Basque Provinces (Provincias Vascongadas), a division of north-eastern Spain, comprising the three provinces of álava, Biscay or Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa. Pop. (1900) 603,596; area 2739 sq. m., the third in density in Spain. The territory occupied by the Basque Provinces forms a triangle bounded on the west and south by the provinces of Santander, Burgos and Logrono, on the east by Navarre, on the north by France and the Bay of Biscay. The French Pays Basque forms part of the arrondissements of Bayonne and Mauléon. For an account of the people, their origin, customs and language, see Basques. Of the Provinces, Guipúzcoa is the only one which is wholly Basque, álava is the least so. Its capital, Vitoria, is said to have been founded by the Gothic king Leovigild (581). Older than these divisions, the date of which is uncertain, the ancient limits of the dioceses of Pamplona, Bayonne and Calahorra, probably corresponded more nearly to the boundaries of the ancient tribes, the Autrigones, the Caristi, the Varduli and the Vascones, with their still differing dialects, than do these civil provinces.
Leaving aside the legendary and uncertain portion of their history, we find the Provinces in some districts dependent allies of Navarre, in others of Castile. In Biscay the counts of Haro were lords of Biscay from 1093 to 1350. There was a short union with Castile under Pedro the Cruel, but the definitive union did not take place till 1370. In álava the ruling power was the confederation of Arriaga (so called after its meeting place), which united the province to the crown of Castile in 1332. Guipúzcoa, which had been dependent sometimes on Navarre, sometimes on Castile, was definitively united to Castile in 1200. From the year 1425 the provinces were desolated by party wars among the lesser nobles (parientes mayores) but these came to an end in 1460-1498, when Henry IV. and Ferdinand the Catholic strengthened the power of the towns and forbade the erection of any fortified house in the country. Though the three Basque Provinces were thus united to the crown of Spain, they still remained a land apart (tierra apartada). Their juntas acted to some extent in common; and although no written federal pact is known to have existed, they employed, as the symbol of their unity, a seal with the word Iruracbat, "The Three One," engraved upon it.
They preserved their own laws, customs, fueros (see Basques), which the Spanish kings swore to observe and maintain. Unless countersigned by the juntas the decrees of Cortes and Spanish legislation or royal orders had no force in the Provinces. In the junta of 1481 Guipúzcoa alone proposed a treaty of friendship, peace and free trade for ten years with England, and this was signed in Westminster, on the 9th of March 1482 (see Rymer, Foedera). The Basques still made their own treaties with England and France and are mentioned apart from Spain in the treaty of Utrecht (1713). They still preserved in their municipal institutions the old style of republicas derived from the civitates and respublicae of ancient Rome. This kind of independence and autonomy lasted unchallenged until the death of Ferdinand VII. in 1833, when, in default of male heirs, his brother Don Carlos claimed the throne, confirmed the Basque fueros, and raised the standard of revolt against his niece, Isabel II. A seven years' war followed, in which an English legion under Sir George de Lacy Evans and a naval force under Lord John Hay took part. It was ended by the Convenio de Vergara (August 31st, 1839) in which the concession and modification of the fueros was demanded.
The troubled period which followed the expulsion of Isabel II. in 1868 gave opportunity for a second Carlist war from 1872 to 1876. This ended, unlike the former one, in the utter defeat of the Carlist forces, and left the Provinces at the mercy of the government, without terms or agreement. In general government and legislation the Provinces were then assimilated to the rest of the nation. After 1876, the Provincial parliaments (diputaciones) were elected like the other provincial councils of Spain, deprived of many privileges and subjected to the ordinary interference of the civil governors. But their representatives, assisted by the senators and deputies of the Basque Provinces in the Cortes, negotiated successive pacts, each lasting several years, securing for the three Provinces their municipal and provincial self-government, and the assessment, distribution and collection of their principal taxes and octroi duties, on the understanding that an agreed sum should be paid annually to the state, subject to an increase whenever the national taxation of other provinces was augmented.
In December 1906, after long discussion, the contribution of the Basque Provinces to the state, according to the law of the 21st of July 1876, was fixed for the next twenty years; for the first ten years at 8,500,000 pesetas, for the next ten an additional 500,000 pesetas, from 31st December 1916 to 31st December 1926, the province of Guipúzcoa paying in addition 700,000 pesetas to the treasury. These pacts have hitherto been scrupulously observed, and as the local authorities levy the contribution after their own local customs, landed property and the industrial and commercial classes are less heavily taxed in these territories than in the rest of Spain. Enough is raised, however, besides the amount handed over to the government, to enable the schools, roads, harbours and public works of every kind to be maintained at a standard which compares very favourably with other parts of Spain. When the three provinces sent in their first contingent of conscripts in 1877, it was found that all but about sixty knew how to read and write, and succeeding contingents have kept up this high standard.
In agriculture the Basque Provinces and the Pays Basque were great cider countries, but during the 19th century this was gradually replaced by wine-growing. The chief industries of the Basque Provinces are the sea fisheries and iron mining. Some of the mines round Bilbao have been worked from prehistoric times. In 1905 the Basque Provinces produced 5,302,344 tons of iron, over five millions of which came from Biscay, out of a total of 9,395,314 tons for the whole of Spain. More than the half of this total 5,845,895 tons, was exported to England. The swords of Mondragon in Guipúzcoa were renowned before those of Toledo. Eibar in the same province has long been a small-arms factory. There in the 19th century Señor Zuloaga successfully revived the artistic inlaying of gold and silver in steel and iron.