History of the Spanish Monarchy, Part 2

King Ferdinand VII returning to Spain

King Ferdinand VII returning to Spain

Last week, I decided to trace the history of the Spanish monarchy from the famed royal couple Ferdinand and Isabella (who co-founded modern Spain and sent Christopher Columbus on his way) to the present. When we left off, Spain had just liberated itself from Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies, adopted a democratic constitution, and freed their king from French imprisonment. King Ferdinand VII returned to his country greeted by cheering crowds as a wave of optimism swept the land. What could possibly go wrong?

How it all went wrong

King Ferdinand VII portrait by Vincente Lopez

So, let’s talk about that constitution. Adopted by the Spanish resistance in 1812, it was one of the most progressive and democratic documents of the time. However, it was far from universally accepted. There were many conservative forces in the country that opposed the new constitution, including King Ferdinand VII himself. It wasn’t long after his return that the king declared that the constitution was invalid because HE hadn’t signed it.

I mean, technically, that’s true, but he was a prisoner at the time, so…

In any case, Ferdinand VII decided to return Spain to an absolute monarchy where his word was law and “enemies of the state” were anyone he didn’t like. Naturally, fighting for years against Napoleon’s repression only to be rewarded by the repression of the very king you had fought for was a recipe for popular revolt and political instability. From 1820 to 1823, Ferdinand found himself a prisoner once again, this time of his own people, and had to be rescued by a French military expedition.

Of course, while Spain was suffering from instability and insurrection, its Latin American colonies decided that they wouldn’t get a better opportunity to win their independence, and one by one they broke free from Spanish rule. By the end of Ferdinand’s reign, only Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and some smaller islands remained under Spanish rule.

Then, on his deathbed, he managed to make things even worse just one more time before passing away. You will recall from last week that Ferdinand was descended from Philip V, a French prince who inherited the Spanish throne. One of the things that the prince had brought with him from France was the Salic Law, the rules of inheritance used by the French monarchs since the Middle Ages. One of its core tenets was that women could never inherit anything, ever. Ferdinand decided to ignore this, declaring what he called the “Pragmatic Sanction” and allowing his daughter, Isabella, to succeed him.

The problem was that Ferdinand’s brother, Don Carlos, Count of Molina, had spent his entire life believing that inheriting the Spanish throne was his God-given right, and refused to accept his three-year-old niece as his queen. Instead, he launched the first of what would be several “Carlist Wars” over the succession to the Spanish throne. For seven years, Spain was torn apart by civil war over rival claimants to the crown.

A century of instability

Battle of Trevino painting by Francisco Oller y Cestero

The young Isabella’s mother had to act quickly to get some sort of support for her daughter or else Don Carlos would walk all over Spain. Out of desperation more than anything, she declared her support for the very same pro-democratic forces her late husband had so brutally suppressed, offering to pardon them all. The ploy worked, and the princess was crowned Queen Isabella II.

Unfortunately for Spain, Isabella II’s reign was always wobbly and had a weak foundation. She was constantly forced to balance various scheming, back-stabbing factions and weather military coups. At last, she was overwhelmed by these forces in 1868, fleeing to Paris as revolutionaries seized Madrid.

Upon this victory the revolutionaries all unanimously cried, “We won! Um, now what?”

The factions that had overthrown Isabella were far from united, and bickered among each other about what sort of government to create. It wasn’t until 1870 that they settled on a new monarch: an Italian prince named Amedeo, Duke of Aosta. He accepted the invitation and was crowned King Amadeo I.

He fared even worse. The Carlists, upset that an Italian had been chosen over Don Carlos’s grandson, rose up in revolt again. Meanwhile, the political infighting between rival factions continued, one of Amadeo’s biggest supporters was assassinated, and worst of all, in 1873, the army went on strike.

Let me repeat that. The army. Went. On strike.

Amadeo knew full well that no regime lasts long without the military’s support, so he decided now would be as good of a time as any to make a gracious exit. This left the Spanish government in another bind; they certainly didn’t want Isabella II back, nor did they want the Carlists to win, and with Amadeo declaring Spain “ungovernable” it was unlikely that they could find another European prince to elect. Then, somebody remembered that Spain didn’t have to be a monarchy if it didn’t want to be.

Thus was born the First Spanish Republic, a fresh, new experiment in Spanish politics. Unfortunately, said fresh, new experiment had to face down three simultaneous civil wars and even more political struggles and military coups. The short-lived republic managed to have five presidents in less than two years, before it was ultimately overthrown by the royalists.

Rather than bring Isabella II back, it was decided that her son, Alfonso XII, should take the throne. Wait, Alfonso XII? There was never a king of Spain named Alfonso before now! Well, just as his great-great-grand-uncle Ferdinand VI had done, Alfonso was counting the kings of the various kingdoms that existed in Spain before it was united. Or he was just making things up. I’m going with “he was making things up”.

Made-up numerals aside, Alfonso managed to defeat the Carlists and other rebels and to find a way to bring peace to Spain’s political factions. Namely, he had the elections rigged so the party that was in power always alternated with each election. This plan worked, Spain started rebuilding at last, and the economy started to flourish.

Alfonso XII’s reign was short-lived, though. In 1885, he contracted both tuberculosis and dysentery, as if one of those diseases wasn’t horrible enough by itself, and died soon after. However, during his very short reign he had managed to produce an heir that could inherit the Spanish throne, keep the dynasty in power, and maintain this new stability.

It’s just that this heir happened to be in his mother’s womb at the time.

Alfonso XIII and his mother painting by Luis Alvarez Catala

Alfonso XIII is, as far as I can tell, one of only a tiny handful of monarchs whose reign began at birth. Naturally, his mother acted as regent for him as he grew up. Though, by the time he had come of age enough to rule on his own, Spain had lost the Spanish-American War, and with it, what was left of its empire. Oops.

In power, Alfonso managed to keep Spain out of World War I, but then made the mistake of befriending a military officer and nobleman named Miguel Primo de Rivera. The reason this was a mistake was that Primo de Rivera was a brutal dictator. In 1930, with uprisings in the streets, Alfonso XIII fired the dictator, but it was too late. His reign had been stained. Alfonso fled to Rome, and the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed.

The new Spanish Republic was a bit more successful than its predecessor in that it lasted a bit longer and didn’t immediately get overwhelmed with crisis after crisis. Then the 1936 elections brought to power a coalition known as the “Popular Front”, a political alliance joining more moderate liberals and progressives with socialists and communists. To Spain’s conservatives, this was the last straw, and civil war broke out.

The infamous Spanish Civil War shocked the world with its sheer brutality, as Nationalist rebels led by Francisco Franco and backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy fought a loose alliance of pro-Republican liberals backed by Mexico, communists backed by the USSR, anarchists, and international volunteers from around the world. Collateral damage was horrific as cities were blasted to bits. Both sides are known to have committed atrocities, with about 38,000 killed in the communist “Red Terror” and about 200,000 killed in Franco’s “White Terror”. Yet the advantage was always Franco’s on the battlefield – the Nazis kept him well-supplied while his enemies fought each other as much as they fought him. By 1939, Franco’s power was secure.

The dictator and the king

Francisco Franco image from Revista Argentina

Francisco Franco turned Spain into a fascist state modeled on Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany. All power vested in a dictator whose title translated into English means “leader”? Check. Thugs and secret police keeping the people too scared to speak out or resist? Check. Repression of minority groups, especially Jews? Check. The dictator’s will imposed by a unified, blindly loyal, ideologically zealous political party with a monopoly on power?

Uh… sort-of check?

On the surface, Franco’s political party looked like the fascist parties it was modeled on, but its name gives away its true nature: The Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista. When you see a super-long name like that, you know that you have something formed from the fusion of many different groups. These different groups competed with each other for Franco’s favor, as Franco’s favor meant power. Franco liked to keep these groups so busy competing with each other that they couldn’t turn against him.

However, one of those factions that helped Franco gain power and stay in power was the Carlists. Yes, more than a century later, the Carlists still were influencing Spanish politics! Indeed, part of how Franco got them on his side was that he promised to install a descendant of old Don Carlos on the Spanish throne. Eventually. At some point.

This came to be a bit of a problem as Franco grew older and the need to put a successor in place grew stronger. Wait, what’s this? A Spanish prince, a grandson of Alfonso XIII, who is also acceptable to some of the Carlists as a legitimate heir? Not only that, but he’s a public and outspoken supporter of Franco’s regime? Why, it’s too good to be true!

In 1969, Franco declared Juan Carlos de Borbón his heir, giving him the title “Prince of Spain”, and having him appear side-by-side with him at important state functions. As Franco’s health worsened, the prince took over more and more of his official duties, and when Franco passed away in 1975, the prince was crowned King Juan Carlos I.

Juan Carlos as Prince image from Wikipedia

It’s always the quiet ones…

Then, upon taking the throne, Juan Carlos announced, “Surprise! I’ve actually been a secret supporter of democracy and opponent of Franco all along!” In the years that followed, Juan Carlos restored democracy, removed all of Franco’s oppressive restrictions on the Spanish people’s freedoms, and held free elections. In 1981, hard-line supporters of Franco’s old regime attempted to stage a military coup to stop this new king from destroying their late leader’s work, but Juan Carlos gave a televised speech condemning the coup, and with public support clearly backing the king, the coup plotters surrendered.

With that out of the way, Juan Carlos settled into his new role as constitutional monarch in the style of Queen Elizabeth II. He allowed the democratically-elected representatives of the people govern Spain while he accepted a role that was largely ceremonial. But he had one more political act to make.

On June 19, 2014, Juan Carlos abdicated his throne, passing the crown to his son, Felipe VI. In so doing, he made sure that this newly-restored monarchy and democracy would continue to function after he was gone, rather than waiting until he passed away and hoping on his deathbed that things work out. As king, Felipe has mostly kept his father’s policies of staying out of direct involvement in politics and letting democracy do its thing. The biggest move the new king has made so far is announce that he’s giving himself a 20% pay cut.

Juan Carlos and his wife, Sophia of Greece and Denmark, still are called “King” and “Queen”, so if you are in Spain and mention “the King” or “the Queen” it might be wise to specify which one you are talking about. King Felipe is married to Queen Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, a former news anchor. They have two daughters: Leonor, Princess of Austurias, the first in line to succeed her father, and Infanta Sofia. As of this writing, Princess Leonor is 10 years old and Princess Sofia is 8. With that, we have finally reached the end of our look at the history of the Spanish monarchy.

Oh, and before you ask, “Felipe” is Spanish for “Philip”, so he’s technically “Philip VI”, but apparently he prefers the Spanish name. Spain, your kings’ chosen royal names are always confusing.

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