As is well known, the vast world territories reached by the Spanish Crown during the reign of the Habsburgs, and their maintenance under the Bourbons, are often summed up with the expression “the empire on which the sun never sets,” alluding to the fact that they spanned all five continents. However, this phrase did not originate in that era but dates back to antiquity, where it was used with the same meaning.

The Mesopotamian tablets from the third millennium BC contain similar words to refer to the conquests of Sargon of Akkad, the creator of an Akkadian Empire that extended from Elam (a kingdom in the Persian Gulf) to the Mediterranean, including the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and parts of present-day Iran, Syria, and Turkey, with its capital in Agade (near Baghdad, Iraq). Sargon was then said to rule over “all lands from sunrise to sunset.”

The Egyptians also left a similar metaphor in the Story of Sinuhe, a tale from the Middle Kingdom preserved in two of the so-called Berlin Papyri (1499 B and 3022 R, along with some ostraca), where the protagonist, a doctor, mentions the expansion campaign of Sesostris I (c. 1961-1915 BC) into Libya, stating that the pharaoh ruled “over everything the sun encircles.”

In Herodotus’ Polymnia (the seventh of his Nine Books of History), a similar phrase is attributed to Xerxes I. Specifically, when the Persian king is about to invade Greece, marking the beginning of the Second Persian War: “If we subdue [the Greeks], along with their neighbors who inhabit the land of Phrygia by the Hellespont, we will make the Persian Empire border on the ether of Zeus. For no land will see the sun that borders ours, because I, along with you, will traverse all of Europe and make all countries one.”

The concept of the expression aligned with the aspirations of universal dominion by great powers. Thus, the Roman poet Horace, who lived during the vibrant times of Augustus, used it in his Odes to praise a newborn empire that controlled “from the rising sun to the setting.” Even in the Bible, in the Old Testament, expressions of a similar nature can be found. For example, in Psalm 72:8, referring to Solomon, it is said that he will “rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Now, turning to the Spanish case, historians Anthony Pagden and J.H. Elliott point to Ludovico Ariosto, the Italian poet who served as a diplomat for the Holy League in the war against France in the early 16th century. In his most famous work, Orlando Furioso, Ariosto enthusiastically embraced the idea of a universal Christian empire advocated by the circle of humanists around Charles V, echoing a paragraph from the Gospel of St. John about the need for “a single shepherd and a single flock.”

However, there seems to be some consensus that the expression “the empire on which the sun never sets,” applied in the present to the Spanish Empire (which, incidentally, did not exist as such; the Spanish always referred to it as a monarchy), originated from the mouth of a religious figure, Friar Francisco de Ugalde, in a conversation with Charles V related to the proposal of a Spanish empire following the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés, who wrote to the emperor inspired by Bishop Ruiz de la Mola:

“Only God knows how much it has concerned me because I have desired that Your Highness knows the things of this land, which are so many and such that, as I already wrote in the other relation, it can be titled a new emperorship, with a title and no less merit than that of Germany that Your Sacred Majesty possesses.”

Charles was not only the king of Castile and Aragon since 1516 through the inheritance of his parents, Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad, but also of the Indies and the Italian realms (Naples, Sicily, Sardinia) plus the Duchy of Milan, received through maternal lineage (Catholic Monarchs), as well as the Archduchy of Austria and the Burgundian states (Netherlands, Franche-Comté) assumed through paternal lineage (Emperor Maximilian). Added to these were the states (lordships, duchies, counties, etc.) of the Holy Roman Empire in 1520. It is understood that he adopted the motto Plus Ultra (“Further beyond”) in contrast to the Non terrae plus ultra of Classical Antiquity.

The Indies were not only American territory but also included Pacific islands, gradually incorporated into the Crown by navigators who, in its service, characterized what came to be known as the Age of Discovery. Thus, in addition to the conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires, one must consider what Magellan, Elcano, Legazpi, and others found on their journeys, not to mention the African outposts (Oran, Tunis, Algiers). All these possessions continued to expand as the empire solidified, reaching its zenith when Charles’s son, Philip II, ascended to the throne.

It was during the reign of this monarch that the Pacific became a mare clausum, the “Spanish lake”, ruling over parts of Europe and America, as well as Asia and Oceania (the Philippines – named after him – Moluccas, Carolinas, Marianas, Palau, Borneo, etc.). The Holy Roman Empire had passed to his uncle Ferdinand, but in exchange, England (temporarily), Portugal, and its overseas possessions (Brazil, Mozambique, Malindi, Zanzibar, Calicut, Kerala, Hormuz, Macao, Goa, etc.) were added. It was the largest global empire Europe had known up to that date.

Therefore, indeed, under Philip II’s scepter, the sun never set in practice, and several authors after Ugalde affirmed this. The Elizabethan antiquarian and chronicler William Camden, in his work Annales (a history of the reign of Elizabeth I), expressed that the Spanish empire “covered such an extent, above all the emperors who preceded it, that it could truly say: Sol mihi semper lucet – translated as “The sun always shines upon me” in Latin.

Another example is Giovanni Battista Guarini, a poet, playwright, and diplomat from Ferrara who, in 1590, to celebrate the marriage of Catherine Micaela of Austria (Philip II’s second daughter) to Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy, published a pastoral tragicomedy titled Il pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd), in which the verses read: “Altera figlia / Di qel Monarca, a cui / Nö anco, quando annotta, il Sol tramonta” (“The proud daughter / of that monarch whose / when night falls [elsewhere], the sun never sets”).

As seen, it was not just a Spanish boast; foreigners also had the same view of this global Spanish monarchy. English Chancellor Francis Bacon wrote that “both the East and the West Indies are in the crown of Spain; it has come to pass that, as stated in a kind of brave expression, the sun never sets on the Spanish domains, but it never shines upon one part or another of them.”

Nor was it exclusively linked to the Greater Habsburgs. In the 17th century, Scottish writer Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, a realist and opponent of Cromwell, referred to the Spanish monarch as “that great Don Philip, Tetrarch of the world, over whose subjects the sun never sets.” Similarly, Englishman Owen Feltham, in a 1652 book titled A brief of the Low Countries, stated: “…he now has such a vast command that in his dominions, the sun neither rises nor sets.”

That century saw three monarchs on the Spanish throne, Philip III, Philip IV, and Charles II. However, it was during the reign of the second that the French king Louis XIV imitated his significant moniker of King Planet, adopting the title of Sun King and the motto Nec pluribus impar, confusingly translated (perhaps “Not unequal to many”) as France achieved its period of greatest splendor and could challenge Spain’s hegemony in Europe. The sense of the phrase was in line with the expression under discussion.

An expression that was firmly established but gained special prominence in 1787 when German playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller published the theatrical drama Dom Karlos, Infant von Spanien (Don Carlos, Infant of Spain), centered on the figure of the ill-fated firstborn son of Philip II and his alleged affairs with his stepmother, Isabel de Valois. To be precise, its popularity was more due to Verdi’s operatic adaptation in the 19th century; in any case, in the sixth scene of the first act, the king says: “They call me / the richest monarch in the Christian world; / the sun in my dominion never sets.”

The French again enjoyed a glorious period with Napoleon and his First Empire from 1808. A global power as well, the meaning of the phrase probably resonated as indicated by writer Walter Scott in his book The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of the French, published in 1827, where he includes a quote from the memoirs of Minister Joseph Fouché about the invasion of Spain and its vast overseas dominions: “Consider that the sun never sets on the immense inheritance of Charles V, and I will have the empire of both worlds.”

The British followed the French in the subsequent nineteenth-century decades. To the red color they used to depict their dominions on world maps, an obvious allusion to the color of their soldiers’ coats, they added the aforementioned phrase as their own. It is believed that Christopher North, the pseudonym of Scottish writer, literary critic, and philosopher John Wilson, began using it in an article published in 1829 in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, referring to “Her Majesty’s dominions, where the sun never sets.” However, he would be more of a popularizer, as there are precedents.

The oldest, from 1773, is that of diplomat George Macartney (the first ambassador of Her Gracious Majesty in China) referring to the Treaty of Paris, which sealed the British victory in the Seven Years’ War (a global conflict, much of which was fought outside Europe). Macartney asserted that they now controlled a “vast empire where the sun never sets, and whose limits nature has not yet determined,” alluding to the territorial expansion the UK experienced from then.

As early as 1821, the Caledonian Mercury newspaper had published an article stating of the British Empire, “in its dominions the sun never sets; before its evening rays leave the spires of Quebec, its morning rays have shone for three hours on Port Jackson, and, as it sinks from the waters of Lake Superior, its eye opens upon the mouth of the Ganges.”

Six years later, Reverend R. P. Buddicom declared in a speech: “It has been said that the sun never sets on the British flag; it was indeed an old saying about the time of Richard II and not as applicable then as it is today.”

That dynamic continued in the following decades. In 1834, Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State of the United States, defined the British Empire as “a power that has dotted the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drum-beat, following the sun and keeping company with the hours, encircles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England.”

In 1861, Lord Salisbury expressed about the utility of money invested in the defense of colonies: “To provide a pleasant variety of stations for our soldiers and enjoy the feeling that the sun never sets on our empire.”

Earlier, in 1839, diplomat and colonial administrator Henry George Ward made a smug boast in the House of Commons recalling the application of the phrase in Spain: “Look at the British colonial empire, the most magnificent empire the world has ever seen. The old Spaniards boast that the sun never set on their dominions; it has been most truly realized among us.”

Ironically, at the same time, in the emerging power of the United States, they also adopted this triumphalist discourse linked to the self-proclaimed superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture. Thus, a founding preacher of the Restoration Movement (a Protestant movement advocating a return to primitive Christianity) named Alexander Campbell claimed in 1852 that “God has granted to Britain and America the possession of the New World because the sun never sets on our religion, our language, and our arts…”

“The sun never sets on Uncle Sam”, said an article by William Jordan titled The Greatest Nation on Earth, published in Ladie’s Home Journal in 1897. “If we cannot boast that the sun never sets on American soil, we can take satisfaction in the fact that the sun never sets on American philanthropy”, insisted Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan in The New York Times, as close as 1906. By the way, this latter text, titled That never-setting sun, received harsh criticism for considering it out of touch. As we have seen, perhaps not so much.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 11, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en El origen y la historia de la frase ‘El imperio donde nunca se pone el sol’, usada desde la Antigüedad


Heródoto, Los nueve libros de la Historia | Horacio, Odas | Cipriano de Valera (ed.), Libro de los Salmos | Hernán Cortés, Cartas de relación | Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso | Baptista Guarini, El Pastor Fido, tragicomedia pastoral | Francis Bacon, Of a Holy War (en The works of Francis Bacon) | John H. Elliot, España y su mundo 1500-1700 | Hugh Thomas, El imperio español. De Colón a Magallanes | Henry Kamen, Imperio. La forja de España como potencia mundial | Geoffrey Parker, Felipe II | Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos, infante de España | Walter Scott, Life of Napoleon Buonaparte | Christopher North, Noctes Ambrosianae (en Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine) | William Jennings Bryan, That never-setting sun (en The New York Times) | Wikipedia

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