A Brief History of the Spanish Monarchy

Spanish coat of arms

Yeah, this is a pretty random topic to kick off the new year with. However, after watching this excellent video by C.G.P. Grey on the history of the British monarchy, I found myself inspired to discuss another European monarchy with an even more complicated and bizarre history. Plus, it looks like Spain just might be the center of attention in the news this year. One of the worst-hit by the 2008 recession, Spain’s economy is starting to recover. Its most recent elections have shaken up the country’s political scene, and one of its most populous and prosperous regions, Catalonia, is gearing up to try to fight for its independence. On top of that, the country is still reeling from a corruption scandal involving the current king’s sister, who has been stripped of her titles and is awaiting trial for tax evasion.

So, let’s take a look at one of Europe’s most fascinating royal histories, starting with one of the most famous royal couples of all time:

The (Convoluted) Birth of Spain

Ferdinand and Isabella image from Wikipedia

In 1469, Prince Ferdinand of Aragon married Princess Isabella of Castile. This marriage meant that the heirs to the thrones of the two largest kingdoms in Spain were husband and wife, and when they succeeded to their respective thrones the two kingdoms would be united. It was this marriage that laid the foundations of modern Spain.

But not yet. See, when Isabella’s half-brother, King Henry IV of Castile, died in 1474, there was a dispute as to who should succeed the throne. Henry IV had a daughter, Joanna la Beltraneja, who was married to the King of Portugal and claimed that she was rightful heir to the throne. In response, Isabella and her supporters claimed that Joanna was actually the illegitimate daughter of some duke and therefore couldn’t inherit anything.

This cat-fight was resolved with a swords, guns, and blood fight that ended with Isabella and her husband victorious over the Portuguese. Now securely in power, Isabella decided to invade Granada, the last surviving Muslim kingdom in Spain, and conquer it for herself. I mean, for Christianity. Yeah, that’s it.

On January 2, 1492, Granada fell and Isabella annexed it to her kingdom. She then decreed that all Jews and Muslims had to convert to the Roman Catholic Church or leave the country. To make sure that the new converts were not secretly practicing their old faiths behind closed doors while pretending to be Catholic in public, she launched the now-infamous Spanish Inquisition.

Of course, 1492 was also the same year that she sent Christopher Columbus on his fateful voyage across the Atlantic. This was the beginning of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, an empire that would flood Spain with New World silver and help build the new country into a major global power.

Isabella wouldn’t live to see those days, though. She died in 1504, leaving Castile to her daughter, Joanna of Castile.

Just one problem: her husband was still alive. Ferdinand had grown quite fond of being king of all of Spain, and suddenly losing more than half of “his” kingdom to his daughter was something he just couldn’t bear. He also didn’t like Joanna’s husband, Philip the Handsome. Philip was Duke of Burgundy, which meant he ruled a domain in central Europe where the Netherlands, Belgium, and eastern France are today. When Philip heard that his father-in-law was minting coins that had the inscription “Ferdinand and Joanna, King and Queen of Castile”, he and his wife sailed for Spain in order to prevent Ferdinand from denying their rightful inheritance.

Then in 1506, Philip suddenly died of a, um, “fever”.

Because that's not suspicious at all.

Because that’s not suspicious at all.

This left Joanna vulnerable to her father’s whims, and soon he was able to strong-arm her into accepting him as “regent”. This arrangement lasted until Ferdinand died in 1516, at last leaving Joanna as sole ruler of Spain.

“The Emperor” and his heirs

Charles V painting by Titian

Now we turn our attention to Philip and Joanna’s son, Charles. Born in Belgium, he had been raised there by his aunt and was now in his late teens, ready to take on the adult responsibilities of royalty by the standards of the day. When he heard of his grandfather’s death, he set sail for Spain. Upon arrival, he met with his mother, and promptly declared her to be mentally ill and locked her in a convent, where she would spend the rest of her days.

Now reigning in Spain as Carlos I, he soon found that even this level of power didn’t satisfy him. After bribing some of Germany’s most prominent and powerful families, he had himself elected Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V, a title that gave him nominal power over a huge swath of central Europe south of Denmark that included Germany, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), Austria, Hungary, and Italy. On top of this, his conquistadors Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro gave him a massive and rich empire in the Americas. Soon, people were saying “the sun never set” on Charles’s empire. Yes, that term was originally coined for the Spanish Empire, though it would later be applied to the British one.

In spite of all this, Charles came to view his reign as a failure. He failed to protect the rights of the Indians in his newly-won empire from being enslaved and slaughtered by his conquistadors. He failed to stop Martin Luther from growing more popular and splitting the Christian church into Protestant and Catholic camps. He failed to prevent Hungary from falling to the Ottoman Turks. In old age, suffering mightily from gout, he decided to give up all his thrones and power. He made his brother Holy Roman Emperor in his place, and gave Spain, southern Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and his overseas empire in the Americas to his son Philip.

Philip took the throne of Spain as Philip II (Felipe II in Spanish), counting his “handsome” grandfather as “Philip I” for his purposes. Speaking of names, Philip II is the “Philip” for whom the Philippines, which were conquered by the Spanish during his reign, were named.

Philip II and Mary I by Hans Eworth

Philip was married to Queen Mary I of England, and naturally wanted to be considered England’s king as well. However, by now his family’s pattern of collecting kingdoms had become quite obvious, and England’s Parliament had no desire to be absorbed into Spain. Instead, Parliament declared Philip to be “King IN England”, but not “King OF England”. This was an important distinction, as it meant that when Mary died, the English throne didn’t go to her husband, but instead passed to her sister, Elizabeth. Philip tried to propose to Elizabeth, but the famous “Virgin Queen” had no interest in him. This was the start of a rivalry between the two countries that ended with the Spanish Armada being smashed by the English.

In the meantime, though, the throne of Portugal happened to fall vacant in 1580, with no clear heir. Philip II decided that he was as good a candidate as any, and seized the kingdom, having himself crowned king of Portugal.

When Philip II died, his domains passed to his son Philip III, who in turn passed them to his son Philip IV. Philip IV managed to lose both Portugal and the Netherlands to revolutionaries before passing the rest of his domains on to his son, Carlos II.

Poor Carlos II. In an age of arranged marriages among European royals who were all related to each other, Carlos II really lost when it came to the genetic lottery. He was handicapped both mentally and physically, and died without an heir at the age of 39. However, he did declare in his will that his nearest male relative, the 16-year old French prince Philippe d’Anjou, would succeed him as King of Spain. So no worries, right?

The War of the Spanish Succession and its consequences

Philip V in battle by Jean Alaux

There was a problem with the young French prince becoming king of Spain. See, Philippe was the direct grandson of King Louis XIV of France, meaning there was a very strong probability that the thrones of France and Spain could be united. Many of Europe’s great powers feared that such a union would be too powerful, so they formed an alliance to stop Philippe from taking the Spanish throne. The result was the 13-year-long War of the Spanish Succession. Eventually, Philippe won and was able to be crowned Philip V of Spain, but on certain conditions. He had to give Belgium and southern Italy to Austria, and he had to super-promise that the thrones of France and Spain could never be united.

So, what does one do after spending 13 years fighting for the throne of a country? Apparently, retire after sitting on that throne for only 11 years. In 1724, he handed the throne to his popular son, Louis. Unfortunately, Louis died of smallpox after a reign of only seven months. As his younger sons were not yet ready to take the throne, Philip V decided to return and reign until his death in 1746.

Philip was succeeded by his next-oldest son, Ferdinand VI. Wait, Ferdinand VI? Why six?

See, way back when Ferdinand and Isabella reigned in Spain, Ferdinand may have been the first king of Spain and the second “King Ferdinand” of Castile, but he was the fifth “King Ferdinand” of Aragon. I guess Ferdinand VI decided that the higher numeral made him sound cooler, or something.

In any case, after Ferdinand VI’s wife died, he sunk into a deep depression and grief, dying soon after. As the couple had no children, the throne passed to his brother, Charles.

Just one problem. Ferdinand VI’s brother had just re-conquered southern Italy and was ruling as king there. If he succeeded as king of Spain, there might be another succession crisis and war, just as Philip V had faced. To avoid this, Charles abdicated his Italian throne, giving southern Italy to his third son, Ferdinand. This allowed Charles to return to Spain and take the throne as Carlos III.

Carlos III was succeeded by his second son, Carlos IV, whose reign was marked by economic depression and popular revolt. In 1808, he handed the throne to his son, Ferdinand VII. Trouble was, Ferdinand VII wanted Spain to ally with the British against Napoleon Bonaparte, the man famous for two things: being short (which he actually wasn’t) and conquering, like, all of Europe. Ferdinand VII had barely sat on the throne when Napoleon’s armies marched in and captured him, locking him up for the next six years. Napoleon declared that his older brother Joseph Bonaparte was now King Jose I of Spain.

The people of Spain rejected this, and rose in revolt against the French occupation. The rebel leaders declared a new, democratic constitution that created a constitutional monarchy with the imprisoned Ferdinand VII as its king. At last, with British help, Spain regained its independence. Joseph Bonaparte fled to the United States, and Ferdinand VII reclaimed his throne to massive cheers and acclaim.

Next time on Cat Flag, we’ll look at how Ferdinand VII turned around and messed everything up, leading to more than a century of instability in Spain. We’ll also examine the bizarre yet brutal fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and finish with the story of how the current Spanish royal family came to be where it is today. See you then!

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3 Responses to A Brief History of the Spanish Monarchy

  1. Pingback: History of the Spanish Monarchy, Part 2 | Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: Cat Flag: Spanish Galleon Edition | Cat Flag

  3. Pingback: Who was the last Roman Emperor? | Cat Flag

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