family was distinguished in Ubeda, at least, but had only modest financial resources. Born in 1477,by the time he reached his teenage years, he had no interest in the military, commerce per se or the religious orders, three common careers for young, ambitious but modestly educated men in his circumstances. This left only some type of service in government as a career.
Family contacts by birth gave him his crucial break. An aunt married the secretary of Queen Isabella’s chief accountants. This being Castile, where family takes care of their own, his new uncle hired Francisco around 1492 as a clerk at Court when he was only a lad of about 15. With an astounding work ethic, considerable personal charm and an intuitive knack for pleasing his elders, he was soon noticed by Queen Isabella’s chief secretary, Hernando de Zafra, who hired him away from his uncle.
By the time he was 26, King Ferdinand appointed Francisco to be his personal scrivener/secretary and notary public. To modern ears, this sounds like a trivial position. In 1503, however, this work brought a person into intimate contact with your boss, in this case, the King of Castile and Aragon. Francisco knew many details of the King’s thinking, he had access to all of the King’s inner circle and, most of all, he had knowledge of who was making money off of or for the Crown. As we say today, “follow the money” if you want to get ahead. Francisco de Los Cobos did just that with relish and effectiveness. By early 1508, Los Cobos was the chief accountant of Granada, a post he would hold until he died!
His ascent to higher positions, and to royal grants of sources of income, was swift while a cousin and niece married “up”, extending his skeins of influence. But, when his sponsor, King Ferdinand died in early 1516, Los Cobos faced a crucial decision. Should he seek the favor of Cardinal Cisneros, the Regent named in the King’s Will or should he gamble that he could gain favor in the then alien Court in Flanders of the eldest Infante, Charles of Ghent? Several of his senior colleagues chose Cisneros; Los Cobos , and many other bureaucrats in Castile, chose Charles. It took him a little over 8 months to secure a position with the Infante’s Grand Chamberlin, Chievres, who was at the center of Charles’ circle of power and who became a reliable supporter By December, Los Cobos was Secretary to the new King, a remarkable achievement for a newcomer to the King’s Court. It had to have been with the support of Cardinal Cisneros, a stickler for probity in character. But, Los Cobos was but one of eleven peers.
His rise in influence accelerated. By March, he was the record keeper for the Castilian Treasury. By October of 1517, he was appointed to be Secretary for the Council of the Indies, where the money was. Appointment as Secretary for the Council of Finance soon followed. By 1524, he was also Secretary of the Council of Justice and of the Royal Council. After Charles, now the Holy Roman Emperor, the two most powerful men in Court, and certainly in Castile, were Francisco de Los Cobos, and Nicholas Perrenot, Lord of Granvelle. Since the flow of gold and silver would always be central to what Charles V could do, Los Cobos’ control of the Council of the Indies afforded him maximum leverage as well as responsibility.
A marriage into the right family was, at the time, crucial to being upwardly mobile. Los Cobos did not miss the opportunity. In late 1522, he married Dona Maria de Mendoza y Sarmiento whose family heritage, which included the Enriquez family, placed him in the highest social circles. He also inserted his cousin onto the Council for the Indies. When he was named a Grand Commander of the Order of Santiago of Leon in 1529, he had finally achieved the high status that he had earned.
Cobos’ skills in finance were also his scourge because the Emperor’s Imperial finances throughout his reign were chaotic or verging on bankruptcy, not unlike the US government in 2012. When the first installment of Pizarro’s gold treasure worth one billion marvedis arrived in Seville in 1533, Los Cobos commenced a decade long pattern of either using the treasure to pay off overdue loans or mortgaging future shipments to cover the Emperor’s gargantuan expenses from defending against French aggression or the Lutheran Reformation turmoil in the Hapsburg dominions. But, he was the first to centralize all Imperial revenues, expenses and debts so that the Emperor at least had some idea how dire his financial condition was! By 1545, for example, Cobos told Charles V that the treasury was, for all intents and purposes, empty and all revenues until 1548 had been mortgaged. (Little did Los Cobos know the emperor had, on his own, also mortgaged some of the revenues.) Cobos quickly lost influence with the Emperor after this but his herculean efforts at juggling the finances allowed Charles to have his last triumph in the Battle of Muhlberg in 1547.
Los Cobos was also, as a member of the Council of State, intimately involved in the convoluted diplomacy of his times, but never as a principal. He was also involved in the affaires of Infante Philip when he was Regent of Castile.
When Los Cobos died in retirement in the home where he was born on May 10, 1547, he was a very wealthy man. His estate inventory values, converted from ducats to the January 7, 2012 value of a gold ounce (US $1,649.60) revealed assets worth $69,455,000, cash of $24,419,000 and annual income of $10,608,000! The major source of his wealth was the fee Emperor Charles granted to him of 1% of all revenues to the Crown from the Indies, beginning in 1525. This income skyrocketed after 1532 due to the conquest of the Incas., though the fee was reduced in 1535. There were also numerous royal grants of income of far lesser amounts but which were still substantial, such as from the Order of Santiago when he was Grand Commander.
Yet, even his sympathetic biographers concede that Los Cobos was not immune to the receipt of “gifts” from the thousands of Castilians and others who sought favor with the Crown. For example, it was widely rumored at the time that Hernan Cortes bestowed a “gift” on tens of thousands of ducats on his wife Maria when Cortes was lobbying to be the Governor of the conquered Aztec dominions. (He did not succeed, nonetheless.) Such “gifts” are widely acknowledged by Castilian and Imperial historians as simply a part of the social fabric as well as a way for the Crown to reduce its official expenses.
He was survived by Maria, a daughter, Maria who married the grandson of the Grand Captain Gonzalo de Cordoba and by a son, Diego, whose accomplishments were minor.
It cannot be denied that Francisco de Los Cobos rendered incalculable services to his sovereigns and the Crown. He left his indelible mark of the history of his people.
(Primary source: Francisco de Los Cobos by Hayward Keniston, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958)